This is a round up of the books I read on the 1st quarter of this year that I’m too lazy to do a full review.
Big Bend Texas Rangers: Never Stay Gone – Tal Bauer
Six bodies in a single grave… in the same West Texas country where Dakota left everything behind.
Every beat of my heart belongs to you.
Thirteen years ago, Dakota Jennings thought he’d found his forever when he fell in love with Shane Carson. But one afternoon shattered their love story, and both Dakota and Shane left Rustler, Texas, with broken hearts. Even now, Dakota is still feeling the agony of losing Shane. Sure, he’s a Texas Ranger, but that’s not how he wanted to live his life. All he ever wanted was to love Shane.
Loving you is the only time I feel alive.
Shane’s life was supposed to be different than this. There’d been a plan, ever since he was knee-high to his father. But falling for Dakota spun Shane’s world upside down, and for years, Shane has had nothing but the memories of all that he lost: Dakota’s gentle touch, and the sweetness of his lips, and the star-strewn nights they spent wrapped in each other’s arms.
West of the Pecos, there is no law.
When the Rangers get the call about six bodies being pulled out of a mass grave in West Texas, the governor sends Dakota to run the investigation. Dakota heads back to his hometown and comes face-to-face with the last man he ever expected to see again: only now, he’s Deputy Shane Carson… Dakota’s local partner assigned to the case.
There’s nothing Dakota wants more than a second chance with Shane, but so much is stacked against them: six corpses, a murderer on the loose, and history that refuses to stay buried. And the bodies keep piling up as Dakota and Shane try to run the killer down across the West Texas plains.
In a moment, everything changes: the hunters become the hunted, the past fractures, and all Dakota thought he knew comes tumbling down. Secrets break wide open as Dakota remembers–
This is West Texas, and out here, nothing is as it seems.
Big Bend County is a place of beauty and desolation, of secrets and small towns. Where the past and the present collide, and where nothing stays hidden forever.
This MM romantic suspense is the first in the new Big Bend Texas Rangers series. Come along for the West Texas sunsets, the heart-pounding thrills, and the hard-won Happy Ever Afters.
Never Stay Gone is the first book of the romantic suspense, police procedural series, Big Bend Texas Rangers. The Texas Rangers are the badass officers who patrol the West Texas desert areas up to the border.
The story opens with Deputy Sheriff Shane Carson stumbling upon a grave of six women in various stages of decomposition. With talks of a serial killer being bandied about, the Texas governor tasks ex-military Texas Ranger and, also her personal guard, Dakota Jennings to investigate.
Shane and Dakota were friends turned secret boyfriends back in high school. Shane broke things off because of pressure from his over-bearing dad just when Dakota was about to tell him of his plans after they graduated. With his world crashing down around him, Dakota disappeared. After 13 years, he’s back in Big Bend, a changed man but somehow still in love with the same boy.
This book has all the hallmarks of what I have come to recognize as the Tal Bauer style. There’s the thrilling suspense, the twisty-turny plot, people in high places with the dirtiest secrets, the swoony second chance romance, the mysterious pivotal event the characters agonize over but would turn out to be different from what their internal monologue seem to convey. Let’s not forget the amazing John Solo emoting the heck out of everything.
I loved how it was done in The Murder Between Us and The Night Of. Both of these were rated 5 stars. Here, it took me a while to get into the story. The opening chapters weren’t hooking me as much as I wanted them to. Descriptions of landscapes tend to make my eyes gloss over from boredom. I was propelled by John Solo’s performance. I’m glad I stuck around because things picked up once the investigation started.
Drama was on an all-time high, with many highly emotional scenes. And when the tears came, they kept on coming. This is quite possibly, the weepiest MM romance I’ve ever read! Waterworks from manly men could be deeply moving but very annoying when they start bawling at every other scene. Shane, in particular, was very weepy. The guy had it rough but jeez!
Shane was the golden boy, the quarterback, and his dad’s only hope of reclaiming the family legacy. He lived under his father’s thumb, his entire life already planned out by the older man. His only act of rebellion was his relationship with Dakota.
After his football career fizzled out, Shane worked as the deputy sheriff. This is where he is at his best. He’s a bit green when it comes to murder investigations, but he knows how to connect with people. He’s always ready to share a kind word.
Dakota was the cowboy son of drifters Shane befriended during high school football tryouts. Since then, the two were inseparable, mutually pining after one another until Shane struck up the courage to make a move.
If there was ever one guy made to be a book boyfriend, Dakota’s your man. He was completely devoted to Shane then, he’s still devoted now. Even as a teenager, he planned his whole life on how to support Shane’s dream of becoming a pro football player. As an adult, he built a house for his man. With his own hands.
I’ll never forget that flashback to their last day in senior year where he presented his meager budget for his and Shane’s living expenses, a.k.a. his heart on a plate, with all the earnestness of a youth in love, only to have it handed back. It was one of the most heartbreaking scenes ever! The sensation of falling and shattering to pieces was palpable. My chest hurt for Dakota. I nearly started sobbing myself.
The reconciliation scene? Hooboy, people were flayed raw! That’s how intense it was. I was glad the book is written in 3rd person dual POV. The emotional impact of a 1st person POV would have been too much.
I was super happy they grabbed that second chance and made the most of it. But then I got paranoid that the author might pull another plot twist and pull the rug out from everyone’s feet. This was still halfway through the book and I don’t think I could bear any more relationship drama.
I got so anxious about it I stopped reading. It wasn’t until I read a review saying things went well for the couple after that reunion that I breathed a sigh of relief and picked it up again. The rest of the story focused on the mystery.
I’d like to say the mystery was predictable. In hindsight, it followed the usual pattern of the author. But I was the gullible fool who fell for the red herring, suspecting the loner who was actually going above and beyond his duty. So good job on that nice bit of redirection!
When I thought about it, Never Stay Gone is written like Shane and Dakota’s favorite country songs. Full of lonely cowboys, small-town life, first kisses, devastating heartbreaks, and sappy love declarations that make you cringe and make you smile too. This is truly a book that doesn’t pull its emotional punches. They hit you, hard, straight in the kokoro. It’s not my favorite, but it will stay with me for a long time.
3.5 Stars – that place between like and love
This book comes with an official soundtrack. Check out the songs from the CD Dakota gave to Shane. Because he’s dorky like that.
If you like my content, please consider using my Amazon affiliate links below to buy your copy of Never Stay Gone. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying Amazon purchases at no additional cost to you.
You can also use my Bookshop affiliate links to buy paperbacks and MP3 CD audiobooks and help support independent bookstores.
Life Lesson – Kaje Harper
Mac’s three goals: keep Tony safe, catch the killer, don’t come out.
Tony Hart’s a dedicated teacher, though he’s not much older than his high-school students. Between his profession, a few good friends, and plenty of books, he’s content with his quiet life. Then the murdered body of another teacher falls into the elevator at his feet, and Tony’s life becomes all too exciting.
Jared MacLean is a homicide detective, widowed father to a young daughter, and deeply in the closet. But from the moment he meets Tony’s blue eyes in that high school hallway, Mac can’t help wanting this man in his life. Mac’s not out ― can’t afford to be out ― but Tony makes him want the impossible.
Mac isn’t the only one with their eyes on Tony, though. As the murderer tries to cover their tracks, Mac has to work fast or lose Tony, permanently.
(This is a rerelease of the 2011 original with light editing.)
I’ve seen Kaje Harper around ever since I started reading MM romance back in 2016. This is the first time I’ve read her books. Life Lessons is a great introduction to her works. The book kicks off the series of the same name.
Young high school teacher, Tony Hart, was about to step out of the elevator when the body of another teacher crashes into him with a knife sticking out of its chest. Police were called and along comes Detective Jared Maclean and his teammates to investigate.
Mac is deep in the closet for fear of losing his 4-year-old daughter, Anna. His resolve to stay there was tested by the attractive and openly gay teacher who was also a person of interest. Mac found himself finding reasons to see the younger man. Tony is ready to have the detective if only the older man would let himself. Then, the killer made another move. This time, Tony was the target.
This is a police procedural. But unlike most procedurals where the MC is the lead detective and seems to do all the work, Mac’s partner, Oliver, is the lead. The detectives worked as a team and the others were shown taking an active part in the investigation. I liked this a lot because it felt more realistic.
The mystery wasn’t anything mindboggling. You can tell who the bad guy is the minute they went on-page. Still, it’s intriguing enough for me to feel invested and complicated enough to make following the investigation worthwhile and enjoyable.
The plot seamlessly interweaves the mystery and the romance. I really liked how this was done. It brought Mac and Tony together in a way that felt organic to both the case and their budding relationship. It’s a slow-burn, hurt-comfort romance with an ever-patient Tony encouraging Mac to enjoy life a little more even if it’s only from his closet.
I loved that we get characters who are just regular joes going about their daily lives. Mac and Tony felt real and relatable. They make a compelling couple. I especially loved how they were working hard to make it work. I also greatly appreciated how they avoided the usual drama, something that could have easily happened given the closeted cop premise. And yet, even without the dramatics, this was an emotional story.
I wasn’t sure at first if I would enjoy a gay romance where one of the MCs is deeply closeted throughout several books in the series. I thought I would feel negative about Mac for hiding his relationship with Tony, but the story did a good job making you feel for the guy. I totally got where he was coming from and that he was making the effort. Seeing his character grow bit by bit as the story progressed made me root hard for him. Someday, Mac. Someday.
Tony was super understanding. I felt sad he had to make sacrifices, a bit too much IMHO, but it was pretty clear that Mac’s heading in the right direction in that HFN ending. He’s definitely worth the wait!
The author found the perfect audiobook narrator in J.F. Harding. He brought the story to life in such an engaging way I was glued to my earbuds right to the end.
Life Lessons was published in 2011. They did a good job with the slight re-editing because the story still felt current. It’s not without flaws and it features frequently-used tropes, but it’s so well-written, it still comes across as fresh and exciting. All in all, this teacher/cop romance with extra-curricular murder mystery gets a grade of 4.
4 Stars – minor quibbles but I loved it to bits
If you like my content, please consider using my Amazon affiliate links below to buy your copy of Life Lessons. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying Amazon purchases at no additional cost to you.