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!