Monday, August 22, 2011

Between Sinners and Saints by Marie Sexton

Why I read it:  I adored Ms. Sexton's Coda series.  She's become an autobuy for me.

What it's about: (from Goodreads) Levi Binder is a Miami bartender who cares about only two things: sex and surfing. Ostracized by his Mormon family for his homosexuality, Levi is determined to live his life his own way, but everything changes when he meets massage therapist Jaime Marshall.  Jaime is used to being alone. Haunted by the horrors of his past, his only friend is his faithful dog, Dolly. He has no idea how to handle somebody as gorgeous and vibrant as Levi. Complete opposites on the surface, Levi and Jaime both long for something that they can only find together. Through love and the therapeutic power of touch, they’ll find a way to heal each other, and they’ll learn to live as sinners in a family of saints.

What worked for me: I actually hadn't read the blurb before I started reading the book.  The fact that it was contemporary and written by Marie Sexton was enough for me.  This is a beautiful book.  That's the word that comes to mind when I think about the overall experience.  Levi Binder (rhymes with cinder) is, in his own way, almost as broken at Jaime - at its heart, it is, I think, a story about redemption through love.   Levi works as a bartender at The Zone, a gay bar where he hooks up, sometimes multiple times in a night, with a parade of nameless, faceless men.  He doesn't do relationships and he's not close to anyone.    He is estranged from his devoutly Mormon family because he's gay and his promiscuous lifestyle emphasises the rift between he and his family.
Jaime on the other hand is much more quietly alone - a survivor of sexual abuse as a child, he keeps apart from people, finding it very difficult to be touched and to trust.  (It might seem strange that such a person is a massage therapist, but it is really quite well explained in the book - he has control as the therapist - he's the one doing the touching, and the touching isn't sexual in nature - he doesn't really see a person, rather, a collection of muscles, ligaments and tendons which need treatment.  So, he's touching others without really feeling, without being touched at all.)
When they first meet, Levi hits on Jaime quite aggressively and Jaime is terrified.  This gets through to Levi in a way that nothing ever has before and he makes a heartfelt apology and they start a friendship - with no ulterior motives, which is a first for Levi, as much as it is for Jaime, albeit for different reasons.
Interwoven in their burgeoning relationship is the relationship between Levi and his family.  Of necessity, the book goes fairly heavily into the Mormon religion and there is a strong religious overtone to the book - it's not preachy or anything, but God and faith and church doctrine play a major part in the story.  I felt it was a brave move by the author - religion is often a sticky subject and, perhaps, Mormonism is perhaps slightly more problematic because of the perception that they are a bit, er, out there in their beliefs and practices.  Levi addresses it himself in the book actually - he makes a comment about how as soon as people hear he was a raised a Mormon, they ask him about polygamy and the TV show "Big Love".  When Levi came out to his parents, they tried to get him to "pray the gay away" and when that didn't work, their solution was for Levi to be celibate his whole life.  Not surprisingly, Levi rebels against this idea.  Extremely hurt by the abandonment of his family and the conditions on what he thought was supposed to be unconditional, he adopts a lifestyle designed to grate on his family's last nerve.
As Levi and Jaime become closer, Levi starts to put Jaime's needs first.  He sees Jaime's need for family and connection and introduces Jaime to his family for his (Jaime's) benefit - as they are (at this point) only friends, there is no problem from his family with him doing this.  Levi's family is large  and there are various points of view regarding Levi's "gayness" - from, the church doctrine is wrong and being gay is okay, to it's okay to be gay but not promiscuous, and I'm so sick of hearing about it, can we not talk about it anymore? and to no way, gay is wrong wrong wrong.  In the course of painful family "confabs" we see all the different points of view.  I thought Ms. Sexton quite cleverly put these viewpoints across - they were entirely consistent with the characters as drawn and didn't come across as some kind of social commentary.  But it also showed very clearly the tension that really exists for believers (of any religion really) where the religion dictates that homosexuality is wrong but also preaches love and family.  When my son was young, I couldn't get him to eat (much at all but in particular red meat) and he became iron deficient.  The paediatrician told me to make sure I fed him red meat or he'd be ill.  He also told me not to "make food a war".  I got mad.  I said, "well, what do you want - do you want him to eat red meat or not have a war - because I can't do both!".  He conceded I had a point and for a while there was war and such interesting dishes as shaved steak in yoghurt... but I digress.  My point is, sometimes things seem mutually exclusive and extremely difficult to reconcile.  It's not as easy as just saying that what someone believes is wrong.  There's more to it than that - even if, ultimately, it happens to be true (that they are wrong I mean).    I very much liked how Levi's desire to be connected to his family kept him coming back even though he felt he was on a hiding to nothing.  The reverse was also true of course.   Enter Jaime.  It becomes apparent to some members of Levi's family (before Levi fully realises it himself) that Levi is in love with Jaime.  And for some of his family that makes all the difference - as difficult as they found his "gayness" to deal with, his promiscuity made it impossible for them to give him support.  As he gets closer to Jaimie and changes his lifestyle in order to be a better man and what Jaime needs, he draws to a place where his family can begin to compromise and accept him for who he is and who he loves.    I felt Levi's frustration when he was the centre of the family confab - when he was asked over and over again to do something that could not be done - stop being gay (or, at the very least, give up gay sex).  Part of me wondered why he kept coming back, but the other part of me understood - families - let's face it, they get away with what no-one else will.

But, the real beauty of the book was Jaime and Levi.  Jaime was such a wounded soul and seeing him come out of his shell and blossom in Levi's care was so lovely.   Watching Levi become the man who does this - who wanted too, who could,  was lovely too.  Levi realises that Jaime may never be able to be a sexual partner for him but loves him anyway.  He is patient and kind and manages not to be a martyr in the process.  Because Levi and Jaime had spent time becoming good friends, Jaime is able to trust Levi and he learns many things about himself and his fears and how strong he is.  What Jaime went through as a child is not something that could be fixed by a "mighty wang of lovin'" and it was nice that we were shown that it was not all wine and roses in the bedroom once Jaime and Levi started to get physical.  They had to learn and talk and adjust and sometimes it all went wrong but they kept being patient and kind to one another and worked through it.  There would always be some triggers for Jaime but that he would not longer be crippled by what had happened to him as a young boy.

All of the above makes it sound like the book is heavy going but while angsty, it does have it's lighter moments too, like this one where Jaime is reflecting that he was glad Levi had offered to teach him to surf:-

He'd wished many times he knew how...     ...He also wasn't sure where to go to avoid running into some type of surfer gang.  He'd seen Point Break and while he suspected it was nothing but Hollywood bullshit, he didn't exactly want to find out the hard way he was wrong.
And Jaime, while broken and scarred was no pushover.  He was very clear about his boundaries and he could (and did) stand up for himself.  He needed Levi yes but he wasn't pathetic.  And in different ways, Levi needed Jaime just as much.  As protective of Jaime as Levi was, I didn't feel the relationship was uneven - what Jaime brought to Levi was just as precious.  And they were both guys and they did guy things and had guy conversations - they were whole characters and so much more than their own traumas.

What didn't: I understood why the book ended where it ended, but personally, I would have liked to have had the whole scene.

What else? All in all, I think I have done a poor job of explaining why reading this book was such a wonderful experience and the beauty of Levi and Jaime together.  You really just need to read it and I think you'll get what I've been trying to say.

Grade: A

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

July Reads

On Paper/eBook

The Chronicles of the Warlands series by Elizabeth Vaughan - A- - see my review of the series so far here

Do Over by Mari Carr -B-.  This is a very romantic short about a husband's 25th anniversary gift/weekend to his wife.  The cover images didn't feel right to me - she's much too young, but he at least has some gray in his hair!  At only 72 pages, I was easily able to read it in one sitting.  The thing which didn't quite gel with me was that it was also a sexy story and I didn't feel the romance (and it was very romantic!) "fit" with the hot sexxoring.  I enjoyed both individual aspects of the story but I didn't think they meshed all that well.  It was nice to read a story about a slightly older couple who are happily married but wanting to reconnect and get the sizzle back after their children have left home.

Sweet Possession by Maya Banks -B.  I'd put off reading this one after I read a couple of disappointed reviews.  Much to my surprise then, I really enjoyed the romance aspect of this book.  Just to change it up, there are only 2 people in the bed this time - Lyric and Connor - but that didn't mean it wasn't smokin'.  The "suspense" subplot was really non existent and just an excuse for the characters to get together.  Because I'm in it for the romance, I wasn't too bothered by this but there really isn't anything suspenseful about this story.    Connor has always been the non-kinky straight arrow of the group so I liked that he remained true to his well established character and I enjoyed the interplay between both the girls and the guys.  I think it does have, possibly, one of the "guyest" declarations I've ever read:
"If you're asking me to explain how or why people fall in love, you're barking up the wrong tree.  I watched all my friends fall hard for the women in their lives.  I secretly thought they were all morons.  They completely lost their shit.  I never understood it.  Until now.  Now, I can see exactly what they were thinking and feeling.  Because I've completely lost my shit over you."
Ah, Connor - a man with a style all his own! :D
I like the cover, but I think she must be standing on a box because in the book, the top of Lyric's head reaches to just under Connor's chin.  Just sayin'.

Magic Mourns by Ilona Andrews, from Must Love Hellhounds Anthology - B+.  This is the story of how Andrea and Raphael finally got together and explains a little more about Teddy Jo and apples of immortality.  A fun story for fans of the series. The sharpie scene was funny and Raphael's reaction was just perfectly him.  I do love Raphael!

 ** Pick of the Month **
The Perils of Pleasure by Julie Anne Long - A.  What a delightful book!  I'd been a bit put off by the title but I've heard so many good things about this author, I finally decided to give her a try.  When I was able to pick this book up on a $2.99 e-special, I thought the risk was low.  I'm so glad I did.  The story was very good and not the usual - the hero is a "Mr" and the heroine actually worked for a living (shock, horror).   I very much enjoyed the wit and charm of the story and the characters and the style of the writing.  Here's a taste.
She looked as though she'd been ravished. He doubted she would welcome the observation. 
"You look as though you've been ravished," he said, as he was in a mood to make unwelcome observations.
I enjoyed how many of the standard romance tropes were turned on their heads - a very capable older, experienced woman (I didn't see an actual age mentioned but she would have had to have been around 30 I believe which is quite old for a heroine in 1820) who saves the hero (he saves her too of course, as heroes are wont to do) for example.  It's also a "road trip" story and the characters are together for almost the whole book, so there's plenty of interaction and dialogue and being shown the how and why these characters fall in love.  It's very, very good.  I feel a glom coming on! :D  It's my ** Pick of the Month ** for July.

Her 5 Favorite Words by Gina Gordon - B-. Cute sexy short (very short) about "love in an elevator". I enjoyed the humour of the ending. Only 12 pages, so it's good if you only have a few minutes.

Coming Clean by Inez Kelley - B+ Very good sexy short story about  married couple Vivi and Grant and their best friend Cade.  Vivi has a fantasy of being with Grant and Cade together and Grant has a secret (or not so secret) longing for Cade too (although he struggles with a "bi" or "gay" label - the only male he's interested in is Cade.  Cade is openly bisexual and has long had a thing for both of his friends.  Even though the book is only 92 pages, there is plenty of character in there for my money and I really enjoyed the negotiation between the 3 of how things were going to work.    I liked the dialogue and the various connections shown between the three - it felt equal as opposed to the men only being linked via the woman for example and many of their believable fears were dealt with during the course of the story.  I must say that where I read a menage story m/f/m I like them much better when there is m/m interaction too and this one delivered - oh boy howdy did it! *fans self*  It was hot and romantic and sexy  and all this in only 92 pages!  I was enjoying the threesome so much I would have liked to read more about them.  I wonder where they'd be a year on?  I think there are other books in the Dirty Laundry series I'm going to have to check out.

Like No Other Lover by Julie Anne Long - B+. Another enjoyable story from Ms. Long.  From what I've read and reviews of the other books in the series, I think I can rely on her to deliver a good story.  This one didn't work quite as well for me as The Perils of Pleasure, but it was still very good.  Miles was an interesting alpha-in-beta-clothes type character IMO (and quite yummy) and Cynthia was sympathetically drawn - she could have come across as merely a gold-digger - and on the surface that's exactly what she was, but she had honour and she had very good reasons for her behaviour.  I thought the ending was a bit abrupt and that left me just a little bit flat at the end.  Still, it was a very good book.

Heaven Can't Wait by Pamela Clare (I-Team 1.5) - C+.  An amusing little e-only story about Lissy and Will which takes place after book 1 of the series.  The characters don't appear much in subsequent books though.  The story follows the 2 weeks prior to Lissy & Will's wedding where, on a bet, born from fears planted by Lissy's not-very-nice mother, they abstain from sex.  Enjoyable enough but not earth-shaking or anything.

Grace Under Fire by Jackie Barbosa - D+/C-. Lady Grace is chosen by best friends Lord Colin Fitzgerald and Atticus Stillwell to be their woman - she will marry Colin and bear his heirs (regardless of the actual father) but the two men will share her affections. Improbable and not very romantic story - it was more erotica than romance IMO, even though there was a HEA. The beginning was very much like a transaction rather than a romance - I don't know why they chose Grace and I didn't believe it was more than lust (combined with the need for Colin to produce an heir) actually. It lacked any real character development even if it was only 53 pages.  There was no relationshp between Grace and the two men shown to me and I didn't think it was remotely realistic.  Their amorous activities were very adventurous for innocent virgin Grace but she seemed to take it in stride - somewhat remarkable given the level of, er, penetration and the lack of preparation.  It made me a bit uncomfortable actually (and not just physically!).

Now A Bride by Mary Balogh - C. Not so much a story as a collection of deleted scenes and a series epilogue. The latter did not really add anything meaningful to the story. and I'm not sure the deleted scenes did either - I think Balogh's editor was right in the first book as it turned out (although it is interesting to see the impact of good editing on a story).  However, it was nice enough to revisit the characters.  I am definitely looking forward to the new book however - how will Balogh make the pieces fit?  I trust her to do it though.

Paradise Found by Hunter Raines - C.  Okay story about a gay couple who are looking to spark something in their relationship.  They meet another guy at a resort in Anguilla.  Interesting idea but it fell flat in the execution for me.  Also, I thought that Phillip's father was overly villainous and icky - it just wasn't necessary.  I couldn't quite understand how Cameron and Mark were able to be together without actually talking for months on end either.  It had promise but in the end it was just okay for me.

Again by Mary Calmes - B+.  Noah and Dante have been together for a number of years but apart for 6 months at the start of the book. Dante has been undercover for the CIA for that time and Noah hasn't been able to contact him to tell him that his sister agreed to carry a child (her egg, Dante's sperm) for them and they were having a baby.  When he meets Dante at the airport, he is kissing his (female) CIA partner and tells Noah that he's in love and can't be with him anymore.  (It's not quite what you think but close.)  The set up is improbable (there was a little bit of eye-rolling going on).  BUT, the rest of the story, the characters, the dialogue, the little girl, the sex, was EXCELLENT that, I forgave it.  Recommended.  Just go with it - it's worth it.

Heaven (Heaven Sent #1) by Jet Mykles - B+. Fellow m/m romance readers I've met online all seem to recommend Jet Mykles.  Well, I finally took the plunge and now I know why.   In fact, after reading this one, I immediately went and bought the rest of the series, including the little shorts sold only at Loose ID.  This first book is about Johnnie Heaven, bisexual lead singer of Heaven Sent and his romance with (formerly entirely) straight Tyler Purcell, manager/owner of the hotel Heaven Sent is playing in for the nightclub opening.  I love gay-for-you stories.  I expect they are unrealistic (but, as a heterosexual woman I really have no idea) but I love love love them.  The story is very emotive and sexy (oh boy is it!) and  character driven and packs a punch even in only 96 pages (there may have been tears, not telling).  I would have liked to have seen how Tyler came out to his family and friends though - it was a big deal for him but we are only shown the couple in an epilogue where it's already happened and all is well.

Pretty Red Ribbon (Heaven Sent #1.5 by Jet Mykles -The little shorts available from Loose ID are really just (very good and smokin') sex scenes.  Told over 15 pages or so, there's not really a story or anything added to what we already know and is therefore a little hard to grade (so I'm not.).  Still, I'm not complaining. *grin*

Purgatory (Heaven Sent #2) by Jet Mykles - B- This second book is about  Luc Sloane (bass player for Heaven Sent) and Reese Schuyler.  Reese and his twin sister Reegan are part of the original Heaven Sent fanbase and were friends with the band when they first started.  After Reese comes on to Luc in  a moment of "weakness" Luc pushes him away in disgust (he's not gay).   The story picks up some 6 years later (after Luc has discovered that men are fun too) and Reese has "de-gayed" his life.  He's teaching in a very respectable, conservative (stuck-up) school and leads a very straight life (in all senses of the word).   Luc wants a chance to finish what Reese started 6 years earlier.    This book is another enjoyable episode of the series but I didn't like Luc's methods of forcing change on Reese - the whole "I know what's best for you" and "you'll thank me for this later" (even if it happens, by serendipity to turn out to be true) generally doesn't work very well for me.  That aside, the rest was very good.

Sexy Spring Surprise (Heaven Sent #2.5) by Jet Mykles -See my comments on Pretty Red Ribbon.  And, may I just say? Rowr.

On Audio

Caressed by Ice by Nalini Singh, narrated by Angela Dawe - B+.  I must be getting used to Dawe's narration of this series because I found it much easier to forget about my narration niggles with this one.  Caressed by Ice was one of my favourites on paper so I was very happy to revisit the story on audio.  Very enjoyable.

Magic Slays by Ilona Andrews, narrated by Renee Raudman - B+.  See my review of the book here.  As expected, Raudman did add something special to the story with her narration, although there were a couple of instances where Kate's voice was used for Curran's words and vice versa which was a bit distracting.  I especially enjoyed the scenes with the Pack justice for the wolves and with Kate and Curran and the dvd!  They were so good on paper but much more on audio.  I did a more detailed audio review for AAR which you can find here.

Magic Dreams by Ilona Andrews, narrated by Renee Raudman, from the Hexed anthology - B.  This one is Jim and Dali's story and as much as I enjoyed it, I had hoped for just a little more in the romance department of this story - the bedroom door was securely shut sadly.   As much as I liked Jim's declaration, it came right at the end of the story and there wasn't really any of them happy together which I missed.  Also, I think Renee Raudman uses a different (more Asian sounding) voice for Dali (and a different Jim voice too) in the Kate Daniels books but it seemed to me that she was using pretty much her Kate Daniels voice for Dali here and her Curran voice for Jim.  Maybe the Dali voice is hard to sustain because this story is told from Dali's first person POV.  Coming right off listening to Magic Slays however, the voices were a bit too similar to Kate and Curran and it did throw me a little.  It was those things which stopped the listen being an A for me.  However, the story itself was very good - I like Dali and it was nice to see her save the day and Jim being the one in trouble for a change!

Black Ice by Anne Stuart, narrated by Jennifer Van Dyke - C.  I didn't like the narration.  I'm finding it hard to articulate exactly why.  Ms. Van Dyke did good accents for the various characters and her Bastien voice was nice and deep.  But, it felt, to me, like she was annoyed or something most of the way through the book.  There was a rushed quality to the narration - the sentences were very close together, with hardly a pause and there was some quality about her tone which grated to my ears and kept me from fully enjoying the story.  I'd heard a lot about this iconic book - the first sex scene has apparently caused much discussion about whether or not there was consent (I didn't have a problem with it - there was no force and she didn't say "no" whatever was going on in her head, if she had've said no and he ignored it, well that would be different, but she didn't, so, no problem for me, but I can see where others might disagree.).  I've seen discussion about the ingenue heroine being TSTL - I thought she was quite consistently drawn really - for who she was, she made not entirely unreasonable decisions so that didn't bother me either.  But, I didn't really see Bastien and Chloe fall in love.  I saw attraction but nothing that would lead me to believe they could be happy in the long haul.  I missed the "interlude" where they are happy together and learning each other and making plans - for me, it wasn't present in the book and that made me question the HEA.  I think I may well have enjoyed this one much better on paper.  The narrator really bugged me I'm afraid.

Nice Girls Don't Have Fangs by Molly Harper, narrated by Amanda Ronconi - A. This audiobook was a nice surprise for me - the writing was witty and snappy and really funny - I had many LOL moments during the listen and the narrator, Amanda Ronconi, was excellent.    Recommended for those who like light and funny PNR.
Nice Girls Don't Date Dead Men by Molly Harper, narrated by Amanda Ronconi - B.  I couldn't resist continuing on with the series after the success of the first book in the series.  The wit and fun continue in this book but it wasn't quite as successful from a story point of view.  Something is wrong with Gabriel and he's keeping secrets and acting suspicious.  I had 2 problems with this - first, I would never in a million years let someone get away with that kind of behaviour for so long and say nothing so it felt a bit thin to me that Jane (who is otherwise very outspoken) wouldn't.  It felt like it needed to happen to further the plot but not because it was true to the character.  The other problem is that the issue was not resolved during this book.  I suspect it is the main story of book 3 but it was a major part of the story in this book and for it to not be resolved AT ALL was disappointing.  Still, the narration was again excellent and there were many laughs during the book.  I think I will pause a little before listening to book 3 so it doesn't suffer from "glom fever".

Jacob by Jacquelyn Frank, narrated by Xe Sands -B.  This book is the first one in Frank's Nightwalker series.  I read the series a few years ago but had forgotten many of the details.  The story itself is a fairly standard paranormal fated-mates romance, although some effort was made by Frank to have Jacob agonise about what he thought of as Bella's lack of free will.  In a neat trick, Bella had decided she belonged with Jacob before knowing of their destiny - so she didn't have a problem.  However, if you think about this too long, your brain starts to leak out your ear so I don't recommend it.  It's a chicken/egg thing.  I quite liked Jacob but I don't remember Bella's character annoying me when I read the book - I'm putting this down to changing tastes over time because the narration was excellent.  I don't know how Xe (I've "chatted" with her at Goodreads, so I feel I can call her "Xe" :D) does it - but she's got this absolute deep gravelly thing going on for the male voices which are vastly different to the female voices and she can (seemingly effortlessly) shift between one and another in a conversation.  She made a wonderful effort differentiating the accents and tones of each of the Nightwalkers which I particularly appreciated given the recent debate over Angela Dawe's narration of Nalini Singh's Psy/Changeling series (in short, she has one "hero" voice and it makes it very hard to differentiate the men - even more difficult in a series).  I had no such problem with Xe's narration.  I enjoyed the book in print a few years ago but I think if I read it now, I would probably give it a C.  The narration was so good, it was neverless elevated to a B listen.  I'm definitely looking forward to more from this narrator.