Anders Blankenship never intended to hike the Appalachian Trail alone, but when his boyfriend cancels, Anders steels his courage, leaving the abusive relationship to tackle the long-distance hike. Though a hiking virgin, he’s glad he made the decision when he receives threatening messages from his ex. Luckily, Kevin, an experienced backpacker, takes him under his wing.
Kevin Winters isn’t looking for a hiking partner, let alone a fling with a cute man on the rebound. After learning he has the autoimmune disorder that killed his father, Kevin left his family to wander remote trails. Convinced his future holds only pain and death, Kevin refuses to get close to anyone. The family sourdough recipes he recreates over a campfire are his only solace.
In the wilderness, Anders and Kevin discover a lot of common ground. While the future holds uncertainties they may not be ready to deal with, it might also hold the chance for happiness.
So close to 5 stars, but a couple of issues that I had to question. Some excellent themes in this book, with great primary characters who are flawed but good for each other.
I really liked the slow burn of the relationship between Anders and Kevin. I liked how there was a bit of a spark from the start, but neither acted on it, for differing reasons, though I could tell that Kevin was quickly feeling protective of Anders and acted accordingly.
It's a sweet M/M romance at the core, with a well-rounded supporting cast, some nice, some not. The author does a fabulous job laying out Anders' and Kevin's personalities as well as their circumstances (Anders' abusive, manipulative ex-boyfriend Joel, Kevin's illness that has made him leave his family and keep to himself for the last few years), and it's all done organically through the story flow, without massive amounts of info-dumping.
The two men build a strong friendship on the trail, talking about their situations, being honest in their communications (Anders figures out that Kevin has lupus), and find common ground in Kevin's sourdough bread, which gives him his trail nickname. Every so often, the ex-boyfriend pops up to cause a problem, but for a long time, he's just a fly in the ointment, a nuisance, and I didn't take him seriously. He annoyed me, yes, but I didn't expect him to go as nutso as he does in the end.
Anders' relationship with his family is strained. He's on the Appalachian trail, basically running away, because he feels stifled by their expectations, he doesn't want to follow the path they expect him to follow. His older brothers are pretty much assholes too - judgmental, hypocritical in one case, and more or less not very supportive. I got the feeling that they looked at Anders with disdain, as if he were a bother.
For about half the book, we follow Anders and Kevin on the trail, are treated to watching their friendship and then their romance unfold, even though both agree it's only a summer romance because Anders will go back to Jacksonville for law school, and Kevin will keep running away from his mom and sister so he doesn't burden them with his disease.
Up until Anders leaves, the book was perfect, and I fully intended to give it five stars, when I realized I was only half-way through. From that point on, it takes a bit of a dive into the overly dramatic, with Joel going jealous crazy psycho freak-out when he realizes that Anders meant their break-up and won't take him back. I despised Joel at that point for his actions and words, and I didn't see his purpose in the book anymore, even though I know there are people like that and his characterization was mostly realistic. It was much too dramatic at that point, and what would have been a nice, sweet romance, with Anders looking for Kevin's family and then reuniting with Kevin, instead turned into a whodunit overly dramatic, unthrilling sequence of events that had me part breathless and part scratching my head.
I also had to question what triggered Joel's freak-out, and why nobody else in Anders' family had any kind of inkling that Joel wasn't quite kosher. There were plenty of hints that I could see, since his actions didn't gel with what he'd initially used as an excuse to not accompany Anders on the trail. It's sort of explained, even though I felt bad for Anders that he had to deal with this kind of abuse.
Be that as it may, as I continued reading, I could still see the sweet story underneath, and I appreciated the growth that Anders exhibits, when he stands up for himself and what he wants, but the side plot with nutso Joel was over the top and in my humble opinion unnecessary. Including the dramatic sequence of events at the climax of the story made me feel as if my emotions were being manipulated. I thought that the gruesome scene Anders finds in his apartment was a little unrealistic, and something out of a crime drama on TV. Cue the dun-dun-dun music.
However - and this is why I'm giving this 4.5 stars after all - the book did keep me glued to the pages, and that's due to the great writing style. I needed to find out if Kevin and Anders would get their happy ending, because by that point I was fully invested in the characters.
This was my first book by A.J. Thomas, but it likely won't be the last.
I received a free ARC from the publisher. A positive review was not promised in return.
Available from Dreamspinner Press