4 Stars, Amy Jo Cousins, Genre Romance, New Adult, Reviewed by Jules, Samhain Publishing

Review: Level Hands by Amy Jo Cousins

Title: Level Hands (Bend or Break: Book Four)

Author: Amy Jo Cousins

Publisher: Samhain Publishing

Pages/Word Count: 293 Pages

At a Glance: With Level Hands, Amy Jo Cousins shows us once again how well she can write young guys.

Reviewed By: Jules

Blurb: When it comes to love, there’s no such thing as smooth sailing.

Rafael Castro is so far out of his element he can’t even see it anymore. Carlisle College in Massachusetts is a long way from his Chicago home, even farther from his Dominican Republic roots.

The only thing keeping him attached to his last nerve is the prospect of seeing Denny Winslow again. The first time they met, Denny taught Rafi to fly across the water, rowing hard in a knife-like boat. Now, two years later, on the wings of a rowing scholarship, Rafi is attending Denny’s elite college.

Even before the excitement wears off, Rafi is struggling with classes and fending off rumors that Denny’s family, not Rafi’s talent, won him his spot. To quash the gossip, Rafi tries to steer clear of the man he wants. A plan that evaporates in the fire of renewed attraction.

But Carlisle’s academic pressure cooker has Rafi barely treading water. And when a family crisis hits, both Rafi and Denny must pull hard to keep their relationship from capsizing in rough waters.

Warning: Contains a surly Dominican-American guy determined to show no weakness, a golden boy who knows his soft spots, some seriously dirty bachata dancing, and an excellent excuse for voyeurism in the locker room.

Dividers

Review: Rafael Castro definitely feels like he’s in over his head when he arrives at Carlisle to join the rowing team, and take advantage of the opportunity he’s been given to attend such a prestigious college. He feels he has to constantly show his gratitude, and to prove his worth, which ends up almost being his downfall. No matter how much he kills himself for the team, or works at his studies, he never allows himself to simply appreciate the gift he’s been given.

Denny Winslow desperately wants to help Rafi. Wants to share some of his burdens and help him reduce his stresses at school. Denny has wanted Rafi since he was seventeen, and Rafi was the first boy he ever kissed – but not until he turned eighteen, at Rafael’s insistence. Unfortunately, things don’t start out like he hoped they would when he found out Rafi was coming to Carlisle.

These guys drove me bonkers. Ok…Rafi drove me bonkers. Ha! But, you know what?? I liked them. I like how authentic they feel. How imperfect they are. How much their indecisiveness and refusal to pull their heads out of their asses at times made me want to throw my Kindle. Because that’s real life. Sometimes it takes a while to figure shit out. Sometimes the road is bumpy, and you can’t see the forest for the trees. But, our stubborn Rafaelito got there, man. He got there.

With Level Hands, Amy Jo Cousins shows us once again how well she can write young guys. The dialogue is sharp, and the crew scenes, as well as the scenes of Rafi and his roommates just hanging out, felt very natural. I really dug all of the rowing stuff, actually, more than I thought I would. Cash, who we initially met in Off Campus, the first book in the series, is completely awesome and hilarious, of course, and stole every scene he was in. And the chemistry between Rafi and Denny is fantastic. Sexy bachata dancing scene? Check. Hot as hell hiking scene? Check and check. When these guys are not needing to be smacked upside the head, and are clicking romantically, it’s ON.

There were a few little inconsistencies that threw me, the big one being Rafi all of a sudden referring to himself as ‘a black guy’ about halfway through the book. It was definitely mentioned that he was mixed race, but he had clearly been identifying as Dominican for the ENTIRE book up until that point, so it just seemed very strange to all of a sudden change that up.

It takes him a while – and thank God Denny is basically a massive sweetheart with an extremely long rope and high tolerance for taking Rafi’s shit – but Rafi finally starts to figure things out. In spite of his stubbornness and the ridiculous notion that he needed to push Denny away, I found myself rooting for Rafi throughout the book, and I’m sure you will be, too! And, don’t forget to click the link at the end of the book to subscribe to Amy Jo’s newsletter to get a bonus chapter!

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5 Stars, Amy Jo Cousins, Genre Romance, Reviewed by Janet, Samhain Publishing

Review: Nothing Like Paris by Amy Jo Cousins

Title: Nothing Like Paris (Bend or Break: Book Two)

Author: Amy Jo Cousins

Publisher: Samhain Publishing

Pages/Word Count: 249 Pages

At a Glance: One of the strengths of this author is her character development skills; the guys are real, I could relate to them, and I loved joining them in this story.

Reviewed By: Janet

Blurb: Humble pie wasn’t supposed to taste this sweet.

Jack Tarkington’s life is in the toilet. He was supposed to be spending his junior year studying someplace cool like Paris or Rome. Instead, after taking out his anger on the campus “golden boy”, whose dad ripped off his parents, Jack is facing possible expulsion.

Sure, it’s all his own fault, but coming back to the small Iowa town he thought he’d escaped, after crowing about his admission to a prestigious school, has been a humbling experience.

When he runs into Miguel, Jack braces for backlash over the way he lorded it over his old friend and flame. Instead, Miguel offers him friendship—and a job at his growing farm-to-table store and café.

Against the odds, both guys bond over broken dreams and find common ground in music. But when Jack’s college gives him a second chance, he’s torn between achieving a dream that will take him far from home, and a love that strikes a chord he’ll never find anywhere else.

Dividers

Review: This is the second story in the Bend or Break universe, written by a fairly new author. It delivered quite the punch, and Amy Jo Cousins should be very proud of her work, as I found the book to be gripping from start to finish, and couldn’t put it down. I had the good fortune to not have read the first book which meant that I had another book to dive into as soon as I finished this one, because I just had to see for myself the wrong that Jack had done.

What a novel concept to have an MC I was sure I shouldn’t like or feel sorry for, but liking him anyway. Really! I don’t usually have only one side of a story, as I am pretty careful to read related stories in order, so this was a totally new experience for me. Jack is quite the character too, and totally worth the mixed emotions I felt as I read this book. I also loved the fact that although these are college age guys, they are not boys fresh out of high school, so there was no squick factor for me as I read. The ritual of being a grown up and owning your actions is given a fresh look with these MCs. Jack and Mike are each from difficult families, difficult for very different reasons, and the way they achieve their independence is a powerful plot of the story. The relationship that was theirs all through high school, and where it will go in the future, is another. The steps they take in their dance towards a relationship again are equal parts sweet and tentative, with a good dash of hot thrown in.

I really enjoyed the pace and flow of this story. There were many storylines going on all the time, but nothing felt jumbled or off track. The love story and hope for the future built up throughout the story and really kept my focus for the entire book. The sex scenes were hot but not gratuitous, and really helped the reader to be more invested in the MCs’ lives. I really liked the humor the author has in her tone of voice while narrating this story; it invites the reader in as a sympathetic witness to the MCs’ struggles, while letting us giggle at some of the shenanigans they get up to.

This story is a standalone novel, even though it is based on events from the prior book. I had no issues with a lack of understanding, as the POVs are totally separate and the link between the novels is simply the college and crossover characters. One of the strengths of this author is her character development skills; the guys are real, I could relate to them, and I loved joining them in this story. The HEA the MCs earned, as well as the hope and excitement for their future, means this book will be a favorite reread for me – although I hope it won’t be too long of a wait for another book from this author. I really enjoy her work.






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4.5 Stars, Amy Jo Cousins, Genre Romance, Reviewed by Jules, Samhain Publishing

Review: Off Campus by Amy Jo Cousins

Title: Off Campus (Bend or Break: Book One)

Author: Amy Jo Cousins

Publisher: Samhain Publishing

Pages/Word Count: 317 Pages

At a Glance: Off Campus is a wonderful, emotional, touching, and ultimately uplifting read I highly recommend.

Reviewed By: Jules

Blurb: Everyone’s got secrets. Some are just harder to hide.

With his father’s ponzi scheme assets frozen, Tom Worthington believes finishing college is impossible unless he can pay his own way. After months sleeping in his car and gypsy-cabbing for cash, he’s ready to do just that.

But his new, older-student housing comes with an unapologetically gay roommate. Tom doesn’t ask why Reese Anders has been separated from the rest of the student population. He’s just happy to be sleeping in a bed.

Reese isn’t about to share his brutal story with his gruff new roommate. You’ve seen one homophobic jock, you’ve seen ’em all. He plans to drag every twink on campus into his bed until Tom moves out. But soon it becomes clear Tom isn’t budging.

Tom isn’t going to let some late-night sex noise scare him off, especially when it’s turning him on. But he doesn’t want any drama either. He’ll keep his hands, if not his eyes, to himself. Boundaries have a way of blurring when you start sharing truths, though. And if Tom and Reese cross too many lines, they may need to find out just how far they can bend…before they break.

Warning: This book contains cranky roommates who vacillate between lashing out and licking, some male/male voyeurism, emotional baggage that neither guy wants to unpack, and the definitive proof that sound carries in college housing.

Dividers

Review: Tom and Reese. *sigh* Both of these guys are so broken, and seemingly hanging on by a thread, Tom even more so than Reese. Reese is suffering from PTSD and definitely has a lot of healing to do, but Tom’s trauma is even fresher, and is also, unfortunately, ongoing. It’s different to have had something terrible happen to you, and to be dealing with the aftereffects, and beginning to face your demons through the healing process, than it is to still be living with your nightmare currently, on a day-to-day basis.

Tom Worthington has been going through the roughest time in his life for the past two years. He is completely broke and desperately trying to make enough money to cover his next tuition payment. The aftermath of his father’s imprisonment, and basically having to become a shut-in to avoid the press, have taken a huge toll on Tom, but the thing he has to learn is that he doesn’t have to be alone, and that he’s going to have to start trusting some people again in order to make it through to the other side.

Reese, the roommate to whom Tom is assigned when he starts back to school, is completely fabulous. Snarky, sassy, and sexy – I loved him almost immediately. When he stops judging Tom and trying to get rid of him by throwing his one-night-stands in his face, he becomes even more loveable. Reese’s strength is amazing. We see how vulnerable he is when Tom first gets to the apartment; he is visibly terrified. But, we also quickly find out how fierce and strong he is, and that he will do anything for his man.

The dialogue in the book is fantastic. There is some great banter between Reese and Tom, but even more epic is the stuff that comes out of Tom’s friend Cash’s mouth. I looooooved Cash, and Reese’s best friend, Steph, as well. There is no doubt that the chemistry between Reese and Tom is on fire – but so is the ‘friend’ chemistry between Tom and Cash. And when those four team up, they are a force to be reckoned with.

I did feel like the conflict in the story was somewhat drawn out. There was a lot of Tom beating himself up and refusing to accept help and not communicating with Reese, thereby causing scads of relationship tension, which obviously a story needs to a certain degree – I just felt like it all went on for a bit too long. The resolution, however, is extremely satisfying, and everyone gets to play a part. Reese’s dad is amazing. Cash is amazing. Watching both Tom’s and Reese’s growth is amazing. And I also really like that the antagonist, Jack, gets to have his story further explored in the next book.

I was introduced to Amy Jo Cousins through her short novella Five Dates, which I completely adored. In that story I fell in love with her easygoing style and humor, and my love of her writing continued in Off Campus. The author has such a knack for writing believable young guys, and, in general, characters you love and want to root for. Off Campus is a wonderful, emotional, touching, and ultimately uplifting read I highly recommend. The follow up, Nothing Like Paris, is definitely on my list as well!!






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