Rating: 4 stars
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Stefan Sanchez’s has returned home to Boerne, Texas after twelve years in Los Angeles as a successful children’s book author. He has come home for the funeral of his best friend, Tommy O’Connor, scion of one of Texas’ wealthiest and influential families. Stefan left over a decade ago under the stigma of his deceased father, a corrupt agent, and fleeing his secret relationship with closeted deputy Chet Blain.
Now that he is back, all those secrets and more rise up, threatening to pull Stefan down with them. His alcoholic mother wants to see him, Tommy’s death is suspicious, Tommy’s wife is missing, and then someone leaves drugs in Stefan’s rental car, framing him and bringing him to the notice of the FBI. Chet wants to restart their old affair while the sexy Secret Service agent hovering around him seems interested in Stefan in more ways than just business. The O’Connor family is full of hidden agendas that Stefan must unravel for his safety and sanity. Everything, including Stefan’s life, hinges on him piecing together clues from his childhood, and coming to terms with a past that has haunted him through the years.
I really liked Son of a Gun enough to give it 4 stars even while feeling ambivalent about aspects of the story. I found the character of Stefan Sanchez to be especially intriguing, in particular his profession as an author of a highly successful children’s series, The Adventures of the Backtree Boys. Think an updated version of the Hardy Boys based upon Stefan’s childhood up to his father’s treason and death. Interspliced with Stefan’s thoughts on his current status and events are parts of episodes he is mentally writing to go along with what is actually happening. It works something like this:
In San Antonio, Stefan emerged from the airport hangar, crisp air-conditioning giving way immediately to deep, humid Texas heat. His sparse luggage and light clothing all seemed to gain twenty pounds of wet, his hair sticking to his nape, and he remembered one of the dozens of reasons he’d had to leave Texas. (then Stefan starts thinking Backtree Boys dialog)
“The weather is reason enough.”
“Nope. Reason number one: snakes.”
“When was the last time you saw a snake, Tommy?”
“It’s the fact that they could show up ANYWHERE. Did you see that blurb in the paper about the assemblyman who found one in his mailbox?”
“I think someone put that there.”
“And your point is?”
Dialog from the Backtree Boys is used effectively to accentuate Stefan’s thoughts as well as introduce a snapshot of his childhood growing up. In fact, much of Stefan’s personality traits can be traced back to the fact that Stefan is still tethered to his past, unable to move forward because he ran rather than bringing any type of closure to the problems he left behind. He is a complicated character and Riley brings him to life vividly and compassionately. And the use of the idealized Backtree Boys adventures against the twisted, complex true life events happening to Stefan further serves to demonstrate just how wide the divide is between the two. A wonderful technique that Riley uses very effectively in the narrative, especially as the Backtree Boys start to get more realistic in Stefan’s head as the events around him turn convoluted and more dangerous.
Riley has laid out a plot with multiple complications and layers to it. We have a difficult homecoming to a small, bigoted Texas town by a man whose reputation has been soiled by his parents (mother is an alcoholic, dad a traitor). Stefan is out about his homosexuality, not something the town finds acceptable either. The funeral brings out the worst in the family, there are many mysteries that start to pop up, and the author has Stefan following clues and codes from his childhood, just like in his Adventures of the Backtree Boys, but on a much more complicated level and with more profound consequences than being grounded for a week. There are many twists and turns to the plot that serve to frustrate Stefan and the reader along the way, although I have to say I saw the identity of the villain almost from the start. That fact didn’t stop me from enjoying the trail to the finish for Stefan, it just upped the anticipation and anxiety for Stefan’s safety.
I enjoyed the character of the Secret Service agent, Evans, who hounds Stefan every step of the way, including a very hot and sexy rough tumble into bed. His pursuit of Stefan (in more ways than one) was the highlight of the book for me. I enjoyed the tension between them, just delicious. There are also many secondary characters to draw in the readers interest, from Colin the stoner brother with a skateboard empire, to Patrick O’Connor, the patriarch of the family with political aspirations. But my biggest issue with this story hinges solely upon one character and his interaction with Stefan and that would be the character of Chet Blain, the closeted deputy.
Chet almost ruined the book for me. I will admit that part of my reaction to him is that he is well constructed and believable in his actions as a closeted man in a small town in the South who wants to have it all his way. There really is nothing likable about this character from start to finish and I am not sure the author wants us to feel that way. My ambivalence starts with the fact that Stefan has been holding a misguided love for this man all these years and gives in to a sexual act almost immediately upon seeing him again. True Stefan sees the trap in heading back into the closet with Chet, the only way they can be together. And we want to see Stefan hold out against his ex but Chet’s character is all pervasive in scene after scene, until the mere mention of his name on the page had me wanting to flip past just to get rid of him. I think we are supposed to feel some compassion towards Chet but Chet’s actions in the last couple of chapters, as well as Stefan’s reactions, almost found me tossing the book down in disgust. At that point I had a major headache and was ready to bill Riley for a bottle of Excedrin.
I was happy I hung in there because the resolution to all the tangled events in the plot and the ending are worth it. It was so very satisfying to see how it all plays out (with one teensy bit with Chet, really I just wanted to smack him). The ending gives Stefan a strong promise of a HFN or even a HEA. It’s funny and it’s absolutely realistic. I loved it, and this is from someone who loves her HEAs!
There was a previous version of Son of a Gun published by MLR Press that was shorter in length with a different ending. This version, which is the only one I read, is supposedly longer and was rewritten and reedited for Loose Id LLC. I cannot speak for the earlier version, but I can recommend this one. I enjoyed it even through the moments of frustration, and loved the ending. If you buy this book, make sure you have the right edition.
Cover art by April Martinez works well for the story within and the characters involved.