Review Copy generously provided by the author
in exchange for an honest review.
Their love, forbidden yet beautiful, hardly stood a chance of surviving a place like this.
Trey Palmer killed his stepfather three years ago, stabbed him repeatedly with a butcher knife, and now he’s facing life behind bars. He doesn’t deny what he did, nor does he regret it. But he’s plagued with flashbacks of a torturous childhood in which he was abused by this man he finally extinguished. In prison, Trey employs a strategy of avoidance. He becomes a loner and a workaholic, steering clear of the gangs and their drama. His life changes one day, however, when a new cellmate arrives. Jeremy Banks, also in for murder, decries his innocence. With his long hair and angelic face, he’s too pretty for a men’s prison. Though at first annoying and mouthy, Jeremy begins to wiggle his way into Trey’s heart, and Trey starts to wonder if maybe the kid really is innocent. He really does seem like an angel. Their feelings for each other evolve, blossoming into something forbidden yet beautiful. But how can a love like theirs last in a place like this?
Life Without Parole, book 1
119 e-book pages
3rd person, ensemble cast
Ratings are 1 to 5 stars and based mostly on GoodReads standards.
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The word that came to my mind before starting this book was TREPIDATION.
I get a little nervous starting books from new-to-me authors. I gotta get over that because my TBR has exploded with books from authors I’ve never read — attending a book con will do that, I learned.
You can take from that statement that I recently met Jeff. I spent lots of time talking to him in the outside lounge of the hotel over the course of four days. At this point, I’d like to call him a friend. When he asked if I was interested in reading his books, I might’ve squealed GIMME! and thrust my Back Porch business card at his face.
Being anxious reading a new-to-me author was minor trepidation in this instance.
I was big-time nervous about this because it’s a PRISON series. Some folks get all kinds of excited about prison erotica. I’m…not one of them. I do not have any sort of fascination with how prisons work, the hierarchies, the mindsets, the power struggles when power has been stripped. Nor do I have the desire to romanticize the setting in any way.
See, I have a bit of a unique perspective than most…because I have first-hand knowledge of the inner workings of the penal system.
Confession (something I don’t talk about a whole lot…as in ever…except now because it gave me a distinct slant most of my fellow readers likely don’t have): I worked for the DOC when I was in my early twenties. I was a Correctional Officer. In a men’s medium-security prison that held all manner of the convicted from low-level drug dealers and petty thieves doing a five-to-ten stretch to murderers and sex offenders serving a life sentence. It’s a career path that started as a stepping stone with some grand intentions to something much larger and far more exciting. For a host of twisted reasons, it didn’t work and was not a place I belonged, short-term plan or not. I have my own stories, some that are nightmares, from that experience. And…romanticizing that, eroticizing that? It’s extremely hard for me to go there without risking triggering the heinous memories of a time in my life I’ve tried like hell to bury.
I read this. Because I said I would.
Firstly, the writing is gorgeous. Truly. And…it’s an interesting experience — reading the work of a person for the first time after I’ve met and befriended them face to face. Jeff is delightful in person, and I enjoyed our conversations immensely. His writing is SO MUCH MORE. I don’t know what my expectations were exactly, but the end result is that I was pleasantly surprised…and kind of in awe of the absolute artfulness of his prose, descriptions, and characterizations.
As for the prison aspects and details, I’m not going to go all EXPERT VIEWPOINT in this review because I refuse to claim know-it-all status. My experience was a year and a half of my life twenty-odd years ago, and it’s best left in the past. My experience was from a position of power in 9-hour shifts. And, there are enough variances state to state, from one institution to another, one level of security to another, that what I know is only a step or two above superficial at best from those whose only knowledge comes from media. However, I can say with certainty that I believe Jeff fucking nailed it in the aspects of which I am familiar. That’s pretty much all I’m gonna say about that.
Oops, one more thing.
One of the first rules, a hard-and-fast mantra, learned in CO training is Not To Get Personal Or Make Nice With The Inmates. Ever. Ever. Ever. It’s okay to be cordially detached and treat inmates with human decency. It’s okay to find out why they’re inside…but it’s not okay to hear their story (because they’re all innocent, doncha know). It’s not okay to learn about their families, who they miss, what they miss, feelings, etc. — that’s for their lawyer, therapist, or minister. You’re taught that you can’t have favorites, or a soft spot because they seem nice. Keep distance so everyone is treated the same. Don’t let an inmate convince you they’re human— with heart, fear, emotion, longing, a sad tale of woe. They’ll twist your kindness and empathy to their advantage. Others will see your behavior as favoritism and use that against you. And those things can make the job of a CO supremely dangerous in a life-or-death kind of way. And this? This is just one small reason — my need to believe in humanity, understand people, be kind, empathize — that the DOC was not good for me in the slightest.
I had to say aaaaall that because this book is largely from the perspective of inmates, and after my experiences of working really hard to maintain a professional, emotional bad-ass detachment I was a bit resistant in my own heart to get to know these characters on the page. They’re drawn with such clarity and depth…that I couldn’t help but get sucked into Jeremey’s horrors and fears, Trey’s inner strength, anger, and aloofness. I couldn’t help but be empathetic to their plight, their insistence of innocence or justification for the crimes of which they’d been convicted. I couldn’t help but build up a strong sense of hope for them that teams of lawyers were toiling day and night to see them breathe free.
Now, the romance parts. You can be certain sure there ain’t a whole lot of romantical wining-and-dining happening behind the razor wire of a maximum security penitentiary — whether they’ve got the pruno on tap or deign to share their coveted tater-tots. What does happen is a slow-burn attraction and thoughtful intimacy between two inmates who share a cell. One whose been there awhile and mostly come to terms, one whose totally green to the system and scared out of his freaking mind.
There are a few hot-to-trot erotic moments. But these mostly occur between other folks. This isn’t just the story of Jeremy and Trey, as we also get snippets and scenes of an ensemble cast of other inmates and a handful of the correctional officers. Normally, I’m not too hip on deviating from the story of the MCs and what I hope is building toward some sort of HEA. But, I think there’s a much broader story happening here where all of these scenes will come full circle and make more sense to me in the long run.
Which leads me to the warning that this ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. Yes, this is a series — and I knew that because they all landed in my inbox a few days ago (much to my excitement that outweighed my trepidation). It’s probably better classified as a serial wherein motives and actions of others will intersect greatly with the two Main Characters so much that we need their scenes every so often to get a broader view of the overall dynamic. So, start this knowing full well that you’re gonna have to suck it up and buy books 2 through 6 in rapid succession. I’ve just barely started book two, but it happened within minutes of finishing book one.
TO SUM UP:
I’m learning — always, always learning — that my fears should not stand in the way of an experience.
This book was gorgeous, evocative, and real without over-romanticizing the setting. It carried me to uncomfortable places and scratched at memories that haunt me to this day — but was so moving, human, and compelling that it left me wanting more.
I have to recommend this. Have to. It’s a different sort of romance in the M/M world, that’s for sure. But, it’s one that steps into the darkness of a world that hopefully few will ever experience and offers two beautiful souls the dawning rays of hope, love, and freedom. (Eventually. I hope.)