Caterpillars Can’t Swim is a beautiful story of tearing down boundaries and building unlikely friendships

Reviewed for Netgalley

Caterpillars Can’t Swim…but they do eventually morph into beautiful butterflies just as the relationship between three high school boys changes from ugly and awkward into something beautiful that breaks down barriers and saves a life in the process.

Wheelchair-bound Ryan becomes a local hero when he pulls an unconscious Jack out of a river and saves his life, but what could have been an ending is only the beginning as Ryan becomes entwined in Jack’s secretive, unhappy life.

Liane Shaw deftly handled issues such as homophobia, physical disability, depression, and suicide and portrayed them in a way that was gripping without being preachy or clichéd. Her characters were fresh and managed to escape so many of the stereotypes that are usually present in books about high schoolers. Cody could have easily been a one-dimensional jerk, but he had layers that were at times chopped right off to reveal surprising truths about himself. He was abrasive and rude and charming and even sweet in his own way. It’s rare that a reader wants to hug and slap a character all in the same paragraph, but Cody was definitely refreshing and believable in his reactions to Jack. I also liked Ryan from the start. He was snarky and funny and genuine. He was a perfect mix of someone who had accepted his disability and someone who occasionally got completely pissed off about being stuck in a wheelchair. His discomfort and uncertainty about Jack were palpable and made him real to me.

The lack of an insta-friendship was a welcome change. I enjoyed seeing the friendship between Ryan and Jack build over time. Their comradery required honesty and a slow-building trust which wouldn’t have been credible if it had been rushed. And I loved the ending. Jack’s problems didn’t just disappear with a new friendship. Everything wasn’t neat and tidy. The ending was scary and messy and let the reader know that Jack has a long road ahead of him, but that road just might end in a happier place.

Caterpillars Can’t Swim is not your typical YA story, and that is something I really enjoyed about it. This was my first Liane Shaw book, but her writing style and her approach to topics that can be difficult to write about in a fresh, non-stereotypical fashion really appealed to me, and I look forward to reading more of her work.

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The dumbing down of Damen, a spoiler-ridden review of Kings Rising

Packed with SPOILERS! Just an FYI….

Okay, I guess three days after finishing is enough processing time to attempt a cohesive review of Kings Rising.KR

C.S. Pacat’s first two books in her Captive Prince series are some of the best books I’ve ever read. The depth of the characters and their cruelty, the exotic customs of the societies Pacat created, the twists and deceptions, the scattered truths, and the intense sword’s edge on which the main characters balanced were all spellbinding. Those books were like nothing I had ever read. It was a very long wait between Captive Prince: Volume Two and Kings Rising, loads of anticipation, and I must admit that halfway through the series’ conclusion, it was just meh for me. I thought the story was dragging and dull to the midway point. Fortunately, the pace did pick up after that.

My biggest problem with this whole book was Damen. I felt that Damen’s character was somewhat lost in this third installation. He was so busy pining for Laurent that he was missing or misjudging what was happening around him. Damen, you are a King now so pull your head out of your ass and act like one! Damen’s naivety was irritating and so was the trust he put in others. How many times must this man be betrayed before he learns that people are not trustworthy? How many chances must he give people before he learns the lessons that Laurent has already mastered? Blind trust is what got him enslaved in the first place and, yet, he is repeating the pattern. I believe Nikandros said it best:

‘No. Listen Damianos. You trust blindly. You see the world in absolutes— if you believe someone a foe, nothing will dissuade you from arming up to fight. But when you give your affections . . . When you give a man your loyalty, your faith in him is unswerving. You would fight for him with your last breath, you would hear no word spoken against him, and you would go to the grave with his spear in your side.’ Pacat, C. S. (2016-02-02). Kings Rising: Book Three of the Captive Prince Trilogy (p. 75).

I guess I just expected Damen to be more suspicious of people in general after what he went through in the first book. I hated that he never seemed to wake up and figure out what was happening. Most of the time, Laurent had to clue him in and other times he was just hit over the head with something he’d completely missed. Example, the fact that the Regent sexually abused Laurent. How could Damen not get this? Look at all the young boys who are the Regent’s known victims. Think of how closed-off and uncertain Laurent is in bed. Think of the timeline of Laurent’s life with the Regent. And, hello!, drunk Laurent falls asleep murmuring ‘yes Uncle,’ but Damen still doesn’t get it? Argh!!!! And also, sending Kastor a warning that he was coming? Stupid, stupid, stupid. I guess he has truly learned nothing from his time in Laurent’s presence. It was almost as if Pacat had dumbed Damen down for this book.

Furthermore, I wanted Damen to get angry. When it appeared that Laurent had left him to be slaughtered at Charcy, when Laurent reveals that he’s known Damen’s identity from the beginning, I wanted Damen to be something other than hurt. I wanted him to be furious. I wanted him to react to Laurent’s cold, calculated manipulation as a sovereign would instead of a besotted victim of unrequited love. Instead, he just rolls over and gives in to all of Laurent’s demands. Even as Laurent’s venomous words cut Damen just as deeply as the whipping he endured on the Vere prince’s command, Damen just keeps being endlessly concerned about Laurent.

I thought the story also got lost a bit in the middle with their wagon-burdened trek through Akielos, and Laurent’s saving the day by impersonating Charls. It all seemed unnecessary and overcomplicated. At times, it was disjointed as if there should have been more but wasn’t. I think the best thing to come out of the middle portion of the book were the exchanges between Jokaste and Laurent, two vipers sizing each other up and striking with words. Oh yeah, and the other best part: Laurent finally shows that there is emotion and love under that ice cold exterior. The frigid prince experiences some global warming!

I was not expecting Damen to turn himself in. Frankly, I was kind of hoping he would sneak in and gut the Regent like a fish, but, instead Damen foolishly believes that Guion will keep his word and testify against the Regent. Seriously, D, stop trusting people whom you know have no morals! However, Damen does finally, FINALLY figure something out on his own, and we find out why Paschal is in Laurent’s service. And then came my final disappointment in Damen: his inability to kill Kastor! Why would you trust a man who sold you into slavery to your worst enemy? Who murdered your father and then tried to frame you for it? Nikandros was right, but instead of a spear, it’s Kastor’s knife in your side. And also, as you later state, you know the wound isn’t fatal so don’t just lie there helplessly! Get up, retrieve your sword, and finish it!

Despite my frustration, I do understand why it had to be Laurent who killed Kastor, why that symmetry between the two characters had to be established. Because Damen, who has been so brutally betrayed, still has love in his heart for Kastor, so Laurent killing Kastor is a stabilizer. It makes them equal. Each has now killed the other’s brother. Frankly, it was a brilliant move on Pacat’s part.

After this review, you probably think I hated the book. I didn’t. Even though the execution of the story wasn’t quite what I had hoped for and even though I didn’t think Kings Rising was as good as the first two books, I still love these two characters. I never thought they could have a happily ever after, but they got one, and that makes me very happy. And leaves me wanting more. A nice little epilogue of how they rule one kingdom, united and together. Perhaps Makedon can even bring more griva to toast his new best friend. I look forward to the short stories Pacat has promised because she, like myself, is not ready to give up this wonderful world and these fantastic characters that she created.

The River Leith, an amnesia story worth remembering

There were other people in the occupational therapy ward….People who were shells of the beings they were before, empty and unable to give anything back to the world except for the memory that once they were more, and that they never would be again.

The River Leith was my first Leta Blake book, but it will definitely not be my last. From the first page, I enjoyed Blake’s writing style and the obvious development that went into these characters. I’ve read amnesia novels before and found all of them lacking, but not this one.

When Leith wakes up in a hospital with no memory of the last three years of his life including his roommates and friends he can’t remember, his frustration and anger practically leap off the page. Blake did a fantastic job getting inside the emotions of not only the amnesiac but the devastated boyfriend whom Leith can’t remember. Zach’s vlog posts about the loss of his love are heartfelt and believable. I’ve never read such a convincing account of amnesia from the devastated point of view of those who are forgotten. Seeing Zach’s POV only through his vlogs was a fresh way to convey not only what was happening in the story, but also how Zach was feeling. Little lines about a forced smile or nervous fingers picking at a loose thread painted a perfect picture of Zach’s ordeal.

And though the book had plenty of sex, which is expected in an M/M book, it never detracted or overshadowed the real story of Leith struggling to find the man he had once been and reconciling with the person he now is. Unlike so many books with amnesia storylines, The River Leith really explores how much is lost when a person loses their memories and whether or not life can resume without them.   

Caught in the Crossfire lacks firepower

I was intrigued by the premise of this book, a young boy at bible camp tries to reconcile his beliefs with his growing attraction to another boy. Unfortunately, the book never lived up to the intrigue of the premise. I found the first half boring and skimmed most of it. When Jonathan finally acts on his feelings for Ian, the story that enfolds just didn’t delve deep enough. The characters all felt a little too cliché. There was everyone I expected to be in a book like this (homophobic bible-thumpers, peer bullies, disapproving parents, token supportive guy) but no one I didn’t expect, no surprises.

Then there was the counselor who outs Jonathan to his mother. Considering that Jonathan is in a turmoil about coming out to his parents, the fact that it never actually happens in the story is a tremendous letdown. There was no discussion, just a few words with his mother that didn’t lead anywhere. It was all a bit anti-climactic in the end and rather disappointing.

 

One Man Guy is a great coming of age and coming out tale

My request for this on Netgalley went unanswered for so long that I began to worry it was going to be denied, but I am soooo glad it wasn’t! I thoroughly enjoyed this book. One Man GuOMGy is such a great coming of age and coming out story. Michael Barakiva has done a fantastic job showing how difficult it is for teenagers (gay or straight) raised in a traditional family (no matter what those traditions might be) to forge their own path without alienating their loved ones.

While the blurb touts this as a humorous tale not unlike My Big Fat Greek Wedding or any of the works of David Sedaris, I did not read it that way. I felt the story was much more serious than that. To me, Alek was very relatable because his family traditions and his parents’ expectations were very suffocating and restrictive. He was a boy who couldn’t even discover himself because of the limitations his family put on his freedoms, whether they were academic, extracurricular or self-expression. He had no room to grow.

Watching Alek come into himself was like watching a flower denied sun for too long finally blooming and spreading its petals to the world around it. Barakiva really captured the imperfections of one’s first serious relationship: the awkwardness and fights, the mistakes and making up. Alek fumbled his way through his emotions and his misperceptions just like anyone finding love for the first time would do. Everything about his relationship with Ethan rang true. I really enjoyed this read and look forward to more from Michael Barakiva.

Farrar Strauss Giroux Publishing – May 27, 2014

Reviewed for Netgalley

College Boys, Men of Holsum College #1 by Daisy Harris

While doing research for my own M/M story, I read a lot of books from this genre and became a sucker for those college athlete coming out tales, especially if they involved a football player. And College Boys technically does include a footballer, or what the rest of the world calls football and we Americans refer to as soccer. So, I was eager to read this latest offering by Daisy Harris.

College Boys revolves around Chris Fischer, a soccer star who loses his mom and needs peace and quiet that his dorm room full of teammates doesn’t offer. When he moves across campus into a single, he’s reunited with Peter Cohen, an openly gay Holsum student who he met on a pre-semester camping trip. Chris struggles with the realization that he is attracted to Peter.

While I liked the premise of the story and its two main characters, I thought the plot lacked development and needed more time to build the story and showcase Chris’ struggles with his sexuality. The story felt rushed, and I would have liked more time to get to know Peter and Chris. They both came off a little bit flat.

If you are looking for a story in this vein, I would recommend Fratboy and Toppy by Anne Tenino (Riptide Publishing, 2012) over College Boys.

College Boys by Daisy Harris was just “meh” for me

Grime and Punishment and damaged goods equal good reading

Reviewed for Netgalley.com

Many books in this genre seem to dissolve into a thread-thin plot that fruitlessly tries to hold together an endless string of pointless albeit explicit sex scenes. I’m not a prude and have no problem with racy scenes, but my books have to have strong plots and characters that are developed and more than an empty shell with pretty wrapping. Otherwise, the stories aren’t worth reading. Fortunately, Grime and Punishment avoids that pitfall and proves to have a very strong character in Jack, a former firefighter who was terribly injured on the job and now runs his own company, cleaning up crime and suicide scenes and the messes they leave behind.

Unfortunately, even the filthiest crime scene can’t compare to the mess that Jack is on the inside. A brutal betrayal has left him alone and afraid to trust anyone. His life has become an endless string of one-night stands and loneliness. And then he gets the biggest shock of his life. His first love has committed suicide, and the aftermath opens old wounds and exposes Jack to the one thing he never thought he would have: a shot at true love.

Z.A. Maxfield has created an interesting and damaged character in Jack Masterson and explores the effects of injury, betrayal, and healing. If I have one complaint, it’s that I would have liked to see other characters developed more throughout the book. A few chapters from the POV of Jack’s friends would have, in my opinion, made them stronger, deeper characters and would have given the reader a better sense of Jack’s past and the people in his life. There is an incident towards the end that left me feeling like I didn’t realize what a big part of Jack’s life the other characters really were. Some POV from them would have cleared that up.

Overall, it is one of the better M/M books I have read. The pacing was steady and gave readers a chance to get to know Jack and see him change and grow as the story progresses.