The Strongest Shape by Tessa Cárdenas
After his boyfriend breaks up with him, fashion photographer Caleb Moss finds himself alone in Los Angeles looking for work and friends. He finds both in a group of aspiring musicians, who offer help through their connections. But while building a strong friendship with Scott and Chris, a startling sexual tension flares to life among the three men, and Caleb is afraid the new friendships will fall apart.
It won’t be easy for Caleb, trying to find his way when Scott and Chris invite him into their relationship. They face criticism from their friends, but they’ll struggle to stay together because they have discovered a three-fold love.
[This is a decent cover, you know there will be a lot of sex and its a menage. Yet why is there an old guy in the middle? None of the men are out of their 20s. Weird.]
I’m always surprised by the variety in reader reactions. This particular offering has garnered decent, if lukewarm reviews and it’s a ménage, which is a difficult trick to pull off successfully. Yet I have to say I adored this gem of a story, so much that I actually re-read the book a few days later. There are some significant flaws that may not be to all readers’ taste but the men are engaging and mostly well drawn while the emotion in the relationship is without doubt. There are a lot of sex scenes in the book, yet the tone is still mild and slightly angst ridden rather than hot and heavy. I can see why some readers may not be entirely satisfied with the book but this is easily a favorite comfort story that I’ll re-read many times.
The story follows Caleb Moss, a successful fashion photographer, who has recently moved to LA with his actor boyfriend. Unfortunately said boyfriend soon left Caleb, leaving him with very few friends in a new city. One drunken night at a club leads to new friends in Scott and Chris, who are an established couple off and on for over three years. Soon Scott and Chris decide to bring Caleb into their relationship and the dynamics change entirely. While the three men struggle to find a new balance, they must also deal with the reactions of family and friends.
Told from Caleb’s perspective, the writing choice is initially odd and very off putting and may lose some readers. The choice is third person past present tense. Here’s an example:
The story starts with a bang with this odd choice and then introduces almost all the major players right away, including Chris who is initially absent and only talked about. The first two chapters are loaded with information offered very clumsily and somewhat confusing as the reader is still adjusting to the writing style. However, by chapter three the characters have settled in and the writing is familiar so the book starts to take off. The threesome gets sexual very early on in the book, by page 30, and from there the story offers no shortage of sex scenes. Some may find this too much erotica but I didn’t mind because each scene dealt with how the three men communicated and eventually fit together.
In this particular case the sex is integral to the relationship since the men would prefer to express their emotions through action and sex rather than conversation. That’s not to say they don’t talk, and they do, repeatedly. But the generous number of sex scenes didn’t deter my enjoyment since they seemed to further the story, which is about the relationship between the three men. The book could have different scenes showing the same purpose instead of the erotica to add more variety though, especially scenes with the friends Jason and Danielle.
The characters are well drawn and there is a good bit of angst and emotional searching that happens. Caleb is coming into an established relationship and he experiences a lot of insecurity about his place in the threesome. Each man experiences some trepidation and insecurity about the new dynamic but they are all committed to making it work. There are several touching moments in the small details and a few pivotal fights, which is nice to show the drawbacks as well as the advantages of a unique situation. In this case, the men respond by not having sex individually but only if all three are together which causes another set of potential conflict and frustration.
A drawback to the characterization though is that none of the men exist much outside of their relationship. All three men are artists and work odd schedules but other than some extended scenes of Caleb’s job, the musician work of Scott and Chris is indistinct and referenced rather than shown. Additionally the family scenes are incomplete and not fully explored, only showing the tip of problems. The writing and prose excel when delving into the characters, their internal debates, and miscommunication. Because of the emphasis on personal growth and less on outside influences, there is not much action in the character driven story so some readers may not like the pace.
I personally loved reading this story and it fits as a great comfort read for me. It’s emotional and slightly angsty without being over the top or whiny with good writing and great texture to the scenes to differentiate them even with a lot of erotica. I could have done with less sex and more action but this is still a great emotional story of love and strength with a solid happy ending. I easily recommend this book to romance fans, especially since it’s a successful ménage and those are rather hard to find.
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6 thoughts on “The Strongest Shape by Tessa Cárdenas”
A significant portion of current m/m authors got their start writing slash fanfiction. About 3 years ago, for some reason it came into vogue to write slash fiction in present tense. I can deal with it in very short stories and sometimes I find it even works better, but for a novel-length piece I find it bloody exhausting to read. It’s also not the easiest tense to write because of what happens to past perfect and future references. I’d wager there are numerous tense wobbles in this book, especially given that Dreamspinner’s editors have repeatedly demonstrated lack of savvy in other, far less complex areas of grammar and syntax.
Regarding the cover, until I started reading your review I thought this book was a M/F/M ménage à trois. At a glance the cover is very, very feminine looking. I mean, come on…a half-acre of pastel orchid sheets? The super-frilly font? And to be honest, in thumbnail size I couldn’t tell that the person on the left wasn’t a chick. I’ve seen this cover a bunch of times lately on ARe, and I didn’t even bother reading the blurb, I was so sure this was a chick-centric ménage à trois.
I’m sure there were tense problems. If I wasn’t as absorbed in the story as I was, it likely would have bothered me. However, I’m not an english major nor as knowledgeable as some *coughyoucough* so I can’t say I noticed. You likely would have gouged your eyes out in horror at the tense problems. I can think of a few places already that I noticed the problem. I also don’t think the editors at DSP are capable of really doing such a tense justice. No doubt they just let this one go in as written as it would take some real skill to navigate the problems no doubt.
Once again since I don’t read much fanfiction, I wasn’t aware of that trend nor what translates from there to paid fiction. Though I can still spot some fanfiction on occasion.
As for the cover, I knew the book was m/m/m so I didn’t really even look at the cover except it was a funky pastel and 3 ppl in bed. I don’t think its that good and it seems to cater to women I guess. Target audience and all.
I still really loved the book, tense problems and cover aside.
Reading your review made me put this book on top of my TBR pile. The relationship dynamics sound very interesting, especially for Caleb. Glad you mentioned that the writing is third person, present tense, as I tend not to like this writing style on the rare occasions when I come up against it unaware. However since the book sounds good overall I’ll give it a go.
Re the cover, I thought it was pretty good and many gay men like pink and orchid so I wasn’t put off by the colour of the sheets.
The writing style is… odd. As Cocktease mentioned, this may be a hold over from fan fiction (I wouldn’t know but CT would so I believe them). You’ll notice it most in the first few chapters which are filled with information at the same time the writing style is rather in your face. If you can stick it out and get beyond, the book starts to settle into its groove.
Although reactions may be mixed, I loved this story and still do. It’s a classic comfort read where it may not be perfect but it has all the elements combined in such a way that it’s easy and fun to read and exactly what you wanted. Or what I wanted :D.
I think you’ll like it. I’m picky about m/m/m because it’s so tough to pull off and this is a very believable relationship.
Wonderful review, I loved this story as well. Although the choice of POV was a bit strange and took a bit to get used to I found the book very enjoyable. I liked all 3 protags and their relationship.
Hi Lily! I’m glad you loved this one too. I personally didnt think the POV was strange but the writing tense is off putting. However, I got sucked in and didn’t mind after a while lol.