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REVIEW:  Secrets and Ink by Lou Harper

REVIEW: Secrets and Ink by Lou Harper

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When Karma writes you a ticket, pay up or else…

If life was like the movies, Jem Mitchell’s wouldn’t be such a mess. In LA’s glittering world of dreams, he works an unglamorous job at a gourmet grocery store. His past is so deep and dark, the details are lost even to him. All he knows is he was once cursed by a meter maid, and ever since, his love life has sucked.

When Detective Nick Davies becomes a regular at the store, Jem dares to hope he’s un-hexed at last. He should have known that sex with a remarkably normal guy, devoid of weird fetishes and fatal personality flaws, was too good to be true.

During a post-encounter cuddle, Nick recognizes the tattoo on Jem’s back—and remembers him as a young hustler he arrested nine years past.

As Jem’s memories come crashing back, he flees from Nick, but fate contrives to keep pushing them back together. And when Jem’s old partner in crime is found murdered, the stakes are raised for life, for love, and a dangerous drama with no guarantee of a Hollywood ending.

Warning: Stars a mild-mannered store clerk with a shady past, a hunky cop whose passion in the bedroom is as big as his passion for justice, and celebrity sightings you won’t see on TMZ.

Dear Lou Harper,
On the surface, I could not think of anything obviously wrong with this story. The narrator Jem is likeable and funny. He has his own quirks and neurosis and the reasons are all based on what happened to him in the past. He thinks he is cursed – truly when I was reading the blurb I was sure that the magic would be involved in the story. However, it is very clear (to any person on Earth but Jem) that he has just been having lots and lots of bad luck in the last several years of his life.

“You should have patience with Jem,” she said, leaning close to Nick. “He thinks he’s been cursed.” “Yeah, I’ve heard,” Nick replied. I shook my head at her disapprovingly. “I don’t think that. I know it. Ms. Jones said, word for word: Sir, may all your hubris fall around your ears like a ton of bricks. Three days later, a literal ton of bricks fell on me. Well, okay, technically, it was poured concrete, but that’s a tiny detail. I’ve had nothing but bad luck since.” Like my sister, Nick was a doubter. “Don’t be ridiculous. Life’s not a fairy tale.” “Don’t I know it? But the curse is real. I saw a psychic, and she categorically declared I was under a curse. Don’t give me that look,” I added, because Nick was rolling his eyes now. “Madame Layla is for real. She is also a witch, so she knows her stuff.”

When Jem and Nick met, I felt the connection between them and I wanted to see and feel more of that. I was not sure whether I liked that they had already met in the past, when Nick arrested Jem during his hustling activities, but I was ready to go along with it – especially since the reasons for Jem being a teenage prostitute were on one hand different from what many m/m stories usually go with and on the other hand so simple and believable to me.
I also really enjoyed the mystery part of the story – the first part of the mystery that is, although it started very strong, it then fizzled out really quickly, because the identity of the villain was telegraphed pretty obviously. I mean, I do not mind if mystery is just a vehicle for romance OR if the romance takes a very secondary fiddle to the mystery, but to me neither the romance nor mystery in this book received an in depth treatment. The mystery was simplistic, because there was no candidate to divert my suspicions from the one character who felt like a REALLY bad and sleazy guy from the very beginning. I get that there was an attempt to do so with somebody else, but I just did not buy that at all.
The romance was cute. But I wanted to know more about both guys as people. As I said before, I thought Jem’s neurosis was established well by what happened to him in the past, but at the same time I thought the medical part of his situation was given a superficial treatment. I get that it is hard to strike a balance in romance, but I did not feel like the balance was achieved. Nick was nice and dependable and a stickler for the rules, but I did not feel like I got to know him well if at all. I felt that characterization-wise the story was just scratching the surface, especially with Nick, and it was frustrating for me to feel dissatisfied with the characters when I finished reading.
I liked it but did not love it.
Grade C.

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REVIEW:  At Any Price by Brenna Aubrey

REVIEW: At Any Price by Brenna Aubrey

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Dear Ms. Aubrey:

I enjoyed the short story “the Love Letter,” so decided to try this debut novel, despite not being a big fan of contemporary trilogies about innocent virgins and billionaire tycoons. As it turned out, I liked it… except for the innocent virgin/billionaire tycoon parts. There might be a lesson in that.

Mia, a struggling pre-med student and online role playing games blogger, has decided to take advantage of the bizarre value society places on female virginity by auctioning hers off. With the reluctant help of her best friend Heath, a careful auction with many safeguards and stipulations is held; the winner is unbearably handsome software prodigy Adam Drake.

This is a challenging set-up for a romance, because it’s a pretty unsavory situation on both ends. Adam’s side is more readily sympathetic: it’s obvious that getting into Mia’s pants is not his primary motive, although that’s not revealed to Mia for some time. It’s harder to accept Mia’s reasoning, and justifiably so — her tendency to lie to herself makes her something of an unreliable narrator.

In many ways this was a typical New Adult story. First person by female narrator, check. Heroine with a traumatic history of sexual abuse, check. Rescue from assault by the hero, check. Gay best friend — no wait, that’s a different subgenre; New Adult male friends are supposed to be straight so you can have a love triangle. I actually really liked Heath: he’s not written as a “fabulous” or sassy stereotype, but because he’s far more forthright and clear thinking than Mia, he gets many of the book’s best lines. (When Mia tells him she’s been reading Cosmo, he retorts,  “Stop right there. If you get your sex education from Cosmo then you are in for a world of hurt—or he is.”) And another way in which the book defies stereotype: although Drake does get into a little bit of icky virginity worship, it’s overall blessedly free of obvious slut-shaming.

Since Mia deeply distrusts men — I guess being gay scores Heath a pass — the deal is supposed to be just one night and no future contact, but the story goes in some unexpected directions and creates powerful emotions as Mia and Drake try to navigate what becomes an untenable situation. I personally would have preferred it if the story hadn’t tried to do everything: the basic plot is perfectly fine without all the fantasy accoutrements of Drake buying Mia expensive clothes and makeovers, taking her on trips, and “loaning” her expensive gadgets. (Readers who are more heavily into Cinderella stories certainly might disagree with me.) Mia’s responses to this treatment are inconsistent, and I didn’t always understand her motivations. The fact that she didn’t always understand them herself wasn’t enough to make her character completely work for me.

I also didn’t get much of an authentic geek vibe from her or Adam, except that the fact that Adam used his wealth to spend time on the International Space Station rang very true. The love scenes had a certain distance to them, as did Mia’s constant harping on Adam’s perfect hotness; in both cases, she seemed to be describing more than truly reacting. The best part of the book may be the plot: its bare bones summary sounds both generic and skeevy, but (much like On the Island by Tracy Garvis-Graves) what actually happens is meaningful, and reveals a lot about both characters.

At Any Price doesn’t have the feel of a professionally edited book. There aren’t any execrable errors, but there are some continuity issues and grammar flubs that could have been cleaned up. I was still absorbed by the storytelling, and though it happily does not end on a cliffhanger, there are enough genuine complications in Mia and Drake’s relationship to make me interested in the next book. Though I was disappointed that the series turned out to be a trilogy… especially since I was hoping for a book for Heath. C

Sincerely,

Willaful

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