Title: Life Lessons (Life Lessons #1)
Author: Kaje Harper
Cover artist: Winterheart Designs
Publisher: MLR Press
Buy link: Buy Link Life Lessons
Length: 88,000 words/227 PDF pages
Genre: Contemporary/Police Procedural/Mystery/Romance
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
A guest review by LadyM
Review summary: A solid meeting of police procedural and romance with two realistic, likable protagonists that leaves many questions regarding men’s relationship unanswered. There better be a sequel!
Life Lessons Series
Blurb: Tony Hart’s life has been quiet lately. He has good friends and a rewarding teaching job. Then the murdered body of another teacher falls into the elevator at his feet, and Tony’s life gets a little too exciting.
Jared MacLean is a homicide detective, a widowed father, and deeply in the closet. But from the moment he meets Tony’s blue eyes in that high school hallway, Mac can’t help wanting this man in his life. However Mac isn’t the only one with his eyes on Tony. As the murderer tries to cover his tracks, Mac has to work fast or lose Tony, permanently.
There were two main reasons why I chose to review this novel. First, I’ve read the author’s self-published (and free!) book and enjoyed it a great deal. Second, and this is no longer a surprise for most of you, I’ll read almost anything with crime, mystery or cops in it. If you mix that with a little bit of romance, you’ll push many of my buttons. The book kept me interested from beginning to end, the writing was smooth, the two protagonists were likable, real men, but there were also a few things that bothered me and some threads that were left dangling. These both diminished my enjoyment in the story, but also made me want to read a sequel.
The beginning of the book was strong. We get the dead body and meet both of our protagonists in the first ten pages or so. I loved that. No long introductions, you are just thrown into the story. You learn quite a bit about Tony in this early stage of the book. Tony is a dedicated teacher, a bit lonely, openly gay, honest even when it works against him, honorable, a bit goofy. I was smitten. Tony is immediately attracted to Mac, the detective who arrives at the crime scene. The attraction is mutual; however, Mac is so far in the closet, that he made me think of that old Narnia joke. That doesn’t mean that he is in denial, but no one, and I mean no one is aware of his sexuality.
I like how the investigation was dealt with. Real cops talk to witnesses, they check data and rumors, bounce ideas off each other. It’s hard work and it’s often frustrating, as we are shown through the character of Mac. The author gave us enough of investigation to make it realistic, but not so much as to become boring. The school provided interesting setting for the murder mystery. It’s a sensitive environment and it provides sufficient suspect pool to make the identity of murderer more difficult to spot. I was, therefore, surprised and mildly disappointed that the author decided to introduce the villain relatively late in the story (perhaps one third into the novel). The person’s first appearance seemed inconsequential, but when the suspect appeared for the second time, it became clear that s/he was the murderer. That spoiled all the great suspense buildup the author created. Now, I’m saying this as someone who probably read hundreds of similar stories, so what was obvious to me might not be to the other readers and it might not be even be an issue. I couldn’t help thinking though that the identity of the murderer would have been concealed better with only a minor tweaking. This mild disappointment was compensated with the exciting finale that included a chase with time, furious police work and a hostage situation.
I liked these two men a lot, particularly Tony. He is all-around good guy, but that doesn’t mean that he is a doormat. In fact, he can be really intense when pushed enough. He was also smart – there were no too-stupid-to-live moments here. If he was tempted to do more in terms of investigating, he got over that really fast. And while he was out, he was also aware how only a rumor could irreparably damage a teacher’s career. It was truly a pleasure to read how he interacted with kids. Tony also acts as a surrogate father to a late friend’s son, a situation that mirrors Mac’s own and puts him in the unique position to understand Mac’s problems. Mac is a deeply closeted man, a father of the daughter raised by someone else as well as a dedicated police officer. In fact, he was so dedicated that, in order to do the right thing, he almost lost his job and became a father in the process (and that’s all I’m going to say!). There is a lot of fear in Mac that comes from his family background, his current family situation and his job, but, unlike many closeted characters, Mac is not in denial. He knows and accepts that he is gay. He is very protective of Tony, but he is far from a typical macho man. These two are really well suited for each other and there were some really gentle as well as hot moments between them.
This brings me to some of the issues I’ve had with the novel. The two protagonists almost live in a vacuum. There are only two other characters that are shown in more depth – another teacher and the murderer – and they both play significant role in the mystery. But there are no characters which shine additional light on our protagonists. We meet one Tony’s friend – Marty – whose main role is to advance the mystery plot and up the ante for Tony. The two other Tony’s friends are mentioned but they never get the page time. The other teachers, the students, even the boy he cares about are simply, to borrow the movie language, the extras. Things are even more desolate when it comes to Mac. Aside from his daughter, he doesn’t even interact with anyone who isn’t connected to the case. His cousin, who is raising his daughter and whose religious beliefs are one of the reasons why he’s still in the closet, never makes an appearance. His partner Oliver, who he obviously respects and admires, never gets to show more than his cop face. This bothered me because, while Tony and Mac were by no means two-dimensional, I still felt that we got only the limited insight in their personalities and lives.
The other thing that bothered me was almost nonexistent conflict between Tony and Mac. Except one small bump after Mac had a bad day at work, their relationship was pretty smooth from the beginning. And there is so much to build the conflict on. Not only is Tony out and Mac is in the closet, but Mac has no intention to ever get out of it. While there are serious reasons for this and Tony accepts the situation, he isn’t exactly happy with it. I couldn’t help asking myself how long this situation will be bearable for them.
“Someday,” Mac said almost inaudibly. Tony turned to see the big man’s eyes fixed on the same couple. To his surprise, Mac went on, “Someday two guys will be able to kiss like that, in front of all the world.”
“But not today,” Tony muttered.
“I can’t. You know I can’t.”
I know you won’t. Mac had his reasons, Tony understood that. It didn’t make it easy, though.
Another thing – Tony and Mac are using children as a cover for their frequent public meetings, Mac even going that far to ask his daughter who is four years old to conceal from his cousin that Tony is gay. This didn’t sound like something either of these men would do considering their characters and integrity.
Having said all this, Life Lessons was a solid mix between mystery and romance, but what really sold it for me were the characters. What can I say, I’m a Tony fan. With happy-for-now ending and already set up conflict, I am really hoping the author will give us a sequel and provide clearer future to these characters. Recommended.