Review: Level Hands, by Amy Jo Cousins (Rating: 3/5)

cousins-level-handsLevel Hands, by Amy Jo Cousins (Bend or Break, Book 4)
Publisher: Samhain Publishing (August 25, 2015)
Pages Count: 293 pages
Genre: Gay (M/M) Romance

Rating: 3 out of 5

* I received an advanced copy of this novel from the author in exchange for a fair and honest review. *

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Rafael took up rowing after Denny introduced it to them when they were teens in Chicago. Now in college, Rafi is on a rowing scholarship at the posh, east-coast school that Denny attends. Two problems: he doesn’t fit in with the rich, white kids around him; and he already has a reputation… as the guy who only got in because of Denny’s family’s money.

Rafi didn’t even know if he was offended or embarrassed. Jesuchristo, Denny. You couldn’t keep your mouth shut? He didn’t know what bothered him more: the idea that he was showing up on campus with some kind of claim already laid on him by a guy he’d kissed one time on the lakefront two years ago, or that everyone knew he’d kissed the guy, period.

The big problem here was Rafi’s character. He’s inconsistent, and it was frustrating as a reader because I couldn’t relate to him. One second he’s running scared, refusing to commit or do anything with Denny, and the next he’s making out with Denny in the boathouse. Too much back and forth!

I also thought that Rafi was too worried about his reputation. He’s openly gay, and only one guy on the entire rowing team cares. There are other openly gay guys on the team, and no one bothers them. So why is he so afraid to be seen with Denny? Who cares if Denny’s family bought his place at school? I get that he wants to prove himself, but he does prove himself over and over while rowing.

But the writing is the same high quality that I expect from Amy Jo Cousins, and the side characters really made this novel enjoyable. Austin is hilarious, and I really hope that Book 5 is about him! And Denny is endlessly patient, putting up with Rafi’s hot and cold and always being there to support him.

“Speak for yourself. I’m a fucking tower of hypermasculinity,” Austin said loftily between tamale bites.

“Yeah. Sure. That’s what we all thought when we caught you on your knees in the boathouse,” Denny said.

The final verdict? Enjoyable, but Rafi is not the easiest character to relate to and his mood swings are exhausting for the reader and the rest of the characters.

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Review: Lonely Hearts, by Heidi Cullinan (Rating: 5/5)

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LonelyHearts300Lonely Hearts, by Heidi Cullinan (Love Lessons, Book 3)
Publisher: Samhain Publishing (August 11, 2015)
Word Count: approx. 115,000 words
Genre: Gay (M/M) Contemporary Romance

Rating: 5 out of 5

* I received an advanced copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review. *

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Summary: With the quiet help of his wealthy family, Sebastian “Baz” Acker has successfully kept his painful past at bay. But as the end of college draws near, his friends— his buffer zone— are preparing to move on, while his own life is at a crippling standstill. With loneliness bearing down on him, Baz hooks up— then opens up— with Elijah Prince, the guy Baz took a bullet for last year. The aftershocks of their one-night stand leave giant cracks in Baz’s carefully constructed armor. For the first time, the prospect isn’t terrifying.

My Thoughts: I honestly didn’t think that I could love a novel as much as I loved Cullinan’s Fever Pitch, but then I started reading Lonely Hearts and was absolutely blown away. The exceptional story-telling, combined with the fierce and unflinching characters of Sebastian “Baz” Acker and Elijah Prince, and Cullinan’s brilliant and memorable writing all combined to make this my favorite novel of the year so far. (To put this in perspective, I’ve read this book in its entirely three times now since I received the ARC… IT’S THAT GOOD!)


“The name is Prince, bitch, not princess. I can take care of myself.” (Kindle loc. 361)

This book is all about the characters. Both appeared in Fever Pitch, but only in the background. In this novel, they get their chance to shine, and Cullinan does a phenomenal job of bringing these complex and damaged men to life. Baz and Elijah are both incredibly unlikeable; they’re rude, crass, and damaged on the inside and out. They use drugs and alcohol as a way to soften their edges, both with each other and with their friends (who are thankfully able to see past the prickly exteriors). It’s actually refreshingly atypical for the m/m romance genre, where the men are usually personable, strong, and easy to relate to.


He was pale, skinny, too tall and defeated. He didn’t look like the man who kept scrambling Elijah’s circuits. (Kindle loc. 2186)

Having a novel with not one but two unpleasant characters is difficult. Elijah is still trying to overcome the events at the end of Fever Pitch, battling the demons his religious fanatic parents left him with and trying to overcome the guilt of Baz being shot in his defense. Baz deals every minute of every day with his injuries from a gay bashing almost a decade prior, which left him covered in scars and severely photophobic. Separate, they’re cantankerous and frustrating; together, they’re able to find someone who understands their pain, and can begin the process of healing and finding love.


“I can’t quite quit pushing people away when they get too close. The nicer they are, the more right they seem, the more I want them gone. Doesn’t make any fucking sense, but there it is.”

Elijah huffed a bitter laugh through his nose. “Yes it does.”

Baz raised his eyebrows. “Okay, tell me.”

“Because if you let them in, you have to feel. If they fuck you over, it hurts ten times worse than if you’d kept them out. And it’s not as if you don’t have other shit to manage. There are only so many wounds you can  take, and at some point you have to cut your losses and circle the wagons.”

Baz stared out the windshield. “Fucking lonely way to be.”

“Yes.” (Kindle loc. 1547)

The only flaw I could see in this novel was minimal… and that was the superfluous pop culture references. Cullinan references Baz and Elijah’s relationship against the Miyazaki film Howl’s Moving Castle and an anime called Black Butler, and I think that a reader who hasn’t seen those might feel alienated from the plot.

Simply put, this novel was amazing. Cullinan knows how to write, that much can’t be denied (and congrats to her on her 2015 RITA nomination!!!), and she has a clear talent for taking two separate, damaged characters and making them whole together. I really loved this novel, and can’t wait to read more in this series if Cullinan decides to write it!



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