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REVIEW: Ex Equals by L.A. Witt

Jane’s Note: We are posting this review in celebration of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Repeal that is occurring today. We’ll have a lovely post by Maili listing romances featuring deaf characters on Thursday.

Dear Ms. Witt.

I like your books. Your writing’s solid, the characters are great, the sex is usually hot. So I was excited to see that you had another m/m romance coming out. I also very much liked that the story was military set, because I know you know what you’re talking about when it comes to the military, and I was interested to see how you would deal with the pending repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (Today! I’m SO excited and have my rainbow “Veteran” shirt all ready to go!).

ExEqualsChris is a brand-new community-college math professor who finds out that one of his students is his ex-boyfriend Justin. Justin signed up for the class knowing Chris was the teacher, in an attempt to see if they could reconcile. The book is told in alternating flashbacks of the beginning, middle, and end of their first relationship when they were in the Navy together, and their attempt at a new relationship now that Chris is out of the Navy. The power imbalances between them — now as teacher and student, and previously in the Navy — are a huge issue — in fact, almost THE issue — between them.

Your habit of writing in alternating first person perspective is…not my favorite thing in the world. I think your stories would be much better served by alternating deep third person POV, but maybe that’s just because that’s what I’m used to. Anyway, just a warning to readers if that kind of thing bothers them. I find it worth dealing the lingering weirdness I feel every time you switch, because then I get to read the book and enjoy your characters. But there’s still that lingering weirdness every time.

That aside, however, I *love* books that have relationships in which one character really and truly and honestly screws up and betrays their partner. The screw-up has to own up to it, has to say they’re sorry, and has to accept that the partner has the absolute right to refuse to forgive, and that the relationship would therefore be over. The partner then really and truly has to forgive the screw-up and make the conscious decision that the relationship and their feelings for each other are more important than holding a grudge or being hurt. Matthew Haldeman-Time’s Off the Record is like that, and Courtney Milan’s self-published Unlocked, and this book is too. Justin seriously screwed up by treating Chris like crap at the end of their first relationship. Most of the tension of the first half of the book actually comes from figuring out exactly HOW Justin treated Chris like crap. And Justin has to apologize — and mean it — and Chris has to forgive and mean it before they can get back together in the present.

The slight problem I had with this, however, was that I didn’t 100% think Justin deserved his HEA. He had been a first class asshole, no matter his reasons. And he was a selfish prick to take Chris’s class without thinking of the ramifications for Chris, rather than for himself. So although I was cheering for Chris to forgive, I had to take Chris at face value that Justin’s apology was all he needed. Because I needed Justin to suffer just a bit more.

While (I think) you get the military stuff right (I was Army, not Navy, so I’m not sure on the details. And WHY are some people on the ships called airmen? Surely they’re sailors? But I’m probably missing something), I don’t think you the college stuff 100% right. I’m pretty sure community college professors don’t have to do student teaching to teach at a community college. They pretty much need a Masters and then need to get hired. Maybe I was nitpicking because I’m a college professor, and then getting it wrong because I’m not actually a community college professor, but it all just felt…slightly off. It was like Chris was given a job just so he could be in a teacher/student relationship with Justin, reversing their previous power dynamic, rather than because it grew organically from his personality. Because, honestly, I don’t know how many people get a Masters in Math in order to teach at a community college. But what do I know? I’m probably wrong (and would love to hear about it if I am!).

However, now I’m just being picky because I can. This story was great. I loved Chris and Justin. The sex was totally vanilla and hot anyway. I loved them fumbling toward figuring out if the other is gay at the beginning of the relationship while on the ship. I loved the frank look at the horrendousness of the day to day grinding down of living under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, but now with bonus optimistic ending because of repeal (and go you for the full-on, optimistic, spectacularly-out-of-the-closet-and-still-in-the-Navy ending). I totally closed this book (on my phone) with a Happy Book Sigh (TM SB Sarah). And really, what more can you want than that?

Grade: B+

Best regards,
-Sarah

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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.

15 Comments

  1. Sirius
    Sep 20, 2011 @ 10:18:01

    Oh I want this one, thank you for the review and definitely a day to celebrate.

    ReplyReply

  2. Brie
    Sep 20, 2011 @ 11:49:26

    I want to read this one but now I’m worried about the main conflict though, you make it sound like whatever Justin did was really bad. I did enjoy one of her previous stories, the one with the tattoo artist and the cheating ex-boyfriend (I can’t remember the title) and that was a surprise since I hate plots involving cheating, so I might as well read this one and keep an open mind.
    And yay! For DADT, it was about time!

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  3. Joan/SarahF
    Sep 20, 2011 @ 12:02:26

    @Brie: He was just…an asshole. Because, honestly, DADT turned people into assholes to protect themselves. He just doesn’t grovel *quite* enough for me, didn’t realize soon enough how much of an asshole he’d been, and needed to be a bit more appalled at himself for my taste. But overall, I was totally pulling for both characters to figure it out. :)

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  4. Maura
    Sep 20, 2011 @ 14:49:49

    “Airman” is an enlisted rank in the Navy, below Petty Officer. Why? I don’t know.

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  5. Robin Covington
    Sep 20, 2011 @ 18:43:41

    Sarah – an Airman in the Navy is an enlisted person who works on the aircrew. They work for the Naval Air Systems Command (where I work) – think of Top Gun. Lots of the air cover over int he middle east is provided off Navy carriers. On those ships, you will have sailors, Marines, SEALs and airman as well as pilots.

    Robin

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  6. Sarah Frantz
    Sep 20, 2011 @ 18:49:11

    @Robin Covington: Thank you so much! Learn something new every day.

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  7. L. A. Witt & Lauren Gallagher
    Sep 20, 2011 @ 19:21:40

    Thanks to Robin and Maura for the “airman” comments…it was something I had clarified within the story, but it inadvertently got snipped during editing (MY fault, NOT my editor’s).

    And thanks for the lovely review, Sarah! I struggled a little with how much groveling Justin should actually do — trying to strike that balance between “okay, we get it, dude” and “keep begging, bro” — so maybe I didn’t tip the scales quite far enough in the right direction. Duly noted!! (And duly noted on the other comments)

    Thanks again :)
    Lori

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  8. Sarah Frantz
    Sep 20, 2011 @ 19:30:39

    @L. A. Witt & Lauren Gallagher: Eh. I’m a slut for grovelling heroes, so my “needed more!” is another person’s “we get it, dude.” :) It was a great book, thank you!

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  9. Kaetrin
    Sep 20, 2011 @ 22:02:28

    Sounds like another one for my TBR.

    Love the new pic Sarah – I was wondering which of the 3 t-shirts you ended up getting! :)

    ReplyReply

  10. jeayci
    Sep 20, 2011 @ 22:13:25

    Great review. I also loved this one, and also wanted to see Justin grovel more. Or, not necessarily grovel, but I wanted to see him really develop a deep understanding of just how he screwed up and see him really repentant for it. I could accept that Chris forgave him so easily, but that doesn’t mean I did.

    As for the student-teaching stuff, that threw me out of the story a little too. Then I decided he must have TA’d while getting his Masters, and that was what it meant. That explanation satisfied me for the rest of the story, anyway. I continued to question things like what city were they in, what kind of ship were they on, what were their rates, and what shop were they in? Those were the details I drove myself a bit nuts trying to ascertain from the available info. :p

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  11. L. A. Witt & Lauren Gallagher
    Sep 21, 2011 @ 05:57:16

    @jeayci: Regarding the city, rates, and the ship, I was intentionally vague on some of that (but perhaps more so than I should have been). Since my husband is on active duty, and several members of Chris/Justin’s chain of command were portrayed negatively, I wanted to make sure I steered clear of anything that could be construed as taking a swipe at an existing command, a particular person, etc. Can never be too careful, right? :D But I hear ya…the next milrom will have more details regarding the characters’ jobs, their command, etc., I just may have been a little overly cautious with Ex Equals.

    Glad you enjoyed it otherwise!

    Lori

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  12. jeayci
    Sep 21, 2011 @ 10:25:18

    @Lori, thanks for the explanation! That makes total sense, especially since it’s been long enough I’d forgotten how justifiably paranoid life is around the military. Though I didn’t think you portrayed the chain of command any more negatively than any two enlisted guys really would. My ex-husband was in the Navy, so I’ve heard more than enough griping to know whereof I speak. :D

    And surely, if nothing else, it would be safe enough to put them in a big Navy city to help with that sense of place? At first I thought they were in San Diego, but then you mentioned humidity so I figured it must be Norfolk…and then decided I simply had no clue! I think it drove me nuts because I expected to be able to discern those details, based on your experience and mine. And I tried because I really like imagining locale detail. I do hope you’ll write more milcom, as I love it in general and your writing in particular! I’ll just go into the next one remembering the constraints of active duty and let my imagination run free.

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  13. L. A. Witt & Lauren Gallagher
    Sep 21, 2011 @ 20:04:33

    @jeayci: The next one will be much more specific about the location, etc. — it actually takes place here on Okinawa. Like I said, I was just being a little overly cautious with Ex Equals. lol

    Lori

    ReplyReply

  14. orannia
    Sep 22, 2011 @ 01:13:07

    Lovely review Sarah! Oh, I want to read this…but I have to read Out of Focus first :)

    ReplyReply

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    Nov 14, 2011 @ 11:07:55

    [...] the month, with three very positive reviews. Although the story is specifically a military story (Dear Author reviewed it in honor of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”) the [...]

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