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REVIEW:  The Good Boy by Lisa Henry and J.A. Rock

REVIEW: The Good Boy by Lisa Henry and J.A. Rock


Dear Lisa Henry & J.A. Rock,

In late December, the second book of this series was released.  It looked good so I requested it for review.  Because I hadn’t read the first book, I requested that one also.  My review of The Boy Who Belonged will be up shortly.

I’m glad I requested The Good Boy as well:  for two reasons.  First, I think the second book doesn’t work that well as a stand alone. And secondly; I really liked it.

Landon Moredock (who prefers to be called Lane) is a very shy 20 year old. His wealthy parents, Laura and Stephen, regard him as mainly a disappointment.  He’s not particularly athletic, he’s terrified of public speaking of any kind, he doesn’t socialise easily and he’s not academically gifted either. During summer break from the expensive college he was attending in Boston, Landon is evicted from the family home after his mother is arrested for securities fraud.  It turns out his parents had been running a Ponzi scheme and his mother had just been arrested in New York.  Stephen was in Spain and basically uncontactable.  Landon was allowed to take some minimal belongings from his home but the $200 he had in his wallet didn’t get him far.  He had never really had to fend for himself before and money had never been an issue but now he has a steep learning curve.  Added to that, the police, the FBI, the SEC, the media and the general public believe he’s somehow involved and want his head on a platter.

All of this make’s Lane’s self-disgust even worse.  He feels guilty because he didn’t know what was going on with his parents, he feels worthless because his parents left him high and dry to take the rap (especially his father) and his sense of failure  is only enhanced by the vitriol thrown at him by the media.

Derek Fields is a 37 year old photographer with his own business.  He had $15,000 invested with Moredock Investments – a drop in the bucket to most of the wealthy investors but a lot to him.  He’s also angry with Landon Moredock and believes Landon knows where the money is, right along with everyone else in the country it seems.

Derek first sees Landon in the flesh (so to speak) at a party thrown by Acton Wagner, a local real estate tycoon and Moredock family friend (also a Moredock Investments investor).  Derek is there in his capacity as photographer – money is tight and every little job helps.  In desperation and with no-one to turn to, Lane called Acton and to his surprise and relief, Acton seemed pleased to hear from him (unlike everyone else he used to know) and invited him over.  Acton is not a nice man. His motives are not pure by any means.  Lane has had a bit of a crush on Acton for the longest time and they had engaged in a kind of mild (very mild) flirtation for some years.  Lane’s feelings for Acton are very complicated. There is hero worship and a kind of love in that he has always previously felt accepted by Acton, desperation and guilt for what his parents did and, to add to the mix, there’s what Acton does to Lane when he’s in the mansion.

The first night Lane is in Acton’s house, the party is in full swing and Lane and Acton go to his private study to talk – Lane not being up for partying at all. The media have painted him as a party boy/slut which could not be further from the truth – but everyone believes what the media says.  Acton drugs Lane and takes advantage of his youthful attraction and when Derek sees them, he thinks that Lane is drunk but a willing partner.   When Derek (much) later finds out the truth he is very guilty but the picture he is presented with in the study is consistent with the media’s image of Lane and he looked happy and willing, albeit impaired by drugs or alcohol.  At the time, Lane didn’t even know he’d been drugged, although the reader does.

**Trigger warning** There is rape in this book.  It is apparent to the reader at all times that what is happens to Lane in Acton’s house is not consensual by any means but Lane struggles with this for much of the book.  The details of the assault/s are not immediately on the page and are largely told in flashback form but they do appear on page. I found them disturbing but not in the same way I found the scenes in With Or Without Him.  I think it’s because the scene/s didn’t feel to me here, to be to evoke a particular reader reaction.  In this case, I felt they were there as part of the exploration of Lane’s complicated desire for pain and to juxtapose a healthier dynamic which develops with Derek.  Or at least, that’s what I thought.  In any event, I didn’t feel they were there for some kind of titillation or authorial manipulation.  Other readers may not agree.

Acton agrees to give Lane $20,000 for tuition if he stays and is Acton’s “slave” for a week.  Lane is desperate enough to do it and he feels guilty for what his parents had done and for being what he perceives as a failure and believes he deserves to be punished.   After 5 days however, things become too much and Lane leaves, injured and hurt and with about $6 in his wallet.

When Derek spied Lane that first time there was something beautiful in his face and Derek became somewhat fascinated with it (he took a photo and he keeps looking at it).  But Derek is also very angry with the Moredocks and Landon’s party boy image is salt in the wound. Derek comes across Lane a few days later and basically gives him a piece of his mind (just like everyone else has been doing) and sarcastically tells him that Taco Hub are hiring if he’s desperate for work.  When Derek sees Lane again – working at Taco Hub – he begins to realise that the media’s portrayal of Lane is not true in the least and he also sees some bruises on Lane’s wrists.  He offers him some work as a photographic assistant here and there to help him out – Derek is shooting a calendar for the local animal shelter run by his sister, Christy, and needs some help with the animals and equipment.  It turns out that Lane has an affinity for animals – his relationship with Andy, the dog who “doesn’t do people” is pretty special.

As Derek and Lane spend more time together it becomes more and more obvious that Lane had no part of his parent’s scheme and that he is as much their victim as anyone else.  Derek is a Dom and he’s also lonely and the early parts of the book have some kind of amusing, kind of sad scenes where he’s feeling a bit sorry for himself.  In an somewhat unusual twist, at least for me, Derek is out to his family about his BDSM lifestyle and his mother, Erin, even tries to set him up with guys she thinks might like to be spanked (that’s the funny part).

Lane has a deep desire to be punished and hurt but he’s also quite traumatised after his experience with Acton.  Derek is increasingly attracted to Lane and his natural tendency is to be a caretaker/protector and it kind of just happens that they start doing some non sexual D/s scenes.  I’ll be honest here. I’m not personally experienced with any kind of BDSM and what I know about it comes almost entirely from fiction (the rest would be from Twitter and Tumblr – does that count as fiction too?). I’m certainly no expert.  There are parts of it that I don’t “get” entirely.  It’s almost like I can kind of understand it if I squint and don’t think about it too much. That’s not meant to be a judgement at all.  I’m just saying that it’s not my kink and to that extent, I struggle to see the attraction.  That said, I did feel the book showed that Derek didn’t see submission as weakness and he saw Lane’s desire for pain and punishment to be natural and healthy provided it was dealt with in good ways (ie nothing like Acton, all consensual, safe words, etc., etc.).  The first scenes Derek and Lane do are puppy play.  Before I read this book, I had almost no exposure to this kind of kink and very little idea about it.  The portrayal here was, I thought, sympathetic and careful and, while it was a bit out there in terms of my own experience, it didn’t feel as out there as I would have expected all things considered.  There is an explanation given and, in so far as it is possible for me to do so, I understood and accepted it.  (By that, I mean only that because it is not my kink there remains an element of disconnect for me.  In much the same way as I don’t understand why people like eating fish – it’s not my thing, I can get my head around the concept but there’s a level where I can’t understand).

For those readers who are a bit dubious about the puppy play, I will say that it is non-sexual and not at all humiliating.  It is also not something Derek has previously been into and his exploration of it with Lane is new for both of them. It is more about safety and comfort and it ties in with Lane’s innate preference for rules and knowing what is expected of him.

Gradually Derek and Lane become very close and Lane is finally able to share with Derek all that happened with Acton in his house for those 5 days.  Just when things are looking up for them, Lane’s freedom is threatened and things look pretty dire for a while.  Never fear – this is a romance so there is a HEA.  (Maybe that should be an HFN given there is a second book?)

I liked that there was an exploration in the book about submission and how it worked for Lane.  In my limited experience, it felt quite nuanced to me. I liked that Lane became stronger over the course of the book and that Derek’s treatment of Lane was about recognising the strength that Lane did not know he had.  It was a somewhat new take on submission for me and I felt incrementally closer to understanding it.  (Bearing in mind that my understanding is limited to what I see in fiction and I’m aware that not everything I read it accurate or “good”).  Here, it felt authentic.  In so far as the BDSM aspects were portrayed, it felt like you two know of what you write.

I also felt the writing was pretty seamless.  That is, I couldn’t tell where one author finished and the other took over.  Sometimes, in authorial collaborations I have been jarred in and out of a story by abrupt shifts in style but I didn’t notice it at all here.  There was something very engaging about it.  Even when some of the things made me uncomfortable there was a constant draw to keep reading.  I became very invested in Lane and Derek and wanted to see them succeed together.

There is also a wider cast of characters – apart from Christy and Erin (Derek’s sister and mother respectively) there is also Ferg and Brin, Derek’s best friends.  Ferg is a Dom and Brin is a “bratty sub” who was, for a time, Derek’s sub.  I admit I have less understanding about the “brat” dynamic.  To me it sounds a bit like dealing with a toddler and I don’t really see the attraction. It’s also difficult for me to tell if Brin was a caricature.  He’s certainly larger than life.  I found him obnoxious and annoying at first but as the book progressed, his more endearing qualities shone through and I ended the book much more inclined toward liking him than I expected.  Brin and Lane become friends (the part where Brin is “teaching” Lane to throw a tantrum was funny”):

“A tantrum, Lane. I’m sure they weren’t permitted in Sister Shush’s School for the Clinically Silent or wherever you went, but they exist, and they’re actually quite fun.”

Perhaps the most amusing character was Mr. Zimmerman – a scarlet macaw who was owned by “an old man with innumerable medical problems and a mouth like a sailor’s.”

“Damn these hips!” Mr. Zimmerman yelled.

“Bye, Mr. Zimmerman,” Derek called.

“I used to bend like a Vietnamese hooker,” Mr. Zimmerman said.

“You will again. Keep up with your yoga.”

“Fuck it, baby.”

I appreciated the lighter moments – with both Brin and Mr. Zimmerman – which made the book a lot less heavy than it otherwise could have been.  I  felt that the secondary characters had lives outside of their relationships with Derek and Lane and were quite well rounded.

I really liked The Good Boy. I bought the connection between Derek and Lane and loved the little family they made with their close friends and animals.  I liked it so much, I started book 2 immediately I finished this one.

Grade: B+



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REVIEW:  Bone Rider by J. Fally

REVIEW: Bone Rider by J. Fally

Dear J. Fally:

This book is Example A for why I try never to make unilateral statements about what I will and won’t read. It is written in a highly cinematic style, it has an over the top storyline, it seems to be not just m/m but also m/m/m, one of the apparent romantic leads is a gangster, and it’s from a press that is notorious for releasing books that are in dire need of developmental editing. I saw rave reviews and was sure the book was Not For Me. But when I asked Sirius for her recommendations of the best m/m books of 2013, this was one of her first suggestions. I downloaded the sample and was absolutely hooked by the voice. I kept reading, worried that it would fall apart in the second half. It didn’t. I kept reading, worried about how it would work its way to an HFN. It did. By the time I reached the last page, I knew I’d found one of my best books of the year. Bone Rider by J. Fally

Bone Rider opens with a bang. The reader is immediately inside the head of System Six, a sentient armor being created by an alien civilization. System Six is not happy with the alien-human he’s been required to bond with, and out of fear that he’ll be removed and destroyed, he causes the ship they’re traveling on to crash land in the southwest US, where the survivors are immediately engaged in a firefight with the US military. System Six survives but has to find another host, and his first opportunity turns out to be Riley Cooper, a 30-something bartender on the run from a bad breakup. Riley just found out that the man of his dreams, Misha, is a Russian gangster, and if that isn’t bad enough, Misha isn’t just any gangster, he’s a hit man. And he’s not only an effective one, he doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to change careers.

There are three main story arcs in Bone Rider (the title refers to the bonding process between sentient armor and its host). The first is the relationship between System Six, who adopts the name McLane in a very funny sequence, and Riley. This arc progresses from involuntary bonding through suspicious getting-to-know-you to understanding, friendship, and something more. The second arc focuses on Misha’s attempt to track down Riley and try and reconcile with him; this involves sending another Russian mobster to find Riley, with the many complications that ensue once Misha decides to go to Riley instead of trying to get Kolya-the-mobster to drag Riley back to him. And the third is the US Military’s efforts to make sense of the alien landing and track down the one that survived.

It takes a while for these story lines to converge; for the first half of the book we see them separately and from multiple POVs. This means that readers have to be willing to read a lot of POVs without necessarily knowing exactly what is going on. Readers also have to be interested in reading a novel that is not just about a romantic relationship. Morever it’s a novel that spends a lot of time in the POVs of military characters.

The romance is complicated by the fact that while Riley is pretty clearly a romantic lead, we don’t know for certain who his ultimate partner is going to be. Is it Misha? Riley is definitely not going back to a relationship with a mob assassin, but he’s also still very much in love with him. Is it McLane? Riley and McLane’s relationship trajectory has a lot of the characteristics of a romance-genre arc, but it’s hard to believe Riley can move on from Misha that fast. Plus, McLane is not a separate entity. He can’t exist for long without a host, and a romance between a human and the sentient armor that lives inside him seems kind of hard to write a satisfying happy ending about. I had no idea what was going to happen next through most of the book. And I did not care. I was so swept up by the voice and the way the story was unfolding (and did I mention the voice?) that I was more than willing to go wherever the author had decided to take me.

It didn’t sound like a girl and it had definitely looked male in his dream, but Riley figured that didn’t mean much when it came to alien armor systems. The thing was probably asexual or transsexual or whatever. Or it could change its sex. Or it was going to lay eggs into Riley’s belly like some kind of spider so its young could devour him from the inside out and— A ripple of movement under his skin made him break out in goose bumps. Stop it, his passenger demanded, sounding thoroughly disgusted. That’s revolting! I’ll be checking you and me for eggs now, thanks. “Sorry,” Riley muttered, chagrined. So maybe he wasn’t entirely convinced of the alien’s good intentions. Could you blame him? It was an alien.

I am not a fan of books that read like screenplays, and yet I kept turning the pages, eagerly reading to see where this crazy plot was going to go. When a new character appeared (and it happens practically every chapter for a while), I just accepted him or her and figured that I would find out eventually why s/he was talking to me. And I did. Every time. When the story lines finally converge, it’s in a spectacular action sequence that is extremely well done. And these events occur only a little more than halfway through the book. At that point the Misha-Riley and McLane-Riley narratives stay together, while the military storyline eventually separates out again. I don’t want to say more for fear of spoilers, but while the second half wasn’t quite as gripping to me as the first, there wasn’t as much of a letdown as there can be in books of this type.

The romance between Riley and Misha (both the broken one and the one that Misha fights to resume once they are together again) is really, really good. I bought it completely despite the fact that I Do Not Like assassin heroes unless they are campy or fantasy characters in a fantasy setting. This is a fantasy setting, but Misha felt real. I think the reason his character worked for me was that the author never tried to make me like him and never minimized who he was. But she completely convinced me how much Misha loved Riley; he accepted the depths of his love even when he didn’t really understand it.

Riley had no reason to put his faith in a man who’d sneaked into his affections using lies and deception, and then had kept on lying until he’d gotten caught. A man who murdered people for a living. For someone with Riley’s background, this wasn’t a gray area. Misha was a liar and a killer. A very bad guy working for a very powerful crime syndicate and Riley had barged into the wrong room at the wrong time and become a witness. No, Misha couldn’t blame him for running. He understood why Riley had taken on overwhelming odds with an empty gun rather than call Misha. And yet, stupidly, it still hurt. Misha sighed and rubbed his face with both hands. He was a mess: tired, gritty, and headachy; hollowed-out with worry and apprehension. The movies always made love look so easy, differences and misunderstandings a minor glitch brushed off after a short, dramatic interlude that set the course for happily ever after. What a crock of shit.

And Riley conveyed the same attitude about his love for Misha. This is one of those can’t-live-without-each-other stories, which is about the only way I can swallow a character like Misha’s. Riley deserves better, but Riley isn’t going to be happy with better. I wasn’t sure how they would reconcile the assassin part, but they managed. It’s not entirely believable, but the fact that I’m saying that about a book that involves alien landings and sentient armor tells you how thoroughly I was invested in these characters. Riley is Everyday Guy as Hero, which is a difficult character to make really interesting, especially when everyone around him is so unusual, but the author manages it. He’s realistically aware of the type of person he is emotionally and he doesn’t lie to himself about his weaknesses. When he’s invaded by System Six, he deals with it, and watching them get to know each other is one of the major pleasures of the book.

System Six/McLane is a hoot. He is the quintessential stranger in a strange land, and he’s trying to adapt to the new circumstances he has found himself in. He slowly comes to grips with the fact that although he is designed as both protection and a killing machine, he can’t just go around killing everyone who endangers Riley, because Riley doesn’t like killing people directly or indirectly. When he adjusts, he’s so pleased with himself:

Forward and up—hello there, nausea!—and Riley didn’t know what was happening, but he hoped like hell McClane wasn’t about to slaughter an innocent bystander. Or throw up on them. They came to an abrupt stop then, perfectly balanced and ready to move. No upchucking was happening, and neither did there seem to be blood. Note how I’m not killing him, McClane declared proudly. Riley might’ve been more appreciative had he had any idea what was going on.

The military characters are a bit stock but we come to appreciate their perspectives. The scientist in charge of examining the alien remains is minority and female, and the author portrays her background without making her all about her race. The (male) general who leads the mission to capture McLane is someone to admire and respect, even when he screws up and jumps to conclusions. They’re quieter characters than our three heroes, but they grew on me, and I was pleased that the entire military wasn’t sacrificed in order for our heroes to get to their HEA. The Russian gangsters and the survivalists (yes, there are survivalists) are also well portrayed even when their roles are fairly brief. The book doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, which is no big surprise, but the three female characters are strong, competent, and interesting.

Oh yeah, the sex scenes. I almost forgot. There are several of them, and they run the gamut from not-sexy (on purpose) to hilarious to arousing. I frequently skip sex scenes, but I read all of these. They’re integral to the plot and they illuminate the characters, so if you skip them you miss important material. And they’re well written. I didn’t really buy the HEA, but I don’t see any other way the book could have ended, so I can’t really complain. Similarly, the big shootout scenes are not really believable, but they’re very well done and they are standard alien-movie fare.

If I listed all the components of this novel, they would sound familiar: alien landings, body invasions, Russian mobsters, military on the rampage, road romance, explosions and massive fight scenes. You’ve seen them all before. But you haven’t seen them in this combination, or told in this voice. We often say what we’ll believe depends on the execution, and that cliché has never been more apropos than in Bone Rider. I can’t wait to see what J. Fally does next. Grade: A-

~ Sunita

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