Heart2Heart is an annual anthology that provides proceeds to LGBTQ+ charities. Each anthology centers around the Heart2Heart dating and community app, and this fifth volume has a Never Have I Ever theme. There are fifteen stories in this year’s anthology, each focusing on app users who challenge themselves to do something new and perhaps out of their comfort zone. Given the length of the anthology, I wasn’t able to read all 15 stories for this review, so I am not giving the book an overall rating. However, I did read a wide selection from the anthology, both by some of my favorite authors, as well as some who are new to me.
I really enjoyed this one and was impressed by how even the stories were, which isn’t something you can find in every anthology. The theme played nicely into the stories, without being too heavy handed. My only slight note is that of the eight stories I read, two of them happened to feature flight attendants and two others had pilots as MCs. While it doesn’t reflect negatively on any of the individual stories, it did feel a tiny bit repetitive, especially as I (unintentionally) read the two flight attendant stories in a row. Overall, however, I found this to be a great collection. Given the quality of the stories I read, the great crop of authors, and some worthy charities, I definitely encourage you to give this anthology a try.
Never Have I Ever… by Lucy Lennox (4 stars): Jonah Oliver works for Heart2Heart corporate and has been sent to a small town in Alaska to experience and write about his own “Never Have I Ever” adventure. Things start out a bit rocky between him and his pilot, Pete, as Pete is fairly grumpy and taciturn. And they get even worse when it turns out that Pete is pretty much the only guide in town and ends up leading Jonah on his fly fishing, glacier tour, and other adventures. However, as the men get to know each other, things thaw between them until the attraction wins out. The men spend more time together and feelings are growing strong between them, but Jonah is just in Alaska for vacation and it seems hard to imagine there is more than heartbreak ahead for them.
This is part one of a story that bookends the anthology, so we get only the first half of things between Jonah and Pete here. Lennox sets it up well with grumpy Pete and sunshiney Jonah clashing a bit at first, but quickly finding a friendship and attraction. There is a great sense of setting as Jonah gets to explore some beautiful sights in Alaska. The story has a playful and fun vibe with a nice bit of small town community where Pete and his brothers seem to run half of the businesses. From a relationship end, we get to the point where the guys are in bed together, then it jumps ahead quickly as the story skips over four days in one paragraph, so the move to love felt sort of a whirlwind. But this was a great set up to the series and to the story, and I was eager to read on for the conclusion of their journey.
…. Fallen in Love: This is the second half of Pete and Jonah’s story and it is the very last one in the anthology. We pick up pretty much where things left off at the end of part one. Both men are falling for one another, but they need to figure out if and how they can make things work long term when they live so far apart. It was a little hard to get back into their journey for me after reading so much in between, especially because we pick up so late in their story. I’m not really sure the value in cutting the story in half and picking it back up at the end of the anthology, but this seems to be a convention that Heart2Heart has used in past anthologies as well. However, this last portion does tie things up nicely, even though you have to just go with these guys making major life decisions after only knowing one another a short time.
Never Have I Ever… Ridden a Bike by Alice Winters (4.25 stars): Owen is in love with his long-time best friend and roommate, Lance, but hasn’t gotten up the nerve to confess his feelings. One day, Owen accidentally opens a box meant for their neighbor and when the men go to return the package, craziness ensues. Without going into too much detail, we have a pie-loving gunman, a cat who eats everything in sight (regardless of whether it is food), a very directionally challenged Lance, a bike chase with a novice bike rider in too tight pants, and a whole lot of other fun. If you have read Alice Winters before, the humor and tone of this story are very much in line with her other books. Things are kind of crazy, but also super fun. I will say that the actual “suspense” side of things is pretty tame in the sense that the bad guys are too absurd to really take seriously, so there is never any real sense of danger. But this one is a lot of fun and a sweet friends to lovers story where Owen and Lance finally admit their feelings and have a sweet and sexy happily ever after.
Never Have I Ever… Dyed My Hair Flaming Red by Daryl Banner (3.5 stars): Zakary Tisdale is the stagehand on a play that is about to open. Part of Zakary would love to be an actor, so much so that he has learned every line of the play, but he lacks the confidence to try getting up on stage in front of others. Zakary does take a leap, however, by posting on the Heart2Heart forum and then carrying through with his self-challenge by actually dying his hair bright red. When things start to fall apart with the show, Zakary gets to meet Jonatho Nassar, the famous (and handsome) playwright. The two have a great night together and Jonatho’s support gives Zakary the confidence to step a bit more out of his comfort zone and into what might be a totally new direction for his life — not to mention a new love.
Banner is a new-to-me author so I decided to try out out his writing in this anthology. The story has a nice theme of gaining confidence in yourself, being able to do more than you believe, and taking a chance. Zakary and Jonatho are both likable and I was rooting for Zakary to take those steps forward (though the resolution is pretty telegraphed from early on). The style here didn’t quite work for me as story is written in third-person, present tense, which isn’t my favorite. I typically need some time to settle into this tense/POV combination, which was difficult here given this is a shorter story. Banner uses a lot of passive voice as well, which was often glaringly noticeable to me and led to some awkward phrasing when combined with the POV (for example, “the young stagehand’s cock springs forth” in the middle of a sex scene). The dialog has a lot of drama to it, which gave things somewhat of an over-the-top feel for me. The men only really have a night together, and while Zakary has been admiring Jonatho for a while and knows who he is as a famous playwright, they have never even spoken before the start of the story. Banner makes the smart choice not to try to bring these guys to an HEA here, but more of the picturing their future together. So I think it ties up well and is a sweet story, it just didn’t totally work for me in terms of the writing style.
Never Have I Ever… Worn That for Halloween by E.M. Lindsey (4.25 stars) – Domenico has been in love with his best friend, Shiloh, for as long as he can remember. Shiloh is smart and beautiful and deserves all the best in the world, and Dom is pretty sure that means Shiloh is better off with someone other than him. Dom figured Shiloh would leave town when he finished school for university, but instead, Shiloh has stayed to help his father run their farm. Yet Dom still can’t bring himself to admit his feelings to Shiloh. When the pair are invited to a Halloween party, Shiloh shares a secret desire with Dom about his costume. Dom not only wants to support Shiloh however he can, but can’t help but find it all incredibly hot. The holiday party is a chance for these two to finally open up to each other about their feelings. As always with Lindsey’s writing, the characters are engaging and well developed. I could completely feel this sense of pining and longing between them and the depth of affection they have for one another really comes through. The guys do take most of the story to share their feelings, and perhaps in a longer book this would have gotten frustrating, but the shorter length made the pacing feel just right here. Everyone around these two know they are meant for each other; they just need to take that chance and, when they do, things settle right into place for Shiloh and Dom.
Never Have I Ever… Gotten Lost by K. Webster (4.5 stars) – Webster is another new-to-me author that I decided to try for this anthology and I am so glad I did, as this was one of my favorite stories in the collection. Hunter Black doesn’t understand all these people writing about their experiences getting lost on the Heart2Heart forum; he certainly doesn’t live the type of life that would lead to any kind of adventure like these posters describe. But he does post on the forum and ends up meeting up with Andrew Kraft for the day. Andrew is bubbly, fun, talkative, and free spirited in a way that the much more straight-laced and reserved Hunter can’t help but admire. Something about Andrew inspires Hunter to take a chance and the two set off for the day with no set destination and no plans other than to see where things take them. When they end up getting lost and stranded, it may just be the best experience of both of their lives.
So as I said, I absolutely loved this story. Webster does such a great job setting up these very different men and showing the magic that happens when they get together. Hunter is controlled, reserved, and restrained in his emotions — his exes have all called him cold. Andrew is full of life and energy. He recently lost his parents and they encouraged him to travel the world and explore — and maybe even find love like they did when traveling. He is here in Norway for just that reason. Andrew has high-functioning ASD, and he knows his chatter and his energy are a lot for some people. But for Hunter, Andrew is exactly right. There is some magic here in the way these guys are just a perfect fit. And Webster does such a great job capturing it in the writing. Hunter notes he was too empty for his past boyfriends/girlfriends, but thinks, “Andrew says he’s too much. Well, for someone like me, I greedily want some of his excess.” There is a little bit of a fairy tale feel to this one, a sense of two people being swept away by finding that one perfect person who is exactly right. It is sweet and sexy and a bit quirky and I adored both of these men. Webster pulls together such a well-developed story and wonderful characters in a short novella and I just loved it.
Never Have I Ever… Taken a Vacation by Kate Hawthorne (4.25 stars) – Milo is a travel blogger who writes a popular column called Four-Letter Word, highlighting the two things he enjoys most when traveling — food and fuck. For him, every day is a vacation as he loves his job and gets to travel the world. Milo is on his way to New Orleans for a new story when he meets flight attendant, Jermaine. Jermaine may travel for a living, but he has never had a vacation, as he grew up poor and now his job keeps him too busy. The men have a spark of attraction on the flight and when they encounter each other in the city, they decide to get together for the night. Things are hot and steamy and neither man wants this to be one night only. When Jermaine tells Milo he is poly and has a steady, non-monogamous relationship with his best friend, Gage, Milo is a little uncertain. He has never been a part of a relationship like that, but he knows he doesn’t want to lose a chance at something with Jermaine. Not only that, but he is interested in getting to know Gage as well. When the three of them get together, it opens up possibilities for something more for all of the men.
This is a hot and steamy story with great chemistry between Jermaine and Milo. I liked how both men travel for their jobs, but they have had such different experiences. They have one steamy night together, but it is not nearly enough, so they begin to explore something more — including involving Gage. I enjoyed these guys together and getting a polyamory story in the anthology. My only complaint is that it ends without any real resolution or clarity as to how things will ultimately play out for the three of them. In general, I am fine in a shorter story leaving things somewhat open ended with a world of possibilities for the men. But when things stop so abruptly I find myself checking my kindle twice to be sure I didn’t skip something, that’s a sign to me that I needed more. I would read another story about the three of them in a heartbeat and liked this one a lot.
Never Have I Ever… Flown on an Airplane by Neve Wilder (4 stars) – Beau is a musician heading to Venice for a friend’s wedding. It is his first time on a plane and he is incredibly nervous. Fortunately, the sexy man he meets in the airport bar before the flight is his seatmate on the flight. Jack is a flight attendant and an experienced traveler and he helps Beau relax enough to enjoy the flight. But once they make it to Venice, neither man is quite ready for things to end…
This story has a nice meet cute as the men discuss Game of Thrones in the bar, and then later quote the Say Anything airplane scene to help Beau calm down. We never learn why Jack is going to Venice (or how he is traveling first class), but overall, I found this one fun and sexy and it all comes together really well in the end.
Never Have I Ever…Been on a Date by Tal Bauer (4.5 stars): Cletus is a helicopter pilot in Antarctica. When he finds the jacket of a scientist who went missing, he is asked to go with Damien to search and see if they can learn more about what may have happened to her. Damien has been studying dinosaurs in Antarctica for the last four years and has been crushing on Cletus all that time. Unfortunately, just when he thought he might have a chance with the guy, some miscommunication ruined it all, and things have been awkward between them ever since. But now, the two men must go out into the forbidden Antarctic wilderness to try to learn more about what really happened to the scientist. And what they find could cost them both their lives.
Oh, I loved this one. I am a sucker for anything set in Antarctica, as I find the remoteness both fascinating and terrifying. One of Bauer’s specialties is creating an amazing sense of place and the setting really comes alive in this story. I could really feel the atmosphere of this haunting and beautiful place at the end of the earth. This is a mystery, with a touch of horror, and the story is exciting and thrilling and a bit scary and I just loved it. The tone here is very different than the other stories I read in the anthology, but it is very Tal Bauer and if you have never read his work, this is a great introduction (and fans of Bauer’s will likely love this one). The romance isn’t quite as well developed, as these guys barely spoke to one another before spending a couple hours together a few weeks ago, yet the story suggests they had romantic feelings building for years. So it felt a little fast for the love declarations that come, but overall, I really liked these guys together and absolutely loved this story.