Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Ink Illusions by Val Kovalin

As a gay man, Aaron never dreamed he'd end up in Houston, Texas, helping a female friend raise her child. Then he learns that the child's father has just been released from prison. Will Travis threaten Aaron's new family? To find out, Aaron conceals his identity and meets Travis during the chaotic splendor of Mardi Gras, when no one is what he seems. Travis is ruthless when it comes to locating his child. Otherwise, he's not the criminal Aaron expected. Aloof and intuitive, he works as a tattoo artist. The intricate tattoos on his body celebrate his commitment to Asatru, a Norse pagan religion. Meanwhile, Aaron is his polar opposite, a talkative Jewish sales rep from Las Vegas, who never misses a chance to have fun.

What they have in common is neither man can turn down a fight. Neither can resist their affair, which turns into an intensely erotic struggle as each seeks to master the other. As their lust deepens to love, Aaron knows he must tell Travis the true reason they came to meet. Meanwhile, he fears that the darkness inside Travis's soul may lead him to break the law and end up back in prison.
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The central philosophy of Asatru is the interconnectedness of all things, all life, Travis tells Aaron, and the connection between them is strong, immediate, and while it takes a while to play out, it directs their lives from the moment they meet.

Travis is newly out of prison, where he'd spent most of his daughter's life. Belinda's seven years old, a darling little tomboy with a passion for Yiddish words that she uses with devastating effect. Travis doesn't know his daughter at all; her mother, Rosemary, has broken contact with Travis and his family. Rosemary and Belinda live with Aaron, provider of Yiddish words, male parenting presence, and home, which is a mutual benefit arrangement, not romantic, because Aaron is gay.

Rosemary is the pivot point of all this interconnectedness, and her refusal to be reasonable brings Travis and Aaron together. Instead of making some rational visitation arrangements, she assumes the absolute worst of a man who went to prison for protecting her, and eventually pushes him into doing what she fears the most. Rosemary redeems herself by the end of the book, but not before needing to be slapped six or eight times.

Aaron and Travis meet at Mardi Gras, where Aaron has gone to suss out Travis on Rosemary's behalf -- they head nearly straight to bed, which gets derailed because of some of the choices Travis had to make while in prison. They back off and take it slowly, getting to know one another before another romp in the sack, although Aaron's role in Rosemary and Belinda's lives doesn't come to the surface for a while. But it's a situation that could work to everyone's benefit with some goodwill from all. Getting to that goodwill is the challenge.

I loved Aaron -- he's caught between a rock and a hard place when he falls for his best friend's hated and feared ex, trying to broker an agreement that will work for everyone, using his salesman's wiles and a mean right hook. Travis is the conflicted one, trying to reconcile protecting himself and his family with the things he has to do to accomplish that. He knows he's done wrong things for good causes, and fears that they will cost him Aaron's love.

This story is tied more tightly to the calendar than anything non-historical I've ever read, we know day, year, and day of the week for major milestones, but it isn't clear why; weeks and months pass without action, until Travis does what he's been repeatedly warned not to do, out of the blue. The pacing bothered me -- when things were happening, the story perked right along, but there were close to five months where absolutely nothing happened, except possibly an offstage unmentioned romance between Rosemary and the loathsome Chad, and the primary romance shouldn't suffer for trying to grow plausibility for a secondary couple. Fortunately that time was heavily condensed, but it didn't seem necessary for Travis and Aaron.

I enjoyed the second half of the story greatly, when some secrets came out, the relationship between Travis and Aaron had to change and grow, and Rosemary got her head out. 3.5 marbles



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