Published by: Riptide Books
Format: Kindle ARC
Genre: M/M Romance
Reviewed by: Liz
“I can’t tell,” says one character to another, “if I’m being seduced or bludgeoned.”
Which is something you will need to know when starting “For Real” – it will do both at the same, and you will love every second of it. Much like with the rest of Alexis Hall’s work, you have to be ready to enter into an exceptionally personal, tight, and vulnerable point of view, where the narrator misses no pertinent detail. The words quickly slither under your skin and into your mind until you are in the scene, with these people, experiencing what they experience, and feeling what they feel.
Ostensibly, this book is billed as a BDSM novel, but what it truly is at its heart, is an unapologetic and stunning romance centered around – and also having nothing to do with – kink. If you go into it expecting carefully worded negotiations around safewords, soft and hard limits, and which toys are allowed to go where, when, and how, you may be a bit disappointed. However, if you are looking for a beautifully realized love story with a stunning backdrop of sexual compatibility that goes beyond the physical, it’s hard to imagine you won’t find it here.
Plot: The story revolves around Laurie Dalziel, a 37-year old medical consultant who’s been single for six years after a decade-long relationship, and a 19-year old café cook Toby who Laurie meets at a BDSM club. Laurie’s a sub; Toby’s an entirely inexperienced and green dom. Against his better judgment, Laurie takes Toby – who surprises him with a few well-chosen words – home, they have a tryst, and then he essentially throws Toby out on his ear for getting just a bit too close a bit too fast.
Things spin out from there.
Review: Already, this set-up throws a wrench into the expected tropes of an inexperienced person submitting to the ministrations of a proficient dom who will lead the sub through all the paces of BDSM. But more than that, what truly makes this story sing is who these men are regardless of preference. Toby is a collection of that intensely familiar youthful conviction and a terrifying lack of future prospects, all rolled into an untested but willing body that hasn’t even lost the last of its acne. He knows what he wants when it comes to men – he wants that ping, the ping that tells him a man will submit to him, body and soul and trust – and refuses to think of the future past his current job cooking eggs and baking pastries for a terrible manager at a greasy spoon.
Laurie, on the other hand, knows exactly who he is when it comes to his life – or, at least, he believes he does. But he is burnt out on the BDSM scene, having found zero actual satisfaction – the bone-deep, fulfilling kind – with anyone since the ex he occasionally sees from a distance at various venues. While he has none of Toby’s questioning of the morality involved in a dom/sub relationship, he has closed himself off from the possibility of ever finding another partner as attuned to his needs, as vital to him as his ex-partner had been, once upon a time. He is older, weary, wary, and sad in a deep and tender way.
The joy and pain of this book is watching these two unlikely men, so different from each other in so many ways, find all the ways in which they fit together, and the ways in which they can fill the spaces within each other that need tending to. It’s an aching, beautiful romance that truly makes you believe that these two characters can figure out how to make their unconventional relationship work.
Alexis Hall barely misses a beat with every snag that happens, with every new bit of joy and pain that unfurls anytime these men see each other. Whether it’s sex or talking or simply spending time together, the reader is transported to experience all of it. The physicality of them permeates everything, and the book truly lives up to the name. The idea of “real” resonates all throughout, whether it’s the characters or the reader feeling it. This book reads as very true to life. No emotion is made up to fit the plot or vice versa – it reads as life plays out, either in small and sometimes uncomfortable scenes, or in bigger, all-encompassing ones. Somewhere, somehow, someone has experienced what these two men go through, and Hall’s writing will take you there, whether you want it to or not.
This book is part of Hall’s “Spires” series, and while we don’t see any characters from either Glitterland or Waiting for the Flood on the pages, one scene in particular – and I won’t spoil it for you because I am not that mean or nice – reads like the do-over fans of Glitterland might have wished for. It’s lovely.
Ultimately, this book is about life. It’s about acceptance and the sort of pulsating, heart-wrenching love that, if you’ve ever experienced anything like it in your own life, will transport you right back into that place – whether you were the hopeful and hopelessly young Toby, begging your lover to trust you to know what you want, or a terrified older Laurie who simply didn’t know what would happen if you did. Secondary characters – family, friends – complement the protagonists’ story in an unobtrusive by lovely way. And I would be remiss not to mention the sex scenes, which are not only hot as hell, but also drive the story forward in a beautiful push and pull of desire, real vulnerability, and eventually love. No two sex scenes are alike, and all are stunning in their individuality, sensuality, and ultimate truth of what it is when two people who are meant to come together (…no pun intended), do.
At one point, one character tells another, “You’re in me deeper than my skin.” That is how this book might make you feel. So, gather your strength, sit back, and enjoy the ride.
How much did I like the hero: 10. I loved Toby and Laurie nearly equally, with Toby winning out just the tiniest bit for being infinitely relatable to me on a personal level. Both came with flaws and difficulties and both won me over completely.
How believable is the plot: 9. This may be a controversial opinion, considering the age gap of the two protagonists, but this book (and some life experience) has sold me on it working out. The sorts of misunderstandings that happen between them are, for the most part, the sorts of misunderstandings that happen in life, with one tiny exception I was not entirely sold on, but that ultimately did nothing to diminish my love of the book.
How much did I like the writing style/editing/etc: 10. This is the magic of Alexis Hall’s books – his writing is superb and beautiful and so very, very clever. Here, he uses what is ultimately a simple but brilliant device to portray the two characters’ differences. As in many other books, there are two concurrent points of view, but the twist is, Laurie – older, more reflective Laurie – is told in the past tense, while Toby – young, impulsive, sure-of-his-moment Toby – is told in the present. Brilliant; clever; so well done. I could quote this book forever and not run out of beautiful lines to share. I have a Kindle full of bookmarks and a phone full of screenshots.
How much did I want to keep reading: 10. Infinity, actually. I want to read about them forever. I want to read about Toby and Laurie in five years, in ten. I want to know what they will look like in twenty. This doesn’t mean that the story feels incomplete – just that the ending makes you crave all the more for how beautiful it is. It is also deeply satisfying.
Really, really special book, in so many ways.
Final score: 9/10, on a technicality.