Sometimes grading a review book is easy. You know as you read it that this is a DIK that simply everyone should know about or that it’s a nightmare you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. Other times a book defies the grading paradigm. It’s a novel worthy of discussion but you’re not sure the discourse will end at either a negative or positive conclusion. This is such a book.
I labeled this book as part of a series but technically it is part of two series. Sorenson’s After Shockseries includes the novel Badlands in which the main characters of this book meet. This is also part of her Dirty Eleven Motorcycle Club series. This review may contain spoilers for certain storylines in those series.
Janelle Parker first meets Ace Clemmons when he kidnaps her and kills her ex. When that little scenario ended she advised him to stay the hell away from her and hers or she would shoot him. Of course that’s not what happens. Janelle and Ace felt strongly drawn to each other when first they met and that connection hasn’t changed.
Ace is swinging by Janelle’s trailer, just to check in on her (aka stalking) when he finds her son Jamie being beaten up by a group of bullies. Ace steps in and breaks up the fight, then stays to help the young tween sober up. It’s clear the kid has resorted to fists and alcohol because something serious has gone down and it turns out that something serious is finding out what his mom does for a living. She had told him she worked as a waitress. He’s now learned she works as a stripper. When Janelle gets home she is pissed that Ace is hanging out with her kid. His explanation for how and why doesn’t really appease her but this meeting does give her the chance to advise Ace that a scary looking dude with a clown tattoo has been by the trailer looking for him. Ace gives himself a mental kick. By driving by the trailer, he’d led the new leader of White Lightning, a really badass motorcycle group, straight to Janelle’s door.
Given no option, Ace seeks out Jester (the man with the clown tattoo) to hear what he wants. What the guy wants is for Ace to work as a liaison between White Lightning and Dirty Eleven. Ace has an in with Dirty Eleven since he was once part of the club and is the father of the leader’s only grandchild. Reluctantly Ace finds himself playing politics with both clubs, trying to keep his and Janelle’s heads above water.
Janelle, for her part, is getting ready to make some big changes in her life. Jamie finding out what she does is the final stick on the fire that has been burning under her to get out of the stripper business. Because the local Christian college won’t accept her due to her job history, she determines to move in with her mom and save the money she needs to move to a bigger city and attend another school. Jamie isn’t happy with the move and shows his disdain for her decision by crawling out a window. Since Janelle’s boss isn’t the kind and understanding sort she can’t leave work to look for him. Reluctantly she calls Ace to have him search for Jamie. She offers him sexual favors in return for his time but like a gentleman, he turns her down and does it for free.
Ace finds Jamie about to ineptly land himself in more trouble and gives him a heart to heart. He plans to drop the kid at the grandma’s and run but that fine lady offers him lemonade. Janelle comes home before he manages to make his escape and the two find themselves in a heated embrace moments later. Then Janelle slaps him in a moment of panic and things cool down a bit but not completely. They wind up together the next night and the sex is hot and dirty and totally exhilarating. Both of them have too much going on to start a real relationship yet neither is sure being bedroom buddies will be enough for them.
Ms. Sorenson writes Janelle and Ace’s story with a sort of gritty realism that is so perfectly suited to it. Their lives aren’t easy, their friends aren’t fancy, and money plays a big role in how their world goes round. They both want out of the lifestyle they have right then but neither is sure there is a way out. I appreciated how the author didn’t try to turn them into characters people misunderstood. Ace really is a hit man and he really can be a stone cold bastard. He has a few soft spots for some special people but for the most part he’s tough as nails and exactly the kind of guy you would picture when you think of muscle for a motorcycle club. Ace also knows caring is weakness – his love for his young daughter and his growing affection for Janelle are liabilities in his type of life. They are also chains. He is caught up in the world of politics that being part of a crime syndicate sucks you into and knows he has to step carefully because whatever bombs go off are as likely to hurt those he loves as they are to hurt him.
I can’t say enough how much I appreciate Ms. Sorenson showing that you can’t just pick up and leave this kind of life at will. There are ties to it – some of them very good ones – which make the choice to change tough if not downright impossible.
I also appreciated that they were presented without judgment. There was no sense that Janelle and Ace were unworthy of love until they changed. We were introduced to well layered characters that came across as real and sympathetic even when they were also frustrating and difficult. You might not admire them but you will root for them as they tentatively reach for the happiness the other can provide.
Their love story has some real depth to it, too. The strong sexual attraction is there from the start but they also see each other, really see each other warts and all. They feel comfortable sharing their dark sides because they know the other has made mistakes too. This builds a strong connection between them that goes far beyond the physical.
Another positive in the writing of this book is the author’s excellent prose style. She has an approach that invites the reader into the story and engrosses them in the tale she is telling.
This book is a hot read with sex that has some mild kink to it. When I say mild I really mean that it wasn’t anything I hadn’t read before and probably is something most people who read MC books would be very comfortable with.
So, lots of positives but I did have a few quibbles that kept the book from being an A read for me. At the start of the book Janelle knows she needs money for the change she wishes to make. When Ace offers her money, money her ex earned, she refuses it. This is a personal pet peeve for me. Single moms don’t prove how strong or moral they are when they turn down money that belongs to an ex they didn’t love. It proves a stubbornness which borders on stupidity. Ace wasn’t offering the cash with strings attached. It was clear Janelle could take the money and go and she didn’t want to. I had a lot less empathy with all her problems after that.
I also had a hard time believing just how respectful Ace and his club were of women. They were sweeter than a lot of well brought up thirteen-year-olds, which just didn’t ring true for a motorcycle club, IMO. Finally, I didn’t believe in the HEA. I felt problems from the past would always follow Ace around as long as anyone from that life was still living. This was the rare kind of love story where the HEA was perhaps not the best conclusion to it.
So we come to the point where I recommend or don’t recommend. I won’t do either. I will finish up by saying the writing is excellent, the story intriguing and we don’t get enough gritty tales in this genre. It’s always great to see a book that shows that love isn’t just for those living the American dream (although ultimately Ace and Janelle do live a modest version of it, so that just goes to show you can’t ditch it completely.) On the flip side, the story isn’t quite powerful enough to convert people to the motorcycle club fantasy. If you don’t like that type of book, this one won’t change your mind. Hopefully, that’s enough information for you to make up your own mind about whether or not this would be the read for you.