The Official Description: Running from a scandal that ruined his life, Isaac Twain accepts a teaching position at Hambden University where, three months prior, Professor John Conlon stopped a campus nightmare by stepping in front of an active shooter.
When John and Isaac become faculty advisors for the school’s literary magazine, their professional relationship evolves. Despite the strict code of conduct forbidding faculty fraternization, they delve into a secret affair—until Simon arrives.
Isaac’s violent ex threatens not only their careers, but also John’s life. His PTSD triggered, John must come to terms with that bloody day on College Green while Isaac must accept the heartbreak his secrets have wrought.
Just the facts: M/M friends to lovers, hurt & comfort, mental illness, trauma
This is a timely, touching and authentic story about surviving- Kinzie Things
My thoughts bit: We Still Live is the most timely and topical book I’ve read in a long time. Isaac accepts a teaching position, restarting his life and trying to leave behind the mess he’s created. He meets John, a young teacher, and writer.. and the hero who stood nose to nose with a shooter on campus. They begin working together on a literary magazine that they hope will help people to process the tragedy that happened. In the process of working together, they become involved. The problem is that there are things in both men’s pasts that they don’t reveal.
Trauma is definitely a theme in this book. Both main characters have experienced things that have a lasting effect on their spirits. John was a witness to a shooting at the school. People were killed, the shooter ultimately killed himself and John faced up to him in the last moments of his life. What I appreciated about this book is that the story isn’t really about the people who lost their lives in the shooting, it’s also about the people who survived. I was reminded of my days working with the HIV/AIDS community. We lost many people: friends, lovers, family, colleagues and it was years before we would realize the trauma and weight of being the one who lived.
John is dealing with a couple of things in the novel. Early on it becomes clear that he is dealing with mental illness as a result of his involvement in the shooting. He’s also become known as the hero who stood in front of the shooter and spoke to him. But what exactly did he say? What were the final words that the shooter heard? The events of that tragic day have left John a changed man. Once an award-winning writer, he’s no longer writing, he struggles under the impact of horrendous nightmares, he doesn’t seem to trust himself.
On the other hand, Isaac’s trauma is about living a life that was false and the results when it came out. (Pardon the pun). Isaac had been married to a woman for years… and dating a man. He was ashamed to be his authentic self and it wore him down to the point at which he revealed his feelings to his wife, divorced and … ran. It took a lifetime to build up the shame and fear that caused Isaac to run towards a new life and the darkness trails along behind him in the guise of a cell phone constantly revealing text messages from his past. Coming out was a traumatizing event for Isaac. Maybe he handled it wrong, maybe he spent years not even aware of the impact his secret life was having on others… either way… his new start is still tainted by his past.
The two main characters are each fighting their own battle not to drown in the world around them. John is haunted by the events of the day of the shooting as he struggles to try and appear as normal as possible. Isaac knows that the past in on his trail even as he relishes his first months as a gay man living life and falling into a relationship with a colleague. I think, for me, the characters seemed to both be trying to make something new out of what happened to them in the past. They are both recreating themselves in different ways, but I found them to be very authentic. These two men are trying to take tragedy and loss and build on that shaky foundation to begin their lives anew. It just isn’t working quite the way that they hope it will.
I think John’s journey over the course of this story touched me the most. When he is introduced in the novel, outwardly he seems as though he’s okay which I think is a very real front that people put up when they are most in need of help. For some reason, Isaac and he share a connection when they meet. I wondered if the author was intending for it to seem as though, perhaps, the two men could sense the broken within each of them. I am a believer that sometimes we find people when we need them.
This is a well-written novel with great characters. The pace of the growing closeness between John and Isaac felt very authentic. I also really came to enjoy a lot of the supporting characters. Tommy is John’s best friend. He’s caring and sweet, and I loved the way he tried gently to support John through his bouts with PTSD. I also really enjoyed how protective Tommy was when Isaac came into the picture. It’s lovely to see such a genuine relationship between a straight man and a gay man written realistically.
I would recommend this book to anyone who likes a plot with heavier, realistic themes running through it. Because of the intensity of some of the events in this novel, I would suggest reading the warnings before you begin it. This is the first time that I’ve read a book in which the focus has been the people who survive a tragedy like this… I suspect there are a lot of people who might need to read it.
Things You May Want To Know: Please be aware, I’m by no means an expert on what may or may not have the potential to disturb people. I simply list things that I think a reader might want to be aware of. In this book: (SPOILERS) Scenes of graphic violence/gore, school shooting, past trauma, PTSD/post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, attempted suicide, mentions of past cheating (within a heterosexual marriage), physical assault, emotional abuse by an ex, mentions abortion in the past.
Excerpt From The Novel: Close as they were to the foyer, Isaac was the first to notice the front door opening. A student walked inside. The kid dragged a heavy-looking suitcase behind him. Dressed as he was in a slim-fitting button-down, Isaac immediately assumed preppy, although that assumption altered and changed when taking into account the tight black jeans, Converse sneakers, and shaggy hair the color of caramel and chocolate—a mass of waves and curls that fell down the back of his neck but not quite to his shoulders.
The kid pushed his hair out of the way and looked up, eyes finding Isaac and flashing a moment of panicked nonrecognition before seeing Tommy.
“Um.” Isaac pointed toward the new arrival.
Tommy turned and shouted, “John! My man!”
Not a student, then.
Tommy wrapped John in a hug that actually lifted his feet off the ground. Isaac imagined it wouldn’t be difficult. The new guy might have been average height, but he was gangly, skin and bones.
Tommy ruffled his hair. “Have you lost weight?”
John grumbled and scratched his face with his middle finger. “What are you freeloaders doing in my house?” His voice was surprisingly resonant for someone Isaac considered “pretty.” At John’s pronouncement, crows of approval rang from every direction.
“Come meet Isaac,” Tommy said.
John wiped his palms on his jeans before reaching out to shake, and Isaac’s large hand dwarfed his.
“Isaac Twain is the newest addition to our special corner of Hambden hell. Isaac, this is John Conlon.”
John brushed more hair out of his face. “Nice to—”
John and Tommy froze.
Isaac jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “The books on the shelf. Those are yours?”
John’s face, immobile in what looked like dread a moment before, melted into relief, tinged with a bit of blush. “Oh, yeah. You’ve read?”
“No, but I should. You’ve published a lot of books. You must be good.”
John’s nose wrinkled, and he looked away.
Tommy shook him by the shoulders. “John is an amazing writer. He had a story published in The New Yorker when he was, like, five. Are you working on anything right now?”
John glanced at the bookshelf. “Not lately.”
“You need a drink,” Tommy said.
John’s eyes widened on a big breath. “God, yes, I do.”
“Nice to meet you,” Isaac said, but John just nodded quickly, smile thin, before allowing himself to be herded farther into the house toward the sound of quiet laughter and clinking bottles.
Isaac felt it then—an outsider’s emptiness. He became a nervous-looking coat rack in the corner, a terrified tree waiting for the ax. As the party doubled in auditory volume, he bemoaned his spilled wine. Was it okay for him to leave? It wasn’t like he was supposed to make a speech. He was only there because he figured it was the easiest way to meet everyone before the first official faculty meeting, but he’d been standing around too long. He wanted to run.
Out of curiosity, he reopened John’s book from earlier and read the front flap. It was a coming-of-age story about a gay kid in the Midwest. He flipped to the back, and a picture of John stared back at him. He’d assumed the guy was tired when they first met, but no; apparently, John had perpetual bedroom eyes, and his hair was always an artful mess. He skimmed…creative writing professor at Hambden University…gay rights activist…
Converse-wearer and “old-people music” enthusiast.
All arrows pointed to John’s probable sexual preference for men. A spark of interest flickered but quickly went out. True, John Conlon was what most people would consider beautiful, but he wasn’t Isaac’s type. John was the kind of man butch guys fought over in gay clubs, but he was too small for Isaac, too fragile-looking, girly. After all he’d been through, the last thing Isaac wanted was someone feminine.
A thin figure ducked into the library and literally hid against the doorframe. He took a long drink of something brown and leaned his head back. “It’s not good when you want to hide in your own house.”
“Library is the best place for it,” Isaac said.
John kicked away from the wall. “Tommy mentioned you just moved here? I’ve been in Lothos forever, so if you need anything…” He examined Isaac from his brown boat shoes to the top of his blond head. John’s large eyes, dark green, seemed bottomless—drowning pools of intellect and soul—only slightly overshadowed by his thick eyebrows.
About the Author: Sara Dobie Bauer is a bestselling author, model, and mental health / LGBTQ advocate with a creative writing degree from Ohio University.
She lives with her hottie husband and two precious pups in Northeast Ohio, although she’d really like to live in a Tim Burton film. She is author of the paranormal rom-com Bite Somebody series and Escape Trilogy.
Readalikes: Other stories that are similar or give the same feel.
- The Ghosts Between Us (The West Hills #1) by Brigham Vaughn
- Dine with Me by Layla Reyne
- Someday, Someday by Emma Scott
I received an ARC of We Still Live by Sara Dobie Bauer via Gay Book Promotions in exchange for an unbiased review.
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