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Aleksandr Voinov

JOINT REVIEW:  Return on Investment by Aleksandr Voinov

JOINT REVIEW: Return on Investment by Aleksandr Voinov

Return on investment voinov

Martin David, an eager but inexperienced financial analyst, is the newest member of the investment team at Skeiron Capital Partners in London. His boss is an avowed financial genius, but he’s also overbearing and intense. Despite his erratic behaviour, Martin can’t help being drawn to him both professionally and personally.

Too bad his boss doesn’t seem to feel the same. In a firm where pedigree and connections mean far more than Martin’s newly-minted business degree, Martin feels desperately inadequate—at least until he meets the enigmatic investment manager Alec Berger, who promises to help Martin establish himself in the financial community. Martin is so charmed by Alec’s sophistication and wit that he gives him data that should have stayed confidential.

Then the financial crisis hits. Banks burn, companies teeter on the brink, and Skeiron’s survival is at stake. Martin is pushed into the middle of the fight for Skeiron—against both the tanking economy and a ruthless enemy who’s stepped out of the shadows to collect the spoils.

Return on Investment is the new gay financial thriller from EPIC Award winner and Lambda Award finalist Aleksandr Voinov.

Dear Aleksandr Voinov,

You kindly sent me a copy of your new, self-published novel and Sirius was also keen to read it, so we decided on a joint review. While the book is a Kindle Select release, it is free of geographical restrictions.

Sirius: I will confess that despite really enjoying your writing in the last couple of years I have read very few if any of your solo project due to the subject matter not being my cup of tea. This book sounded like something I could read, so of course I was interested in reviewing it. I do not know how I would characterize this book, but I do think that “gay financial thriller” is not a sufficient description for me. There is a very strong erotic element in it and I would argue that a romantic storyline is also present, although I definitely would not call this book a pure romance.

Sunita: I have the same subject matter issue with Voinov’s solo backlist, although the Dark Soul series remains one of my favorite m/m reads of the last few years. I totally agree with your take on this new novel. It is strongly erotic and there is an obvious romance storyline by the midway point of the book (although it’s not clear at all at the beginning). The erotic parts drive the story forward but they do not need to be as long and detailed as they are for that to take place. I’m not complaining about them, just pointing out that this kind of detail is usually present in erotica and romance, not in the thriller category (even when there is on-page sex). That said, it didn’t matter to me that I couldn’t categorize it easily, because I like books like that. I agree that someone looking for a traditional romance would find aspects of the story to violate some of the unspoken rules, but other parts of the book reminded me a lot of mainstream romance.

Sirius: For the first 30-40 percent of the story I was very irritated with the main character of this book. I could barely tolerate his stupidity in any character of any genre. In theory I had no problem with Martin being attracted to Alec. I mean to me he had all the charm of a snake from the very beginning, but I fully admit that I may have been influenced by the blurb. The blurb clearly states that Martin gives him confidential information, so this probably made me prejudiced againt him from the start. Quite honestly, I feel that the blurb gave out a very significant spoiler which should have stayed hidden, because it made me form expectations and I usually try very hard to enter the book without any preconceived expectations.

To go back to Martin and Alec, I guess I can see how Martin was charmed by Alec but only to a certain degree. I do not see how Martin could share confidential information so easily and without much (if any) hesitation. And he did it twice, although apparently he remembered that he had a brain eventually and did not give out a final piece of information which I guess was more confidential than what he gave to Alec the first two times. I get that people in real life do criminal things like “insider trading” because they want to make a lot of money and they do not care that it is illegal. But making a lot of money at least counts as some kind of reason to do illegal things, right? This was a young idiot doing stuff and I am not quite even sure why. I do not want to give out even more spoilers, but it felt strange. I did not feel that he was even in love with Alec – in lust maybe, not that it would have been enough for me, but at least it would have been some kind of explanation. Martin acted as if he did not understand all the seriousness of passing confidential numbers about his firm productivity to an outsider. Was he not given a drill about any information about a firm being confidential the first day he started work? I know I am sensitive about the issues of confidentiality, I am a lawyer, but I just could not buy that somebody in the world of finance is so dim. He just acted as if he had no or very little clue – without any thought. If he acted as a seasoned criminal I may even had less problems with this. I also think that in light of another thing Alec did Martin should have run away pronto.

I have probably spent enough time on this issue. I just want to say that there is *a lot* of page space devoted to sex between Martin and Alec and a lot devoted to their “relationship” – them together is the main reason why I would insist on the word “erotic” in the book description.

Sunita: I found Martin frustrating as well. At first I felt sorry for him, since he was clearly in over his head with Alec and apparently in thrall to him. But I didn’t understand at all why he was so willing to give Alec confidential information. He didn’t hate his job, he seemed to want to progress in his career, so why would he jeopardize his future like this? For secret trysts at the Ritz and some fancy suits? There’s a word for someone who unethically exchanges confidential data for fancy gifts, and that word is not “ingenue.” I would have had a much easier time seeing Martin as going through a coming-of-age experience if he hadn’t *started out* so ethically challenged. Maybe this is influenced by the movie Wall Street and Martin is Charlie Sheen, but we just didn’t get enough of a sense of why he behaved the way he did at the beginning for me to have much sympathy for him. Since Alec was pretty clearly a weasel and dangerous from the first chapter and Martin experienced those qualities first-hand, I wasn’t on board to see the latter as starting out dumb and then growing up.

About halfway through the book I started to think about what it would be like if Martin had been an unreliable narrator. That would have been fun and I would have found his character much more interesting, because I really had trouble liking him as a naif (which I felt I was supposed to do).

“It’s not personal, Martin. Maybe it is for you. Be smart.” Francis gave him a smile, then brushed past and raised a hand to shoulder level. “Good night”.

Sirius: Martin’s crush on one of his bosses, a financial genius who is one of the partners in his firm, was much easier to understand and much easier to sympathize with. Feelings of never being able to measure up to him, wanting to mean something in Francis’ eyes, while I would not consider this storyline a full blown romance, I felt that this provided romantic element to the book and I liked them together.

Sunita: Yes, the Francis-Martin storyline was much more conventional and made more sense. Francis was a bit too larger-than-life in his character traits for me to fully warm to him as an individual: he was so handsome, so smart, so obsessed with his job, even his quirks seemed predictably fabulous, if that makes sense. I thought it was interesting that in the end he turned out to be quite old-fashioned in his approach to finance. It was as if we were supposed to see old-time M&A as somehow more ethical than the current financial world, and I’m not sure I buy that. But it was an intriguing twist and not one I expected.

There was something about Francis that intimidated Martin, from the first, rushed meeting during his interview to now, and probably for the rest of his time at the firm. The best way to deal with it was to stick to the claustrophobic concerns at Skeiron, pounding out one report after another. He knew those portfolio ultimately now, knew their market shares, their profit margins, their current value. To him, they were just set of stats, not people. Maybe the management figured prominently in Francis’s mind; after all, he did catch up with his CEOs regularly – but the people on the bottom rungs were invisible.

Sirius: I thought that Martin grew up a lot by the end of the book. I was very happy that apparently he learned enough ruthlessness from the villain but also had some fundamental decency in him. I really liked that and when I finished I even was glad that I “met” him.

Sunita: I wanted Martin to pay for the stupid things he did, or pay in a different way. In the end he had a bright future, the romantic relationship he wanted, and loyal friends. Everyone around him sacrificed more than he did. That kind of annoyed me, mostly because I didn’t think he deserved his good fortune.

Sirius: I really liked the settings of this book and this is a testament to the writer’s talent that he made finance sound so fascinating. Although I think the fact that I am completely ignorant about the finance played its part too – usually the more ignorant I am about the setting, the more eager to learn I am. The finance part of the book is written with authority, and since I have no knowledge to question it, the story swept me away.

Sunita: I agree, the setting was terrific, and the small details about the office, about deal-making, and many of the secondary characters were among the best parts of the book. The pacing felt off; it took a long time for the crash to happen, especially considering that’s the tagline of the book, and the last third was overstuffed with events (some of them really eyebrow-raising, like the bit with the priest).

Sirius: I also want to mention that I really liked Martin’s trainer and friend Josh – I get that Martin needed a friend outside of the crazy world of finance, but Josh ended up being such a sweet normal character in the sea of crazy, more importantly he felt like his own person with agency, not just existing to support Martin if that makes sense. Grade: C+

Sunita: I liked him too, and I liked Martin’s friendship with Ian. That was a very good depiction of how competitors are also friends. I found many of the smaller scenes (between Martin and Ian, Josh, and some of the other business associates) were more effective than the big set pieces. The one consistent misstep was the way the Dubai investor (and other potential Arab investors) were portrayed; they came way too close to stereotypes for my comfort (and the blanket description of “Arabs” didn’t help). Also, the description of British Asians as “exotic” needs to die a fiery death. Immediately. So, overall, a mixed but interesting read for me. Grade: C+

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REVIEW:  Dark Soul: Volumes 3, 4, and 5 by Aleksandr Voinov

REVIEW: Dark Soul: Volumes 3, 4, and 5 by Aleksandr...

Dear Mr. Voinov,

Your Dark Soul series has been a roller-coaster ride for me. It is not a genre romance, even though it has some very romantic moments. It features themes I rarely seek out, including menage, BDSM, and protagonists in organized crime. Purchasing all five volumes is not inexpensive. It is quite brutal in places. And while I enjoy serialized fiction, this one is more like a set of linked short stories in parts than a serialized novel.

Dark SoulAnd yet. And yet. I read each installment with apprehension but also eagerness, and they have rewarded me handsomely. I put off reading Volumes 4 and 5 for weeks, in part because I wanted to give them the attention they deserved. I’ve already talked about Volumes 1 and 2 here and here, so this review will cover the last three installments. I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers, because part of the pleasure and impact of the story comes from the way you’ve put it together. For readers who find my plot summary inadequate, there are reviews at Goodreads and a number of blogs that provide more answers.

The overall storyline is relatively compact: Stefano Marino, a avowedly heterosexual mob boss with a beautiful wife whom he loves, falls hard for Silvio Spadaro, an assassin who is the lover and heir of another boss. That boss sends Silvio to Stefano to assist him in a battle with the Russian mob. Volume 3 begins with the Russians’ attack on Stefano and Silvio’s retaliation against them, two acts that bring them together physically and emotionally, and it introduces a character from Silvio’s past who becomes part of the campaign against the Russians. This installment reveals more about Silvio, from his ruthlessness as an assassin and a person, to his sexual needs, to his vulnerability when he was a child. Stefano finally starts to come to terms with his attraction to Silvio and realizes it is not something he can wish or repress away.

In Volume 4, Silvio and Franco’s onslaught on the Russia mob continues and the relationship between Silvio and Stefano deepens, and both developments have their inevitable consequences. The mob war escalates beyond something that can be dealt with by merely buying off local law enforcement, and Donata is no fool. Stefano’s personal and professional existences are both up for grabs by the end, and it’s not at all clear which way the resolutions lie. Stefano is deeply conflicted because he is growing more emotionally committed to Silvio, but he also loves Donata, and he wants to keep everything the way it is and somehow add Silvio into the mix. Plus, he is trying to maintain his mob supremacy in the face of increasing threats.

Volume 5 has to wrap all of these loose ends together. And it does, with style and assurance, all the while introducing another major character. Savvy readers should deduce the backstory of the new character fairly quickly. Since I was slow on the uptake, I was kind of annoyed at first that this character became so important, although I understood why he had to for storyline reasons; then I finally got it and everything made sense.

In this final episode, the Russians are basically out of the picture but Stefano and Silvio have to deal with the increased law enforcement attention that accompanies their demise. Stefano tries to find a way to salvage his marriage while still hanging on to Silvio and fighting off challenges from within his organization. We also find out more about Silvio, which I found extremely helpful. By the beginning of Volume 4 I was starting to wonder if he was a sociopath. The ultimate explanation for some of his personality made sense to me, although I’m still ambivalent about how trustworthy he is and how fully he can commit to other human beings. But I could definitely see why Stefano didn’t want to have to choose:

He stood and slipped out of bed and closed the door behind him on the way, smiling to himself. Compared to Donata, Silvio was the polar opposite. Not a graceful or early riser. And that would be less funny if Silvio weren’t a sicario. If he killed a stranger for absolutely no personal reason, how would he respond if unduly irritated?

But of course, all that was idle bullshit, especially considering that the big issue in the back of Stefano’s mind was his wife. He kept checking his phone in the hope of a text from her. He sometimes touched her profile on his phone, especially when Silvio was asleep or occupied with something else. He’d snapped a photo of her on one of the date nights, dressed in a gorgeous red dress, her hair tumbling down. It showed up every time she called him, and sat as a tiny thumbnail right next to her name. Donata Marino.

And he was hiding away from her in this hotel, fucking Silvio, finally sating that hunger and that deeper need, the terrible affection for another man. But, truth was, he was hiding, still avoiding her.

I needed time to work this out for myself. I needed to know if it was real. And God help me, but it is.

I thought that the way you resolved these threads was ingenious from a storytelling point of view, but I wasn’t completely convinced in terms of the characters.  What I mean by this is that everything worked in terms of the characters as they appear in the book, but I wondered if real people would work things out the same way (and it’s definitely a testament to the quality of the characterizations that I came to think of them as real people).

First, I  thought Stefano needed to experience the consequences of his various decisions a bit more than he did. I didn’t want him to grovel more or be punished, exactly, but resolutions seemed to come a little too quickly (this may have been a consequence of page length). Second, I wasn’t fully satisfied by way Stefano made the decisions about his future and the ramifications of those decisions for both him and Donata. Stefano made them unilaterally even though they affected both of them, and I had trouble believing that it was as easy for the two of them to live with the decision as it seemed in the end. Even when you hate something, it’s hard to shift the patterns and habits of decades. And while I was pleased that there was an HEA in the end, I had trouble believing the characters were as free of their pasts as they seemed to be. So, in some ways, Volume 5 was the least satisfying for me.

Overall, though, the way the characters and the plot unfolded over the installments was really well done. Stefano goes from being confused and not very self-aware to decisive and much more in control, as well as more honest with himself and those he loves. Donata, when she finally appears on the page, is worth the wait. She’s a little too understanding in the last installment, but she’s a strong woman who seems to be making thoughtful and considered choices. And Silvio becomes less of an enigma and more of a human being. He’s still the same Silvio we met at the beginning of the first volume to a great extent, but we see him less as a gorgeous assassin and more as the complex young man that he is.

The quality of the writing sustains a high level of quality throughout the five installments; it is taut, focused, and perfect for the subject matter. The sex scenes are explicit, hot, and critical to the development of the plot and characters. There is an m/m/f scene which is extremely well done. If readers aren’t fanning themselves throughout, I’ll be surprised.

I am so glad I stretched outside my comfort zone and picked up this series. I want to reiterate, this is not a genre romance. It’s not easily classified, either as conventional m/m or menage. There are some extremely violent scenes, and the characters do some pretty unlikeable things. They are ultimately sympathetic, but it takes some of them quite a while to get there, and all readers may not make the journey with them. But for those who do, this is an incredibly rewarding read. It’s not perfect, but it’s very hard to forget.

Grade for series: A-/B+