Emotional Unavailability – Review of Blue Steel Chain

201601023bluesteelThanks to Riptide and Netgalley for this review copy.

You can purchase Blue Steel Chain – Trowchester Blues #3 by Alex Beecroft wherever Riptide books are sold.

I read Blue Steel Chain during my absence from reviewing. From time to time I have thought about how I would write the review if I were ever to come back. Now here I am. This is the only romance book I know of with an asexual romantic lead and for that alone Beecroft deserves the respect due a professional of her caliber. Like her other books, Blue Steel Chain is a well-researched and quick read. But unlike her other books, I did not enjoy myself.

The story centers around Aidan, a young man who was “saved” from life on the streets by an abusive and controlling wealthy older douche who breaks his confidence down and uses his position of power to run every aspect of Aidan’s life from when and how much he works out to when he gets to leave the house, and even what tattoos he has. The reader assumes that Aidan doesn’t enjoy sex with his partner because the man is a total asshat. However, as the story progresses, we realize that he is asexual, and has no desire for sex in any way.

James is the love interest in theory, but he has his own baggage to deal with in the form of his terrible boyfriend who isn’t controlling or abusive, but is a cheating dug user with no boundaries or respect for anyone, least of all James.

Everything sort of mostly changes when James and Aidan discover a fairly fresh corpse in the burial mound behind Aidan’s house, which is revealed to be Aidan’s partner’s last boyfriend/victim who he killed because he’s a serial murderer.

At first I was extremely happy to see that the mystery component from Trowchester Blues, the first book in the series of the same name was back in full effect. But the mystery slipped down the plot like an old stocking and there are parts that didn’t make any sense at all.

Outside of the mystery, the book focused on people and relationships, a Beecroft specialty. In her characteristic style, she really takes you there as a reader, which is normally awesome. Except when the destination is long-term systematic sexual and physical abuse, or the slow and agonizing death of a codependent relationship with a drug addict who thinks he can do anything he wants, especially if it’s destructive. I was practically grinding my teeth with anxiety.

Then, after going through this (plus the murder bit) with the main characters, we have the angst of dating with that much baggage, and the added awkwardness of a sexual person dating an asexual person without either of them knowing it a first which just makes stress soup out of all of my organs, but at least it prepared me for how very uncomfortable the ending was.

Because the end of this book has asexual Aidan and sexual James in a relationship that looks more like an extremely amicable prison cellmate agreement. Aidan not only doesn’t want sex, he actively thinks it’s gross and has to mentally prepare before he can maybe agree to be present for sexual activity with his boyfriend who very much likes sex and specifically wants to have sex with Aidan. Neither of them seem to be in the sexual relationship they want and yet they basically ignore that fact because…. they have so much in common?

The entire book leading up to this point is them dealing with their terrible (basically I need therapy after reading about them) ex-boyfriends and the fallout from those relationships. It doesn’t make any sense to me except that these two codependent people have found a less horrible codependent relationship than their last horrible codependent relationship and so cling together despite their obvious incompatibility.

I loved every single part of this book that wasn’t about boyfriends. All the parts with Aidan’s post-break up queer femme posse, the interactions with the other secondary characters that were established in the first two books, and the descriptions of James and Aidan’s jobs and interests were great.

I wish that there had been a decision to break out of the romance genre and have this be Aidan’s story of recovery because the plot line with him finding his voice and becoming his own man is positively radiant and amazing. Like all Beecroft characters he’s so well constructed and genuine that I felt drawn to him throughout the book. He’s resilient and smart and extremely well defined. Giving him a boyfriend at the end of that soul-searching life or death journey seems anti-climactic.

As for James, he starts the book with a boyfriend who would rather do drugs and fuck literally crowds of other people than even talk to him, so I can see why attentive and nice Aidan would feel like a step up, but a life spent jerking off in the shower while your partner turns the radio up downstairs so he doesn’t have to think of you abusing yourself in the bathroom is no kind of life. Not to mention the complete mystery behind why they decided to be monogamous with each other, which is never even addressed except in a fishing analogy that reveals way more than it explains.

Basically, Aidan tells James that if James really liked to fish and Aidan thought it was dumb and gross, he would still go fishing with James because he wants to make James happy which is where I threw up my hands because ask any therapist if doing something you think is dumb and gross just because your partner enjoys it is good relationshipping in any universe. They will tell you no. They will probably suggest that instead of doing something you hate, you should let your partner go do that thing with their friends who also love that thing while you do something else that you love because you don’t have to do everything together. In fact it’s probably not healthy to do everything together.

3 stars out of 5 for being all over uncomfortable but extremely well-written as always.

The Man Who Loved an Island – Review of Waiting for the Flood

cover58650-mediumWaiting for the Flood by Alexis Hall

Thanks to Riptide and Netgalley for the review copy. Waiting for the Flood will be available for purchase on Feb. 23, 2015

I requested Waiting for the Flood because of Alexis Hall. I’ve reviewed other of his books, and loved his characters especially. He did not disappoint.

Edwin Tully lives alone in Oxford in the house he used to share with his boyfriend of 10 years, an artist named Marius. He leads a solitary life, having left all his old friends to Marius in the break-up, he’s spent the last two years with his elderly neighbor as his only companion.

When flooding threatens his neighborhood, Environment Agent Adam Dacre shows up literally on his doorstep, and things start to get… wet and uncomfortable.

How does a man who’s spent the last two years in self-imposed isolation finally decide to break the silence?

This is a sweet love story about the way a broken heart tends to mend itself in time, especially when we aren’t looking.

I was enamored of Edwin right off the start. The fact that he has a fairly serious stutter makes the whole things-he-didn’t-say plot element actually believable, and his quiet loneliness was extremely relatable. They say no man is an island, but it’s clear that he is trying really hard to be one anyway. With the waters rising, both literally and figuratively, he has to make a decision: sink alone, or swim for shelter. The acute pain of making what can seem to outsiders to be an extremely rational decision for a chronic isolater was very well depicted.

Adam comes across as a kind of non-character in comparison to Edwin’s rich depths, but since the narrator focuses only on Edwin, it makes sense that we wouldn’t know him as well.

Since this is a fairly short book, there’s not a lot of it to go over, but it’s adorable, and can be finished in a single afternoon. Worth the $3.99 price tag, but I wouldn’t pay more than that.

4 stars out of 5 for being adorable and having absolutely nothing wrong with it.

A Library of Interesting Beginnings – Review of Liberty & Other Stories

cover56240-mediumLiberty & Other Stories by
Alexis Hall

Thanks to Riptide and NetGalley for the review copy.

This is a collection of stories and original documents meant to accompany the novel Prosperity.

While I really enjoyed reading them, and was happy to see more of my beloved Byron Kae, I didn’t enjoy this collection nearly as much as I enjoyed the novel. I’m not a huge fan of short stories, and while I do consider storytelling via original/found documents an excellent post-modern literary convention, I miss the immersive feeling one gets from the good old fashioned unbroken 4th wall-style narration.

In my heart, I wanted every short story to be it’s own book, and they really could have been. Nothing’s keeping them from being now, I’d still read every one, even knowing the plot beforehand.

If you liked Prosperity, and you don’t mind paying nearly twice as much for a book that is not really as catchy or fulfulling as the first one, but does promise more time with all the awesome characters you met in the other book, plus a couple more you’ll like just as much and be just as fascinated with, then by all means, purchase Liberty. I’d buy it if only to encourage Alexis Hall to keep writing about these people.

I definitely, definitely want more from this universe.

4 stars out of 5

Down and Out – Review of Counterpunch

cover53372-mediumCounterpunch (Belonging Book 2) by Aleksandr Voinov

Thanks to Riptide and NetGalley for the review copy.

This is the second Voinov novel I’ve reviewed, as well as the second Belonging book, which you’ll recall was the controversial series set in an alternate universe where slavery was never abolished.

Like the first novel, Counterpunch brings up questions about the nature of love and relationships in a society where equality is illegal, but also examines a draconian criminal justice system that takes everything from a person, making redemption impossible. This book starts with a the question: what does a man have when he has nothing left to take?

When all else fails, when one can no longer emotionally manipulate one’s captors and owners in exchange for even the illusion of safety, what is there? What choice is left to someone who has no legal right to choose? Alternately, what happens to good men in a cruel system where there’s nothing but choice?

Brooklyn Marshall was a freeman, a cop and a husband until an accident on the job sent him to prison, and then into slavery. Now he’s the property of a conglomerate that buys and trains boxers, and he’s set to become the slave heavyweight champion of the world. But that doesn’t keep “the management” from hiring him out to the highest bidder to do whatever they want with him.

Little does he know that his next playing customer, Nathaniel Bishop, has other plans for his time… plans that are destined to crumble just like everything else Brooklyn ever loved.

Like Anchored, Counterpunch isn’t erotica so much as it’s a socio-political think-piece made possible by virtue of the fact that it’s ostensibly erotica. On the face of it, Anchored is a much more intellectual book. Counterpunch shies away from both the extreme violence that Anchored tackles head on, and the difficult realities of the universe in which it takes place. I don’t mean that one book is inherently better than the other, but Counterpunch is way less heavy, and therefore less difficult to read, but it didn’t get my brain going like Anchored did.

4 stars out of 5

Ghosts of Our Past – Review of “Second Helpings” by Charlie Cochrane

cover48960-mediumSecond Helpings by Charlie Cochrane

Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy.

Stuart is still recovering from the death of his partner, Mark while Paul is struggling with the long distance relationship equivalent of lesbian bed death: cell communication blackout. When Stu’s dad and Paul’s mom become an item, Paul suggests they meet in order to suss out the character of his possible new step brother, he ends up sussing more than he bargained for. Is Stuart really ready to be over Mark? Does four weeks of no texts from Ben really qualify as a break-up? These are the kind of important live questions that are asked and then answered in Second Helpings.

I ended up calling the two main characters in this book Not Ben and Not Mark. As far as I could tell, every conversation they had was about their exes. When they first meet in the pub to sniff each other’s butts, it ends in a big growley huff. They seem to bicker at the drop of the hat. I got the impression that the writer was wondering how two men in such different places in life would possibly get along, and in the end it seemed like she didn’t really know. So the characters, being thrown together without an essential spark, turned to bickering to fill the void.

I did like all the Britishisms. For some reason everything seems more clever when written with an English accent. I also liked the setting and the premise. I wish that there had been more character development.

This being a romance more than an erotic story, the steamy bits, as the Brits would say, were more tepid than I usually go in for, but it was sweet in the end.

At $3.99 it’s not bad if you’re looking for something to knock out before you go to sleep, but I can’t recommend it over other similarly priced books. For example, the works of A.M. Arthur would be a better bet.

3 stars out of 5

Spy Games and Bedroom Games: Dirty Deeds Review

cover41566-medium Dirty Deeds by SE Jakes

Thanks to NeGalley for the review copy.

If you’ve read Jakes’ Hell or High Water series, then you’re all caught up for this first book of the spin-off series. If you haven’t, you don’t need to. She does a great job of providing all the information for new readers without making it boring for old ones. Regulars will recognize her signature style, which is very similar to the majority of popular m/m writers. Rough and tumble, big and scary men, trained killers and sociopaths all of them, falling deeply, madly, terrifyingly in love with each other. Here and there, a few phrases or situations strike me as singularly fan-fictioney, which is where I think a lot of the top 10 got their sea legs, but Jakes delivers a fun, and hot ride despite the rare, fractious moments of squee.

Dirty Deeds is no different. A quick read, it deals with submission, dominance, revenge, and revelation in short order. The story is compelling, as the characters themselves are interesting people. It also provides some very illuminating backstory for anybody familiar with the Hell or High Water universe.

Without spoilers, the plot revolves around ex-Navy SEAL turned shady freelance merc, Mal, and his mark-turned anonymous fuck buddy, Cillian, a more-than-meets-the-eye British spook. The interesting twist for me, is that Mal is essentially mute, due to a botched attempt to slit his throat several years before. There’s foreshadowing for a miracle cure in the coming books, but I kind of don’t want that. The dudes in these novels are so frequently cookie cutter copies of each other (this one likes knives, this one’s from Ireland, this one’s a marksman, etc.) that having some diversity, especially the diversity of disability (at least the physical kind) is so rare.

The cat and mouse game the men play is fraught with tension and drama. There are some big reveals, and some shocking moments, as well as an honesty that endeared the characters to me, and left me wanting to know more about them, and read more of their adventures.

The sex scenes are split about evenly between live-in-person appearances, and cyber sessions filled with dirty talk and speculative plays for dominance. Not being a huge fan of sexting, I still found these scenes generally compelling. I think any issue I had lies more with my own feelings that remote sex is inherently silly, rather than any failing on the part of the author. But they’re still bookmark worthy.

I definitely recommend this book. If you’re thinking of getting into SE Jakes, it’s a fairly good starting point. For $3.99 at 80 pages, it’s cheap enough to dismiss and short enough to run through in an afternoon.

4 out of 5 stars.