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REVIEW: Between Sinners and Saints by Marie Sexton

REVIEW: Between Sinners and Saints by Marie Sexton

Dear Ms. Sexton.

I’ve enjoyed your writing before, but it was Kaetrin’s review of this one that made me pull it out of Mt. TBR. I was interested in the concept and knew I could trust your writing. I’m glad I did, even if it wasn’t what I expected.

Levi Binder works in a gay bar and enjoys the “perks” of his position at least once a night in the bar’s storage room. He’s uninterested in relationships and is happy in his “work.” The only fly in his ointment is phone calls from various representatives of his Mormon family, trying to get him to see the error of his ways. Oh, and his hip and thigh, which after being abused by standing all night and then surfing during the day, hurt like a bitch. So he sees a neuro-muscular massage therapist (and I learned something new there–had no idea that neuro-muscular rehabilitative massage existed, let alone what it was). His therapist is Jaime, a quiet sort of guy who seems a bit skittish. Levi keeps coming onto Jaime, Jaime refuses and finally, when Levi won’t back down, kicks him out. And good for him, I say.

With the help of some friends, Levi figures out why Jaime not only won’t consider sex, but categorically refuses to be touched–he realizes that Jaime was probably sexually abused as a child. We already know this, because Jaime has thought about it, giving us a bit of an info-dump. Levi and Jaime work their way back to a professional relationship and then a friendship, because Levi now understands the boundaries, without ever actually discussing the sexual abuse with Jaime. He and Jaime also figure out that Jaime can sleep without nightmares in Levi’s bed because he finally feels safe, so they spend a lot more time together. But Levi starts to fall for Jaime without realizing it, and ends up changing as a result. First he tries to abstain from his easy bar sex and when he falls off the wagon spectacularly and dangerously with a bar patron, he quits the bar.

All of this is interwoven with Levi’s continuing struggles with his family, who variously want him to stop being gay altogether, or stop having gay sex, or stop having meaningless sex, gay or not, or stop working at the bar, his means to meaningless gay sex. But Jaime adores Levi’s large family (parents, Levi and five siblings, nineteen sibling offspring), and when Jaime and Levi finally start exploring the sexual side of their relationship, after they’ve figured out they’re in love, they have to navigate the shoals of Levi’s family’s disapproval, their place in it, Jaime’s past, and their growing love for each other.

I can’t believe that summary had to be so long, because the plot isn’t that complicated. It’s not a Romantic Suspense. No one has to save the world from the Big Bad. But it IS complicated nonetheless, with relationships and interpersonal tangles and the book is all the richer for it. Levi has a LARGE family, but most of the siblings and his parents have solid, individual personalities, which is a pretty good trick. Or, you know, damn hard work as a writer. :)

Here’s the thing, though: this book was an Inspirational. Now, admittedly, I’ve read one “true” Inspy in my life (Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love), and while I enjoyed it in an academic way, atheist me doesn’t particularly want to read any more. And although this book is a m/m romance, it’s definitely an Inspirational, proving that the two are NOT mutually exclusive (and really, it’s only the Christianist h8ers who claim they ARE mutually exclusive). While I appreciated the writing and the characters and understood how the inspirational nature of the story was good and right, even necessary, for the characters, it was…unexpected to me.

Because the story is REALLY about how Levi finds his way back to the bosom of his religious family, finds his way back to his religious beliefs (although not necessarily to his church), through his relationship with Jaime. It is precisely his religious family who help Jaime heal. And Levi eventually believes that God brought him to Jaime, precisely as a gay man in a Mormon family, not only to help Jaime heal, but also to draw Levi back to his family. (Clarification: although the narrative itself is as much about Levi’s emotional journey as it is about Jaime’s, Levi’s own motivation is ALL about making sure Jaime is safe and happy. So while my description here might make Levi sound selfish, he really really isn’t. All he wants in life is for Jaime to be happy and to feel safe.)

Now, don’t get me wrong, the Inspirational aspects are brilliantly done. The story is utterly compelling. The characters were solid, consistent, even fascinating. And while I absolutely could see that anonymous sex was, indeed, wrong FOR LEVI, the book felt to me like an utter condemnation of anonymous sex for everyone (although, don’t all romances that believe in finding “The One” and living together in happy monogamy forever after, amen? I guess so). And it’s not like I felt the religion was pushed on me or was trying to convert me. I did NOT feel proselytized to in the slightest, like I did with the Rivers. But readers who care about this type of thing one way or another should be aware that Levi’s journey back to God is a huge part of this book.

There was one stylistic thing that made me want to scream. EVERY TIME Jaime wanted to talk with Levi about something difficult, he’d start massaging Levi’s hand. And EVERY TIME he did that, you’d tell us why:

Jaime found it easier to look back down at Levi’s hand rather than to face him.

He concentrated on massaging Levi’s hand, and Levi realized the massage gave Jaime a sense of security–he was relying on what he knew to get him through something that made him nervous.

Instead, he took one of Levi’s hands and began to massage it in a familiar way. It meant he didn’t have to look in Levi’s eyes when he started to talk.

I got to the point that I was screaming at my phone, “Yes, I get it! I really really do!” Trust your readers to get it a bit more than that, okay? Say it the first time, then…don’t. Trust your readers.

All in all, you took serious risks with this book, as you did with Strawberries for Dessert, and the characters carry the day. But the sexual abuse and Inspirational aspect, no matter how brilliantly handled (and they are, don’t get me wrong), means this book probably won’t make it to my Desert Island Keeper file in Dropbox.

Grade: B

Best regards,
-Sarah

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REVIEW: Spin Out by James Buchanan

REVIEW: Spin Out by James Buchanan

Dear Ms. Buchanan.

It’s no secret that I love your books, your writing style, your voice. I especially loved Hard Fall, the first book in the series that has become The Deputy Joe Series (with another one in the works, apparently). And there are moments of absolutely sublimity in this book that just left me looking at my iPhone screen in awe, trying to figure out how writing could be so perfectly evocative. But there’s also a saggy middle, some repetition, and…well, I don’t particularly like police procedurals, so the book dragged a bit for me in places. But the emotional punch of the relationship is up to your usual brilliance, and that’s what really counted for me.

Spin Out by James BuchananDeputy Joe Paterson is in a relationship with Kabe Varghese — how they got that way is covered in Hard Fall. When the relationship comes out, he is excommunicated from the Mormon church, loses most of his community support, and is suspended from his job as a Deputy Sheriff, because Kabe is on probation and was a person of interest in a murder investigation.

What we learn in Spin Out is that it’s the probation part that is really the issue, not the person of interest part, because it’s an illegal abuse of power for a LEO to be involved in a sexual relationship with anyone in “custody” of the law, including anyone on probation. Kabe is seen as the “victim” in that situation, possibly coerced or blackmailed into the sexual relationship by Joe. And Joe’s on the hook for this, big time: he’s been called to a hearing that will decide whether to suspend or revoke his license to be a cop. Kabe has been subpoenaed as a witness to the hearing, but Joe convinces him that it’s not a big deal. He’s equally trying to protect Kabe from any worry, trying to minimize the situation for himself, and also truly believes that it’s his shit to deal with, not Kabe’s.

Which is how the relationship blows up, because Kabe is called to testify, and is blindsided by the intimate and intrusive nature of the questions he’s asked, and comes out of it believing that Joe doesn’t trust him enough to tell him about what’s going on in their life together. And he’s right, of course. The heart of the story is Joe coming to recognize how badly he’s wronged Kabe by NOT telling him stuff and how much he needs to open up and start communicating if he wants the relationship to survive. The emotional power of the break between Joe and Kabe is huge, and watching Joe move his fool self from utterly oblivious to fully committed to fixing his idiocy is wonderful.

But the narrative as a whole is also frustratingly repetitive and could have used some tightening in the middle a bit. There were parts during which Joe almost literally repeats when he said/thought a few pages previously and while I understand that he’s a stubborn son-of-a-bitch and the point is that he keeps repeating himself, I still think some tighter edits would have been helpful without losing the strength of Joe’s character or the power of his emotional arc. Most egregiously, on page 46, Joe talks over the phone with a friend of his, the only friend he really has: “Don’t know how long I was out there. Long enough that I sketched out the basics for Dev…and I didn’t need to fill in a lot of blanks.” And although Joe says “I probably left a lot of it out,” when he meets with Dev 100 pages later, I didn’t expect that Dev wouldn’t know that Joe had been excommunicated, that Kabe had received the subpoena. It was like the hour-long phone conversation hadn’t happened at ALL and that Dev was talking with Joe for the first time. I kept wondering if I was crazy. VERY frustrating as a reader.

This is all told against the backdrop of a police procedural murder mystery that’s got a lot more witness interrogation than I’m usually willing to read. I don’t LIKE police procedurals. I find them generally boring because they have little to do with the themes or plot of the emotional heart of the novel. And this one is, yes, a bit much for me. I mean, I like that the “mystery” is just hunting down the witnesses and not any super-skull-duggery, but watching Joe interview witnesses one-on-one, without those interviews having much to do with the emotional heart of the story, except at the very end, is…boring *to me*. Thinking about it, the themes of the mystery could match the themes of the romance part, but only if you squint.

However, I was more than compensated for my impatience with the police procedural part in a few important ways: 1. by the strength of the characters, by the realism of the situations — Kabe and Joe have a HUGE fight and nothing is magically fixed; they get back together but still have to discuss things…in their own way; and 2. by the sheer and utter beauty of your prose sometimes:

I knew—exactly—the moment I fell for him. “When we’re up on the mountain getting ready to go down for that woman’s body, you remember, you smiled at me.” It was like the sun had touched the earth and been born in his body. “That’s when I think I really lost my reason.”

“Because I smiled?” Kabe just sounded confused at that. “That made it all worth it—risking getting kicked off the force?”

“Because,” I tried to tame that whole whirlwind into a sentence, “when you smiled at me right then, I saw something.” I’d seen more than just something, I’d seen a possibility of everything. “See, there’s this light I feel inside of me whenever I look at taking on a mountain and pitting my soul against the rock. It’s like a passion, like I sometimes get for you.” Rubbed my face against his and just breathe in his smell. “And that light, that I feel down in here,” I pushed my fingers against his sternum, “there it was, all up in your face. And I’m thinking, he understands.” Oh, Lord, did he ever. “He feels the same thing I feel. When we went back up on the mountain the next day, I really wasn’t planning anything other than to actually go find that camera, but also just kinda be with you.”

Joe eventually figures things out and does it in a way that’s connected with the BDSM play they engage in. And there’s a LOT of that, btw, as hot as always:

Followed him on up into my bedroom. Watched him strip off his shirt and jeans. That boy was right fine. All lean, honed and hard. There were a hundred things I wanted to do to that body. It kinda hit me then, I’d been thinking on Kabe as being mine. Not like boyfriend mine, but like he belonged to me. That I could do what I wanted, because I wanted. And it weren’t like that. I could do things to him because he suffered me to do them to him. It got him off. And in getting him off, well I got to go along on that ride. Even if I controlled the when, where and what of it, it was ’cause he wanted me to. He trusted me to. That…it kinda went both ways, and I hadn’t been playing fair. I expected to know everything about him and didn’t give him nothing back. Even when it might mean he’d have to go through the wringer with me.

And that’s what makes this book so worthwhile. I could just wish that the middle had been tightened quite a bit. But the emotional payoff kept me reading this book long after my bed time and what more do we want from a book anyway?

Grade: B-

Best regards,
-Sarah

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