We Still Live by Sara Dobie Bauer

Running from a scandal that ruined his life, Isaac Twain accepts a teaching position at Hambden University where, three months prior, Professor John Conlon stopped a campus nightmare by stepping in front of an active shooter.
When John and Isaac become faculty advisors for the school’s literary magazine, their professional relationship evolves. Despite the strict code of conduct forbidding faculty fraternization, they delve into a secret affair—until Simon arrives.
Isaac’s violent ex threatens not only their careers, but also John’s life. His PTSD triggered, John must come to terms with that bloody day on College Green while Isaac must accept the heartbreak his secrets have wrought.

This is one of those books that you walk away from wanting to delve right back into. *sigh*

Both John and Isaac had a history they were trying desperately to forget. They both had secrets. Isaac ran from his past and the destruction he felt responsible for. John couldn’t run from his past, but he tried to forget the day that changed everything. Not an easy thing to do when even total strangers consider you a hero. His close friends tried to shield him from most of it, but they couldn’t shield him from what was going on inside his own head.

This isn’t my first Sara Dobie Bauer read, but I’ve gotta say, it was definitely the most emotional. I felt so much for both of these men. They were both victims. Isaac did cause his own drama, but the fallout wasn’t his fault. John wasn’t at fault at all for the shooting that changed everything, but he was racked with guilt over everything he couldn’t do.

John and Isaac were the main focus of We Still Live, but there was so much more to this book. John obviously wasn’t the only one deeply affected by the events that took place on campus that day. Students, faculty, parents, family, even community members were left grieving. There’s no “right way” to grieve, but some obviously handled it better than others. There were some great characters and some not so great ones. Each one added to the story and their reactions made them even more real in a sense.

There are a lot of emotional triggers in We Still Live, but it’s also a story full of hope. It takes a stark look into some really tough issues and the reality is that not everything can be “fixed”, but things can get better with time – and most importantly, with support. This is definitely a book that I’ll be reading again.

Relationship Material by Jenya Keefe

It’s not always possible to meet in the middle.
Registered nurse Evan Doyle doesn’t consider himself fit for more than occasional hookups. He has a good life, but the emotional aftermath of a horrific crime makes him feel too damaged to date. So when his sister’s hot bestie, Malcolm Umbertini, comes on to him, he turns him down flat. Mal is Relationship Material: the kind who thinks in the long term. What would Evan do with a man like that?
As a prosecuting attorney, Mal’s learned how to read people, and he knows there’s more to Evan than meets the eye. Mal has faced his own hardships since his family kicked him out as a teen, and he respects Evan’s courage and emotional resilience. More than that, he wants Evan—in his bed and in his life. But can he weather another rejection?
Both wary, they agree to a no-strings fling. Mal knows that Evan wants things to stay casual, but he’s falling in love a little more with each encounter. With health, happiness, and bruised hearts on the line, Mal and Evan must risk everything for love.

This is the first book by Jenya Keefe that I’ve read – actually, I think it may be her debut novel. Regardless, it will not be the last book I read by this author, as a matter of fact, I just requested an ARC of her next book. So yes, Relationship Material was that good.

Relationship Material wasn’t a “light and fluffy” romance by any stretch of the imagination. Although the events that were the darkest were memories, they were still pretty heavy and dark. My heart broke for Evan in so many ways. I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll be as vague as I can. Because of events that happened in his past, Evan disappeared from his former life and entered witness protection. He had stayed totally off the radar until the day his twin sister ran into him. She obviously wanted answers about his disappearance and even though he was in a panic about being discovered he wanted to give her as much as he could. She was afraid he’d disappear again, so for moral support, she brought her best friend with her – which is how Evan met Malcolm.

Needless to say, there were some HUGE trust issues in Relationship Material. There were a lot of reasons why Evan didn’t want to form attachments, especially not the romantic kind. Even though his sister wanted to help, he was afraid to let her or Malcolm (both lawyers) dig too deep into his past. He was scared for a lot of reasons. He didn’t want to be discovered, but he also didn’t want his sister or Malcolm to feel any less about him because of his past. A past it seemed like he had spent a lifetime running and hiding from.

There were a lot of unexpected layers and heartbreak in Relationship Material, but there was also a lot of hope. Which was something all three of these characters needed. There were also a couple of side characters that kept things interesting. It was, at times, not an easy book to read, but it was definitely worth it in the end.

String Boys by Amy Lane (Bout-of-Books 25 Review)

Seth Arnold learned at an early age that two things in life could make his soul soar—his violin and Kelly Cruz. In Seth’s uncertain childhood, the kindness of the Cruz family, especially Kelly and his brother, Matty, gave Seth the stability to make his violin sing with the purest sound and opened a world of possibility beyond his home in Sacramento.
Kelly Cruz has loved Seth forever, but he knows Seth’s talents shouldn’t be hidden, not when the world is waiting. Encouraging Seth to follow his music might break Kelly’s heart, but he is determined to see the violin set Seth’s soul free. When their world is devastated by a violent sexual assault and Matty’s prejudices turn him from a brother to an enemy, Seth and Kelly’s future becomes uncertain.
Seth can’t come home and Kelly can’t leave, but they are held together by a love that they clutch with both hands.
Seth and Kelly are young and the world is wide—the only thing they know for certain is they’ll follow their heartstrings to each other’s arms whenever time and fate allow. And pray that one day they can follow that string to forever… before it slices their hearts in two.

That description? That doesn’t even come close to the heartbreak that surrounds Kelly and Seth in String Boys. I’m not opposed to angst. Honestly, just about any emotion filled M/M romance has to include some type of angst, but this one? The only reason that this book isn’t getting a solid 5 stars from me is because I couldn’t believe how much this author put these characters through – and I’m not just talking about Seth and Kelly. The whole Cruz/Arnold clan was put through more than most people would survive… but that’s also one of the big reasons I loved this story so much. This wasn’t just Kelly and Seth’s story, this was a story about two families who as a whole, kept each other from falling apart. ❤

It’s amazing how sometimes one event can change things forever. That moment in String Boys was a turning point for everyone, not just Seth and Kelly. It followed them and everyone else for years. The sad part is that not only did those events pull Seth and Kelly away from each other, it took another series of tragic events to bring them back together.

They may have lost time together and both of them had to grow up a lot faster than most kids, but they never really “lost” each other. Their love and devotion toward each other was sometimes the only hope either one of them had. I cherished those moments that they got to share as their story unfolded almost as much as they did.

String Boys is as heartbreaking as it is heart warming. It begins when the boys are in elementary school and follows them to young adulthood. There’s a lot of emotion packed into this one. Some characters redeem themselves and some just dig themselves deeper. My heart broke for Seth as a young boy, but he wasn’t alone, which makes all the difference. Although both families had more than their share of tragedy, they never lost hope – at least not for very long.

Finally reaching their well deserved and long over-due HEA, is almost enough to forgive this author’s torture. Almost. On a side note, after the cameo at the end of String Boys, I’m now moving Red Fish, Dead Fish, which is the second book in Amy Lane’s Fish Out of Water series, up on my reading list. 😉

All Boy by Mia Kerick (Bout-of-Books 25 Review)

Seventeen-year-old Callie Canter knows all about screwing up—and being screwed over. After her so-called boyfriend publicly humiliated her senior year, taking a fifth year of high school at Beaufort Hills Academy is her second chance to leave behind a painful past. But her need for social acceptance follows, and going along with the in-crowd is the difference between survival and becoming a target. Staying off the radar is top priority. So, falling for an outsider is the last thing on Callie’s “to-do” list. Too bad her heart didn’t get the memo.
With his strict, religious upbringing and former identity far away in Florida, Jayden Morrissey can finally be true to himself at Beaufort Hills Academy. But life as a trans man means keeping secrets, and keeping secrets means not getting too close to anyone. If he can just get through his fifth year unnoticed, maybe a future living as the person he was born to be is possible. Yet love is love, and when you fall hard enough, intentions crumble, plans detour, and secrets are revealed.

The first thing I need to say is that All Boy was not an easy book to read. Sometimes, those are the best books though. That’s one of the reasons why my reading is so eclectic. I love learning about people from all walks of life and “seeing” and “feeling” things from a totally different perspective.

My heart broke for both of these kids, but mostly for Jayden. To be honest, I wasn’t a fan of Callie for a while in All Boy. Given what she went through in her previous school I really expected her to be a little bit more sympathetic. She still made some of the same bad decisions that she made in high school, which is kind of a normal teenage thing, but again, I still felt like she should have known better. She eventually came around, but it was almost too late.

The biggest difference between Callie and Jayden was the fact that Callie had lots of support and Jayden had no one. Jayden was getting there. He knew that keeping his biggest secret was probably going to back fire and getting closer to people that he was trying to keep it from was going to end up hurting someone, he just had no idea exactly how bad it could be…

There were some great supporting characters in All Boy and there were some characters who I really didn’t like. Jayden did have a couple of family members he could rely on, but the others weren’t just unsupportive, they were borderline cruel. This is definitely a book that makes you feel to the point that I wanted to jump in and protect Jayden from the world he felt trapped in. I wasn’t as drawn into All Boy as I was with The Princess of Baker Street, but I can tell you that as far as both stories go, this author seems to be doing an amazing job of enlightening readers to at least some of the struggles kids who just want to be true to themselves have to go through.

Keeping a Warrior (Loving a Warrior #2) by Melanie Hansen

Sometimes the only hope for the walking wounded is in each other’s arms.
Devon Lowe is a survivor.
A survivor of war. Of combat. And of a betrayal by men she considered her brothers-in-arms. But her trailblazing work as a Cultural Support Team member working alongside the navy SEALs is too important for her to back down now.
Fresh off a painful breakup, air force pararescueman Rhys Halloran recognizes Devon’s trauma for what it is—something that’s left her isolated but far from irreparably damaged.
With Devon’s trust still lying shattered back in Afghanistan, putting her faith in a man who’s nursing a broken heart isn’t easy. But she’s tired of people making her feel weak, and Rhys makes her feel anything but, sparking a heated attraction that was never part of the plan.
With all eyes on Devon to prove herself in a brutal man’s world, having it all will mean putting her heart on the line like never before. But when it comes to Rhys, it’s an uphill battle she’s ready to fight.

I know that some readers are going to be thrown by the fact that Keeping a Warrior is not a M/M romance, especially since the first book in the series was. I really hope that even so, readers give this one a chance. There was a lot to love about Keeping a Warrior and for the record, both Shane and Matt from Loving a Warrior, play a big role in this one – along with their drama. The support they receive from both Rhys and Devon is amazing to see. I personally love it when an author branches out and doesn’t stick to one genre for everything they write.

Devon and Rhys were both broken and neither one of them were looking for romance. It was actually the furtherest thing from either of their minds. Devon had been hurt, both physically and mentally, by people she should have been able to trust. She loved her job and she had learned from previous experience how to be vigilant to protect herself. She knew in her heart though that Rhys was different. She felt close to him… safe… from the beginning. Rhys had baggage though and getting attached would be a mistake, especially since he was on the rebound.

Rhys had his own fears about getting attached, but the pull was too strong to ignore. He was happy being Devon’s friend, but that wasn’t going to make their inevitable parting any easier to take. Pieces of his heart were going to go with her and the closer they got the more dangerous that became.

I loved these two together, but I also loved the friendships that developed between them and the rest of the characters. They were a tight knit group and they ALL had each others’ backs. It was the way it was supposed to be and that did as much for Devon as the support she was getting from Rhys.

I’m loving the Loving a Warrior series and I’m kind of hoping that there’s more to come. Regardless, I need to go back and read Loving a Warrior. Seeing them in Keeping a Warrior made me want to go back and see if there’s anything I missed. Any excuse for a re-read, right? 😉

Blood on the Chesapeake (The Haunted Shores Mysteries) by Randy Overbeck

Wilshire, Maryland, a quaint shore town on the Chesapeake, promises Darrell Henshaw a new start in life and a second chance at love. That is, until he learns the town hides an ugly secret. A thirty-year-old murder in the high school. And a frightening ghost stalking his new office. Burned by an earlier encounter with the spirit world, Darrell doesn’t want to get involved, but when the desperate ghost hounds him, he concedes. Assisted by his new love, he follows a trail that leads to the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and even the Klu Klux Klan. Then, when two locals who try to help are murdered, Darrell is forced to decide if he’s willing to risk his life—and the life of the woman he loves—to expose the killers of a young man he never knew.

I’m not sure how I found Blood on the Chesapeake, but I’m glad I did. This author is new to me and while the genre isn’t outside my normal reads, random mysteries aren’t necessarily my “go-to”. Yet, that’s how I’ve found some of my favorite authors. The title drew me in and after reading the description, I knew I had to give it a try. I’ve always lived within a couple of hours’ driving distance from the Chesapeake Bay, but for the past 20 years, I’ve lived on the Eastern Shore. Finding a good mystery with a paranormal twist just added to the draw. 😉

So, did Blood on the Chesapeake live up to my expectations? Most definitely. I liked Darrell from the very first chapter. He had one other ghostly encounter in his past and he wasn’t happy that his “gift” was making itself known again. He wanted to ignore this particular ghost, but he couldn’t help himself from wanting to find out more about him. As the danger mounted and people around him weren’t safe, he wanted to back away from the mystery, but that wasn’t as easy as it seemed.

I have to admit that I figured out who the “bad guys” were long before Darrell. I think he might have too, but he was reluctant to place blame on people he didn’t know really well. There were times that he really should have followed his gut feelings, but that’s not always easy either. The supporting characters were great and Darrell found himself surrounded by people who really cared and most importantly, believed in him.

As for the rest of the story, I’m sad to say that Overbeck’s portrayal of a small town on the Eastern Shore wasn’t far off from reality. Although I live on the Virginia end of the Shore, there are places here, just like everywhere, that prejudice is the norm. The character’s love of history helped with the research and I loved that aspect of the story as well. The only one little pet peeve I had while reading Blood on the Chesapeake was that I wished Darrell didn’t compare his ex to his current love interest quite as much as he did.

It looks like this book will be part of a series, and I hope it is. I have no idea if it will include Darrell or not. The Eastern Shore of both Maryland and Virginia are full of ghostly stories and haunted buildings, so I can’t wait to see what Randy Overbeck has in store for readers next.

The Princess of Baker Street by Mia Kerick (Bout-of-Books 24 Review)

When she was a child, Joey Kinkaid, assigned as a boy at birth—wearing Mom’s purple sundress and an imaginary crown—ruled the Baker Street neighborhood with a flair and imagination that kept the other kids captivated. Day after day, she led them on fantastic after-school adventures, but those innocent childhood days are over, and the magic is gone. The princess is alone.
Even Eric Sinclair, the Prince Eric to Joey’s Princess Ariel, has turned his back on his former friend, watching in silence as Joey is tormented at school. Eric isn’t proud of it, but their enchanted youth is over, and they’ve been thrust into a dog-eat-dog world where those who conform survive and those who don’t… well, they don’t. Eric has enough to deal with at home, where his mother has abandoned him to live in isolation and poverty.
But Eric can’t stay on the sidelines forever. When Joey finally accepts her female gender and comes to school wearing lip gloss, leggings, and a silky pink scarf, the bullies readily take the opportunity she hands them, driving Joey to attempt suicide and leaving Eric at a crossroads—one that will influence both their lives in not just the present, but the future.
Is there a chance the two teens can be friends again, and maybe even more?

First, this is my 3rd Mia Kerick read and there’s something I’ve just gotta say… My first read by this author was The Art of Hero Worship. The next was Scarred. In each book so far, the “voices” of the characters were totally unique and fit those characters perfectly. I have to admit that when I first started Scarred, it kind of threw me, but the more I read, the more I realized that there was no better way to portray those characters. By the time I got to The Princess of Baker Street, I expected it and the author did not disappoint.

My first reaction when I finished The Princess of Baker Street was that even though this was definitely Joey’s book, it was just as much Eric’s – especially since it was told from his POV. My heart went out to both these young people. I don’t remember middle school being a scary time for me, but as a parent, I honestly couldn’t wait until all three of my daughters were past it. I hated what they went through and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it… and I tried. It was just the whole atmosphere and that included the adult staff. It was a miserable time for all of us and we were just fighting the normal everyday stuff. Nothing compared to what Joey and Eric faced. So, for a lot of reasons, this one just about broke me. *sigh*

It would have been easy to get mad at Eric, but he beat himself up enough. I could also kind of relate to that kind of mentality. He was just trying to survive the best he could with little or no support. Then there was Joey, who was just trying to be who she knew in her heart she was meant to be. The story was a perfect portrayal of how things change as children grow older. Their innocence and acceptance is replaced by what adults and society ingrain in them as the “norm”.

The second half of The Princess of Baker Street was full of hope. Things were far from perfect for either of them, but they were better. Their support system didn’t necessarily grow, but it tightened and I was honestly and truly happy for them. ❤

Mess me Up (Bear Bottom Guardians MC #1) by Lani Lynn Vale

When Rome Pierce moved to Bear Bottom, Texas, it was his intention to lay low. To not be seen. To find a way to heal his body and soul—as well as his son’s.
Nobody would know by looking at him that he used to play professional football. Not with the Bear Bottom MC cut covering his back, and definitely not with his friendly smile completely obliterated.
No longer is there charm in each smooth word that comes out of his mouth. What’s left is an angry, bitter, scared man that’s terrified one day he’s going to wake up and his entire world is going to be gone.
Nobody knows what drove him to leave the game he loved—nobody but her.
She’s the one person that has helped him make it through the dark days and even darker nights. She’s the bright and shining star in his pitch-black sky.
And he doesn’t even know her name.
He should be afraid that she knows things that not anyone—not even his best friend—knows.
Yet, with each encounter, he gives what little bit of his soul remains, and before he knows it only two people on this earth—one dying and one too afraid to live—make his life worth living.
Until one day he has to choose—the love of his life, or the life he brought into this world.
Two impossible situations. One decision that would change him forever.

This one starts with tears of heart wrenching grief and ends with tears of joy… I might forgive this author… eventually.

Some books are harder to read than others and Mess Me Up – guess which category this one falls in? At least during the first part. The grief that Rome experiences is overwhelming and he almost drowns himself in it, which is understandable. Because the emotions in Mess Me Up are so raw that it might serve as a trigger to anyone who has experienced this type of grief should probably steer clear of this one, so proceed with caution.

The second part of Mess Me Up was much easier, but no less emotional. Rome had a lot of people who wanted to look out for him and support him, but he kept them all at a distance. Especially Izzy… but she was determined to be there for Rome whether she wanted him to or not. She had her own past that made her want to keep her heart under lock and key, but she knew Rome was worth the risk and she couldn’t walk away.

I know a lot of readers had a hard time with this one and I totally understand why and respect their opinion. I also agree with that there should have been a disclaimer for those that may be sensitive to the subject. As for me, a warning would have been nice, but I can pretty much handle anything that an author puts their characters through as long as they leave them with hope and a chance to heal… Although this story just about broke my heart for both Izzy and Rome, I think that they were both left with a hopeful future and stronger in the end.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a Lani Lynn Vale book and I obviously have some catching up to do. Even though this is the first book in the Bear Bottom Guardians MC series, readers met evidently met Rome in Vale’s Simple Man series. So the question is, do I continue the Bear Bottom Guardians MC series, or back track to all the books I need to catch up on… decisions, decisions.

Scarred by Mia Kerick

Even in paradise, beautiful faces can hide scarred souls.
ONE tropical island.
Placida Island’s gentle ocean breezes and rolling surf beckon to those who wish to reside in remote tropical serenity.
TWO men living in self-imposed exile.
Wearing twisted ropes of mutilated skin on his back and carrying devastating damage in his soul from severe childhood abuse, Matthew North lives alone in a rustic cabin on the shore, avoiding human contact.
Gender fluidity his perceived “crime” against family and friends, Vedie Wilson flees his childhood home so he can freely express his identity.
THREE persecutors seeking their warped view of justice.
Vedie’s past refuses to stay in the faraway city he left behind when family members, intent on forcing him to change, threaten the precious peace he’s found.
TOO MANY scars to count.
Their beautiful faces masking deeply scarred souls, Matt and Vedie live in hiding from the world and each other.
Can they unite and embrace each other’s painful pasts, leaving the scars behind, to find love?

This was not an easy book to read, but I’m glad I did… Also, I’m not a “judge a book by its cover” kind of reader, but every once in a while (and not often enough) a cover captures a character perfectly. This one comes so close to how I pictured Matt in Scarred that it’s scary…

Both Matt & Vedie were broken. They both ended up on Placida Island to escape and hide. Matt was hiding from his past and Vedie was trying to find a place to be himself and feel safe while doing it.

Watching Matt keep his distance from Vedie and lie to himself about his feelings for him was painful. Watching Vedie try to be what Matt needed to be and knowing it would never be enough was even more painful. They loved each other, they needed each other, but there was too much baggage between them… My heart broke for them throughout most of Scarred.

There’s hope though and it takes them almost losing each other to find it, but eventually they do… and a lot more than they expected.

The Art of Breathing (Bear, Otter & the Kid #3) by T.J. Klune

Tyson Thompson graduated high school at sixteen and left the town of Seafare, Oregon, bound for what he assumed would be bigger and better things. He soon found out the real world has teeth, and he returns to the coast with four years of failure, addiction, and a diagnosis of panic disorder trailing behind him. His brother, Bear, and his brother’s husband, Otter, believe coming home is exactly what Tyson needs to find himself again. Surrounded by family in the Green Monstrosity, Tyson attempts to put the pieces of his broken life back together.
But shortly after he arrives home, Tyson comes face to face with inevitability in the form of his childhood friend and first love, Dominic Miller, who he hasn’t seen since the day he left Seafare. As their paths cross, old wounds reopen, new secrets are revealed, and Tyson discovers there is more to his own story than he was told all those years ago.
In a sea of familiar faces, new friends, and the memories of a mother’s devastating choice, Tyson will learn that in order to have any hope for a future, he must fight the ghosts of his past.

This is the second time I’ve read The Art of Breathing (I should probably mention that it won’t be my last…) For some strange, unexplainable reason, I neglected to write a review the first time. The only excuse I may have is that this book gave me such an emotional hangover that I couldn’t come up with anything coherent to write… For the record, waiting and reading it again hasn’t helped, but I owe it to this book and series to give it a try…

The Art of Breathing is told from Tyson (the Kid’s) POV. It’s rather ironic in a way because the other books in the series are told from Bear’s POV and in this book Tyson realizes, much to his dismay, that he and his brother have much more in common that he’s comfortable admitting. 😉

There were a lot of surprises in The Art of Breathing. A lot of tears, a lot of laughs and a fair amount of heartbreak. As per usual with T.J. Klune, those moments can make you shed tears of laughter followed by tears of heartbreak within the span of just a few pages… I kinda both love and hate him for that. *sigh*

Tyson wasn’t in a very good place through a lot of The Art of Breathing, mostly because of Dom. Because of that, regardless of how unfair it was, I spent a lot of this book not very happy with Dominic. Nothing’s exactly as it seems though and as the story unfolded I actually fell right back in love with him. Their story needed to come full circle and I understand why things happen the way they did, but it didn’t make experiencing them through Tyson made them any easier. I think to me, regardless of how much he’s grown in this series, I’m always going to see him as just the “little guy” we met in Bear, Otter and the Kid.

Tyson was at the center of this story, but there was so much to love about The Art of Breathing that I’m not quite sure I can list it all. To be honest, I decided to re-read the Kid’s book for a couple of reasons. First, the next book in Klune’s At First Sight series is coming out soon and since Why We Fight is Corey/Kori’s book and I first met him/her in The Art of Breathing, I wanted to refresh my memory. Second… I have decided that 2019 will be the year that I finally put on my “Big Girl Pants” and read The Long and Winding Road.

Bear, Otter and the Kid was my first T.J. Klune read and this series has pulled me into an author’s world like no other. Saying goodbye to these characters isn’t going to be easy, but like this review, I owe it to them to finally see it through. ❤