Review: Level Hands, by Amy Jo Cousins


cover-amyjocousins-levelhandsRafael 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.


Dates read:
Edition read:
August 25, 2015
Samhain Publishing, Ltd.
Contemporary, New Adult, M/M, LGBT+
407 e-book pages
3rd person
Bend or Break, book 4
April 24-25, 2016
Kindle Edition
See the book on GoodReads.

Rating:     ⭐️⭐️⭐️.5

Ratings are 1 to 5 stars and based mostly on GoodReads standards.
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Oh Rafi, Rafi, Rafi.

We first met Rafi in The Girl Next Door, the third book of the Bend or Break series. There, he was a little cocky, a lot self-assured, out, proud, and attempting to stifle the burgeoning, yet adorable, advances of young Denny.

Now he’s in college, the same one as Denny, on a full scholarship Denny’s family helped him get. He’s at a super rich Northern East Coast school, out of his element, surrounded (mostly) by other richy-rich (mostly) white kids. Now he’s feeling the pressure to prove himself academically and athletically to keep his scholarship and fit in.

Hint: This is angsty, folks.

Rafi has a hard time relaxing and settling in with all this pressure. Some of it’s self-imposed, but he’s also got some teammates who aren’t as welcoming. He’s completely playing from the defensive and keeps Denny at arms length, though his desire is burning.

There’s a lot of back and forth, heating and cooling of desire. A lot of Rafi fighting internal (and external) demons making it hard to embrace the opportunity of being accepted on his own merits at this elite institution of higher learning. He fights against asking for or accepting help until he has no other options. He fights against letting himself be with Denny because of what other people might think.

I felt horrible for Rafi. College can be an amazing time to spread your wings and fly, figure out the person you’re meant to be. I wanted that for him. Yet he spent so much time in his head and hunkered under a cloud of insecurity. I understood, to a degree, where he was coming from, and I could most certainly empathize. Yet, I kind of wish it hadn’t been such a prevailing theme.

I also felt bad for Denny. He was excited to have his friend and crush at school with him. Excited about all the possibilities. Instead, he waited, and waited, and waited and got so many mixed signals along with a few broken promises. I don’t think I could have waited like he did, no matter how much he was in love with Rafi.

Then, well, the ending left me a little wanting. With so much back and forth and all the angst, it felt far more like an HFN than a solid HEA. That always makes me feel a little uneasy, leaving characters that way.

But, there’s lots and lots of good. Because these characters are nuanced, imperfect, and have plenty of depth to be relatable in at least a few ways. I love Amy Jo’s writing and the themes she tackles. So far, I’ve been sucked into every book of this series, and this is certainly no exception.

As part of this fantastic series, it’s not to be missed.

This review also posted on GoodReads.

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