Level HandsLevel Hands (Bend or Break #4) by Amy Jo Cousins

Published by: Samhain Publishing, Ltd.

Format: Kindle ARC

Reviewed by: Judith

Rating: a sexy addition to the Bend or Break series with a diverse cast of characters, some seriously scorching scenes, and the inclusion of a sport that NEVER EVER gets attention (even though it should because rowers are the most intense, the hottest, the best, the–just trust me when I say they’re the embodiment of so many other superlatives you can’t even imagine it.)

Plot: 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.

Review: Amy Jo Cousins is a force of nature! Her writing is so solid and so instantly accessible that you’ll fly through her books, devouring them quickly and always wanting more. This latest addition to the Bend or Break series is no exception. It’s a quick read that runs the gamut of emotion. Rafi has worked hard to get a scholarship at Carlisle College but being there, and more pointedly being near Denny, his flame from The Girl Next Door, proves to be quite the distraction. He finds himself wanting to be seen as the hard working, smart college guy and yet it just isn’t happening. Denny is always around, always ready to lend a hand and help Rafi find his way when all Rafi wants is the chance to prove himself without any outside help. Coupled with that is the intense attraction the two have always felt but never really acted upon. All these feelings and pressures push Rafi to the breaking point and the fall out? Well, let’s just say that Rafi doesn’t hold anything back and it is cringe-worthy at best and downright gut-wrenching at worst.

Rafi is a hot mess throughout a lot of this book but you can see why so many new things in his life would force him to lash out as he does. He’s struggling to keep up his grades in order to maintain a scholarship; he’s dealing with some intense homophobia; he has to aggressively compete in college level crew; and he has a sizzling attraction to a guy but doesn’t want to give in to it and risk losing all he’s worked for in life. This veritable glut of angst and pain makes for some really distressing scenes and I won’t lie: it’s a roller coaster of emotion from day one and some parts are extremely hard to read. However, the final payout is so deliciously sexy and just…good that you won’t mind all the angst and hurt it took to get there.

Amy Jo writes as beautifully as always. Her dialogue is spot on, with one liners and zingers that make the characters seem so very real. The sexual chemistry between Rafi and Denny is smoking hot yet tinged with realism as Denny talks about a former partner with HIV and his own use of PrEP (a treatment to prevent HIV infection). I loved how nuanced and fleshed out the characters were and how we get glimpses of past favorites from earlier Bend or Break books.

This one is much more difficult to read than any others in this series – the characters go through a great deal of pain and anguish before we get a happy end. I wasn’t ready to deal with how truly imbalanced Rafi was and how much he needed to work out how to handle things most people take for granted. Level Hands is not for the faint of heart. It is messy and disheartening and heartbreakingly nuanced. Be prepared for some heartache and a lot of angst as well as that amazing writing only Amy Jo Cousins does best.

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