Title: Side Line
Author: Ben Ryder
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Cover Photo Credit: Scott Henrichsen
Buy Links: Publisher, Amazon
Genre: Contemporary m/m romance
Length: Novel (174 pdf pages)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 rating stars
A Guest Review by Feliz
Summary Review: An interesting setup and well-drawn characters, but the romance part didn’t do it for me.
The Blurb: Having rarely experienced another man’s touch, US Marine Damon O’Connor doesn’t identify as gay, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t think about strong hands or where treasure trails lead, despite his commitments back home. Damon’s sense of duty is strong, and he’ll stop at nothing to do what’s right, even if that means dying for his country.
While stationed in the Middle East, Damon gets what he least expects in the form of Jay Wells, an out-and-proud British beer promotions manager working in the area. Jay is content working his life away and has no time for relationships. Neither does Damon, as he’s days away from deploying to war. Until they met, love was the last thing on their minds, but they’re determined to enjoy it while they can.
The Review: This story is set in the near future, there’s now a vaccine against HIV, the third Gulf War is imminent, and British beer promoter Jay Wells takes his all-girl promotional team to Bahrain, where all the American and British soldiers are waiting for their deployment right now. That’s how Jay meets Damon O’Connor, a Marines Staff Sergeant who doesn’t seem as into the girls as all the other soldiers are but instead seems unable to keep his eyes off Jay, the only male in the team (or “Beer Squad”, as Jay calls the group of handpicked international beauties who help him sell beer by throwing their assets around).
So far so good, it was an interesting setup–a beer promotion campaign in the Middle East is certainly something you don’t read about every day–and the characters started out well-drawn and interesting, from Jay, the first person POV narrator and Jackie, Jay’s assistant, down to the beer squad girls. Damon was a rather unlikable character at first, but he redeemed himself later on. I didn’t like how he acted, but in the end, I could understand where he came from in a way.
This was one of those stories where the main characters keep running into each other by chance for a while before forming a real connection. While with this setup, having them meet too often can seem forced, it can also make relating to them as a couple a bit difficult, and this was the case here for me. The main reason why Damon and Jay together didn’t make much sense to me at first lay in the nature of their encounters. I don’t want to become too spoilerish here, but their first few hookups went down in a way that I, had someone treated me the way Damon treated Jay, I’d have kicked them six ways to Sunday. With steam behind. Okay, perhaps Jay got off on humiliation, but nothing in his characterization before–and nothing in the way he behaved with Damon later–pointed that way, so the fact kept puzzling me.
The abovementionend setup also meant that Damon and Jay didn’t have that much onpage time together. In fact, the majority of Jay’s dialogue happened with Jackie, his assistant. And even though she was a great, likable character, Jay’s lengthy interactions with her took away from his building of a relationship with Damon. Which resulted in their connection, when it finally came to really blossom out, feeling rushed and somewhat out of the blue, given their previous interactions.
Aside from the main pairing’s relationship feeling slightly off, I had two major issues with this story. One, the Middle East setting didn’t matter much aside from providing a cliché laden conflict situation, and secondly, the way said conflict dissolved into thin air later with Jackie’s help and a conveniently fortunate coincidence felt rather contrived.
On the plus side, I liked the writing in and of itself a lot. The tone was realistic and full of a wry sense of humor that, as far as I’m concerned, fit in nicely with Jay’s narrative voice. Also, even though I certainly didn’t like how Damon treated Jay, his behavior struck me as quite realistic too, given his background and personality. As for the sex scenes, they were seriously hot–in a rather harsh, blunt way–and pleasantly low on purple prose. What I also liked a lot was the rather open ending–a HFN ending that left a lot of room for me to fantasize about the characters.
All in all, it wasn’t as if I hated this book, but it had a number of serious “huh?” moments that kept me from really enjoying it. Others’ opinions might very well differ from mine, though.