O Come All Ye Kinky, edited by Sarah Frantz

Why I read it:  I picked this one up from NetGalley but Sarah Frantz had already whet my appetite with her Twitter stories of editing hijinks well before then.
Tree Topper by Jane Davitt – B-  Stan and Martin have been together for a while but things have started to pall.  Martin is an inexperienced Dom and thinks that is the reason Stan is pulling away. Things come to a head (pardon the pun) at Christmas when the men finally have a frank discussion and make a new plan.  Essentially, the conflict was a big misunderstanding which is one of my least favourite tropes in romance.  However, in a shorter format, that trope does tend to work a little better for me (less time for me to gnash my teeth) and while I find it frustrating, it seemed believable. When Martin took control (which fortunately was quite early on in the short story) and they began to talk and sort things out, the story became a lot more fun for me.  But I’d keep Martin away from the duct tape myself.  🙂
‘Twas the Night by Ava March – B    Set in 1820, Percy, a barrister’s clerk goes to visit Michael.  Percy loves to submit and Michael gently challenges him to ask for what he wants.  The story is sweet and sexy.  I really liked how Michael got Percy to open up (pardon the pun) about what he wanted and how that led to both men being more forthcoming about their feelings.
Fireworks by Katie Porter- B-  Rachel and Emma have been meeting regularly for two years but New Year’s Eve will be their last night together – Rachel is moving to Tokyo for a 2 year assignment and continuing their long distance relationship is not practical.  Emma wants more but Rachel has refused.  Rachel believes she is not long term relationship material; that eventually everyone will leave her, so she does the leaving first.   I’ve not read very much f/f but I found this story to be sexy and enjoyable (albeit that the tongue biting was a bit ouchy for me) – which, given that I’m a hero-centric reader and there was nary a hero in sight in this story, says something.  I did think that Rachel’s motivation for being so relationship averse was a bit underdeveloped and she did make a quick turnaround in the circumstances, but I think both of those things are probably more about the length of the format.  What I did like especially, was the way it was shown that the pain in their sex play was a quite different pain to the emotional pain Emma was experiencing at the imminent death of their relationship – I’ve probably not worded that well, because it sounds so obvious reading it back, but I can’t come up with a better explanation I’m afraid.
Candy Caning by LA Witt – B  Nate and Stephen have been together for a few years but Christmas is a time of tension because of Nate’s mother’s passive-aggressive viciousness.  Stephen has lost his Christmas joy and Nate holds himself responsible – if he didn’t have to deal with Nate’s mother (“you can do better, Nathan”) Christmas wouldn’t be so stressful.   Stephen is perhaps less bothered than Nate thinks but has picked up on Nate’s own misgivings and devises a clever kinky plan involving a very large candy cane (three feet long and thick as a cock) to take his mind off his problems.  I thought the story did a good job of depicting the compromises we often have to make at Christmas – put up with someone whose company you don’t enjoy/who is actively hurtful and miss out on seeing other family or don’t see them at all? – and the sex was certainly very hot.  The family issues aren’t ones that could be solved short of Nate’s mother disappearing off the face of the earth so the solution they reach isn’t perfect.  But then, what is?
Submissive Angel by Joey W. Hill – A-  I think this was the best of the stories in the anthology.  Robert is a big burly former soldier, now the proprietor of a vintage toy shop.  Six months earlier he had found Ange in the alley by his shop, the victim of an assault. Robert takes Ange to the hospital, offers him a place to stay and a job in the shop.  Ange is sweet and shy, with an affinity for the vintage toys Robert loves and an almost magical knack for communicating with children and patrons of the store. For a little while I wondered if the story was going to take a paranormal turn (because of something Ange says early on about elves) but that wasn’t ever really developed.   The story is deeply erotic and moving, with Ange’s quiet strength and submission reawakening Robert to life and love.  (Robert had been grieving the death of his parents).   I did have a little trouble picturing a big muscly guy wearing suspenders and a bow tie in a vintage toy shop but other than that, the word pictures conveyed in the story were lyrical and lovely.   There was an atmosphere to the story which made it not so much arousing as erotic and somehow… sacred I guess is the word that comes to mind.  After I finished the story, I realised there were some things left undeveloped (a casualty of the short format I think) but during the reading, it was just beautiful.
Open Return by Elyan Smith – B-  Zach (formerly Hannah) returns home to confront ghosts from his past, and to see if anything can be salvaged from his relationship with Laura and Seth.  The trio grew up together (I gather Laura was a kind of foster sister) and Laura and Seth both dominated (then) Hannah and Hannah loved it.  However, Zach was dealing with issues involving his gender/identity and found it necessary to leave Illinois and he took off to Australia.   I’m not sure exactly how Zach funded his transition from female to male (this wasn’t addressed in the story) – to be fair, there wasn’t really room for it, but I kind of felt a little behind, because most of the journey from Hannah to Zach was glossed over and what there was was only in flashback.  It wasn’t something really discussed with Seth and Laura.  However, there was much hotness between the trio and I found the sex scenes to be pretty hot (if a little drool-y) and I had no disconnect between Zach’s male identity and his vagina. I don’t know if I was expecting there to be but I noticed I didn’t have that reaction so I thought I’d mention it. It was only my second trans* romance so I’m hardly an aficionado of the genre but this one worked much better for me in terms of the romantic aspects and I felt the gender and sexual identities of the players were well defined, regardless of what body parts were/were not present.  I wonder if a longer format would have been better though because it seemed there was too much to cover in this story – the ending seemed a little abrupt and while there was an HFN, there was much left unresolved I felt.
Ring Out the Old and In the New by Alexa Snow – B+/A-  Two months prior to the start of this story, Evan was mugged on the (London) Tube and suffered a severe facial laceration.  He’s understandably traumatised and he’s extremely sensitive about his scar.  He was an artist’s model prior to the assault and his physical appearance is something he based much of his self worth on.  On the one hand, I thought that maybe Evan’s extreme sensitivity to his scar was more about the trauma because he didn’t come across as particularly vain and on the other, I’d probably be pretty upset about a significant facial scar so what do I know.   Russell, Evan’s long time partner and Dom, has been treading carefully around Evan since the attack, but in this story, Russell tries a different approach – directing Evan to tell him things and thus allowing Evan some relief in submission.  I thought this was beautifully portrayed actually.  This story came a close second (pardon the pun) to being my favourite in the anthology.  Again, it had an atmosphere of gentle melancholia, great love and sensuality which really got to me.
His Very Last Chance by Kim Dare – B  Kingsley overheard his sub, Drew talking on Christmas Eve and found out that Drew doesn’t think he’s romantic or particularly in touch with his feelings.  Kingsley plans a special New Year’s Eve to show Drew just how romantic he can be.  Drew however, thinks that he has to prove himself to Kingsley on this night (that the last chance of the title is his) and is terrified that he’s going to blow it.  Drew’s realisation during the story of his own deep feelings for Kingsley was a bit of a surprise – I kind of thought he would have known that already and it’s the big misunderstanding again which I generally don’t love.  However, what was very clever and sexy about the story was the way Kingsley made traditionally romantic (and sappy) things into kinky sex toys.   Although I will say rose thorns and penises ought never meet IMO!
Overall: Apart from all having BDSM aspects, the other thing all these stories have in common is that all of the couples are established.  I think short stories work better when the couples start off together and it certainly worked here.  All of the stories were enjoyable, a couple of them exceptional in my opinion and they were certainly all very kinky.

Grade: B

Came Upon a Midnight Clear by Katie Porter

Why I read it:  I have Double Down and Inside Bet on my TBR and I was really excited to see an m/m romance was next up.  I pre-ordered and, after being assured by the Book Pushers that it was a stand alone, I dived in.
What it’s about:  (from Goodreads)  Lights, lovers…action! 
Born to old Virginia money, film producer Kyle Wakefield’s conservative upbringing kept him in the closet. Only once did he venture outside: for a tempestuous teenage affair with Nathan Carnes. When Nathan’s self-destructive streak landed him in prison, Kyle slammed the door on youthful hopes. Despite Hollywood successes, he still hides his true self.

He thought he’d moved on, until his production company hires Nathan and his Second Chances stunt crew to work on the London set of a big-budget action flick. Watching Nathan risk life and limb with fellow ex-cons looking for a fresh start makes it tough for Kyle to keep his desires hidden.

Thirteen years have passed since Nathan’s teenage self-doubt led him to sabotage any chance of a future with Kyle. He’s come a long way since then, but despite their explosive sexual chemistry, Kyle treats their attraction like a deep dark secret.

Their matched Hollywood ambitions and a pain-in-the-ass director make cooperation essential. As the London holiday season casts its spell, the two men find themselves on the verge of falling in love again—even as old secrets and pain keep them shackled. The only hope of unlocking their hearts is a Christmas miracle.

What worked for me (and what didn’t): I’m not sure why this book didn’t work as well for me as I’d hoped it would.  Possibly it suffered from being so close to my reading of the excellent Private Dicks (which is a completely different book so, maybe not).  But, for some reason, I didn’t really connect with the characters. 

Kyle’s reasons to remain in the closet for so long seemed thin to me (to be fair, even he realises this later on) and his assertion late in the book that if only Nate had stuck around Kyle would have come out much earlier was unfair.  I’m no expert on coming out but it seems to me that it should be something done for oneself and not as a result of anyone else.  Just my thoughts.  In any event, it was hardly Nate’s fault.
The book blurb says that Kyle and Nate had had a temporary affair, but they were together in high school for 2 years.  They made plans to run off together.  Plans which turned to custard and led to their breakup.  What exactly happened between the two men all those years before is not really spelled out until the book has nearly finished and during the read I had the sensation that I was repeatedly missing something.  I didn’t understand why Kyle and Nate were the way they were and the pieces didn’t really fit until the explanation was given.  In other stories, this device has worked for me but here, it kept me somewhat confused and at a distance.
There were some oddly worded sentences which jarred.  This is kind of a chicken and egg thing – do I notice the sentences because the story isn’t grabbing me or do the sentences pull me out of the story? I think perhaps it was the former.   Here’s an example of what I mean:  
Kyle’s strokes reaped the fast, throbbing rhythm of the music that was around them, in them, taking over their lungs and blood.
and this:
Yes, he’d be forced to watch that footage again, but Nate’s body heat next to his thigh was a grounding potency.
I’m not sure if this is something to do with two authors collaborating or something else but there were a number of times in the book where I went over and over sentences trying to work them out.
There were also some inconsistencies in characterisation/description which I noticed.  For example, within  the first chapter, Nate is described in these two ways:
Nate had run scared like the fucking stubborn asshole he’d always been.
He’d never been afraid of wielding his sexuality like a machete.
It made it just a little more difficult for me to get a handle on the two main characters.

On the positive side, the sex was super steamy (although I wouldn’t have minded if their reaction on seeing each other for the first time in ten years had not been to fuck like bunnies) and the sense of place throughout the book was very well done.  The scene describing the Christmas pantomime was authentic and fun, as were the other English traditions referred to in the book.
I’m left with the nagging feeling that I’m somehow responsible for my lack of engagement with the story.  It should have worked better for me but it didn’t and I’m sorry but I can’t quite put my finger on why.

Grade:  C+

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