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REVIEW:  Catching Hell by Mindy Klasky

REVIEW: Catching Hell by Mindy Klasky

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Anna Benson is an eager “May” to Zach Ormond’s downright sexy “December”.
At age thirty-seven, Zach is a veteran catcher in the last years of his contract, grateful for a no-trade clause that will let him retire a star in Raleigh. Twenty-five-year-old Anna has grown up in the Rockets’ front office; her grandfather has long groomed her to take over the team.

When Zach finally realizes Anna is no longer a star-struck kid, their passion flares like a game-winning grand slam. But after a freak accident injures a young phenom and forces the team to land a new player, Anna must sacrifice Zach for the Rockets, convincing him to forfeit his hard-won no-trade guarantee.

There’s hell to pay. He’s doing everything in his considerable seductive power to make her keep him—on the team and in her bed. How can Anna and Zach live happily ever after when their romance will destroy the team they love?

Dear Ms. Klasky,

I’m glad that you kept listing your Diamond Brides series on our submissions site until I wised up and decided to give one a try. For readers looking for a shorter length novel or those interested in sports romances, I can recommend this one as a good starting point to what looks like a long season of baseball romance. Though this is the second book in the series, I never felt lost for not having read the first one yet.

When I realized “Catching Hell” was in the short category book size, I wondered if it would feel complete without also being rushed. You manage to tell a whole romance arc because for one both characters have known each other for years even though the beginning of their association is when the heroine is ten and the hero is twenty-two. The second reason is that the story is ruthlessly focused on just these two people and their issues. The hero of the next story is mentioned and the heroine has a small role here but they are included only to the extent needed to work for this story and do not act as obvious sequel bait.

The difference in ages between Zach and Anna did have me squirming just a bit as the story opens but both Anna and Zach do think about and acknowledge this and move past it. Still it’s 12 years for those who are counting.

I’ll be the first to admit that I enjoy baseball more in a story than I do in real life. However the baseball stuff feels real or at least it seems real to me. As well as having older Zach concerned about his aching knees, there is a lovely scene where he and Anna watch a game together and bond some more over the intensity with which they analyze it like a chess game.

As well it has the nitty gritty details of owning and running a team but with the real counterparts who would be there – scouts, the manager, coaches, etc. Anna isn’t trying to do all this on her own. I also love that Anna is shown having agency and being competent and also being respected for this. True fans of the game will probably appreciate that it features a made up team with a fictitious name in a town without an existing major league team.

The conflict here is genuine and not something silly that could have been solved by the ubiquitous five minute conversation. Anna has the team’s overall future to worry about while Zach is obviously concerned with his own. There’s no real villain here just two people working out issues. Real Life stuff.

At first the methods that the Rockets management use to try and encourage Zach to wave his no-trade clause are funny – and he treats them that way, brushing them off as minor inconveniences – but as the situation drags out, I started to wonder how this would play out in the real world. Would a MLB team be so petty or would they go straight to the finale that Anna devises? I’m not sure but as the stakes escalated I thought about how it might negatively impact the rest of the team.

So how was the romance? Sexy and smexy. Anna knows what she wants. Zach knows what he wants. They both end up wanting the same thing and going for it with gusto. There’s no double standarding here and Zach appreciates Anna’s enthusiasm and skill as a lover.

As for the long term relationship, I was delighted that so many opportunities for a Big Mis to rear its head were avoided. Yeah, Zach and Anna are on opposite sides in the contract dispute but they manage to still work on that and keep up a separate romance at the same time. When the chips were down, a compromise – that I sort of had worked out in my head – was reached and everyone got what they wanted and needed. And for those wondering, they might be surprised at just who ends up suggesting the compromise.

It’s fast, fun, and flirty. It’s a shorter novel but it concentrates on the essentials so it feels complete. There is enough time that passes so I can believe that the attraction is more than a passing fling – well, Anna has moved through all those stages already and Zach figures it out fairly soon. As I said, I do like that Anna is shown as knowing her baseball stuff and being respected for that.

I had fun reading this, the time seemed to zip by, the characters are intelligent, talk to each other and the conflict is real. The resolution makes sense and I can see myself continuing further with the Raleigh Rockets and their love lives. B

Jayne

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REVIEW:  The Crimson Outlaw by Alex Beecroft

REVIEW: The Crimson Outlaw by Alex Beecroft

Dear Ms. Beecroft:

Except for having m/m, action, and m/m action, this was a real change of pace from the previous Beecroft novellas I’ve read, all of which were Regencies. Impressively, not only is unusual setting beautifully realized, but the entire tone of the story is completely different.

outlawThe time is 1720; the place is Harghita County, Transylvania. (I love the down-to-earth specificity of that, as well as the fact that this may be the first romance set in Transylvania which isn’t a paranormal.) The story is told from the point of view of Vali, the young and naive heir to the ruling Boyar. Although he has a contentious relationship with his father, he’s shocked to realize that Wadim is not the just ruler he thought, but a capricious tyrant. When Vali runs away and meets up with the outlaw Mihai, he finds not only an opportunity to address his father’s wrongs, but a kind of love he hasn’t even been able to dream of.

Even aside from the unfamiliar setting, this story takes a lot of risks: It’s a romance between an inexperienced 19 year old, and an older, stronger man with power over him. I thought the risks worked, mainly because the relationship is convincingly consensual, sex never occurs when Vali is overpowered, and the power imbalance between them continually shifts. Though the story does often play with the erotic possibilities of that imbalance — even at their first encounter, with Mihai holding a knife at his throat, Vali finds himself enjoying “the pressure from balls to lungs of a powerful, demanding warm body thoroughly dominating him… Lust added itself to terror in his panting breaths, and he despised himself and the bandit indiscriminately.”

Vali, perhaps like many people afraid to express their true sexuality, has actually had a captivity fantasy:

In his mind it had been a Turkish jail… one night, when he was at death’s door, the jailor had come to him… he had pinned Vali’s still-defiant fists above his head in one great hand, stripped him with the other — slowly, looking and touching every inch, ignoring Vali’s fervent protests along the way.

Then he would turn onto his stomach and think of being spread and speared, his struggle turning into surrender and then wanton enjoyment as he stroked himself… and that he was helpless, helpless to stop any of it.

But Vali isn’t always helpless; he’s got wealth, status, and extremely good fighting skills on his side. And Mihai doesn’t literally fulfill this fantasy, which Vali had already realized was ruined by the reality of prison.  After they begin a sexual relationship, Vali sees the downside of being with someone stronger than he is:

Mihai had jumped down, landing on his feet, and got hold of him again before he could move, dragging him like a deer carcass off towards the wood.

‘I must help! Let me go!’ The strength that had seemed so glorious only moments ago felt like a curse now that it wasn’t doing what Vali wanted it to do.

But even when they enjoy a hostage fantasy together, their sexual encounters have a genuine sweetness to them — especially the first one, because Vali is so happy and eager, taking the cynical Mihai by surprise:

Mihai was biting his own lip, his eyes closed, his hips driving his prick into Vali’s hand in angry little jerks. He startled back almost in fright when Vali kissed him and their eyes met. In a flash of understanding, Vali watched Mihai’s expression deepen and soften, as though he had expected no intimacy from this and Vali’s trust had taken him aback.

Despite its length, this novella was surprisingly immersive. It seemed like almost every sentence placed me firmly there — not in a strained, guide-booky way, but just in relating the small details of life: “While Mihai dozed in a patch of sunshine, Vali built a bed for them there–a hollow in the hay thickly lined with sheepskin and covered in extravagantly woven red blankets with black, yellow and white stripes.”  Just a simple visual, but it takes me to that cozy scene, and shows the trust building in their relationship.

The complex relationship between Vali and his father was also well expressed, and there’s an intriguing small sideplot about his sister, who is far less romantic than Vali, and not narratively punished for it. It’s the primary relationship that gets shortchanged by the length of the story — it worked for me, but there just wasn’t enough of it. Time I wanted to see spent on the couple experiencing love was instead given over to the plot. The fast pace of the story is also disconcerting; Vali constantly bounces back from physical abuse and right into his next adventure, almost with the speed of Wile E. Coyote.

I would definitely recommend this to anyone yearning for a change from the standard settings of romance, and for readers who enjoy action and adventure. My gut rating for it as a romance is B-, but because of its many fine and unusual qualities, I’m rounding it up to a B.

sincerely,

Willaful

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