Men Under the Mistletoe is a m/m holiday anthology from Carina Press with stories featuring the theme of lovers reunited.  I almost never read holiday stories, primarily because I don’t celebrate Christmas and I don’t really share either the religious or emotional connection with the holiday.  But when I saw this anthology featured four such amazing authors, I couldn’t resist giving it a try. And I am really glad I did.  The book definitely exceeded my expectations with four great stories each taking place at Christmas time, but all with a focus much broader than just the holiday.  Each story was a substantial standalone at a solid novella length, but I definitely think it is worth reading them all.

 

Title: My True Love Gave to Me
Author: Ava March
Rating: 4

Alexander Norton and Thomas Bennett are two young men in love. Although Alexander previously shared some stolen moments with other boys at school, Thomas is totally new to a relationship with a man.  After sneaking time together, the men decide to take their romance further and travel to Alexander’s father’s hunting lodge to have a night alone.  But when they arrive, Thomas panics at the idea of finally fully giving in to his desires and accepting that he is likes men and all the things that means.  Terrified, he flees the house, leaving a crushed Alexander in his wake.

Alexander is devastated by Thomas’ abandonment.  This first part of the story is told from his POV and we can feel his pain as he realizes Thomas is gone and not returning.  Four years later Alexander has moved on, but never gotten over the pain.  He is shocked one evening to see Thomas, who has returned from America after leaving without a word soon after the incident at the hunting lodge.

While part of Alexander still loves Thomas, the pain of his desertion is just too much for him and he doesn’t want to see or speak to Thomas.  Thomas is persistent however in his desire to see Alexander, apologize, and hopefully rekindle what they once had.  Time has made Thomas realize he needs to live for what he wants and not other’s expectations and he is determined to win Alexander back.

I really enjoyed this story and appreciated that there was no magical quick fix.  Alexander is understandably hurt and not willing or able to forgive Thomas easily.  Thomas has to earn back Alexander’s trust and confidence.  March helps the reader to really see Alexander’s pain, and I could totally understand and appreciate that it takes him a long time to move past the hurt.  I also could really feel for Thomas.  At 19 years old, he was just terrified of accepting who he was and couldn’t handle it.  He has grown over the years and matured and truly regrets his actions.

Strangely, the same thing I really liked about the story is also what bothered me a bit.  While I really was glad that we see the men take time to work through their problems, waiting for Alexander to forgive Thomas is the focus for a lot of the book.  I wish there was a bit more to move the story forward after the initial set up of the conflict.

Overall I really enjoyed this story, however. I love March’s work and she does a great job in this story of really letting you understand the emotions the men are feeling.   I appreciated that both men made mistakes and both were willing to accept responsibility for them and take steps to solve their problems and make their relationship ultimately work.  Definitely an enjoyable book and a recommended read.


Title: Winter Knights
Author: Harper Fox
Rating: 4.75

Wow.  This book was so good, but I am not sure I can even begin to explain it or do it justice.  But duty calls, so here goes.

Gavin Lowden is a historian studying Arthurian legend.  He is trying to find a link between the folklore and reality (and likes to think that the love triangle was fiction and Lancelot and Arthur were actually into each other).  He is in northern England conducting research over Christmas, waiting for his boyfriend Piers de Val to join him.  Piers is a devout theology student still trying to reconcile his religious beliefs with his feelings for Gavin.  The plan is that Piers will come out to his family that night, then join Gavin for the holiday.  However, Gavin is disappointed and angry when Piers calls to tell him that he isn’t ready to come out and breaks things off between them.

Alone in the hotel, Gavin decides to walk around, exploring a spot of local Arthurian legend, despite his enormous headache and being groggy on medication.  He gets caught in a snowstorm, and suddenly finds himself falling through a crack in the rocks into a hidden cave. There he sees Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, and the knights of old trapped in slumber, just as local legend foretold.  Just as suddenly, that scene disappears and he hears voices, realizing that there are rescuers coming to save him.  He is shocked to find that they are named Lance and Art and they are romantic, as well as work, partners.

While trapped underground, Gavin tells Art all about Piers and Art helps Gavin realize that he had backed Piers into a corner with his pressure about coming out.  Gavin also comes to see the many ways he was critical or difficult with Piers and that for all his frustration with the way things ended, that he himself played a large role in their problems. It is clear that even with the breakup, Gavin still loves Piers and wishes they were back together.

The rescue goes a bit rocky but eventually they are free, and since Gavin is alone and shaken, Art and Lance take him back to their house.  There they engage in a little three way action, although the whole time Gavin is thinking of Piers (which the men know).  This is described very briefly and didn’t bother me at all since they are broken up and it is clear that Gavin is pining for Piers.  Piers makes it up to see Gavin after all and they are reunited. There is definitely an HEA for Piers and Gavin in the end, but I don’t want to spoil things with too much more detail except to say it was a great ending.

I really loved this story and just couldn’t put it down. There were so many things to enjoy. First, there is constantly a sense of blurring the line between reality and fantasy.  I couldn’t tell you for certain which things are real and which are in Gavin’s mind (nor do I think I am supposed to be able to).  Every time I thought I had things figured out, the story took another turn, keeping me totally engaged the whole time.  I also liked the juxtaposition of Piers as the devout theologian who relies much on faith and spirituality, versus Gavin who is looking for concrete proof and facts.  The two men end up coming together and sort of meeting in the middle over the course of the story.  And I really liked that both men grew and developed, each recognizing weaknesses and working to improve themselves and their relationship.  Great story, thoroughly engaging, and really interesting.


Title: Lone Star
Author: Josh Lanyon
Rating: 4.25

Mitchell Evans is returning after 12 years to his small Texas town to sell his family ranch and close things up after his father’s death six months before.  He and his dad hadn’t spoken in years, since his father ended their relationship when Mitch told him he was gay. Immediately after, Mitch took off for New York to pursue his dream of becoming a professional dancer, leaving behind his boyfriend Web Eisley.  Mitch is also coming home to nurse his broken heart (and broken ego) after finding out that his boyfriend Innis was cheating on him regularly, a fact that virtually everyone seemed to know but Mitch.

Driving exhausted through the dark, winding roads, Mitchell crashes his car and is rescued by none other than Web, now a Texas Ranger. Web is still angry that Mitch left all those years before, even though at the time he wasn’t out or willing to go with him.  Mitch is unsettled being home and facing his old demons, both with his father’s home and how things ended with Web.  However, Mitch soon gets drawn back in to his close relationship with Web’s family, throwing the men together repeatedly. Eventually they rekindle their relationship and their strong feelings for one another come back to the surface, but they face major hurdles as each man has a job he loves in totally different cities.

I really liked this story, especially the insight into the dance world and what it takes to be one of the top dancers in the company.  And I enjoyed the small town and the close Eisley family and other friends and seeing Mitch rekindle those relationships.  The ending felt a bit fast for me though.  Even once the men put the past behind them in terms of Mitch leaving, the conflict of their jobs and living so far apart is clear throughout the story, and it seemed like out of nowhere everything was resolved.  I think for such a well developed and interesting book, this part felt a bit too fast for me and kept the ending from coming together as well as I would have liked.  But I did find it very sweet and romantic and I really liked both Web and Mitch and was glad they got their happy ending.


Title: The Christmas Proposition
Author: K.A. Mitchell
Rating: 4.75

Melchior Halner runs a Christmas tree farm that has been in his family for generations.  This year he is dreading the holiday season and looking forward to getting out of town to St. Thomas for his best friend Tiffany’s wedding.  He is feeling burdened by the constant farm work and still missing his boyfriend, Bryce Campion, whose job took him out of town after a few intense months of dating.  Although Bryce asked Mel to come along, Mel wasn’t sure if he was serious, not to mention that his responsibilities to the farm made leaving impossible.

When Tiffany’s wedding planner runs off with her money, the wedding gets moved to Mel’s farm and soon he has a houseful of guests, including the best man Bryce.  (Bryce is the owner of the gas company drilling in and around the Pennsylvania valley town and Tiffany is marrying one of his top staff and good friends.)  The two men immediately rekindle their relationship, reinforcing for Mel how much he misses and cares for Bryce.  Yet he worries what will happen at the end of the week when the wedding is over and Bryce once again has to leave town.  Mel isn’t sure if there is any way they can make the relationship work and isn’t even sure what Bryce really wants.  But he does know that he is not ready to give Bryce up again.

This was a great story which I totally loved  It felt so complete and well developed with great characters.  I really liked Mel and felt for him as he dealt with the burden of maintaining the family farm and the traditions associated with the small town life.  Bryce teased him about always having a thought bubble over his head as he worried about things, and I liked watching him learn to let go more as the story progressed.  And I really liked Bryce, who was kind and generous and thoughtful, despite being a super wealthy company owner.  The guys were both hot and sweet together, and for a novella I thought the side characters were really well developed as well.  Overall I really enjoyed the story and highly recommend it.

Men Under the Mistletoe will be available on December 5 from Carina Press.  The stories will also be available for purchase separately.  

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