Maritimes Road Trip, Part 4

We’re in the home stretch of this travelogue!

Day 14: Lubec, Maine

Morning in Lubec was very chill, a nice change of pace from all of the driving.

When the sun got a little warm, Charlie and I moved inside, where he made himself at home.

We took a while to get rolling, but once we did we got out to enjoy the lovely weather. We visited West Quoddy Head Light, the easternmost point in the contiguous United States. (OK, technically the rocks out past the lighthouse are the easternmost point, but you get the idea.)

For lunch I had a crab roll – I had hoped for a lobster roll, but the cook at the little restaurant we ate at was very apologetic that she hadn’t had time to pick the lobster meat from the shells yet. I had no complaints though! Afterward we stopped by a local chocolate shop that was quite good where I spotted…chocolate sea cucumbers. So those are a thing that exist.

Eventually we wandered back to downtown Lubec. It really is a charming, quirky place that I liked a lot. There was even a small farmers market going on, plus random poetry. That’s never a bad thing!

Parenthetically, I finally looked up a type of rose bush that was at Siegfried’s house that I had seen all over Nova Scotia as well: the Rugosa Rose. Unfortunately it appears to be an invasive species, but it really is pretty. It would have been interesting to gather some of the rose hips for cooking, but apparently they’re best after the first frost.

While we were downtown we made out way to Lubec Brewing Company. It’s kind of the opposite of some of the polished and professional breweries I saw so often in my travels. This is a place that is only open from 11 AM to 5 PM Thursday through Sunday, but it had the cozy feel of a place to go hang out with yoru friends and meet up with your fellow locals. The beer was pretty good, too! And any brewery that allows dogs inside (particularly on a hot day with no shade around) is always aces in my book.

For dinner that night, we ate at Water Street Tavern, and the food was excellent! Spring rolls, a green salad with blueberry-basil dressing, sauteed scallops, and roasted fingerling potatoes. It was all so damn good. That was topped off with strawberry rhubarb pie (my weakness!) with wild blueberry ice cream. It was a wonderful meal, and I really enjoyed chatting with Siegfried, talking about the area, politics, and life in general.

After dinner we retired back to Siegfried’s place and chatted out on the porch for a while while Charlie wandered the yard, his tail wagging the whole time. It was all great until someone fired off a gun (or shot some fireworks?) and then he had to come get Dad to tell him everything was going to be OK.

Day 15: Lubec, Maine to Medford, Massachusetts

After a tasty breakfast (a decadent cinnamon roll from Narrow Escape) it was time to hit the road once again. Siegfried’s hospitality was impeccable, and I really enjoyed my visit!

The drive through Maine was uneventful, though I was struck by the stunning vista that suddenly presented itself at the intersection of Route 9 and Route 192. I hadn’t realized I had been steadily climbing until I saw this!

One of the stops I had been looking forward to was Harraseeket Lunch & Lobster, a lobster pound with lobster rolls and lobster bisque to die for. The last time I was there was in 2006 (!) and apparently it has gotten a whole lot more popular over the last 16 years. The wait for food was over an hour, I was told when I went to order. I didn’t have the time to kill so I regretfully took my leave to continue the trip.

Based on Roho’s recommendation I decided to check out Funky Bow Brewery & Beer Company. That was a bit of an odd place – very freeform, very (and I apologize for the term) hippie-ish. After the typically regimented taprooms I visited throughout my trip it was almost disconcerting. For instance, dogs were allowed and welcomed, but they have a strict no-leash policy. To their credit they were very understanding when I explained that Charlie is blind, and everyone was very friendly. The band was good too, so no complaints except that I had to get back on the road to fight traffic into Boston!

Following various curious detours (I follow Waze slavishly, I admit) I got into the Hyatt Place in Medford right around 5 PM.

Dinner was absolutely delightful, as I met up with Roho, Jeremy, Will (a welcome surprise addition), and Roho and Jeremy’s roommate whose name I missed, unfortunately). Dinner on the patio of River Bar in Assembly Square was lovely, and the conversation was a lot of fun. Afterwards, though, we noticed that Parla XXI, a speakeasy, had just opened next door, so we decided to check them out.

Whoa dang, y’all. This place was so much fun! Amazing cocktails, but also a great presentation. The most fun was the “Dungeon Master” – basically, you roll a twenty sided die and they bring you…something. You get the name of the drink and nothing else. It was a lot of fun passing the drinks around and trying to deduce the ingredients. I’d love to find something like this locally!

Days 16 and 17: Medford, Massachusetts

These days were pretty pedestrian, mostly working from my hotel room, then venturing out around Boston. The first day, Chiaroscuro came up to hang out for the day. The weather was kind of blah, but we found a BearMoose Brewing Company, which allowed dogs inside. We spent the afternoon hanging out, chatting, and playing pinball.

We were later joined by Roho, and we adjourned to Somerville to spend the evening with Sutter, Lunestophiles, and Frosty for lots of fun conversation and YouTube videos.

The next day I worked for a bit then adjourned over to Bone Up Brewing Company. I really liked this place, and their beer was pretty damn tasty too! The weather was again kind of iffy, so the fact that they have a covered patio was very much appreciated.

After a bit Kyne joined me and we had a great time catching up. He mentioned that Short Path Distillery was right nearby and forced me (forced me, I tell you!) to walk over and check them out.

Oh wow, what a great place! The bartenders we talked to were very queer, and the vibe was very chill and welcoming. The spirits were excellent as well, and we probably chatted there for at least another hour. It was a great way to wrap up my all-too-brief time in Boston.

Day 18: Medford, Massachusetts to Binghamton, New York

Time waits for no man, alas, and so it was time to start my homeward trip westward. I wanted to break things up a bit so Charlie wasn’t stuck in the car for hours and hours on end, so decided to take the journey from Boston to Chicago over three days. The morning trip out of Boston was particularly crowded, though Waze did take me on some interesting detours to get around traffic jams. Once I was on the Massachusetts Turnpike it was pretty dull (thank heavens for audiobooks!) but at least the scenery was pretty. By the time I got to the western edge of the state I decided to detour off the interstate for some more interesting driving. Of course my detour took me right past Barrington Brewery in Great Barrington, Massachusetts , so I had to stop. Naturally.

I crossed the Hudson River on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge and worked my way over to Interstate 88 (not to be confused with Interstate 88) to Binghamton, New York. I got there just in time for dinner, so after getting checked in at my hotel (perhaps the most downmarket of my stops along the trip, but still quite nice – and cheap!) I decided to check out (sing it with me here) a local brewery. But hey, they served food too!

Despite the fact that it was probably one of the more striking venues I stopped at during my trip. I didn’t really care for the vibe at Farm by Beer Tree Brewing.

Something in the people, perhaps – very much a sports-bar type crowd. Very few dogs, and just not a particularly welcoming place all around. As I commented on Twitter, it’s probably shallow of me to judge a place by the number of people who at least acknowledge Charlie, but not seeing much of that here. Also, not a single mask indoors, on staff or customers. The food was good, the beer only OK.

To make up for the so-so experience, I decided to check out one of my favorite types of places in the summer months: the small local independent ice cream shop. Jones Humdinger did not disappoint! The ice cream was tasty, but the people were even better. Charlie made many friends, and it really turned my mood from earlier around 180 degrees.

Day 19: Binghamton, New York to Independence, Ohio

This was a rather long day of driving. And while the Southern Tier of New York is very pretty, it took a long time to get to I-90 down to Pennsylvania. After the brief trip through Pennsylvania I finally made it to Ohio. It was early afternoon as we navigated through the interstate maze around Cleveland (this was definitely a case where I put all my faith in Waze!) so fortunately traffic was light.

After checking in at the Hyatt Place in Independence and checking on work email, it was back into the car for go in search of a local brewery, and maybe some food too! Along the way I passed local landmarks…

I wound up at Terrestrial Brewing Company in the Edgewater Hill neighborhood of Cleveland. It was another lucky find by way of BringFido. They had a lovely patio with lots of dogs hanging out, and Charlie and I spent a lovely couple of hours enjoying good beer and great food.

As the evening wore on, other dogs showed up, and the interactions were just adorable to watch. Of course as always, Charlie was a complete charmer and made lots of new friends.

After a nice wander around the small dog park next to the brewery, I headed back to the Hyatt Place for my last night of the trip.

Day 20: Independence, Ohio to Home

One last day of driving! After a brief stop for coffee at Metropolitan Coffee in Brooklyn Heights, it was time to make the long trek across Ohio and Indiana. I was able to break up the trip a bit, first with a stop at a famous landmark…

Another couple of hours later and it was time to stop for lunch. I got off the interstate in South Bend and did a quick search for a good local dog-friendly brewery/brewpub and came up with Crooked Ewe Brewery and Ale House.

What a great find! Good beer, and (incongruously) pad thai too! All of this with a beautiful view of the St. Joseph River.

It was the perfect way to cap off the trip. Another couple of hours of driving brought me back to Chad’s place to pick up Nora, and then we all went back home and collapsed.

Summing it all up

19 days of traveling, driving over 4,400 miles through nine states and four provinces. What have we learned?

  • Charlie is an amazing road trip buddy. I brought him along for three reasons, for the company (of course), to force me to eat at outdoor venues wherever possible (’cause there’s still this pandemic thing), and to force me to socialize. It was a great choice on all three counts, plus Charlie simply LOVES to be in the car. He would jump into the back seat, I would clip him into his safety harness, and he would promptly doze off. On some long driving legs, up to three hours, he never made a peep. Heck, I usually needed to stop before he did!
  • I adored the Maritimes. Cape Breton is gorgeous, and I fell in love with Halifax. What a great city! Great food and drink, friendly people, and nicely walkable. Lots of dog-friendly places to go too. Maine is always a lovely place to visit, too. I need to get back out that way to explore some more!
  • I do loves me some road trips. New sights to see, new places to explore, new food and beer to try! It’s been five years since my last major road trip, and this was a good reminder that I really should make this an annual thing.

Wow, so all of that was a lot to read. If you made it this far, congratulations! I hope you enjoyed the trip vicariously as much as I enjoyed doing it!

Maritimes Road Trip, Part 3

Back to city life!

Day 10: Pleasant Bay, Nova Scotia to Halifax, Nova Scotia

Next stop on this trip: Halifax! As I was plotting out my route the night before, Google had an interesting suggestion.

There isn’t even a road from Blanc-Sablon to Sept-Iles!

The drive back on the Cabot Trail was uneventful, given it was early on a Sunday morning. The ride was beautiful, though, and I decided to put my dashcam to good use to show a sped-up drive through the park.

On my way off the island, I stopped for breakfast at The Dancing Goat Cafe and Bakery. As I enjoyed my breakfast sandwich and latte, I got into a lovely conversation with two women from northern Virginia who were biking their way through the park. We chatted for about twenty minutes before they had to get back on the road. I passed them on the road as I drove out and we shared a friendly wave. It was a really nice way to start the day.

The drive to Halifax was uneventful, and I got there right at the check-in time for my AirBnB, home fore the next few days. It was a really nice place, with two bedrooms, a big kitchen (that I never used), and a washer/dryer. I closed off one of the bedrooms (less places for Charlie to get lost in) and took some time to decompress.

The location was simply perfect. It was on the outskirts of Dalhousie University, so there were lots of walkable, interesting places to check out. Heck, there was even a bodega and a Korean fried chicken takeout place right across the street.

(Not shown: Huge provincial liquor store on the corner opposite this one)

Once I was settled in Charlie and I walked the six blocks down to the Waterfront. Comments I had seen were right: it’s a bit of a tourist trap, as verified by the cruise ships docked there.

Right down by the cruise ship docks, though, was my next destination: Garrison Brewing. They had a bustling bar inside, but a fabulous patio with lots of different seating. I grabbed a flight and sat down outside to watch the people go by.

The seating gradually filled up as I sat there. Since I was the only person sitting at a four-person table, when a couple came out and clearly were having problems finding a place to sit, I offered to share my table. I’m glad I did. After ooh-ing and aah-ing over Charlie, we got to chatting. The man and his wife were from Baltimore, in port for a stop on their Royal Caribbean cruise. We talked for an hour, swapping cruise stories and experiences. They had done all of the big tourist stops in Halifax, and were able to suggest places that I might want to check out. It was one of those serendipitous moments that made me really glad I had Charlie along to help start conversations.

After they left, Charlie and I wandered around town a bit more. Halifax seems to have a great culture of public art, so it was great to see some of that, as well as random local landmarks.

Dinner was at East of Grafton. The burger was OK, though the Bob “Dill”an cocktail (Local Gin, St Germaine, muddled cucumber & dill, fresh citrus) was quite good. For dessert I checked out a local institution, Eva’s Original Chimneys. The chimneys (also called Kürtöskalács in Hungarian or Trdelník in Czech) are a rolled pastry that doubles nicely as an ice cream cone. I got the “Mango Coconut” – Vanilla soft serve ice cream in a coconut cone, with mango coulis, shredded coconut, and dried mango garnish.

As I finished the chimney, I saw that there was a full-sized marshmallow in the bottom to prevent leaking. I gave it to Charlie to see how he’d eat it. The answer was…quickly!

After that we retired back to the AirBnB for a quiet night in.

Day 11: Halifax, Nova Scotia

My hopes were not high for today, as Weather Canada was predicting heavy rainfall the entire day. No sign of rain in the morning, so I walked down to get breakfast.

I spent the morning working remotely, but when lunch came around the rain still hadn’t shown up. There was an interesting restaurant at the end of the block, The Garden, that I wanted to check out, so I grabbed a table on their semi-covered patio. Lunch was a delicious salad and a very good cocktail, The Painted High Rise (‘A Mojito inspired tribute to the Bolivian artist Roberto Mamani Mamani: Lillet Aromatized Wine, Leblon Cachaça & Ginger, Green Juice, Lime, Absinthe).

It was a delightful lunch, and I had just finished up when…

We ran through the rain back the our AirBnB, where I worked for a couple more hours. I threw in the towel around 4 PM and decided to go for a walk. The skies had turned to occasional misting, so I put on my windbreaker and we set off across the city. Our first stop was Tusket Falls Brewing Company‘s Halifax taproom, where Charlie made friends with the British couple sitting next to us on the patio. From there it was over to Good Robot Brewing Company. It was just us and the bartender, so we had a good chat, and she recommended various places in the city to check out. I loved the heck out of this place – they were clearly tied into the community and involved in a lot of great causes. Plus, when a brief downpour came through, the bartender allowed Charlie and I to relocate just inside until it passed.

We stayed mostly dry on the walk back, and later that evening I walked down to a local place and got some ramen to go for dinner. It was a really good day. I am now officially a fan of Halifax!

Day 12: Halifax, Nova Scotia

This was my last day in Halifax, and I was sad. I really loved this city, and I look forward to returning sometime soon.

After spending the morning working remotely (and doing laundry), I was feeling cooped up. It was a beautiful day out, around 20 C (68 F) so I took a break from work at lunchtime and walked a couple of blocks to a place that the bartender at Good Robot Brewing had recommended to me: Stillwell Beer Garden.

Wow, I loved the heck out of this place. It’s a beer patio writ large, very dog-friendly. (The number of places that are dog-friendly in Halifax was staggering. I love it!) I grabbed a flight and ordered the Donair Dog.

Now, when I travel I like to look up the local culinary specialty so I can be sure to try it. All of the sources I read said that the must-try food in Halifax is the donair. I was a little mystified – it looked like a gyro, basically. What was the big deal? A friend told me that the secret is in the sauce. I was skeptical. After getting the Donair Dog…I understand now. And yes, it was really, really good. Donair is like gyros, cooked on a vertical rotating spit like gyros, but made with beef and different spices. I hadn’t looked up the sauce until I was writing this, but if I had I think I would have been even more skeptical. It has three ingredients: Sweetened condensed milk, vinegar, and garlic powder. But put it all together, add some diced tomatoes and onions, and it’s delicious!

Suitably fortified, I went back to work for a couple of meetings. When I wrapped up for the day, I decided to go back to Stillwell Beer Garden because I loved the vibe so much. This short video gives you a good feel for the place (audio removed because the people at the next table were evidently getting married. Right there. So OK then).

This time around I went with the “Icelandic Dog”: Peasant’s Pantry hot dog, onions, crispy onions, ketchup, remoulade, and Pysusinnep (Icelandic spicy brown hot dog mustard). It was pretty good, but the donair dog was better! I followed this up with blueberry-basil ice cream topped with lemon curd. That was delicious!

And Charlie got to enjoy another Pup Cup, on the house.

After that it was another quiet night in (I’m sensing a theme here), packing up to leave the next day.

Day 13: Halifax, Nova Scotia to Lubec, Maine

I got an early start, but before I left I grabbed breakfast at a lovely Italian bakery/coffee shop/deli that was just two blocks from my AirBnb. I was cranky I wasn’t aware of it earlier! A latte, a breakfast panini, and a pistachio-and-chocolate-filled croissant were just what I needed to cap off my stay in Halifax.

The drive back up to Moncton was uneventful. I make a good dent in my next audiobook, Blank Spaces – a terrific romance with an asexual main character. I got to St. John, New Brunswick just in time for lunch. After getting a bit lost downtown (Waze got confused) I found a great Irish pub/nanobrewery with a deck out front. I liked their cider!

After lunch, Charlie and I took was walk around Wolastoq Park, which had some great views of Reversing Falls (the flow of water through the rapids reverses with the tides) and downtown St. John.

Then it was more driving and more driving until we made out way to L’Etete, New Brunswick. There we waited for about a half-hour for the Deer Island Ferry, the first of two ferries for the day.

The seas were calm and it was a beautiful day, so it was nice to get out and walk around a bit during the 20-minute ride and take a short video of the crossing.

Once on Deer Island, we drove about 20 minutes to the next ferry, this one to Campobello Island. We had to wait about 45 minutes for this one, so Charlie and I took a walk around to admire the views until our ferry arrived.

Someone on Twitter asked how Charlie was doing with the rocking motion of the ferry. I think its safe to say that it didn’t bother him one bit.

Once on Campbello Island (yes, that Campobello), it was a short drive to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial Bridge, which is a glorious name that may take as long to say as it takes to cross the small bridge. Right at the end, though, is the US border. It’s a tiny little border crossing, and we were through in less than five minutes without any problems and then I was in Lubec, Maine.

Siegfried was kind enough to offer to host me for a couple of days at him home in Lubec. It’s a lovely older house with a gorgeous view of the Quoddy Narrows and Campobello Island.

We sat and chatted for a while, then went into downtown Lubec. You know, both blocks of downtown Lubec. Really, it’s a charming little town. Its roots are clearly in the fishing industry, though with that waning the focus has turned to tourism. Siegfried took me to Cohill’s Inn for dinner, and I really loved the place. The bartender was amazing. I always am impressed when someone is turning out quality cocktails with excellent ingredients and technique. In this case, he was using bottles I have in my liquor cabinet, so hell yeah I approve! The food was top-notch too: maple-glazed chicken breast and a waffle on a bed of polenta. Overall a wonderful night with excellent company.

Next: More Lubec, Boston, and homeward bound!

Maritimes Road Trip, Part 2

Day 5: Ottawa, Ontario to Quebec City

I woke up entirely too early, but I decided to take advantage of this and get on the road. I took Charlie for walk in Byward Market, which was just getting started for the day, and got to take a picture of him in front of the famous Ottawa sign, which is usually mobbed by tourists.

I grabbed a nice breakfast bagel sandwich and coffee from Byward Market and enjoyed it in the calm of the morning.

The drive out through Gatineau and into Quebec was uneventful, and traffic wasn’t a problem even through Montreal, though I just skirted that to the north. I stopped for lunch in Trois-Rivieres, which had a good portion of their downtown blocked off for pedestrian traffic only. It was quite enjoyable. Unfortunately the microbrewery I had chosen wasn’t doing outside seating for lunch, so instead I wandered up the road to Bistro Le Pot and got a nice cocktail and poke bowl. The Pisco Sour was made quite well, too!

From there it was a straight shot to Quebec City. I have never stayed at an Alt Hotel before, but the Alt Hotel Quebec found its way into my heart.

After catching up with work a bit, I decided to head into the Old City (Vieux Ville). Originally, I was going to park at the waterfront and wander around the area. Ha. Silly me. Between random detours and heavy traffic, it took be 45 minutes to get to the waterfront only to find there was a big concert going on there and the place was mobbed with people. OK, so I reversed course and drove into the upper old city, except there was no parking to be had. I did have a nice moment of grace when a random local saw me parking in a lot and pointed out that it was by permit only, and I would be towed or ticketed if I stayed there. It turned out that although he was Quebecois, he was a chiropractor who went to school in Davenport, Iowa, and recognized my Illinois license plate and correctly assumed I was a clueless tourist.

As it happened, I finally found a lot just outside St. Louis Gate, on the edge of the Plains of Abraham. The park looked fascinating and I would have loved to explore the hills and fortifications, but time didn’t allow, unfortunately.

The old town was swarming with people, though I learned that’s pretty much the way it is every evening in the summer. I did find a dog-friendly restaurant, Café-Terrasse La Nouvelle-France, which admittedly was a total tourist trap.

Dinner was French Onion Soup, Quebec Meat Pie, and Maple Pie. It was…OK. The maple pie (think the texture of pumpkin pie, with maple syrup) was the best of the lot.

As I was walking out, the reason for the concert at the waterfront became clear: It was part of Le Grand Feux, a summer-long themed fireworks program. Once the fireworks started, Charlie and I double-timed it back to the car, and they ended right as we got to the car. At least we beat the crowds leaving the festival! The drive back to the hotel was quick. Both Charlie and I was pretty wiped out, and sleep came easily.

Day 6: Québec City to Rivière-du-Loup

I wrapped up my stay at Hotel Alt Quebec after marveling a bit at their passive-aggressive anthropomorphic towel.

The drive out of Québec City was an easy one. Autoroute Jean-Lesage parallels the St. Lawrence River on the south shore running through mostly flat farm country, so the drive wasn’t a whole lot to look at, though the Notre Dame mountain range (a subrange of the Appalachians) to the south and east, rising 500 to 1,000 feet above the river bluffs, were a nice accompaniment.

Not far outside of Rivière-du-Loup, I stopped at the Tête d’Allumette Brasserie (Match Head Brewery). This was my first experience with the fact that, with the rise in the popularity of microbreweries, a microbrewery with very little around it quickly becomes a bit of a tourist trap. Still, it was a nice stop along the way.

Also, Charlie started to learn the local language!

Continuing just 15 minutes up the road, I arrived at my lodging for the night, Motel au Fleuve d’Argent (Silver River Motel). It was rather different from previous stops, but I adored the huge grassy field with amazing views overlooking the St. Lawrence River.

Once I was settled in, Charlie and I took a short drive into town to Microbrasserie Aux Fous Brassant (Brewery of the Brewing Fools)

Charlie of course charmed everyone around him, and helped me learn french because they wanted to say hello.

After dinner we walked around downtown a bit, admired the public art, and got some ice cream (while Charlie said hello to passers-by). We also stopped by the local landmark, the Chute de Rivière du Loup, an early hydroelectric facility with a 100-foot waterfall.

We ended the evening, enjoying the views from our motel.

Day 7: Rivière-du-Loup, Quebec to Moncton, New Brunswick

This was supposed to be an easy, straight shot down to Moncton, New Brunswick, but sometimes you have to be spontaneous (I’ll take a moment for everyone who knows me well to laugh themselves senseless). Ahem. ANYWAY…

You may or may not know that there is an app called Growlr, an equivalent to Grindr (or Tinder, for example) for guys who are perhaps older, fuzzier, or have a few pounds on them. To be honest, most people seem to use the app as a way to find Mister Right Now. I use it (and others like it) a lot when I travel, but in a different way: I like to chat up local guys, learn more about the area I am in, and maybe enjoy some friendly conversation. This has led to amazing restaurant recommendations in Puerto Rico, suggestions to sights to see in Denver, and just talking with some nice guys everywhere I have traveled.

In this case, I had gotten into a conversation with a fellow who happened to be near Rivière-du-Loup (and let me tell you, there weren’t that many guys in the app who were nearby!) the night before. He was a fellow widower who happened to be traveling alone with his dog as well. After some chat back and forth, he suggested I stop by for breakfast on my way to Moncton. So I did!

He was staying at a nice little inn on the shore of Lac Pohénégamook (“Po-hay-nay-gah-mook”), which is in Quebec just north of the very northernmost point of Maine. I stopped by and met his dog (a little yappy pup who is slowly learning manners but not quite there), and then he, Charlie, and I went over to a nearby restaurant with a nice patio overlooking the lake for breakfast. We chatted for about an hour and a half, discussing life as widowers, what we were looking for next in life, and just general stuff. There clearly wasn’t any chemistry, but that’s OK – some nice conversation with a friendly face along the way made the detour worth it. Before we left he offered to take a picture of Charlie and me on the shore of the lake.

The drive into New Brunswick from there was uneventful, but the weather changed from the beautiful blue skies to steady rain. Charlie and I tried to check out a local brewery, but their patio wasn’t covered, so we were out of luck. At least we documented our visit, though!

Dinner that night was takeout from the Carraba’s downstairs, which was…lamentable, at best. Probably the worst meal I had the entire trip, unfortunately. With the lousy weather, I decided to call it an early night.

Day 8: Moncton, New Brunswick to Pleasant Bay, Nova Scotia

The weather was still pretty lousy when Charlie and I set off from Moncton. The rolling hills were pretty to drive through, at least. We arrived in Truro, Nova Scotia just in time for lunch, so of course I went looking for a local brewery, Salty Dog Brewing Company. I was briefly puzzled by the fact that they were closed, but then remembered that I could get their beer (and lunch!) at their sister gastropub next door, The Nook & Cranny.

As it happened, the weather was starting to improve so Charlie and I took advantage of the break in the weather and grabbed a table at their streetside deck. Our server thought Charlie was just the cutest thing! I enjoyed a delicious Korean Fried Chicken sandwich and some of Salty Dog’s tasty beers.

Back on the road, I continued listening to a rather engrossing audiobook (A bearish florist and a nerdy bookshop owner bond over D&D? What’s not to like?) as we drove up NS 104 to the Canso Causeway and Cape Breton Island!

One thing that I did not take into account when choosing my route up the coast on Route 19 is that despite it being a big tourist attraction, the non-arterial roads on Cape Breton Island could be a bit rough. Nothing terrible, but surprising. In Inverness I stopped at Route 19 Brewing, only to find my earlier observation about isolated-brewery-turns-tourist-attraction borne out. Alas, the weather was still a bit drizzly/misty and their patio wasn’t covered. Instead I grabbed a selection of their canned beers from their retail shop and continued up the coast.

By now it was approaching dinner time. Pleasant Bay is on the northwestern edge of Cape Breton Highlands National Park, and a mountainous 30-minute drive from Cheticamp, the closest town to the south. I opted to get dinner in Cheticamp, but was unable to find anyplace with patio seating. I wound up getting chicken tenders and fries from a local place that proclaimed it to be their specialty. It was…whelming.

At least the Oreo shake was good?

It was time to take on some mountain driving! Cape Breton Highlands National Park is simply stunning. Even though it was still a bit gray and misty, that only added to the beauty.

Once we made it to our AirBnB, home for the next two days, I was able to unpack a bit and relax. The place was a former bed and breakfast Bed and Breakfast that was somewhat in disrepair, but serviceable and functional. It was a studio “cabin” but still nicely cozy.

Charlie for scale.

Once settled, Charlie and I walked down to the Pleasant Bay harbor, which was pretty deserted. There’s a somewhat sketchy-looking “Whale Interpretive Centre” (though the Tripadvisor reviews aren’t bad), and a whale tour boat promising “Guaranteed whales!”

Notably, this was Charlie’s first time meeting the ocean. Just like when when we visited Lake Michigan, Charlie is Very Upset at waves and thinks that they really need to stop doing that. (Sound warning: loud barking) My favorite part is where he finally tries to bite the ocean and finds that it doesn’t really taste very good.

We walked back to our cabin and had a quiet night in after that, with me catching up on reading.

Day 9: Cape Breton Island: Pleasant Bay, Meat Cove, and Cheticamp

I had spoken briefly with the AirBnB owner the night before and asked if there was anyplace to get breakfast nearby. She told me, “The only place to get breakfast in Pleasant Bay is the Mountain View.” So The Mountain View it was! It was still kind of misty and drizzly out but I decided to chance it and get coffee and a breakfast sandwich on their deck. The drizzle started becoming more substantial, though, so I asked to get the breakfast sandwich to go and ate it in the car. At least they gave me a cup of coffee to go! Very nice folks.

We headed north from there, along the Cabot Trail toward some of the northernmost parts of the island. We stopped briefly at Cabots Landing Provincial Park, a wide, grassy area leading up to a small beach.

Continuing ever north, we eventually left the paved roads (though the unpaved roads were in pretty good shape, if a bit corduroy-ed in some places). We reached our destination: Meat Cove. I had hoped to get lunch at their famous Oceanside Chowder Hut, but alas it was closed. Bummer. At least the views were lovely!

On the way back south on the Cabot Trail, I stopped at The Lone Shieling, a re-creation of a Scottish crofter’s hut. With Charlie’s blindness, walks in the woods or on rough trails are just not a great idea, but the trails here were, for the most part, clear and wide. The hut was interesting, but what really took my breath away was the path through the surrounding forest. The forest was comprised of 97% old-growth sugar maple trees, dating back over 350 years. It was simply stunning.

Looking back, It seems odd that this little stopover was the highlight of my visit to Cape Breton Highlands, but it kind of was.

I drove south again into Cheticamp, to find a place for an early dinner. I had my eye on a place that advertised a traditional Acadian menu that even had outdoor seating, but between the time I secured permission from the host and I got Charlie from the car, someone sniped the table from me. Dammit. Instead I put Charlie back into the car and we drove back to Pleasant Bay for dinner at The Rusty Anchor. At least the view from their deck was better than the other place. I ordered the homemade haddock fishcakes, baked beans, chutney, and cornbread. Charlie had to stay just off the deck, but he was happy as a clam.

The fishcakes and beans were good, the cornbread undistinguished. Not a bad meal overall.

After dinner and the short drive back to the Airbnb, I decided to grab a beer and take Charlie down to the harbor to watch the sunset. Let me tell you, that really did not suck.

Next up: Onward to Halifax!

Maritimes Road Trip, Part 1

Day 1: Home to Livonia, Michigan

 This started off well enough, at least. I had the car packed up and ready on time, and drove up to Chad’s place to drop off Nora. It was raining pretty steadily and I found that after applying the sealant to the windshield the wipers were chattering with every pass. I conferred with Piper, and he confirmed my suspicion: they needed to be replaced. Fortunately there was an Autozone just up the road in Kenosha, but after a brief detour and installation of new wipers, Charlie and I were good to go!

Our route took us through downtown Chicago to the Chicago Skyway, then up I-94 to New Buffalo, Michigan. There we stopped for a pit stop for Charlie and a beer break for me at Seedz Brewery. The beer was tasty, though again their no-flights/no-half-pours policy mystifies me. At least they did offer samples, though, so I was able to try a couple and found a sweet potato saison that was quite good.

After that it was back on the road through a number of torrential downpours until we reached our next stop: Candice and Nik‘s place in Ann Arbor. I haven’t seen these fine folks in entirely too long, so it was delightful to have some time to hang out and catch up. I got a tour of Candice’s shop (so many fun toys!) and Nik’s hydroponic garden (something I’ve been tempted by in the past). Candice knocked herself out to prepare an absolutely delicious meal, something I much appreciated. That soup was to die for!

I’m also happy to report that Charlie was a perfect angel during the visit, wandering around a bit then curling up happily and going to sleep. He even finished his dinner, something that is unusual for him while traveling! I take great pains to be a good doggy daddy and a good guest since I know many dog owners are…less than conscientious at times. Today boded well for the coming weeks of travel, I think.

All too soon I had to take my leave and drive just a little further up the road to Livonia, my stopping place for the night. Once we were checked in, Charlie got a nice long walk and happily fell asleep in his dog bed next to my bed.

Day 2: Livonia, Michigan to Mississauga, Ontario

 Driving through the Ontario flatlands today. I got out of Detroit with minimal traffic delays and headed up to the Blue Water Bridge for the border crossing from Port Huron, MI to Sarnia, ON.

The Canadian border agent wasn’t particularly interested in Charlie (though I did have his rabies certificate), just wanted to know if I had anyone else (besides a dog) in the car, and if I had any firearms. After a few other questions I was off into Canada.

I found myself once again driving through periodic torrential downpours, but we made good time. After brief stop at a truck stop in Ayr, we stopped for lunch at Four Fathers Brewing in Cambridge. This was a great find! Good food and good beer, and a lovely shaded patio.

As much as I liked the food and beer, I also really liked the ethos of this place.

After that it was a short drive up to Misssissauga (a Toronto suburb), though traffic on the 401 was terrible, and at one point Waze even detoured me off the highway to avoid a backup due to an accident.

We finally got to the Hyatt Place Mississauga and I took a couple of hours to catch up on work email and requests. I had made dinner plans with Scani and Olefin for a fun-looking restaurant in Burlington, but the possibility of thunderstorms rolling in had us considering alternate plans. Instead, they were kind enough to come over to the hotel and we ordered in (lots of sushi for me, yum!). Scani’s care package of tasty Canadian beers was also much appreciated! The evening was filled with great conversations about the pharmaceutical industry, furry convention management dynamics, and general silliness. It was so good to reconnect with these guys again!

After a last check of work email, I was off to sleep soon after they left.

Day 3: Mississauga, Ontario to Ottawa, Ontario

 Having learned my lesson the previous day, I was feeling someone profligate and after a brief Starbucks stop (because the Hyatt Place breakfasts are pretty grim these days), I headed up to the 407 ETR (Express Toll Route).

Although it was a topic of much Twitter debate, at the time I went through and where I entered and where I left, the total toll will probably be around US$28. Considering I made the entire trip at 70-75 mph and avoided all of the Toronto congestion and construction, I think that was an acceptable expense for me.

Once I was back on the 401 it was pretty smooth sailing. Unfortunately, it’s far enough from the St. Lawrence River that there’s not much in the way of interesting views, though the terrain got more hilly as I proceeded northeast.

We arrived at out lunch stop right on time: Waterfront River Pub in Napanee. We had to wait a bit for a table, but I didn’t mind at all.

Lunch was delicious as well.

We had a nice walk around the park by the restaurant afterward, then it was back into the car for the two-or-so hours to our next destination: Stray Dog Brewing Company, in Orléans, ON. Traffic was…well, city traffic. Bleah. Fortunately we had great company when we got there: Pyhrra and his dogs Ella and Bolt.

We had a great time chatting and the time just flew by. The beer was tasty, and the staff were all about all of the dogs. It turns out that Pyhrra (who I hadn’t met before this) and I have a bunch of mutual friends.

We wrapped up so I could get back to my hotel for evening activities. I’m staying at the Andaz Ottawa, one of Hyatt’s upscale brands. As a slightly-better-than-base member (“Discoverist”) in the World of Hyatt program, I got a nice room upgrade to a large corner room. This did not suck.

We are in the heart of the Byward Market, a fun and interesting area with a ton of shops and restaurants. I met up with Conreeaght for dinner at the Clocktower Brew Pub (yay, more Untappd checkins!). There was much con geekery discussed, and generally catching up. He’s good people, and I really enjoyed the meal with him.

We walked off dinner (or at least attempted to) with a brief tour around the market and the lovely parks nearby.

After that, Charlie and I retired back to our hotel room to wind down for the night.

Even though I brought up Charlie’s bed, that’s not where he wanted to sleep.

Day 4: Ottawa, Ontario

No driving today. I had committed to working remotely on this day, since I have the kind of job where I can’t just disappear for three weeks with no problem. I’m also keeping up with work email through most of the trip, though only dealing with the must urgent of matters then. At least the working conditions were nice.

After putting in a solid morning, I decided a break for lunch was in order. After wandering around Byward Market for a while, I decided on The King Eddy, mainly because they had some nice shady tables in an area that wasn’t too crowded.

The cocktail? “Treat yo self!”

I rushed back to the hotel to prepare for a call with a supplier at 2 PM. We met, agreed on things discussed in email, and were done in…six minutes. The irony is, the supplier’s rep was on vacation too. Misery shared, or something? Anyway, that kind of took the wind out of my sails and I decided I was done for the day. Charlie and I walked over to a place called HeadQuarters, a combination hair salon, coffee shop, cocktail bar, and restaurant.

After that Charlie and I walked around Major’s Hill Park. I had hoped to walk down by the Rideau Canal Locks, but while Charlie is good at going up stairs, going down stairs is a whole other problem. We walked around the market a bit more then retired to the hotel room to relax a bit before dinner.

For dinner, I met up with Pyhrra, Sid, and Arc at Lowertown Brewery (within view of my hotel room!) for a tasty meal and great conversation. Afterward they introduced me to a local delicacy: the BeaverTail. I ordered the “Meh-ple” flavor, and my arteries my take another few weeks to recover.

Unfortunately just as we were finishing our desserts, and unforeseen bit of schedule conflict popped up: It was Canada Night for Les Grands Feux, three-week-long fireworks competition. Charlie reacted as one might expect him to: in sheer terror, trying to run away in some direction, any direction. Pyhrra’s pup Bolt was in a similar state. After walking around we accidentally discovered that parking garages can at least mute the noise somewhat, and we were able to calm the dogs down. With that, we broke up for the night. It was so great to see old friends and make new ones on this trip!

I had a lot of misgivings about this hotel stay because were were on the 12th floor of the hotel. Any time Charlie needed to go out, it was prefaced by a walk through the hallway, and elevator ride, then a walk through the lobby. I’m happy to say he handled it perfectly, and has even learned to sit patiently during the elevator ride so he doesn’t crowd other passengers. If anything, I think he has gotten calmer as this trip has progressed, dealing with public spaces and noisy crowds with aplomb. Witness how we sacked out as we were at the edge of the busy (and loud!) patio at Lowertown Brewery. He really is working out to be the perfect road trip companion

Next up: Into the World of the Francophones!

Maritimes Road Trip, Day 0

Everything is packed and ready to go into the car in the morning. Charlie’s food, medications, bowls, and various accessories are ready to go. Nora’s food and medications are packed and ready to drop off with Chad, who is a wonderful friend who will be taking good care of Nora while I’m gone.

Here’s what the next three weeks look like:

This is looking like it’ll be over 4,000 miles. It’s a lot, but I’m really looking forward to it. Seeing new parts of the world is always exciting anyway, and I’ve never explored Quebec or the Maritimes before. I’m also looking forward to meeting up with great friends along the way, and hopefully meeting some new friends too!

I’ll be blowing up my Twitter along the way, and I am hoping to post daily updated here as well. Stay tuned!

A map of the Great Lakes and Eastern Canada showing a round-trip route from Chicago, Illinois to Halifax, Nova Scotia

On the Road Again: Maritimes Road Trip 2022!

It’s been five years since my last road trip, which means this year’s trip is long overdue! The general idea is to hit the road for three weeks, traveling to Halifax, Nova Scotia and back. And this time I won’t be going alone! I will have Charlie as my co-pilot.

Charlie, a RedMerle Border Collie
Charlie can be my navigator. Sure, he’s blind, but what could possibly go wrong?

The general plan is to stop every couple of days and work from my hotel room. In my current position I can’t just disappear for three weeks, so this seems like a reasonable balance. Plotting things out, I realize I’m probably still driving too much on too many days, but on the flip side I have worked hard to keep all driving legs to five hours or less. All of my hotels are booked, so the itinerary is set:

  • Ann Arbor, Michigan
  • Toronto, Ontario
  • Ottawa, Ontario
  • Québec City, Québec
  • Rivière-du-Loup, Québec
  • Moncton, New Brunswick
  • Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia
  • Halifax, Nova Scotia
  • Lubec, Maine
  • Boston, Massachusetts
  • Binghampton, New York
  • Cleveland, Ohio

A bit of a whirlwind tour even taking 19 days, but I’m really looking forward to it! I’m glad I will have Charlie with me, since he helps with a couple of things. First and foremost his company will be welcome. Having him along means that I will almost always be eating in an outdoor environment (Remember Covid? Yeah, it’s still around.) Finally, everyone wants to stop and say hello and pet Charlie (and he loves it). This provides needed social interaction, since I tend to be rather introverted when traveling alone, and not very good at striking up conversations with strangers. It helps that Charlie adores riding in the car, too!

As with my last road trip, I will be documenting it both on Twitter and here. Keep an eye out!

You Want Some M/M Werewolf Books?

Sometimes a male werewolf and another male werewolf (or another male human) love each other very much. You want some suggestions for m/m werewolf books? Well here you go! I have rated all of these 5/5 (or if a series most of the books 5/5).

In no particular order:

That’s a good start, anyway. Go forth and howl at the moon!

Five Years On: Dear Friends

Dear Dan Dear Friends,

This would have been my fifth letter to Dan, but after a couple of starts I realized that I was repeating what I have written over the last five years. I’m not sure what this means, except that perhaps I’ve said all that I want to say here. If I gave any credence to Kübler-Ross (which I absolutely do not) I suppose this is what “acceptance” would look like.

Instead of focusing on what I have lost, though, I want to focus on what I have, and what I have gained. To do this, let me tell you a story. I’ll preface this by saying much of this happened while I was in a state of shock, so names and faces were sometimes a blur.

Five years ago today, I experienced the worst moment of my life. I was lost, and I had no idea what I was going to do. I came home from the hospital in a daze. A few hours later, something amazing happened. Friends began showing up at my front door, first one, then another, and another, and soon I had a house full of friends. They brought snacks, they brought beverages, they brought frozen food for meals later. It was exactly what I needed, a distraction and a way to keep me from falling into a deep pit of despair. I’m not sure who started that phone chain or who organized what, but I am so, so grateful to all of you.

Two days later, friends collaborated with the Hyatt Regency O’Hare to hold a memorial gathering in Dan’s honor. The Hyatt went above and beyond to accommodate us. Midwest FurFest staffers were invited to join us, as well as all our local friends and extended family. It was an amazing thing to see the O’Hare Ballroom packed with people to remember Dan (or Takaza, as many knew him by). It was so comforting to know how much our community cared and wanted to show that.

Our extended group of friends and family wasn’t just local, though. It took a few months to set things up, but in June 2017 I organized another memorial gathering at a hotel near O’Hare Airport. Almost 150 people came, some local, some flying in from every corner of the country (and Canada!). It was a night for a lot of tears for me and many others, but also laughter and wonderful stories of how Dan touched so many lives. It was also another bit of necessary closure.

Looking back at an awful time in my life, I take comfort knowing that I was surrounded and supported by a remarkable group of friends and family (both found and related). You all kept me going and were there when I needed you. I can only hope that I can be there for you when needed as well.

Thank you.

Short Story Review: Bisclavret, by K.L. Noone

https://www.jms-books.com/images/bisclavret.jpg

A very long time ago, in the very old forests of Brittany, a werewolf loved a king …

The Lord Bisclavret has a secret. A family enchantment. A wolf’s curse, transforming him when the moon is full. He hopes to be a good lord for his people, and he’s always been a loyal king’s man, even if the new king is inexperienced and scholarly. But one betrayal might leave him trapped in wolf-shape forever … unless his king can save him.

Andreas would rather be a University scholar than a king, and has no interest in a royal marriage — desire’s always come slowly, if at all. But he loves his kingdom, so he’ll try to protect it, even when rumors of a man-killing wolf spread across his land. He’ll pick up a sword and go out on a hunt, and hope to keep his people safe.

But the wolf has the eyes of a man, and the scholar-king’s knowledge of folklore and fairy-stories might break a werewolf’s curse … with the help of love.

Very loosely based on the twelfth-century story by Marie de France, Bisclavret features a bisexual werewolf lord, a demisexual king who’d rather be a scholar, some exasperated men-at-arms, and very important stolen clothing.

Bisclavret, by K. L. Noone

I generally don’t review short stories but this was so good I’ll make an exception!

What a lovely story. I love so many things about this – the characters, the framing of the story, the sweet side-comments. The love demonstrated between these two men is what I adore most though. Grand, sweeping romantic gestures are nice, but someone who patiently deals with their love’s forgetfulness or silly habits with fondness? That’s a beautiful thing. Also, I always appreciate a demisexual character, and I like how it is explained in context.

An Opinionated Guide To Restaurants At Midwest FurFest – 2021

This is an update of a post I made in 2019. While I have confirmed the places listed below are still open, I can’t comment on the impact of the pandemic on hours, staffing, etc.

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 Stephens Convention Center, though I will leave it to the reader to find exact locations on Google Maps.

Inside the Hyatt Regency O’Hare

  • Midwest FurFest will not be offering a con suite this year, unfortunately. Issues of sanitation and public health dictated the decision.
  • 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.

In the Stephens 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.

In the Parkway Bank Park Entertainment District

  • 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: Closed, and in the process of being replaced by a craft beer/pizza bar. Unfortunately that is still under construction and will not be open by MFF.
  • Pete’s Dueling Piano Bar: Closed, and replaced by Verlife Dispensary.

Also Nearby

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 While I’ve found their beer decent (nothing stellar, but not bad), apparently they are doing something right as they were named Great American Beer Festival Brewery of the Year for their class. The food is pretty good, too.

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!

Audiobook Review: Under the Whispering Door, by TJ Klune

When a reaper comes to collect Wallace Price from his own funeral, Wallace suspects he really might be dead.

Instead of leading him directly to the afterlife, the reaper takes him to a small village. On the outskirts, off the path through the woods, tucked between mountains, is a particular tea shop, run by a man named Hugo. Hugo is the tea shop’s owner to locals and the ferryman to souls who need to cross over.

But Wallace isn’t ready to abandon the life he barely lived. With Hugo’s help he finally starts to learn about all the things he missed in life.

Under the Whispering Door, by TJ Klune

5 out of 5!

Once again, TJ Klune succeeds in ripping my damn heart out, stomping it flat, then puts it all back together with a fantastic ending.

Wallace Price is a terrible person, and he dies. And no one misses him. I don’t think that it’s giving anything away that there is a terrific redemption arc for him, but along the way there are just so many amazing characters. Mei, Nelson, and Apollo the dog all help Wallace in his journey, and are joined by the enigmatic Manager, the ridiculous Desdemona Tripplethorne, and poor Nancy, stuck in a cycle of grief. For me, though, it is the tender relationship with Hugo, gentle, understated, empathetic-to-a-fault Hugo, was the very best part of the story.

Klune thoughtfully includes a content warning at the beginning about frank discussion of death, and suicide. And it’s warranted – it hits hard sometimes, and as someone whose husband was taken from him suddenly, it hits far too close to home. Still, it was worth it. I very much appreciated Klune’s secular take on death, not denying any religious ideologies, but merely saying that we don’t know, and we never will know until it is our time to find out.

I listened to the audiobook version of this, and Kirt Graves and TJ Klune are an absolutely perfect pairing. I will always hear the characters in Klune’s Green Creek series in Kirt’s voices, and his characterizations of Wallace and Hugo here are absolutely spot on as well.

This is such a great book, and I recommend it highly!

Book Review: Never Underestimate an Omega , by Eden Winters

An alpha leader must have an alpha mate, but Gray wants only one man.

And that man is an omega.

Wolf shifter Gray Collins returns to his home pack to avenge his father’s murder, never expecting to take on the role of leader. Gray is a loner with no desire to tackle the politics of being Pack Alpha. Worse yet, he falls for the man he’s come to depend on—omega Logan Richardson.

According to pack lore, omegas are inferior, nothing more than lowly servants. Or are they? Logan is far too cunning, fierce, and bold to be a low-ranking wolf. While he keeps his head down in public, when they’re alone, Logan stands toe-to-toe with Gray like no one else dares. Mutual respect grows into friendship, friendship into a white-hot desire neither can fight.

Despite the law and the odds, the two wolves form a tentative bond. Together they lead the pack through strife and threats, all while keeping a secret—a secret that could get them both killed, and plunge the pack back into the savage dark ages.

The entire Lycan world is on the brink of a hard-won lesson: Never underestimate the relentless force of an omega.

Never Underestimate an Omega , by Eden Winters

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

This was a lot of fun! Winters deliberately subverts many of the tried-and-true tropes of shifter romances to wonderful effect. Gray is an alpha who really doesn’t want to lead, and Logan is a leader who quietly runs everything from behind the scenes. They suffer from romance-novel levels of communication constipation

There’s not a whole lot of world-building here, though it slowly fills in as the book goes on. You get your requisite alphas, betas, and omegas, as well as deltas and gammas (who are all apparently a bunch of stoners?), and the classification of who does what is an integral part of the story.

There’s a bit of a lull in the middle of the book as the plot loses some steam, but the final act redeems that quite well. Also, this is very much a slow burn, so if you’re looking for erotica this may not be your best choice. It is however an excellent story with fun characters!

Oh, and also I give bonus points for this delightfully meta passage:

Ah, but he’d love to be an alpha’s fated mate—one alpha’s in particular. In his fated mates romance novels, the alpha almost always chose an omega. This omega somehow wound up pregnant if the book happened to be mpreg. No, thank you. No, thank you very much. While he enjoyed mpreg stories, male pregnancy was something he’d rather read about than experience firsthand.

Book Review: Conventionally Yours, by Annabeth Albert

Charming, charismatic, and effortlessly popular, Conrad Stewart seems to have it all…but in reality, he’s scrambling to keep his life from tumbling out of control.

Brilliant, guarded, and endlessly driven, Alden Roth may as well be the poster boy for perfection…but even he can’t help but feel a little broken inside.

When these mortal enemies are stuck together on a cross-country road trip to the biggest fan convention of their lives, their infamous rivalry takes a backseat as an unexpected connection is forged. Yet each has a reason why they have to win the upcoming Odyssey gaming tournament and neither is willing to let emotion get in the way—even if it means giving up their one chance at something truly magical.

Conventionally Yours (True Colors #1), by Annabeth Albert

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Conventionally Yours has some of my favorite tropes: slow-burn, road trip, enemies-to-lovers, hurt/comfort. I appreciate that the setting is deep in fannish culture, and though doesn’t repeatedly point it out glaringly, it also doesn’t just mention it and dispense with it for the rest of the book. The backdrop for the story is the card game Odyssey, a thinly-disguised version of Magic: The Gathering. The snippets of gameplay that are included are illustrative of the personalities of the players, and although some readers have found it tedious I thought it was an interesting additional and a unique way to provide the reader insight to how the characters think.

Main characters Conrad and Alden are each at a crossroads in their lives. Conrad comes across as a bit of the jock stereotype, partying and sleeping around through college, though appearances are of course deceiving. Alden’s moms have been pushing him to medical school, but that’s not what he wants, though exactly what he does want is still hazy for him. Alden is also neurodiverse in some fashion, and I like that the author doesn’t try to get more specific than that. Difficulties reading social cues, anxieties, and other traits suggest underlying issues, but that’s as deep as it gets, and that’s fine. Both are participants in their professor’s YouTube series, “Gamer Grandpa”. Having only interacted over gameplay, each finds the other annoying and exasperating.

Circumstances send Alden and Conrad road-tripping from New Jersey to Las Vegas for the biggest national Odyssey convention, where the winner could join the pro tour and receive the money and (fandom) fame that comes with it. Winning the tournament would mean validation and success for either of them, though the problem is there can be only one winner, a dramatic tension that builds through the story.

I loved both of these guys. I saw bits of people I know in each of them, and that made the story that much more enjoyable. This is very much a slow burn romance, but watching them slowly open up to each other and realize that they’re a better match than they ever would have guessed was so very sweet.

The book is told by alternating the point of view between Alden and Conrad chapter-by-chapter. The audio version did a great job of this by having two brilliant narrators swapping off, Joel Froomkin (aka Joel Leslie) for Alden’s chapters and Kirt Graves for Conrad’s chapters. Joel nails Alden’s Jersey-boy accent, while Kirt’s earnest Midwestern Conrad is dead-on. My only quibble is that this meant that we actually heard four “voices” as, for example, Kirt read Alden’s dialogue in Conrad’s chapters, and that didn’t match Joel’s delivery. I still like the approach, though, and I’m happy to see it is used again in the sequel.

This is a fun, geeky, and very satisfying story of an intense rivalry that becomes an sweet relationship. I happily recommend it!

Judging a Book By Its Cover

Just for fun, I put together a list of how I decide what goes on my to-read shelf. These are superficial, judging-a-book-by-its-cover criteria, but there are so many possibly-interesting books out there I needed to create some guidelines to follow.

First off, there’s the Goodreads rating. Now, I know better than to rely on crowdsourced ratings from the Internet (see also: Yelp, TripAdvisor, etc.) however they can be helpful in aggregate. In general I look at reviews with at least 500 ratings to give it any weight. After that, my low-water mark is 3.70 (out of 5). A book would have to be pretty enticing for me to pick it up if the rating is below that.

What will definitely make me pick up a book: m/m paranormal romances go to the front of the line. Shifters, particularly wolves, are obvious as well. I’m a sucker for May-December romances, and the hurt/comfort trope as well. I’m a big fan of urban fantasy, and if there are queer characters so much the better (see also: Kai Gracen). Certain authors get my immediate attention too: Lily Morton, Kaje Harper, N.R. Walker, Andrea Speed, and a few others.

What will make me steer clear of a book? BDSM isn’t my cup of tea at all. Vampires are right out. Ew. MPreg is just so wildly anatomically improbable that I can’t take it seriously, but if the story is good I can disregard it. I steer clear of heterosexual romances, unless there’s a strong fantasy story with it (see also: Mercy Thompson).

Book Review: Galaxies and Oceans, by N.R. Walker

Seizing his one chance to escape, Ethan Hosking leaves his violent ex-boyfriend, leaves his entire life, and walks into the path of a raging bushfire. Desperate to start over, a new man named Aubrey Hobbs walks out of the fire-ravaged forest, alive and alone. With no ID and no money, nothing but his grandfather’s telescope, he goes where the Southern Cross leads him.

Patrick Carney is the resident lighthouse keeper in Hadley Cove, a small town on the remote Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia. After the tragic death of his lover four years ago, he lives a solitary life; just him, a tabby cat, the Indian and Southern Oceans, and a whole lot of loneliness. He’s content with his life until a stranger shows up in town and turns Patrick’s head.

Patrick never expected to be interested in anyone else.

Aubrey never expected to be happy.

Between Aubrey’s love of the stars and Patrick’s love of the ocean, these two fragile hearts must navigate new waters. If they can weather the storm of their pasts, they could very well have a love that eclipses everything.

Galaxies and Oceans, by N.R. Walker

I am a big fan of N.R. Walker’s character-driven contemporary stories, and this book is no exception. When they first meet, these men are emotionally battered, but surviving. Aubrey is a survivor of horrible domestic abuse, and Patrick is grieving for his husband, lost at sea four years earlier.

I really loved Aubrey, who went from a relatively pampered life to homeless and struggling to get by on the streets. It seems a stretch, but it becomes apparent that he has the strength of character to do whatever is necessary to keep going, and to avoid being pulled back into his old life.

Patrick is living in a small town and keeping relative solitude in his job as lighthouse keeper. He’s living his life, but it’s the emotional equivalent of just keeping the lights on. There’s only one other gay man in town, and he’s not interested (I do love that the whole town seems to be cheering for him throughout the story though).

The circumstances which conspire to throw Patrick and Aubrey together are a little contrived, but given the genre I’ll allow it. It’s a slow burn as the feelings between the two grow. I can sympathize with Patrick’s feelings of guilt as he comes to terms with his feelings for Aubrey, leading to this wonderful passage:

Love him.

I can see why you love him.

Those two words stopped me. I did still love him, but it was in the past. I didn’t want to say I loved him in past tense, because that sounded like it was over and forgotten. And it wasn’t. He wasn’t forgotten. He never would be. But it wasn’t love like it was when he was alive. It hadn’t lessened any, it just became something else. It was a permanent part of my life. Like a background hum, a comforting presence that helped me get through dark times. It was still there, and I didn’t want it to disappear; I wanted that hum, that white noise that comforted me.

This is such a remarkable observation, and I adore Patrick all the more for it.

As frequently occurs in Walker’s books, the setting itself is almost a character in the story. Here, we are on Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia, with nothing but open ocean between it and Antarctica. She describes it as a place of bare rocks and sea, an austere place but with beauty to be found if you know where to look. That fits this story so very well (also, I would love to see the Aurora Australis someday!).

As always, Joel Leslie does a fabulous job performing this book. His character voices are unique and easy to follow, and the production quality is very good – I’ve become accustomed to listening for awkward edits and wildly varying audio levels, and I heard none of that. On aside note, I noted with amusement that Leslie seems to have a uniform “Australian woman” voice with only slight variations so it can be difficult to distinguish between those characters, but that’s just a minor quibble. I have loved all of his performances over the books I have heard from him, and seeing him as narrator is a strong selling point for when I am considering purchasing an audiobook.

Four Years On: Dear Dan

Dear Dan,

Image: Dan hugging Charlie

What a crazy year this has been, unlike anything we could have even dreamed of. I’ve been thinking about how we would have dealt with the ever-worsening pandemic. We’d both be working from home, and in each other’s space more often than not. There would have been friction, but we would have worked through it. We faced a lot of adversity together, and that was what made it all bearable: we did it together.

The worst part of the last twelve months has been the isolation. You were always my rock, the one I could lean on when I needed support, and I really could have used that. If not for Nora and Charlie I’d be in a far worse place, but they have helped keep me afloat. You only had Nora’s company for less than a year, and Charlie’s even less than that. Although we both agreed to adopt them when the time came, you had to persuade me each time. In a way, they’re a lasting gift from you, one that I treasure.

It never fails to surprise me that it’s been four years. It feels like a long time, but also like yesterday. Last week I was explaining an issue with the bank and mentioned your passing and it was like stating a fact, neither good nor bad, but something that happened. Time brings some degree of emotional distance, I suppose; not from you, but from the event. I guess it’s a coping mechanism. Our lives were (and continue to be) intertwined, and every day I am reminded of you in a thousand different ways. I smile at the reminders, remembering our time together, more often than I feel the pain of loss, and that’s as it should be.

I love you so much, Dan.

Book Review: Spellbound (Magic in Manhattan #1) by Allie Therin

To save Manhattan, they’ll have to save each other first…

1925 New York

Arthur Kenzie’s life’s work is protecting the world from the supernatural relics that could destroy it. When an amulet with the power to control the tides is shipped to New York, he must intercept it before it can be used to devastating effects. This time, in order to succeed, he needs a powerful psychometric…and the only one available has sworn off his abilities altogether.

Rory Brodigan’s gift comes with great risk. To protect himself, he’s become a recluse, redirecting his magic to find counterfeit antiques. But with the city’s fate hanging in the balance, he can’t force himself to say no.

Being with Arthur is dangerous, but Rory’s ever-growing attraction to him begins to make him brave. And as Arthur coaxes him out of seclusion, a magical and emotional bond begins to form. One that proves impossible to break—even when Arthur sacrifices himself to keep Rory safe and Rory must risk everything to save him.

Spellbound (Magic in Manhattan #1) by Allie Therin, Narrated by Erik Bloomquist

5 out of 5!

This book is fun as hell. Therin has done a fine job of creating the look and feel of 1925 New York City, as well as touching on the differences among the social strata. The paranormal world building is lightly overlaid on real events and places to create a compelling history, as well as a good deal of suspense and mystery.

I keep telling myself that I don’t like historical romances (paranormal or not) because of the dismal attitudes toward homosexuality. K.J. Charles proved how wrong I was (about the romances, not the homophobia, alas), though, and now Allie Therin has soundly put the idea to rest.

Rory and Ace are such a great couple, and the cast of characters are a hoot as well. I especially loved Rory’s arc throughout the book as he learns that he doesn’t have to hide and try to escape everyone’s notice, and is in fact someone worthy of another’s affection. Ace is cynical and snarky, and a perfect foil for Rory’s naiveté. I am really looking forward to seeing their relationship develop over the rest of the series.

I listened to the audio version of this, performed by Erik Bloomquist. As frequently happens with prolific performers, I have heard his work in other books (Charlie Adhara’s Big Bad Wolf series). It took a bit to recalibrate to the voices of this particular book, but once that was settled I really enjoyed Bloomquist’s performance. Not only does he provide clear difference between that characters’ voices, he captures their vocal tics and accents well. His dry, sardonic delivery of Ace’s dialogue is just perfect, too.

If you’re looking for an entertaining and at times suspenseful historical paranormal romance, this is an outstanding choice!

Pic-a-Day 2021

I have started a new project for 2021, one photo for each day of the year. This is my second attempt at something like this. The first time was using a DSLR camera, and because I don’t carry that everywhere things quickly fell apart. Now that I am carrying my phone around everywhere (and the camera quality is likely better than that old DSLR!) I think that this time around will be easier. I will be gathering all of the photos in one album, which you can click through below:

02 January 2021

2020: A Year In Books

(Previous Year-in-Review posts: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016)

At the end of each year, I like to look back and highlight some one my favorite books of the year. These were selected from books I read in 2020, not necessarily what was first published in 2020. First, the numbers:

This word cloud of my Goodreads shelf names gives a good idea of my usual reading fare
  • Books read this year: 103
  • Did Not Finish: 2% (man, were they dreadful)
  • 3-Star Ratings: 16%
  • 4-Star Ratings: 35%
  • 5-Star Ratings: 49%
  • Number of Audiobooks: 39
  • Pages Read/Listened To: 24,242

(I’ve explained elsewhere why there’s usually no 1-star or 2-star ratings, and why my ratings skew higher.)

That’s enough of that. On to the good stuff! As it turned out my favorite books of the year easily broke down into categories: m/m romance and urban fantasy. Four of my top five m/m romance books/series were set in Australia, and three of those have an asexual/demisexual main character. The latter is a lot easier to explain than the former: I identify as a gray-asexual/demisexual (homoromantic) man, and representation matters. That aside, with the quality of their writing and descriptions of the locales, all of these authors have made a powerful case for visiting Down Under!

My absolute favorite book of the year is one that I recently reviewed here, The Gentle Wolf (Perth Shifters #2), by Pia Foxhall. I urge you to ignore the fact that it’s #2 in the series – it can be read as a standalone. Great worldbuilding and relatable characters (not just the main characters – the entire cast!) elevate a strong story into something really special. Read my full review here.

Continuing on the theme of Australian shifters, Furborn by Isabelle Rowan was a delight. The setting, in the sheep country of Victoria outside of Melbourne, was new to me and the descriptions of the area were fascinating. This is a story of fox shifters slowly being forced into hiding by the encroachment of modern living, and of one fox who befriends a farmer’s son who would rather be anywhere else. It takes its time and allows the relationship between the two to slowly develop, and I found the conclusion wonderfully satisfying.

Moving on to contemporary stories, I enjoyed N. R. Walker’s Upside Down very much. No one writes adorkable like Walker, and it is always quite endearing. Sidney resident Jordan is a lovable goof, but also a complete mess as he tries to reconcile his asexuality with his attraction to Hennessey. I can identify closely with coming to terms of where you fall on the asexual spectrum, and as such this book really spoke to a lot of my experiences. This is a lovely, low-angst story that is well-worth your time. Here is my full review of the book.

Keira Andrews’ Honeymoon for One is an adorable collection of romance tropes – hurt/comfort, friends-to-lovers, and probably a few others – in a single story. Ethan finds his fiancé in bed with another man the night before their wedding, then says to hell with it and goes on their (pre-planned, pre-paid) honeymoon by himself. There are complications, of course, including the fact that Ethan is losing his hearing. I thought this aspect was handled thoughtfully, and really felt for Ethan’s struggles trying to navigate a world where full hearing is taken for granted. The book turns into a bit of a travelogue as the tour bus he had booked travels from Cairns to Sidney, all while Ethan and Clay, the tour bus driver, fall for one another. I listened to this as an audiobook, and it was a case where the performance by the narrator (the ever-talented Joel Leslie) really enhanced the experience. He does accents and dialects so well, and I appreciated how the effect of Ethan’s hearing loss came across.

Finally in my Top Five are the first two books in Lily Morton’s Finding Home series: Oz and Milo. These take place in the Cornish countryside in the UK, and are a fine example of how compelling great characters can be. Oz is from a working-class Irish/English family and somehow winds up with the job of Estate Manager for the Earl of Ashworth (but please, really, just call him Silas). Oz is delightfully snarky and all of the dialogue is so much fun! The chemistry between Oz and Silas is so good. Milo, on the other hand, grew up in an aristocratic family. He is sweet and shy, and usually has good control over his stutter unless flustered. He is definitely flustered by his older brother’s best friend Niall, a brash and coarse man who was always protective of Milo. The blossoming relationship between the two made me smile. There’s one more book in the series; I’ll be starting off 2021 with that!

Moving on to my other favorites, these fell neatly into the urban fantasy genre. The market is a crowded field, and it seems that some get tucked away into the m/m romance niche because the main characters happen to be men who love other men. This spins into a big rant for me about book marketing and genres and institutionalized homophobia that I’m not going to get into right now. Anyway, here are five urban fantasy books/series that I think are worthy of note.

I’ll start out with Hailey Turner’s Soulbound series, and oh my gosh! This is one of those series where I want to buy a bunch of copies of Book 1 to shove into people’s hands, saying “Just read this. You’ll thank me.” The worldbuilding here is fantastically intricate, interweaving magic users as part of the military, direct intervention by gods from all possible pantheons (and what a pain in the ass they can be), and all variety of supernatural beings. Multiple plotlines are woven through the series, and Turner keeps everything going at a breakneck pace in all five books (and Book 6 is coming in March 2021!). Patrick Collins, former Mage Corps soldier and now federal agent is reluctantly in the vanguard against the demonic forces of hell (in all its incarnations), accompanied by Jonothan de Vere, his smoking hot (and badass) werewolf boyfriend. Each book takes us to a different locale, with some, um, impressive collateral damage (the events in Chicago are pretty epic). There are a lot of characters involved and a lot of action, but I never had any problem following what was going on. Turner has done an amazing job with the plotting and character arcs here. I listened to all of these as audiobooks, and Gary Furlong is masterful in keeping the different character voices separate and easy to follow. If you like audiobooks, these are a great choice!

Keeping with the action/adventure theme, K.D. Edwards’ The Hanged Man (The Tarot Sequence Book 2) was every bit as good as its predecessor The Last Sun, which was one of my Best of 2019 choices. Great character development, some surprising plot twists, and hints of ever more sinister goings-on ratchet up the tension. Here is my detailed review of The Last Sun.

Turning to a very different setting and tone, we have T.J. Klune’s House in the Cerulean Sea. This is one case where the blurb says it the best:

Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.

When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management he’s given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears and determine whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days.

But the children aren’t the only secret the island keeps. Their caretaker is the charming and enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, who will do anything to keep his wards safe. As Arthur and Linus grow closer, long-held secrets are exposed, and Linus must make a choice: destroy a home or watch the world burn.

The descriptions of the Department in Charge of Magical Youth immediately put me in mind of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. This contrasts starkly with the idyllic Marysas Island Orphanage. There’s a lot going on in this book beneath the obvious, and the hints of how Linus’ demeanor changes throughout the story are a lot of fun to follow. This was different from any other book I’ve read in recent memory (although there are some interesting parallels that could be drawn with Klune’s The Bones Beneath My Skin).

Finally, a series that is plain ol’ mainstream [heterosexual] urban fantasy. Given its success, it is not a great surprise that Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson universe has given rise to a whole genre of action-oriented urban fantasies with strong female protagonists (which is pretty awesome, I think). Some series have been less than successful, but K. N. Banet’s Jacky Leon books are a whole lot of fun. The setup is intriguing: modern-day society, but the existence of werewolves (whose wolf looks more like a dire wolf) is known to the public. What is not known is the existence of the rest of the supernatural world – vampires, fey, and other werecreatures. Jackie Leon is a werecat (whose cat looks more like a saber-toothed tiger). She’s trying to lay low and live a quiet life, running a dive bar in Jacksonville, Texas. Fate has other plans for her, of course. I’ve read (well, listened to) the first three books of the series, and I’ve been really impressed. The plotting is tight and the action moves along at a good clip. The cast of characters is great fun, and the political intrigue adds an additional tension to the events that I like. I look forward to reading the other books in this series!

Finally, although I like to use these wrap-ups to highlight great books of the year, I have a dishonorable mention: Anne Bishop’s The Others alternate-history series. The first two books were interesting, if written a bit archly, and quite slow-moving until the final act. The third book is when it all comes crashing down, though. Some egregious retconning and flat-out stupidity on the part of the main characters left me sorely disappointed, feeling like the first two books were a waste of time. I’m out.

Anyway, to end on a happier note, here are some of the honorable mentions from this year:

My goal in 2020 was to read 100 books, which I just slightly surpassed. I’m setting the same goal for 2021, but I am hoping to beat that! We’ll see how the year plays out. Happy New Year, all!

Book Review: The Gentle Wolf, by Pia Foxhall (Perth Shifters #2)

The Gentle Wolf, by Pia Foxhall

Omega Aodhan Donne has buried his past, his life revolves around his chocolaterie, Little Star, a place where he creates sweet and happy memories. Demisexual, and used to being shoved in the friends category by the time he falls for someone, he throws all his energy into creating romantic moments for others in his store, neglecting his needs. His highlight for two years has been the man who visits his shop every Tuesday.

Beta Thomas Wilson is an historian who believes the past should be unearthed, working as the curator at Western Australia’s only shifter museum, educating children and adults about shifter history. Quiet and hard-working, he allows himself to visit Aodhan at Little Star once a week, as a treat.

When Aodhan decides he wants to get know Thomas better, he offers him a window into a complicated history that influenced the lives of shifters in the whole of Australia, and faces the possibility of Thomas learning too much about his dark past.

After deciding to take it slow, their unconventional relationship becomes a whirlwind, sweeping them up together and blowing open the doors hiding their painful pasts. They couldn’t face their truths alone, but if they’re willing to face them together, Aodhan and Thomas may get the love they’ve always yearned for.

Content warning (contains spoilers)
domestic emotional abuse, child sexual abuse

Rating: 5 out of 5!

I’m calling it now – this is the best book I’ve read in 2020. I loved Aodhan and Thomas so much, and they were so good for each other.

I’m a gay man who identifies as demisexual/gray-asexual, and many of Aodhan’s experiences and feelings as an adult really struck a chord with me. The author captures the emotions and worries of someone who is demisexual exceptionally well.

This is the slowest of slow-burn love stories, but I loved that. Both men have deep emotional scars from their past. I especially appreciate that their pasts weren’t presented and then – well, that’s over with, now on to the rest of the story. We are the sum of our history, and that can inform our emotions and needs. This is the case for Aodhan and Thomas. Over two years they have (unknowingly) laid the foundation for a strong relationship while becoming acclimated to each other. Watching these two men come to lean on each other for support was wonderfully sweet and gratifying.

While this is a shifter book in a genre that frequently treats the shifter subgenre as trope-laden connect-the-dots stories, The Gentle Wolf digs deeper. The personal histories, particularly Aodhan’s, can affect the larger world, and the hints of connections outside the immediate story setting were intriguing. I would especially love to hear more of the Noongar (SW Australia Aboriginal) shifters. Foxhall’s obvious respect for the Noongar culture and traditions is very much appreciated.

This is the second book in the Perth Shifters series, but I think it stands alone quite well. The first book (Blackwood) was enjoyable and worth seeking out (I rated it 4 out of 5) but it is by no means as deep or nuanced as The Gentle Wolf, though it is a good introduction to the author’s worldbuilding. I recommend them both, but I especially love The Gentle Wolf!

As a side note, between N. R. Walker, Keira Andrews, and now Pia Foxhall, I kind of want to spend a month in Australia to see all of the wonderful places mentioned in their books (and I know that still wouldn’t be enough time)!

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)

No low ratings? Why is that?

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

Greatest Hits

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

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

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

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

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

Honorable Mentions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: In This Iron Ground, by Marina Vivancos

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

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

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

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

In This Iron Ground, by Marina Vivancos

Rating: 4.75 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 5 out of 5!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Quick Opinionated Guide To Restaurants at Midwest FurFest

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

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

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

So first there’s inside the hotel.

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

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

In the convention center:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not so much.

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

Rating: 4.75 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

Audiobook Review: Slide, by Garrett Leigh

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

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

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

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

Story: 3.5 out of 5

Audio Performance: 3.5 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Locked in Silence, by Sloane Kennedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4.75 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4.0 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Night of the Living Manny, by Julia Talbot

Rating: 3.25 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Wolf Around the Corner, by Aidee Ladnier

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

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

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

Wolf Around the Corner, by Aidee Ladnier

Rating: 4 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Rome and Jules, by Tara Lain

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

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

Rome and Jules, by Tara Lain

Rating: 4 out of 5

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

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

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

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

It’s Been a Year

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

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

And then those dreams were just…gone.

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

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

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

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

I’m think gonna make it, Dan.

Book Review: Ghost Wolf, by Hurri Cosmos

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

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

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

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

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

Yep, Ghost Wolf to the rescue.

2.25 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Blackbird in the Reeds, by Sam Burns

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

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

Blackbird in the Reeds, by Sam Burns

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Love Bites and Moon Born (Feral Hearts Tales, vol. 1 & 2), by D. River

Ryder has been friends with Tucker since they were in the first grade. They grew up together, they joined the Marines together and they moved to the vast metropolis of New York City together. Nothing could tear them apart.

Or so they believed. When they get bitten by a mysterious creature, they find themselves drawn together in a whole new way that is both exciting and terrifying. Neither of them is prepared to face the feelings they now have or what that could mean for their future.

This is the story of their quest for a cure, which takes them through such locales as Little Avalon, the Wild Wood and the haunted ruins of Old Syracuse. Together they must face down dangers and challenges even as they grapple with the life-shift of now being mated werewolves.

Join Ryder and Tucker for a fun, romantic adventure set in an Earth much like our own, but where magic and magical creatures are as much a part of the world as science and technology.

[blurb for Moon Born omitted due to spoilers for Love Bites]

Love Bites and Moon Born (Feral Hearts Tales, vol. 1 & 2), by D. River

Rating: 4.75 out of 5

First off, these books are so much better than their covers. OK, now that I have that out of my system…

I originally read these in 2016, as I was just starting into the m/m paranormal romance genre. Re-reading them now that I have a little more context makes the books that much better.

D. River has created a unique world here, one where the paranormal and everyday society as we know it exist side by side. In the 20th century there was a war between the two sides and an uneasy truce was established, with the human government having the upper hand and segregating the paranormal folk (vampires, fairies, wizards, etc.) to small enclaves. Meanwhile outside the cities, faerie elements run rampant in the Wild Places. There even the very trees actively work to repel human invaders.

Amidst all of this is the legend of the werewolves, or lycans, created by Native Americans to defend against European settlers. Lycans were fearsome creatures, killing machines bent on destroying humans. The last lycan was killed over a hundred years ago, and they were wiped from the face of the earth. And so the scene is set…

The heart of these stories is Ryder and Tucker, friends since childhood, inseparable since then. I loved these guys so much! The author has created a couple of relatable, well-rounded characters with clear and understandable motivations. While the gay-for-you/out-for-you trope is usually fingernails on a chalkboard for me, I like how their relationship is handled here. The boundaries between platonic and romantic love prove to be more flexible than expected, and I’m not gonna lie – Tucker’s alpha dominance is really freaking sexy! The story is told from Ryder’s point of view, and it’s a good choice. He’s a lovable goof, strong in his emotions and his love for Tucker. He’s a perfect foil to Tucker’s somber and stoic demeanor.

The secondary characters are delightful too. River is skilled as building a character with an economy of exposition and without resorting to stereotypes or archetypes, so even if a character isn’t on the page long you have a good idea of they kind of person they are.

The other thing that I really liked about these books is there is a sense of humor throughout which keeps the story from getting too weighty. Even better, some of that humor shows up in the (smoking hot!) sex scenes, which I love. It keeps everyone involved from taking themselves too seriously. The plot here is fast-paced, and there are some nice over-arching mysteries as the characters deal with their own problems too. There are so many plot threads here that D. River could easily write a dozen more books, and I’d happily read every one of them!

These books are a great combination of interesting setting, great characters, and an intriguing and fast-paced plot. I highly recommend these!

Follow-Up (added 13 February 2018): In email correspondence with D. River (a very pleasant fellow!) I have learned that for all that I enjoyed these books, they just didn’t take off among shifter/paranormal romance fans. The sad reality of being a professional author is that writing books that won’t sell isn’t a great way to put food on the table. While I’m disappointed, I absolutely understand and will definitely seek out other books from Lightbane Publications.