Review: What Can Be by Mary Calmes

Mary CalmesTitle & Author: What Can Be by Mary Calmes
Series: I’ll Be Home For Christmas (Dreamspinner Press’ 2011 Advent Calendar)
Release Date: December 1, 2011
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Pages: 116

Book Blurb (from Goodreads):

Thirteen years ago, Eli went on a summer trip with his mother and never came back. Now, existing in a new life as Jacob Somerville, he’s again running from fear and memories, only to end up where he started. As Jacob struggles to reconnect with his father and brothers, he realizes that his lover, Craig Zhao, was the only thing filling his empty heart and standing between him and ghosts of the past. It will take the power of love—from his family, from Craig, and from himself—for Jacob to see that his life truly is filled with the promise of what can be.

My Thoughts:

This ain’t your typical Christmas story. In fact, I think it may have broken my brain. I need a minute to process my likes/dislikes before rating.

24 hours after reading…

Did I love it? Or, did I hate it? I still don’t know! Seriously. You can’t see me right now, but I have the most bewildered expression on my face.

The writing in this one felt kinda… sparse? But sometimes – especially nearer the beginning of the story as Calmes was establishing her characters and laying the trail of WTF? breadcrumbs for me – I reacted really positively to this method of storytelling. It felt refreshing. I was intrigued by the story (so many secrets, so much baggage!) AND by the way that she was telling it. Then, not too many pages later, the same bare bones technique was driving me bonkers and leaving me feeling cheated because I wasn’t getting the level of detail that I wanted in some scenes.

The dialogue was just as sparse. I often felt as if there were words or sentences that were left unsaid. On one hand, I was totally digging it because it felt like I was reading something that had finally captured that short hand that real people and real families use with one another. On the other hand, it was frickin’ disorienting.

And characters actions and reactions seemed to change almost by the paragraph. Just when I thought I had a character’s personality pegged, the next sentence out of their mouths or gesture of their bodies would be the complete opposite of what I was anticipating. Again, I found it disorienting. (Just as an example, Craig’s first phone call to Eli? I was convinced that the dude was a controlling, self-important asshat and that Eli was better off running in the opposite direction as far and as fast as he could. Then Craig would do or say something that had me shifting towards rooting for him. And then he’d do or say something that would have me shifting away from him again.) I felt like I was getting emotional whiplash.

(See what I mean about this story breaking my brain?!)

It also probably didn’t help that I felt like there were too many interactions between some characters and not enough between others, questions that went unanswered, and reactions I wish had been explored in greater depth. Not to mention the fact that I was really missing an epilogue to wrap things up with a big Christmas bow for me.

Ultimately, I think this story was great, but too layered and nuanced for a novella format. I’ve given it 4 stars, but only because my OCD wouldn’t allow me to leave it rating-less and I don’t know what else to do.

My Rating:

3 Smooch1 Smooch

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Review: The Backup Boyfriend by River Jaymes

Backup CoverTitle & Author: The Backup Boyfriend by River Jaymes
Series: The Boyfriend Chronicles (#1)
Release Date: November 28, 2013
Publisher: Self-published
Pages: 225 pages

Book Blurb (from Goodreads):
Professionally, Dr. Alec Johnson has almost reached his goals. As this year’s recipient of a humanitarian award with his ex, Dr. Tyler Hall, Alec’s work with the homeless is about to be recognized. Unfortunately, his personal life sucks because now he has to attend several events alongside Tyler—with his ex’s new boyfriend in tow. In an attempt to lift his mood and break out of his rut, Alec purchases a motorcycle he has no idea how to start. 

Dylan Booth doesn’t have time for Dr. Clueless and his fickle 1964 Harley, but the cocky mechanic can’t say no to the request for help. Having spent his teen years on the streets, and losing his best friend to HIV, Dylan decides teaching the do-gooder how to ride is the least he can do. But watching Alec flounder in his ex’s company throws Dylan into protector mode, and the confirmed hetero introduces himself as Alec’s new boyfriend. 

The ex suspects Dylan is lying. 

Alec claims Dylan’s plan is insane. 

And Dylan’s not sure he can fake being gay. 

But he’s a master bullshitter, and the phony PDA soon turns ultra-hot. Alec can’t afford to get attached, and Dylan’s learned everyone eventually leaves. Unfortunately, playing the backup boyfriend is starting to feel way too real… 

My Thoughts:

After I got over the heartbreaking angst that came before the HEA, and reveled in the syrupy sweetness of the epilogue, I only had one major complaint with River Jaymes’ The Backup Boyfriend: it was over. Every other thing about this book was a study in pure perfection – perfect characters, perfect plot, perfect pacing, perfect dialogue, and a perfectly believable gay-for-you romance that left me wanting more. 

The Backup Boyfriend is set two months after Dr. Alec Johnson finds himself on the wrong side of one of the most awkward “it’s not you, it’s me” conversations in history. His ex-boyfriend and business partner, Dr. Tyler Hall, has moved on with a sexy new guy, but Alec still remains lonely and alone, mourning the loss of the man he thought he’d spend the rest of his life with. In an attempt to shake things up a bit, Alec impulsively decides to buy himself a motorcycle he doesn’t know how to ride or care for. It’s not the smartest decision he’s ever made. 

Within a few hours of battling a testy carburetor and a fickle kick starter, Alec admits defeat and limps into Adams’ Vintage Motors for help. There, he meets Dylan Booth, the shop’s rough-and-tumble and oh-so-hetero owner. Despite Dylan’s initial reluctance, an unlikely friendship starts to develop between the mechanic and the humanitarian. And, when Dylan masterminds a plan to attend a party masquerading as Alec’s new boyfriend in order to help him save face with Tyler, Alec has no choice but to go along with the charade. Only, it turns out that not all those longing glances and casual touches are just for show…

Anyone who read my status updates while I was reading this book knows that I fell hard for both of these endearing and incredibly sexy characters. Dylan’s hard body and big-mouth hooked me immediately; I fell in lust with him over that first handshake (who knew rough hands and motor oil could be such a turn on?!), and slid headlong into love with him when he uttered the words, “sex swing.” But his appeal wasn’t just his spectacular muscles and mouthy comebacks. Dylan had a surprisingly sensitive soul and a protective streak that extended not only to those he cares about, but to complete strangers as well. I also loved that Dylan was so comfortable in his own skin and took his changing understanding of himself (mostly) in stride. It was some majorly sexy stuff.

As much as I loved Dylan’s darker past and blue-collar appeal, Alec’s intelligence, humility, wry humour, and easy domesticity was just as hard to resist. You add in the fact that the man’s a doctor who gave up dozens of more prestigious specialties to work with the homeless and my heart didn’t stand a chance. Also, Alec can talk nerdy to me any day of the week – I will probably never think of Da Vinci and the Vitruvian Man the same way ever again (and I am A-okay with that)!

Together, Alec and Dylan had the most amazing chemistry. When they meet for the first time, something just… clicked (despite the fact that both men were determined to keep things platonic). And then there was The Look. It was like one of those perfectly written Hollywood moments where everything stops and the music recedes, and all that’s left is Dylan and Alec looking into each other’s eyes and feeling those first fluttering of lust and confusion. My god. It was electric. 

I understand that gay-for-you romances aren’t every reader’s cup of MM tea because the plotlines can often border on the ludicrous or the gay character can come across a bit like a predator, but I thought Ms. Jaymes hit exactly the right note with The Backup Boyfriend. There was something about the ease with which Dylan accepted the physical aspects of the relationship but fought the more emotional ties, and the way that Alec was determined to suppress any romantic feelings for Dylan in order to preserve the friendship, that washed away these traditional criticisms. I loved the raw intensity of their reactions to one another, as well as their struggles to communicate, and thought that their relationship missteps felt entirely natural to their characters. So bravo, Ms. Jaymes!

I also thought that both Noah and Tyler were strong secondary characters. For obvious reasons, readers are made to dislike Tyler at the beginning of The Backup Boyfriend (let’s be real, friends always pick sides in a breakup and bringing his new boy toy to Alec’s house to pick up his stuff was a Grade A douche move on Tyler’s part). However, Tyler’s character started to redeem himself a little at the end, and the hints about a greater motivation for the breakup has me intrigued. Still, Noah was hands down my favourite of the two. He was consistently hilarious, a little over-the-top, and plenty dramatic, but Ms. Jaymes never let him become a caricature. I appreciated that he (metaphorically) bitch-slapped his best friends with tough love when it was needed, and that he held reservations about Dylan’s sudden fluid sexuality. Given the circumstances, his reactions always felt organic and true to his character. Even though I know it’s going to make me ugly cry over his and Rick’s relationship, I can’t wait to read about Noah’s happily ever after.

As one of the best books I’ve read all year, it’s hard to believe that The Backup Boyfriend is Ms. Jaymes’ first full-length novel. I gave this book 5 very enthusiastic stars and am left wondering what the heck I will do when her next work surpasses its awesomeness. Do you think if I ask really, really nicely Goodreads will loan me a 6th star?! 

Verdict: I highly recommend this book for anyone with a romantic soul and an appreciation for perfectly plotted gay-for-you arcs. My advice, though, is to read it slowly – you’ll want to savour every last adorable, butterfly-inducing, tear-jerking moment it had to offer. 

PS: This book gave me my new favourite term: “oh-holy-shit-gasm.” Epic.

Note: This review was originally published on Goodreads on December 4, 2013.

Quotable Quotes:

“I wouldn’t miss this fake-homo show for all the Gucci Shoes on Rodeo Drive.” 

***

“Jesus had two Dads and he turned out okay.”
My Rating:
2 Smooch3 Smooch

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Review: Rescue Me by Scarlet Blackwell

Rescue Me CoverTitle & Author: Rescue Me by Scarlet Blackwell
Release Date: November 20, 2010
Publisher: Silver Publishing
Pages: 414 pages

Book Blurb (from Goodreads):
After a near fatal car crash leaves him scarred both physically and emotionally, Matt Harmon finds the solitude of his huge, lonely house too much to bear. Hiring nurse James Hayden to look after him seems like the best idea for Matt, whose fierce independence has been compromised by his injuries. The two men clash from the start as James struggles to help Matt rebuild his shattered body and heal his crushed soul. The bond they form is forged in fire and ice, and the wounds they inflict on one another can only be erased by Matt’s admission that he can’t live without James’s loving touch. Will Matt realize too late that James is the only one who can rescue him from himself?

My Thoughts:

When I started writing this review, I had no idea how to rate this book.

None.

When the story begins, Matt has been seriously injured in a car accident. He’s broken and scarred, wracked with pain, and mostly bed-bound. I’ve never been in a car accident that serious (knock on wood!), but I know how grumpy I get when I’m sick, so the man immediately had my sympathy. I completely understood why someone in his position would feel vulnerable, irritable, and defensive. I even understood why he might lash out at those taking care of him.

Unfortunately, it quickly becomes clear that it’s not only the accident and his resulting injuries that are causing Matt to act like an ass. No, he’s always been a short-tempered, ill-mannered, homophobic, emotionally-stunted asshole with anger management issues and quick fists. And the things that he says and does to James practically every time they are in the same room together? They’re vile (I still cannot get what happened at the dinner party out of my head or my heart).

To put it boldly: Matt had no redeeming qualities. Not one.

As a reader, I didn’t quite know what to do with this realization. I mean, I’m glad the author didn’t try to pass off Matt’s behavior as something that we were supposed to accept and love him in spite of. No, Blackwell called Matt out repeatedly – he was an unlovable dick. So that’s good… right?!

Well… not exactly.

Because at its core, Rescue Me is still supposed to be a romance novel. And what do most readers want from a romance novel? Two flawed but likeable people to meet and fall in love.

Instead, we got Matt and James.

And while I loathed Matt with the power of a thousand fiery suns until 85% of the way through the novel, James wasn’t always my favourite person either. Admittedly, James is patient. James is kind. James is sexy. James is way more than Matt deserves. But James is also a little shallow; he believes Matt’s good looks are a good enough “redeeming quality” to justify sleeping with him (even in the face of his atrocious behavior). He’s also indecisive and weak; I lost count of the number of times that James supposedly cut off all ties with Matt only to turn around and sleep with him again a few days – sometimes only a few hours – later. Where was his backbone? Where was his self-respect?!

* Face palm! Face palm! FACE PALM! *

When James eventually tells Matt that he loves him, I was both moved and furious. I was moved by James’ willingness to make himself vulnerable to Matt, and furious because Matt still hadn’t done one thing to deserve James’ love. He hadn’t said one kind thing to him. He hadn’t done one kind thing for him. Let’s face it, he hadn’t even asked James something as simple as how he takes his coffee or what he likes to do when he’s not nursing cranky, closeted homophobes back to health. Instead, Matt had physically and emotionally pulverized James at every opportunity, shaming him for his sexuality and the honesty of his emotions.

How can anyone fall in love with someone who treats them like that? It makes no sense to me.

And so I struggled with this book.

I even struggled with its ending. When Matt finally realizes that he could lose James forever, he turns into this sweet, vulnerable, attentive guy that wants to cherish James for the rest of his life. But as much my sappy, romantic heart wanted this to happen, and as much as I wanted Matt to be this guy, everything we know about him up to this point says that he’s just not wired this way. It was as if the author gave him a complete personality transplant at the last minute in order to give her readers a happily ever after. It just didn’t feel authentic.

So after reading the epilogue and watching the characters fuck their way into the sunset on the hood of a sexy black Ferrari, I was left a little stunned, having no idea how to rate a book I had nearly DNF’d several times.

Was it worth 1 smooch because I have never hated a main character more than I hated Matt (and seeing him get a HEA after what he put James through seemed not only undeserved but also cosmically unfair)? Was it worth 2 smooches because I liked James’s character and was happy to see him get a happily ever after (regardless of who it was with)? Should I give it 3 smooches because even though I loathed James, the writing was compelling enough to keep me reading for more than 400 pages? Or, does it deserve 4 smooches because I liked James, thought the writing was well done, and the last 15% of the novel gave me the sweet, vulnerable, attentive James I had been hoping to see way earlier in the novel?!

It was a tough decision, but I ultimately gave Rescue Me 3 smooches. While it wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, and I don’t think I’ll be picking up another book by this author in the near future, I still think that objectively it was a good book.

My Rating:

 3 Smooch

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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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