Book Review: Rise from the Ashes, by Noah Harris

When everyone tells you that you’re meant for bigger things, at what point do you start believing them? When life calls on Adam Miller, he must decide if he can rise to the occasion.

Adam Miller doesn’t have an exciting life. But then, he’s never wanted one. He’s happy to play his small part in the world. He’s a cog in the machine, sure, but an important one that keeps the machine running. He’s happy to remain in the background, a mid-level employee with a cramped cubicle and an amiable friend to those in his pack. But his habit of not making waves also means that he must keep an integral part of himself hidden from those he calls family.

Despite being shrouded in secrecy, Adam’s love life takes a distinct turn for the better when he meets Joshua Wetmore. Like the rest of Adam’s life, his romance with Josh appears to be quietly progressing right on schedule. Their sweet courtship is born just as Adam’s pack asks him to step forward into the demanding leadership role of Alpha. Adam struggles to prioritize his developing relationship with Josh, while still keeping their connection private. The spotlight on him is bright, and his secret might be the spark that ignites the tinder of discontent within his pack.

As Adam’s doubts about whether he’s truly meant for the Alpha role haunt him, his pack’s safety is threatened by impending turf war. And his seemingly easy going new boyfriend brings his own set of dangerous complications. As the stakes get higher and higher, Adam must find the courage to rise to the occasion. With his pack, with Josh and with himself.

Rise from the Ashes, by Noah Harris

Rating: 3.25 out of 5

What can you do with a book where you just don’t connect with the characters? That’s the biggest problem I had with Rise from the Ashes.

Starting with Adam: we get a very clear picture of Adam’s life as a corporate drone. Shuffle papers, stay in the middle of things with his head down. I find his sudden transition to pack alpha a bit difficult to imagine since up until that point he had seemed a man of limited aspirations. Once established in the role he starts to chafe at the daily grind, but it just doesn’t seem an intuitive personality change to me.

Josh, on the other hand, is set up as the romantic foil and…well, not a whole lot else. The point that he is a gentle soul is made again and again. A couple of personality traits are made repeated to reinforce his nurturing role, but I just never get a feel for his history and who he is as a person. Instead he becomes a plot point and not much else.

The world-building here is minimal, though for the purposes of the story that is not much of a negative since the main focus is on the interactions of the pack. It is current America with an entire society of werewolves and faeries existing in parallel to ours, but in secret. Not much is made of this secrecy, though. The story itself is rather predictable. This isn’t bad if the story is well told. This is a competent rendering.

One last note: I find it quite strange that the title and book cover appear to have very little to do with the story itself. Perhaps this was a marketing decision, but I’m mystified at the choices.

 

Book Review: Home Is Where You Are (The Alphas’ Homestead #1), by Alex Jane

By the winter of 1870, Caleb Fletcher has carved out a sheltered existence for himself in a simple cabin, outside a small town in the backwaters of Nebraska, resigned to living out his days as a solitary wolf. But his quiet life is interrupted when another werewolf lands on his doorstep on the eve of a snowstorm, brutalized almost beyond repair, with nowhere else to turn.

When Caleb reluctantly welcomes Jacob into his cabin, and eventually his bed, it forces him to face up to the traumas he’s been running from; the shame that made him leave his pack behind, and the horrors of war he endured.

As the weeks pass, it seems that Jacob’s arrival might not be the coincidence it first appeared. Jacob has an agenda. One that involves Caleb. And if Caleb agrees to it – if he can let go of his past and his prejudices – it will change Caleb’s whole world. Maybe even for the better.

Without a mate – a family, a pack – a wolf has no home.

But what if home finds you?

Home Is Where You Are (The Alphas’ Homestead #1), by Alex Jane

Rating: 4.75 out of 5

I love warm, fuzzy feelings and that is what I got from this book. There is a quality to this writing that I enjoyed – matter-of-fact in describing about the harsh realities of hardscrabble life in the Great Plains, but also showing thoughtful insight into the main characters.

In this world, werewolves are known to exist in the human population, though they generally keep to their own kind. In cities, they are tolerated and can even ascend to the higher social classes. In war, they are fearsome fighters, weapons used by generals. In the rural country, though, they are viewed with fear and suspicion.

Caleb is a former Union soldier. He left his family behind abruptly when he went off to war, and saw and survived the absolute worst. Now, years later, he lives an isolated life, fighting PTSD and barely tolerated by his neighbors. Jacob’s arrival changes all of that.

I love that the author gives us some insight into Jacob and Caleb’s histories, and I get a real feel for each character. They are very different individuals and contrast one another nicely. Much of the dramatic tension comes from Caleb’s rejection of Jacob while his inner wolf makes it abundantly clear that this is not an acceptable possibility. Watching the relationship develop between the two is what gives me warm fuzzies, and I finished the book with a happy smile.

This is a unique spin on werewolves in the m/m romance genre and is well worth seeking out. The sequels, Returning Home (4.5/5) and Longing for Shelter (4.25/5), carry the story forward well, introduce new characters (but still include Caleb and Jacob!) and are a joy to read.

Audiobook Review: The Weight of It All, by N. R. Walker, narrated by Joel Leslie

After being dumped by his long-term boyfriend for being overweight, Henry Beckett decides to make some drastic changes. In a vain attempt at getting his boyfriend back, Henry does the most absurdly frightening thing he can think of.

He joins a gym.

Reed Henske is a personal trainer who isn’t sure he’ll ever be ready to date again. He’s sick of guys who are only interested in the perfect body image, never seeing him for who he really is.

As Reed tortures Henry with things like diet and exercise, Henry enamours Reed with recipes and laughter. As the friendship lines start to blur, Henry is convinced there’s no way Thor-like Reed could ever be interested in a guy like him.

Reed just has to convince Henry that life isn’t about reaching your ideal bodyweight. It’s about finding your perfect counterweight.

The Weight of It All, by N. R. Walker, narrated by Joel Leslie

Ratings:
Story: 5 out of 5!
Narration: 6 out of 5! 🙂

I went into this book with some concerns. For me personally, weight is an ongoing concern. I was able to lose 100 pounds over two years and would like to lose more, so I am well-familiar with the difficulties and stigmas involved in being obese and the effort required to lose weight. As a genre, m/m romance tends to focus on guys who are all fit and buff as hell (probably like mainstream romance, I would imagine). Overweight characters are frequently viewed in less-than-charitable light, and I was concerned this would be a “rejected, ugly guy loses weight and is suddenly gorgeous and desirable” story.

I was very, very wrong, I am delighted to report! This book was touching, and resonated so much for me. Henry is a guy with low self-esteem who creates a wall around himself with self-deprecating humor and social isolation. Over the course of the book he starts to work through his esteem issues (though thankfully never losing his sense of humor). And the key word here is “start” – I really like that the story shows that there is no magic wand to weight loss. It’s not giving anything away that by the end of the book Henry isn’t a super-slim fitness god. He is still working on losing weight, and knows it’s an extended process.

The story is told from Henry’s point of view, so while we know what’s going on in his head, we know less about Reed. Even so, he comes across as a sweet, caring guy who is everything that Henry needs. Henry’s trepidation toward Reed is both painful and understandable, and I found how this was addressed to be quite powerful. I really loved these guys, and by the end of the book, I was sobbing (happily).

Then there’s the narration. I have heard and enjoyed Leslie’s work before on Lord Mouse, where he was excellent. In The Weight of It All, though, he surpasses that. As good as the story was he made it better by not only providing clear and consistent voices for each character, but also consistent intonation and speech patterns. The tremulous emotion that Leslie’s voice carries as Henry agonizes over his life is heartbreaking; the elation in Henry’s successes is thrilling and contagious. The bottom line is that the narration takes a great book and makes it spectacular. I would wholeheartedly recommend the audiobook version of this book specifically because it’s just so darned good!

 

Book Review: The Supers (The Supers #1), by Sean Michael

Blaine Franks is a member of the paranormal research group the Supernatural Explorers. When the group loses their techie to a cross-country move, newly graduated Flynn Huntington gets the job. Flynn fits in with the guys right off the bat, but when it comes to him and Blaine, it’s more than just getting along.

Things heat up between Blaine and Flynn as they explore their first haunted building, an abandoned hospital, together. Their relationship isn’t all that progresses, though, and soon it seems that an odd bite on Blaine’s neck has become much more.

Hitchhiking ghosts, a tragic love story forgotten by time, and the mystery of room 204 round out a romance where the things that go bump in the night are real.

The Supers, by Sean Michael

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

There was a lot of promise in this book, but I ultimately found it pretty frustrating. The first big issue I had was a complete lack of depth for either Blaine or Flynn. We learned the backstory for each of them but it had relatively little to do with their current states. The two fell in love almost immediately (in a week? Really?). Much of their relationship was them telling each other how much they cared for each other, though, and not enough showing this in their actions. I was unable to muster much empathy for either of them and this took me completely out of the story.

The book’s point of view switches back and forth between Blaine and Flynn chapter by chapter. The problem is that the way the book is written it wasn’t always clear whose POV we were seeing, and I saw some discrepancies in third-person narration that just made things that much more confusing.

As for the plot, it’s mostly coherent. There are a couple of out-of-left-field bits that popped up that strained logic of the story. More importantly the tone of the story tended to swing rather wildly from fun and happy-go-lucky to dark and broody pseudo-horror. Everything was wrapped up neatly in the end (and the stage obviously set for the next three books in the series), and even though all of the plot threads were addressed I still found it all unsatisfying.

Perhaps if you are a fan of Sean Michael you would like this book. Anyone else, though, I’d suggest skipping it.

Book Review: Rescued (Guardsmen #1.5)/Parker’s Sanctuary (Guardsmen #2), by Cooper West

Greg Lademar is an ordinary and average Army veteran who has settled down with his job as an accountant and his lingering PTSD. He lives a quiet life as a single man, alone on the former blueberry farm he bought from his parents after they retired to Orlando. When a friend who works with animal control asks him to foster Parker, a severely injured dog who has just been rescued from an abusive home, the last thing Greg expects is to be dragged into the mysterious world of the Guardsmen – the bonded pairs of humans and their weredogs, known as Protectors, who are literally the stuff of myths and legends.

Greg’s life is turned upside down by unexpected events involving Parker and the strange Guardsmen pair Marcus and Alex Stephanek, but far more dangerous to him is the man who used to own Parker and holds a grudge for having “his” dog taken from him. A game of cat and mouse ensues, with more on the line than even Greg ever thought possible: his life, and the life of Parker, who has become more important to him than Greg ever imagined a rescue dog could be.

Rescued (Guardsmen #1.5)/Parker’s Sanctuary (Guardsmen #2), by Cooper West

Rating: 4.75 out of 5

This is what I was hoping for! I’m fascinated by the world of Guardsmen, Handlers, and Protectors that West has created, and while the first book (The Protector) didn’t live up to my expectations, this book did and then some!

I’m reviewing the free short story (“Rescued,” which serves as a prequel) together with the book (Parker’s Sanctuary) because in my opinion they really do need to be read together. While the short story is told by Parker, the book is told from Greg’s point of view and I think is a better book because of it.

There’s so many things here to like here. The world-building is great, of course. The characters are sympathetic and interesting. Greg has no idea what he’s getting into, though adapts well as he goes. Parker is shocked to find he’s a Protector (weredog) at an age far older than any Protector has ever manifested and struggles to adapt to new senses, feelings, and a rigid tradition where Protectors are second-class citizens whose lives are controlled by their Handlers. The latter aspect is something I found particularly interesting, and I love how West has built this into the book’s popular culture. I’m very impressed how the author has set up a world with a lot of possible narrative threads to follow. The occasional sex scenes are pretty damn hot, too!

The pacing of the story keeps things moving along at a brisk clip. The suspense builds nicely – the tension and wanting to see how it all worked out kept me up entirely too late reading! My only complaint is a small detail that was thrown in at the last minute that could have used more explanation, but the story did not suffer for it.

It would probably be best to read these in order (The Protector, “Rescued”, Parker’s Sanctuary), even if the first book drags a bit. The payoff in the second book is well worth it. I would recommend this series highly!

Book Review: The Protector (Guardsmen #1), by Cooper West

The Protector (Guardsmen #1), by Cooper West

Guardsmen are always matched in a bonded pair. The Protector can shift into a weredog, and the human partner is his Handler. They are incredibly rare and highly valued, but people also fear them for their mystical abilities. No Protector in living memory has outlived his Handler-until Alex Taylor.

Now a widower, Alex lives a lonely half-life and faces day after day of grief with no hope for happiness in the future. When he unexpectedly bonds with the young and vibrant Handler Marcus Stephanek, Alex is angry and unwilling to leave the memory of his former Handler behind. He pushes Marcus away and tries to distance himself from their bond. But then a mysterious villain who has been secretly shadowing Alex for years sets his plan in motion. Alex and Marcus must learn to trust their bond and love each other, or risk not only their own lives but the lives of those closest to them.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5

This review pains me because I wanted to like this book SO MUCH. I loved the world-building and the characters were initially interesting. Unfortunately, as the book went on the main characters each came to be identified by a single trait: Marcus trained to be a Search-and-Rescue handler all his life and is disappointed that may not come to pass, and Alex is mourning his late husband. There is not much character development beyond this.

I come to this book with a unique perspective, having lost my husband of 18 years suddenly in the spring of 2017. I know and understand grieving. I also know that everyone grieves at their own pace in their own way. That said, there is something deeply wrong here. If Alex is under such close scrutiny by the Guardsmen organization, they are going to see that isolating himself and mourning for three years is not healthy and would hopefully do something about it. I’ll at least accept the change in attitude toward Marcus due to the bond between Handler and Protector.

That concern aside, the other problem I had with this book was its awkward pacing. 70% of the book was very little going on, mainly watching Alex and Marcus wallowing in their respective misery. Suddenly at that point there’s a huge plot development momentous enough to merit its own book, but that is swept aside. Stupid decisions and actions follow, making the ending rather frustrating even though all of the plotlines are wrapped up neatly. I even liked how everything ended, but I just wasn’t satisfied with how we got there.

Would I say this is worth the read? I think so because there is a framework of a great series here. Just be prepared to be occasionally frustrated by the characters.