Blog Tour: Counting Daisies: Nicola Haken

Counting Daisies
Nicola Haken
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Released July 24, 2016
Buy Amazon | Amazon UK (also Kindle Unlimited)

Dylan Roberts and Cameron O’Neil were good kids. Growing up together, they shared everything. By the age of fourteen they were more than best friends – they were in love. They dreamt of their future, of success, marriage…happiness. They were going to grow old by each other’s side.

But… “Kids are stupid.”

When tragic circumstances forced them apart, Dylan discovered that life wasn’t the fairytale he dreamed of; it was dark, difficult, saturated with pain and shame. Life wasn’t meant to be enjoyed, merely survived, but even that became a challenge.

Damaged, worthless, and disgusting, he saw no point to his pitiful existence…

Until he came face to face with the boy he used to love.

Successful, honourable, and happy, Cameron had achieved the future they planned. He was good, positive, popular…everything Dylan would never be. What would happen if Dylan let him back into his world? Would he destroy Cameron too? Would his poison push him away like everyone else?

“Everybody leaves.”

“They leave or they die.”

But what if…what if Cameron didn’t?

(MM Romance, recommended for over 18’s due to language, sexual content, and scenes of IV drug use.)

He clung to my shirt, his knuckles turning white. “Make it s-stop.”

“I…I don’t know how.”

Fuck this. Fuck heroin. Why the hell would someone do this to themselves? I’d never seen this level of pain before that hadn’t resulted in death, and even that was only on TV.

Dylan sobbed into my chest and I held him while he did. My arms were all I had to offer. He remained so cold despite my palms rubbing up and down his back, and he was dirty, too - dried up vomit sticking to his skin and hair. I’d never felt so helpless in all my life.

Needing to do something, anything, I climbed to my feet, lifting his body with me. “Come on,” I encouraged, struggling to take his weight on my own. “Try and walk for me.”

He whimpered and mumbled but made little effort to move. So, sliding one arm behind his thighs, I scooped him up like a baby, carrying him towards the bath. He clung to my neck, his grip weak, while I turned on the water. I turned the temperature down to barely warm, worried the heat might burn his shivering skin, before lowering him into the bathtub, under the fine spray of the shower.

His muscles twitched and his eyes closed as he hugged his knees to his scrawny chest. Taking a sponge and some shower-gel, I scrubbed softly up and down his trembling body, gently manoeuvring his arms and legs when needed so I could clean every inch of him.

“I’m tired, Cam,” he barely whispered, dropping his head to the side.

My heart ached, like it was trapped inside a vice that was trying to crush its ability to beat, as I lathered some shampoo into his fair hair. “You can sleep soon. Nearly done.”

I tried not to cry as I massaged his scalp. I wanted to be strong, but I’d never felt more vulnerable. Removing the showerhead from the hook on the wall, I hovered it over his head, rinsing away the tea-tree scented suds, before doing the same to the rest of his skin. After shutting the water off, I grabbed a large towel from the heated rail next to the toilet and rubbed it over his skin in the bathtub before lifting him out and doing the same to his back.

“I-I can’t d-do it anymore,” Dylan cried as I wound my arm around his waist, urging him to take a step.

“You are doing it. It’s almost over.” I had no idea if my words were the truth, but I had to hope they were for both of our sakes. Honestly, I felt like I couldn’t do it anymore either.

I was not sure what I was getting into when starting this book. It is the story of two kids who were best friends, first loves as teens, and then broken apart. And now sixteen years later they come face to face as different people with vastly different experiences. But the bond they shared still has a hold on each of them.

Dylan Roberts is broken, lost, and distant. Cameron is having a hard time reaching him. Dylan has secrets. Big ones that threaten to drown him and make him feel completely unworthy, fearful, and rule his life. He is in a dark, lonely, and hopeless place. He has abandonment issues and so much self loathing and shame. Dylan hates looking bad in front of Cam and Cam's friends. He is afraid  Cam won't want to be around him anymore. He is disgusted with himself, but desperately in need of help and someone to believe in him. But even as he is drawn to Cam's brightness and stability, he is skittish, distant, and afraid of tainting Cam's charmed life. 

But Cam has such a void in his heart from losing Dylan before, he is willing to do whatever Dylan needs to keep him from bolting. Cameron is such a good guy, He's smart, funny, kind, caring, and protective. He is successful and was able to follow his dreams, in stark contrast to Dylan whose life spiraled down another path.

This is Dylan's story of survival, empowerment, and healing. My heart broke for him as he struggled with anxiety, worthlessness, need, shame, and a fear of being alone. In order to feel deserving and move on, he will have to battle his demons, learn to let go, and take control of his own life. And that also means truly trusting Cam as well as himself.

Cam is not perfect, but does have admirable patience. At times he becomes confused, disappointed, hurt, and even angry. He wants to be what Dylan needs, but sometimes doubts that he is enough. And Dylan cannot rely on solely Cam for his happiness. He has to be able to succeed for himself and forgive his past, in order to fight for his future.

Can these two find enough inner strength to be honest, trust, and communicate in order for them to find their Happy-Ever-After that has been over sixteen years in the making?

This is not an easy book to read. It is raw, frustrating, heartbreaking, and anxiety-inducing. It is a second-chance, friends-to-lovers story. But it is also about Dylan figuring out what he needs to keep everything balanced, healthy, and be able to move on from the past and have a chance at a future.

This was my first book by Nicola Haken. I have heard that Broken was very emotional, so I had prepared myself. I will admit that this subject matter is not always something I want to read about, but the author seemed to approach it in a very honest way. She does not pull any punches or sugarcoat things. She is not afraid to disappoint or frustrate you. Her characters have flaws, set backs, and have to work for their happiness. The actual romance is often sidelined by Dylan's issues. But I can honestly say that I felt connected to Dylan and Cameron and their intense long-time bond that inspired them to work through some really difficult times and gave them a reason to fight for it. I found myself getting a bit emotional with the hard times as well as the hopeful ones. And I loved the concept of "Counting Daisies" and it was a perfect title for this story in the context presented.

I really liked the side characters of Cam's best friend, Paul and pasty chef, Derek. The fast-paced restaurant kitchen scenes were already dynamic, but these two had such a fun antagonistic rapport and sexual tension between them. I hope we see them in a future book. Dylan put it out there pretty plainly : "If these guys don't end up together, I'll eat my own dick."  So please bring them on...

I was gifted a copy in exchange for an honest review. 

When the truck is parked and I’m at home, it’s not uncommon for me to read a complete romance novel within a single 24-hour period, but when I’m out on the road, it usually takes me three or four days to read one. So every now and then, I wonder whether I would have enjoyed a particular book more if I had been able to read it the way I can read at home instead of how I read it on the road. Counting Daisies, by Nicola Haken, is one such book. Note: before I start my review, I must mention that if scenes of active drug use bother you, you probably won’t like this book.

Cameron O’Neil and Dylan Roberts were best friends growing up together, and by the time they were fourteen, they were each other’s first love. After tragic events separate them, not only do they lose touch but their lives go in drastically different directions. For Cameron, it’s essentially what he always said he would do. He is a renowned chef who owns his own restaurant and lives a generally happy life filled with good friends. Dylan, on the other hand, has only pain, the pain of losing everything and everyone who was important to him and the pain of being disgusted with himself for becoming a junkie. Sixteen years after their separation, their paths cross again, but Dylan fears one of two things will happen if he comes back into Cameron’s life: either he will destroy Cameron, or Cameron will abandon him just like everyone else.

Counting Daisies is more like reading a long article or watching a documentary about heroin addiction and recovery than reading a heartwarming romance. Having never experienced this topic first hand, I can’t say how accurate it is, but Dylan’s journey felt very realistic, as if the author herself had gone through it before, perhaps as a loved one of an addict. The level of detail regarding this tough issue is hard to read, and I give the author props for that part of the story.

Obviously, then, most of this novel is far from feel-good. While the characters do eventually make it to their happily ever after, there is a LOT of pain, disappointment, and heartbreaking anguish to wade through along the way. Normally, I’m a sucker for this sort of story, but in this case, each day before I started reading more, I found myself dreading it a little. I knew it had to get through the muck by the end, but because I knew the subject matter was going to be difficult, I think I subconsciously numbed myself and, as a result, didn’t get the good feels as much when they did happen. I can only imagine this impression was magnified by my not being able to sit down and just read the whole thing at once. While it’s hard to say for sure if this was the case, I did take it into consideration when assigning my rating.

But even had I not been numbed by my own anxiety about where the story was going, I had an issue with the writing style in the book that irritated me enough to pull me out of the story repeatedly. According to the author’s bio, she is British, and this story is about two men who live in Britain and were born and raised there. My question, then, is why are there so many instances where the wording is clearly not British but American? Granted, I am an American and have never lived in the UK, but I have a couple very close friends, life-long Brits, that I talk to all the time, so just to make sure, I ran some of it by them and they were stunned as well. It’s almost like someone decided the book needed to be tailored more toward being understandable to an American audience. I don’t like that, as it takes some of the authenticity away from the characters, thereby making it more difficult for me to stay engaged with the story.

Putting this aside, Cameron and Dylan are both good characters in that their behaviors never felt contrived. Though the circumstances of their reuniting and Dylan’s history make the romance heartrending for the majority of the book, the story couldn’t have happened without it. And because of this, it made the ending all the more satisfying when it does finally get to the good.

Counting Daisies is my first exposure to Nicola Haken’s writing. I can easily see how there will be many people who will love the power and poignancy of this story, and for that reason, I have no hesitancy in recommending it, even though this story is only a “like” for me. I will be reading at least one more of her books in the future, though, because I believe the combination of this particular story and the circumstances surrounding how I read it were the cause for me not enjoying it more than I did. It’s worth a shot anyway, right?

The author generously provided me a complimentary copy of Counting Daisies in exchange for this fair and honest review.

Nicola Haken
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Nicola lives in Rochdale, England with her husband and four children (seven if you include the dog and cats!) She is the author of the bestselling gay romance Souls of the Knight series, Broken, and the upcoming Counting series. When she is not busy playing with her imaginary friends (or talking about them with real life friends) she can usually be found carrying out her ordinary mum/housewife/all round slave duties. Oh, and if the kids ever ask, she moonlights as the Pink Power Ranger while they're sleeping...

Nicola is always looking for new stalkers - oops I meant friends, so join her social media!

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