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    W_L
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WL's Mainstream Gay Book Reviews - 22. Ranger by Nora Phoenix and K.M. Neuhold

One more review later today after this one

https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/55982904

This story about a bisexual former Army Ranger going through PTSD and a loving gay animal trainer was interesting and surprising from its origins. It deals with serious topics like veteran reintegration into society, PTSD with service animals used for comfort, and remarkably candid reflections on American society’s biases towards veterans in everyday life without platitudes. As a reader and a writer, I like stories that are different and at the same time, necessary to frame current realities. Nora Phoenix and K.M. Neuhold are two authors in recent years that I have developed a fondness for different reasons (Phoenix is intense with her character narratives, Neuhold is experimental and comedic), this story exhibits why collaborative work between two differing styles of gay romance authors can work. It’s hard to co-author a gay romance book, let alone a series like they did. On our website, it's quite hard to find collaborative stories between 2 dissimilar authors like this, most of us who have collaborated write with people we share styles with.

This novella is a spin-off from their main series Ballsy Boys, a series surrounding the loves and lives concerning a group of gay porn stars. I am not sure if readers enjoy that kind of story as I do, but I like learning how the sausage was made, so to speak. 😊 (I considered reviewing that series, though the subject might be too risque)

At 238 pages or 6 hours and 33 minutes on audible, this is nice moderate sized novella for a single sitting read. I think this is a good introduction to both authors styles.

Mack Stone, who prefers to be called by his nickname Ranger, is going through a rough time having left the US Army Rangers nearly a year ago after the traumatic loss of his squad-mate, Alex. He has been having nightmares and lacks the drive or energy to do everyday chores around the house. In truth, Ranger knew he can’t keep being depressed and allowing himself to waste away, so he calls his gay brother, Lucky, for help. Lucky suggests he get a service animal through a friend of his named Julian. Julian is an animal trainer, who works with a program called “Pups for Patriots”, which offers service dogs for veterans suffering from PTSD along with other battlefield related issues. In addition to his work with the non-profit organization, Julian primarily trains animals for movies and television productions. Julian currently owns several horses, a deaf donkey named “Doc”, a grumpy goat named “Butler”, several rotating dogs including his own husky “P.P” and the prospective pup Benny for Ranger, and several chickens he’s named after the Golden Girls: Dorothy, Blanche, Rose, and Sophia. When Julian brings Benny over for the first time to give to Ranger, Julian accidentally trips and triggers Ranger into a PTSD episode, where Ranger hallucinates that he was back in Afghanistan with Alex. By training, Benny takes on his role as a service dog and helps coaxes Ranger out of his episode, while Julian watches without judgement. Several incidents happen that demonstrate Benny’s ability to help Ranger cope with civilian life, slowly opening him up to his true self. It is revealed that Ranger’s squad-mate Alex was gay and likely had feeling for him, but Ranger never considering himself gay did not understand his feelings toward Alex until Alex died during an attack on their unit. Ranger deeply regrets failing to confront his feelings for his friend, never allowing Alex to know his feelings were actually returned. That is what triggered him and made him unable to continue his career as a member of the elite US Army Ranger. Ranger and Julian acknowledge their mutual attraction for one another, but during their first kiss, Julian’s goat Butler rams them preventing any sexual advances. Later on, in the privacy of Julian’s ranch home, Ranger was at first very excited about having sex with Julian, but another PTSD episode occurred, when he felt guilt for not having done this with Alex, causing him to freeze up. However, Julian is patient with him and slowly, the two begins their relationship from cuddling to showering to hand jobs. Just as their casual relation appears to be heading to something more romantic, California’s wildfires unexpectedly flared up and caused a mass evacuation to occur. Ranger rushes to save Julian, who was frantic over the prospects of releasing his animals. Ranger concede to taking on Doc, the deaf Donkey who couldn’t survive on his own, and the four chickens, which culminates in a comedic living arrangement in a motel, when Julian could not bear to leave his animals outside after the wildfire. During the tense situation, Ranger and Julian consummate their love for one another by having sex inside Julian’s truck, since the animals took over their motel room without triggering a PTSD episode from Ranger. While sex seems to have made Ranger happier, it doesn’t completely eliminate his PTSD, it still lingers, but the love from Julian is filling the darkness with renewed life and hope of a brighter future. Julian tells Ranger that he believes Alex knew Ranger loved him too, despite him never saying it by the way he acted towards Alex, when he was alive. Julian tells Ranger he loves him and Ranger promises he will always tell Julian he loves him. While emotionally, both men have acknowledged their feelings, the wildfire has forced Julian and his animals to move with Ranger. Luckily for Julian, all his animal survive, who he couldn't take with him including the stubborn cock-blocking goat Butler, who returns back the site of Julian's destroyed ranch with a black coated male goat, who is inseparable from Butler, Julian named him Buddy. Ranger, Julian, and his menagerie of animals live happily ever after in the end despite the struggles that are ongoing and likely to continue.

The most wonderful thing about this short novella is that the real-world issues like PTSD aren’t resolved at the end of the book, it’s a lifetime issue for Ranger. While he could move on and find love with Julian, he will never be able to completely heal from the mental wounds that he suffered in war. Sometimes romance writers go too far on the happy endings, gay romance especially writers attempt to offset the dismal reality of our lives with the magic of “sex” and love being the cure all for everything. It’s a good thing that some authors remember that believable romance should also reflect real solutions to issues, even if they're imperfect. To me, the most perfect happy ending is one that gives you believable hope and keeps your characters striving, it's like giving them an endless happy ending full of future possibilities.

In terms of realism, my favorite line in this book can probably be encapsulated in this short exchange between Ranger, a veteran who suffers from PTSD due to a soul crushing emotional loss of someone he loved, and a young guy who is trying to help out his own brother, who has lost limbs from a bomb:

Tim, the cashier inquiring about a dog as well for his brother, who lost a limb as a soldier in Afghanistan due to an IED: I want him to be better you know

Ranger: He’ll never be the same. You can’t go through something like that without it changing you.

Tim: I understand that…I just want him to be…happy again…like he has a reason to live.”

That made me tear up, considering how hard it must be for someone to find a purpose to live after coming back from war, losing so much in the process of serving his/her country. Veterans deserve something more than just holidays or some extra benefits can offer, there's a human need for a purpose and reason to still be alive after all that.

I feel like this particular genre of gay fiction is quite underserved and underexplored. War and gay romance aren’t new, writing about finding love on the battlefield isn’t new, the Greeks have done it well, the Japanese from my research into their epic poetry about Samurai/Bushi warrior and Shudo page-boy lovers did the same. However, stories about the warrior after the war, the losses they face psychologically are worth exploring seriously, especially now with the reality of military withdrawals in the middle east. Afghanistan and Iraq war happened, the consequences are still being felt and the costs are still being assessed, including the costs that cannot be counted in dollars or bodies.

There is a psychological cost that hits at my generation, which I am grateful for authors like Nora Phoenix. She has a penchant of exploring those aspects in her gay romance fiction regarding gay male veterans. While she does get into psychological issues and motivations in many of her books, I’ve found her characters with military service background to be very engaging. Her style is dark and realistic, there’s always an undercurrent of psychological suffering in her characters that moves them into a certain direction, like Leta Blake. I was introduced to her work through her No Shame series, featuring a gay Boston guy on the run from his abusive Irish mob boss boyfriend and meeting up with several interesting characters and the love(s) of his life, several of those books would get 5 ratings from me for the emotional tension, plot, and characters. For those wondering, I know Nora Phoenix also does have her own 9-book Omegaverse series, Irresistible Omegas, if I did rate them, I’d say they were 3-4 out of 5 depending on the book. Her standalone style in Omegaverse fiction is interpersonal with limited world-building, it’s good for the genre, but I prefer Leta Blake’s style a bit more, since I am more of a Sci-fi and fantasy oriented reader at heart and Leta Blake broke far more ground for me.

As for K.M. Neuhold contribution, for me, she’s what I consider gay romance’s “geek lover”. I love her stories that feature very reserved nerds, dorky experts, and geeky gay characters, who are subject matter experts with an introverted demeanor, but sexually not so innocent :) :o . She’s to the gay fiction world what Big Bang Theory and Young Sheldon are to Television. I personally enjoyed her Love Logic book series, where she pairs up geeky and nerdy gay main characters with various mates, or each other in a poly-cube combinations. She’s good at bringing out an intellectual geeky side of gay romance, while simultaneously maintaining the zeal of feelings with experimental ideas. I can see her hand in the creation of Julian’s character, he’s just the right kind of gay dorky (Gorky?) that I’d expect from her. Funny quirks like the introduction of a cock-blocking goat, who turns out to be gay and just jealous at his owner getting action is quirky ridiculousness that comes with her style. Underneath it, scientifically speaking, there are zoological examples of gay goats with weird behaviors seeking to dominate other males. Her style sometimes does fall short or she overcompensate by making sex scenes a little too drawn out/nerdy descriptive to be fun, but when it works, it's unique.

The main collaborative book series of these two authors referenced throughout the novella, Ballsy Boys, with the side characters of Lucky, Mason, and Heart making a cameo appearance is fun if you are interested in reading the personal issues of gay porn stars, who are dealing with real life issues like alienation, relationship insecurities, money, and identity alongside their co-stars and directors. While it is sexy as you can imagine, the actual story can be more comedic sometimes with their boyfriends relating to their careers as adult stars. I liked some of the books early in the series, but some of the later books just didn't feel as interesting and the last book felt like an one-line story concept, so rating would probably go from 4.5 to 2.5 out of 5. It's a pitfall of writing series with two writers, you can sync well and clash badly with different styles at work.

On its own though, this novella is very nice, it has a good story to tell with very low emotional tension despite the subject matter, along with a good dose of comedy.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5, it’s a nice read with a great concept and plot. The PTSD issue isn’t resolved completely by the romantic relationship and there’s good humor.

Copyright © 2021 W_L; All Rights Reserved.
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This has been in my library for a month. I maybe got half way? I wanted to like it but I had a hard time getting hooked. Bummer. 

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9 minutes ago, Mrsgnomie said:

This has been in my library for a month. I maybe got half way? I wanted to like it but I had a hard time getting hooked. Bummer. 

Give it some time and try reading it in a different setting. I read it during a hot summer day after a jog with a cold ice tea and some chocolate covered almonds. :)

Some stories are better read on certain days and circumstances, you also might want to try reading short stories like this in one sitting.

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