Release Reviews: Coach's Challenge: Avon Gale

Coach's Challenge (Scoring Chances #5)
Avon Gale
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Released June 26, 2017
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It’s been decades since blackmail forced Troy Callahan to retire from playing professional hockey, and he’s built a successful career behind the bench. When he’s offered the opportunity to coach the Asheville Ravens—the most hated team in the ECHL—he’s convinced that his no-nonsense attitude is just what the team needs to put their focus back on hockey. But Troy is disheartened when he finds out the Ravens have signed Shane North, a player known for his aggression—especially when Shane’s rough good looks have Troy thinking inappropriate thoughts about a player, even if he’s set to retire at the end of the season.

Shane’s career in the majors never quite took off. Wanting to quit on his own terms, Shane agrees to a one-year contract with the Ravens and finds himself playing for a coach who thinks he’s an aging goon, and with a team that doesn’t trust him, Troy, or each other. Despite his determination not to get involved, Shane unwillingly becomes part of the team… and is just as unwillingly drawn to the gruff, out-and-proud coach. As the Ravens struggle to build a new identity, Shane and Troy succumb to the passion that might cost them everything. 

When it comes to fun and quick reads, right now my favorite series that’s still in progress is Avon Gale’s Scoring Chances. Coach’s Challenge is the fifth book in this double-minor-league hockey series, and it largely fits the same style and quality that fans of the series have come to expect. But even though I liked this one enough to rate it 4 stars, in comparison to the first four books in the series, this one left me wanting.

As has been the pattern so far in the series—two books in Jacksonville and two books in Spartanburg—the action switches to a new city, Asheville, North Carolina. Up to now, the Ravens have been the most hated team in the ECHL because their playing style goes beyond aggressive into the realm of bullying, injurious, and particularly homophobic. As an out-and-proud gay man and former NHL player whose career was ended by the same man he has now replaced, the new head coach, Troy Callahan, is hoping to change that. Shane North is another new addition to the team, one that Troy is not thrilled about because Shane’s reputation for aggression on the ice won’t make Troy’s job of changing the Ravens’ image any easier. Of course, his attraction to the man won’t either. For his entire career, Shane has been dogged for not living up to the potential everyone saw in him when he was signed for his rookie season. Now well into his thirties, Shane wants to end his career on his terms, but doing that while playing on a team that has had its sense of team beaten out of them as much as the Ravens’ has makes that impossible. Before long, he finds himself being involved with the team… and its head coach.

There is plenty to like about Coach’s Challenge for fans of the series. As with the previous titles in the series, the plot is uncomplicated and unencumbered by unnecessary drama, the characters are easy to like though not particularly deeply developed, and the writing befits the setting in that it’s simple and full of good banter and hockey talk. This last point, in particular, is one of my favorite parts of the series. There were plenty of times where I would find myself smiling and shaking my head while thinking that hockey players are SO weird, I love it! Put all of this together, and it’s a story that reads easily and quickly.

The relationship between Troy and Shane is also easy to like, mainly for fans of dirty-talking guys. The forbidden nature of their relationship adds to this as well. With Shane in his midthirties and Troy well into his forties, they’re both mature adults who understand that hooking up has to potential to create many problems for them, but they acknowledge it and do it anyway. It also means that the ultimate problem they have is fairly predictable because this is, after all, a forbidden romance. Like the other books in the series, though, this conflict’s resolution is satisfactory even if it is clearly on the easy side for the simple reason that the author’s universe is a bit ahead of our own in its accepting of homosexuality, particularly in professional sports. While this isn’t a problem for me as a reader, it’s worth noting because it does perhaps straddle the line of modern realism just a touch.

The only real issue I had with Coach’s Challenge is that the romantic development felt weaker than the other books in the series because the transition between Troy and Shane hooking up and their having feelings for one another felt less like a build than a mutual realization that what they were doing wasn’t just fucking anymore. While it doesn’t fit in with either of their personalities to express deep feelings to each other, it shouldn’t prevent the narrative from showing the reader that their feelings are growing all along the way. There is some of this after the book’s midpoint but not enough to get me over the hump of believing that their eventual love for one another came mostly from sexual compatibility rather than them developing the deep emotional connection on which love should be based. 

Don’t get me wrong, the sexy times in this story are some of the hottest I’ve read this year. I’m not kidding. Hot. As. Fuck. And I wouldn’t want the author to change them at all. But having the sex threaten to set your tablet aflame isn’t a valid excuse to skimp on developing the relationship arc so as to prevent me from having the idea that the number one reason a couple is perfect for each other is that they’re fucking hot together in bed. To me, that’s what erotica is for. This is romance. And unfortunately, I needed more romance here in order to get the great feels out of this story that I was missing. I got good feels from it, but can you blame me for wanting the great ones too?

With five books in the series completed, I’ve noticed a bit of a trend. I love the series and really like all the books in it, but I like the second book for each team better than the first. Coach’s Challenge might well fit that trend too because the author has set book six up to be the story of a character named Xavier, who has appeared in each of the last three books now, and the more I get to know him, the more I want his story. So bring it on, Avon Gale! I’m due (and ready) for a good wowing!

The author and/or publisher generously provided me a complimentary copy of Coach's Challenge in exchange for this fair and honest review.

This one takes Avon Gale's Scoring Chances series to the Asheville Ravens team. This is the team that everyone in the ECHL League loves to hate due to their bullying, intolerance, and dirty play. But the instigating Coach is out and now Coach Troy Callahan is in. In one sense it is a bit of redemption to take over the team of the man responsible for ending his own pro career. Troy is a no nonsense, fair, outspoken, and bossy man. He is gay, out, and is not going to tolerate any negative behavior. But taking on this battered down band of players and making them a respectable team will be a challenge. 

Speaking of challenges, one of the newer transfers comes with a bad reputation and never quite lived up to his full potential. Shane North is older and only plans on finishing out this one year and retiring. But ticking the coach off on the first day does not help. He feels like an outsider not only because he is in a new place and away from his support system, but also because he is a gay player who is not out. His career has had the highs of the NHL but he has been moved down several times. He is a wild card for this new team and none of them have reason to trust each other.

Troy and Shane are two hotheads. They go from antagonistic to resistant to oozing sexual tension. Their banter runs from sarcastic, flirty, dirty, and aggressively sexy. 
There is some attempt to maintain a sense of professionalism, but it is a hard battle. They thrive on pushing each other's buttons and challenging each other. Their chemistry is hot, combustible, and is just not going to be denied. They are aggressive and dirty talking, and are anytime-anywhere kind of guys despite their need for discretion. It's a mistake they could not stop, but also one that they want to keep repeating. As coach and player they try to keep their secret, but it is hard with their intensity and growing need.

Both of the guys are so unfiltered, brash, stubborn, and broody, but they have good hearts under their gruff exteriors. I really liked that they were 
more mature at 35 and 45ish, and seeing them push each other. I enjoyed their power exchanges and how their bossy, dirty mouths spurred each other on. They managed to balance each other in unexpected ways. They were an intense, argumentative coupling, but they were fun, feisty, and interesting. They were not afraid to sacrifice for what they believed in.

This was not very angsty. The conflict that did occur was easy to anticipate, but I liked the overall story and the resolution.  It focused on not only their personal relationship, but also the rebuilding of a hockey team and forging trust off and on the ice. Shane was in the process of figuring out where his career would go in the future and this gave him more of an opportunity to mentor. 

This is an enemies-to-lovers and forbidden lust and love and story. It is humorous, feisty, hot, and roughly romantic under the layers or taunting and teasing. I might have liked a few more tender moments, but there were a few quieter ones and these guys were just really passionate and just strong personalities. It has good themes about believing in yourself, taking chances, fighting for what you want, and striving to live up to your full potential. It also illustrated how "coming out" should be a personal decision and how it can effect the individual differently.

This can be read as a stand alone as the author summarizes some past plot points, but I enjoyed more with Misha, Max, Isaac, Laurent, Hux, and Xavier from the last couple of books. I liked Shane's relationship with his best friend, Alani, and Troy's with their GM and his best friend, Gabe. There was also an addition of a cute, vibrant bartender, River.  I am hoping the next in the series will stay in Asheville and  the southern gentleman and Team Captain, Xavier Matthews will be the focus of the next book since he was featured in this one. 

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

Breakaway (Scoring Chances #1)
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Released November 27, 2015
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Drafted to play for the Jacksonville Sea Storm, an NHL affiliate, twenty-year-old Lane Courtnall’s future looks bright, apart from the awkwardness he feels as a gay man playing on a minor league hockey team. He's put his foot in his mouth a few times and alienated his teammates. Then, during a rivalry game, Lane throws off his gloves against Jared Shore, enforcer for the Savannah Renegades. It’s a strange way to begin a relationship.

Jared’s been playing minor league hockey for most of his career. He’s bisexual and doesn’t care if anyone knows. But he’s determined to avoid another love affair after the last one left him devastated. Out of nowhere a one-nighter with rookie Lane Courtnall gives him second thoughts. Lane reminds Jared why he loves the game and why love might be worth the risk. In turn, Jared hopes to show Lane how to be comfortable with himself on and off the ice. But they’re at different points in their careers, and both men will have to decide what they value most.

Save of the Game (Scoring Chances #2)
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Released January 29, 2016

After last season’s heartbreaking loss to his hockey team’s archrival, Jacksonville Sea Storm goalie Riley Hunter is ready to let go of the past and focus on a winning season. His new roommate, Ethan Kennedy, is a loud New Yorker with a passion for social justice that matches his role as the team’s enforcer. The quieter Riley is attracted to Ethan and has no idea what to do about it.

Ethan has no hesitations. As fearless as his position demands, he rushes into things without much thought for the consequences.Though they eventually warm to their passionate new bond, it doesn’t come without complications. While trying to financially help Ethan, Riley must hide his family’s wealth so as not to hurt Ethan’s immense pride. For their relationship to work, Ethan will need to learn when to keep the gloves on and let someone help him—and Riley will have to learn it’s okay to let someone past his defenses.

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Released May 9, 2016

A freak accident during the Stanley Cup Playoffs put an end to Max Ashford’s hockey career. Despite everything, Max gets back into the game he loves—only this time, behind the bench as an assistant coach of the Spartanburg Spitfires, the worst team in the entire league. But nothing prepares him for the shock when he learns the new head coach is Misha Samarin, the man who caused Max’s accident.

After spending years guilt ridden for his part in Max’s accident, Russian native Misha Samarin has no idea what to do when he’s confronted with Max’s presence. Max’s optimism plays havoc with Misha’s equilibrium—as does the fierce attraction that springs up between them.

Not only must they navigate Misha’s remorse and a past he’s spent a lifetime trying to forget, but also a sleazy GM who is determined to use their history as a marketing hook. But when an unwelcome visitor targets a player, Misha revisits his darkest days, and that might cost him and Max the beginning they’ve worked so hard to build.

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Released July 26, 2016

This short story (approximately 4000 words) takes place after the events of Power Play and before Empty Net. It features Spartanburg Spitfires' goalie Isaac Drake -- as well as a few other familiar faces -- and is available as a bonus for Avon's newsletter subscribers. 

You can access the story in three different formats here:

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Released September 2, 2016

Spartanburg Spitfires’ goalie and captain Isaac Drake ended last season with an unexpected trip to the playoffs. He’s found a home and family with his coach and mentor, Misha Samarin, and he’s looking forward to making a serious run for the Kelly Cup. But things take an interesting turn when Isaac’s archnemesis, Laurent St. Savoy, is traded to the Spitfires. After Laurent’s despicable behavior in the playoffs last year, Isaac wants nothing to do with him – no matter how gorgeous he is. But that changes when Isaac discovers the reason for Laurent’s attitude.

Laurent St. Savoy grew up the only son of a legendary NHL goalie in a household rife with abuse, constantly treated like a disappointment on and off the ice. When a desperate attempt to escape his father’s tyranny sends him to the Spitfires, the last thing Laurent wants is to make friends. But there’s something about Isaac Drake that he can’t resist, and Laurent has an opportunity to explore his sexuality for the first time, but he’s cracking under end-of-the season pressures. When facing the playoffs and a rivalry turned personal vendetta, Isaac’s not sure he’s enough to hold Laurent—or their relationship—together.

Please be advised: This book does contain some non-graphic references to past childhood physical/emotional abuse as well as issues relating to ED (bulimia and restricted eating, disordered thoughts about eating).
Avon Gale 
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Avon Gale wrote her first story at the age of seven, about a "Space Hat" hanging on a rack and waiting for that special person to come along and purchase it—even if it was a bit weirder than the other hats. Like all of Avon's characters, the space hat did get its happily ever after—though she's pretty sure it was with a unicorn. She likes to think her vocabulary has improved since then, but the theme of quirky people waiting for their perfect match is still one of her favorites.

Avon grew up in the southern United States and now lives with her very patient husband in a liberal Midwestern college town. By day, Avon is a hair stylist who loves her job, her clients, and the opportunity to spend her time being creative and making people feel happy and look fabulous.

When she's not writing, she's either doing some kind of craft project that makes a huge mess, reading, watching horror movies, listening to music, or yelling at her favorite hockey team to get it together already. Avon is always up for a road trip, adores Kentucky bourbon, thinks nothing is as stress relieving as a good rock concert, and will never say no to candy.

At one point, Avon was the mayor of both Jazzercise and Lollicup on Foursquare. This tells you basically all you need to know about her as a person.


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