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My Favorite Reads of 2019

December 19, 2019

Every year, I’m amazed and delighted by how many wonderful and different stories keep coming out, from familiar favorite authors and great new finds. The ten books I picked for this year’s favorites list are a mix of my auto-buy authors and new-to-me writers who are now on my radar. Not all of these books are brand new releases, but I read them in 2019. All are books I reread at least once already.

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My very favorite for this year is Thrown Off the Ice by Taylor Fitzpatrick. This is not a romance as much as a love story— the funny, heart-breaking, poignant, gruff, sweet, devastating story of two men falling in love over 17 years. The end is bittersweet, but this account of two hockey players who take possession of each other’s hearts, throughout everything life throws at them, isn’t just a tearjerker. It’s filled with humor and warmth (and heat) too. It’s written in the matter-of-fact tone of a strong man facing up to the good, the bad, and the crazy, and Mike’s voice carries it along. I adored Mike and Liam, together and apart. A Rainbow Award winner, and a 4-times reread to date.
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Runners-up in no particular order:

Sword Dance by A.J. Demas – A historical alternate-universe fantasy set in a world with echoes of the Ancient Romans/Greeks and Celts. Two men on opposite sides in battle save each other’s lives, and then find themselves isolated together, long enough for attraction and a meeting of like minds to become something more. Adares has a very appealing mix of self-confidence, curiosity, and intelligence. Rus is also intelligent, more instinctive, from a society less formal and organized, but with its own kinds of power. For a brief moment they find happiness together that neither of them could have imagined. But they can’t hide from the war forever, and what they have together doesn’t translate to who they are when the world intrudes on their sanctuary. Great characters and world-building.
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The Sea Ain’t Mine Alone by C.L. Beaumont – A returned Vietnam veteran tries to hide both the scars on his body and the scars on his soul from his time in the jungle, but not half as deep as he hides his attraction to men, even from himself. His wonderful best friend Rob was a stranger who came up to him one dark day and said, “Hey, you surf?” and the sport, the sea, Rob, and Rob’s sweet girlfriend, are the things keeping Jimmy from drowning in his own head. If he has a crush on Rob, he’s not admitting it to himself, and it can’t go anywhere. Then one day Jimmy sees champion surfer Danny, in town for a competition, and everything he knows about himself has to change. An atmospheric, slow-burn, sports romance with a lot of period feel.
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Heated Rivalry by Rachel Reid – This is a hot, hockey-player, enemies-to-lovers story, skipping forward through the years from a first fumbling encounter in Juniors, driven past anger and irritation by lust, through very occasional meetings for “just sex.” Both men plan to break it off, next time, next year, soon… Both try to find other lovers. Both gradually realize that it’s not just the sex they can’t give up, but a touch, a look, a brief connection. I’m not generally a fan of books with such a high sex-content ratio in the first half of the book but in this case, not only was the sex well written and not overly drawn-out, but it was necessary to the story. Sex brings these men together over and over, and their relationship is slowly built in a hundred tiny moments woven into the sex, before one of them heads out the door.
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Hither, Page by Cat Sebastian – This story, a small-village cozy mystery set in the years after WWII, is quieter than Sebastian’s Regency romances, bleaker, yet there’s an undercurrent of emotion in it that hit me just right. James Sommers was a doctor in the British military in WWII, and after leaving the service, he’s still haunted by all he saw and did. Leo Page was recruited into a black-ops type of service in his teens, before the war, and all he has ever known is intrigue, spycraft, assassination, and war. Leo is sent to James’s small town by his covert ops boss to make the murder-mystery go away, whatever that takes, and he finds in James an honesty and decency he’d almost forgotten existed. But the era is not one kind to gay men, and murder is afoot.
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The Music of What Happens by Bill Konigsberg – I really enjoyed the banter between the two teen guys in this one, as they try to get a food truck off the ground as a source of income. I also loved the quiet moments when there was depth and pain lurking. Coming out is not a big issue here, which is great, as it leaves room for the other real issues these boys are coping with. Addressing things as tricky as consent, sexual assault, addiction, parental neglect and more is a challenge, and Konisberg hit a sweet spot for me, keeping it feeling real and nuanced, emotionally valid but not mined for angst. There are no cardboard villains here, and no one is perfect (although Max is a sweetheart.) The story is pretty well balanced, and while young love is real, it isn’t a cure-all.
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Earth Fathers are Weird by Lyn Gala – This was a fun, well-crafted SciFi romance with a biologically-plausible take on MPreg and tentacles, and inter-species romance. Lyn Gala really has a talent for imaginative plausibility, showcased in this lighter story. I liked human Max. He was optimistic, intelligent, adaptable, determined, and willing to roll with a series of big punches. The alien “Rick” was an interesting character, a creature of honor, honest and sympathetic without being too human in his outlook. I loved that the MPreg was biologically possible, and also not slavery or rape or seduction or feminizing, but a badly-translated job offer.
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Behind These Doors by Jude Lucens – The story of a gay journalist from humble origins, and a bisexual, polyamorous nobleman, working to fit a growing loving relationship into the minimal overlap of their lives in turn-of-the-century London. I really appreciated the historical grounding of this story, from the clothes and social mores, to the details of the women’s suffrage movement and the strains of class differences. I also loved having strong female characters, an ace-spectrum character, and a polyamory where a new lover isn’t a reason to devalue the old. The progression of the relationships felt realistic, and the obstacles valid. The ending wraps up a bit easily, with a couple of big obstacles swept away, but it was warm and sweet and didn’t impose limits on love.
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Carved in Bone by Michael Nava – Michael Nava is one of my favorite gay mystery writers. I read the original series when it came out back in the 1980s and fell in love with Henry Rios, with his honor, his intelligence, his fierce need to find the truth and see justice done, his drinking, his flaws, his strained family past, and all the parts that make up this amazing, gay, Hispanic lawyer and crusader. So a new Henry Rios story after all this time is a gift. This book slots in after the first story in the series (The Little Death which has now been rewritten as Lay Your Sleeping Head ) – here we see Henry after he has hit bottom with his drinking and his losses, managing to finally get help.
There’s both a good mystery, and the 1980s impact of AIDS in each of these books, particularly this one. We see gay men hit by disaster just as they were beginning to believe that their families and churches and authorities were wrong about gay being unnatural and evil. For some, the painful question becomes how do you purge an internalized shame and self-disgust from your soul, when God now seems to be striking down gay man after gay man with the most horrific suffering? When the more gay sex a guy has had, the higher his risk? When everything about this plague seems designed to confirm that gay men are miserable sinners unfit for love, undeserving of life? This book is lest-we-forget reading with a great character and plot to go with it, and I’d like to see young people read this for the immersive effect it has on understanding gay history. This could stand alone just fine, although I recommend the whole series, which has a romantic HEA in the last book.
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Spice & Vanilla by Kathrine Wyvern – a slow-building story that begins with 4 points of view. Di is a young woman who survived a severe accident, but lost her mobility, her fiance, her profession, and her beloved horse. In the isolation of her small cottage, her cat is her companion as she tries to rebuild. Hugh is a gay Dom who hides his heart away and tries to give his subs precisely what they need, without ever being vulnerable himself. Raphael is elegant, musical, both kind and exacting, bisexual and a sub. And Lucie… well Lucie is feminine for Lucifer and she’s a kinky masochistic sub to Hugh, who works to indulge her, but she’s far far more to Raphael, and eventually to herself as well. A genderqueer main character, in a story I at first didn’t think would work, but eventually couldn’t put down. A Rainbow Awards winner.
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I read many other good books this year, more than I had time to even review on Goodreads, but these ones stand out to me. If you have a best book you read this year (a 2019 release or not) please do mention it in the comments. I’m always looking to add good stuff to my (long) TBRs.

Best wishes for happy reading to you all in 2020.

– Kaje

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