In no particular order, these stories were my favorites of my 2020 reading list (not all new releases). I read a lot of good books this year, which helped keep me sane through the challenges of 2020. My thanks to all the authors who put their work out for us to enjoy. I’d love to mention them all, and I tried to review many on Goodreads. The following stories were 10 standouts among all the good stories of 2020.
Honeytrap by Aster Glenn Gray – This story of two 1950s intelligence agents— an American FBI and a Soviet GRU agent— was engaging and unexpected, a story of love across boundaries, with setbacks and separations. Gennady is told by his GRU boss to try to honeytrap his new American colleague, as they collaborate on an investigation. His boss has the idea because he’s been sexually harassing Gennady for years, not knowing Gennady is actually bisexual, and not caring that his actions have left Gennady with a flinch at the idea of being undressed and touched. Gennady- delighted at the prospect of weeks or even months touring America- agrees to the plan, with minimal intention of following through. From the first he’s planning how he’ll explain his failure.
Except that Daniel is also bisexual, his past relationship with a partner tacitly known to his boss. And his liking for Gennady— for his open-eyed enjoyment of what he can wring out of life, for his stoicism, and good heart— turns into something more. As these two men cross the US on the trail of a shooter whom they’ll be very surprised to actually catch, their affection for each other grows. But nothing can remove the risks to both of them, in this Cold War era, not only as enemies, but as queer men in a world where that’s still illegal. The story ending is sweet, a bit low-key, but a solid HFN.
Slippery Creatures (The Will Darling Adventures 1) by KJ Charles – This book is mostly what it’s billed as— a pulp-fiction style adventure where our intrepid hero faces several kinds of peril at the hands of a secret anarchist society. Except KJ Charles wrote it, so the characters are interesting and multifaceted, the plot turns make sense, and there is some social commentary and a difficult romance in the face of real obstacles.
Will, our hero, is a man who was formed in part on the battlefields and trenches of WWI. As the story opens, his inherited quiet bookstore proves not to provide a simple civilian life, as he’s thrown into intrigue and danger. But he’s the man for the job, and his desire for a peaceful life doesn’t mean he’s forgotten the skills or the stubbornness that got him safely home from the front.
He meets Kim, a chameleon of an aristocrat, whose motives and interest in Will are hard to figure out. Kim blows hot and cold, helps then deceives. Will’s lonely heart and stoic self-reliance alternate as he tries to deal with Kim’s presence in his bookstore and in his life. Add in attempted burglaries, assault, bluster and threats from the Foreign Office, and Will’s life is far more exciting than he’d wanted.
Two of the three planned books are out, with HFN resting place endings. The third is due out mid-2021.
The Knight and the Necromancer series by A.H. Lee – This fantasy trilogy has a refreshing new flavor of magic, with demons and ghosts, mirrors and blood-magic in the mix. It also has a fun M/M romance with a confident prince and a shy and uncertain necromancer. There is action, mystery, the tentative beginnings of a relationship that grows through the three books, and a touch of humor. The tone is more exciting than angsty, despite some fairly traumatic events, not superficial, but it doesn’t get as dark as it might. There are some intriguing secondary characters. Each of the first two books has a cliffhanger ending, so you will want to commit to reading all three in one shot.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed by Lisa Henry – An intense but not overly angsty, emotional, and ultimately satisfying story about an Australian-Samoan police officer who finds an abused teenager on a case investigating a religious cult. From the first moment, Caleb’s spirit sparks something in John. Not just pity, or even compassion, or responsibility, but a deep awareness of the strength of the individual behind the battered exterior.
John has befriended and watched over Caleb and his father, for years now. As Caleb’s strength and stability have improved, John’s protective love has transformed into something else. But Caleb still has bad moments, and self-harms, and his PTSD derails him. How can John justify anything other than a platonic friendship, when the deeper waters of a relationship might destroy Caleb if anything goes wrong?
Caleb has other ideas, though. I loved that this ends with happiness, but not with healing and perfection. You can be broken and patched together and still shaky, and still find love and moments of joy.
Saddled by Lyn Gala – Lyn Gala has an amazing ability to make me understand and empathize with kink and desires I don’t actually share. In this book, pony play is the thing that brings together John— a fisherman reluctantly using his body for hire to make ends meet— and Clive— a wealthy producer who can indulge his own kinks. Clive hires upper-end prostitutes who are willing to sign on to a consensual session of pursuing his love of hooves and tails, whips and harness, and role play. So far, it’s been only a shadow of what he craves each time, until John.
John thought he was pretty much straight. He’s played a lot of roles from muscle to women’s sex object since going to work for his shadowy boss Elena. He’s not a bigot, though. His anal virginity is going to bring him some serious cash, and he figures he can put up with whatever weirdness Clive wants to dish out for a weekend. But he’s startled and a bit discomfited to realize that there is something about the combination of bondage and freedom-to-fight in the pony-play that appeals to him. And that his sexuality is more flexible than he realized.
Once again, I followed one of Lyn Gala’s wonderful men down a path I’d never have chosen to walk, and came out with an appreciation for both her skills as a writer, and a segment of the population I hadn’t thought much about. Very well done.
Fadeout (Boystown 13) by Marshall Thornton – This story completes the wonderful saga of Nick Nowak, ex-cop, private detective, gay man in Chicago as HIV makes its inroads on the community. Nick has come a long, long way from the sex-chasing, not-introspective, somewhat-isolated man he was in the first stories. But that decreased isolation has come at a price – the people he has come to care about have lives circumscribed by illness and death. He’s already had more close losses than most men in their thirties, and is bracing for more.
The ending of this book wasn’t any of the ones I expected, and yet it feels right. There is the feeling of a weight lifted, and hope, and that’s all we can ask for our favorite book heroes as they move on with their lives. This series joins the ranks of my favorite gay mysteries, and I wish all the best for Nick, wherever that future takes him.
Read this series in order, as each book gets better and you fall in love with Nick.
Bitter Pill (PsyCop 11) by Jordan Castillo Price – another great paranormal series to read in order and savor all the way. It’s always fun to hang out with Vic again. He’s grown a lot from those early days when he was a young, confused, and unsure man fumbling to figure out his talent, and had just met Jacob. Now Vic has a lot of tricks up his sleeve, and yet, there are always antagonists that challenge his abilities. And being Vic, he’s still looking to get a better grip on his abilities and find a new advantage, a new technique, to control and expand what he can do. From chair yoga to drugs he definitely shouldn’t touch, Vic’s not willing to let either embarrassment or fear stop him, but uncertainty about the right choice dogs his steps.
It was also fun to watch Jacob finding more confidence and more power in this story. He’s also come a long way from the stiff with no talent who wanted to be around the weird stuff, to a man with his own highly useful abilities and qualities. It’s warm too, to watch him and Vic settles into their relationship, making the accommodations and having the little arguments all couples do, but with certainty of love as its base. There are very few series I’ve been happy to follow through this many books, but I’m still loving this one.
Starting Over series by Matthew J Metzger – This 5-book series makes a complete story arc. You could read just the first book for a two-MC HFN, but it’s most satisfying as a set. The series has some fairly tough BDSM, with the initial MCs being a gay, transgender, submissive pain-loving masochist who is poly and wants an open relationship, and a cis pansexual sadistic Dom who is open to being open. Book 4 adds an asexual MC as it becomes M/M(M) unbalanced. The author (who is also ace and trans) is good at getting me into the heads of people whose viewpoints are new to me, and I really was pulled into this series, even when some of the SM pushed my comfort level a bit. There was also warmth and love and arguments and adjustments especially in books 4-5 – a journey I really enjoyed to the solid conclusion.
The Sumage Solution by G.L. Carriger – This is the first novel in the San Andreas Shifters series. My 5* book of the year pick is actually book 2 – The Omega Objection but this imaginative shifter series (no MPreg) needs to be read in order, to get the characters and worldbuilding.
This first book drops us headfirst into a magic system and worldbuilding that is a bit complex. It does not infodump (which I approve) but as a consequence it took me about three chapters to feel secure enough in my understanding of the worldbuilding elements to focus more deeply on the characters. Once that happened, I was hooked.
Biff, or Bryan as he secretly prefers, is a Beta werewolf in a small pack. Betas are the wolves whose role and function is to soothe, and stabilize, their powerful Alphas. Betas are calm, solid, deliberate oil on troubled waters. He’s the logical choice to go register his pack with local authorities.
Max is a sumage, a failed mage whose only ability is to act as a power sink. He’s a man who stands back and observes the world, his snarky, sharp-tongued personality hiding a real concern for others. As a failure, when his family meant him to be a culmination of power, he has fellow-feeling for the misfits, quirky characters, queer folk and loners who gravitate to the Bay Area.
The last thing he wants is a pack of typical, homophobic, biker, werewolf grunts moving into his territory. The Bay Area was without an approved werewolf pack for a reason. But Biff, the Beta sent to his desk, doesn’t seem to be homophobic— he’s even-tempered and reacts to sarcasm with humor. Against his will, Max begins to believe that, if his Alpha and the rest aren’t raging assholes like most werewolves, it might not be a terrible thing, to allow this pack to stay. This book is a lot of fun— full of humor, sarcasm and snark, word play and eccentric characters— but also a fast-moving adventure with a good plot, fallible heroes, a slow burn romance, and wonderful, intriguing found family.
Tough Guy by Rachel Reid – NHL defenseman Ryan has been traded over and over, moving from city to city without putting down roots or making friends. He’s a decent defenseman, and would like to play that way, but ever since he was a teen and his body showed he was going to be six-seven and imposing, he’s been put in the role of enforcer. That means his job is to threaten, and fight with, the tough guys on other teams. To put the fear of himself into anyone who might mess with his teams’ real stars. For a gentle guy with anxiety issues, he has to become someone else on the ice, and that takes a big toll.
While Fabian grew up in a hockey-mad household as a small, slender, music-loving, femme gay guy, who grew to hate the sport. His parents didn’t reject him, but they never understood him, and he’s left all that behind to move to the city and make music. Till he meets hockey player out of his past.
I really liked that this book features a femme gay guy who is secure in his fabulousness and a big athletic guy with anxieties and image issues. I also loved that the sex is tentative and imperfect and not the immediate bonding factor between them. Ryan’s issues with self-doubt and self-image have made sex, and even jerking off, difficult for him, and having an orgasm isn’t his main goal when he and Fabian get together.
Ryan stole my heart from the beginning, and I loved both Fabian’s strengths and his flaws. The story is fairly slow and quiet, focused on character not hockey action or plot. Since great characters are what make a book work for me, I have zero complaints about that. I also appreciated that these are very different people from the MCs of Heated Rivalry and appealing in different ways. I look forward to seeing what this author comes up with next.