Recommended Reading: Once a Marine, by Cat Grant

Riptide Publishing had crazy mega-cool Valentine’s Day hourly flash sales last week (@RiptideBooks, is all I’m sayin’), and I’m using laundry day to get acquainted with a few of my purchases, more or less at random. I just motored my way through this one, Once a Marine, by Cat Grant.

Here’s a summary, copy-pasted from the Riptide website:

Love is a battlefield.

Discharged under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, former Marine major Cole Hammond is struggling to find a new identity. But PTSD casts a pall on everything, and his hard-nosed, homophobic father can’t even bear to look him in the eye. To top it all off, he’s pretty sure he’s flunking out of law school.

Marc Sullivan is a kind, sensitive romance author-slash-waiter with a thing for men in uniform. Cole’s not wearing his anymore, but there’s no mistaking the warrior Marc meets in the diner one rainy afternoon. Cole’s sexy smile and Carolina drawl prove irresistible, but Marc’s played this game before, and he always loses. Once a Marine, always a Marine, and if there’s one thing Marc knows about such men, it’s that they all leave him in the end. It doesn’t help that Cole’s practically closeted in public, or that he refuses to seek treatment for his PTSD.

But like any good Marine, Cole’s willing to fight for what matters. And like the characters in Marc’s stories, he’s certain that if they try just hard enough, together they can find their own happily ever after.

This is straight-up grown-up relationship porn, which is very possibly my favorite thing in the entire world. Yes, there’s sex (and yes, it’s super hot), but the thing that makes this book so engrossing is that the characters actually have actual, legit problems, which they actually, legitimately try to deal with, even when the choices that they’re facing really don’t have ideal options. This book contains adults making mistakes and then admitting to them, and trying their hardest and still sometimes fucking up. Marc and Cole are both damaged in believable and difficult ways, but their past damage isn’t used as an excuse for the pain they accidentally inflict on each other; they expect themselves and each other to man up and be better people as necessary to carve out a life together. They make demands of each other, and those demands aren’t treated as unreasonable or overbearing, but as an important part of making a life that involves more than one person. And the fact that it isn’t easy, that they succeed in fits and starts and fail in between, makes this book about infinity percent more relatable than a book where the conflict is manufactured and the resolution is all in the yielding. I want more books like this, where characters ask for what they need and get it. I want more books like this, where compromise is actually compromise.

Basically I’m being gross with feels all over my copy of Calibre, is what I’m saying. And I love it. This book is just… difficult, romantic, and satisfying. Really, really first-rate.

Cat Grant writes “books to make you purr”. You can pick up Once A Marine from Riptide Publishing, in print ($16.99), as an ebook ($6.99), or both together ($16.79). I am reviewing my own copy of the ebook, and I don’t get paid either for this review or for you clicking on those links.

(Aside: I’m still getting my Twitter/Tumblr cross-posting from WordPress hammered out, so my apologies if it looks weird while I do. ♥)

Recommended Reading: “The City War,” by Sam Starbuck

Sam Starbuck has been one of my favorite authors for many, many years, and I knew well enough that I would adore this story that I saved it for myself as a special treat.

It didn’t disappoint. Mr. Starbuck here, as always, has an incredibly deft hand with dialogue, and writes sex scenes that grow organically from and with the story and the characters, and the end result is brilliantly engrossing and alive.

Here’s the summary, copy-pasted from Riptide Publishing:

Senator Marcus Brutus has spent his life serving Rome, but it’s difficult to be a patriot when the Republic, barely recovered from a civil war, is under threat by its own leader. Brutus’s one retreat is his country home, where he steals a few precious days now and then with Cassius, his brother-in-law and fellow soldier—and the one he loves above all others. But the sickness at the heart of Rome is spreading, and even Brutus’s nights with Cassius can’t erase the knowledge that Gaius Julius Caesar is slowly becoming a tyrant.

Cassius fears both Caesar’s intentions and Brutus’s interest in Tiresias, the villa’s newest servant. Tiresias claims to be the orphaned son of a minor noble, but his secrets run deeper, and only Brutus knows them all. Cassius, intent on protecting the Republic and his claim to Brutus, proposes a dangerous conspiracy to assassinate Caesar. After all, if Brutus—loved and respected by all—supports it, it’s not murder, just politics.

Now Brutus must return to Rome and choose: not only between Cassius and Tiresias, but between preserving the fragile status quo of Rome and killing a man who would be emperor.

I always think it’s really remarkable when an author takes a story that most people know, in one form or another, and gives it a new and rich life that is denied to it in its best-known form, which is exactly what Mr. Starbuck has done here. I’m not at all a Classicist, either by education or inclination—I’ve read a lot of Mary Renault and I have the kind of vague familiarity with the 44 B.C. election cycle that one acquires over the course of being raised by feral Shakespeareans, but that’s about it—but the level of daily-life detail and three-dimensional character interaction present in this story completely transcends the idea of a story set against the backdrop of Caesar’s downfall. Caesar’s downfall is no backdrop: it’s woven intimately into all of Cassius, Brutus, and Tiresias’s interactions, even when it is not their subject; it weighs upon them and drives them, no matter how they may try to stand at a remove. And Tiresias, this total wildcard of a character with a portentous name, is beautifully crafted, and a wonderful surprise.

One of the things that’s often the trickiest to handle in fiction set in a different cultural or historical context is that the things the characters take for granted are very much not going to be the same things the reader takes for granted; but the characters don’t have any reason to make the differences explicit, since the differences are, within the characters’ points-of-view, transparent. I’m always interested to see how authors handle this as a narrative problem, and Mr. Starbuck has done an absolutely beautiful job. Rome’s sexual mores are very cleverly handled—of course; I’d expect nothing less—but in a lot of ways I think the strongest example of Mr. Starbuck’s skill with this issue is the early scene in which Brutus finds Tiresias in the stable. This scene is deeply painful to read, but utterly believable from both Tiresias and Brutus as characters, even in the parts where Brutus, the point-of-view character, is really in the wrong; and it does a tremendously good job of wrestling with an issue that we are as readers accustomed to wrestling with in a modern vocabulary without using that vocabulary as a crutch.

Mr. Starbuck also beautifully sketches his secondary characters: Porcia—Brutus’s wife—though she only appears in person briefly, is particularly delightful, and her relationship with Brutus is quite moving.

Overall, really powerful and gripping, the bitter along with the sweet. Highly recommended.

Sam Starbuck maintains a blog and website at Extribulum. You can pick up “The City War” from Riptide Publishing, either on its own ($4.99) or as part of the Warriors of Rome anthology ($19.97). I am reviewing my own copy of the stand-alone, and I don’t get paid either for this review or for you clicking on those links.