Three Years On: Dear Dan

Dear Dan,

Three years ago today. Sometimes it seems far longer than that, sometimes it seems just days ago. I still think about you every day. The worst are the dreams where we are together doing fun or just mundane things. I wake up to remember that will never happen again and it hurts, a lot.

This year I spent two weeks in Alaska volunteering with the Iditarod, just like we had always talked about doing. It was everything we hoped it would be, and more. I am already thinking in terms of what I will do next year, and how to make the trip even better. You’re not surprised, I know. Some things never change.

Charlie and Nora continue to be my emotional anchors at home. They helped get me through the darkest times, and they continue to help keep me smiling. Nora was diagnosed with Addison’s Disease, and while we were trying to figure out what was wrong, I admit that I was scared. I know that I will have to say goodbye to them sometime in the far future, but not yet. Not yet.

I wonder what you would make of the current world situation. You would be practical, I know. We would have worked together to make a plan and be prepared for whatever happened. I’m not as good at making plans by myself, but I try. You helped provide the confidence I needed sometimes. All I can do now is try my best and hope that that is enough.

Life does go on, though. This time of year again reminds me of the wisdom I was told about grief, “It doesn’t get any easier, you just get stronger.” That’s the truth. I probably stand stronger now than I ever have, but I miss having someone to lean on when needed. I continue to be incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by loving family and friends who help more than they can ever know. If nothing else I have learned to treasure every single one of them even more because life is indeed fickle.

I love you Dan, and I miss you so much. I carry you always in my heart.

Tom

Book Review: Accepting Submission, by Kris T. Bethke

Alphas aren’t made to submit.

Raised in a conservative clan, Asher Grant has done everything he could to be a good alpha. A good son. But denying his needs has made him weak, and he’s lost touch with his bear. No longer able to shift, his clan rejects him instead of helping. Desperate, there’s only one place Asher can turn.

Trey Carver leads his pack with a firm but gentle hand. Under his guidance, his wolves have flourished. Asher knows he won’t be welcome among the wolves, but Trey has something he needs. Asking for it isn’t easy. Accepting it when it’s offered is even harder.

As Trey teaches Asher the beauty of dominance and submission, Asher begins to heal. Accepting his true self has a power all its own. When Trey makes the ultimate offer, Asher feels honor bound to deny it. Can a wolf convince a bear that they are meant to be?

Accepting Submission, by Kris T. Bethke

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

I’ll start this review by noting that I was provided an advance readers copy for reasons mentioned below, but I am happy to provide an independent review.

I really enjoyed this. It’s told entirely from Asher’s point of view, and we get a close look at his insecurities and doubts. He is an outcast for not living up to his clan’s perceptions of what he should be and feels a complete failure. At his heart, though, he is a smart, sensitive man who just doesn’t fit expectations. I could wish we had some of Trey’s POV to have a better sense of his reactions, but I also understand how that could take the reader out of the story. The scenes of Asher and Trey just talking and learning about one another are what made the story for me, and they make a great couple.

D/s is not typically my thing, but I understand the mechanics of it and can absolutely sympathize with the power exchange concept (even a control freak like me can see the attraction of letting someone else make the decisions sometimes). I liked that it was made clear that being a sub doesn’t mean “anything goes”. If a sub has questions or concerns, it’s OK to do say so. Like any relationship, communication is what makes it work. Those aspects are what helped me connect more with the scenes here.

Oh, and about that ARC? If you note my username, and the fact that I have two sweet dogs, Nora and Charlie, you’ll understand. Any similarities beyond the names are purely coincidental, but it was a delightful surprise from Kris (although my Nora is every bit as sassy as the Nora in the story!).

I loved this fun, sexy novella! I look forward to reading more tales of the Carver pack.

2019: A Year in Books

(Previous Year-In-Review posts: 2016, 2017, 2018)

I wanted to take a moment to look back on 2019 and mentioned a few of the fantastic books I read last year (note these are not books that came out in 2019, but books I read in 2019). Although I usually read m/m romances almost exclusively, two of my favorites were from outside the genre, proving that sometimes a little variety can always be a good thing!

First, the best of the year:
A big chunk of my reading last year was consumed by Patricia Briggs, who writes some of the best urban fantasy I’ve come across. All of the books in her Mercy Thompson series were almost uniformly great, and even when they weren’t quite 100% they were still really enjoyable. I am impressed that after 12 books (starting with Moon Called), while there’s still a hint of a formula to each book there’s enough new and interesting things going on that everything remains fresh and exciting. The Alpha and Omega spinoff series (five books, starting with Cry Wolf) ties into the main series in some ingenious ways, sharing the occasional side-character and events, even though the main characters of the two series never meet face to face. This series was fun because, having established a fascinating world, Briggs is free to use different narrative conventions and plot twists that wouldn’t be possible in the main series. Both of these series are really enjoyable!

Lee Welch’s Salt Magic, Skin Magic was a delightful find. It’s a paranormal mystery set in a Victorian England where magic is real and such a commonplace thing. I loved this one because the spark between the two main characters was so well-written, the mystery was a challenging puzzle, and the ending was supremely satisfying.

In a similar vein, K.J. Charles’ Spectred Isle was a delightful foray into a magical Victorian England, though here magic is much more secretive. This is another mystery, and as shown in previous works that I raved about last year, Charles is skilled at weaving a complicated web of a mystery, then revealing it little by little. This particular book was great fun because of the banter between the new-to-magic Saul and experienced magician Randolph. The ending is a tour de force that ties things together brilliantly. In addition to this, The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal is a collection of short stories that serves as a prequel of sorts to Spectred Isle featuring some historical figures spoken of with reverence there. For all that short stories often leave me wanting more depth and development, this is a great read and a worthy addition to the world that Charles has built.

Two books by T.J. Klune make this list. Ravensong is the sequel to Wolfsong, which I absolutely adored in print and in audiobook. Ravensong continues the story, and in true Klune fashion, ripped my heart out and stomped all over it. Seriously, how Klune manages to keep such a high quality of writing going I’ll never know, but I’ll sure appreciate it! The other book is The Bones Beneath My Skin, an odd one-off novel that’s a departure from most of his usual themes, but the writing style is still familiar. In tone, I would place it toward Into This River I Drown (another tour de force, and a story which is slyly referenced here) but the atmosphere is a lot less somber. Great characters drive a great story – I really liked this one.

After enjoying their Hexworld series and Whyborne and Griffin series, I was delighted to pick up Jordan L. Hawk’s Spectre Series 1. These are written in the sense of a “season” of a TV series, which each book having its own plot but also an overarching plot that spans all six books that gets resolved in the finale. I really enjoyed the moody side of Charleston, South Carolina that serves as the backdrop to these paranormal stories, and the characters allow Hawk to have a lot of fun with disparate personalities, and the problems that arise when you have three people, but only two bodies. Oh, and one of those three is a few thousand years old.

The Last Sun by K.D. Edwards…well, you can read my review right here. It’s a fantastic book, and absolutely belongs on my best-of-2019 list.

Finally, there’s Gary Paulsen’s Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod. This nonfiction autobiographical book tells the story of how Paulsen was bitten by the mushing bug and drawn into the world of sled dog racing. This was an incredible read, filled with laugh-out-loud moments, some terrific personal insights and thoughts about the relationship between humans and dogs, and moments that moved me to tears. Even if you’re not a fan of sled dog racing, this is worth picking up.

There are also a couple of books that deserve honorable mention:

Stealing His Heart by Bru Baker is a spinoff from her Camp H.O.W.L. trilogy. Nothing terribly complex, but still an enjoyable story, with werewolves. Werewolves always make things better, but I might be biased.

In Any Light by Sam Burns is a lovely short story, a brief detour in The Rowan Harbor Cycle to explore the relationship between side characters Isla and Cassidy. I love these characters, and the fact that Isla is ace made me smile a lot when she found her “happy for now”. The ending definitely had me tearing up.

The Long Way Home by Z. A. Maxfield is a tense paranormal thriller that had a great mystery and even better chemistry between the main characters. There were a few stumbles at the that took this out of the ‘best of’ running, but I still enjoyed the book. I’m kind of sad there wasn’t a sequel because I’d love to read more of these guys!

N. R. Walker’s Finders Keepers was hugely enjoyable. I jokingly accused her of secretly working for the Australian tourist board because the descriptions of Coolum Beach and Australia’s Sunshine Coast made it sound like an absolute paradise. This is a fun, low-angst story with a fun twist on the meet-cute trope where the main characters ‘meet’ over text messaging and get to know each other before they ever meet face to face.

Finally, I want to return to Mercy Thompson’s world to mention Faerie Gifts, an ongoing fan fiction series by Liv Campbell and William Alexander on Archive of Our Own. I really enjoy how the authors retain the feel of Patricia Briggs’ Mercyverse while bringing in new characters in an entirely different location in the world. Also, Sam the werewolf is absolutely freakin’ adorable!

2020 is already off to a great start, and I look forward to adding many great books my best of 2020 list! As always, you can find me on Goodreads as Duncan Husky, plus there you can find my reading lists of m/m shifters, m/m werewolves, and m/m paranormal books.

Book Review: Upside Down, by N.R. Walker

Jordan O’Neill isn’t a fan of labels, considering he has a few. Gay, geek, a librarian, socially awkward, a nervous rambler, an introvert, an outsider. The last thing he needs is one more. But when he realizes adding the label ‘asexual’ might explain a lot, it turns his world upside down.

Hennessy Lang moved to Surry Hills after splitting with his boyfriend. His being asexual had seen the end of a lot of his romances, but he’s determined to stay true to himself. Leaving his North Shore support group behind, he starts his own in Surry Hills, where he meets first-time-attendee Jordan.

A little bewildered and scared, but completely adorable, Hennessy is struck by this guy who’s trying to find where he belongs. Maybe Hennessy can convince Jordan that his world hasn’t been turned upside down at all, but maybe it’s now—for the first time in his life—the right way up.

Upside Down, by N.R. Walker

Rating: 5 out of 5!

Nobody writes adorkable like N.R. Walker! Her low-angst, character-driven novels are always refreshing and enjoyable, and this book was no exception. Jordan is a nerdy sort, whose social anxiety leads to nervous chatter which actually gets to be pretty endearing. Hennessy is more laid-back, but more of a techno-geek. What begins as an crush on a stranger on a bus blossoms into something beautiful and charming.

One of the things that I loved about this book were the side characters: Merry, Jordan’s stoic co-worker and best friend, Angus, Jordan’s sweet-but-dense roommate, Michael, Hennessy’s best friend and boss. I especially got a kick out of “The Soup Crew”, strangers on the bus who become invested in Jordan and Hennessy’s growing relationship. As I’ve seen in other books, Walker has a tendency to tie the side-characters together neatly with some convenient coincidences, but that’s a minor nitpick.

As mentioned in the blurb, the story is about an asexual relationship, and Jordan’s coming to terms with his own asexual orientation. Recognizing that this is a concept that is new to many, Walker makes an effort to clearly explain what asexuality is and is not, and that is something that is much appreciated. As a man who continues to come to terms with his own asexuality this book spoke to me on a very personal level, and I could absolutely identify with a lot of Jordan’s feelings. The fact that asexuality is a spectrum not a fixed point is frequently frustrating, and for that reason Jordan’s self-doubt is quite relatable.

I listened to this on audio and while the story was great, I had some minor issues with Glen Lloyd’s narration. Some pauses between chapters and paragraphs where the setting changes would be appreciated. Also, the voices used for Hennessy and Jordan were very similar, at least to my American ear, making it difficult to tell who was talking at times.

I really enjoyed Upside Down and would highly recommend it to anyone, though it is especially good if you want to learn more about asexuality.

Note: To find out more about asexuality I suggest checking out The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network, which is a trove of useful information.

Book Review: The Last Sun (The Tarot Sequence, Book 1) by K. D. Edwards

Rune Saint John, last child of the fallen Sun Court, is hired to search for Lady Judgment’s missing son, Addam, on New Atlantis, the island city where the Atlanteans moved after ordinary humans destroyed their original home.

With his companion and bodyguard, Brand, he questions Addam’s relatives and business contacts through the highest ranks of the nobles of New Atlantis. But as they investigate, they uncover more than a missing man: a legendary creature connected to the secret of the massacre of Rune’s Court.

In looking for Addam, can Rune find the truth behind his family’s death and the torments of his past? 

The Last Sun (The Tarot Sequence, Book 1), by K.D. Edwards

Rating: 5 out of 5!

There was once a large land off what we know as the east coast of North America, Atlantis. They were a race of beings who possessed magic and used that magic to hide their existence while meddling in human affairs however they liked. This was all well and good until the first man in space looked out the window and saw something which should not be there. This discovery started a sequence of events that escalated to the Atlantean World War, a war that the Atlanteans lost. The decimated race retreated to the island of Nantucket, where they have created their own society in parallel with humans, consuming human popular culture, but with its own social mores and politics.

All of this has occurred before The Last Sun’s story begins, but the world-building here is glorious. With the Atlantean ability to translocate entire tracts of land to their island, we get an urban fantasy that has just enough of a touch of the real world to keep it anchored (and to easily envision where events are occurring). One of the gratifying things here is that this is all in the background, tacitly understood, which allows the story to flow around it.

And flow it does! We take up the story of Rune Saint John, disgraced child of a ruined family, eking out an existence on the fringes of Atlantean society. He is accompanied by his Companion, Brand, his bodyguard and best friend to whom he is linked empathically. What follows is part caper, part mystery, part political intrigue. Rune and Brand are great foils for one another, and the banter between them shows the underlying affection despite occasional exasperation.

To go any further into the plot gives away all kinds of spoilers, unfortunately. Technically speaking, though, this book is outstanding. The narrative framing, the development of the side characters, and the bit-by-bit unraveling of the mystery are all handled perfectly. This is the kind of book that when you get to the end, you’re sad that there’s not more. Great news, though! The sequel, The Hanged Man, is out and it is every bit as good as this book, if not better.

I listened to this book on audio, narrated by Josh Hurley. This is definitely not just narration, though! Hurley delivers a masterful performance, capturing the emotions and inflections of each character. Every character is distinct, and each develops a trademark way of speaking. I especially lover Brand’s snarkiness, and Addam’s Russian accent, which becomes more pronounced the more emotional he is. Hurley’s work made an excellent book even better!

Finally, two notes about this book. First, there is frank discussion of rape and abuse and the consequences thereof. It is handled thoughtfully and sensibly and is an important part of the story. Second, for all that this book came to my attention as an M/M romance, it would be far better classified as urban fantasy with characters who happen to not be straight. I would highly recommend this book to any fan of urban fantasy; without a doubt it is one of the best books I’ve read in the last five years.

A Quick Opinionated Guide To Restaurants at Midwest FurFest – 2019

This was originally published in 2018, but has been updated for 2019. 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. This is located in the Rosemont Ballroom on the Entry Level.
  • 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, although they are actively working with MFF to improve this. 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 (in the past they have offered on different nights Build Your Own Mac and Cheese, Mini Naan Pizzas, Tacos, and Subs) that is actually quite reasonably priced.
  • There are rumors of a food truck as well. Stay tuned to @FurFest for more info on that.

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. Rumor has it they are working to improve on these as well, creating themed “pop-up restaurants”.

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.
  • There will be a concession stand in the Dealers Den in Hall G. Expect drinks, sides, burgers, chicken sandwiches, and 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” (ugh, branding) with a lot of options of varying quality:

  • Five Roses Pub: Pseudo-Irish pub. Average.
  • King’s Dining & Entertainment: 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. Takes reservations on their website.
  • 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. Takes reservations on their website.
  • Fogo de Chao: Brazilian steakhouse. “The Meat Faucet”. Takes reservations on their website.
  • Hofrauhaus: German beer hall. Oompah oompah music. Tourists. Fun with a group of rowdy friends though. Takes reservations on their website.
  • Pete’s Dueling Piano Bar: Chain piano bar that just opened in early November

A 10-15 minute walk south on River Road is the Fashion Outlets Chicago (fancy name aside, it’s a mall). The food court and other restaurants have 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.

A little further walk (or a short Uber/Lyft/whatever trip) south on River Road, two blocks south of the Loews Chicago O’Hare, is Short Fuse Brewing Company I’ve found their beer decent (nothing stellar, but not bad), and the food is pretty good.

Finally, a few miles south on River Road is Hala Kahiki Tiki Bar and Lounge. This is a shockingly legit retro tiki bar that has no business being tucked away in a Chicago suburb, but there it is. They have a huge menu, and the drink prices aren’t outrageous. You’ll want to eat before you go though – the food options there are pretty scarce.

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 CTA Blue Line station, at the front of the convention center, in the Parkway Bank Park, and at the Fashion Outlets Chicago.

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!

Book Review: Wolf Lost (The Wolves of Kismet #1), by Sam Burns

Wolf Lost (The Wolves of Kismet #1), by Sam Burns

Sawyer Holt can’t go home. The Alpha who has replaced his father wants to use him as a tool to cement his political power, and Sawyer isn’t interested in marrying his father’s murderer.

Dez Sullivan’s leg may never heal from his last mission in Afghanistan, but he’s getting used to that. What he can’t adapt to are the nightmares and the tremor in his hand that the doctors insist is all in his head. Next to that, being a brand new werewolf seems easy, until Sawyer Holt blows into his life. The omega activates his burgeoning wolf instincts in a new way, and they threaten to overwhelm his common sense.

Both men are in Colorado searching for a new start, a new pack, and the safety they’ve lost. Their meeting is pure Kismet.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

This was a lovely read! The plot is nothing particularly complicated, but that’s OK because it left more time to focus on the characters. Dez, Ash, and Gavin are war buddies who have recently left the service following a vaguely-described incident that left Dez with a crushed leg, tremors, and major PTSD. Oh, and as a result of that incident Dez and Gavin are newly-minted werewolves. Minor point, I know. Sawyer has been assumed to be delicate and fragile all of his life, but underneath that is a fierce determination. He and Dez are a great couple, and I enjoyed seeing the sparks between them.

One of the things that I loved about this book is how it upends some typical werewolf tropes: Fated Mates (though we skirt that a bit), There Can Be Only One Alpha, and others. Of course, other tropes are knot avoided, but it’s all part of the fun. Dez and Gavin have only been werewolves for 5 or 6 weeks and are still ignorant of many of the traditions and cultural expectations. For the most part that doesn’t matter since it’s just the three of them isolated in the Colorado mountains, but it leads to some humorous moments as they make a faux pas, then shrug it off. They’re soldiers first, then werewolves second, and act accordingly.

If I have any complaint it’s that I would have liked to have seen more detail about what the mysterious event in Afghanistan was and how it affected Gavin and Ash, but I suspect that will be found in future books in the series. This is the foundation for a great series, and I look forward to the next book!

Book Review: Misfit Mage, by Michael Taggart

Misfit Mage (Fledgling God #1) by Michael Taggart

Rating: 3.4 out of 5

I wanted to like this book so much! I am a complete sucker for the Undiscovered Hero trope (aka “Yer a wizard, Harry!”) and that’s definitely in play here. The world it is set in is interesting, the characters engaging and funny, and the plot is a fun one. So why didn’t it wow me?

The problem here is entirely in the writing. The author spends way, way too much time telling, not showing. As an example: early on, the main character is injured and must spend an extended time recovering. Days pass and many conversations are had with the supporting characters, and yet in all of that this is not a word of dialogue. Instead, it’s “X talked to Y about [topic] and learned [thing].”

And then there’s the world-building. I strongly believe that if an author is going to have magic (or politics, or complicated relationships) then this should all be laid out on paper ahead of time so that when the author writes the story they have a reference to keep things consistent. The issue here is that several entire chapters are spent describing the specific mechanics of magic performed by the main character. This complexly derails the plot and removes any sense of urgency for the reader. Now, I want to say that what is described is interesting, and if I was reading a book about how to construct a theoretical system of magic that is coherent and believable, this would be great! But that’s not what the reader is here for. Instead it’s page after page of exposition and painfully detailed descriptions.

I think of it this way: A good approach for something like this would be the blind men and the elephant, where the reader learns small parts of the cohesive whole as the story progresses, and maybe pieces it all together by the end of the story (or series). Instead, this book has a detailed description of every square centimeter of the elephant.

Even after all of this, though, I would be willing to check out a sequel, because I really do like the characters and setting. I can only hope that the writing is whittled down a bit so that the plot is in the forefront and the minute details are perhaps less explicitly described.

A final note: this is definitely not a m/m romance book. As others have noted it falls more under queer urban fantasy (which I enjoy as well!).

Review Roundup 1!

After too long away from writing these reviews, I wanted to do a quick roundup of what I’ve been reading (and listening) to lately. First, some audiobooks:

SPECTR Series 1, by Jordan L. Hawk, narrated by Brad Langer – I just loved the premise of this series of novellas: Regular guy Sean dies (briefly) in an accident and is possessed by a powerful spirit. When he is revived through CPR he finds that he’s not alone in his own head. This could get a little silly, but Hawk has a deft touch with the characters and creates a lovely romance between Sean and the government agent…and the spirit.

I haven’t come across this approach to a book series before but think of it like a season of a television show: an individual plot line for each “episode” (novella) with an overarching plot across the books. It works well here! Langer’s northeastern-US accent (somewhere between NYC and Boston, to my ear) is a little incongruous for stories set in and around Charleston, South Carolina, but once I got used to it I found he did a fine job. Now to move on to Series 2…

Rating: 4.5/5.0

Tyack & Frayne, Books 1-3 (Once Upon a Haunted Moor, Tinsel Fish, Don’t Let Go), by Harper Fox, narrated by Tim Gilbert – My goodness, does Harper Fox know how to set a mood! These books (the first three of a nine-book series) take place in Cornwall, and Fox paints a picture of a countryside sometimes delightfully alive, but sometimes oppressively dreary. Here we have Gideon, a steadfast police officer disinclined to believe in the paranormal, and Lee, a psychic who proves Gideon wrong. The attraction between these two characters is lovely, and they make a great couple. These are mystery/suspense books, and while they were engaging at times I felt there were some narrative threads that got dropped along the way or needed more explanation.

Rating: 4.0/5.0

Werewolves of Manhattan, Books 1 and 2 (His Omega, Remy’s Painter), by A. C. Katt, narrated by Joel Leslie – Don’t. Just don’t. Friends don’t let friends read bad werewolf smut. I mean, unless you’re into characters who are at times cartoonish, world-building that is not internally consistent, and guys who call their boyfriend “Baby” a lot. The only redeeming features of these are that I downloaded them for “free” as part of Audible’s Escape package (think Kindle Unlimited but for romance audiobooks), and Joel Leslie, who is always an excellent performer. If you have to pay for these, I suggest using that money for better things, like a pack of gum or something.

Rating: 2.0/5.0

Alpha & Omega, Books 1-5, by Patricia Briggs, narrated by Holter Graham – Wow, these were a whole lot of fun! I thoroughly enjoyed the 12 (!) Mercy Thompson novels by Briggs. It was fascinating to see the different narrative approaches she took in this series, set in the same world and overlapping at times, but mainly only in the sense they are on the same timeline. It was fun to see some small events which were alluded to in the MT books get a fuller explanation in this series. I really liked Anna and Charles, though Charles could be a bit opaque at times; that’s the nature of the character though so it makes sense. I enjoyed Anna’s sense of wonder in the beginning of the series, and how that colored her outlook as the series went on. The plotting on these can be intricate, and Briggs excels at populating her world with delightful characters and clear motivations (even if those motivations don’t become apparent until the end of the story). I highly recommend this series even if you haven’t read the Mercy Thompson books. They’re urban fantasy at its finest.

Rating: 5.0/5.0

How to Run with the Wolves, by Eli Easton – This is book 5 of the “Howl at the Moon” series by Easton, a delightful world where there are the Quickened, humans who can shift into dogs and have created their own isolated town, Mad Creek, in the mountains of California. I highly recommend the first four books in the series (I have previously reviewed the first two books). This is a great addition to the series. This posits that maybe the shifters of Mad Creek aren’t alone, as we find an isolated clan of dog shifters in the remote wilds of Alaska. These Quickened (“Qimmig”) are descended from Inuit sled dogs. Timo, an emissary of their clan, visits Mad Creek and struggles to understand a culture radically different from his own. In addition, there’s this very sweet St. Bernard shifter who he is starting to have very confusing feelings toward. This is something of a minefield for Easton as there are issues of coping with class differences and of understanding wildly different cultures. I think she navigates them well while still maintaining the lighthearted touch of the previous books. There’s a nice surprise in an author’s note at the end of the book, but I won’t spoil that for anyone!

Rating: 4.5/5.0

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.