Friday, September 4, 2015

Level Hands by Amy Jo Cousins

Level Hands (Bend or Break, #4)****
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. 


The first time I had ever read anything by Amy Jo Cousins was when I read her short story, Five Dates.  After reading that, I jumped at the chance to read and review Level Hands when I saw it on Netgalley.  And not just because it was written by this author.  Because really, have you met me? Hey, Nat, do you want a hot gay New Adult romance with fit and sexy rowers and plenty of angst?  Well that’s a ridiculous question.  Of course I do!

Rafi first met Denny when Denny was just 17 and staying with a cousin in Chicago.  The attraction is mutual but Rafi has an overdeveloped sense of chivalry.  No way is he giving Denny his first kiss until he’s 18 and he lets Denny know this.  Of course, Denny holds him to his promise and what they experience is a kiss capable of setting off the fireworks at Navy Pier.  Sadly, Denny leaves the next day. 
Fast forward two years and Rafi is transferring to Carlisle College on a rowing scholarship.  A scholarship that he knows wouldn’t have been awarded him had it not been for Denny’s family.  A fact that makes him increasingly uncomfortable the closer he gets to his new school and Denny (who he hasn’t seen since that amazing kiss).  His plan?  To keep a distance from Denny so he can prove that he deserves that scholarship regardless of his connections.  The drastic change in academic expectations surprises Rafi and makes his rock hard determination to succeed in academics and rowing that much more difficult.  Sadly, Rafi has such a chip on his shoulder that he doesn’t realize that letting Denny in for the physical and emotional support he so desperately wants to give might just be what Rafi needs in order to succeed.  Instead Rafi’s anxiety and exhaustion over keeping up builds and builds until he periodically emotionally explodes.

Denny is a pretty patient dude. He’s been waiting 2 years for Rafi.  Well, sort of.  He DID have his share of boyfriends during that time.  But now that they are older and in the same place for the foreseeable future?  Once he realizes that Rafi wants to figure things out on his own, he’s hurt.  But Denny is a fairly balanced individual.  He tries to be understanding and give Rafi the space he needs while still pushing a little bit here and there.  But even he has his limits and a ton of self-respect to boot.  So when Rafael becomes too much of an ass, Denny has no problem giving him a piece of his mind and even dishing out ultimatums when it becomes necessary for both their emotional health.  But even while doing that, Denny is still there.  No matter how angry Rafi might make him, he still loves him and he doesn’t think twice to drop everything when Rafi needs him most. 

This story has a lot of emotional give and take and, in turn, a lot of angst. Because Rafi has such a hard time addressing his securities in a healthy way while Denny continuously tries to invade Rafi’s space and be the support Rafi so obviously needs.  But Denny brings a perfect amount lightness to balance out the story and keep it from becoming too heavy.

Ms. Cousins is an excellent writer.  Her style is fast paced and emotionally engaging.  She’s honest with her characters and doesn’t hold back even when it means making her MC’s unattractive at times.  And to be fair this honesty almost didn’t work for me.  Almost.  Why, you may ask? 

……Warning.  Slightly spoilery…..

Well, I had a hard time with Rafi and Denny’s Happy Ever After.  It’s not that I didn’t want them to have one.  I did.  I DO.  I was rooting for them the whole time.  I’m rooting for them NOW.  It’s just that I didn’t feel Rafi had quite got a grasp on his anxiety and subsequent anger issues.   I have my own strong opinions (based on personal experiences) about anxiety and anger management so I was internally screaming, “take care of you first, Rafi! THEN you and Denny can get together!”    And to be fair, by the end of the book, he recognizes his emotional and mental needs and he’s actively working on them and he has the support system of his teammates, roommates and, most importantly, Denny, that he didn’t have before.  So, in the end, I had to put my personal issues and rigid expectations aside temporarily and admit that the end of this story was perfect for Rafi and Denny.  It was uneasy and honest which was insanely fitting for these two young men.

I’ve really been lucking out on the great m/m NA I’ve been reading lately and this is no exception.  Another slam dunk for my favorite sub-genre.  I highly recommend it.


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