A lot can change in 17 years and when those years are spent behind bars, the outside world can seem radically different. But Herschel Wood, Jr. is willing to do whatever it takes to stand on his own two feet. If he manages to salvage his reputation as a tattoo artist and find love along the way, so much the better. With the support of his former cellmate, Bishop, Wood begins his life anew at 46 years old. He’s working as a janitor and living in shared trailer with another of Bishop’s close friends. It is just supposed to be a temporary thing while he sorts out his past and makes plans for the future. But when Wood meets his new roommate, Trent, those plans expand to include a new relationship.
Luck never seemed to be in the cards for Trent Armstrong. The only father figure he really had disappeared without a trace. When he was put behind bars for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, his lone friend in the joint, Bishop, was transferred to another facility, leaving Trent alone. And now, a few years later, it all seems to be happening again. Bishop has moved on and moved out of their shared trailer so that he can be with the man of his dreams. Trent is sure the next tenant will be itching to get away too and he can’t help but take it personally. He decides it’s better to keep any new tenants at arm’s length. But Trent didn’t count on how fascinating an older man like Wood would be. Wood has a lot of baggage…can Trent let down his guard enough to love Wood, even when the older man’s history rears up time and again?
Wood is a contemporary, standalone novel set in the same universe as A. E. Via’s book, Bishop. This story works well as a standalone. I have not read Bishop and, although the eponymous character appears fairly frequently in this story, I never felt like I was struggling to understand how Bishop fit into Wood and Trent’s story. The book is told in alternating third person omniscient with little subheadings to clearly indicate the perspective of the narrative. If nothing else, I think this technique helped me keep track of the POVs.
First off, I think it’s interesting to see this type of age gap and to have that compounded with both main characters having spent some length of time incarcerated. Via does touch on the fact that the world moves on while someone is in prison and that adjusting to the outside world can be tough, though it’s not a huge part of the action or messaging. That said, it was fun to think about Wood being 46 years old. Wood seems to see himself as an older, more experienced person. It certainly seems to inform his initial thoughts about who would be a suitable romantic or sexual partner. That said, the culture shock comes across primarily in the way he cannot understand gaming culture.
Conversely, Trent is 29 and apparently he spent far less time behind bars. He doesn’t seem to have any culture shock, but does try to protect himself from any sort of abandonment by relegating Wood to “old man“ territory early on. I thought this was great because it made me think about how age is often represented in M/M romance. I get the impression that 29 is not generally seen as very young in typical romances, but in this book, Trent acts and seems very young. Not necessarily immature, but also not very well versed in relationships. At the same time, Trent’s extreme reactions also feel a bit…predictable. It’s almost as if he goes out of his way to expect the worst situations absolutely at face value. I guess it’s sort of poetic justice that Wood does the same thing once in the book (and it’s about pizza toppings and how everything is a lie because of it). So…melodrama fans have a lot to enjoy here. I liked most of it, as well, but sometimes I just wanted these two to be able to discuss food without having a blowout.
For readers who like spicy books, there is plenty to enjoy here. There is a bit of a slow burn between the two main characters, and because Trent clearly and unequivocally sees Wood as a Christian old man at first, there is an element of enemies to lovers. In other words, a lot of good tropey fun. I also want to make it clear that Trent only recently came to terms with the fact that he is bisexual, if not outright gay. Trent’s orientation wasn’t explicitly mentioned, but he was previously in a relationship with a woman and they broke up when Trent realized he might be attracted to men. This all happens well before Wood enters the picture, but Wood is the first time Trent gets to actually experience attraction to, for, and with another man. And Trent comments about how different (and more satisfying) he feels in his attraction to Wood. In retrospect, I don’t think Trent’s self discovery got as much attention as I would have liked. In the heat of the moment, there were a few comments about how glad they were that Wood can be Trent’s first man-on-man experience (which, ugh, but that’s me). There were a few brief mentions from other areas as well, like Trent’s best friend/boss. But overall, I thought this aspect of their relationship and of Trent as a character was pretty undefined.
The lack of focus on Trent’s sexual self-discovery is connected to my one real criticism of the book: I thought the story explored Wood on page in far more detail and depth than it did for Trent. Readers find out the who/what/why Wood was in prison, his life before that, and some of the fallout from his being released. We even meet his homophobic parents. By contrast, I don’t think I really got the same level of detail about Trent. Certainly, his history is not as richly described as Wood’s. For example, the narration about Wood includes several scenes that involve Wood’s AA sponsor, trips to various locales associated with the crime that put him behind bars, interactions with people involved in that crime, and a visit to (and from) his ex-boyfriend. But Trent gets virtually none of this. Taken together, I feel like Wood was far more rounded and complex as a character. What depth Trent lacks is sort of made up for in how consistently he behaves. There’s the melodrama reactions, but also his general “chip on his shoulder“ attitude as well. And that’s something Wood likes about Trent, so it’s a bonus for Trent as a character, too.
Overall, I think fans of A.E. Via’s work will enjoy this title. Readers who liked Bishop will certainly enjoy this follow up, too. I like that there are some familiar tropes being used in combination with somewhat atypical characters (i.e. men who made it through the American justice system). Fans of age gap stories will enjoy watching the older Wood with a younger Trent and everyone who likes spicy stories will enjoy the slow burn that, once it ignites, stays hot through to the end.