First, I apologize for the long post title. It’s ridiculous. Please let me know if you have a shorter alternative that preserves the specificity!
I don’t normally post romance roundups that are all one gender pairing/combination. But apparently I’ve read and liked a LOT of romance novels where two queer dudes fall in love, and the dude who is in pain finds life easier to deal with now that he has some love and support. So here we are. Hope you find something new to read here, and that it makes you happy!
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Laid-back black British expat Craig Oliver, now living in Seattle, meets abrasive photographer Alex Scheff in a bar. Alex is miserably drunk, Craig gives him a cookie, and if that’s not a metaphor for these guys’ entire relationship, I don’t know what is. Hell, neither of them will even call it a relationship for months, Alex because he’s a burned shell of a man, and Craig because he’s worried about spooking Alex.
Which all sounds quite dismal, I know, but what’s glorious about this book is how hard they both fight for the relationship in their own ways. For Craig, it’s patience and kindness. For Alex, it’s symbolized by the heartbreaking internal repetition of the phrase “This is not that” as he tries so hard to separate Craig’s love from his ex’s toxicity. It’s so clear that Alex and Craig are falling in love for the right reasons, even with Alex’s grief and demolished self-esteem making him almost physically incapable of communicating.
I can’t even begin to explain how gorgeous Reed’s writing is. Craig and Alex have an amazing group of friends who are fantastic secondary characters, including other queer folks, and they’re so important in supporting this couple.
This book includes brief POV scenes from those characters, and they’re sometimes stunningly effective – though sometimes I have to say they’re unnecessary and a little jarring. I don’t hate the concept (especially when Alex’s best friend stages an intervention, and we need to see Alex from outside) but it needed one more editorial pass. My only other complaint about this book would be that Alex’s Evil Ex gets a little too much forgiveness and understanding, IMHO. But I guess I can live with it if that’s what Alex needed.
Diversity note: Reed is queer femme non-binary, generally preferring she/they pronouns.
Alfie’s a successful Londoner, having escaped his hometown for upward mobility. When he’s forced to visit, he has a one night stand with a gorgeous stranger named Fen… who, as it turns out, isn’t a stranger at all. Alfie bullied him throughout high school, back in Alfie’s closeted self-hating days. To make things more complicated, Fen is grieving his mother’s death from Alzheimer’s, which put his theater career on indefinite hold and destroyed his last relationship, so between all that and his resentment of Alfie’s past actions, one would not think these two a likely pair.
Alfie, though, feels strongly compelled to fix things between them, even though he doesn’t have a clue how and honestly has very few skills for relationships. There is a mutual attraction, but not very much else in common, so this ends up being a romance because both parties decide on it rather than being swept away by uncontrollable forces. It’s work to undo the damage between them, construct something else in its place, and then fix that whenever someone makes a mistake that damages it. Alfie has to grow tremendously as a person, which I always love to see in a romance, and Fen has to find a way to let some of his pain go and move forward.
Alfie’s friends are great secondary characters who kick him in the ass when he needs it. The Britishness is strong. All in all, very satisfying.
Diversity notes: Fen says bisexual is the closest label for him, though not a perfect fit. Hall is a gay man.
Gorgeous, quiet M/M romance that struck me as unusual because there was almost no conflict in the relationship, and it was still so rich. College student Liam interrupts his studies and moves home to be close to the uncle who raised him and is now in hospice. While he waits for the end, he takes a job at a tattoo studio owned by Ace, an older veteran. Liam and Ace are immediately attracted to each other, and they get together after only a little will-they-won’t-they. The bulk of the story is how they help each other with their respective difficulties: Liam’s acute grief over his uncle dying, Ace’s niece needing a stable home, and the pain Liam is carrying from the abusive relationship that had previously driven him away from tattooing. It’s gentle and kind, with a strong found family aspect, and deep, true emotions.
My only complaint was the Kindle formatting. Paragraph breaks are often missing, so it’s tough to tell who’s speaking, and there are even words separated in half with spaces. I made it through because the story and characters were so compelling, but YMMV.
Diversity note: Sloane has dysgraphia.
An age-gap D/S romance between the party boy son of a dying CEO, Ash, who is drafted into his father’s job, and Brand, the hyper-competent older man he hires as a valet and personal assistant. Written in approximately a week, the book focuses tightly on the growing attraction and affection between the two men, leaving some areas without detail. (For example, why would an acting CEO never have meetings with other staff, or consult with general counsel, and why would he do his own research?) But the emotional core of the story is so damn compelling, such excellent hurt-comfort and compassionate wish fulfillment, that I could handwave that away.
The writing is dramatic and lovely, and the characters are distinct and compelling. I’ve read several books by McCade now, and this is one of my favorites. I particularly appreciated how both characters explicitly think about the issues inherent in boss-employee relationships, and Ash struggles to act ethically, because a workplace romance is DNF for me when those dynamics aren’t even addressed.
Diversity notes: Ash’s mother is Japanese, his father white American. McCade is Native AmeriBlAsian POC and demibisexual.
I enjoyed just about every book in Avon Gale’s Scoring Chances hockey series, but Empty Net, the fourth book, is the standout. It brings together blue-haired goalie Isaac Drake, a significant secondary character in the previous book, with Laurent St. Savoy, a goalie who in the previous book was part of a rival team that had it in for Isaac’s team and Isaac specifically. Like, way beyond rivalry and into homophobic and physically violent behavior.
What Isaac quickly discovers is that Laurent, whom he nicknames Saint, isn’t evil. His father and former coach physically and emotionally abused him up until the day Saint got away by being traded. Isaac and Saint click, and touch-averse Saint even grows close enough to Isaac to start having sexual feelings for him. (Yep, Saint is demi.) Their relationship may be healing for Saint, but it’s not a magic wand, and both guys finally have to confront Saint’s various issues, including his eating disorder.
It’s such a brave and emotionally raw book, mixed with plenty of sweetness in the quiet moments between Isaac and Saint. Isaac was clearly the kid who would see the outcast on the playground and decide to be best friends with him just because. Saint has so few social skills it’s heartbreaking, no idea how to be someone’s friend, and he’s in so much pain, but Isaac makes space for Saint to be real instead of the jackass persona he projects. Saint may not be okay yet by the end, but he’s making progress, and the distance he covers during the book is awe-inspiring.
Short version: Villain is redeemed, reader is punched right in the feelings.
I think this might be marginally better if you read the preceding book first, Power Play (Amazon / Goodreads), because there’s so much about Isaac there and also you see Saint’s villainy first hand – making it more dramatic when he’s redeemed. Power Play is a solid, sweet book on its own and I quite enjoyed it! But if you have to prioritize, just go for Empty Net. (Books 1 and 2 of the series aren’t related much to this pair, so you don’t have to go back any further for Isaac and Saint.)
Diversity Note: Gale is queer, and she’s written about her own experience with anorexia here.
If angst were alcohol, this book would be 99 proof. I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s so emotional that I teared up a couple of times at scary/sad parts even on my THIRD read, and I love that about it. Garrett Leigh is not afraid to mess a reader up, y’all.
It’s the story of Jed Cooper, a soldier who was thrown out of his house as a teenager for being gay, developed a chronic health condition while enlisted, then got shot and burned and had his best friend die. Jed leaves the Army and ends up rooming with Max O’Dair, a black British expat (Mom was from the Congo) whose sister married Jed’s asshole brother. Max also has a tragic backstory I won’t spoil, but has a good life now in his lakeside cabin, managing his epilepsy with the help of his service dog Flo. (All the treats for Flo, she is precious and wonderful.)
What follows is Jed quietly enduring various kinds of agony, then finally cracking under the weight of grief and letting Max in just a smidge… until he finds out some of Max’s secrets and flips out, ending up in the hospital. That is a huge reality check for both of them about how much they mean to each other and need to communicate, but downside, Jed is now really sick.
It’s a book that shows you can write an effective falling-in-love story without lots of stars, hearts, and romantic tables for two. Jed and Max get closer primarily through the daily routines of living together. Max offers Jed a safe place to heal, both physically and emotionally, and Jed repays that with work, not flowery speeches. It does feels like the story jumps around a little bit once Max and Jed start hooking up, and there are a few scenes that I’m not sure why they’re there, so it could have used a little tightening IMHO. However, the overall relationship arc is solid, and the emotional depth of the hospital chapters (about 40% of the book) always leaves me in awe.
I have a chronic/episodic health condition similar to Jed’s, I really appreciated how he’s portrayed as not wanting to discuss his symptoms with his doctor not because he’s stubborn, but because he’s so burned out on talking about it and then never seeing any improvement. This is SO real.
(Also SUPER interesting here too: Jed’s relationship with his straight best friend Paul. Though Jed says later in the book that falling for Max made him realize he wasn’t in love with Paul, I kinda don’t believe him. Jed and Paul had a non-sexual partnership/romance, and it’s pretty clear to me that Paul’s widow thinks so too, and she’s fine with it. Kinda want an alternate take where Paul did survive…)
This novella will punch your feelings right in the face. It follows Matt, a gay hospital resident who’s messily self-destructing after being abandoned by Joe, his best friend since childhood and the love of his life. After years in a committed relationship with Matt that includes co-ownership of a flat, Joe cheated with a woman so he could go pretend to be straight, settle down, and have kids.
I really hate Joe. Grrrr! Unfortunately, Matt doesn’t hate Joe. He’s still in love with Joe, so much that Matt’s destroying his career by running amok with alcohol, drugs, and dangerous sex with strangers. One night in a club, though, he meets mysterious and reserved Aaron, who… refuses Matt’s attempt to seduce him. Annoying! They do manage to connect when Aaron saves Matt from a beating. It turns out they’re both living with grief, neither ready to begin a new relationship, but neither willing to completely break the connection.
Harper’s writing is SO LOVELY. I suspect she is so magic that she looks at words and they line up in beautiful sentences. Here she uses her powers to make you ache with the weight of Matt’s grief, and break your heart for Aaron when he finally tells Matt his story, and OW IT ALL HURTS but it’s totally worth watching these two guys make something new out of their broken pieces lying all around on the floor. Aaron’s love isn’t the magic wand that fixes Matt’s life, but Matt so desperately needed someone to validate his pain and be on his side, and Aaron gives him that.
Content warning: suicide attempt and sexual assault
A deeply emotional new adult, out-for-you story that’s a cross between a romance and a coming-of-age book. It’s about Colin Mulligan, a deeply closeted gay mechanic who “deals” with his misery and anxiety through drinking, over-exercising, and panic attacks. Rafael Guerrera, a professional social justice advocate, saves Colin from being beaten to death in an alley and begins the slow, painstaking process of winning Colin’s trust.
If you’re the kind of reader who wants to wrap hurting characters in a blanket and give them a sandwich, you will totally want to do that for Colin. He is so twisted up inside that he can barely see, so heads up, content warning for self-harm, suicidal ideation, internalized homophobia, and honestly, Colin acting like a real jackass to other people. Colin needs the care and love that Rafael offers so much, but these guys don’t have an easy road. So proud of Colin when he finally starts moving the right direction, though! And I love that what brings Colin out of his shell, in addition to Rafe’s affection, is bonding with a group of queer kids through volunteering at a youth center. There’s a really good guy inside of Colin and it’s lovely to see that come out.
This is the second book in a series, and while you can absolutely read this as a stand-alone, some scenes are even more emotional if you saw them first through Colin’s brother Daniel’s eyes in In The Middle of Somewhere (Amazon / Goodreads). The blurb sounds a little hipster ridiculous (“honing his muscular body, perfecting his recipes, and making custom furniture”?) but ignore that, it’s not really accurate and it’s a good book.
When I first saw the description for this, I laughed. Really, a firefighter who has to help his friend make porn because the mortgage is overdue? It sounded like such a setup. This is my formal apology to Damon Suede. I was ignorant. I saw the light, and Hot Head will always stand as the romance novel that sold me on reading romance novels.
SO if you have not read it, you should know that Hot Head is a gorgeously written exploration of the grief that is unrequited love – and by love, I mean actual, full-fledged love developed over a decade, not a crush, not infatuation. Firefighter Griff Muir loves his straight coworker and best friend Dante Anastagio, the man who got him through anxiety, depression, and divorce after they both worked the horror of 9/11. There’s literally nothing Griff wouldn’t do for Dante. So when Dante needs Griff’s help to save his beloved fixer-upper, and Griff can’t come up with a better solution, Griff agrees to twist the knife in his heart just a little bit more by doing a porn video with Dante.
For a book about two big, tough guys, this is one of the most emotional romances I have read so far. Watching Griff struggle to move on from the stuck-ness of his personal life while also working to figure out who he is if he loves Dante… oof. So much going on here! Possibly the best first kiss scene ever, too, and a happy ending that’s to die for.
Diversity Note: Suede is a gay man.
For my second time in my romance reading career, a book that I thought had a hilarious premise has knocked me down with real feelings. A dude goes to work at an “erotic gym,” haha, right? Wrong. This is a series that grapples profoundly with the fallout of toxic masculinity for men, especially queer men, and after three books in the series I’m still here for that and for Mac’s journey to healing and connection. Mac shows up at the gym homeless, scared, and in some level of denial about his sexuality, only to run headlong into a culture of total acceptance and affection among the sex workers and managers. He has NO IDEA what to do with that, it’s completely disorienting. If you’re looking for a big dose of hurt-comfort, you’ll get it here.
I will admit by the end of the third book that the repeated structure of (a) Mac has a new kind of sex at the gym with client, then (b) comes “home” and has that kind of sex with someone he trusts, might be wearing a bit thin, but not so much that it detracts from the emotional progression across the books. As Ripper’s bringing out more of the other characters’ experiences and their own hurts and needs, the emotional landscape is only getting richer and more varied.
Bring on book four!
Diversity note: Ripper is genderqueer and prefers the z-based pronouns.
And that’s the list of my favorite romance novels with characters who start out hurting, and end up okay! Hope you found something interesting. If you have any reading suggestions, let me know, and as always, if you found this post helpful, please share it!