Judge Me When I’m Wrong – Cheryl A. Head (Bywater Books)

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Soooo what have I been doing the past few months that I haven’t even appeared on my own blog? Well, recovering from a nasty breakup with my former publisher, Lethe Press, self-publishing my short story collection he put out of print, and reading for the Publishing Triangle’s Ferro-Grumley award for LGBTQI literature. We had over eighty–count ’em–eighty books to review, so that took up a tremendous amount of time. However, I’m back on as an even a keel as it gets for me, beginning the year’s reviews (albeit a scosh late) with one of my favorite lesbian mystery writers, Cheryl Head, and her latest Charlie Mack Motown Mystery.

As it does for every voter, jury duty comes to Charlie Mack–who can’t help but become involved in the trial she’s on. When she’s not on the watch for suspected jury tampering, she and Gil are also working a case that begins as an investigation of a college student accused of rape. When the supposed rapist comes out as gay, however, things take a different turn. And when the defendant gets wind of Charlie’s investigating the other jury members, things get dangerous in the courtroom as well.

You had me at ‘courtroom drama,’ because I’m old school and grew up on Perry Mason reruns–a sucker for relentless cross-examinations followed by angry and/or tearful confessions. And Head doesn’t fail to create great tension during those scenes. The exchanges are tough and terse and never get bogged down with extraneous stage directions. Head knows that the best writers gather their characters in a room and then butt out, letting them play off each other.

Interestingly, Head uses the post-climax lull to make a change in her cast of regular characters. I won’t say more for fear of spoiling it, but the move is savvy as hell because it promotes a great character who has been in the series from the beginning and says goodbye to another. Like one of my other favorite lesbian mystery writers, J.M. Redmann, Head is not afraid to shake things up to keep them fresh for herself as well as the reader.

Head is hitting her stride with this series, and it’s a treat to watch her work. I’m very much looking forward to the next one.

JW

© 2020 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Bodies and Barriers: Queer Activists on Health – Adrian Shanker (Editor), Kate Kendell (Afterword), Rachel L. Levine (Foreword) (PM Press)

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Given the progress we’ve made toward LGBTQ+ equality, and the growth of queer visibility in mainstream politics and culture in the new millennium, surely our communities are enjoying a better quality of life, aren’t they?

AIDS prevention and treatment has reversed the rise of annual new HIV infections among gay and bisexual men. Transgender people, who once were served by a handful of providers in San Francisco or New York City, have access to trans-specific services in many areas of the country. Hospitals are implementing culturally competent practices and policies to earn coveted rankings in the Human Rights Campaign’s Healthcare Equality Index. State laws have made harmful, coercive conversion therapies an ugly relic of the past.

That ought to have benefited our overall health and wellness, right?

The answer from queer educators on the front lines is new contexts have created new challenges, and many of the historical disparities within our communities are still in high need of amelioration, impacting transgender and rural and older and brown-skinned and HIV+ people. If you believe health care is a fundamental human right, which the authors of Bodies and Barriers rightfully argue that you should, we still have much to overcome in order to realize queer social justice. As black feminist civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer put it: “Nobody’s free until everyone’s free.”

I worked and occasionally researched and published on queer health issues for close to three decades, so I can say it’s always been up to us as queer people to study, document, write about, advocate, and create programs that respond to unserved needs in queer communities. The authors in Shanker’s collection of scholarly articles stand on the shoulders of pioneers like social worker Dr. Joyce Hunter and pediatrician Dr. Gary Remafedi whose research in the 1980s brought to light the terrifyingly vulnerable status of LGBTQ+ teenagers and established the first standards of care, just to name a few.

Thus, as a textbook on queer health written by queer researchers and professionals in the field, Bodies and Barriers is not new or unique in its approach. In fact, in positioning the collection as an effort to uplift queer activism, the editor and foreword author’s lack of regard for historical context is a missed opportunity that would have made an even stronger case for the necessity of marginalized communities to agitate and organize for change. Where would we be without the bravery of trans activists Jamison Greene and Leslie Feinberg, lesbian feminist Jackie Winnow, who used her personal battle with breast cancer to fight for lesbian-welcoming cancer care, Marsha Johnson who co-founded the Sylvia Rivera Project to protect and advocate for transgender people of color, and Larry Kramer and ACT-UP’s urgent social action in the early years of the AIDS crisis?

Still, what gives Bodies and Barriers exciting impact is the upfront self-identification of the authors, particularly those who share their personal experiences navigating health care as a queer person. Within the staid norms of academic research and publishing, that’s actually quite revolutionary. Shanker’s volume makes a convincing case that authorship matters in health scholarship. If you want to understand what’s going on in our communities as a health care provider, you need to check your privilege and listen to your patients’ voices and experiences.

The topics covered are comprehensive and grouped across the lifespan. Katharine Dalke, an intersex physician, speaks to the history of doctors making decisions about intersex bodies without considering the child and parents’ wishes and the power of intersex people organizing to create better, patient-centered practices. Transgender advocate Preston Heldibridle writes passionately about the lifesaving practice of binding for transmasculine and nonbinary people. Genderqueer public health researcher Kate Luxion discusses ongoing discrimination against LGBTQ+ patients in the area of family planning.

Throughout, the authors talk about the impact of encounters with health care providers, both good and bad. In writing about a public health campaign to educate men-who-have-sex-with-men about anal health, Shanker raises the need for greater “cultural humility” among non-queer primary physicians, an idea that surely resonates with many of us who have sat in examination rooms, withholding the realities of our sexual lives for fear of judgment.

On the other hand, parent advocate Alisa Bowman shares how profoundly her transgender son’s life changed when she found an LGBTQ health clinic for his care, and from the waiting room to the exam and consultation with physicians, her whole family felt welcomed and accepted.

The queer umbrella encompasses so many social locations, it would be impossible to include every one of our experiences in one text. But Shanker does quite well covering that landscape with articles that address geography (the ongoing challenges of isolation and stigma for rural lesbians), aging populations (how do we address caretaking for older LGBTQs lacking family support and outliving their chosen families?), and bisexuals and their mental health and reproductive health needs. Furthermore, there are articles that illuminate both the challenges and opportunities in our increasingly digital culture, such as Jackson Harrison-Quintana’s “Sex and safety in a digital age.”

This is a collection that will be validating to many queer readers and helpful and thought-provoking for all health care professionals.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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Paper Cuts: My Life in Chicago’s Volatile LGBTQ Press – Rick Karlin (Rattling Good Yarns Press)

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In 1978, at the age of 25, Rick Karlin was asked by Sarah Craig (then editor of the Chicago newspaper GayLife), the following question, a question that would determine his life-path: “Do you think you could do it?”

The question was in response to Karlin’s mention that he missed the cooking column that had run in GayLife—when point blank asked if he would take it on, he replied (to his own surprise) that he would give it a try.  So try he did. From 1978 to 1982, he wrote a cooking column as “The Gay Gourmet.” In 1982 he began working at Gay Chicago magazine, writing serials, reviewing theater, eventually becoming a entertainment editor for their “After Dark” section in 1988. In 1996, he moved to another Chicago publication, Nightlines, and also began broadcasting on Chicago’s “LesBiGay Radio” program. Until 2016 Karlin would be involved in some fashion with Chicago LGBTQ media, be it print, radio, and/or web, as he writes in his memoir Paper Cuts:  My Life in Chicago’s Volatile LGBTQ Press.

Karlin may insist that he himself is no “A-List” Gay or “mover or shaker” but there is no denying that he walked in some rarefied circles: many of the “names” of Chicago LGBTQ media during the 1970s through the early 2000s were people he worked for, or with, or at least knew professionally. Many of them were eventually inducted into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame, as evidenced by the inclusion of their bios from chicagolgbthalloffame.org into the text of Paper Cuts (Karlin himself was inducted in 1997).

But Karlin’s memoir is much more than a tell-all exposé of Chicago’s LGBTQ press over the course of 30+ years: he could have titled it simply Paper Cuts: My Life, since he devotes as much ink to his own life as to the goings on at various Chicago media. Amid all of the newsroom drama (and there was plenty of that!) Karlin intersperses all of the changes in his own life:  divorcing his wife; helping to raise his son; coming out to his family; moving; changing various day jobs; gradually becoming more active among the Gay community; meeting men, including his husband Gregg; earning a Master’s degree. His memoir also records the impact of numerous historical events upon him, the LGBTQ community, and LGBTQ media–for example, the deregulation of AT & T in 1982 led to the “proliferation of independent phone companies offering a variety of services”–i.e., phone sex lines. Phone sex lines further proliferated due to the AIDS epidemic; but they were a boon to many LGBTQ publications, providing them with much needed advertising revenue. (The rise of Internet porn in the late 90s/early 00s would lead to the drying up of this revenue stream.)

Karlin may also insist that he was no journalist; nevertheless, he had a privileged view of history as it occurred, both nationally and regionally. What is also true is that what he himself lived is also part of that same history:  how he lived, loved, and survived, all the minutiae of living in Chicago as a Gay man during the end of the twentieth century, is just as valuable reading as the other events he records.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Falling – Trebor Healey (University of Wisconsin Press)

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A lot has happened between Trebor Healey’s fantastic, dark and trippy short story collection Eros and Dust (Lethe Press, 2016) and his latest, the beguiling literary feat that is Falling (University of Wisconsin Press, 2019). The worst of America has bubbled to the surface like an effervescent tar, staining the globe and leaving multitudes gasping in despair. The activism that Healey dove headfirst into as these endless political calamities erupted, working with refugees seeking asylum and reporting on their plight, has deepened his art. Rather than retreat inward, pulling down a smoky curtain of opium and waiting until reality improves, his stories rush to the “other” and contain not only a smoldering political urgency, but one grounded in the profundity of how the most valuable of literature has always grappled with such concerns.

The reader knows from the immaculate first story, The Fallen Man, that they are in the hands of a master craftsman as the main character struggles with amnesia in a country not his own, wrapped in fluttering prose reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. That this story offers no redemption but rather beautiful, painful knowledge is an indicator of all to come. Healey is a traveler, not a tourist. There are no white saviors here. As these stories, for the most part, unwind across Central and South America, their linkage becomes clear: we are all adrift in the world and the fractured relationships we forge might not lead to the outcomes we imagine or desire. In the first-person story, Ghost, the unnamed protagonist has the kind of raw relationship with a heroin-using male prostitute that moves beyond sex and into the seamless obsessions that fester to the surface when we find ourselves alone in other countries, those countries often being books, not places. The road-ready jazz of Kerouac pervades, ambling alongside the more visionary reach of Chilean novelist Roberto Bolańo and the English writer Jeanette Winterson, whose work is quoted throughout Ghost. There is no time to be coy in this age of information -no, make that this age of anxiety; our influences are best placed front and center, or, in the words of Winterson, “(t)true stories are the ones that lie open at the border.”

Jorge Luis Borges gets namechecked in a story or two, and the imprint of his labyrinthine imagination is a well-felt influence throughout the collection; as the complexities of cities and cultures unwind, as artists struggle with love and personal loss, and wanderers fail to find themselves but do find others. One short story in particular, Spirited Away, is a verdant meditation on loss and relationship:

Vic never went back to the village, and after that, he painted Henry, and he painted hongos, and he painted a woman and the road and the waterfall that he had never actually seen and didn’t care to. He considered it Henry’s private place. As was his tendency, he painted figuratively until the figures turned into forms and then to abstractions so that you would never be  able to tell that the vortexes he was fashioning were made of plants and a waterfall and Henry -and the square and its chairs and old men, and even the colonial buildings of Oaxaca and the ruined temples of the Mixtec and the Zapotec.

The closing novella, The Orchid, is a deep dive into Argentinian political machinations and personal manipulations reminiscent of Yukio Mishima’s plotting from his exquisite middle period. The overlay of heterosexual politics and gay lives as homosexuality gains as a commodity in the world is something of a new topic to be tackled by literature, and is done so here deftly and the reach of the story and multitude of characters, some sketched deeply with only minor appearances, hints that this was intended as a longer work but found authorial satisfaction in its current shape and form.

Trebor Healey’s short story collection, Falling, is recommended primarily as a work that far exceeds the reflexively introspective grasp that is current gay literature. Following the immortal urging of E. M. Forester that we “only connect,” Healey’s stories do so and with great daring, political acuity, and a genuine interest to see and hear and feel other cultures as they are, not as how they exist in relation to the fetid living corpse that is the dis-United States.

Reviewed by Tom Cardamone

More on Trebor Healey’s activism: https://www.newsweek.com/inside-migrant-caravan-we-have-room-these-amazing-people-opinion-1211851

Tom Cardamone is the editor of Crashing Cathedrals: Edmund White by the Book, and is the author of the Lambda Literary Award-winning speculative novella Green Thumb as well as the erotic fantasy The Lurid Sea and other works of fiction, including two short story collections. Additionally, he has edited The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered and The Lavender Menace: Tales of Queer Villainy! You can read more about him and his writings at www.pumpkinteeth.net.

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This Town Sleeps – Dennis E. Staples (Counterpoint Press)

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Part ghost story, part multi-generational family saga, Dennis E. Staples’ This Town Sleeps is an impressive debut that explores the human struggle between hope and despair in a modern indigenous community.

Marion Lafournier is a young bookkeeper of Ojibwe descent who lives alone in northeastern Minnesota. Cynical and alienated, he’s the product of an isolated, economically depressed “rez” town Geshig and one of very few openly gay men in a lonely, rural landscape. While searching for a path to companionship that might extend beyond roadside, middle-of-the-night sexual affairs with closeted married men, Marion becomes entangled in two intrigues.

The first is personal. A Grindr “date” turns out to be a former high school classmate Shannon, who vehemently denies his gayness but displays chinks of affection during a late-night rendezvous. The second is more expansive. At a school playground, Marion discovers a dog of childhood legend that leads him to the gravesite of a promising high school basketball player Kayden Kelliher who was stabbed to death by a gang member. Marion was too young to know much about Kayden and his murderer Jared, but Kayden’s name triggers memories of rumors and a restless schoolmate Amos whose brother was in the older boys’ social circle.

From there, the story becomes a history of the men and women who survived the community trauma, alternating with Marion’s journey. Jared, Kayden and the mothers of all three boys enter the narrative to tell their stories leading up to Kayden’s death. But the exact circumstances of the murder are left ambiguous, too awful to speak of, suggesting hidden truths buried beneath a collective shame.

Secrets within Marion’s family also unravel when Marion seeks guidance about the revenant dog from his mother Hazel and her new husband Anni. That spiritual encounter may be linked to a supposed family curse originating from the murder of a white man by Marion’s great-grandmother. A “forest woman” called Bullhead, his great-grandmother is an emblem of the family’s Native identity and the fierce nature of their women. After killing a man who tried to force her into marriage, she allegedly carved out his jaw and preserved it for some mysterious purpose.

Staples brings the reader into a world of rich spiritual beliefs and practices while his storytelling also contextualizes Ojibwe identity. Marion’s stepfather Anni is a traditionalist who keeps a sweat lodge, brews elixirs, and takes Marion’s otherworldly encounter at face value. For young men of Marion’s generation, acculturation to the white, non-rez community has imparted a sense of skepticism about things like ghosts and visions. Returning to the rez and eating the traditional foods of his childhood conjures a mixture of feelings. The rez represents poverty, broken homes, boys recruited into violent gangs, and children already addicted to pot and alcohol. People joke about Geshig as a place no one ever escapes. It’s the reason Marion lives miles away and hooks up primarily with white guys like Shannon.

Honest storytelling makes for high impact reading, and with This Town Sleeps, Staples bares body and soul in sharing Ojibwe realities. One cannot help feeling the pain and sadness of everyone concerned with the central tragedy of Kayden Kelliher. They are all caught up in a cycle of desperation, violence and grief. Kayden was one of many Ojibwe boys pulled under an insuperable tide of poverty and corruption. Still, without spoiling any revelations, Staples offers readers another essential truth: loss can lead to redemption and renewal when examined bravely.

Staples is experimental with narrative structure, breaking up scenes from Marion’s perspective with frequent change-ups of point-of-view, even introducing first-person passages toward the end. It’s a helpful way to bring in information about Kayden that Marion wouldn’t know. Moreover, it gives voice to varied members of the small town Ojibwe community and broadens that world.

A minor discontent is the scene shifts feel scattered at times and break connection to Marion’s experience. It’s a tough balance, and the shifts will work fine for some readers while occasionally frustrating others.

Taken as a whole, This Town Sleeps is an important work of literature that will surely please readers who enjoy #OwnVoices titles, Native stories, and dark mysteries in the vein of Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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The Black Marble Pool – Stan Leventhal (ReQueered Tales)

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Imagine that you are “vacationing” in Key West. Normally a music reviewer, you have agreed to write a travel article about Key West for the New York-based newspaper that you work for. You dutifully fly down to Key West, check into an exquisite B&B, and after you wake up your first morning there (before your morning coffee even!), you discover a dead man in the empty black marble swimming pool. What do you do?

Well, if you are the unnamed first person narrator of The Black Marble Pool by Stan Leventhal, you completely place your journalistic responsibilities—and your plans to get laid in one of the few gay Meccas of the 1990s—on hold, and become an amateur sleuth. Although you have no experience solving murders (maybe it was an accident? or possibly a suicide?) you do have an insatiable curiosity, and you know how to ask questions; the other characters trust you, since you have no obvious connection to the victim. However, what starts as a diversion during your working vacation quickly turns into more than you bargained for.

Although this particular murder mystery is short, the pace is brisk: the plot keeps twisting, as no one is at all who they seem. Everyone (the victim, the other guests of the B&B, the B&B owner and pool boy, the closeted police officer assigned to the case) has a secret, and either is living some kind of lie, or lies to the narrator; even the narrator is not above lying to his lover back in New York, or inventing stories about the celebrities he’s “met” as a music critic and sharing them with the other characters. The story (and the narrator) may not be very deep or intense, but it’s all in good fun, like a mini vacation from one’s job (which is exactly how the narrator treats his entire stay in Key West: a break from his job, his relationship, in short, his entire life). Part of the fun is getting a glimpse of Gay life during the early 1990s, after the scourge of the 1980s, and before all of the technological advances that are now ubiquitous and completely taken for granted (never mind wi-fi or smartphones; there isn’t even any mention of the World Wide Web or cell phones).

ReQueered Tales is committed to bringing back into print the “treasure trove of fantastic fiction…notably gay and lesbian mystery, detective and suspense fiction”–especially written during the period of the 1960s through the 90s.  To that end, they have begun reprinting series of gay mysteries and thrillers (another Leventhal title is due out in 2020), from forgotten writers as well as lesser-known titles by such names as Felice Pacino and Lev Raphael. So if you find The Black Marble Pool to your liking, they have more titles for you to (re)discover.

So, do you manage to solve the mystery? Do you manage to score with any of the other guests—if so, which ones? Will you meet a cute trick at Woody’s or Streets—or do you make it with the cute police officer? Will you ever write this travel article? And what are you going to tell your lover when you return to New York?

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

 

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‘Nathan Burgoine’s 2019 Audiobook Review

(‘Nathan not pictured. This is Max.)

Ever since Max entered our lives, I’ve been listening to even more audiobooks than normal. A young husky demands far, far more walks than an adult husky does, and so we’re often out and about, tromping through all sorts of weather. Luckily, my phone and some earbuds turn this into valuable listening time (and it turns out I routinely break 50 kilometres a week doing so—that’s thirty-odd miles for the imperials among us).

This year, Max’s walks treated me to some great audiobook experiences. Not always new (but new to me), here are a few of the real queer highlights of 2019, and some brief words about each.

Beautiful Dreamer, by Melissa Brayden (performed by Melissa Sternenberg) — Brayden accomplishes something I honestly thought impossible with Beautiful Dreamer: she gave me a familial reconciliation plot that I not only enjoyed, but rooted for. Elizabeth Draper is a little ball of sunshine in a small town running her own helping-hand/Jane-of-all-Trades business, and Devyn Winters is a high-powered real estate broker from the big city. Devyn’s brought back to Dreamer’s Bay after a family crisis, and Elizabeth helps her pick up the pieces. Beyond the family reconciliation plot, Brayden also does a brilliant job of depicting a small town without over-sugaring the realities, she continues to evoke wonderful, supportive friendships as equal to families, and I am here for all of that.

(Melissa Sternenberg is, as always, brilliant in her performance, and has done many of Brayden’s audiobooks, including the Seven Shores quartet.)

Not Dead Yet, by Jenn Burke (performed by Greg Boudreaux) — I love a fun paranormal, and Jenn Burke delivers a fresh take on the genre here, and Greg Boudreaux’s performance is top-notch. We meet not-quite-dead (but, not-quite-alive, either) “not-ghost” retriever of lost things, Wes Cooper, when he’s really not having a good day. He’s been hired to reclaim a stolen object, and stumbles into a murder mystery. Worse, despite him being invisible and ghostly at the time, the murderer seemed to be able to see him. When one of the only guys he’s ever loved becomes the lead investigator, things get all the more complicated, and the banter, snark, and mystery all balance out into a great story. It begins a series with the fellas, too, so there’s more where that came from.

Four Novellas, by Alyssa Cole (performed by Karen Chilton) — These four historical novellas, “Be Not Afraid,” “That Could Be Enough,” “Let Us Dream,” and “Let It Shine,” cross different time periods in US history and are all fantastic, but to keep it queer, “That Could Be Enough,” where quiet, staid, done-with-love Mercy Halston (maid to Eliza Hamilton) and a vivacious, flirtatious and gregarious dressmaker Andromeda Steil end up in each other’s orbits was flipping brilliant. I love stories that place queerness in history with equal parts hope and passion, and all the more so when done with Cole’s eye for detail and history. Every time someone says it’s impossible to tell uplifting stories about the marginalized in history without doing some sort of disservice, I bring up this quartet. And as if that weren’t enough, Chilton brings such an incredible performance to each of these stories she immediately hopped onto my “check out anything and everything she performs” list for future audiobooks, which was also how I found the contemporary Once Ghosted, Twice Shy, also by Cole.

Never the Bride, by Paul Magrs (performed by Joanna Tope) — This was the Bride-of-Frankenstein-settles-in-Whitby-to-run-a-B&B novel I never knew I needed, but desperately did. Older women buddy heroines fighting off the various (and delightfully sci-fi pulp) villains coming their way was a sheer joy to listen to, and Joanna Tope blows every moment out of the water with her performance. The structure of Never the Bride is all the more wonderful to listen to in pieces, as each chapter is quite self-contained, almost like a series of linked short stories, while building to a single climax. This is definitely one in the “not new, but new to me” pile, and I wish I’d bumped into it years and years ago, and while the main characters aren’t specifically queer, the story as a whole is so incredibly so, and supporting cast pop in and out.

Queers Destroy Science Fiction, edited by Seanan McGuire — There are some truly fantastic stories in this collection, and ditto the variety of performers. There were a couple of mis-matches of the two, but overall this collection was fantastic. If you’re looking for an upbeat whole, be forewarned that QDSF definitely comes down on the darker side of the scale, with a few stories peppered throughout to offer lighter, more optimistic takes, but the quality is worth the ride. Maybe just listen when the sun is out, and there’s a happy husky playing at your feet. J.Y. Yang, John Chu, Charles Payseur, and Jessica Yang penned four of the major standouts for me, and led me down rabbit-holes to find more of their work.

The Inn at Netherfield Green, by Aurora Rey (performed by Kiera Grace) — Aurora Rey audiobooks are the audiobook equivalent of putting on a warm sweater and finally sipping a hot tea on a chilly rainy day. The Inn at Netherfield Green made me break my usual pattern of only listening to books while walking the dog, and I listened to it throughout the day, indoors and out, from beginning to end. Rey spins a wonderful story using both opposites-attract and city-mouse/country-mouse tropes, giving us Lauren, a big-city New York advertising executive and Cam, a small-town English gin-maker. Rey creates realistic obstacles (not the least of which is the thousands of miles between their lives) when Lauren inherits the small-town pub and inn. Family, friendships, and chemistry round this out into the feel-good it becomes, investing the listener from step one.

This was just the most recent of a long string of audiobook successes I’ve had from Aurora Rey, including her Cape End Romance series, and her farm-to-table romance, Recipe for Love.

Reviewed by ‘Nathan Burgoine

 

 

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