Review in Progress: Uniform Appeal (an Anthology)

Uniform Appeal CoverTitle & Author: Uniform Appeal by Various Authors (Anne Regan, Editor)
Release Date: April 11, 2011
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Pages: 308 pages

Book Blurb (from Goodreads):
Everyone loves a man in uniform. From the Armed Forces to civil service, it’s often a matter of logistics to balance work and love in life, and these men are specialists, up to the task of finding romance amidst crime, fire, and military service.

My Thoughts:

I have a love/hate relationship with anthologies.

On the one hand, they’re a great way for me to try a bunch of new-to-me authors with relatively little investment of money and/or time. I mean, who wants to shell out $6.99 for a full-length e-book or spend all day reading hundreds of pages only to find out that the author’s writing style is completely not to their taste? Not this girl. So I was pretty excited when I stumbled across Uniform Appeal; not only did the anthology include enough short stories about men in uniform to permanently melt my ovaries, but with the exception of Lisa Worrall, all of the authors were ones whose work I hadn’t had a chance to read yet. Yipee!

That’s the upside of anthologies.

The downside? The anthology is 308 pages long and there are 16 stories included in it. If you’re doing the math, you’ll know that means that not only are these all short stories, but they’re all short short stories. This might not be a problem for some readers, but I’ve always found that it was the richness of the main characters and the connection – or lack thereof – between them that was one of the biggest determining factors in whether or not I enjoy a book. No disrespect to these authors, but it’s damn difficult to make me feel anything for a character in only a handful of pages.

Still, Uniform Appeal has men (lots of men!) in uniform (lots of uniforms!). How could I truly resist?

Below, I’ve broken the anthology down story by story to tell you what worked and what didn’t.

Chasing Jamie by Eric Arvin:
I hate to say it, but this story read like a hick’s stream of consciousness exercise. The author provided too many extraneous details about the couple’s life and history together for a story of this length. Though I’m sure this was intended as a way to give his characters more depth, I found that it only served to pull focus from the central action of the story, leaving it feeling chaotic and melodramatic. I also wasn’t a huge fan of the titular character; Jamie came across more as a petulant child than a grown man in a serious, committed relationship. I found myself completely apathetic to him and his pink tights. Okay, maybe that’s not entirely true – I did want to put him in a time out. (Does that count as caring?!)

The one thing that I will say for this story is that Arvin did a good job of creating a distinct voice for Wade’s character using a drawl and regional expressions. When combined with the carnival atmosphere of the setting, these details helped to give the story a strong sense of place and time. [1.5 smooches]

Famished by Lou Harper:
Well, I have no idea what the title had to do with the story, but I liked what I read. Neither of the main characters were terribly original, but the story was well-written, well-paced, a little bit funny, and a lot a bit sexy. The tone was perfectly flirtatious, and Sean’s character was just awkward enough to be endearing. In short, it was everything that I was looking for in a story about a man in uniform (a motorcycle cop, no less!). After this, I’m definitely looking forward to getting my hands on a full-length novel by this author. [3.5 smooches]

Delayed in San Diego by Pepper Espinoza:
Chandler’s in a bit of a jam; his restaurant has failed, he’s flat broke, and he’s headed home to Utah so that he can be with family while he licks his wounds and tries to get back on his feet. Cody is a U.S. Marine returning from a harrowing tour of duty in Afghanistan. After years of bravely serving his country while denying who he is and who he loves, he’s ready to come home and move on. The only problem is, he doesn’t have a home to go to. When a winter blizzard grounds all flights to Salt Lake City, Cody and Chandler find the perfect way to kill time between flights — together.

I LOVED THIS STORY! Espinoza may have only been working with a handful of pages, but she managed to push every one of my humina humina buttons and still tug my heart strings. I found myself caught up in the action, entranced by the characters’ chance meeting, their first shy, clumsy overtures, and their downright combustible chemistry in the bedroom. These men were sexy as fuck together, but it was the hints of vulnerability and their willingness to take a chance on more than a one night stand that ultimately won me over. [4 smooches]

Hot Stuff by Maria Albert:
This story had such promise! It started out with a sexy, but exhausted man running a stop sign and being pulled over by a cop. Bow-chicka-bow-wow! The exhausted man is Drake, a firefighter and all around do-gooder. The patrol cop, Perrin, is a cute blonde twink and a rookie. I can hear the porn soundtrack revving up in the background, can’t you? But before Perrin can even issue Drake a ticket, there’s a shooting, and a car accident, and Perrin ends up injured and in the hospital with Drake at his bedside.

By this point, I am enjoying the story – the characters are likeable, the action’s good, there’s two men in uniform for the price of one, and we’re about to get some sexy time… aren’t we?! Nope. We’re about to get a whole lot of extraneous I-don’t-give-a-fuck-about-this details. I didn’t need a sub-plot about an arsonist. Nor did I need one about a gay-bashing. Oh, and I especially didn’t need to be introduced to 15 secondary characters by name, get a run-down of Perrin’s entire family tree in excruciating detail, and listen to a back-story for each of them. I just want witty banter, smiles, sex, and a couple of feels, thank you very much. But I didn’t get that. Instead, I got our main characters’ first – and only – sex scene given to us as a DREAM SEQUENCE. [2 smooches]

Duty by Emily Moreton:

Discovering Columbus by Shae Connor:

Fire House Flame by Paul Taylor:

Sold! By K.R. Foster:

Heat of the Moment by Dawn Douglas:

Double Cross by Lesley Hastings:

The Night Shift by Louise Blaydon:

Jean-Paul by Ryan Loveless:

Walk a Mile by G.R. Richards:

Secrets and Lies by Jay Starre:

The US Male by Lisa Worrall:

Good Things Come… by Rowan McAllister:

My Rating:

*My overall rating is the average rating of all stories in the anthology.

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Review: Ball & Chain by Abigail Roux

ball-chainTitle & Author: Ball & Chain by Abigail Roux
Series: Cut & Run (#8)
Early Release Date: March 9, 2014
Official Release Date:
 March 17, 2014
Publisher: Riptide Publishing
Pages: 340 pages

Book Blurb (from Goodreads):

Home from their unexpected deployment, the former members of Marine Force Recon team Sidewinder rejoin their loved ones and try to pick up the pieces of the lives they were forced to leave behind. Ty Grady comes home to Zane Garrett, only to find that everything around him has changed—even the men he went to war with. He barely has time to adjust before his brother, Deuce, asks Ty to be his best man. But that isn’t all Deuce asks Ty to do, and Ty must call for backup to deal with the business issues of Deuce’s future father-in-law.

Nick O’Flaherty and Kelly Abbott join Ty and Zane at the wedding on an island in Scotland, thinking they’re there to assuage Deuce’s paranoia. But when bodies start dropping and boats start sinking, the four men get more involved with the festivities than they’d ever planned to.

With the clock ticking and the killer just as stuck on the isolated island as they are, Ty and Zane must navigate a veritable minefield of family, friends, and foes to stop the whole island from being destroyed.

My Thoughts: 

I woke up yesterday morning to find a veritable barrage of messages from friends in my email inbox, on Facebook, and all over Goodreads. All of these messages were variations on a theme of:

“OH MY GOD! IT’S HERE! IT’S HERE! BALL & CHAIN HAS BEEN RELEASED EARLY! OH MY GOD! TY AND ZAAAAAANE! *SQUEEEEEEEE!!!*”

And, because I love Abigail Roux’s Cut & Run series probably more than is healthy and I’ve been waiting almost five months for this moment, my reaction went a little something like this:

“OH MY GOD! IT’S HERE! IT’S HERE! BALL & CHAIN HAS BEEN RELEASED EARLY! OH MY GOD! TY AND ZAAAAAANE! *SQUEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!*”

It was completely undignified (and I don’t care in the least). I’m not ashamed to admit that in that moment of discovery, had I needed to, I would have pushed small children, the elderly and even my own mother out of the way to get to my pre-ordered copy of Ball & Chain as soon as humanly possible. Thankfully, my Kindle is almost never further than arms-length away and a few clicks of a button later, Ball & Chain was mine.

Unfortunately, while I enjoyed the book and the opportunity to revisit two of my all-time favourite characters in the M/M romance genre, Ball & Chain didn’t quite manage to live up to my expectations.

Going into this book, I had high hopes for the mystery plot. I know that a lot of fans of this series merely tolerate its over-the-top mysteries and conspiracies because they provide a colourful backdrop for Ty and Zane, but I’ve always secretly loved them. They’re ludicrous, but that’s what makes them the perfect guilty pleasure. So, when the first dead body was discovered on the island, I was practically rubbing my hands together with glee and mentally preparing for all the snark and puns that were going to come my way.

But there’s no way to sugar-coat this one…. This plot completely jumped the shark. Even I couldn’t suspend disbelief this far. The body count? The reactions of the main characters? The motivations of those involved? The sheer number of those involved? The utter absurdity of who was behind it and the Machiavellian levels of machination and foresight it would have taken to pull off something of this magnitude?!? Good God! I felt like I was in a bad episode of Murder, She Wrote.

My brain just kept crying, “Abort! Abort! BAD plot bunnies! BAD!”

Thankfully, Ty and Zane still have insanely good chemistry together. When Zane and Kelly were standing at the docks waiting for the Sidewinders to disembark at the beginning of the novel, I had butterflies in my stomach because Zane had butterflies in his. His excitement and uncertainty and love were tangible and I couldn’t wait to see how everything played out. In the end, their reunion was sweet and cheesy and exactly what I was looking for from that moment. And that first sex scene in Scotland?! HELL-O! When I finished reading it, I had to look around see if I could bum a cigarette from someone. That shit was H-O-T.

But beyond that bedroom scene and a whole lot of truly adorable hand holding and shoulder nudging that made my heart happy, Ty and Zane’s dynamic fell a little flat for me in this one. There were some serious emotional landmines stepped on in Touch & Geaux that got roughly shoved to the side when the Sidewinders were suddenly recalled to duty. Ty and Zane had had six months without any communication; presumably they’d both done some serious thinking about themselves and their relationship and their future together while they were apart. In fact, Roux told us that they had. She also told us that they’d both changed, that Ty’s temperament was different now than it had been before his deployment. And yet… I didn’t really see any evidence of any of this. As far as I’m concerned, it was a whole lot of tell with very little show. I mean, heaven forbid the characters have a conversation about something this important.

One thing that I was really happy to see in this novel was the significant strides Roux took forward with Nick’s character. When we were first introduced to Nick in Divide & Conquer (Cut & Run #4), I actively loathed him for trying to come between Ty and Zane. I thawed towards him a little in Armed & Dangerous (Cut & Run #5) and a little more in Touch & Geaux (Cut& Run #7), but I still didn’t actively like his character. I read Shock & Awe (rolling my eyes at how Sidewinders turned out to be the most gay Marine Force Recon team in history) and thought that he and Kelly made an adorable couple, but I could really take them or leave them.

But Ball & Chain changed all that. It gave me a glimpse into Nick’s family history, his flaws, his fears, his demons, and a little about how dark and capable of destruction he really is. It shed more light on the complexity of his relationship with Ty, and filled me with warm fuzzies every time he looked or touched or even thought about Kelly. He’d finally become a three-dimensional character to me and demanded that I become invested in him. And I am.

Unfortunately, Ball & Chain is a Cut & Run book, not a Sidewinders novella. And although I enjoyed every moment that Nick was on the page, I couldn’t help but feel that the emphasis Roux put on his character in this novel detracted from the heart and soul of this series – the relationship between Ty and Zane. I felt that this was especially true given that the most emotionally stirring and tense moments in the books  – those moments that most connect me to the characters – happened between Nick and Ty, leaving Zane to feel like a third wheel in his own story.

And don’t even get me started on the final few pages of the book! I could hardly believe how Roux sabotaged the drama and emotion of Ty and Zane’s final scene in the book by prefacing it with not one, but two Nick-centric scenes. Individually, they were good scenes, but HOLY STOLEN THUNDER, BATMAN! 😦

Let’s be real: Roux’s books are always fun to read. I love the characters. I love the universe they inhabit. I even loved that Roux threw in practically every inside joke that this series had into Ball & Chain. Any time a character tried to utter the word “vacation” (the “Lord Voldemort” of the Cut & Run series) or when Ty had to get on the horse, I felt like Roux was sending her fans a cheeky little wink – like every joke was a “thank you” for sticking with the series and supporting her work. I thought it was sweet.

But I can’t lie, even to spare feelings. Ball & Chain is the weakest book set in the Cut & Run universe and Roux needs to seriously up her game if she’s going to end the series on the high note it deserves.

My Rating:

2 SmoochHalf

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Review: Safeword by A.J. Rose

Safeword CoverTitle & Author: Safeword by A.J. Rose
Series: Power Exchange (#2)
Release Date: June 2, 2013
Publisher: Voodoo Lily Press
Pages: 333 pages

Book Blurb (from Goodreads):
Everywhere Detective Gavin DeGrassi looks he’s reminded of his attack by the Breath Play Killer. It’s in the house he lives in with his partner and Dom, Ben Haverson. It’s in the sympathetic yet pitying looks he receives from his fellow detectives when he returns to the force after a year-long hiatus. It’s in the suffocating coddling of his entire family, and the relentless reporter demanding an exclusive of his ordeal.

Most of all, it’s in his lack of submission to Ben, who isn’t convinced Gavin’s recovered enough to trust the power exchange between them.

The miraculous recovery of two teen boys from a twisted kidnapper gives him heart, and Gavin’s determined to prove he can handle anything despite increasing strain between him and Ben, painful nightmares, and panic when anyone touches him.

But his next case is too close for comfort: a friend and colleague found raped and murdered in a fate chillingly similar to what could have been his own, and this killer isn’t stopping with one cop. As the body count rises and taunting souvenirs are being hand-delivered to Gavin, he faces a frustrating lack of leads, a crushing need to prove himself, and a sinking suspicion the imprisoned kidnapper’s reach is further than originally thought. A miasma of uncertainty and fear threaten to suffocate him when he asks a question with which he’s overwhelmingly familiar: what happens when a victim is pushed too far?

My Thoughts:

6:00 a.m.

No, that is not the ungodly hour I had to get up this morning; it’s the time that I finally made it to bed, bleary eyed and exhausted after staying up all night to finish reading A.J. Rose’s Safeword (the second installment in his Power Exchange series).

And it was so, so worth it.

Safeword picks up in the aftermath of the trauma left by the Breath Play Killer in Power Exchange and to say that it’s an unsettling place to be would be a gross understatement. Ben and Gavin have been through hell together. They’ve had their sanctuary invaded, their bodies abused, and the foundation of their relationship ripped apart. Somehow they’ve come out the other side, but that trauma is like a permanent black mark on their lives – colouring their reactions to everything that comes after.

But, as A.J. Rose said every time I railed at him via Twitter for putting some of my favourite characters through hell:

The bigger the catastrophe, the bigger the catharsis.”

And he was right.

Rose did a fucking fantastic job of showing the struggle that these characters went through during this novel. The anger, the pain, the guilt, the fear, the frustration, and the never-ending tension that stretched and stretched until you just knew something or someone was going to snap – it was all there on the page. And through all that – or, perhaps more accurately, above all that – was the love that Ben and Gavin felt for one another. I never doubted that the love was there, but the struggle was written so realistically that there were points in the novel when I worried that the characters may not recover enough to make it together. Those were the moments when my gut clenched uncomfortably and tears prickled behind my eyes. I know I’m a giant sap, but this book moved me.

As strong as Rose’s characterizations of Ben and Gavin are, the novel’s secondary characters shouldn’t be overlooked. Cole’s great and Gavin’s partner, Myah, is one of the best supporting female characters that I have come across in a long while. She’s complex, intelligent, intimidating, intensely loyal and protective. She’s also witty and thoughtful and capable. I love that she’s a compassionate human being who hasn’t let what she’s seen on the job make her jaded, but she’s also tough as nails when she needs to put scum (and homophobic a-holes) in their place. In other words, she’s an admirable character regardless of her gender (though her gender is worth noting simply because so few female characters of her depth and ability exist in the romance genre). It probably says a lot that if Myah existed in real life, I both would never want to meet her in a dark alley AND I would want to be friends with her.

In terms of the mystery at the centre of Safeword, I thought that it was extremely well done (much more complicated, unique, and realistic than the one in Power Exchange). The pace of this case was slow and the results of Ben and Myah’s legwork often frustrating and coming to nothing, but the tension and urgency were palpably building under the surface the whole time. When the serial killer is revealed and then tracked across the city, I wasn’t left yelling “it’s about damn time!” at my Kindle the way I did with Power Exchange. No, this time I was swept along for the ride, wishing I had an “oh-shit” bar to hold onto.

My only real complaint about the mystery aspect of the novel was that while I thought Rose built a plausible case for why the serial killer did what they did (and their motive seems authentic given what we knew about them), I still felt like the sexual aspects of the crimes were never fully explained to my satisfaction. Regardless, it was interesting to see how another character responded to trauma in a completely different way than Ben and Gavin did. It was like a glimpse into how Gavin’s recovery could have gone had he not had such an incredible support network or been as strong as he was.

(FYI, it is incredibly difficult to write about the serial killer without giving away major spoilers, so please excuse my vague language.)

Bottom line: I loved this book (and the series as a whole).  Power Exchange and Safeword combine cops, BDSM, sexy men who love other men, thrills and suspense, genuinely emotional moments, and a whole lot of other stuff that I love to read about all in one nearly perfect package.

So perfect that I wish that there were a third book in this series.

I know, I know – I’m being incredibly selfish. Ben and Gavin deserve to put all of the murder and mayhem behind them and enjoy their hard-won happily ever after, but my heart wants what it wants (and it wants more Ben and Gavin). They are one of my favourite couples in the MM genre, so even though I’m grateful that Rose gave these characters a satisfying end without making it into a sappy Hallmark event, I’m sad to see the last of these boys.

I guess I’ll just have to re-read it. 🙂

If you don’t pay attention to any of my other book recommendations, pay attention to this one:

Read the Power Exchange series. You won’t be sorry. 

My Rating:
2 Smooch3 Smooch

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