Two Years On

Today marks two years since Dan’s passing. As with last year, it’s a time for reflection for me, to think about where I’ve been and where I’m going.

A good friend told gave me some very wise advice early on: “It doesn’t get easier, you just get stronger.” I’ve revisited those words many times and thought about what they mean to me. In the last year I’ve found I have less frequent episodes of breaking down crying, of that feeling of complete despondency. The worst are still the dreams where Dan is away on business and in that fuzzy time between sleep and waking, I think about how he’ll be home soon. Those are really hard, but there’s not much to do but soldier on.

There are always reminders in places we went, things we enjoyed together, foods he liked. I want those reminders, though. It’s not likely I’ll ever forget but having those are an important touchstone for me. I’m still grappling with survivor guilt, but also know that Dan would be kicking me in the ass and telling me to go live my life. For the longest time “it’s what he would have wanted” felt like a cop-out, but that doesn’t remove the underlying truth.

Just a few weeks I hit an important turning point: I went on my first date in over two decades. Nothing will come of it, unfortunately, but having the date itself was more important than any outcome. I’m realizing that having another person in my life won’t displace Dan, they will be in addition to him. Realizing that makes me feel a lot better.

I’ve got big plans for the coming year. I’m working on creating an Accessibility Services department for Midwest FurFest because in the short time that I was with Dan after his back injury, I realized quickly the issues created by limited mobility. I want to use that knowledge to help make the convention better for everyone.

I have international travel slated as well, something we had big hopes to do. I’ll be seeing parts of the world that are completely new to me. I wish I could have seen them with Dan, but I carry him in my heart every day and so we’ll still see them together.

I love you, Dan.

2018: A Year in Books

I’m a little (OK a lot) late but:

2018 has come to a close, so now it’s time for me to look back at the year in books. I read (or re-read) 129 books over the course of the year. Of those:

  • 100% were M/M romances
  • 74% were paranormal romances
  • 51% featured shifters (42% featured werewolves specifically)
  • 17% were audiobooks

Looking at my Goodreads ratings, my reviews broke down to:

  • Rating 5 out of 5 – 40%
  • Rating 4 out of 5 – 44%
  • Rating 3 out of 5 – 15%
  • Rating 2 out of 5 – 1%
  • Rating 1 out of 5 – 0% (none, actually)

One reason my reviews are as high as they are is that I do lean heavily on Goodread’s aggregate reviews. If a book’s rating is less than 3.70, there has to be something pretty spectacular for me to pick it up. Like Yelp, Amazon or anything else, though, a book has to have a significant number of reviews for any rating to be meaningful. I usually look for at least 100 reviews.

Greatest Hits

I loved Kris Bethke’s “Requiem Inc.” trilogy. I wrote a detailed review of the first book, and I’m happy to say that the second and third books continued with compelling characters and engaging plotlines. This is a series I will be coming back to as a form of “literary comfort food.”

Sam Burns’ Rowan Harbor Cycle was a fantastic discovery of a new-to-me author. All told the series will be three trilogies; the first two trilogies were published in 2018, and the seventh book is about to come out as I write this (I reviewed the first book, Blackbird in the Reeds, in detail). Burns has created a fantastic setting here, a remote Oregon coastal town secretly populated by all sorts of paranormal folks – witches, shapeshifters, vampires, and more. For the most part, though, they lead pretty normal lives. The dramatic tension comes from outside threats to the town and its denizens. I adore the main characters here. Devon, Jesse, and Fletcher each have a time in the spotlight, and each finds their match who complements them well. With a large ensemble cast it would be easy to get lost in who’s who, but Burns does a great job keeping the focus narrow enough that the reader doesn’t lost, but wide enough to tell a larger story.

I’m way late to the game on this series, but K.J. Charles’ A Charm of Magpies series (I wrote a detailed review of the first book, The Magpie Lord) was a delightful find. I normally shy away from historical romances because of the homophobia that tends runs throughout, and while it exists here it’s in the background. These novels are set in Victorian England, but one in which practitioners (users of magic) are a part of society. The interplay of class friction, social machinations, and evil magic makes for some very enjoyable tales. I listened to these on audio, and Cornell Collins’ narration was spot-on, and his range of accents to denote not only a character’s voice but their class as well was extremely well done.

Austin Chant’s Peter Darling has us exploring what happened next in Neverland, and we find that things are not quite like what we may have read in the tales of Peter Pan. This is a stunning reimagining of Neverland, and touches on gender identity, the lies we tell ourselves, and roles we are forced into by others. This was hands-down the most imaginative and innovative book I read in 2018.

Amy Lane has a knack for creating some wonderful characters and then putting them through the wringer. Her Promises series remains one of my all-time favorites, but the Bonfires series (first book reviewed here) is shaping up to rival that. The main characters are in their forties and fifties, and have established lives and families. The stories of them getting together and creating one big family are just fantastic. Like most of Lane’s books, it’s the characters that I really enjoy, and Aaron and Larx are such a great couple that I really related to. This was another audiobook, performed by Nick J. Russo, whose work with each character’s speech patterns and inflections made some excellent books really outstanding!

Honorable Mentions

The Delta Restorations series by Diana Copland is a lovely contemporary series that I enjoyed on audiobook. Again, great characters help create some compelling stories, with a bit of suspense thrown in.

Annabelle Jacobs’ Regent’s Park Pack series gives us a London in which werewolves are commonplace among humans. Pack politics, true mates, and happily-ever-afters abound. I tore through this series like popcorn, and I think it will hold up for rereading as well.

Ethan, Who Loved Carter by Ryan Loveless was simply stunning. It’s an intimate portrait of two characters in difficult situations, Carter, who lives with Tourette’s Syndrome, and Ethan, who has suffered a traumatic brain injury. This book really made me think about how we view people with disabilities or are just different, and it wasn’t always a comfortable read. Still, it was definitely one of the most enlightening books of 2018 for me.

By Fairy Means or Foul by Meghan Maslow (reviewed here) was an enjoyable goofy romp in a farcical fantasy world. Greg Boudreaux’s narration of the audiobook was brilliant!

Finally, In This Iron Ground by Marina Vivancos (reviewed here) was a werewolf novel where the werewolves more incidental than central to the plot. It’s a difficult story of a boy, Damien, growing up in the foster care system and learning to deal with abuse and the aftereffects. He finds a family who offers him escape and healing. That they are werewolves is almost peripheral, except that it introduces a kind of otherness that separates them from Damien. This was a deeply emotional book, and a very well-written one at that.

That’s the best of 2018 for me! Here’s looking forward to more wonderful books and stories for 2019.

Book Review: Rebuilding Hope (Kindred #1), by Jessie G.

Holden Bancroft was born with a better than average brain and not much else. Often described as strange and sickly, his attempts to conform only made him look foolish and a life-long diet of pills hasn’t provided a cure. Deciding to strengthen the only tool in his arsenal was liberating and learning became his greatest joy. But each episode is another reminder that his time is limited, and Holden intends to use everything he’s learned to help the small town of Hope before he dies.

Alpha Crowley Lomond, Zenith of the Americas, isn’t exactly happy with his ascension. Leading isn’t the problem, it’s acting like he’s somehow better than every other shifter that chafes. But while living and working beside them may seem noble, Crowley is more than just an alpha. As Zenith, he’s their example, their teacher and guide, and the one they will turn to when their way of life is threatened.

Meeting changes them in ways they never could have predicted and unveils a web of deceit that began long before they were born. Together, they will have to unravel the lies and reconcile the consequences if they are to protect the shifter way of life. Along the way, Crowley will become the Zenith his Kindred was born to love and their enemies will learn that there’s nothing more dangerous than fated mates.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Jessie G. has created a fascinating setting. After a war between shifters and humans in the middle of the 20th century, and uneasy peace has been established, but shifters are definitely in the minority. The present-day setting of the story is a nice twist on the reality we know with specific differences due to the world’s history that make the reader want to know more. The story unfolds to include a worldwide conspiracy, a prophecy, and hints of great things occurring as each of the three Zeniths find their Kindred, their soul mate.

Let’s see, we have:
☑️ Hurt/Comfort
☑️ Fated mates
☑️ “You’re actually a shifter!” (oh come on, that can’t possibly be a spoiler)

This should have been right up my alley. What happened?

The first problem is pacing. The story starts off quickly, reaches a critical point, and…bogs down in exposition. From there the story lurches along, bouncing jarringly from action to exposition. I get that there is a whole lot of world-building going on here and that a lot of the exposition is necessary, but some of that might have been better shown than told.

The other problem that I had was that while I had a good handle on Holden as a character, his background, and what his motivations might be, Crowley was less clear. We find out more about his background late in the story, but by that point I was frustrated and confused. Finally, a couple of plot points seemed to get muddled and I was left at the end of the book with a lot of unanswered questions unrelated to any promise of sequels.

That all sounds pretty harsh, but probably only because I wanted this book to be better than it was. There’s a lot of great stuff here: a fantastic setting, interesting conflicts between shifters and humans (and others!), and intriguing characters. It just didn’t quite come together as well as I’d hoped. Will I pick up the sequel, though? Absolutely. I’m very interested to see what Jessie G. has in store for this world!

Book Review: In This Iron Ground, by Marina Vivancos

Damien is nine years old when his parents die. What should have been the worst moment of his life begins a journey shadowed by loneliness and pain. The night of a full moon, four years and seven foster homes later, Damien flees to the forest, desperate to escape everything.

Instead, he finds the Salgado pack, and the earth beneath his feet shifts. Damien has seen the Salgado children in his school: Koko, who is in his class, and Hakan, two years older and infinitely unreachable. Damien is suddenly introduced into a world that had only ever existed in his imagination, where there is magic in the forest and the moon. He meets creatures that look like monsters, but Damien knows that monsters have the same face as anybody else.

Over the years, Damien and Hakan grow closer. First, just as friends and foster brothers in the Salgado house, and then into something heated and breathless when Damien joins Hakan at college. Despite what he may yearn for in the darkest part of the night, Damien knows, deep down in that bruised and mealy part of his core, that he’s not good enough to be part of the Salgado family, their pack. He’s not worthy of calling Hakan his home.

Even though he knows in the end it’ll hurt him, he’ll hold onto this for as long as he can.

In This Iron Ground, by Marina Vivancos

Rating: 4.75 out of 5

This is one of those books that’s something of a rough read, but in the end is so, so worth it. Young Damien is a pawn of the foster care system. He bounces from home to home, then the bad situation is made worse when he is placed with a foster carers (not parents, never parents) who don’t know how to deal with a rambunctious 13-year-old, and resort to abusive behavior to keep him from upsetting their lives too much. This is so painful to read, as we see Damien taught that this is all he is worth, an afterthought, an outcast. Hope is the enemy because it only brings pain.

The story is told from Damien’s point of view, and the matter-of-fact statements of his own low estimation of his worth are made all the more visceral by this. The other characters are defined through Damien’s eyes. Seeing them change over the years, how the relationships with his family and friends change, and how this affects Damien are a big part of the story.

Surprisingly, the fact that the Salgados are werewolves is almost peripheral to the overall story, though it brings profound definitions of family, belonging, and spiritual balance into stark reality. Damien’s matter-of-fact acceptance of werewolves is amusing, rationalizing that werewolves are good or evil as much as humans are good or evil – the definition is in their actions, not their being. His isolation is emphasized, though, as he feels that as a human, he is a friend of the pack but can never truly be a part of it.

Vivancos’ writing can be straightforward, but in some of Damien’s early trauma the writing is almost impressionistic, leaving the reader as unsure of reality or fantasy as Damien is. The extended passages of a college-age Damien speaking with a therapist as he strives to find personal balance are absolutely spot-on. Honestly, I recognize some approaches and techniques I’ve discussed with my own therapist (though for very different reasons). This really made the book personal for me, and is one of the reasons I loved it so much. The fact that the ending made me cry (in a happy way!) didn’t hurt either.

I highly recommend this book. It can be a rough ride emotionally, but the journey is absolutely worth it!

Audiobook Review: Bonfires, by Amy Lane, performed by Nick J. Russo

Ten years ago Sheriff’s Deputy Aaron George lost his wife and moved to Colton, hoping growing up in a small town would be better for his children. He’s gotten to know his community, including Mr. Larkin, the bouncy, funny science teacher. But when Larx is dragged unwillingly into administration, he stops coaching the track team and starts running alone. Aaron-who thought life began and ended with his kids-is distracted by a glistening chest and a principal running on a dangerous road.

Larx has been living for his kids too-and for his students at Colton High. He’s not ready to be charmed by Aaron, but when they start running together, he comes to appreciate the deputy’s steadiness, humor, and complete understanding of Larx’s priorities. Children first, job second, his own interests a sad last.

It only takes one kiss for two men approaching fifty to start acting like teenagers in love, even amid all the responsibilities they shoulder. Then an act of violence puts their burgeoning relationship on hold. The adult responsibilities they’ve embraced are now instrumental in keeping their town from exploding. When things come to a head, they realize their newly forged family might be what keeps the world from spinning out of control.

Rating: 5 out of 5!

This was such a great book, and the audiobook was a treat! Amy Lane excels with stories of gentle courtships and characters who are willing to overcome initial awkwardness to create a beautiful relationship. The fact that these two are approaching 50 speaks to me, and Lane nails the confusion at feelings of attraction and romance, thought left behind decades ago, which are suddenly a part of their lives again. I also appreciate that she avoids the awful “Gay For You” trope (“I have never been gay until I met you!”), despite having main characters who are heterosexual to all outside appearances.

Larx is the one with the most to lose. He’s deeply closeted, being a high school principal in a small town. It becomes apparent that he has quite a bad-boy history behind him and the fact that he has (unwillingly) risen in the school administration is amusing. He is usually diplomatic and deliberate, but when crossed he’s not afraid to fight. He is everything I would ever want in a teacher – smart, thoughtful, and empathetic. In other words, outstanding boyfriend material as well!

Aaron is a widower who has had ten years of recovering from his beloved wife’s passing (a personal side note: I hope I am in as good a place ten years on). He has a quiet life, a good job, and a steady routine. The sheriff is thinking about retiring and thinks Aaron would be the best candidate for the job. He’s always known he was bisexual, but never really acted on it. Suddenly he has found someone who pushes all of his buttons, and watching him work himself up to confront Larx is funny and sweet. When Larx’ wild side comes out, rock-steady Aaron is the perfect foil.

And then there’s the rest of the cast, and there are quite a few! I adored that the teenagers, Aaron’s Kirby and Larx’ Christiana, aren’t just window dressing, but smart, funny kids who play an important part in the men’s lives. Yoshi, Larx’ vice principal and best friend, is a complete smartass, and a welcome sounding board. Sherriff Mills, Aaron’s boss who supports him in all things, is a voice of reason and support who is there when Aaron him.

As in other of Lane’s books (especially the Promises series, which I loved), there’s a whole lot going on in the background, from small-town racism and homophobia, to students on the cusp of coming out, and a murder mystery as well. It all ties together nicely in the end, and while some of the drama is slightly overwrought the rest of the story was so good I had no problem with it.

This is the first audiobook by Nick J. Russo that I’ve listened to and it certainly won’t be the last! His delivery and intonation is perfect for the story, keeping the individual voices of the characters separate and easy to identify, and really capturing the individual speech patterns and inflections. His work made an excellent book really outstanding.

This is easily one of the best books I’ve read/listened to this year. The great, relatable characters and excellent performance make this an easy book and audiobook to highly recommend.

A Quick Opinionated Guide To Restaurants at Midwest FurFest

Note that this is completely unofficial; it’s just me and my overblown opinions. Also, your opinions may be different from mine. I don’t care 🙂 Get your own blog!

Midwest FurFest used to publish a 20-30 page booklet of listings and reviews of local restaurants, but unfortunately when you have to print 5,000+ copies of anything (let alone a 20-30 page booklet) costs start to get prohibitive, and with the availability of Yelp and similar sites we had to make the difficult decision to discontinue the Restaurant Guide.

That said, I’m happy to offer a (completely biased) overview of restaurants in and around the Hyatt Regency O’Hare, though I will leave it to the reader to find exact locations on Google Maps.

So first there’s inside the hotel.

  • Midwest FurFest offers a con suite every year which has light snacks (think chips and such) and soda for free all weekend. We do not recommend you try to go through the weekend relying solely on this – any right-thinking nutritionist would scream in horror.
  • O’H Restaurant: a full-service restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The food is good to really good, but it’s expensive hotel prices. The good news is that the hotel runs specials for all meals (including the breakfast buffet) that lowers the prices from crazy high to slightly expensive.
  • Red Bar: Bar/restaurant open late afternoons and evenings with has a small food selection available as well. The prices are also not cheap, and the service is usually regrettably slow. It sure is convenient, though!
  • Perks, the coffee shop/gift shop. They have a selection of grab-and-go sandwiches and salads, but even better throughout the weekend they set up a food station (last year on different nights they offered Build Your Own Mac and Cheese, Mini Naan Pizzas, Tacos, and Subs) that is actually quite reasonably priced.

The Hyatt will set up larger food service stands (drinks, sides, burgers, chicken sandwiches, hot dogs) that are on the expensive side but terribly convenient.

In the convention center:

  • Expoteria: Right across the street from the hotel. Hours can vary. The food is cheap, and it is certainly…food. So there’s that.
  • Starbucks: In the ground floor lobby of the convention center. Pretty much your standard Starbucks, and the prices are surprisingly not inflated for the location.
  • The convention center will set up larger food service stands (drinks, sides, burgers, chicken sandwiches, hot dogs) that are on the expensive side but terribly convenient. The food is provided by a vendor which supplies many school cafeterias. I’m sure the similarity between the food quality is purely coincidental.

About a 5-minute walk away is the “Parkway Bank Park Entertainment District” (ugh, branding) with a lot of options of varying quality:

  • Five Roses Pub: Pseudo-Irish pub. Average.
  • King’s: Bowling and restaurant. The place is loud, though fun with a group of friends out for drinks.
  • Adobe Gila’s: Mexican-ish. Not recommended.
  • Sugar Factory: Ridiculously overpriced tourist crap (think $19 burgers)
  • Bub City: BBQ. Haven’t tried but reviews aren’t terrible.
  • Park Tavern: The one bright spot. Gastropub with some good food selections and a great beer list. Service can be slow at peak times, though.
  • Fogo de Chao: Brazilian steakhouse. “The Meat Faucet”.
  • Hofrauhaus: German beer hall. Oompah oompah music. Tourists. Fun with a group of rowdy friends though.

A 10-15 minute walk south on River Road is the “Chicago Fashion Outlet” (fancy name aside, it’s a mall). There is a food court there with some decent options that are quite affordable. A 10-15 minute walk north on River Road brings you to McDonald’s and also Giordano’s Pizza, one of the Holy Trio of Chicago deep-dish pizza restaurants.

Other good things to know: The Rosemont Entertainment Circulator is a free shuttle that runs nonstop all weekend and even late into the night. It stops at the front of the convention center, in the Entertainment District, and at the Chicago Fashion Outlet.

Finally, Grubhub, UberEats, DoorDash, and other food delivery services are alive and well in Rosemont. Don’t be shy about using them to order as well!

Audiobook Review: By Fairy Means or Foul, by Meghan Maslow, performed by Greg Boudreaux

The last thing half-dragon, half-fairy private investigator Twig Starfig wants to do is retrieve a stolen enchanted horn from a treacherous fae, but there’s no denying the dazzlingly gorgeous unicorn who asks Twig to do just that. Literally, no denying, because compelling the reluctant detective is all part of a unicorn’s seductive magic.

To add to his woes, Twig is saddled with the unicorn’s cheeky indentured servant, Quinn Broomsparkle. Dragons are supposed to want to eat humans, but Twig’s half-dragon side only wants to gobble up Quinn in a more . . . personal way. Making matters worse, it’s obvious the smokin’ hot but untrustworthy sidekick is hiding something. Something big. And not what’s in his trousers. In the PI business, that means trouble with a capital Q.

Throw in gads of zombies, a creepy ghost pirate ship, a malfunctioning magic carpet, and Twig’s overbearing fairy father’s demands to live up to the illustrious Starfig name. Naturally, an old but abiding enemy chooses this time to resurface, too. Those inconveniences Twig can handle. The realization he’s falling for a human who isn’t free to return his affections and whose life may hang on the success of his latest case?

Not so much.

By Fairy Means or Foul (Starfig Investigations #1), by Meghan Maslow, performed by Greg Boudreaux

Rating: 4.75 out of 5

I went into this one with some trepidations. The blurb is pretty over-the-top, after all. As far as it goes, it’s pretty true to the book, but it leaves out something that makes it all worthwhile: the fact that Maslow has created characters with some terrific depth that the reader really comes to care about. Once you roll with the farcical fantasy elements (and there are more than enough of those here!) you get one hell of a fun story.

The story is told by Twig, and I really liked that we see the world through his eyes, with elements of discrimination and injustice that he doesn’t like but just has to live with. His family history and the decisions he’s made to this point in his life make him a fascinating character, balancing between two worlds yet never fully a part of either.

Then we have Quinn, who has So. Much. Sass. He starts out in a terrible situation, and the more we learn about him the more we cheer for him, and for Quinn and Twig as a couple (uh, spoiler alert? Yeah, not remotely). The two play off each other perfectly, and the recurring themes of personal independence and control only serve to highlight the chemistry between the two. Although the antagonist characters are paper thin, the supporting characters that Twig and Quinn meet along the way make up for it.

As for the overarching story, there’s not a whole lot of mystery; rather, things are episodic as in a typical fantasy quest. Maslow does have a lot of fun with the usual fantasy tropes, leading the reader often to assume things about places or characters that turn out to be less than accurate. As I was reading this I couldn’t help but be reminded of Glen Cook’s Garrett Files series and while there are some similarities the depth of the characters in By Fairy Means or Foul make this a much more enjoyable and interesting book. I look forward to seeing more in this series!

As for the audio, Boudreaux thoroughly nails this one. Twig’s narration is in a deadpan, Patrick-Warburton-esque tone that fits the story perfectly. Quinn’s nervous tenor voice offsets Twig nicely, and the variety of accents used for the cast of characters makes each one unique and easy to follow. The best parts of Boudreaux’s performance were the verbal idiosyncrasies and changes in tone and inflection that don’t always come across in the written word, but are employed perfectly here. He takes a fun and engaging story and elevates it further into something really enjoyable. I’ll definitely seek out his work again.

If you’re looking for an enjoyable book with some great characters that doesn’t take itself too seriously, this is the one. The audiobook makes it even better and I recommend it highly!

Audiobook Review: Slide, by Garrett Leigh

Shy tattoo artist Ash has a troubled past. Years of neglect, drug abuse, and life on the streets have taken their toll, and sometimes it seems the deep, unspoken bond with his lover is the only balm for wounds he doesn’t quite understand.

Chicago paramedic Pete is warmth, love, and strength – things Ash never knew he could have, and never even knew he wanted until Pete showed him. But fate is a cruel, cruel mistress, and when nightmares collide with the present, their tentatively built world comes crashing down.

Traumatic events in Pete’s work life distance him from home, and he doesn’t realize until it’s too late that Ash has slipped away. Betrayal, secrets, and lies unfold, and when a devastating coincidence takes hold, Pete must fight with all he has to save the love of his life.

Slide (Roads #1), by Garrett Leigh, Narrated by Michael Lesley

Story: 3.5 out of 5

Audio Performance: 3.5 out of 5

I have been captivated by Michael Lesley’s audiobook work in the past, and I also have been meaning to check out Garrett Leigh’s writing Throw in the fact that it’s set in Chicago, a city I know and love, and choosing this was a slam dunk. I’m glad I picked it up, but in the end the book was a mixed bag for me.

There’s a lot of difficult reading/listening here, with themes of abuse, mental illness, and self-harm. That said these characters are compelling and you want to know more about them every step of the way. Pete a sweet, thoughtful guy, if a bit too married to his work as an EMT, and sometimes absolutely terrible at communicating his feelings. And Ash? Ash is a hot mess, though justifiably so with a traumatic personal history that he will never be able to let go of. Leigh doesn’t sugar-coat Ash’s problems, but also presents them in a clear and sensitive manner.

The story unfolds slowly and we see the undeniable attraction between the two main characters, though Pete has to approach Ash slowly and tentatively. The metaphor that comes to mind is how one might approach a feral stray dog or cat, and the parallels are certainly obvious. Once the connection between them is made, they are damn hot together. In fits and starts, they build a life together, until…well, stuff happens.

So why didn’t this book wow me? Usually I can point to one thing, but in this case, it was a collection of small annoyances in logic and overwhelming coincidence that bogged me down. Couple that with the fact that the pace was almost too slow, and those faults seemed to get magnified as the book progressed. And, I’ll admit, one of those petty annoyances was that Leigh is clearly not that familiar with Chicago, as references to the city geography were generic and frequently missed the mark.

As for the audio performance, Lesley once again knocked it out of the park. He captured the light Texas lilt in Ash’s voice perfectly. Pete was a bit more generic, but that may because I’m just used to the flat Midwestern accent. Each of the supporting characters had a distinct and specific sound, and it was always easy to tell who was talking. So why didn’t I love it overall? As I would assume would be normal for audiobook production, the recordings were clearly made over multiple sessions. Unfortunately, each of those sessions had a different tonal character, and the changes in dynamics of the narration between chapters and even between paragraphs were jarring and distracting, taking me out of the story completely.

Despite the difficult subject matter, this is a good book that would probably be enjoyable to someone more tolerant of minor annoyances (or with no knowledge of Chicago).

Book Review: Locked in Silence, by Sloane Kennedy

Ten years after leaving his small Minnesota hometown in his rearview mirror for what Nolan Grainger was sure would be the last time, life has decided to throw the talented musician a curveball and send him back to the town he lived in but was never really home.

At twenty-eight, Nolan has traveled the world as a successful concert violinist with some of the best symphonies in the country. But success breeds envy, and when Nolan’s benefactor and lover decides Nolan has flown high enough, he cruelly clips Nolan’s wings. The betrayal and ensuing scandal leaves the violinist’s career in shambles and with barely enough money to start fresh somewhere beyond his vindictive ex’s powerful reach. But just as he’s ready to get his life back on track, Nolan gets the call he’s been dreading.

After a stroke leaves his father a partial invalid, duty-bound Nolan returns to Pelican Bay and a life he’s spent years trying to forget. When he’s forced to use the last of his own money to keep from losing the family home, desperation has him turning to the one man he’d hoped never to see again…

Pelican Bay’s golden boy, Dallas Kent, had the quintessential perfect life. Smart, gorgeous, and popular, the baseball phenom was well on his way to a life filled with fame and fortune. But more importantly, he had a one-way ticket out of Pelican Bay and far away from the family who used love as currency and whose high expectations were the law of the land. But a stormy night, sharp highway curve and one bad decision changed everything, leaving Dallas with nothing.

Because the accident that took his parents, his future and his crown as the boy who could do no wrong, also stole his voice. Despised for the horrific wreck that ended the lives of two of Pelican Bay’s most respected residents, Dallas has retreated to a secluded stretch of land where he’s found refuge in a menagerie of unwanted animals that don’t care that he once had the world at his feet or that he’ll never speak again.

But when the quiet, bookish boy he wasn’t allowed to notice in school suddenly reappears ten years later at Dallas’s wildlife rehab center in desperate need of a job, Dallas is thrust back into a world he’s worked hard to escape. Dallas’s silence was supposed to send Nolan scurrying, but what if Nolan ends up being the one person who finally hears him? Will two men who’ve been fleeing from the past finally come home to Pelican Bay for good or will the silence drive them apart forever?

Locked in Silence (Pelican Bay #1), by Sloane Kennedy

Rating: 4.75 out of 5

Wow, I found so much to love about this book! Nolan and Dallas are such rich, complex characters, and watching the interplay between them melted my heart. They both proud men who have had everything taken from them. Seeing them strive to retain and regain dignity really struck a chord with me.

That’s one heck of a long blurb, and really it pretty much lays out the majority of the story for you. Given that this is a character-driven book, though, that’s OK. There’s a lot of themes explored here, especially bullying, relationships between parents and children, how to deal with old wounds (both physical and emotional), and redemption. Kennedy handles these well, and they help creates the layers of the characters’ personalities.

Nolan’s meteoric rise after escaping his hated hometown speaks to a gifted child’s huge aspirations, and it makes his abrupt downfall and return that much more painful. I really felt for Nolan and the bullying he endured. Dallas’ own fall from grace takes place off-page, but his isolation and loneliness shows through. He struggles to make himself heard and understood, but when he speaks to Nolan from his heart the communication barriers fall away.

The small town of Pelican Bay is a bit stereotypical, and the antagonists may as well be twirling their mustaches and cackling in evil glee, but that’s a minor nitpick since the focus of the story is on Nolan and Dallas. Toward the end the pacing of the story stumbles a bit as new characters are introduced and the setup for the sequel is put into place, but even so those new characters are intriguing in their own right, and you’re damn right I’ve already bought the next book! The ending of the Locked in Silence had me in happy tears, which is always a good sign that the author has done a wonderful job.

This is a great contemporary novel about two complicated, caring men who have their own struggles but find that they are stronger together. I happily recommend this one!

Book Review: Under a Blue Moon (Camp H.O.W.L. #2), by Bru Baker

Nick Perry is tired of helping people with their marriages, so when a spot opens up to work with teens at Camp H.O.W.L., he jumps at it. He doesn’t expect to fall in lust with the dreamy new camp doctor, Drew Welch. But Drew is human, and Nick has seen secrets ruin too many relationships to think that a human/werewolf romance can go anywhere.

Happy-go-lucky Drew may not sprout claws, but he’s been part of the Were community all his life. He has no trouble fitting in at the camp—except for Nick’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge the growing attraction between them and his ridiculous stance on dating humans. Fate intervenes when one of his private practice patients threatens Drew’s life. Will the close call help Nick to see a connection like theirs isn’t something to let go of?

Under a Blue Moon (Camp H.O.W.L. #2), by Bru Baker

Rating: 4.0 out of 5

Normally when I review books in a series I’ll only review the first book, on the assumption that there are characters, settings, or references from the first book that make later books difficult to enjoy without having read the books in order. In this case, I’m starting with book 2 for two reasons: one, that with the exception of throwaway references to side characters, this can be read first, and two, the second book is really so much better than the first!

In this world, werewolves are in a parallel but hidden part of modern society. A small number of humans know of the existence of werewolves, usually those adopted into packs. The first transition from human to wolf normally occurs around puberty, and its effects on emotions and self-control are just as dire as puberty itself. Posh camps like Camp H.O.W.L. exist in remote areas to help teens from more affluent families ease through their first change.

This is a fun setting, and the focus here is on the Camp H.O.W.L. staff. The sparks between Nick and Drew fly from the very first pages of the book, but there is an interesting tension because Drew is ready for a serious relationship, but Nick feels that humans are werewolves are just too different and a relationship is destined for failure.

The characters are what really won me over in this book. Nick is a psychologist who is damn good at his job, but tends to see everything through the lens of his professional opinions. He’s never provided counseling to a human/werewolf couple, but has for many human couples and where huge differences exist the relationships fail. Drew is a complicated guy with a checkered sexual history. He’s also generous and patient, and willing to wait for Nick to work through his hangups.

I have a few minor complaints about the ending of the book but overall, I really enjoyed it. Great setting, great characters, and a couple of very sexy scenes too! This is a great read for some low-angst werewolf fun.

Book Review: Night of the Living Manny, by Julia Talbot

Manny Brenden Torrance is good at his job. He’s dealt with all sorts of children and parents, but he’s never met anyone as intriguing as Liam Whitehouse. Liam is a scientist with three kids, whose job is keeping him away from home more and more. That’s where Brenden steps in to help.

Liam has secrets, though. He’s working on a project for a pharmaceutical lab that could change disease management. Or destroy it. While he and Brenden start a romance they both want to continue, things at Liam’s job come to a head, and suddenly the whole family of Dad, manny, three kids, and a big drooly dog is on the run from the one thing that might keep Brenden and Liam apart. And infect the world.

Night of the Living Manny, by Julia Talbot

Rating: 3.25 out of 5

I’ll start this by saying I have never been one for horror of any kind, including zombie books and movies. The suspense and jump-scares drive my anxiety way up, and I have absolutely no stomach for gore of any kind. So this puts some of my criticisms of this book into the “It’s not you, it’s me” category. If I didn’t have a subscription to the Dreamspun Beyond line I’m really nto sure I would have picked this up on its own.

To the good, I am a complete sucker for Julia Talbot’s writing. I’ve loved her Nose to Tail, Inc. books (Wolfmanny is pure comfort food), and I thought Fangs and Catnip was adorable. Some say her style can be a bit choppy, but I think it matches the way people think and talk, so it works for me. I really liked the characters of Liam and Brenden, though we get a much better picture of the latter than the former. The kids are relegated to smaller roles but we know enough about them that everything fits together.

I think my fundamental problem with this book is that it is limited by the Dreamspun Beyond line itself, which is geared to light and fluffy paranormal romances with happily-ever-afters. Not exactly a good fit for a zombie-outbreak book, in my opinion. By necessity the important but gritty details get glossed over. We spend almost half the book on the setup, then the second half moves entirely too quickly, both in the zombie storyline and in the romance between Liam and Brenden, who profess enduring love after only a few weeks of knowing one another.

So I’m left in a weird place: maybe double the length of the book and give all of these elements the time they are due, but in doing you’d have a book I’d have pretty much zero interest in (and may need a different publisher completely). Go figure.

This is a quick read, and Talbot’s writing is always engaging. If the synopsis sounds like something you’d enjoy then give this one a shot. It just didn’t work for me.

Audiobook Review: The Magpie Lord (A Charm of Magpies #1), by K. J. Charles, performed by Cornell Collins

Exiled to China for twenty years, Lucien Vaudrey never planned to return to England. But with the mysterious deaths of his father and brother, it seems the new Lord Crane has inherited an earldom. He’s also inherited his family’s enemies. He needs magical assistance, fast. He doesn’t expect it to turn up angry.

Magician Stephen Day has good reason to hate Crane’s family. Unfortunately, it’s his job to deal with supernatural threats. Besides, the earl is unlike any aristocrat he’s ever met, with the tattoos, the attitude… and the way Crane seems determined to get him into bed. That’s definitely unusual.

Soon Stephen is falling hard for the worst possible man, at the worst possible time. But Crane’s dangerous appeal isn’t the only thing rendering Stephen powerless. Evil pervades the house, a web of plots is closing round Crane, and if Stephen can’t find a way through it-they’re both going to die.

The Magpie Lord (A Charm of Magpies #1), by K. J. Charles

Story: 4.75 out of 5
Audiobook Performance: 5 out of 5

I’m normally not one for historical romances, particularly those set in Victorian England, due to the inescapable undercurrent of homophobia that is typically part of the story. K. J. Charles’ incredible writing got me past that though, and I’m very glad! We have some memorable characters here, as well as a good bit of dry wit, and some very steamy encounters! This England is very similar to our historical one, except here magic (as used by “practitioners”) exists, though it is not particularly common.

In the character of Lord Crane, Charles has created someone who completely breaks the mold of the Victorian upper class. He is a tradesman (gasp!) with an egalitarian outlook and very little patience with the fripperies of the noble class. Crane is aided by his manservant Merrick, who can equally serve a cup of tea or break a man’s legs, as needed. Stephen Day is from a different world entirely. His family was of modest means until their fortunes were destroyed by Crane’s father. He now earns a meagre living as a justiciar, the small police force charged with keeping practitioners in line. He is a deeply intelligent man and a powerful practitioner, though one would not think so to look upon him. Much of the action takes place at Piper, the Crane family home in the country. It is a bleak and oppressive place, almost a character itself as it provides an absolutely perfect setting for the shadowy doings menacing Crane and Stephen.

What really struck me about this book was the story structure and plotting. Just when it seems all mysteries have been wrapped up we find there are more to be unraveled, and when the final plot is laid out it is stunning in its intricacy. This is great writing, and this is what is keeping me coming back for more (I am working my way through the series and they are all excellent so far!).

The audiobook is by Cornell Collins (a pseudonym of the very talented Matthew Lloyd Davies), whose performance took an excellent story and elevated it further. His British accent alone is a good fit, but the variation of accents by the class of the character (from street urchin to lords and ladies) brings the story to life and make these characters relatable. Collins/Davies’ work is one of the best audiobook performances I’ve heard so far, and I really enjoyed it.

It is notable that the sex scenes in this book have elements of dominance and submission. While that’s not usually my thing, they are written with a sensitivity and care that help the reader understand where the motivations are coming from. I was able to sympathize…and also enjoy the scenes because they are damn hot!

If you like intricate plots, complex characters, and paranormal romance, this is absolutely the book for you! I would recommend this one highly.

Book Review: Never Lose Your Flames (New Canadiana #1), by Francis Gideon

Cop-turned-bounty-hunter Gabe Dominguez is hired to capture firestarter Nat Wyatt. For a dragon-shifter like Gabe, apprehending Nat is easy, but transporting him involves more time, energy, and blood loss than he envisioned. An attack from a band of fairies, an out-of-control forest fire, and a showdown at an auction don’t faze Gabe, but Nat’s innocence might stop him entirely.

Since discovering his abilities, Nat’s lost a best friend, a boyfriend, and trust in his brother. Only his love of concerts and card games get him through life without a home. Rumors of the Judge, a giant dragon who once destroyed half of Canada avenging those he loved, provide Nat with hope of vindication. When Nat discovers his captor is the Judge, he thinks he’s finally caught a break. Through late-night conversations and a shared love of music, Nat tries to convince Gabe he’s not guilty.

Can Gabe continue his cutthroat lifestyle, or will he run away with his dragon hoard like he’s always longed to do? Can Nat escape his legacy, or will his be another spark snuffed out by people who don’t understand? The Oracle, the most powerful wizard in Canada, might be the only one who can provide answers.

Never Lose Your Flames (New Canadiana #1), by Francis Gideon

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

This one was good enough that I’m fighting off the dreaded book hangover. At 335 pages, it’s a long read but I never felt it was getting bogged down. The blurb does the book a bit of a disservice, highlighting some odd portions of the plot, but the core of it is right at least.

At its heart the story is an epic road trip through the Canadian prairie provinces, from Winnipeg to Calgary, only in this world rampaging bands of murderous faeries, elementals, gargoyles, and more. Having recently made that journey myself, I really enjoyed the sense of place (or given the emptiness of a lot of that area, the lack thereof).

Gideon has created a fascinating world where the “supernaturals” who have always been lurking out of sight are now an open part of society, even if they are usually marginalized. This is a character-driven story, though, and this is where things really shine. Gabe and Nat are complicated people with complicated histories. The point of view alternates between them as the story progresses, and as we learn more about each their biases, desires, and fears take on added dimension. What really struck me about Nat was, even though he harbored some small hope of a different outcome, he’s resigned to his fate. Instead he mostly is just himself, not begging, pleading, or putting on an act for Gabe. This is likely a good thing because Gabe has seen way too much, and would turn away in an instant if that were the case. The relationship between Nat and Gabe is a slow burn (sorry) but as they sort things out and realize they can rely on one another the caring they have for each other shines through, and is incredibly sweet.

There are a lot of small details that I loved about this book, including Nat’s Tarot-cards and “game” which give us great insight into how his mind works. The side characters are fantastic as well, especially the lovely couple Tansy and Imogen, Gabe’s fixer “J”, and even Gabe’s boss Duke, who interacts by text message most of the book. One other thing I loved about this book is that it is very trans-inclusive. Trans characters are presented in a very matter-of-fact manner, exactly as it should be.

This is a great book with some amazing characters, quite well-written. I happily recommend it!

Book Review: The Wolf’s Man Friday (Nose to Tail Inc. #2), by Julia Talbot

The last thing Sebastian Zeller wants is to be pack Alpha. But when the pack leader, his uncle Ron, is attacked, he has no choice but to leave his beloved Colorado mountains and fulfill his duty as Ron’s heir-at least until his uncle recovers. In the meantime, he intends to lure the attacker out… and make them pay.

When Ron gets wind of Sebastian’s plan to catch the attacker, he doesn’t like the idea of risking his heir. That’s where Jaxon Reedis comes in-he’ll balance protecting the dark and sexy werewolf with pretending to be his personal assistant. He’s walking a fine line that requires all his foxy wit and craftiness… and that’s on top of the inescapable feeling that he and Sebastian are meant for each other. When the attacker returns, will they be able to maintain their deepening bond when danger threatens to tear down everything they’re building?

The Wolf’s Man Friday (Nose to Tail Inc. #2), by Julia Talbot

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

I’ll start by saying I don’t normally review later books in a series after the first one, but this book stands by itself just fine. As a matter of fact, I think it’s even better than the first book (Wolfmanny) so if you’re going to start somewhere this is a good place to do it!

There is something about Talbot’s writing, and this series in particular, that really agrees with me. She creates smart, capable characters trying to make sense out of chaotic lives. The settings are (eventually) cozy, homey, and comfortable. It doesn’t hurt that the scenes in the sack are smokin’ hot, too!

As with the first book there’s little to no world-building here, except to establish that it’s a world like our own only shifters are all kinds are commonplace. Jaxon is a clever fox: intelligent, skilled not just in being a personal assistant but in various forms of defense. On top of all of this he has a bouncy eagerness that is utterly endearing. Sebastian is a guy who is forced into a role he doesn’t want but sees no way out of it. He becomes focused on finding his uncle’s attackers to the point of ignoring all of his day-to-day business responsibilities, but really? He’s an artistic sort who would be happier doing fabric design than managing textile suppliers.

The overarching mystery of who is attacking Ron and Sebastian is interesting and drives the plot, but the real joy here is the interactions of the characters. Jax and Seb are perfectly suited for each other and the heat generated between them is impressive! I loved the side characters as well: Alan, Seb’s packmate and impetuous sidekick; Tyrone, an elk shifter who is Seb’s driver but also his friend and defender; even characters with small roles are memorable, fun and at times snarky, which is always fun.

Talbot ties everything up neatly at the end and Jax and Seb get their happily ever after, but it’s quite a ride to get there. Um, in more ways than one. I described Wolfmanny as “not deep, but it’s the literary equivalent to curling up by the fireplace with hot chocolate and a warm cinnamon roll.” This is more of the same with a little more action thrown in. I liked this one a lot!

Book Review: Wolf Around the Corner, by Aidee Ladnier

Tom Davidson ran away from family obligations to be a Broadway star. If he could make it there, he could make it anywhere…but he didn’t. Trudging back home to Waycroft Falls, he finds his sister Annie and her hometown bookstore in danger of folding. Her solution: open the upstairs of the historic building as a performance venue. Putting on a play should be a piece of cake for her famous New York actor brother.

Frank Braden lost the genetic lottery and got the family werewolf curse. Kicked out of his home for the triple threat of being gay, a werewolf, and a drain on his widowed father’s new family, he settled in Waycroft Falls to make as inconspicuous a life as possible working in Annie’s bookstore. Until her gorgeous younger brother comes to town and literally needs a beast for his play.

Tom breaks out the charm to convince Frank he’s key to the success of the bookshop’s theatrical version of Beauty and the Beast. Frank loves the bookstore, is hotter than sin, and has the perfect solution to Tom’s stage makeup conundrum. Who better to play the Beast than a guy who can turn into one?

Wolf Around the Corner, by Aidee Ladnier

Rating: 4 out of 5

Wow, now this was something refreshingly different from the (entirely too many shut up quit looking at me like that) werewolf books that I have read. Here, lycanthropy, called “Galen’s Syndrome,” after the ancient physician who discovered it, is a recessive hereditary gene that only manifests when the parents share the gene. There’s a bit of hand-waving with a bit of magic involved but that’s less important. It’s a very rare condition, and one that is not well-known to the general public.

Galen’s aside, this is a very sweet story of a shy, thoughtful guy who’s dealing with a lifetime of rejection and small-town boy who went off to New York City to find his fortune and fame and is ashamed to admit that his most notable role was Guy in the Chorus #6 and that he sleeps on his friends’ sofa because he can’t afford even a crappy apartment. Tom is a smart, funny, and charming guy who is great at putting on a good front – hey, he’s an actor, right? Frank is much quieter, an introvert who has had a rough life and is only just starting to find friends and self-confidence again. He’s sweet and gentle, yet has been told over and over that his wolf is dangerous, whether that’s true or not.

What follows is the typical push and pull – big-city guy falling for small-town guy, guilty secrets, the dramatic tension of whether they can make the play work. This is well written, and I was cheering for Tom and Frank all the way. There’s easy parallels to be found between homophobia (which is also present) and fear of Galen’s syndrome, but Ladinier doesn’t make too much of them.

The one place where I think the novel fell down a bit was in pacing. In any romance story, there’s usually the will-they-get-together-or-won’t-they (spoiler: they always do) but that got a little drawn out here. Also, I never really got a sense of place for Waycroft Falls, which given the role that the town plays toward the end of the book is sort of surprising. For some reason, I spent the first half of the book thinking it was in upstate New York, but later it’s stated that they are in the South, with vague references to Atlanta.

This isn’t high drama, but a lovely small-town romance with likeable characters and a unique view of werewolves. I definitely recommend this one!

Book Review: Rome and Jules, by Tara Lain

Rome Siracusa, youngest son of the alpha of the nouveau-riche Siracusa pack, wants to be a faithful son and pack member, but he’s got two big secrets. One, he’s blessed with enhanced hearing, vision, strength, and the ability to shift at will. Second, he’s gay, a fact he can’t admit to his deadly homophobic father.

Rome crashes a party at the mansion of his pack’s greatest enemy, the ancient, pure-blooded Havillands. Jules, the gay son of the drunkard alpha, is being married off to a rich entrepreneur. Smitten and moved by the beautiful male’s plight, Rome tries to find a way to save Jules-while digging himself deeper into pack politics and navigating his own arranged marriage. Secrets climb out of the caves as the werewolf gods speak through the mouths of their children, and the two great families clash, suffocating the hopes of star-crossed lovers.

Rome and Jules, by Tara Lain

Rating: 4 out of 5

I tend to run hot and cold on retellings of well-worn tales, but when done well it can be quite enjoyable. Lain does a great job here, relying on some of the Romeo and Juliet tropes that the reader knows going in but adding an additional spin as well – more than just making everybody werewolves, of course!

There’s not a lot of world-building here, but it’s not really necessary since the story takes place entirely within a walled upper-class werewolf community in Rhode Island. As in the original R&J, the dramatic conflict is almost all due to the inter- and intra-family politics, with a strong touch of The Godfather incongruously added to the mix. Homophobia plays a large role as well, with the Siracusa pack being utterly unwilling to countenance a gay pack member. The Havillands have no such issue but have plenty of problems of their own, with Jules expected to shut up and play his role for the good of his pack.

The point of view shifts between Jules and Rome throughout the book, and I had a good feel for each of them, how they were very different men yet complimented each other well. The earnestness between the two was well-written and incredibly sweet. The dramatic tension runs high as they race against time to find a future together. Even when all seems lost, they find a happy ending (sorry, I’m not even going to pretend that’s a spoiler) which left me a little skeptical, but was helped by a nice bit of foreshadowing. Obviously, the story takes a hard turn away from the traditional tragedy at the end, but I enjoyed the twist even so.

This is quite an enjoyable (if slightly fluffy) read. I recommend it!

It’s Been a Year

One year ago today was the worst day of my entire life. Dan, my husband of eighteen years, suffered from a bilateral pulmonary embolism and passed away in a matter of minutes.

It wasn’t supposed to happen like that. We had big plans for the future. Sure, Dan had some temporary health setbacks but we were going to beat them, together. We both had good, secure jobs. We talked about starting an event planning business. We wanted to travel, with friends and just ourselves. We had dreams.

And then those dreams were just…gone.

Those of you who have followed me on social media have witnessed my travails of this past year. Depression, anxiety, grief, loss – the worst I ever could have imagined, and then some. I have been very open about it because I know I’m not the first to go through this and I certainly won’t be the last. Part of my therapy was showing that it’s possible to live through all of this, somehow. It’s messy, chaotic, and unpredictable, but it’s possible to make it through.

The last few weeks have found me very introspective. I have been thinking for so long about the things that I have lost, but I began thinking about the things that I have gained. I have found a new measure of compassion for the hurt and grieving. I have rediscovered the warm, caring community that I am fortunate enough to be a part of. And I have been reminded of just how lucky I have been in my life. I had the love of a wonderful man for eighteen years. We were able to build a life together, and we found happiness. How amazing is that? And just because eighteen years was all we had, that doesn’t make that time any less wonderful.

I wondered if the approaching one-year mark would be any great milestone for me. After thinking about it more, though, I realized that milestone had passed without me realizing it. You see, a month or so ago I started planning for the future. I thought about what my life might hold 5, 10, 15 years from now. That may not sound like much, but it’s something that was very hard for me to envision six months ago.

I have found something I never expected to find again. I have found hope.

I’m think gonna make it, Dan.

Book Review: Ghost Wolf, by Hurri Cosmos

Hi, my name is Trevor. I’m a wolf shifter.

I say that like I know what I’m talking about. I don’t. I was simply running off a ton of steam one day when I was around eleven and bam! Okay, not quite that easy or fast but it happened when I was young and stupid. I’m also gay. I say that like I know what I’m talking about with that too. I simply don’t.

I’m grown up now and living in the big city which has me too busy to much care about either one of those things. I get out and run my wolf when I can, trying like hell to stay out of the local pack’s territories. Belonging to a “family” just sounds like too much work, and honestly I don’t have time for such things. Besides, I was told when I was young the color of my wolf was all wrong. Too silver…or something. Metallic. I kinda thought it looked cool in the full moon. “Pack Alpha would kill ya soon as look at ya.” My grandpa used to say. Course he wasn’t my real grandpa. Just an old man who lived down the street, but he was a shifter too and I thought he knew it all. He probably knew diddly either, but a guy can’t be too careful. And romance? Way off the radar.

Only now someone has started killing wolves. Started leaving broken bodies lined up in a nice little row next to the high school in my home town and it’s got me to thinking. If a shifter is killed in his or her wolf state, do they stay that way? Were these dead wolves like me? The hell of it all is this: being a shifter isn’t common knowledge. It bothers me enough that now I want to find out more. See if there’s anything I can do. Kind of like a super hero.

Oh yeah. Probably forgot to tell you this too. I can turn invisible.

Yep, Ghost Wolf to the rescue.

2.25 out of 5

There’s a good book somewhere in Ghost Wolf. Unfortunately, it’s hidden by a huge pile of unnecessary exposition, aimless side-plot, and a lack of character development. While Cosmo’s writing style flows well, the book would be vastly improved with some stringent editing and some pointers on re-thinking some of the plot points.

I am a sucker for the lowly-protagonist-finds-themselves-the-key-to-Big-Problem plotline. This is one way to tell the story of the Hero’s Journey, and when done well it can be utterly engrossing. The problem here is that Trevor starts as a shy and impulsive social misfit who makes poor decisions and by the end of the book he’s…a shy and impulsive social misfit who makes poor decisions. What have we accomplished here? What is acceptable at the beginning of the book becomes increasingly annoying as little character growth occurs.

The side-characters are, alas, rather flimsy. Trevor’s Fated Mate (a term which is thrown around to exhaustion) Ryan is rich, strong, and dotes on Trevor. We don’t really get too much more insight into his character than that. The one character who does have an arc goes from potential antagonist to ally to friend appears to change course at the drop of a hat (or a single revelation).

Then there’s the exposition dump. We learn a lot about werewolf pack dynamics, rules, ranks, and how the packs relate to each other. There’s nothing wrong with this, but 1. Don’t give all of the information at once in pages after pages, and 2. Ask whether each bit of information is relevant to the plot. Unfortunately, at least 50% of the information given is not, and can actually be quite distracting (like why are werewolf ranks Greek letters, until they’re not?).

Then there’s the plot. The blurb suggests the wolf murders are central to the plot, but in reality, they are peripheral. The how and why of them is given very early on, so there’s not much mystery there. Plot points need to be made, but do so efficiently. I don’t need to know what bus a character took and what transfers needed to be made to do so. This can all be dispatched with a single sentence. There is also an entire subplot about misdeeds at Trevor’s workplace that has zero impact on the overall plot and could be cut completely. I also think the plot twist in the final 10% of the book could be eliminated completely and the book would be stronger for it, but that is my own personal preference.

Finally, while spell checking is a great thing, it completely misses homophones. There were many incorrect homophones in the text, which was distracting. On the bright side, the book cover design is quite nice, a welcome diversion from the usual style of the genre.

I’m afraid I cannot recommend Ghost Wolf in its present form. Perhaps if it is re-edited and revised at a later date it may be worth reading, though.

Book Review: Blackbird in the Reeds, by Sam Burns

Devon Murphy has never believed that there were fairies at the bottom of the garden, but when he’s in an accident on his way to his grandmother’s house and comes face to face with the biggest, baddest wolf he’s ever seen, he’s forced to reconsider.

When his grandmother asks him to look into a string of suspicious accidents, he finds a much bigger mystery to unravel. From his childhood best friend to the too-attractive Deputy Wade Hunter, everyone in Rowan Harbor seems to have something to hide. Devon has to get to the bottom of it all before the accidents turn deadly.

Blackbird in the Reeds, by Sam Burns

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Y’all, I have stumbled onto something and it’s pretty darned amazing. What Sam Burns is doing here is incredibly ambitious: The Rowan Harbor Cycle is three trilogies, nine books in all. The books are being self-published, and she plans to release all nine books this year, with the final book release planned by December. Now, if this was a series of short stories or even novellas I’d still be impressed, but these are ~200 page books. Judging from the first two books, the whole series is going to be great!

Rowan Harbor, a small town on the Oregon coast, has secrets. The town is populated by werewolves and fairies, witches and vampires, all of whom look perfectly normal to any stranger visiting. That stranger will very quickly find themselves unwelcome and gently urged to move on, though. The families in town, each with a unique paranormal trait, rule, but the time is coming for a changing of the guard.

Devon is a mess. He’s a bit of a drifter, afraid to get too close to people because he can be persuasive. Too persuasive, it seems, as in people will happily do most anything he requests. This weighs heavily on his conscience, though, and so he holds everyone at arm’s length. After many years away, he’s returning to Rowan Harbor, unaware of the uniqueness of the town (or of himself). We don’t get to learn too much about Wade here, though I suspect as the cycle continues we’ll get much more on him.

Three couples are featured in the Rowan Harbor Cycle, and each couple stars in a book in each trilogy. This is good to know going into this, the first book in the series, because initially I felt that the romance between Devon and Wade was given short shrift. After reading Wolf and the Rowan the concept makes more sense, though. There’s a little bit of the “fated mates”/”soulmates” trope going on here, but it’s a trope I happen to like if done well, and that is the case here. I think if I had any complaint it’s that as the story gets laid out and the cast of characters grows it gets a little confusing remembering who is related to whom and what the unique trait of each family is. I think this is just a minor issue, though.

At least so far, I would categorize these books as urban fantasy with some romance elements – a mix that I really enjoy. This being the first book in the series, a good bit of time is spent world-building: establishing the setting, introducing the characters, and hinting at the underlying conflicts that will drive the story. Burns excels at showing, not telling, as we learn about how it all works bit by bit.

I would highly recommend Blackbird in the Reeds (and even moreso in the second book in the cycle, Wolf and the Holly). This is a rich world filled with interesting characters and the promise of excellent stories ahead.

Book Review: Quinn’s Gambit (AURA #1), by Bellora Quinn and Angel Martinez

After a terrible magical accident at Berkeley created unpredictable holes between realities, all manner of non-human creatures started popping into our world. These displacements, called Random Anomalous Reality Events or RARE, have taken magic out of fiction and relocated it firmly in reality, resulting in a great deal of chaos and confusion. Displaced elf Valerian works with AURA, the Agency of Unnatural Resettlement and Assimilation, to intercept these beings as they appear in the human world, helping the peaceful ones and subduing the violent, malevolent ones. It’s good, satisfying work, and Val would be happy if he wasn’t so lonely.

Quinten is a young mage just trying to get by, but New York isn’t the easiest city to make a living in. If his methods are sometimes morally dubious, his heart is still in the right place. Of course, for Quinn, the right place means firmly locked away, protected at all costs. Living by his wits and sometimes magically induced luck, he works as a ‘freelance magic user’, or unregistered mage and small-time con, according to the authorities. The last thing Quinn wants is to draw the cops’ attention, but when an Event happens right on top of him, he’s forced to turn to AURA for help. Valerian isn’t at all what he’d expected in an AURA cop, and he certainly wasn’t expecting to join forces with the sexy elf, a snarky drow and a bitter incubus, when certain individuals in power try to stop the RARE by any means necessary.

Things are not all what they seem at AURA headquarters, and a greater evil lurks at the top than anyone could have imagined.

Quinn’s Gambit (AURA #1), by Bellora Quinn and Angel Martinez
Rating: 4 out of 5

This one was quite an enjoyable read! I love the world that Quinn and Martinez have created here. The magical accident referred to in blurb happened decades ago a kind of new normal has been established, but I liked how the situation continued to evolve, and the characters are forced to adapt. I had a few questions about what is going on outside of the New York City as the events of the book are going down, but that’s a small thing that’s peripheral to the book.

Quinn is a bit of a stereotype (talented rogue who resists authority), but at least he’s a pretty nice guy. Val is a bit more complex, and seeing him try to place status roles from the elven society he knows over the human society he is now forced to live in is fascinating to read. Nowhere is this more evident than when he has to work with Kai, a drow (dark elf) who would be his enemy back home but is his co-worker now. I enjoyed seeing their complicated relationship evolve. Quinn and Val make a cute couple, but they do suffer from that dreaded disease common in romance stories, communicationus interruptus. So much of their issues could be worked out if they just talked to each other like adults. That frustrated me at times.

The secondary characters here are great fun, including Kai and his doting yeti boyfriend, a gay incubus who by nature takes his life essence from women, and others. They help to create a rich background for a story that is fast-paced, up to a point. The book has almost an extended epilogue in which we see more of Quinn and Val’s relationship and watch the stage be set for the future books in the series.

I recommend this if you like urban fantasy with some great world-building and fun, quirky characters.