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 Road Less Taken – Review of L.A. Witt’s Just Drive

20161023justdriveThanks to Riptide and NetGalley for the review copy.

Look for Just Drive, Anchor Point #1 from L.A. Witt on November 16, 2016.

It was truly a pleasure to see a new series from Riptide and L.A. Whitt for my first review back after more than a year away (I know, I know, adulting is super hard you guys). I devoured it in a single night. The story is simple and sweet and surprisingly low on angst for the plot, but not surprising for L.A. Witt fans. In short, this was exactly what I need right now.

The story starts when just-dumped Naval officer Paul gets into Sean’s basically an Uber but not Uber and tells him to “just drive.” Annoyed at first, Sean softens when his hot older passenger tells him he’s just ended a floundering relationship and he doesn’t want to go home. A quiet walk on the pier turns into a passionate make-out session in the car and a mind-blowing suckfest in the backseat that had me very much engaged in the content.

The two continue meeting in the car and at various hotels for late-night marathon sessions that are at once searingly hot and sweet as hell. That the older, commanding Paul prefers the bottom while sincere twenty-something Sean exclusively tops is hot, but in a way that springs naturally from the characters themselves, and isn’t hammered on. Neither of these guys was born yesterday, they know what they like and there’s no novelty to their preferences like there can be when less experienced writers are at the helm. There’s one quick discussion where Sean explains that he doesn’t like the sensation, even saying that his preference isn’t about power, which leads to a brief but lovely lesson on frottage. And then it’s never brought up again.

As much as I like stories where characters who identify as exclusive tops learn to trust and blah blah blah, I also appreciate good boundaries and situations where identities aren’t tied to what position you take in bed. I guess you could say that like my erotica like I like myself: complicated.

Which leads me to the one bad thing I could write about this book if I had to write a bad thing about it and since I am reviewing it, I suppose this is exactly the case. There is almost no complexity here. Sean and Paul have exactly one friend each. Sean has no friends if you don’t count his father, and two if you count his car. And you kind of have to count the car a little bit, but only because it’s referenced as much as any other secondary character. But unlike dudes we’ve all known, Sean appreciates his car, but he’s definitely not in a relationship with it.

We don’t even know what kind of car it is. I don’t even think we know what color it is. Which sounds dumb, but for someone who grew up talking about cars, it’s odd to me that the car and driving are such a big deal in the story and the details of that don’t come up. Other subjects are similarly lacking, even the main characters. Paul is impulsive and driven, Sean is kind and reliable. Other than that, they have really great sex. We’re dealing with about as much depth as an oil pan, but that’s one of the reasons I loved this book.

Not everything has to be all deep examinations and descriptions of fenders or whatever I implied was missing from Just Drive. You know what has depth? My own life. I’m about good on depth right now. No, I prefer an impeccably described blow job, and on that front, L.A. Witt delivers in full as usual.

4.5 stars out of 5 for being exactly what I needed exactly when I needed it, especially for the sex bits.

Wherein Blue is Not Warm, But Sweet – Review of Blue Eyed Stranger

20150905blueeyedBlue-Eyed Stranger,Trowchester Blues Two by Alex Beecroft

First off, I want to say that I am really happy to be able to read a book with a black main character where he isn’t irrational and in need of the calming guidance of his white partner. You’d be surprised how many people of color, in romance novels especially, are portrayed that way. Even in the more lovingly written stories that were clearly made in order to include characters of color in a positive and accurate light, the white savior dynamic is so often hidden in places I’m sure the author didn’t even consider when they were writing it.

Alex Beecroft, you are a dream.

This second of the Trowchester Blues novels centers around Martin Deng and Billy Wright. Martin’s Somalian father doesn’t understand him. He certainly would understand him even less if he knew his son was gay. Maybe even disown him. Martin’s stuck-up British boss doesn’t understand how a history teacher would be so obsessed with history. She wants him to teach to the book and stop messing around with his historical reenactment society. Martin’s vikings understand his love for history, and would probably understand his being gay, but it’s not like he’s ever given them the chance to.

Billy understands all of this. If only he could understand his own depression. Dancing, music and melancholy are his constant companions until Martin Deng and his viking hoard come barreling into his dance troupe. Martin is sweet, he knows about depression, and he doesn’t ask for more than Billy can give. But does Billy ask for more than Martin can give when it comes to loving him openly?

Can Martin overcome his own insecurities in order to be the kind of partner Billy needs?

I genuinely liked Martin and Billy. Unlike other coming out will he/won’t he stories, I didn’t get frustrated with Martin, even though he really does do some pretty bone-headed things. I understood the pressure he felt, and I related to how difficult it can be to deal with the demands of the monoculture, the demands of your own family culture, and the demands of your heart. History wants to erase minority contributions and families tend to bulldoze individual members to the extent that a person can start to feel guilty taking up any space at all. More than exasperation, I felt elation and empowerment when Martin finally came out, both of his shell and of the closet.

For those reasons, I really enjoyed Blue Eyed Stranger.

However, this is definitely more a romance than a work of erotica. Those who read Trowchester Blues and hoped to spice things up in book two will not be especially stimulated by the direction this went. The sex is pleasant, affirming and sweet. Also rarely mentioned in detail. It’s lovely, but it’s not going to be keeping anybody up at night.

Oh, and if you were looking for an update on the orphan and bff from book one, you will not be getting one. The book one characters are hardly mentioned at all outside one small cameo by Fin.

4.5 stars for being the rare book with a solidly relatable black main character, despite a lack of steamy sexy bits.

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

Twink Back the Night – Review of “Home the Hard Way” by Z.A. Maxfield

cover50620-mediumHome the Hard Way by Z.A. Maxfield

Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy.

I have to admit that I wasn’t that interested in Home the Hard Way when I first saw it on the NetGalley shelves. Disgraced cop returns home to his twinkey childhood best friend and attempts to solve an old mystery sounded like pretty standard fare.

How these things usually go is this: the twink feels hurt after being abandoned by his straight crush, and the not-so-straight crush has to man up and admit their soul-mate level bond after one or more amazing blow jobs from his slightly embarrassingly femmey “bro.” At which point, closet case straight cop turns into a gay rights activist, but never has to deal with any real danger or adversity and life goes on as normal because people are just so damn happy about love.

Home the Hard Way definitely puts the old convention, if not on it’s ear than at least on it’s knees. When Dare Buckley comes back to his minuscule hometown in the Pacific Northwest, he expects some degree of animosity, both for the scandal that sent him running home, and for the apple carts he plans to upset in the 15 year old mystery of his dad’s uncharacteristic suicide. But what he doesn’t expect is his former best friend Finn Fowler. Finn was the little brother Dare had always wanted, someone to protect, someone to look up to him and boost his confidence with hero worship. But something’s changed… for both of them.

Diminutive and openly gay, Finn is used to keeping secrets and taking care of himself. So by the time his boyhood crush comes back to town, he’s quick with the brush off for a man who couldn’t possibly reconcile the starry-eyed kid he was with the confident, leather dom he’s become. He takes no time to figure out that Dare wants him, even that Dare craves discipline, but the idea that they could have more than secret sessions in the dark both terrifies and excites him. It’s untested waters for them both, and when Finn becomes involved in a murder investigation, it looks like Dare’s poor decision making has come back to bite him in the ass. Or can he really trust this man he loves, but doesn’t know?

I fucking loved this book. The idea that the little gay kid would be holding all the cards while the masc. cop who left him behind would be the needy wreck was entirely novel for me. The leather component took me completely by surprise, and was incredibly hot. Character development is top notch. There’s no good guys or bad guys in Home the Hard Way. There’s no cut and dry answers, either. Just people trying to find their way in a sometimes cruel and uncaring, but also sometimes genuinely beautiful, generous world. The alliances and secrets that hold us together, keep us apart, and make up our lives are a character in and of themselves.

The slow burn tension and suspense had me compulsively skipping to the bottom of the screen. The murder mystery and the romance vie for attention, which is just how I like the levels in my romance/mystery combos.

If I had one complaint, it would be that it seems like Riptide (of course this beautiful piece is a Riptide release) has no intention of publishing this on the Kindle* store. It’s paperback or nothing on Amazon at $17.99 for regular users, and $15.99 for Prime users. If you want a kindle format, it is available on the Riptide site for $7.99, and well worth the price.

I just ran a test of their shopping cart process, and while nothing is as easy as the Kindle interface, Riptide doesn’t make it much harder than it has to be. As long as you know your Kindle address, and you’ve submitted the riptide address as an approved email on your kindle account, you can send the title to your Kindle by clicking a button next to the book in your “My Account” section, then entering your Kindle address into the field provided. As far as I can tell, there’s no way to save the Kindle address, or make sure that future epub purchases go there automatically. That would be on my wishlist if they want to continue to keep epub off the Amazon marketplace.

*EDITOR’S NOTE: My mistake, the title isn’t on Amazon because they, like many etailers, don’t allow pre-sale for digital books. As soon as the publication date arrives, you will be able to purchase Home the Hard Way in the Amazon store.

5 out of 5 stars

Adorable Small Town Boys in Love: Review of “No Such Thing” by A.M. Arthur

cover41136-mediumNo Such Thing by A.M. Arthur

Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy.

What can I say about No Such Thing? Except that it’s sweet as shit.

Earnest, intelligent college student Jaime Winters may have recovered from his heart transplant, but being a gay guy in a small town hasn’t exactly done his sex life any favors. That is until reformed bad boy Alessandro Silva walks into his sister’s bakery looking for a job and finds so much more than that. Back home to help his foster mother take care of his youngest foster siblings, Alé is unprepared for the combination of new love and old debt that’s about to hit the fan.

Arthur is serving bucolic haze of youth so hard in this book, and I fucking love it. Even though Alé is supposed to be at least slightly more hardened than Jaime, both boys are just adorable. Silva’s criminal past is more that of a stoner wash-out than anything really serious, and the haunting secret of his youth is one hundred percent a wrong place, wrong time situation. Winter’s almost childish naivety is sharpened by a razor wit and an obviously well turned hand at research. Together, these gamboling lambs will warm the hackles of your cynical, porn-stunted limbic system.

Despite, or more probably because of this overwhelming tenderness, the sex scenes are positively bursting with tension. Heat rolls off the characters, especially when they go into the big city (Wilmington) for some fun gay bar action and end up getting steamy in a foreplay foresome. There’s no actual group sex, but you won’t miss it. Especially if you’re as ADD as I can be when it comes to multiple partners in text-only format (in an IRL format too, but we’re not talking about high school right now).

I do wish A.M. had done better character motivation. It can be scattered. Jaime seems to be extremely well read in terms of sex and sexuality one moment, and then it’s like he grew up without cable the next. His shy impulsiveness in regard to communication can be explained away with his relative lack of social interaction. However, Alessandro’s not so much. Here’s a guy who “doesn’t do boyfriends” but who also gives up his job and his apartment in the city to come home and take care of a woman and her children for no other reason than that they need him; who thinks everybody leaves, but has the unwounded generosity of spirit that could only belong to a man who believes in love and kindness. Maybe I’m judging the character more harshly because I’ve been the no boyfriends, everybody leaves type (for as long as that lasted) and it didn’t keep a lot of room for compassionate patience with my fellow man. But I’ve only got myself as an example. Maybe there is such a thing as a pessimist so mellow and so yet so cynical that they’re totally cool with giving of themselves, despite the fact that, at the end of the day they know they’ll get left high and dry with nothing to show for it.

I also wish there was one major dramatic plot device instead of two. Jaime and Alessandro’s love me or leave me cha cha was in direct competition with the far more interesting, far more dramatic past-comes-back-to-bite-you trauma with Alé and the town jock/bully/rich and privileged douche bag. If I were the editor, I would have advised the author to tone down the emotional turmoil over the future of their relationship and dial up the mystery. Although I would also would have advised against making Jaime too much of a damsel in distress. It’s an easy place to put him in, but easy isn’t always the best course of action.

I don’t want to make it sound like the boys are fighting about their relationship or having the kind of irrational commitment fits so many less skilled romance writers will fall back on in lieu of naturally occurring plot, far from it. All their relationship turmoil is completely internal, and they manage to communicate with one another in a healthy way, while maintaining the appropriate amount of tension. This well-walked line is probably one of my favorite elements in No Such Thing. The characters have drama, they are not themselves drama. This is so hard for so many writers to accomplish, and it shines in this book.

For the oddly lucky looking price of $3.03, you can have one of the most adorable pieces of good clean porno I’ve yet found. So pick it up. There’s supposed to be a sequel, but having read the ending, I do wonder what the duo could possibly tackle next. Personally, I hope for more on the extended family members we met in book one, I kind of fell in love with everybody, and I want to see them grow and change as well.

4.5 stars out of 5