Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

About Sarah Frantz

Sarah F. is a literary critic, a college professor, and an avid reader of romance -- and is thrilled that these are no longer mutually exclusive. Her academic specialization is Romantic-era British women novelists, especially Jane Austen, but she is contributing to the exciting re-visioning of academic criticism of popular romance fiction. Sarah is a contributor to the academic blog about romance, Teach Me Tonight, the winner of the 2008-2009 RWA Academic Research Grant, and the founder and President of the International Association of the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR). Sarah mainly reviews BDSM romance and gay male romance and hopes to be able to beat her TBR pile into submission when she has time to think. Sarah teaches at Fayetteville State University, NC.

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REVIEW: Once a Marine by Cat Grant

REVIEW: Once a Marine by Cat Grant

Dear Ms. Grant.

This book is one of Riptide Publishing’s initial releases as it opens its doors for business. I had high hopes for it: contemporary m/m about a member of our Armed Forces kicked out under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and his hero, a writer of m/m romance. Unfortunately, this is one of the most boring books I’ve ever read. Not actively infuriating — I never yelled at the book, I never rolled my eyes — but just unutterably boring, with cardboard characters, speedbump conflicts, ordinary sex, and no tension whatsoever.

Once_A_MarineCole is a former Marine major kicked out under DADT. He has (relatively mild?) PTSD and the first semester of law school is very very hard (cue tiny violins.) Marc is a waiter at a local diner who writes m/m romance on the side. He’s hoping eventually to be able to earn enough from his writing to make it a full-time job, so he’s very committed to it. Cole has breakfast at the diner, Marc’s hot for Cole because he has a fetish for military men,  Cole leaves his cheap pay-as-you-go cell phone in the diner, Marc takes it back to him, Cole invites him in, Marc gives Cole a blowjob, Cole throws Marc out.

And really, the emotional depth of the actions are just about reflected in that summary.

Okay, so Cole gets mad at himself for being an asshole, goes back to the diner to apologize, Marc agrees to go out with him again, and they both agree to take things slowly. But then Cole gets spooked when they touch in public, so Marc gets mad at the closet case. But then Cole realizes he’s being an asshole and it’s all solved! And then they quickly get together to the point that they’re almost living together. Then they ARE living together. Then Cole’s asshole father calls to say his mother fell down, can he come visit, so Cole goes home to North Carolina, and is shocked at what he finds, because his mother has early-onset Alzheimers that no one told him about. So he stays and casually asks Marc to join him. Marc refuses, Cole breaks up with him. Marc changes his mind, goes out to NC to be with Cole, who tells him maybe not. Cole still wants them to be together, but he can’t ask Marc to give up his life. He sends Marc home, eventually goes back himself, and…oh who cares?

Honestly, every barrier is treated like a speedbump. Cole has PTSD! Marc whines him into going to see a psychologist, so that’s all taken care of. ::dusts hands:: Cole’s parents are falling apart and Cole has to be with them, even though his father hates that he’s gay and refuses to get help for his wife. Cole asks Marc to move to NC because he has no idea how long he’ll be there, Marc says no, Cole breaks up with him, Marc changes his mind, Cole changes his mind. Each one of these steps is maybe a conversation. That’s it. Seriously! For example: Marc chucks it all, goes to NC, meets Cole’s father, who throws him out, which Marc just accepts. Marc tells Cole his dad will just have to get used to him:

“Marc, you don’t get it,” Cole said slowly. “He’s an old-school Marine with a very set way of looking at the world. Everything’s either black or white to him. Right or wrong. If he won’t even accept his own son, what makes you think he’ll accept you?” [Oh, okay, so rolling over and letting him live with his own hate is the way to go? Check!]

Marc stared at him, swallowing another sip of wine. He couldn’t have looked more stunned if Cole had hauled off and slapped him. [Yeah, no shit.]

“Look, as much as I appreciate your offer, I think moving here would be a big mistake.” Scratch that — now Marc couldn’t have looked more stunned. [Uh, yeah, me too. What the hell happened to getting so mad he wouldn't come out that you broke up with him. Over the phone?!] Cole scooped up his hand, cradling it between both of his. “Sooner or later you’ll start resenting me for making you leave your friends and your job and your mom behind. [You couldn't have thought of this BEFORE asking him to move? And then breaking up with him because he said no for all of these perfectly valid reasons you're now quoting back to him as if you thought of them first?] I love you, Marc, and I want you to be happy. But believe me, you’ll be miserable here. I don’t even want to be here. I’d give my left nut to get on a plane back to California with you tomorrow.” [So...why'd you ask in the first place? Why no apology for asking?]

“Why don’t we leave your left nut where it is, okay?” [Oh, har har. Humor!] There was that crooked smile he loved so much, and Marc’s comforting arms wrapped around him, pulling him back down beside him. “I like knowing where I can find it. And all your other parts, too.”

He carded his fingers through Marc’s dark curls [wow, I got REALLY tired of this image -- find another way to say "ran his fingers through his hair" please], inhaling the faint piney scent of his shampoo. “Go home and take care of Thomas. I’ll be back to see you when I can.”

“Still think it’ll be a few months?”

“Honestly, I have no idea. But I’ve got a feeling we should get ready for the long haul.”

“All right.” Marc sighed.

They lay there in silence for a while.

And that’s it! That’s the sum total of their conversation. REALLY? Marc came all the way across the country because Cole asked on a whim and then broke up with him when Marc said no, and then Cole completely changes his mind, and Marc says “all right” and that’s it! Can we have a little more emotional affect between these two men?

No, apparently not.

This book could have been amazing. Cole could have been deep and fascinating. He’s never had a boyfriend before, doesn’t know how to treat one, doesn’t know how to believe that he himself deserves a relationship. He misses the Marines, hates law school. Except…nothing’s dealt with beyond mentioning it, let alone examining it. Marc actually writes a story that matches their story, as they’re living it, but again, it’s just mentioned. There’s no THERE there, nothing insightful, nothing interesting, nothing beyond, “ooh, a writer and a Marine! Nifty!” Nothing about a writer having insights about what’s happening to him, or meta-commentary about his own story, or…anything.

(And that’s leaving aside the ridiculousness about how Cole’s parents could not have been living in the same house in Raleigh NC his whole life if his father had actually spent 30 years in the Marines, because there are no Marine bases in Raleigh and they would have moved around more than that anyway. But whatever…)

Anyway, it didn’t take long to read this story because plot points was all it was. But I can’t imagine myself ever reading anything else you write if this is the level of your story-telling ability.

Grade: D

Best regards,


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REVIEW: I Just Play One on TV by A.L. Turner

REVIEW: I Just Play One on TV by A.L. Turner

Dear Ms. Turner.

I read your book back in August and loved it, but it’s taken me a while to get back to it for review. Reading it a second time, I still loved it and it surprised me anew with its complexity and how much I loved the characters.

I Just Play One on TV by A.L. TurnerThe story is told from Vince’s first person perspective. And he’s just wonderful. He’s in LA as an aspiring actor and interviews for two roles in one day: the “straight” man on a horrible sitcom, and a character in a high-concept sci-fi show with a multicultural ensemble cast. He auditions with Alex for the sci-fi show, things click on the stage and personally, but they’re both convinced they won’t get the roles. They have an out-of-character-for-both-of-them one night stand after the audition and are shocked weeks later when they find themselves working together. The problem is that Alex is deeply in the closet professionally and personally and Vince isn’t. And Vince doesn’t do one night stands (much). So despite their mutual attraction and Vince’s huge crush on Alex, they don’t get together and don’t get together. And don’t get together. And they channel all their tension and frustration into their characters who are really close “friends” that Vince and Alex play with a strong gay subtext. These characters don’t get together and don’t get together as well.

Vince and Alex finally get together a quarter of the way through the book. This is NOT an erotic romance, by the way. It’s certainly a m/m romance, but it’s not erotic at all. Most of the sex scenes are fade to black and close the door and come back after it’s all over. Which is actually rather frustrating, considering the sexual tension that Vince and Alex (and their characters, James and Matt) create and sustain for so long.

Once they’re together, the tension comes from their differences about being in or out of the closet. Vince goes back into the closet for Alex — much to the very vocal disgust of his friends and family — but it’s a constant tension in their actual relationship, as we see when Vince invites Alex to go home to Chicago with him for Christmas. Alex agrees, then freaks out in the airport when they’re recognized by another actor. He eventually makes it to Chicago and Vince forgives him, but the tension is real and Vince just doesn’t GET why Alex insists on the closet so strongly, while at the same time Vince wants to push the gay subtext in the show to text because he believes its Important.

One of the joys of this book for me, especially reading it the second time, was really seeing how Vince came to understand Alex’s viewpoint on the closet. Alex has a horrific coming out story that just gets more and more damaging every time he tries to come out. Whenever he tries, it’s been awful for him, and as Vince stays with him (and the story takes place over more than a year), Vince comes to understand and even agree with Alex’s perspective, against his own political and personal beliefs. Readers shouldn’t worry, though, because Alex comes to understand Vince’s perspective as well and they get their HEA when Alex blows the doors off his closet in about as public a way as possible.

The closet issue also means, maybe counter-intuitively, that this book is incredibly complex emotionally. The heroes get together, break up, get back together, break up, and then finally get back together again, completely remade. And this isn’t the “I love you, I hate you, I love you” of bodice rippers and Harlequin Presents. This is deep commitment to the relationship that’s torn apart by two personalities that need very different things, who are then unable to stay apart because they need each other more, who are then torn apart again by different choices and issues, who finally find their way back to each other in ways that will sustain the relationship.

I also really REALLY love the writing. I loved Vince because he’s so open and honest. I loved Alex because he’s so confused and scared. And the writing itself is sparse and perfect:

We cleaned up the mess we’d made of the apartment and then showered — together — kissing and touching and cleaning each other. Once we were out, he tied his towel around his waist and went back out into the living area, turning on the stereo system low and turning out most of the lights. I stood in the living room, naked, and watched him, wondering if he wanted me to leave.

When he saw me, he went still, becoming nothing but a shadow in the dimness of the night lights and streetlights and the blue glow of the stereo control screen. He finally moved — to set down the remote — and walked towards me. I didn’t let myself back away or hide myself. If he wanted to regret this, if he wanted to be horrified by it, that was his problem, not mine. Better I know now than have to wonder.

He stopped just inches away, his eyes on mine, his expression motionless.

I didn’t say anything.

Then he unknotted his towel and let it drop to the floor, and he slid his hands up my arms to my shoulders, slowly curling around as he went, savoring the caress. My whole body shuddered and he whispered, “Stay tonight?”

Definitely,” I said. Forever, I thought.

He pushed his fingers deep into my hair and touched his forehead to mine, softly and more intimately than a kiss. I could feel his breath on my face as he said, “Good. That’s good.”

He led the way up to his loft bedroom. Up here, the bedside lamp was on. The covers were folded back, showing inviting white sheets. Alex had speakers up here, so the low-key music purred in the background. Candles, unlit, stood on the nightstand.

He stopped by the nightstand and turned, watching me take in the room, his expression tight and unhappy. “It’s too much, right?”

“No,” I said. “No, it’s…” Ridiculously, amazingly, shockingly romantic. For once, though, I was literally lost for words. Even as I screamed for joy inside, my heart broke at how afraid he was, and how uncertain. What he must have been thinking about, worrying about.

He took it the wrong way. “Sorry, I know it’s — I don’t know what I was thinking — I mean, I haven’t ever — You’re a guy, I’m a guy, it’s stupid — ”

He was picking up the candles as if to stash them away when I reached him and caught his hands, pushing them down until the candles were back where they’d started and he’d let go of them. Now I had his attention again.

“Alex,” I said, “Stop. Take a deep breath.”

He did, and I felt him relax. I kissed him, first with just my lips, lightly and quickly across the seam of his mouth, then deeper, exploring him, taking my time, not letting him pull away or hasten things. I kept kissing him until I could feel him understanding it and relaxing into it, savoring the languid sensuality.

I didn’t know how to explain it to him, all of that crap about gender stereotypes, and expectations, and romance. I didn’t know how to tell him how thrilled I was without sounding pacifying or patronizing.

For possibly the first time in my life, I realized that the best thing to say may be nothing at all.

I lit the candles and turned off the lamp before I joined him in his bed.

My one quibble is that after watching these men through so much, the ending was very abrupt. I wanted to see them enjoy being back together, even for just a little epilogue. The final image is beautiful, sure, but there’s been so much angst and heartache and time apart, so much finality to their split, and so much careful dealing throughout the rest of the book with fallout of decisions, that I wished for a glimpse of them beyond that night just to make sure they were doing okay.

As I said back in August, I couldn’t figure out if this was fanfic with the serial numbers filed off — I *never* watch TV, so I’m really bad about figuring this stuff out. You assured us it wasn’t. And honestly, I really think it’s TOO self-conscious about the slash angle to be fanfic. Vince follows the slashfic about their characters online. The characters go to conventions and meet fans who show them explicit slashpics. Vince convinces the show’s creator to make the subtext between James and Matt overt, which precipitates changes on the show because of how it affects Alex in real life. Even if it is fanfic without serial numbers, its very self-consciousness makes it fascinating to me. And the writing is amazing enough that the story was real to me, no matter its origins.

I really loved this book both times I read it and I honestly can’t recommend it enough.

Grade: A-

Best regards,

P.S. God, I hate hate hate the cover for this book. Yuck. Title’s not great, either.

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