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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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Sunita has been reading romances since she ran out of Cherry Ames, Student Nurse and Chalet School books and graduated to Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer. Other old favorites include Mary Burchell, Betty Neels, Elsie Lee, and Edith Layton. Among current writers, she reads and rereads Anne Stuart, Tamara Allen, Sarah Morgan, Marion Lennox, Josh Lanyon, and Susanna Kearsley. She blogs as VacuousMinx and tweets as @sunita_p.

21 Comments

  1. cleo
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 09:28:08

    I’m glad you reviewed this. I had a similar reaction – it’s probably a B-/C+ for me. I also had problems with Martin but really liked the setting and the secondary characters. I actually decided to read this just for Josh – he has a very small role in Country Mouse and City Mouse and I wanted to read more. I hope he gets his own story and romance.

    I was annoyed with Martin too. I read him as really eager to please, and not someone who’d ever had to (or bothered to) think about ethics before, so I bought his actions.

    I was surprised by how dark it was, especially the beginning. I think it needs a couple trigger warnings – for suicide attempt and rape.

    Spoilers;

    I thought the rape/dub-con sex was handled pretty well. The story starts with Martin trying to remember a sexual encounter (that to me was obviously dub-con at best, based on the little he remembered). I liked that part of his story arc was his changing understanding of what happened – I wanted more justice, but at least there were consequences for the perpetrator.

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  2. Sunita
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 20:07:45

    @cleo: I haven’t read Country Mouse but I liked the Josh character a lot. I’m glad to hear that readers who already know him think it’s a good portrayal.

    My problem was less what Martin did than my inability to understand *why* he did it, beyond lust and being in thrall. I know that can be enough, but I wanted more motivation, I guess. And then I didn’t get why he decided to stop, except that he fell out of lust. It felt too much thinking as if he was thinking with his other head for me to find him interesting as a character.

    I debated a trigger warning; Sirius said the same thing and I meant to add it but neglected to do so when I finalized the post. The fact that the episodes occur at the very beginning means that readers can sample, but they should get a heads-up.

    And I thought the sexual encounter was non-con since he couldn’t rationally consent.

    I thought this was a flawed but very interesting book, and I hope the author keeps writing these not-easily-categorizable stories.

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  3. Janine
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 21:06:59

    Great review. I’m torn about this author because of Voinov’s other book (co-authored with L.A. Witt) in which one of the protagonists was not only a Nazi but a member of the SS at that. I tried a sample of that one, mostly out of curiosity after it was recommended highly, and while I thought the prose was very high quality, I couldn’t make myself purchase it.

    I respect Voinov’s writing ability but (Please do correct me if I’m wrong–I’m basing this on the sample I read, on this review, and on Sunita’s reviews of the Dark Soul series) it seems that Voinov prefers to focus on characters who are at best morally gray.

    I’m really torn because clearly Voinov can write well, and I’m probably being a hypocrite, since I often like flawed characters. Part of me would like to try something in his oeuvre (perhaps the Dark Soul books) but the SS member romance has left a bad taste in my mouth.

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  4. cleo
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 21:09:25

    @cleo:

    I thought this was a flawed but very interesting book, and I hope the author keeps writing these not-easily-categorizable stories.

    Agreed. I’ve thought the same thing about a couple of his other hard to categorize books – especially the space opera one whose title escapes me. I think he’s a really interesting author and I want him to keep writing interesting things, even though he’s also hit or miss for me.

    I see what you mean about Martin’s motivations, or lack thereof – somehow that didn’t bother me. I read him as naive and unable / unwilling to say no and just went with it. But as you say, there wasn’t any explanation about *why* he couldn’t say no. It doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny.

    Josh has a very, very bit role in Country Mouse – he’s the personal trainer for one of the MCs, but they only interact by phone, and he’s mostly bitching at the MC for blowing off an appointment (so the MC can have sex with his love interest, iirc). But somehow he made enough of an impression on me that I wanted more. I think I read somewhere (Voinov’s blog? IDK) that he wrote RoI first, even though CM was published first.

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  5. cleo
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 21:10:22

    @cleo: Bother. My previous comment was supposed to be in reply to Sunita, not to myself. Argh.

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  6. Sirius
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 21:28:02

    Cleo I just want to echo Sunita’s words – I found Martin’s motivations not even unconvincing , I found such motivations to be for the most part absent. For example I can in theory be okay with the character who steals or murders in fiction if I understand why such character does it. I won’t necessarily “like” such a character, but if I understand his motivations, I will still find him/her to be an interesting character. The only motivation which I can remotely assign to him would be ” thinking with his dick” but even that one was not very convincing to me. If Martin did this for Francis, okay, sure I could at least see it. For Alec , eh not really. As Sunita said, he bought him suits.

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  7. Sirius
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 21:34:59

    Janine, I read that book you mention. It left me angry BUT that was completely my fault – I know I cannot stomach awesome Nazi in my romances but for some reason I decided that the soldier in the book would be more misguided, less ideologically driven. Argh, just argh the attempt of what I perceived to equal moral ground between American soldier and German soldier made me very unhappy. I want to stress – German soldier eventually gets that Nazi ideology was wrong, there was not any attempt to make it look right, but for me where he started was enough to be unhappy. Oh well, that taught me a valuable lesson – not to ever touch a romance with nazi soldiers no matter how tempting blurb may sound.

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  8. Sunita
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 22:23:24

    @Janine: I didn’t read that one because I just didn’t think I could do the SS character. My problem, not the book’s.

    I think this one might work well for you. It features many of Voinov’s strengths, and while the beginning is quite dark, as Cleo says, there are some very romantic bits and some fairly lighthearted bits (and then some dark parts again).

    @cleo: Yes, my understanding too is that this is a book he wrote a version of quite a few years ago and then revised heavily for this release.

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  9. Janine
    Aug 22, 2014 @ 13:12:38

    @Sirius: I feel like giving you a hug just for having to endure that. I think if he had just been a German soldier I might have been able to continue, but he was in the SS, and they played an important role in a very dark chapter of history.

    @Sunita: Thanks. From the description of this one I’m not sure it would appeal to me but I might try the Dark Soul books.

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  10. Sirius
    Aug 22, 2014 @ 13:39:26

    Janine, thanks but I do not deserve hugs for my own stupidity – the word SS is clearly in the blurb. The only thing I can say in my defense that I do attempt to overcome my unwillingness to read romances about german soldiers from time to time but last time before this one I tried years ago and soldier there was not Nazi, not even close and he ended up in concentration camp himself. I should have known that this book would upset me, as I said, I do not know why I decided that it would not.

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  11. Jayne
    Aug 22, 2014 @ 13:39:30

    @Janine: I too, briefly contemplated trying the Nazi book and agree that if he had just been a regular German soldier – though lately I’ve heard they were not as innocent of war crimes against the Jews as I initially thought – I might have tried to read it. But in the end, I just couldn’t.

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  12. Sirius
    Aug 22, 2014 @ 13:46:01

    Jayne, no, not innocent, not all of them I mean – that is why even with regular soldiers it is on a very case by case basis, depending on what the book is about. Heck, it took me time to be able to read books about German civilians finding love during second world war and I am fully aware of people suffering, of people trying to form resistance groups, but still feel my emotions resisting, you know?

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  13. Jayne
    Aug 22, 2014 @ 14:38:34

    @Sirius: Yes, I do understand where you’re coming from. Years ago I read a book called “Berlin Underground, 1938-1945″ by Ruth Andreas-Friedrich and Barrows Mussey that I found very moving. Recently I read Christabel Bielenberg’s autobiography about her life in Germany during the war and her years after. There were times when it seemed surreal that there were people who were so normal and caring even while living along side the ones who weren’t.

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  14. cleo
    Aug 22, 2014 @ 15:55:55

    @Janine – I don’t it’s possible to make a lot of generalizations about Voinov’s books. One of the things that makes him interesting is his range. I avoided him for a long time because I thought all of his books had non-con, but I’ve been able to find quite a few that don’t. I think his more popular works tend to either have non-con or morally grey characters, but he has a huge range beyond that.

    Having said all that, I can see why you don’t want to read him. I actually liked the SS book (not sure what it says about me that I could suspend disbelief enough to like it, but there it is), but if that’s all I knew him for, if I didn’t have a lot of author trust built up, I wouldn’t have tried it.

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  15. Janine
    Aug 22, 2014 @ 16:29:39

    @Sirius: You don’t need to defend yourself–you have a right to read anything. And I have read a lot of books with morally questionable characters myself. Nowadays if something makes me unhappy I often write it off as a DNF, but when I was younger I made myself finish some horrible books, so I have genuine sympathy.

    @Jayne: Agreed.

    @cleo: Thanks, that is good to know. Which of Voinov’s books would you recommend most?

    (not sure what it says about me that I could suspend disbelief enough to like it, but there it is)

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you for that. I can suspend disbelief in a lot myself. Choosing to read a romance with an SS member hero doesn’t make me look at anyone askance. Choosing to write such a romance is harder for me to understand.

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  16. Sirius
    Aug 22, 2014 @ 16:40:07

    Janine, I used the wrong word, I was trying to explain, not to defend myself :). My point is definitely not coming across well – I have read plenty of books with morally grey characters, some I loved, some hated (we all have different kind of flaws we can accept and cannot), but this book upset me, so thats where I am coming from with – “me being stupid” comment, you know?

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  17. Janine
    Aug 22, 2014 @ 16:58:29

    @Sirius: I get that. I’ve had similar experiences with reading really upsetting books that I kicked myself for picking up.

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  18. Sunita
    Aug 22, 2014 @ 17:16:22

    @Janine:

    Choosing to write such a romance is harder for me to understand.

    I don’t have any direct information regarding the SS book, but there is a tremendous amount of literature and film in the last 60 years through which Germans have tried to make sense of their own history, especially by those who were not alive during the Nazi era but live with the consequences in their culture and daily lives. I don’t see why writing a romance couldn’t be part of that.

    @cleo: I agree that generalizing really doesn’t work for Voinov. There are consistent thematic patterns and characterizations, and the books are almost always well written (well above the mean in the m/m genre, in my opinion). But there are such differences across the individual books and series that I always look at blurbs and his own descriptions of new books to decide whether it’s for me.

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  19. Janine
    Aug 22, 2014 @ 17:41:52

    @Sunita: Yeah, that’s a good point. I feel that the romance genre has limitations that make it less than ideal for exploring an issue like that. That’s just my own opinion, though.

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  20. cleo
    Aug 22, 2014 @ 17:48:28

    @Janine – I’ve been wondering what to recommend. Here are a few of my favorites – although they all have flaws, I enjoyed them.

    The Lion of Kent – with Kate Cotoner. Medieval historical about a squire and a knight. I think of it as more of a coming of age story than a romance but there is an hfn. I have no idea how accurate it is but I believed it and enjoyed it.

    Incursion – space opera novella. CarrieS at SBTB reviewed it and had several problems with it. I noticed most of them reading it, but didn’t really care because I was enjoying myself too much. I agree with her that the ending is too abrupt. This has a pretty low heat level. Lower than my other recs.

    The first three Market Garden stories with LA Witt. Fun erotic romances about hot rent boys having hot sex, with a minimum of angst. Not much nuance or character development, especially the first two (but that’s not what I read them for). They’re pricey for the length – I think I got the first one on sale and then got addicted.

    Country Mouse – with Amy Lane. Some of the writing is a bit disjointed (I think some of that’s Amy Lane’s style) but the romance is sweet and hot – it’s the story of a weekend fling between an American tourist and British banker that gets more serious than either planned. It’s light weight but fun and the first Voinov I read.

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  21. Janine
    Aug 22, 2014 @ 17:54:04

    @cleo: Thank you! I haven’t read a medieval historical in a long time so maybe I’ll try that.

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