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.

Book Review: Ghost of a Chance (Requiem Inc. #1), by Kris T. Bethke

Ghost of a Chance (Requiem Inc. #1), by Kris T. Bethke

Rating: 5 out of 5!

Ghostwalker Blake Jones dies every day. It’s his job and how he helps trapped souls cross over. But to return to life, he needs an anchor. His new partner, Derek Scott, is a surprise. Not only is he male, but his appearance belies a caring and gentle heart. Despite attraction and a strengthening relationship, they know they shouldn’t take things further.

But there’s a big difference between knowing and doing.

Their growing love presents a problem, though not the one they expect. Blake and Derek have to decide if they should take their relationship to the most permanent level-an unbreakable metaphysical bond. Doing so offers both risk and unimaginable reward. Can Blake let go of his fears and put his complete trust in Derek in order to have the happily ever after he’s always craved?

I have a confession to make: looking over my list of favorite books from 2017 and especially after reading this book, I’ve come to the conclusion that I am a complete sucker for the hurt/comfort trope. This is where one (or both) of the main characters are hurt physically or psychologically and are comforted by the other character. I guess the only reason I feel a little guilty about it is that it can feel exploitative if not handled properly, but that’s pretty much my own internal hang-ups. Anyway, the most direct way to my heart (and likely make me tear up) is to have two guys caring and providing comfort for each other. This explains why this book blew me away.

At its heart this is a character-driven story, and not only are the main characters good, so are the secondary characters. Blake is a bit of a mess. He’s impetuous, emotional, and due to a long series of poor choices in boyfriends, extremely reluctant to consider another relationship. Derek is so many things Blake is not: calm, unwavering, and willing to commit to a man he finds attractive in mind, body, and soul. They share a deep caring and dedication, though, and this is what brings them together. They just click, although this can lead to other complications at work.

I loved the secondary characters, and that we got just enough of them to want to learn more. Blake’s brother Sam, mentor Avery, and Michael King, who is both Sam and Blake’s boss, yet Sam has an unrequited crush on him. Add in the fact that King is a telepath and carrying such a secret crush may not be so secret. Might this be explored more in the next book in the series? I can hope!

Structure-wise, the story has a good flow. It’s not particularly complicated and that’s OK. Bethke does a nice job of taking an aspect of the story that could be horrifying (the fact that Blake must be literally killed every day to do his job – and how do you kill someone whose body heals almost instantly, yet still allow them to come back to life when necessary?) and making it seem almost routine, though no less disturbing. The world-building is minimal, except to note that it is pretty much exactly the same as current day with the exception that things like Requiem, Inc. exist and are commonly known. This doesn’t stand in the way of the story at all, though.

This is one of those books where story, characters, and setting all come together to form a beautifully cohesive whole. I loved it so much, and enthusiastically recommend it!

Book Review: Archie’s Accidental Kidnapping, by Toni Griffin

Archie’s Accidental Kidnapping (Hounds of the Hunt #1, by Toni Griffin

Long nights hunting supernatural beings means little time for love in Adze’s life. He and his pack mates are what protects Melbourne, and Australia, from the things that go bump in the night—very real spirits and demons who prey on humans.

Every day Archie’s life is consumed by work as he desperately tries to pay back his student debt and a loan a boyfriend took out in his name. Tired and alone, he dreams of a future with someone to love and hold him through the night.

One fateful encounter with a nephilim gone bad changes both their worlds forever. Now Adze just has to convince his heart mate he didn’t actually kidnap him.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

There’s a really good book hidden in here somewhere. Unfortunately, it’s covered by enough issues things became problematic for me. I really liked the characters, and there is a lot of potential in the pack of hellhounds that Adze leads, even if I never felt of an understanding of Adze’s character. Archie is great, though. He’s an everyday guy whose work is his life; he’s deeply in debt due to the indiscretions of a past boyfriend and has to work two jobs to make ends meet. He’s a smart, independent man who makes a good foil for Adze’s overprotectiveness.

The world-building is minimal, but I can roll with it. I would love to know more about the supernatural elements which are hidden from our world and how they work, but we’re not given much to go on. I was left with a lot of questions – we know what happens when a supernatural being goes bad, but what about when they’re good. Do they even know they are supernatural?

On top of all of this, we come to the basic elements of the story, and that’s where I started to have problems. Apparently, this was originally a short story that was fleshed out into a full novel. This may explain for the unevenness in tone that completely took me out of the story. It’s a cute story about Adze courting Archie, until suddenly it gets a whole lot more grim. After that we suddenly switch back to a lighter touch in a series of scenes that are WAY too detailed and bog things down.

Then there’s the editing. If a story is good enough I can overlook a lot of sins, but the number of misplaced commas, sentence fragments, and outright incorrect word choices (“The feeling of safety they imbibed every time they were around wrapped Archie up like a blanket…” Imbued, perhaps?) made it clear that this needs a lot more editing. On a side note: I’ve had three years of Latin. If someone mentioned the phrase “Cor Coeunt” colloquially, I wouldn’t have any idea what the hell they were talking about (and depending on their accent I might be appalled at their use of a vulgarity!).

If the blurb intrigues you, then by all means give this one a shot. I will probably pick up the next book to see where things go.

Book Review: Breaking the Ice, by Tali Spencer

For Matt Wasko, February in Wisconsin is the best time of the year, and ice fishing on Lake Winnebago is his idea of heaven. With shanty villages cropping up, barbeques on the ice, monster sturgeon to spear, and plenty of booze to keep everybody warm, things couldn’t be better — until a surprise storm hits and an uninvited guest shows up at his frozen doorstep.

Matt’s not happy to see John Lutz, a coworker who cracks lame gay jokes at Matt’s expense. But John’s flimsy new ice shelter got blown across the lake, and it wouldn’t be right to leave even a jerk outside to freeze. Would it?

In the close quarters of Matt’s fabulous ice shanty, between stripping off wet clothes, misadventures with bait, and a fighting trophy-sized walleye, the two men discover creative ways to keep the cold at bay. And when John confesses his long-running attraction, Matt must decide if he can believe in John’s change of heart — and crack the ice for a chance at finding love.

Breaking the Ice, by Tali Spencer

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

When I read fiction that takes place in an area I know well, I always pay extra-close attention. If an author is going through the trouble of setting their story in a specific place, they’d better get it right or it takes me out of the story completely. And yes, I may still be salty about Jim Butcher’s geographical mishaps in Chicago in the first Dresden Files book, but that’s neither here nor there.

I’m pleased to say that Tali Spencer’s novella Breaking the Ice nails Wisconsin. I’ve been to many of these places (or places like them) and I’ve met these people , or people like them. The bulk of the story takes place in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, though I was amused at the brief passage that takes place in Milwaukee. I’ve been to that neighborhood, and I know exactly the type of house that was described.

John is from Milwaukee by way of Kenosha, now working north of Menomonee Falls. He’s done a great job of keeping a low profile as a gay man in an oh-so-straight blue collar, Midwestern world. Too good of a job, unfortunately, and he’s reaching a point in his life where he is realizing that maybe he needs to rethink that approach. Matt, on the other hand, is out and proud. He puts up with the gay jokes at work and at bowling league, and appears to thrive in spite of it. When he is out fishing on Lake Winnebago among friends, though, nobody cares if he’s gay, bi, or straight – he’s at home in “Waskoville”, an exuberant ad-hoc community that appears on the ice when it’s time to fish for sturgeon, a tradition dating back to his grandfather and carried on by Matt.

At its heart, this is a story of a guy who has screwed up his life, and trying to figure out what we can do to fix it. Watching the John and Matt work out something between them is adorable, and the happily ever after had me tearing up. If I had any complaint it’s that the events at the end of the story seem a bit rushed, but then it’s a novella, not a novel. I really enjoyed this story and happily recommend it!

Book Review: The Grizzly Rim Series, by Mia West

Launch the Hunt – 4.25 out of 5
Surrender the Chase – 4.5 out of 5
Embrace the Beast – 4.75 out of 5

What a grand ride this is! Mia West brings us Grizzly Rim, a remote village in Alaska populated by shifters of all varieties. In this world, shifters keep to themselves and are unknown to most of the population, though this fact has only small bearing on the plotlines here. The focus in these books is firmly on the characters: their worries and foibles, their hopes and failures.

It’s ironic to say this of men who turn into animals, but West has created remarkably human characters here. They are not all young, buff, and hung. Dmitri is pushing 40 and a little chubby. Mac is in his 30s and a big hairy bear of a guy (figuratively and literally). None of these guys are perfect, and that’s OK. A big part of the joy of these books is seeing these guys navigate their flaws and strong points to find out just how they fit together.

Some comments on the individual books:

Launch the Hunt

Bush pilot John Tillman never expected to raise his kid sister. As her graduation approaches, he can almost taste the freedom of the empty nest in his near future-to fly in his eagle form for days…walk around his house naked…maybe even bring a man into his bed for the first time in years. To save her college fund, John’s taking every run his plane can handle and doing his best to keep his shifting under the radar. Then his latest job walks into the local bar with a strange gait and velvety Southern drawl.

After three tours, two new legs, and one long-overdue divorce, the only thing Logan Maddox is counting on now is a distraction-free hunting trip with the son whose teen years he’s almost missed. Logan isn’t a hero, just a guy trying to readjust with new parameters. If he hasn’t quite put into practice the gay identity he’s finally accepted…well, it’s not top priority. But fate has its own tactics, and the only pilot available to ferry them looks like a recruitment ad for Alaska’s hottest unit, and arrives with a seventeen-year-old girl in tow.

This is a fun, light introduction to the series, and the shortest of the three. John is an out gay man (heterosexuality appears to be rare in Grizzly Rim, at least among the regulars at Mac’s bar). Logan is just coming to terms with being gay, on top of dealing with a teenage son and a life-changing disability. The interactions between John and Logan are fun to watch, and although the ending is predictable it’s still worth the wait.

Surrender the Chase

For wolf shifter Dmitri Sernov, life bites. His late-night hunts leave him winded, the twelfth rewrite of his novel is crap, and his last good lay was five drafts ago. He’s staring down forty with a creative well as empty as his bed. The last thing he needs is a beautiful, intimidating, obnoxious pup bent on exposing Dmitri’s underbelly… and everything else that’s gone soft.

Thierry Marrou has burned every bridge from Montreal to Juneau. Once a prospect for Canada’s Olympic hockey team, he’s just been kicked off a piddling local squad in Nowhere, Alaska. But one whiff of the silver wolf on the opposing bench was enough to confirm that the erotic dreams drawing Thierry across a continent have a very real-and very cranky-source.

Now we’re cooking! Dmitri can be a right grumpy bastard and Thierry is fiery and impulsive. Putting these two together is an inspired pairing. The repartee, the outbursts, and seeing the two adjust to one another make for a great read. West nails the banter between these two, and throws in some amusing meta-commentary on the writing process along the way. In the end, Thierry and Dmitri are a wonderful couple together.

Embrace the Beast

Nate Landry is living a whopper of a lie. He’s an otter shifter, that much is true. Folks say he’s the best river guide in the region, with an uncanny knack for finding the hottest fishing spots. And he has a good friend again, a guy he likes more than he probably should. Everything will be fine, as long as nobody-especially Mac-finds out he used to be Charlie Beauchamp, an elite Coast Guard rescue swimmer who failed to save the one person he loved most. Then the real Nate Landry shows up and drags Charlie’s grief and shame out of the depths.

McKinley Greer knows how to keep a secret. Like where a bear shifter might find the best honey trees. Or why he brews beer but doesn’t drink a drop of it. Or that most of his favorite porn features guys who look a helluva lot like his best friend. But suddenly Nate isn’t Nate-he’s a freaking hero named Charlie-and when he begins to share his own secrets, Mac knows it’s only a matter of time before all the things he’s stashed in the darkest den of his heart get hauled into the light.

Of the three couples here, these two were the most real to me. I know guys like these, and I can see how they would work together – and against each other. I liked seeing these two come to realize the love and attraction they shared. And the ending? Oh my goodness. You’re darned right I cried, it was so sweet.

Just a note that the bedroom door is wide-open in these books, so if steamy descriptions of guys doing sexy things freaks you out…what the hell are you doing reading this anyway? This is a great series, and I highly recommended it!

2017: A Year In Books

As I did last year, I wanted to recap my reading from 2017 in a single post, and mention books I thought really stood out to me. I have been reading exclusively books in the M/M Romance genre because I find them extremely enjoyable. I have a gut reaction to try to defend this statement and the genre, but that’s silly. I think these books immensely rewarding, and they contain some of the finest writing I have ever come across in any genre. Finally, I note these are books I read in 2017, but are not limited to books published in 2017. To start off, we have the statistics:

Out of 110 books read, my Goodreads ratings were:
Did Not Finish – 4
1 out of 5 – 0
2 out of 5 – 3
3 out of 5 – 14
4 out of 5 – 53
5 out of 5 – 36

As I noted previously, the low number of stinkers have a lot to do with the fact that I have a low-water mark of a 3.65 rating on Goodreads (with at least 100 reviews) – anything with a rating under that had better have an amazing blurb to get me to read it. Of the books I did not finish, two were Just That Awful and two were “It’s not you, it’s me.” (i.e. probably good books, but not to my tastes at all).

Enough of the bad, let’s talk about the good.

The hurt/comfort trope, in which the physical or mental distress of one character is eased by another character, is a common one in fiction. An extreme example of this is Aaron, by J.P. Barnaby. I am glad that I listened to this audiobook because reading the physical book would have been difficult. It tells the story of Aaron, a recovering survivor of sexual abuse and violence, as he struggles to come out of the protective shell he and his family have created. He meets Spencer, a deaf man who is trying to make his way in a hearing world. The interactions between the two and their families are an incredible story. The description of what happened to Aaron is harrowing, and the author makes us understand what it is to deal with the aftermath. The audiobook is performed by Tyler Stevens, and he nails the characters and the overall tone of the book perfectly. This one is simply a stunner.

The hurt/comfort trope is also prevalent in Alex Jane’s Home Is Where You Are. The story takes place in an alternate-history Nebraska in the 1870’s. It gave me warm, fuzzy feelings and not just because of the werewolves who are the main characters. Caleb is a former Union soldier. He left his family behind abruptly when he went off to war, and saw and survived the absolute worst. Now, years later, he lives an isolated life, fighting PTSD and barely tolerated by his neighbors. Jacob’s arrival changes all of that. There is a quality to this writing that I enjoyed – matter-of-fact in describing about the harsh realities of hardscrabble life in the Great Plains, but also showing thoughtful insight into the main characters. All three of the books that are out now are great (Returning Home and Longing for Shelter, with a fourth book on the way).

In another alternate history, Hexslayer, by Jordan L. Hawk, takes us to New York City at the turn of the twentieth century. This is the third book in the Hexworld series, and takes place in a world of policemen who use magic in conjunction with their shapeshifting familiars. There is so much to love here – the gloomy atmosphere, the steadily mounting narrative tension, and in Jamie and Nick two intriguing characters. Several narrative threads from previous books start to come together here in a satisfying way that left me looking forward to more.

Moving into the present day, the Guardsman series by Cooper West (The Protector and Parker’s Sanctuary) brings us to an alternate reality similar to our own, but where a very small percentage of the population become Guardsman, a weredog (“Protector”) and a human “Handler” who share a mental bond. West has created a world of remarkable detail here, and the populated it with memorable characters. The descriptions of how Protectors and Handlers are represented in popular culture are clever, and follow logically. These are well-written and I look forward to the next book.

N.R. Walker’s The Weight of It All, on the other hand, is firmly rooted in the reality of the here and now, albeit in Australia (which I am told exists…). This is a lovely story of a guy who gets dumped because he’s too fat, so he joins a gym and falls for his trainer. This is a gross oversimplification of a sweet, hilariously funny book that is written with sensitivity and empathy. Henry is a guy who creates a wall of self-deprecating humor and isolation around himself to hide his lack of self-esteem. Reed, his trainer, is the perfect foil for Henry – serious, at times nonplussed, but slowly falling for Henry as the walls Henry has built start to fall. Joel Leslie performs the audiobook brilliantly. The tremulous emotion that Leslie’s voice carries as Henry agonizes over his life is heartbreaking; the elation in Henry’s successes is thrilling and contagious. This is by far the best audiobook I listened to this year!

Finally, we get to the favorite book that I read in 2017: G.L. Carriger’s The Sumage Solution. Carriger has created a fun world here. The supernatural is commonplace, with shifters, magicians, and kitsune all sharing space in a modern-day San Francisco. We learn about the laws that bind the place and how magic works as we go, so not a lot of time is wasted on exposition. The ending is telegraphed far ahead, but this was a case where even if you knew where you’re going, you’re still going to enjoy the ride. The best part of the book is the characters, though. Max is a guy who has been through a lot but still maintains a snarky wit. Bryan is a complete sweetheart and a gentle giant. They make a great couple, and make this a supremely satisfying story.

It was difficult to select the just top six books. I want to give honorable mention to some of the other really great books I read (links are to the reviews I wrote): Breaker, by Kelly Wyre and A.F. Henley; Lord Mouse, by Mason Thomas; Murmuration, by T.J. Klune; and Finder’s Keeper, by Shira Anthony.

I wanted to also single out a couple of other books for a different reason. Some, but not all, M/M romances veer into the territory of erotica. Werewolves of Chernobyl by K.A. Merikan and The Protection of the Pack series by Dessa Lux are both SMOKING hot, but at the same time have wonderful narrative wit and don’t take themselves too seriously. They’re really fun reads.

Looking ahead to 2018, I have at least a dozen books I’ve purchased but haven’t read yet, and at least another hundred books on my to-read list. I’ve got enough to keep me busy for a while!