I received an advanced reader copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review. (Also, this review originally appeared on Hot for Cool.
This… is going to be long, I can just tell. I liked the book. A lot. You can take that and stop reading here, if you want, because a long review is on its way. Otherwise‐
I saw this book and requested to review it without really stopping to think, because I saw Alexis Hall’s name and my heart did that weird, jumpy thing it does when I think about a really great author, and what do you know, they sent it to me. I got it on a day when I just really needed something
to go right. I was thrilled to get the email telling me I got to read it.
And then I started reading it, and I remembered an article by Alexis that I’d read where he talked about the kinky book he was releasing, and I realized that ‘For Real’ was that book. Not that I wouldn’t have known that by the cover. God, the cover. But all I could think was, what am I going to do with this? This kinky book, which is about a BDSM relationship between two guys. How do I tell my mother that this is the next review I want to put on our website?
But I wasn’t even sure if the book was going to be good, anyway, because as much as I absolutely adore Alexis Hall, everyone writes something that just… isn’t. So I tried to put aside whatever thoughts I had about how difficult this might be to read and review, and just read
I loved it. Of course I did. It was beautiful.
‘For Real’ is about two men‐ Laurie, thirty‐seven years old, a doctor, who’s long out of his last relationship but sort of drifting and not really over it and not really happy. And Toby, nineteen, also lost but for a totally different reason. And the two meet and magical, completely believable sparks fly. And the whole book is about them and their relationship.
The relationship, this is where it gets… kinky. Kinky book. It’s a BDSM relationship, I guess, but it’s not like any BDSM I’ve read before‐ don’t give me that look. I know you’re all eyeing me like I’m cracked for admitting I sometimes read this kind of stuff. I bet most of you’ve read it too‐ ‘50 Shades of Grey,’ anyone? But I also recognize that it’s difficult to understand, and that most people probably won’t get why I was ok to read this, never mind why Alexis Hall wrote it in the first place. Because it is hard to get. I don’t get it, honestly. It just feels really foreign to me. I can kind of, almost, understand where Laurie’s coming from. He’s… the submissive one, I guess, although, after reading the book, that term kind of makes me feel twitchy. And the way he wants things is understandable, even though I can’t really ever imagine wanting something like that. Toby was harder to understand. I just didn’t… I couldn’t understand why you’d want to hurt someone, especially in love.
And admittedly, I struggled with that for a good majority of the book. There’s even a spot where Toby tries to understand why he wants what he wants, and Laurie pretty much tells him it doesn’t matter, it just is, and I thought ‘Cop out!’ I actually thought that Alexis Hall hadn’t known how to explain it so he said that, and I was a little angry.
But then it occurred to me that I loved Toby. I just… adored him. And I knew he was a good person, a wonderful, honest, emotional person who would never intentionally hurt Laurie out of anger or grief or for any reason that wasn’t… right. And it didn’t matter to me anymore why he liked what he liked, or why Laurie did, because it worked for them, and frankly, it was kind of beautiful. It was a lot beautiful. I got that that’s why Alexis Hall had written that, because it really didn’t matter, not in the grand scheme of things. And I didn’t care anymore if I didn’t completely understand it.
In the same vein, just as much, I don’t really care if anyone thinks I’m strange or pervy or cracked for not only reading, but deeply loving, this book.
And there are so, so many reasons I loved it. The thing is, even though this is a book that is about, mostly, the relationship between Laurie and Toby, it’s really about a lot more than that. God, that was the most awkward sentence ever. What I mean is… The relationship is obviously the thick thread that runs through the plot, the bridge that holds everything together, and it’s the most obvious story line. But ‘For Real’ is also about Laurie and his broken heart, and Toby and his confusion. It’s about failed relationships and weird choices and even about small things, like Laurie’s friends from college or Toby’s odd, disjointed upbringing, and his love for his granddad. And there’s the fact that I think Alexis Hall, at least on some level, wrote this book in order to explain something about the many different, varied ways people love each other and how the conventional way to look at and write a relationship, specifically in this case a BDSM relationship, is not the only or the right way. And it all blends so wonderfully and seamlessly.
I mean, you can’t really get away from what the book’s about. There’s just… so much sex.
I honestly don’t think I’ve ever read anything with this much sex and… god, this sounds bad, but that’s really saying something. It was almost surprising because it’s sometimes kind of debauched, and the quantity was just… And you haven’t really read sex until you’ve had to stop and Google the Gates of Hell, um, rings, because you don’t know what they look like and can’t picture them on a person.
Now I can.
And thanks for that, Alexis, really, because now I have no idea what’s going to come up the next time I go on Amazon.
But the amazing thing about the way Alexis Hall writes is that, even though there’s a lot of sex, and a lot of it’s… kind of kinky, although never as startlingly kinky as I was… worried?… about, it never really feels like it’s about sex.
It always feels like it’s about so much more‐ love and trust and honesty and just two very real people. And it was always gorgeous. And it always took my breath away.
Alexis Hall always takes my breath away anyway. Maybe I’m biased or just in a mood to devour whatever he writes, but… Yeah, it’s very, very rare to come across someone who writes as beautifully as he does, with such simple elegance.
At one point he describes a tongue stud as ‘A rough little secret at the heart of his kiss.’
Uhh. I don’t even like the idea of tongue studs, but that is just… That is, wow.
Alexis Hall never comes across as overly purple in his words. In fact, he’s sometimes surprisingly modern or slang‐y or casual in his grammar. Sometimes he disregards grammar all together. Nothing ever feels forced or flowery. It’s just that his words fit so uniquely and beautifully together, and the ideas he conveys are simple and complex at the same time and he finds a way to make that work, to lead you to understand without feeling like he’s ever forcing anything on you.
I think Alexis Hall writes in layers of meaning and imagery, too. Like when Toby describes Laurie and the quietness inside him with ‘All these still places in his soul that he disturbs for me.’ There’s just so much
in that one sentence, so much imagery but also so much emotion and meaning.
And his characters are just… Wow, they were so real. I knew them, right away. So well. The book is written from both Laurie and Toby’s first‐person, alternating perspectives. That can be a really hard thing to pull off, and it’s especially hard to make both characters unique individuals. But he does it spectacularly well here. Toby and Laurie speak in different ways, think in different ways, react differently. There’s never a question of who you’re reading. Toby is young and a little… ah, impulsive, maybe, but he’s strong and so, so smart, too. And so kind. And Laurie is so surprisingly fragile, behind this shell that he puts up. He’s just… so complex, a truly rich character. I thought he was fantastic. They’re both just such wonderful people, so complex, so very real. It should have felt wrong, too, that Laurie was so much older than Toby. But that was written so well, so neat but at the same time carefully addressing and pulling apart the issues that could arise from that kind of situation, that I never found it uncomfortable. It felt, instead, very right.
And I love that Alexis Hall can not only make them seem like very different people who fall in love, but can actually, honestly, seemingly without bias, look at and describe their two sometimes very different views of the world. The way Laurie looks at things through the life he’s lived, the years he has on Toby, his experiences, is true, but so is the way Toby sees things. Toby never seems less or weaker because he’s younger. He’s never really immature, he just hasn’t seen as much of life yet, and it strikes me as a thing that would be difficult to do, to write both viewpoints so fairly and equally. But it’s done here so fantastically well.
The thing is, there are so many books out there‐ especially romances‐ that are fun or sweet or cute or enjoyable, but that’s it. And there’s definitely a place for those books, they’re entertaining and there’s a lot of value in them. But too often they don’t, I don’t know, impact me. Leave me with much. They’re like cute pieces of fuzz. ‘For Real’ was like the whole blanket. It was big and warm and it left me with a lot.
Of course, it helps that Alexis Hall seems to have some way to dig right into my heart of hearts and pull at the things that I… struggle with, feel deeply, things that I understand. Or want to understand. Of course it’s not me he’s aiming at, he has no clue I exist. But he does it anyway. Like when Toby blurts out how he might like to have a restaurant, and then says he wishes he hadn’t said it aloud, ‘Because once you’ve thought something like that, or said it, all you’ve done is given yourself something to fail at. Or have taken away.’ Wow, did I get that. Did I feel it so sharply whenever Toby was confused about his life, whenever he felt like he was falling behind what he was ‘supposed’ to be doing. And at the same time, did I get it when Laurie talked about how afraid he was to admit that he loved Toby. How broken he was because of how he’d been left in the past. I think a lot of these things are just... things people feel. A lot of people. But the way it’s written makes it feel so personal. Like it matters. Even when Laurie talks about why his previous relationship ended‐ it’s maybe a paragraph or two, and nothing like what he went through has ever happened to me, but I felt it like it had. Like I was there.
There’s just so much
going on here, and it goes way beyond the sex, or the kink, even while that all remains a very integral part of the plot. But it’s not the only part. And it’s not… It’s not as hard to understand it as you’d think. As I’d thought, when I first started reading.
Laurie says, ‘I want to give him everything, and the things I can’t give I want him to take.’
It’s like that‐ simple and very much not simple, all at the same time, all wrapped up together.
So I wrote this review. This giant, kind of overly‐gushy review. And I thought, this describes it‐ the book and everything I liked about it and why it was so great. But then the more I thought about the review the more… I don’t know, nervous I got? I guess I felt a bit… a bit silly, being so entranced by a book about kinky sex. Plus I have this weird need to never, never be considered a groupie or someone who hands out praise like candy, like it means nothing. But my praise is definitely given for a reason here. And I don’t think it’s silly to gush over it, because the book deserves it, and so does Alexis Hall. (And I tried to edit this and trim it down, but every time I came back to it, it just got longer.)
‘For Real’ made me think. And it made me feel. And I craved it when I wasn’t reading it. I tried to savor it. I kept putting it down because I felt I was reading too fast, reading it like I needed it. As I got closer to the end, I put it aside more and more because I just had this deep need for it to not end. Because I didn’t know what I’d do when it was over. I don’t know, can’t imagine what I’ll read now. And I realize that I sound a bit rabid about how much I liked this, but I did. It’s beautiful, it captured my heart, it’s intelligent and made me think, and I fell in love with it, with Laurie and Toby. It’s just… really that good.