The Uncut Wood by Slade James
Hank and Gunner are two lumberjacks at a seasonal gay clothing-optional campground, The Bear Mountain Lodge. As a way to drum up business during the off-season, they’re going to be competing in something they’re calling the Jackolympics, featuring various feats of sexy lumberjackness.
Hank decides that now is the perfect time to finally admit his feelings for Gunner.
But just before they compete, he kind of chickens out and his natural competitive streak takes over. If Hank wins, then Gunnar has to go on a romantic date with him. In a log splitting competition, they race to show off their dexterity with an axe. In the end, it’s apparent to everyone that Gunner is the superior axe man… but he lets Hank win.
That evening, Hank takes them through a section of the forest called The Uncut Wood to the most remote cabin on the property, which he has set up for their romantic date. They eat, and they talk, and they make love in front of the fire. It’s all very sweet and romantic and both of them are finally able to admit that they’ve been interested in each other for a long time but weren’t really sure how to go from friends/colleagues to something more.
Sometimes a friendly wager is all you need to get out of the friend zone.
The story of Hank and Gunner is a perfectly executed friends-to-lovers trope. Their chemistry is off the charts from the very beginning, and I loved watching them navigate their way to a very satisfying happily ever after.
The Uncut Wood is an introductory short that establishes the setting and side characters of the author’s Bear Camp series.
There Galapagos My Heart by Phillip William Stover
As a favor to his aunt Penny, Michael agrees to teach painting to the guests on her high-end cruise to the Galapagos Island. What could be the harm in a quick vacation before he moves into his new position as a senior acct. manager at his firm?
In Ecuador, before they set sail, Penny has the visiting faculty introduce themselves to the tourists. Their resident wildlife expert is going to be Benton… Michael’s insufferably handsome, charming, British ex-boyfriend.
He does everything he can to avoid Benton but, as they tour the capital and take photos where the Northern and Southern equators meet, they can no longer postpone the inevitable. They talk and it doesn’t go well. Penny tells them that they’ll be rooming together for the duration of the cruise. Michael just can’t seem to catch a break.
They call a truce and, after the ship sets out to sea, Benton gives his first lecture about the various species that call the Galapagos home. In lesser hands, the presentation would be deadly dull, but the passengers are enthralled by him and Michael realizes that he may not be as over Benton as he once thought.
To avoid dealing with this new revelation, Michael races back to their stateroom and pretends to be asleep. Benton takes his time getting ready for bed, doing a tantalizing strip tease that Michael can’t help but watch through half-closed eyes.
He is so not over him.
After a little schedule manipulation from aunt Penny, Michael joining Benton on an early morning shore excursion to plan the upcoming nature walk for the guests. Their time alone amongst the wildlife is magical, but things quickly take a sour turn when Benton suggest that Michael do a solo show of all the pieces he is sure to paint with the Galapagos as his inspiration.
He thinks he’s being supportive of Michaels’ talent. But Michael only feels the pressure to pursue something that he’s given up. Something he feels he’s failed at.
Back on the boat, there is a telegram waiting for Benton. Michael reads the awkwardly phrased congratulations. It seems Benton is now a father.
Despite the frustrations with his ex, Michael couldn’t help dreaming up romantic second chance scenarios with Benton. But he now has a child with somebody special waiting for him back in England. It was never meant to be with them.
At dinner they reminisce about the old days and Benton opens up about his emotionally distant family and why he cares about animals so much, forcing Michael to realize that he never really appreciated what a good thing he had with Benton.
The next morning Michael teaches his watercolor class. The passengers all seem to enjoy it. Benton as well. In fact, watching him teach so passionately about something he obviously loves has Benton feeling amorous. Once he returns from his onshore nature excursion, they’ll meet in their stateroom, where Benton will show Michael just how romantic he really feels.
Michael uses his downtime to catch up on some work and becomes so wrapped up in accounts and spreadsheets that forgets his scheduled rendezvous with his gorgeous ex.
Penny decides it’s time for a heart-to-heart and explains that being chained to something because it represents (in Michael’s mind) security, might be keeping him from becoming his true self.
After teaching his final watercolor class, Michael goes ashore and finds an art gallery. After talking to the man whose art he admires, he realizes that security ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. It might be time to spread his wings and fly, just like the exotic birds Benton loves to talk about.
Michael quits his job and, after a brief but harrowing health scare, Benton and Michael realize that they’re far better together than they ever were apart.
FYI – Benton, we eventually find out, is the proud poppa of a baby wombat. He was part of the team taking care of the mother wombat in a zoo back in the UK.
This novella is the perfect literary vacation. It’s a super sweet, super tropey tropical romance set in wonderfully unique locale.
One thing I want to quickly mention – I think the character of Michael, in another author’s hands, could have come off as very annoying because he spends an awful lot of the story pushing people away or shoring up the walls that he’s built around his life. Benton and Penny gently nudge him to explore his art more and he’s constantly saying ‘no’ until he finally has this ‘a-ha’ moment at the end of the story.
The way Phillip William Stover uses Michael’s introspection and especially his humor, makes him very likable and very relatable. You understand why he does what he does and thinks the way that he thinks. Overall, I just really loved the story about Michael and Benton, fighting their way back from something that didn’t work before – and most definitely works now.
There Galapagos My Heart is available in both ebook and print formats.
Jeff talks about two things he’s been into recently: The 25th Anniversary celebration for the musical Rent, and Queen Latifah in the reboot of The Equalizer. I mention some TV shows we love that are returning this spring.
In February, Jeff hosted a conversation with Philip William Stover for Doylestown Bookshop in Doylestown, PA. Philip discusses the Seasons of the New Hope series, which is set a few miles from Doylestown, and the new book The Beautiful Things Shoppe. Philip shares why he set the series in New Hope and his connection to the town, and what he would sell if he had a store like The Beautiful Things Shoppe. He also has some book recommendations.
Remember, you can listen and follow the podcast anytime on BigGayFictionPodcast.com.
A Cousin to Kiss by Geoffrey Knight
Oliver and his cousin Caleb were inseparable growing up. While attending his sister’s wedding, Oliver is unprepared for the visceral reaction he has seeing his cousin again after all these years. When he receives a note written by his beloved late aunt April, she advises him to be brave and bold with his love.
Caleb received and identical note. Now that the two of them are face to face again, they can no longer deny their attraction. They sneak away to a spare room and are finally able to express the deep unwavering love they feel for one another.
Later, while making a toast to the bride and groom, Oliver references great aunt April’s sage advice. Once you’re brave, bold, and honest with your heart, there’s nothing holding you back from true love.
This erotic short from Geoffrey Knight combines the sexy and the sweet, with just a hint of taboo. While the encounter between our two heroes is undeniably hot, the story also contains a strong message about following your heart. Together, there’s nothing Oliver and Caleb can’t conquer.
A Cousin to Kiss is available in both ebook and paperback formats.
Catching Orion by Sloane Kennedy
Ryan doesn’t quite know what to think when an enormous, tattooed, and very sexy hunk shows up at his door, with flowers in hand, insisting that they have a date planned.
Knox has been messaging a great guy through a new dating app, the only problem is that when date night arrives, Ryan has no idea who he is. It’s over before it’s even begun.
But they get to talking and realize a shared love of Shrek is just one of the things they have in common. There’s undeniable chemistry between them and they decide to go on the wine and painting class they won in a raffle.
At the event, Knox is shocked to discover that he knows the nude figure models they’ll be using as painterly inspiration. It’s his meddlesome, but well-meaning great uncle who, along with his husband, have created this elaborate scheme to bring Knox and Ryan together.
After seeing his uncles without their robes, Knox decides a change in venue is in order. He and Ryan take his motorcycle to the coast, lay a blanket on the beach, and cuddle up as they watch the sunrise.
This short by Sloane Kennedy has got humor, heart, and some definite heat. Though the evening for Ryan and Knox did not quite go as planned, they were each able to step out of their respective comfort zones and discover something truly special.
Catching Orion is available in ebook, audiobook, and print formats.
This story was previously titled Atlanta and was part of the Heart 2 Heart Vol. 2 Charity Anthology.
Second Helpings by Brandon Witt
Isaac returns to his small Missouri hometown for his 20th High School reunion. He’s about to ditch the pot-luck get together (yup, it’s that downhome) when in walks the reason he came, Grant.
Isaac and Grant were inseparable growing up, but the day after graduation, Isaac left for New York. Grant stayed behind. They drive around town together, getting a cherry limeade at the drive-in. All the years away seem to slip away and they head back to Grant’s place.
The next morning, Grant treats Isaac to breakfast in bed and convinces him to stay just one more day. They hang out, eating at the diner Grant runs with his sister. Their time together is nice, but Isaac can’t help but be haunted by the reasons he left town decades earlier.
Grant tries to cheer him up by cooking for him and it does the trick, but Isaac can’t resist teasing Grant just a little about his homestyle way of cooking (cream of mushroom soup and mayo et al). There’s a lot of food in this story (more on that later).
It comes out that Grant was married to a woman for many years (he’s now divorced), which causes a minor rift between our heroes since it was Grant’s insistence that they both come out as teenagers that partially pushed Isaac away. They spend one last night in each other’s arms before Isaac drives away the next day.
In flashback that we learn the heartbreaking full story of his difficult family history and why he left Grant behind then, and why he can’t stay now. It’s a real emotional gut punch.
Back in New York a few months later, Isaac is hanging with his bestie trying to recreate the food he experienced in his brief time with Grant. His bestie serves up a reality check. Why is he spending so much time trying to re-create something, when the real thing (the food and the man) is just a phone call away?
Isaac invites him to come for a visit, taking Grant on an admittedly sappy carriage ride through Central Park, where they work out the issues of the past while dreaming up a new future together. Grant has already sold all his stuff in Missouri and is looking to take a culinary leap in the big city.
They’re happy. They’re together. Just like it should have been all along.
I can’t even begin to go into how much I just love everything about this novella. Second Helpings packs an entire novels worth of emotion into just a few pages. The heroes are both interesting, remarkable, and kind.
The second chance romance trope is one of my all-time favorites, and the way Brandon Witt expertly addresses issues of the past, while showing us that Isaac and Grant are both capable adults able to work through the difficult stuff to get to their HEA, made me all warm and fuzzy.
When it comes to the food, the author also has you covered. All of Grants simple, but tasty, recipes are featured in the back of the book. Yum.
If you happen to be a fan of audiobooks, check out the narration provided by Drew Bacca. Brandon Witt provides the narrative and emotional foundation of the story, but the way Drew handles the alternating narrative viewpoint is really special. He takes the emotion to the next level.