Title: Breaking Cover (Life Lessons #2)
Author: Kaje Harper
Cover artist: Winterheart Designs
Publisher: MLR Press
Buy link: Amazon.com Breaking Cover (Life Lessons #2)
Length: Novel/320 PDF pages/103,000 words
Genre: Contemporary/Police Procedural/Romance
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
A guest review by LadyM
Life Lessons Series
Review summary: Excellent sequel to Life Lessons
Blurb: For homicide detective Mac, it’s been a good year. Having Tony to go home to makes him a better cop and a better person. For Tony, it’s been hard being in love with a man he can’t touch in public. Evasions and outright lying to friends and family take a little of the shine off his relationship with Mac, but Tony is determined to make it work.
As the Minneapolis Police Department moves into a hot, humid summer, Mac is faced with a different challenge. A killer has murdered two blond women, and the police have no real clues. Mac hates to think that another murder may be the only way they’ll make progress with the case. But when that murder happens, it hits close to home for Tony. And suddenly Mac faces an ultimatum: come out into the sunlight and stand beside Tony as his lover, or walk away and live without a piece of his heart.
Review: Breaking Cover is a sequel to Harper’s novel Life Lessons (reviewed here). In the case that you’ve missed it, the author also wrote a short follow-up story And to All a Good Night (available for free here) which takes place a few months after the events from the first novel. It isn’t necessary for you to read it, but it is a nice bridge between the two novels and adds another layer to character development, especially Mac’s.
Breaking Cover begins approximately a year after the events in the first book. At first glance, the relationship between Tony and Mac is stable: they spend most of their free time together or with children, they have learned each others needs and moods, the passion is still alive and well. But, Mac’s inability to verbalize his feelings for Tony and unwillingness to even peek out of his closet are putting strain on their relationship and, when Mac’s serial killer case and their private lives collide, both men have to make difficult choices.
Throughout the novel, it becomes clear how many sacrifices Tony had made to be with Mac, going as far as to distance himself from his friends so he wouldn’t have to lie to them or accidentally out Mac. There is an undercurrent of hurt in everything Tony does, hurt which occasionally bubbles to the surface as anger, especially in the face of Mac’s fear of being outed in some very innocent situations. Tony is dedicated to making their relationship work, but he can’t help wanting more and the author did a very good job describing his conflicting feelings. We saw Tony’s strength in the first novel, but I was still impressed with the maturity he demonstrated when faced with very difficult decision. Additionally, Tony might not know everything about Mac and his life, but he understands every important thing about him and loves him in spite of his flaws. The way he sums up Mac’s misgiving about being gay is telling, not to mention accurate.
But, even if we were given the POVs of both protagonists, Breaking Cover is more Mac’s story, in the way the previous novel was Tony’s. If the last time we’ve learned more about Tony, this time the spotlight is on Mac, which was understandable considering how many things he had to work through. Prior to meeting Tony, Mac as a man was defined by very few things: his job, his fatherhood and his fear. A year in the relationship made Mac feel better about both his job and his life, but denial and fear still rule him. He is in denial when he believes that everything between him and Tony is fine and settled, just because Tony accepted the conditions of their relationship. He is in denial when he believes that being isolated from a part of his daughter’s life is the best for her. He is in denial when he thinks it is possible to lead a normal life without being truthful to anyone. Many readers, me among them, have wondered about some of Mac’s choices and in this novel we get a partial reason for them. Mac has witnessed a violent event after arriving to Minneapolis as a young man which influenced him a great deal. Homophobia in the police department only increased his fear. Mac’s fear is a huge, living thing that permeates every part of his life and leads to paranoia: he refuses to be seen with Tony without children, refuses to acknowledge their friendship, refuses to assist him in the teen center for LGBT youth (although his colleague eventually forces him to participate). We still don’t have the entire picture though: the reason why Mac never talks about his family and why he left Chicago in the first place. Mac’s struggle was painful, realistic, with some difficult and some light moments, and it’s not neatly resolved, because you can’t erase years of your life with a single decision. But, the result of that struggle, I believe, will be that much more satisfying to the readers.
Like in the previous novel, the police-related aspect of the story is believable and adequately researched. This is more police procedural than mystery, but that worked very well with the rest of the story. I think the mystery would have taken the focus away from the couple’s story. If you have read my previous review, you know that indistinctive secondary characters bothered me, which was remedied here by subtle touches and added more depth to the characters and the novel as well. For example, we learn that Oliver is a gossip among detectives; Ben makes mistakes only a child can make – innocent but potentially disastrous; Anna makes astute observations with all the innocence of a five-year-old. Lulu/Walter Sinclair, a transvestite actor and Mac’s witness, has only a few scenes in the novel, but makes an impression. Detective Ramsey and Tony’s friend Sabrina were also nice additions. Finally, the writing is smooth, fluent, never takes you out of the story and rings true, especially when it comes to dialogue and emotions.
I had one more significant niggle. The character of Brenda, who was a huge looming presence in the background of Mac’s life in both novels, got only a few scenes and never became more than a poster lady for Bible thumping. I felt the author took an easy way out with her. People are rarely that simple even if we perceive them as such, mainly when we strongly disagree with them. The fact that she was the only mother figure Anna had and that she helped raising a happy, healthy child remains in stark contrast with her unbending beliefs and outright hatred. And they made Mac’s decision to remove Anna from her home easier. The question is: could it really be that easy for Anna? Perhaps, we’ll get an answer to that in the next novel.
With the accent on characters’ struggles with themselves and the world, Breaking Cover is a quieter, more emotional book than Life Lessons. The characters, the relationship and the world got richer, more complex, more real, without loosing the qualities from the first book. The novel has a very satisfying conclusion and also sets the scene for the next novel: What happened between Mac and his family? Was Ben abused? How will Mac and Tony deal with their new life? What about Mac’s job? For me personally Breaking Cover was a better book than Life Lessons. I like that trend and I hope the next book will be even better. Until then, this one is highly, highly recommended.