Before we get into the review of this anthology, two notes:
1) Amy Jo Cousins' story, "Kate Likes Girls," was not in our review copy.
2) Santino Hassell's story has been eliminated from the anthology following allegations of abusive behavior and an extended campaign of manipulation and lying. Love in Panels is moving forward with the review of this anthology based on the information available to us at this time (ie, these 9 authors are not guilty of SH's behavior.) Many of these stories will be re-released at a later date by each individual author.***
Nine stories about nine men, all posing nude for a literacy awareness calendar, all written by some of romance's top authors. A lot of the time when I read anthologies, I find a lot of the same thing. Lots of m/f, lots of straight sex, lots of boy/girl drama. But one of the selling points of EXPOSED is the diversity of romances featured in these stories. Some stories are m/m, m/f, and m/m/f. (Amy Jo Cousins' story is f/f.) There are bisexual, pansexual, demisexual, and heterosexual stories. There are biracial characters and people of color all over this anthology. And it’s great!
“Level Up” is one of the first stories, and to me, one of the best. Annabeth Albert writes a compelling story about Landon (a side character in her #gaygamers series) and his confusing feelings for the calendar photographer Bailey. It starts off innocent enough. Landon finds himself hitting it off with Bailey over email, but is surprised on the day of the shoot that Bailey is a man. And a substantial burly man at that. This doesn’t curb his feelings for Bailey, but when they first hook up, it sends Landon into an instant panic. Landon suffers from panic attacks and anxiety stemming from a sexual assault when he was in college, and the large Bailey triggers some of those feelings when they get physical. I love the sensitivity that Albert puts into Bailey. Bailey never gets frustrated with Landon. Never disbelieves his panic or anxiety. As soon as Landon shares his trauma, Bailey is there for him as a friend, not as a friend expecting something more. And that’s so refreshing! Landon’s trauma does not make him a broken man, and together Bailey and Landon explore their relationship as nerdy friends before delving into anything more.
I went to a terrific panel at Emerald City Comic Con about joy in queer literature, and romance author Michelle Osgood brought up something that I have noticed as well - the amount of romance literature about polyamorous relationships is nil. Sure we have menage erotica, but mainstream romance lit doesn’t touch healthy poly relationships. Which is why Vanessa North’s story “Rigged” is such a pleasant surprise. What starts off as a hot story about two friends exploring BDSM with a seasoned professional turn into something more complicated as North delves into their personal feelings for each other. Kaitlyn and Gordon are partners at their architecture firm and have always been best friends. But Kaitlyn’s feelings start to deepen after she sees Gordon bound by Sean at his photo shoot. For Gordon, it’s an eye-opening experience. Sean’s gentleness and assertive nature lull him into a trance when he’s tied up - and he wants more. These two burgeoning kinksters call Sean for advice, but they all soon realize that it’s more than just play. North writes such a beautiful story about how Kaitlyn and Gordon’s interest in BDSM leads them towards a romance they never expected. It combines two things I rarely see done right in popular romance lit (BDSM and poly relationships) and knocks it out of the park.
The diversity of love stories within EXPOSED is one of the reasons you should pick it up, despite some of the recent events involving one of its former authors. I only outlined a couple but all of them were worth a read and some even caused me to shed a tear. You’ll fall in love with Milo’s lush New York apartment in “Natural Enemies,” Landon’s eclectic video game collection in “Level Up,” and Teague’s garage band in “Thrown Off Track.” Putting Hassell’s contribution to the side (like, as far to the side as possible), all of the stories here are thoughtful, emotional stories that will appeal to readers who are looking for a good anthology.
CW: The story “Level Up” discusses sexual assault and “Natural Enemies” touches on social anxiety.