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).
Ox was twelve when his daddy taught him a very valuable lesson. He said that Ox wasn’t worth anything and people would never understand him. Then he left.
Ox was sixteen when he met the boy on the road, the boy who talked and talked and talked. Ox found out later the boy hadn’t spoken in almost two years before that day, and that the boy belonged to a family who had moved into the house at the end of the lane.
Ox was seventeen when he found out the boy’s secret, and it painted the world around him in colors of red and orange and violet, of Alpha and Beta and Omega.
Ox was twenty-three when murder came to town and tore a hole in his head and heart. The boy chased after the monster with revenge in his bloodred eyes, leaving Ox behind to pick up the pieces.
It’s been three years since that fateful day—and the boy is back. Except now he’s a man, and Ox can no longer ignore the song that howls between them.
Wolfsong is a truly remarkable book. Although I found it through the m/m romance genre, it is so much more than that – if anything, I would place it more in the modern fantasy category. It’s an epic story with werewolves, but also the story of an enduring relationship and friendship.
Klune skillfully employs some great world-building here, not only basing some of the ideas on traditional werewolf lore, but also introducing new concepts that explore what it means to be human or wolf, family or pack, and what it means to be Alpha. The ideas are solid and well-thought-out. I am left wanting to know so much more about this world and the Bennett family.
With this setting as a backdrop, the author explores themes of family, belonging, and loss, but most importantly the concept of choice – when you have a choice, when you do not, and what the ramifications of those choices can be. Sometimes we find that we make the wrong choices in life, but once they are made, you have to live with that. These themes are interwoven into the narrative with frequent callbacks to earlier conversations and events that make the book a tightly-woven tapestry.
I’ve been wracking my brain to figure out why this book struck so viscerally, why the climactic scenes had me caught up in the excitement, why the heartfelt moments moved me to tears (multiple times!). The author has a talent for characterization, for one. The main characters are believable and three-dimensional. They can be intelligent and wise, but they can do stupid stuff, too. We start off seeing Ox as a shy, slow boy who feels his father’s scorn, but we learn that he is so much more, and capable of so much more. Watching this evolution engages the reader and you find yourself cheering them on, though also being disappointed when poor choices are made as well.
From a literary construction standpoint, Klune’s writing is fascinating to read. Ox’s story starts with short, simple statements, but as we learn more about who he is and as Ox matures into a man, the writing gets more complex. Repetition of certain phrases throughout the book ties the story together and invite the reader to compare the characters now versus where they were earlier in the story. Best of all is the dialogue, spoken and unspoken. The banter is funny and smart, and the characters speak like you, your family, and friends might. It’s believable and makes the reader a part of the story. The unspoken dialogue (an oxymoron, I suppose) is excellent as well, showing communication through the wolves and the pack, often more emotions than words.
This is hands-down the best book that I have read this year, and in fact in many years. I rate it 5 out of 5. If you like stories of werewolves, of modern fantasy, or of an enduring romance, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
(Note: this book does contain a few scenes with descriptions of sexual contact between adult males. If this freaks you out…what the hell are you doing reading this, anyway?)
Axton is a man of secrets. He lives the life of a hermit deep in the forest, and is quite content with his lot. As a werewolf, this gives him the space to roam, game to hunt, and no prying eyes from which he must hide. His world is upset by the arrival of Leander, a big-city lawyer who buys a cabin nearby. Axton find him attractive and is drawn to him, but not only is Leander not gay, he is very definitely human and therefore cannot know of the existence of werewolves, who exist on the fringes of human society.
Thus begins a saga that starts small and expands to a grand scale as Axton and Leander find love but must fight to find their place between the human and werewolf worlds.
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
This is what occurred to me as I tried to consolidate my reviews of the individual books of this series into a single review. The Axton & Leander series by S. P. Wayne is comprised of three books: Winter Wolf, City Wolf, and Everything Carries Me To You. The series is self-published, and according to all evidence that I can find these are Wayne’s first books. It shows, but this is not a deal-killer. There are some copyediting errors, though they diminish as the series proceeds and it is all good enough to forgive the minor errors.
What you get to see here is the development of an author into an outstanding talent. This means each book gets progressively better – better characterization, better secondary cast, better plotting. As Ms. Wayne’s world-building increases in scope, there is a delightful push back against the usual tropes of werewolf fiction, and against taking “the easy way out” in plotting. Every time I stopped reading and tried to predict where the story was going and how it would end, I was wrong. I really loved this, and it made the book so much more rewarding for me!
Both Axton and Leander are relatable, complex characters who develop and show us more of their personalities as we go. Sure, Axton starts off a reclusive hermit and Leander appears to be an obnoxious douchebro, but by the middle of the second book you’re cheering for them both and learning more and more about their motivations. I found the banter in the books particularly charming, not just between the two main characters but with and between the secondary characters that join the story in City Wolf. Throughout the books the dialogue stays consistent with what we know about the characters and how they would speak. Wayne also excels in setting a scene; one of the stars of Winter Wolf is the mountain wilderness itself, snowy and unforgiving.
The bedroom door is wide-open in these books, which is to say that if explicit descriptions of two guys getting hot and steamy are not your thing then you may not find these books to your liking. That said, if you like a good werewolf book (and not just a romance book – there’s so much more happening here than just romance!) or a good urban fantasy, I can strongly recommend this series.
Winter Wolf – 3.5 out of 5
City Wolf – 4.5 out of 5
Everything Carries Me Back to You – 5 out of 5
Axton and Leander series – 5 out of 5, carried by the strong finish of the last book
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First off, a few things about me: I’m a gay man who enjoys well-written gay romance novels. I am a complete sucker for courtship stories. Finally, I’m a fan of anthropomorphic fiction and art (colloquially, a furry fan).
All of these things combine to make me the target demographic for these books (though the latter is not a requirement – if you enjoy fantasy fiction, this will be up your alley as well).
Eli Easton has created the tiny town of Mad Creek, California. It’s a secluded hamlet on the edge of Yosemite National Park, that is hidden for a reason. We all know of werewolves, however Easton introduces us to the quickened, people who are part human, part dog. Dogs of all breeds, and the breed has a strong influence on the person’s personality. They appear human, but can take on canine form at will. The trait is passed down genetically, though when a dog forms a very close bond with a human, they can become quickened as well. The residents of Mad Creek are almost all quickened, or are their human allies. The need for the town to keep the existence of the quickened a secret is the driving force behind these stories.
The plotting of these books is not going to break any new ground, but not every story is required to do so. What really sets these apart is the writing and the characters. Easton really gives a good feel for the mountains and forests around Mad Creek (particularly in How to Walk Like a Man), and writes in such a way that it’s easy to feel you are present in the story. Additionally, the courtships in the books, willing and not, intentional and not, are incredibly sweet and romantic.
The characters, though, are the best part. Sheriff Lance Beaufort, the unofficial protector of Mad Creek, comes from a family of border collies, and it shows in his intensity and protectiveness of his pack. Tim Weston, is a human seeking a safe place in the mountains after his life has crashed down around him. Deputy Roman Charsguard, a German shepherd quickened only two years prior, is naive in human ways but grateful to have a place in the world. That naivete could easily have been overplayed, but Roman’s confusion and dogged (heh) determination to understand human behavior make it easy to sympathize with his plight. All of these characters are engaging, relatable, and fun. You want to know what happens to them, and you genuinely cheer for them.
If I had any complaint, it’s that the “conflict” (as every story has to have a conflict, Chekov’s gun sitting on the mantel) that is a thread in these books, illicit marijuana farmers, seems sort of low-stakes. This is a minor gripe, though, because of the rest of the stories are so enjoyable.
Finally, there is the caveat that if you are offended by explicit descriptions of sexual activities between male adults, you may wish to look elsewhere. They are a small part of the overall books, but they are present. If you happen to like that sort of thing (I’m not complaining…) then it’s icing on a very wonderful cake. Ms. Easton has said that she is working on the third book in the Mad Creek series. I eagerly await it and will certainly buy it the moment it becomes available.
I never really thought I lived a sheltered life. I mean, I’ve been involved in various fannish activities in different genres, I’ve read science fiction and fantasy all my life, fanfiction (both good and awful), and nonfiction of all stripes. I generally have a good idea of what is available to the modern reader. Apparently there is one genre I overlooked: romances. Specifically, gay romances written by women. So that’s a thing.
I have always thought of romances as bits of puffery that one reads while lounging at the beach, half paying attention. Perhaps the literary equivalent of a Twinkie. A few months ago, one of my favorite podcasts, NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, devoted an entire show to romance novels. It’s not something I normally would listen to, but I do adore all of the people on the show and enjoy listening to them chat. An offhanded reference to gay romances caught my attention. “Huh.” I though. “I wonder if that’s worth looking into.”
Man, am I tired. That has something to do with last night’s late bedtime, but it was worth it!
Last night was takaza monthly Game Night. We were joined by Dan’s mom, todd_riverden, serinthia, rustitobuck, steviemaxwell, roho, linnaeus, and genet. Pizza was ordered, and we got in not only several entertaining rounds of Wits and Wagers, but also a couple of rounds of Lupus in Tabula, which is always entertaining (and also, apparently, our sofa breeds werewolves. Who knew?). Wits and Wagers is a fun game, though I think once we involve more people, to the point where we have teams, it will be much more fun – a bit more chaotic, too, which makes it all the more entertaining. Keep an eye on Dan’s LJ for the announcement for next month’s Game Night!
In other news, we got the audiobook for Harry Potter and the Giant Wads of Cash (that Amazon had originally promised to deliver on Saturday, then said, “Oops, did we say Saturday? We meant Wednesday”). Even better, Genet was kind enough to lend me her copy of the hardcover last night (even before giving it to her husband! What a great friend 🙂 so my work for the next few days is cut out for me.
A bit of bad news: last night after everyone left we noticed a high-pitched humming sound, like a computer working in overdrive. We traced it down to our TiVo, and after a bit of checking found out that it was in an endless rebooting loop. Well, hell. That’s no good at all, particularly since we have 16 episodes of Doctor Who on there waiting to be watched. Reading through the online communities, it appears there’s typically three possible culprits: bad guide data (though that typically only causes a single reboot, or occasional reboot), bad hard drive, or bad power supply. Dan and Roho are going to try swapping out the hard drive (and while they’re at it, up the drive capacity to 500 Gb or so), but I’m not sure what the timeline is on that – hopefully by the end of the weekend, though. If we lose data, I refuse to get upset. It’s only TV, and if I really want something, there are ways to get it 🙂 Besides, I seem to have a book to keep me occupied while we’re offline…
As for the coming weekend, we have nothing planned for Saturday, and I hope that we keep it that way. We’re overdue for a “cat weekend” after Anthrocon, and the idea of sleeping in (as much as I can, anyway) and lounging around at home sounds deliciously decadent. As for Sunday we hope to make it to a birthday gathering, though a lot depends on how early we can get out of bed and get moving. We’ll be in touch about that when we can.