Title: Sylvan
Jan Irving
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Buy link:
Genre: Contemporary M/M
Length: Novella
Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5

A guest review by John

One sentence summary:  Leif and Mal find friendship and love in spite of Leif’s Alzheimer’s stricken father.


Back home in Sylvan, the small Western lake town where he grew up, Mal Harrison is grieving over the loss of his grandmother and his former life as an Olympic swimmer. He’s building a new life but just doesn’t know where to begin; then he meets Leif Gunnar and finds the instant crackling chemistry between them might just be a place to start.

But Leif is carrying a heavy burden in caring for his father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. It consumes his life, and despite Mal’s efforts to woo him and his own frustrated desire for Mal, Leif just can’t let him get close. To find happiness and a future, they’ll have to agree that searching together is better than being found alone.


 Mal Harrison was an Olympic swimmer who won a gold medal for the backstroke when he was just a teenager.  Now 23 and in training for the next Olympics, the coach kicks him off the team when his performance continues to be subpar.  He calls home to tell his grandmother Nan, only to learn that she has just died.

Mal hitchhikes home and is dropped off a couple of miles from Nan’s lakeside cottage in Sylvan, a small farming community near Sylvan Lake.  Most of the cottages are for summer only, but Mal is thinking of staying through the winter, at  least until he can figure out what do with his life.

As he walks down the dirt road, he sees an old man run into the road, narrowly avoiding being hit by a passing car.  Mal helps the old man up and then meets Leif, owner of Gunnar Construction, who has been looking for his dad. To Mal’s experienced eyes, Lief looks every bit the Nordic Viking God with his muscular body and silver blond hair.

The first private encounter between the two is an embarrassment for them both.  Mal is drunk and swimming in the lake and almost drowns.  Leif happens to be rowing at just that moment and place and rescues Mal.  Back at the cottage Mal offers Leif some hot chocolate and his body, which makes Leif run screaming into the night.  Well, he doesn’t scream, but he does leave before Mal can do anything more than squirm naked in Leif’s lap. There are more encounters, but the failed first time continues to color how they react to each other. They each dream about the other, but Leif is burdened with caring for his dad and Mal doesn’t know what he’ll be doing in the future.

Where do I start?  I think the plot is good – son is caring for ailing father, struggling to  balance work, family, and a hidden desire for men; and there’s the ex-olympic swimmer/playboy trying to find himself at his grandmother’s cottage. The attraction between the two is immediate, but Mal is used to life in the big city – you see what you want and you take it.  Leif is small town boy, hiding his true self, caring for his dad, and knowing inside that Mal might be good for a fling, but not for the long haul.  This definitely had great possibilities, but across the board it failed to live up to expectations.

The story is told mainly from Mal’s point of view. I kept stumbling over this character’s name.  Is it short for something like Malford? The author doesn’t tell us. Several times Mal tells himself that he partied too much as he trained.  Huh?  That didn’t sound right. From what I’ve heard about Olympic athletes, they are single-minded when it comes to their  training. They party plenty after the competiton, but during training?

Leif’s life isn’t explored enough.  He is the other main character and his life is mainly work and caring for his father who has Alzheimer’s disease. A couple of times Leif wishes to himself that his father would get back to his old self, but that’s just wishful thinking. Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease which eventually robs those afflicted of their memories, both short term and long term, and their ability to care for themselves. I have personal experience with this awful disease.  My mom suffered with it for 16 years, the last four and a half in a  nursing home. 

When I read the blurb, I chose this book to review for the simple fact that Leif was caring for his dad with Alzheimer’s and I wanted to see how the author dealt with this topic. Well, it wasn’t dealt with like I was hoping.  It is a big part of Leif’s life, but other than his dad being in the road and almost getting run over and his demands for all of his son’s time, most of the book deals with Mal and what he wants to do with the rest of his life and how to bed Leif. The author doesn’t give us any perspective from the dad’s point of view. No confused memories, no house searches for his dead wife, and no alternating times of good and bad.

Eventually, Leif and Mal do have sex, but that didn’t work for me either. And then immediately after, a crisis happens with Leif’s dad and there’s a summer storm.  It all works out just fine, but this event seemed to be an easy way to wrap up the story.

I think this plot would have been better in a longer length book, but as it is, it’s too long for my taste.  I struggled to finish, and I was almost dreading reading the sex scene by the time it arrived, toward the end of the book.  But since I didn’t anticipate a quality scene, I wasn’t disappointed.

It seems I either love books that Wave gives me to review, or I can’t stand them, so don’t let this be the only review you read for this book.  My rating, and I’m trying to be fair, is 2.5 out of 5.



  • Late for this since I forgot.
    Excellent review for a book you had to struggle through. I hope the next book will be more thrilling. 😀

    The name of Mal was an instant bother while I read the review, it doesn’t make sense so I’m glad you mentioned it could be for Malford, an English name I haven’t heard many times before.
    Not to mention that Mal as a character sounds equally annoying.
    The treatment of Alzheimer feels a little heartless, so much could have been done with it and it got me curious since my grandmother had it.

    Just like Tam, I thought the cover looked like a paranormal until I read the blurb. 😀

    “I struggled to finish, and I was almost dreading reading the sex scene by the time it arrived, toward the end of the book. But since I didn’t anticipate a quality scene, I wasn’t disappointed.”
    Then it’s pretty bad! XD

    • Vivia, I like to mention in the review things that stand out to me, either bad or good. I guess authors struggle over what to name their characters, or don’t. I don’t understand this name.

      Thanks for the comment. Never too late.

  • I like the cover art. I guess it is the lake affect with the moon and fog. No paranormal activity though. That wouldn’t have worked either.

    Wave, Lynn told me in an email that her own father had alzheimer’s but died before it progressed very far.

  • I thought it was a paranormal given all the mist and fog on the cover. I think it’s not for me, I did really enjoy Lynn’s portrayal of Alzheimers and *knock on wood* I’ve yet to have to deal with it personally.

  • Very helpful review, John. I’ve had my eye on this book but just wasn’t sure. Your evaluation suggests to me that a lot of realism is just glossed over in this book (the details of caring for the parent, the Olympic training) and that would bother me, so I think I’ll pass on the book. Thanks again for the info!

  • Oh, dear. I normally buy Jan Irving’s books, so I’m grateful for the warning on this one, John. Even though you didn’t like the book, I think this was a very thorough and balanced review, which must have been tough since the subject was so close to your heart.

    • Thanks, Alexi. I had high hopes for this book. I went into it looking for familar thoughts from Leif and his handling of daily problems with his dad. Like I had when I helped care for my mom. There were a few, but not well developed at all.

      I have read one other m/m romance that deals with a parent’s alzheimer’s. It is David’s Dilemma by Lynn Lorenz. She has written a very good book.

      • John
        I agree with you about David’s Dilemma which was not only well written but well researched.

        I’m sorry this one didn’t work out for you.


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I'm a single gay male, 46 years old and I farm and ranch in Texas.
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