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.

New In Town: Review of Trowchester Blues

20150801cover58651-mediumTrowchester Blues by Alex Beecroft

Maybe it’s because I’m getting up in years myself, but I really prefer the stories about the above-thirty set. Kids are dumb, and their problems are dumb problems. Not like the main characters in this first Trowchester Blues novel, the start of what promises to be hit series from Alex Beecroft.

Michael May was a police officer. One too many gruesome murder scenes sent him over the edge, and he was encouraged to take early retirement after assaulting a suspect. Back in the home where he was an outcast among his peers, and a victim of his father’s abusive cruelty, he is attempting to rebuild. What, he doesn’t know.

Fintan Hulme was a fence. A good fence, but he got out of the game and exiled himself to an antique bookshop in a tiny tourist village on the English coast. Content to live out his quiet retirement, he was completely unprepared for a new love or an old associate to show up at his door at virtually the same time.

Throw in a snarky orphan, a genderqueer, age-appropriate BFF (and maybe more) for her to bond with, excellent character development, and just a hint of sadomasochism and you have a pretty great combo. And that’s not even accounting for the very English mystery to top it all off.

Michael is afraid of his own anger, Fintan is aroused by it. Michael is adrift on a sea of uncertainty, Fintan knows exactly what he wants but his past isn’t going to let him have it.

The stand-out feature of Trowchester Blues has got to be the character development. It’s so crisp and good, even minor characters are real and whole people.

In terms of complaints, I only wish the sex was a little spicier. Fintan’s masochism is talked about, but not explored to the extent that I was hoping for. Vanilla readers, the kind who can be put off by the more hardcore pain/pleasure stuff will probably be grateful the scenes don’t go far, but they felt anticlimactic to me. I did, however, really enjoy that Fintan’s masochism didn’t automatically translate into submissiveness. All too often the two are portrayed as being practically the same trait, and as a masochist who likes to be in charge, it was refreshing to see somebody with a similar style.

4.5 stars for being a damn good read.

Challenge Participant

What Are Best Friends For: Review of Getting it Right

20150710gettingGetting It Right by A.M. Arthur

You may know Dr. James Taggert, or friendly club hook-up Tag from A.M.’s other successful books in The Belonging Series. This first book in the brand new Restoration Series is extremely promising.

Police detective Nathan and his psychologist best friend James have always been on the verge of something. Both have feelings for the other, each lives depressingly unaware of his friend’s internal struggle. James stays away from Nathan on the grounds that he’s straight, Nathan stays away from James on the grounds that James doesn’t like him back.

As Jame’s alcoholism progresses, and Nathan closes in on a career making case, the two friends fall into a drunken make-out session that leaves Nathan more sure of his intentions than ever, but black-out drunk James has absolutely no memory of the relationship changing event.

When a brutal attack leaves Nathan fighting for his life, then under the care of his parents, James is forced to come to grips with what loosing Nathan would really mean to him. it’s time to grow up and stop playing at club boy if he wants a shot with the true love of his life. But will Nathan still want him when he recovers?

For his part, Nathan pretends that his avoiding James is all about getting better, but it’s also about keeping his distance from a man he’s always thought didn’t want him, and who he can’t imagine would want him now covered in scars and suffering from some serious trauma.

Where the Belonging Series were clearly young and new, the Restoration Series feels grown up and serious. I like it. I also like the transformation that the characters go through. Unlike other books I’ve read where one partner turns to the other says “gee honey, I wish you wouldn’t drink so much” and the book basically ends in a giant heart around them both as the other partner promises to do just that.

There are some things missing, for example, how Nathan could be in love with his openly gay male best friend for most of their friendship and neither bring it up, nor act on it with any other dudes. Or that he would also decide to repress these feelings despite having incredibly accepting parents and a gay best friend.

My arguments in that past that the writer either didn’t access their own trauma, or didn’t know much about trauma are slightly assuaged. The portrayal is way more realistic than it has been in the past.

Otherwise, I approve of this new, darker direction.

3.5 stars

The Eye of the Storm – Review of Tempest

cover54381-mediumTempest (Playing the Fool #3) by Lisa Henry, and J.A. Rock

Thanks to Riptide and Netgalley for the review copy.

In the third Playing the Fool book, Henry and Mack are on the run, from the both sides of the law. They have no one to turn to but each other, and Mac’s parents, who’s farmhouse they make into their hiding place. This is reminiscent of book one where Mack fails to plan and ends up in the one place anyone who knows him would look for his ass.

But I do like that it gives Mack and Henry some time to be normal people and not on the run or threatened by stuff for a second. I also appreciate that the authors spent time with Viola, developing her character and giving her an arc, rather than making her a plot device, as can sometimes happen with children and the developmentally disabled.

The book wraps everything up nicely in the end, which you guys know that I’m not usually a fan of, especially with a series I enjoyed as much as this one. It makes me very doubtful that there will be a book four, which I very much want. By the end of book three, their White Collar thing is totally in place, and it looks like Henry and Mac are going to have a beautiful partnership, both in and out of the bedroom.

I’d really like to see more of the series with them solving crimes and actually being on the same side. The banter that gave me pause in the first book is completely on point by book two and stays that way through book three. If anybody reading this knows Lisa Henry of J.A. Rock, or the fine people at Riptide, let them know that a book four would be much appreciated. By me, but I’m sure by lots of other readers as well.

4 stars out of 5

Dressed to Spill – Review of The Merchant of Death

cover54382-mediumThe Merchant of Death (Playing the Fool #2) by Lisa Henry and J.A. Rock

Thanks to Netgalley and Riptide Publishing for the review copy.

Book two of the Playing the Fool series was an absolute charmer. Henry Page, recently an FBI witness, has decided that something is rotten in the state of his twin sister’s adult care facility, and resolves to go undercover as her in order to figure it all out. As anyone would.

Mac, who started falling for the enigmatic conman in book one is quick to follow him down the rabbit hole, as it were. Or at least he would be if somebody wasn’t so busy framing him for murder.

The banter that was hard to round up in book one is on point in book two, as is the suspense, and the mystery. I no longer feel like Mac is making huge mistakes at every turn, maybe because Henry is so damn crazy that I’m just impressed he can hang on for the ride.

Henry in a dress turns out to be a major turn on for Mack, and the reader too, if my own experience is anything to go on. There’s also the signature Lisa Henry touch that takes a story just that much farther and makes it an impactful, humanizing scene rather than mere erotica.

In addition to their relationship heating up, we also get closer to a secret only hinted at in book one. The original trauma that set Henry on his dark path to begin with. Which just happens to be critical to solving the mystery of who’s framing Mack. The mystery of the hospital is a whole other bag of worms.

4 out of 5 stars

The One That Got Away – Review of The Two Gentlemen of Altona

cover54383-mediumThe Two Gentlemen of Altona – (Playing the Fool #1) by Lisa Henry and J.A. Rock

Thanks to Riptide and NetGalley for the review copy.

This will be the third Lisa Henry book I’ve reviewed, and I am on the record as being a huge fan of hers. I tend to be really bad with names, so I don’t usually recognize authors I’ve already read and liked unless they’re in my top 10, and she is working her way into those ranks. You always know with Lisa Henry that a book will have that little something else makes what could be a standard story into a unique and memorable narrative.

In Playing the Fool book one, Mac McGuinness and Henry Paige are on opposite sides of a lot of things. Mac is a cop; Henry’s a con man, Mac’s on a diet; Henry loves donuts. Henry is annoying and hot, and makes everyone love him. Mac is humble and hard working and pissed off that Henry seems to run circles around him in every available context.

If you ever found yourself watching White Collar and thinking that it would be a way better show if they were boyfriends and the FBI agent had more of a daddy-bear Bruce Willis thing going on, this is the book series for you. I can tell you right now that it’s the book series for me.

Book one is a little bit rusty. Their banter isn’t as on-point as it could be, and one does start to question the decisions of a supposedly seasoned professional when he does stupid shit like clearly letting the criminal get away with wacky escape plots, or going to the one place other than his house and his office that people would associate with him and him alone, but nothing’s perfect, and the writers get so much else right that I found myself not really caring about that.

For example, this book is fun. You’d think that would be easy to find in the erotica section. Not so much these days. I don’t know if it’s winter or what, but I have been needing a good mystery/romance that makes me smile and laugh, and fall in love with the characters as they fall in love with each other. Everybody’s so busy being tortured all the time. Not that Henry isn’t having his own little crisis, and not like nobody gets hurt of arrives hurt, but this is so much more adorable and vibrant than a lot of other stuff on the market right now.

Buy book one, at $5.99 it’s not a bad price, that way you’ll know the back story when you read 2 and 3, which are better books.

3.5 stars out of 5

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

I am the Vassal of Fuck Review of Icebound

cover52909-mediumIcebound by Corinna Rogers

Thanks to Net Galley and HarperImpulse for the review copy.

This was a page turner. Set in a world where magic is a new development, where fae creatures actively meddle in the lives of mortals, Drake and Shane are former lovers turned enemies by the very bond they shared. Faced with a choice ten years before, Shane enslaved himself to the Ice King rather than watch Drake die, but what should have turned him in to an unfeeling automaton only seems to make him a sharper warrior. So why can’t Drake see that?

Drake is tormented by the empty husk of his first and only love, unable to turn him away, unable to take him back, the last thing he wants is for them to work together, but when they learn about an opportunity to save the world… and Shane, how can he refuse?

I admit, I was bugged by the fact that the entire book was written in first person present. It’s exhausting to read for long periods of time, and it’s more than a little disorienting. Other reviewers have pointed out the lack of character development, the terrible dialog, that the author tends to show and not tell. Considering that this looks like it was Rogers’ first foray into full-length monographs, I’m not as scandalized by the lack of proper world-building as others have been.

She has something that kept me turning page after page, bad one-liners and everything. Her sense of narrative urgency is superb, and her sex scenes are the exact right kind of depraved. All the sweet love-making I’ve been reading about lately is nice, but this is the good stuff. The kind of rough and tumble assfucking that warms the cockles of one’s cock. This is not a skill to be easily dismissed.

It’s all well and good to have relatable characters, but if it isn’t hot, why take the time to write erotica? The other skills can be developed. Writing an impactful sex scene is a talent that even the majority of porn writers seem scared to embrace.

2.5 stars out of 5, but I will be keeping my eye on this author.

The Lives We Try to Lead: Review of The Jade Butterfly

cover52634-mediumThe Jade Butterfly by Jeffrey Round

Thanks to NetGalley and Dundurn for the review copy. The Jade Butterfly will be available for purchase on March 3, 2015

This is book three in the Dan Sharp series. If you haven’t read books one and two, the author does a good job of keeping the new reader informed without getting too specific, but with the title release more than three months away, and the first two books available as a bundle right now, I recommend catching yourself up on some good new-fashioned Canadian noir.

In this installment, Dan meets a mysterious Chinese diplomat with a simple request: Find his sister, who’s been presumed dead for more than 20 years, but who appeared on the website of a Canadian bakery only months before.

What follows is a tale of international intrigue, the rebelliousness of youth, the folly of best intentions, and the horrors of what happens when we try our hardest, but still fail spectacularly.

Jeffrey Round knows how to write suspense. All the little threads of coincidence and desire that tie us to each other are strung taught at his whim. New readers will be able to follow the plot, but the larger tensions of family and personal history that follow Dan from the from book one may be lost on them.

Above everything, Dan is a good man trying to do right in a hard world. There are circumstances beyond his control, that’s a given. But the real art is how Round lays out those elements of our lives that we do have control over: How we treat our family, how we choose our lovers; that can mean the difference between happiness and ruin when taken in aggregate. You try to do right, to solve the unsolvable problems of your life, to prioritize those things you hold most dear, and yet, there is always something to get in the way; some trick of fate that pushes you over the edge, that ruins all your carefully laid plans.

That’s the real suspense in a Dan Sharp book. That’s the hook that keeps you coming back for more. It’s almost a uniquely Canadian kind of writing. It’s not the absence of connection that builds tension in these books, it’s the perilous nature of the connections we do have. It’s not only the world as we know it that’s dark, it’s the ways it could be even darker than it is. It’s the vast, unavoidable distance that stretches between who we are and who we try to be.

5 stars out of 5

Men on Seamonsters – Review of Rise of the Thing Below

cover52738-mediumRise of the Thing Down Below by Daniel W. Kelly

Thanks to Net Galley and Bold Strokes Books for the review copy.

In this third installment of the Comfort Cove series, private dick Deck Waxer is once again on the case. When men on the gay island paradise start washing up disembodied on the beach, it’s up to Deck and his friends to solve the mystery before the mysterious murder-spree is discovered by the populace.

Having never read a Comfort Cove book before, I felt like the author did a good job of catching new readers up to speed without overwhelming us with info that may or may not be relevant to book three. We also meet three new characters, and learn some interesting facts regarding what I presume is the larger plot stretching through all the Comfort Cove books.

This book reminded me a lot of the literary stylings of Zavo in terms of there being readily available sex between extremely well-built and joyfully horny men around every corner. They go much farther than Zavo in that the sex tends to be anything but the vanilla oral/anal combo we know so well from the Jake Slater books. Sex in the Comfort Cove universe is almost gamified, even outside of the context where it is literally a series of carnival games. I wouldn’t even call it hot so much as it’s mentally intriguing, and i don’t think I’d change a thing, because while I can think of a dozen books with more stimulating sex scenes, I can’t think of any with more interesting ones, and that’s the true beauty of Daniel Kelly.

If you ever wanted to know, for example what an entire carnival full of sex games would look like, or how a two foot tall man would fuck a giant, or even just what life would be like on an island entirely populated by confident, disease free gay men in their sexual primes, The Rise of the Thing Below is for you. Bonus murder mystery.

5 stars out of 5 for knowing what it is, and being that extremely well.