new normal coverRating: 4 stars
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Length: Novel

Brian Stagliano and Andrew Fitzroy have been best friends most of their lives. They have grown even closer recently as Andrew battled cancer and Brian was right at his side every step of the way. Now, Andrew is back at work, though not at his dream job of architecture, but working construction. While he likes the work, it is not his passion. However, Andrew is still getting his life back together after his recovery and the idea of finishing his architecture training just seems daunting.

Andrew normally doesn’t drink much, but one night when out with friends, he has a few too many. With a loosened tongue, he shares with Brian that he has feelings for him beyond just friendship. While Brian loves Andrew as a friend, he has never considered more between them. Brian didn’t even know Andrew wasn’t straight, and Brian has never viewed himself as anything other than straight either. The admission sends Brian reeling, but not for long. As he thinks about it, he realizes that there may just be something more to his feelings for Andrew. As the two begin exploring their connection, the heat between the men blooms.

However, while Andrew begins to identify as bisexual and is comfortable coming out, Brian is still not sure where he fits in on the spectrum. The uncertainty makes him begin to question himself and his relationship with Andrew. When their friends get involved, things become even more complicated. Now, Andrew and Brian need to figure out what they are feeling for each other, and if they are ready to move forward together.

I am a huge fan of L.J. Hayward’s amazing Death and the Devil series, a set of high-octane suspense stories. Hayward’s unique approach to the story structure is part of what makes those books so exciting. So I was really curious to see how the author would approach a contemporary without the suspense element. I also tried really hard not to compare this book to the other series, but rather to evaluate the one on its own merits.

I think what worked really well here is the friends to lovers part of the story between Andrew and Brian. I enjoyed watching the friendship move into a relationship, and while we don’t know them long before they are making that transition, I could feel enough of a connection that it worked for me. The guys are sexy together and I liked watching them both explore a sexual dynamic that was new to both of them. I also liked the way Andrew and Brian are there for each other when needed. They count on and depend on each other, and adding a romance to the mix just enhances the feelings they have for each other.

I also think Hayward does a nice job exploring Andrew’s recovery from cancer. He is now cancer-free, but that doesn’t mean everything is over. Andrew is still struggling to figure out his next steps and to start seeing his life with a real future where he can plan and reach for what he wants, rather than just hoping to survive.

Where I struggled somewhat is with the conflict, which largely centers around Brian and Andrew’s group of friends. We meet this ensemble cast from the start and they are pretty involved in all aspects of the storyline. There are a lot of interconnections — Andrew once dated Elle, who is now engaged to James. Brian once dated Andrew’s older sister. Two of the friends are twins. Another two work together. And this cast seems to bring a lot of drama that, at times, I think somewhat overwhelmed Andrew and Brian’s story, or at least drove the book’s conflict.

The biggest issue is one that left me sort of confused as to everyone’s feelings and motivations. At one point, one of the friends mentions to Andrew that they think Brian is gay (this is before he has come out). Apparently there was a misunderstanding, but one told another, who told another… Then later on, the gang is having a feel-good moment and hugging and sharing the love and one guy says to Brian, “And we’ll still love you too, Bri Bri, even if you are gay.” This starts a huge conflict as Brian is really upset and offended, and I just found myself confused. First off, because these friends were nothing but supportive when someone else comes out, so this is presumably not meant to be homophobic or cruel. But who says something like that to a friend? Especially because the excuse is later that he heard that Brian is gay from someone else and just kind of forgot that it wasn’t true? It didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Second, Brian freaks out totally and it leads to a big fight. This was also confusing because I wasn’t clear why he was reacting so severely to the idea of his friends thinking he is gay. I think perhaps Hayward was trying to tie this in to Brian’s desire for some personal clarity on how he would identify on the  LGBTQ spectrum, so he is stressed about it all, but I think a more direct line needed to be drawn between these issues for this conflict to really make sense.

There were some other friend dramas along the way, and I just felt like the story got too drawn into this group rather than focus more on the men themselves. That said, I did enjoy some of the other side characters, particularly Brian’s friends at the hospital who help him sort out his feelings and support him as he works through things.

Overall, I found this one a nice friends-to-lovers story. I liked Andrew and Brian together and enjoyed their relationship, as well as Andrew’s journey to moving forward after cancer. I found there was a little too much drama with their friend circle that distracted somewhat from the main storyline, but overall, I enjoyed Hayward’s foray into contemporary romance.


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