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!

Scenes from Christmas Eve

http://wolfhusky.net/duncan/wp/storageplace/2017/12/img_0957.mov

On a happier note, here are some pics I took this evening. That’s Basilique Norte Dame de Montréal, and a Christmas-themed bar that was cute but ridiculously overpriced. For the rest, Vieux Montréal is a bit of a tourist trap, but they sure can create an amazing atmosphere. My favorite part of the night: the skating rink at the Old Port in Montréal. The music was just perfect, too.

Christmas in Montréal

I was navigating the slushy sidewalks of Vieux Montréal and saw a couple walk past holding hands. I thought of how doing that with Dan would have been lovely, how we would have supported each other as we slipped and slid through the snow.

And then I was sobbing.

I don’t regret coming here. My goal was to get away for a few days to a neutral location: one without the baggage of Christmas with family or someplace that Dan and I had traveled where I wouldn’t be re-living the time that we spent there. For the most part it has worked. I’ve kept myself distracted and generally had an OK time. Tonight, though, I was reminded that you can only distract yourself for so long. The memories and the grief will catch up with you. I’ll survive, but it really took the wind out of my sails for the night.

I like the idea of traveling somewhere new at Christmas each year. Perhaps next time it will be someplace warmer, or where I have friends, or where the whole freakin’ city doesn’t shut down starting on Christmas Eve.

Book Review: The Storm Lords, by Ravon Silvius

The heat took everything from Rowen: his parents, his voice when the local cure for heatstroke poisoned him, and the trust of his fellow villagers, who branded him a water thief. It would have claimed his life when he was deemed unworthy of precious resources and left in the sun to die, had not a strange man named Kristoff ridden in on the wind and told Rowen he had power.

Rowen works hard to become a Storm Lord, one of a secret magical group that brings storms to break the heat waves overtaking their world. But Rowen is starting his training at a disadvantage since he cannot speak and is much older than the other novices. The desire to please Kristoff inspires him to persevere even more than the threat of being sent back to his village to die should he fail. Still, he cannot gather rain, and when his abilities manifest, they are unlike anything known to the Storm Lords. Unless Kristoff can help him control his deadly powers, the entire world will be in danger.

Kristoff might be among the mightiest of the Storm Lords, but he’s never been a mentor before. For a chance to be with Rowen, he’s willing to risk everything.

The Storm Lords, by Ravon Silvius

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

I liked this book but I didn’t love it. There is a fantastic bit of world-building going on here. I really enjoyed that part. The abilities of the Storm Lords were fascinating and the meteorological science behind it all was reasonable to this non-expert. I could see how a lot of that could be a turnoff for others but hey – I’m an engineer and this is how I think anyway.

My problems with this book lay with the characters, I think. We get an understanding of Rowen and where he is coming from early on. I liked his tenacity and willingness to persevere through the worst hardships, and I also liked how the author showed the effects of his struggles on Rowen when he was suddenly somewhere where water was abundant. Kristoff is the one I had more problems with. The depth of his emotions for Rowen seemed out of sync with the short time that they spent together. There didn’t seem to be much as I would have liked in his backstory that explained why he fell in love so quickly.

I did like the logical conclusion that the story reached, and this allowed me to see past some of the flaws previously in the story. I’d recommend this one for an enjoyable read, and maybe another reader can get more out of it than I did.

Fangs and Catnip (Dead and Breakfast #1), by Julia Talbot


Solitary vampire Fallon Underwood gets all the social interaction he needs being the silent partner at the Dead and Breakfast B and B high in the Colorado mountains. Change is hard for Fallon, so when his business partner, Tanner, suggests hiring a new manager for the inn, he’s adamant that they don’t need help, especially not in the form of bouncy werecat Carter Hughes.

Carter is a happy-go-lucky kitty, and he loves the hospitality industry, so the D and B ought to be a great place for him. He falls for Fallon as soon as he picks up one of Fallon’s novels and begins to woo the vamp with gifts. When Fallon finally succumbs to Carter’s feline charms, the results are unexpected, to say the least. Their mating will have irreversible consequences-for their bodies and their hearts.

Fangs and Catnip (Dead and Breakfast #1), by Julia Talbot

Rating: 4 out of 5

This book is another entry into Dreamspinner Press’ “Dreamspun Beyond” line, which I’ve seen described as “addictive paranormal fluff.” Yeah, that about sums it up. This doesn’t make it a bad thing, though! Sometimes you want something cozy and enjoyable, that leaves the angst at the door. This is something that Julia Talbot excels at, as I found in the previous book of hers I read and reviewed, Wolfmanny.

The world-building here is minimal, except that we learn that all manner of paranormal beasties, from weres to vampires to demons to gorgons, are rather commonplace. The action takes a B&B called Dead and Breakfast (fortunately the other puns are kept to a minimum), located in the Colorado mountains. Tanner and Fallon co-own the B&B. They are good friends but not lovers, although it is hinted that they may have tried something earlier but found they made better friends than lovers.

I found Carter to be simply adorable. He’s smart, industrious, and loves his job. His inner monologue cracked me up, too. Here he’s trying to contain his excitement during the job interview:

“Carter Hughes?” Tanner shook hands, warm and firm but not squeezy. “I’m Tanner Weiling.”

“Mr. Weiling, pleased to meet you.”

No bouncing.
None.
Zero.
Be the antibounce.

This is a lovely story of opposites attracting, and Fallon and Carter are very sweet together. Although there isn’t a whole lot of drama in the book, both show character growth through the story. This really helped me feel invested in them, and I teared up a few times reading this. And as an aside, Talbot writes some dang hot sex scenes!

I want to note also that the secondary characters here are just lovely, and really make me look forward to future books in the series: Tanner, an affable werebear; Tom, a werewolf with his own problems who still looks out for Carter; Jami, the erstwhile vampire night auditor. I love the idea of seeing any of these guys in the next book.

Fangs and Catnip is an enjoyable, cozy book with great characters. I recommend this one, particularly for curling up and reading on a cold winter night!

Book Review: Rise from the Ashes, by Noah Harris

When everyone tells you that you’re meant for bigger things, at what point do you start believing them? When life calls on Adam Miller, he must decide if he can rise to the occasion.

Adam Miller doesn’t have an exciting life. But then, he’s never wanted one. He’s happy to play his small part in the world. He’s a cog in the machine, sure, but an important one that keeps the machine running. He’s happy to remain in the background, a mid-level employee with a cramped cubicle and an amiable friend to those in his pack. But his habit of not making waves also means that he must keep an integral part of himself hidden from those he calls family.

Despite being shrouded in secrecy, Adam’s love life takes a distinct turn for the better when he meets Joshua Wetmore. Like the rest of Adam’s life, his romance with Josh appears to be quietly progressing right on schedule. Their sweet courtship is born just as Adam’s pack asks him to step forward into the demanding leadership role of Alpha. Adam struggles to prioritize his developing relationship with Josh, while still keeping their connection private. The spotlight on him is bright, and his secret might be the spark that ignites the tinder of discontent within his pack.

As Adam’s doubts about whether he’s truly meant for the Alpha role haunt him, his pack’s safety is threatened by impending turf war. And his seemingly easy going new boyfriend brings his own set of dangerous complications. As the stakes get higher and higher, Adam must find the courage to rise to the occasion. With his pack, with Josh and with himself.

Rise from the Ashes, by Noah Harris

Rating: 3.25 out of 5

What can you do with a book where you just don’t connect with the characters? That’s the biggest problem I had with Rise from the Ashes.

Starting with Adam: we get a very clear picture of Adam’s life as a corporate drone. Shuffle papers, stay in the middle of things with his head down. I find his sudden transition to pack alpha a bit difficult to imagine since up until that point he had seemed a man of limited aspirations. Once established in the role he starts to chafe at the daily grind, but it just doesn’t seem an intuitive personality change to me.

Josh, on the other hand, is set up as the romantic foil and…well, not a whole lot else. The point that he is a gentle soul is made again and again. A couple of personality traits are made repeated to reinforce his nurturing role, but I just never get a feel for his history and who he is as a person. Instead he becomes a plot point and not much else.

The world-building here is minimal, though for the purposes of the story that is not much of a negative since the main focus is on the interactions of the pack. It is current America with an entire society of werewolves and faeries existing in parallel to ours, but in secret. Not much is made of this secrecy, though. The story itself is rather predictable. This isn’t bad if the story is well told. This is a competent rendering.

One last note: I find it quite strange that the title and book cover appear to have very little to do with the story itself. Perhaps this was a marketing decision, but I’m mystified at the choices.

 

Book Review: Home Is Where You Are (The Alphas’ Homestead #1), by Alex Jane

By the winter of 1870, Caleb Fletcher has carved out a sheltered existence for himself in a simple cabin, outside a small town in the backwaters of Nebraska, resigned to living out his days as a solitary wolf. But his quiet life is interrupted when another werewolf lands on his doorstep on the eve of a snowstorm, brutalized almost beyond repair, with nowhere else to turn.

When Caleb reluctantly welcomes Jacob into his cabin, and eventually his bed, it forces him to face up to the traumas he’s been running from; the shame that made him leave his pack behind, and the horrors of war he endured.

As the weeks pass, it seems that Jacob’s arrival might not be the coincidence it first appeared. Jacob has an agenda. One that involves Caleb. And if Caleb agrees to it – if he can let go of his past and his prejudices – it will change Caleb’s whole world. Maybe even for the better.

Without a mate – a family, a pack – a wolf has no home.

But what if home finds you?

Home Is Where You Are (The Alphas’ Homestead #1), by Alex Jane

Rating: 4.75 out of 5

I love warm, fuzzy feelings and that is what I got from this book. 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.

In this world, werewolves are known to exist in the human population, though they generally keep to their own kind. In cities, they are tolerated and can even ascend to the higher social classes. In war, they are fearsome fighters, weapons used by generals. In the rural country, though, they are viewed with fear and suspicion.

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.

I love that the author gives us some insight into Jacob and Caleb’s histories, and I get a real feel for each character. They are very different individuals and contrast one another nicely. Much of the dramatic tension comes from Caleb’s rejection of Jacob while his inner wolf makes it abundantly clear that this is not an acceptable possibility. Watching the relationship develop between the two is what gives me warm fuzzies, and I finished the book with a happy smile.

This is a unique spin on werewolves in the m/m romance genre and is well worth seeking out. The sequels, Returning Home (4.5/5) and Longing for Shelter (4.25/5), carry the story forward well, introduce new characters (but still include Caleb and Jacob!) and are a joy to read.

Audiobook Review: The Weight of It All, by N. R. Walker, narrated by Joel Leslie

After being dumped by his long-term boyfriend for being overweight, Henry Beckett decides to make some drastic changes. In a vain attempt at getting his boyfriend back, Henry does the most absurdly frightening thing he can think of.

He joins a gym.

Reed Henske is a personal trainer who isn’t sure he’ll ever be ready to date again. He’s sick of guys who are only interested in the perfect body image, never seeing him for who he really is.

As Reed tortures Henry with things like diet and exercise, Henry enamours Reed with recipes and laughter. As the friendship lines start to blur, Henry is convinced there’s no way Thor-like Reed could ever be interested in a guy like him.

Reed just has to convince Henry that life isn’t about reaching your ideal bodyweight. It’s about finding your perfect counterweight.

The Weight of It All, by N. R. Walker, narrated by Joel Leslie

Ratings:
Story: 5 out of 5!
Narration: 6 out of 5! 🙂

I went into this book with some concerns. For me personally, weight is an ongoing concern. I was able to lose 100 pounds over two years and would like to lose more, so I am well-familiar with the difficulties and stigmas involved in being obese and the effort required to lose weight. As a genre, m/m romance tends to focus on guys who are all fit and buff as hell (probably like mainstream romance, I would imagine). Overweight characters are frequently viewed in less-than-charitable light, and I was concerned this would be a “rejected, ugly guy loses weight and is suddenly gorgeous and desirable” story.

I was very, very wrong, I am delighted to report! This book was touching, and resonated so much for me. Henry is a guy with low self-esteem who creates a wall around himself with self-deprecating humor and social isolation. Over the course of the book he starts to work through his esteem issues (though thankfully never losing his sense of humor). And the key word here is “start” – I really like that the story shows that there is no magic wand to weight loss. It’s not giving anything away that by the end of the book Henry isn’t a super-slim fitness god. He is still working on losing weight, and knows it’s an extended process.

The story is told from Henry’s point of view, so while we know what’s going on in his head, we know less about Reed. Even so, he comes across as a sweet, caring guy who is everything that Henry needs. Henry’s trepidation toward Reed is both painful and understandable, and I found how this was addressed to be quite powerful. I really loved these guys, and by the end of the book, I was sobbing (happily).

Then there’s the narration. I have heard and enjoyed Leslie’s work before on Lord Mouse, where he was excellent. In The Weight of It All, though, he surpasses that. As good as the story was he made it better by not only providing clear and consistent voices for each character, but also consistent intonation and speech patterns. 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. The bottom line is that the narration takes a great book and makes it spectacular. I would wholeheartedly recommend the audiobook version of this book specifically because it’s just so darned good!

 

Book Review: The Supers (The Supers #1), by Sean Michael

Blaine Franks is a member of the paranormal research group the Supernatural Explorers. When the group loses their techie to a cross-country move, newly graduated Flynn Huntington gets the job. Flynn fits in with the guys right off the bat, but when it comes to him and Blaine, it’s more than just getting along.

Things heat up between Blaine and Flynn as they explore their first haunted building, an abandoned hospital, together. Their relationship isn’t all that progresses, though, and soon it seems that an odd bite on Blaine’s neck has become much more.

Hitchhiking ghosts, a tragic love story forgotten by time, and the mystery of room 204 round out a romance where the things that go bump in the night are real.

The Supers, by Sean Michael

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

There was a lot of promise in this book, but I ultimately found it pretty frustrating. The first big issue I had was a complete lack of depth for either Blaine or Flynn. We learned the backstory for each of them but it had relatively little to do with their current states. The two fell in love almost immediately (in a week? Really?). Much of their relationship was them telling each other how much they cared for each other, though, and not enough showing this in their actions. I was unable to muster much empathy for either of them and this took me completely out of the story.

The book’s point of view switches back and forth between Blaine and Flynn chapter by chapter. The problem is that the way the book is written it wasn’t always clear whose POV we were seeing, and I saw some discrepancies in third-person narration that just made things that much more confusing.

As for the plot, it’s mostly coherent. There are a couple of out-of-left-field bits that popped up that strained logic of the story. More importantly the tone of the story tended to swing rather wildly from fun and happy-go-lucky to dark and broody pseudo-horror. Everything was wrapped up neatly in the end (and the stage obviously set for the next three books in the series), and even though all of the plot threads were addressed I still found it all unsatisfying.

Perhaps if you are a fan of Sean Michael you would like this book. Anyone else, though, I’d suggest skipping it.

Book Review: Rescued (Guardsmen #1.5)/Parker’s Sanctuary (Guardsmen #2), by Cooper West

Greg Lademar is an ordinary and average Army veteran who has settled down with his job as an accountant and his lingering PTSD. He lives a quiet life as a single man, alone on the former blueberry farm he bought from his parents after they retired to Orlando. When a friend who works with animal control asks him to foster Parker, a severely injured dog who has just been rescued from an abusive home, the last thing Greg expects is to be dragged into the mysterious world of the Guardsmen – the bonded pairs of humans and their weredogs, known as Protectors, who are literally the stuff of myths and legends.

Greg’s life is turned upside down by unexpected events involving Parker and the strange Guardsmen pair Marcus and Alex Stephanek, but far more dangerous to him is the man who used to own Parker and holds a grudge for having “his” dog taken from him. A game of cat and mouse ensues, with more on the line than even Greg ever thought possible: his life, and the life of Parker, who has become more important to him than Greg ever imagined a rescue dog could be.

Rescued (Guardsmen #1.5)/Parker’s Sanctuary (Guardsmen #2), by Cooper West

Rating: 4.75 out of 5

This is what I was hoping for! I’m fascinated by the world of Guardsmen, Handlers, and Protectors that West has created, and while the first book (The Protector) didn’t live up to my expectations, this book did and then some!

I’m reviewing the free short story (“Rescued,” which serves as a prequel) together with the book (Parker’s Sanctuary) because in my opinion they really do need to be read together. While the short story is told by Parker, the book is told from Greg’s point of view and I think is a better book because of it.

There’s so many things here to like here. The world-building is great, of course. The characters are sympathetic and interesting. Greg has no idea what he’s getting into, though adapts well as he goes. Parker is shocked to find he’s a Protector (weredog) at an age far older than any Protector has ever manifested and struggles to adapt to new senses, feelings, and a rigid tradition where Protectors are second-class citizens whose lives are controlled by their Handlers. The latter aspect is something I found particularly interesting, and I love how West has built this into the book’s popular culture. I’m very impressed how the author has set up a world with a lot of possible narrative threads to follow. The occasional sex scenes are pretty damn hot, too!

The pacing of the story keeps things moving along at a brisk clip. The suspense builds nicely – the tension and wanting to see how it all worked out kept me up entirely too late reading! My only complaint is a small detail that was thrown in at the last minute that could have used more explanation, but the story did not suffer for it.

It would probably be best to read these in order (The Protector, “Rescued”, Parker’s Sanctuary), even if the first book drags a bit. The payoff in the second book is well worth it. I would recommend this series highly!

Book Review: The Protector (Guardsmen #1), by Cooper West

The Protector (Guardsmen #1), by Cooper West

Guardsmen are always matched in a bonded pair. The Protector can shift into a weredog, and the human partner is his Handler. They are incredibly rare and highly valued, but people also fear them for their mystical abilities. No Protector in living memory has outlived his Handler-until Alex Taylor.

Now a widower, Alex lives a lonely half-life and faces day after day of grief with no hope for happiness in the future. When he unexpectedly bonds with the young and vibrant Handler Marcus Stephanek, Alex is angry and unwilling to leave the memory of his former Handler behind. He pushes Marcus away and tries to distance himself from their bond. But then a mysterious villain who has been secretly shadowing Alex for years sets his plan in motion. Alex and Marcus must learn to trust their bond and love each other, or risk not only their own lives but the lives of those closest to them.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5

This review pains me because I wanted to like this book SO MUCH. I loved the world-building and the characters were initially interesting. Unfortunately, as the book went on the main characters each came to be identified by a single trait: Marcus trained to be a Search-and-Rescue handler all his life and is disappointed that may not come to pass, and Alex is mourning his late husband. There is not much character development beyond this.

I come to this book with a unique perspective, having lost my husband of 18 years suddenly in the spring of 2017. I know and understand grieving. I also know that everyone grieves at their own pace in their own way. That said, there is something deeply wrong here. If Alex is under such close scrutiny by the Guardsmen organization, they are going to see that isolating himself and mourning for three years is not healthy and would hopefully do something about it. I’ll at least accept the change in attitude toward Marcus due to the bond between Handler and Protector.

That concern aside, the other problem I had with this book was its awkward pacing. 70% of the book was very little going on, mainly watching Alex and Marcus wallowing in their respective misery. Suddenly at that point there’s a huge plot development momentous enough to merit its own book, but that is swept aside. Stupid decisions and actions follow, making the ending rather frustrating even though all of the plotlines are wrapped up neatly. I even liked how everything ended, but I just wasn’t satisfied with how we got there.

Would I say this is worth the read? I think so because there is a framework of a great series here. Just be prepared to be occasionally frustrated by the characters.

 

Book Review: Hexslayer (Hexworld #3), by Jordan L. Hawk

Hexslayer (Hexworld #3), by Jordan L. Hawk

Horse shifter Nick has one rule: never trust a witch.

Nick has devoted his life to making his saloon a safe haven for the feral familiars of New York. So when a brutal killer slaughters a feral under his protection, Nick has no choice but to try and catch the murderer. Even if that means bonding with a handsome Irish witch.

Officer Jamie MacDougal came back from the war in Cuba missing part of a leg and most of his heart. After his former lover becomes one of the killer’s victims, Jamie will do anything to solve the case.

Nick comes to Jamie with a proposal: after making a temporary bond, they will work together to stop the murders. Once the killer is caught, they walk away and never see one another again.
It sounds simple enough. But the passion that flares between the two men won’t be so easily extinguished. And if Nick can’t learn to trust his witch, he stands to lose everything-including his life.

Rating: 4.75 out of 5

I loves me some Hexworld books! The narrative threads laid out in the earlier books start to come together here. Hawk is creating something big and complicated, conspiracies within conspiracies, but it all holds together quite well.

The author has done a great job of creating a cast of characters with very different personalities and relationships. All of the characters from past books show up here, and it’s great to see how everyone interacts. As for the main characters in this book, though: Jamie is a complex guy. He’s been willing to do what he was told all of his life, and he’s slowly learning that maybe that wasn’t always the best course to take. Grieving and unsure, he’s trying to figure out where he should go from here. I loved Nick’s personality, horse-like in his stubbornness and brusqueness, but with a compassionate streak that he doesn’t often show. (His mannerisms got to be a little over the top thus the small deduction in rating but that’s a minor quibble.) Jamie and Nick are a hell of a couple, and watching them come together even against Nick’s refusal to do so was fun to watch.

The overall story is a heck of a ride (so to speak). I’ve only been to Central Park a few times and I like how Hawk has captured the feel of the place, with its obscure buildings and features. I like that as a reader I was guessing culprits along the way and getting proved wrong again and again. That’s a hallmark of a great suspense story for me. This book does not end with a cliffhanger, but we are left knowing what will be coming up in the next book and who will be involved. All of that makes me happy. I will be pre-ordering Book #4 as soon as it’s available!

Book Review: Clay White (Bureau #2), by Kim Fielding

Clay White (Bureau #2), by Kim Fielding

Someone-or something-is murdering young men in San Francisco. Clay White has been fired from the Bureau of Trans-Species Affairs, but he’s determined to track down the killer. When he comes across a vampire named Marek, Clay assumes he’s caught the perp. But the encounter with Marek turns out to be more complicated than Clay expected, and it forces him to deal with his own troubled past and murky psyche. As Clay discovers, sometimes the truth doesn’t come easy-and the monsters are not who we expect.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

My goodness, but Kim Fielding excels at creating atmosphere in her writing. The first Bureau novella (Corruption – my review) put the reader in the heart of Kansas during the Dust Bowl years. With Clay White we’re in the present time, in gritty downtown San Francisco – the clubs, the alleys, the vacant storefronts.

I really liked this story for what is stated and what is unstated. There are some details of the characters’ past which are hinted at, but aren’t laid out in long exposition (which is good, given this is also a novella!). We get enough to understand the characters and their motivations, and that’s enough. I also love when a character’s beliefs are challenged and they are forced to rethink things they had always taken as facts. How they come to grips with this is a big part of making a character come alive for me.

Although I suppose that this story could be read by itself, but given the recurrences in theme and characters you’d really be best served if you read Corruption first. Taken together these are both excellent reading. I hope that we’ll hear more from Fielding’s Bureau universe!

Thoughts for a Friday Afternoon

I need
to have financial stability
to have a job that I do not hate
to be there for my dogs
to travel
to never give up
to feel part of a family

I should
define myself as me, not in terms of someone else
support those who are in need
let my friends know I am here for them
lean on my friends when I need to
have the strength to perform daily tasks
believe that I will not always be alone
recognize my anxiety for what it is
recognize PTSD for what it is
get professional help when it is needed
seek the companionship with close friends
not be clingy or emotionally dependent
find joy in daily life
not be a hermit
have hope that life will be better

I want someone
to come home to
to snuggle with
to cook for
to shower with
to walk with me when I walk the dogs
to take some of the burden of daily tasks
to share space with even if we’re doing different things
to go to dinner with
to go to a movie with
to travel with
to share experiences with
to be an “us” and just an “I”

Book Review: Familiar, by M.L. Rhodes


Emrys Andrews lives in the quaint New England town of Salem, Massachusetts. In school he was never part of the popular “in” crowd, but he always had good friends and was generally known as a fun-loving, nice-guy geek. A label that followed him into adulthood. He just has one little problem. A secret he’s managed to keep from his friends and the world in general. You see, he’s descended from a long, esteemed line of honest-to-goodness, magick-wielding witches. Which wouldn’t be so bad, except, while the rest of his family members totally rock the witch power, Emrys…doesn’t. Any time he tries to do magick, anything that can go wrong, usually does. He’s left a trail of magickal disaster in his wake all his life, so now, for everyone’s safety, he tries to avoid his powers at all costs.

David Jennings is everything Emrys is not-gorgeous, sexy, popular, athletic, and a perfectly normal non-magick person. Despite the fact Emrys is sure David’s out of his league, and possibly straight, all it takes is one look into David’s soulful blue eyes and Emrys is a goner. He keeps his crush quiet for years, however, because his magick is usually at its worst when he’s emotional or when his adrenaline is pumping, and around David, he can’t control either.

When an unexpected encounter finally throws them together, Emrys discovers he’s not the only one who’s been fantasizing from afar. David’s been harboring feelings for Emrys for years, too. Unfortunately, David’s family also has secrets. The kind that can get anyone who knows too much…very much dead. With David’s life on the line and his past doing its best to tear them apart and keep them that way, and magick the only apparent solution, Emrys has to get control of his power once and for all if he wants to save the man who’s always been his destiny. But the tricky part is, he can’t do it without David’s help…

Familiar, by M. L. Rhodes

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

This is one where I’m going to say that my rating applies to me specifically, but may not apply to everyone. I’ll explain why below.

This isn’t a particularly complicated story, but it’s a case where the beauty is in the telling. Looking back, a large portion of the story is spent on a single night, but it’s a very eventful and consequential night for both Emrys and David. There’s a bit of insta-love, and the concept of finding one’s soul mate is involved. I’m kind of a sucker for that trope, so I’ll allow it.

Emrys and David are so incredibly sweet together. Emrys suffers from low self-esteem and is very unsure of himself. In spite of this he is a sweet and caring man, willing to help others (points to the author for mostly showing, not telling this). David balances Emrys well. Despite his difficult family life he has confidence in who he is and what he wants. The banter between these two is what sold this book to me, and melted my heart. It reminded me very much of how my late husband and I used to talk. This made me smile so much.

If I had any complaint about the book it’s that the ending seemed a bit rushed, given all of the buildup of the events throughout the book. It followed logically from the rest of the story, though, so it worked for me overall. The ending is gloriously sweet and left me in happy tears.

I liked this one a lot! Recommended.

Book Review: Off the Beaten Path, by Cari Z.

When Ward Johannsen’s little girl Ava shifted into a werewolf, she was taken into custody by the feds and shipped off to the nearest pack, all ties between father and daughter severed. Ward burned every bridge he had discovering her location, and then almost froze to death in the Colorado mountains tracking her new pack down. And that’s just the beginning of his struggle.

Henry Dormer is an alpha werewolf and an elite black ops soldier who failed his last mission. He returns home, hoping for some time to recuperate and help settle the pack’s newest member, a little pup named Ava who can’t shift back to her human form. Instead he meets Ward, who refuses to leave his daughter without a fight. The two men are as different as night and day, but their respect for each other strikes a spark of mutual interest that quickly grows into a flame. They might find something special together-love, passion, and even a family-if they can survive trigger-happy pack guardians, violent werewolf politics, and meddling government agencies that are just as likely to get their alpha soldiers killed as bring them home safely.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

First, the good: the author has created a fantastic setting with built-in dramatic tension. In this world, werewolves are not a secret to humans. The (United States) government has classified them as a dangerous subspecies and keeps them in strictly-controlled, isolated camps, cut off from human contact and wholly reliant on the government for their food, clothing, and every aspect of their lives. In “exchange” for this support, every pack alpha is required to be part of the military. Specifically, they are called in for the nasty jobs: assassinations, difficult extractions, and various black ops duties. The mental toll that this takes is an important part of this story.

Ward and Henry are really great characters, and it is easy to empathize with both of them. The lengths which Ward will go to be with and help Ava are wonderful. This is balanced by Henry’s duty to his pack, his own concern for Ava, and his weariness and shell-shock from the terrible missions he must undertake. There is a hint of the “true mate” trope, but it’s not explicit. The way the characters are written that’s OK for me. They fit together well.

Now the not-so-good: It’s one thing to surprise the reader with plot twists that confound their guesses of where the story will go. It’s another thing to put three or four of Chekhov’s guns on the mantle in the first act and then just…leave them there, untouched. This makes the overall story feel incomplete. This is surprising given that, per this post, the author’s original intent was for this book to be a one-off. On the bright side it sounds like that decision will be reconsidered (eventually). When that time comes I will gladly pick up the next book, both because I love the setting and because the potential main characters are quite interesting themselves.

Is Off the Beaten Path is worth reading? I would say yes, if only because even with these complaints I really did enjoy the story.

 

Book Review: Finder’s Keeper, by Shira Anthony

When Zane moves into an old gothic brownstone, he discovers the house comes equipped with a caretaker-Kit, who lives in the basement. Zane is immediately drawn to the charming and attractive Kit. But Kit is much more than he seems. He is a two-hundred-year-old half-human, half-red-fox spirit who guards a Gate between the mortal and spirit worlds-a fact Zane should recognize, but doesn’t.

Orphaned at a young age, Zane never learned he comes from a long line of mystical Keepers. Kit needs Zane’s help to protect the Gate, but how can he tell Zane of his legacy when that will crush Zane’s dreams of traveling the world? If he takes up the mantle, Zane will be bound to the Gate, unable to leave it. But when Zane realizes Kit’s true nature, and his own, he’ll have to make a choice-fight to protect Kit and the Gate, or deny his destiny and any chance of a future with Kit.

Finder’s Keeper, by Shira Anthony (Heart’s Gate #1)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

BRB, swooning.

Kit is so freakin’ adorable! He is caring and kind, and quite the hottie as well. Zane is a keeper (heh) too – smart, funny, and humble. I adored these two together, and the sense of wonder from Zane was thoroughly charming. His thoughtfulness toward Kit made me smile, and Kit’s awkwardness in accepting this new-to-him consideration is both heartbreaking and heartwarming.

The author does a fantastic job of bringing in some wonderful plot elements that I haven’t often seen in paranormal romances. Her descriptions of the nature of the spirit world and its effect on the human world really made this book something special. The guardian/keeper dynamic is an interesting one as well, and fun to explore.

I do have a few minor complaints, especially some plot developments late in the book that don’t have time to be fully explored or explained enough for my liking. Also, there are a few errors in the editing where the terms “Guardian” and “Keeper” are swapped that made things confusing until I figured out what was intended. These characters are so great I’m happy to overlook these things, though.

This is a great book that brings some welcome novelty to the genre. I recommend it highly.

Book Review: Out of the Ashes, by Ari McKay

Alpha werewolf Eli Hammond returns from a fishing trip to discover a nasty surprise-five members of his pack murdered and the rest missing. He needs help locating and rescuing his pack mates, but the supernatural council in Asheville, North Carolina, turns him away.

Except for one man.

As they work together, Eli is stunned-and not especially thrilled-to discover half-elf Arden Gilmarin is his destined mate. But as Arden and his friends struggle to help Eli in his quest, Eli surrenders to the demands of his body-and his heart. They’ll need to bond together, because the forces opposing them are stronger and more sinister than anyone predicted. The evil has its sights set on Arden, and if Eli wants to save his mate and the people he is entrusted with protecting, he’s in for the fight of his life.

Out of the Ashes, by Ari McKay (Asheville Arcana #1)

Rating: 4 out of 5

Paranormal elements aside, this is your basic good ol’ boy meets sophisticated citified guy. The typical werewolf trope of “fated mates” brings them together but what can I say? I’m a sucker for that (also, the Dreamspun Beyond line is designed to be somewhat trope-tastic, so it’s to be expected). Also, I totally want Arden’s house, but that’s beside the point.

The narrative point of view switches back and forth between Eli and Arden so we get a good feel for both characters. Both are caring, hardworking men and they make a great couple. The side characters are great as well; Arden’s friends-with-benefits Whimsy (a wizard) and Julian (a vampire) play a big role. I am guessing they will be the protagonists for the next two books.

The plot keeps the suspense up, although there a few “What the heck are you doing?” moments and at times the pacing seemed a bit off. There’s also a couple of unanswered questions, though perhaps they are threads to be addressed in future stories. The story is engaging enough that I enjoyed it, though.

Finally: I grew up in Upstate South Carolina so Asheville, North Carolina and Clayton, Georgia are part of my old stomping grounds. I admit that I went into this with a critical eye, but McKay did a nice job of getting a feel for the area, with an appropriate number of references to local landmarks. I could even imagine exactly where some of the fictional places in the book could be located.

I’d recommend this one, and can’t wait to see more in the series!

Book Review: Stalking Buffalo Bill, by j. leigh bailey


A buffalo walks into a cafe. Sounds like the start of a bad joke, but for coyote shifter Donnie Granger, it’s the beginning of an obsession. Donnie is a little hyperactive and a lot distractible, except when it comes to William. He finally works up the nerve to approach William but is interrupted by a couple of violent humans.

While William—don’t call me Bill—is currently a professor, he once worked undercover against an international weapons-trafficking ring. Before he can settle into obscurity, he must find out who leaked his location and eliminate the thugs. He tries keeping his distance to protect Donnie, but the wily coyote won’t stay away.

It’ll take both Donnie’s skills as a stalker—er, hunter—and William’s super-spy expertise to neutralize the threat so they can discover if an excitable coyote and a placid-until-pissed buffalo have a future together.

Stalking Buffalo Bill, by j. leigh bailey

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

This was the first book from Dreamspinner Press’ “Dreamspun Beyond” line that I’ve read. This line promises paranormal romances with relatively low angst, with a focus more on the characters’ emotions and sensual tension. In short, this is pretty much targeted directly to me!

This is such a fun story! The setting alone, a shifter-friendly university in Cody, Wyoming in a world where humans are unaware shifters exist, creates all kinds of possibilities. This is kind of obvious given that the book is labeled “Shifter U. #1” and I look forward to seeing more.

Donnie is such a lovable goofball. He’s smart, funny, and impulsive – every bit the coyote. He’s a perfect foil for William, a stoic and taciturn professorial-type. The sparks between the two of them are so fun to read as they waver between “I can’t keep away from you!” and “You annoy the crap out of me!” I really enjoyed seeing the relationship evolve between the two. I think it’s a great endorsement that I was invested enough in Donnie and William that I was in tears as they reached their Happily Ever After (Spoiler? Not likely!). They really are a sweet couple. The side characters are quite entertaining too, even if most of them have little time on the page. Donnie’s best friend Ford stands out, not only as a smart and pragmatic guy, but also an intriguing type of shifter. I would guess we’ll be seeing more of Ford in the next book in this series.

The one place where the plot breaks down a bit is the international espionage element. It just seemed a little over the top. It’s well-written and keeps things moving along well enough that it’s a minor annoyance, though.

I’ll give this one 4.25 out of 5. I eagerly await the next book in the series!

Book Review: Uncommonly Tidy Poltergeists, by Angel Martinez

A poltergeist haunts Taro, dogging his international travels. It washes glasses, puts dishes away, and even dusts. At least he hopes it’s a cleaning-obsessed poltergeist and not his own anxieties burbling over into neat freak fits he doesn’t remember. When his property manager suggests he call paranormal expert, Jack Montrose, Taro’s skeptical but desperate enough to try even a ghost hunter.

Jack’s arrival crushes Taro’s hopes of a dashing Van Helsing-style hero. Instead of an invincible hunter, he gets Ichabod Crane. As the paranormal puzzles multiply and Jack begins to suggest the entity might not be a ghostly one, Taro adds a budding friendship with Jack to his pile of anxieties. It’s a race to see whether Taro’s poltergeist or his relationship with the obviously-not-ace Jack will reach maximum strangeness first.

Uncommonly Tidy Poltergeists, by Angel Martinez

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

I adored this book! Taro is kind of a mess, but he clearly has a good heart and is working really hard to get past his insecurities. Jack is a mess in his own way, though I didn’t think we got a clear picture of his motivations, which is the only reason this isn’t rated 5 stars. Hey, maybe in the sequel…?

I enjoyed these characters and the interactions between them. The story was an engaging, though low-stakes, mystery. The side characters were a hoot, too – Frau Voss, Taro’s brothers, and Taro’s parents (his father cracked me up, a perfect foil for his mother).

Finally, I am also always cheered to see a sensitive, thoughtful treatment of asexual characters, and I think Martinez did a good job of that here. The difficulties of broaching the topic and having to explain it over and over are included here and handled in a forthright and honest manner. I just wanted to grab Taro and hug him!

I recommend this book to anyone for a light, enjoyable read!

(Side note: I came across a comment that referring to m/m romances as gay romances effectively erases bi, pan, ace, and other sexualities. I admit this never occurred to me before, but in the future I will drop the use of “gay” as an interchangeable term for “m/m” in my reviews.)

Book Review: A Bear Walks Into a Bar, by Eden Winters

A Bear Walks Into a Bar, by Eden Winters

It takes one strong alpha with a tight grip to keep a mountain full of shifters under control. Sawyer Ballantine’s contending with an uppity wolf leader and a herd of shifter elk bound and determined to take over. He might be the lone bear on the mountain, but he’s not going to allow another four shifters to just move in, especially not when they whiff of power. They’ll either be his in all ways, or they’ll be gone.

Dillon, Jerry, Kevin, and Brad have no one but each other since their groups kicked them out. The young bear, wolves, and fox make a merry ménage, pooling their meager skills and serving beer. They’ve stumbled into more than they understand, caught in the dispute between the Urso of Ballantine Mountain and the elk. But winter’s setting in, and they don’t know how to keep Dillon safe for hibernation.

And then a bear walks into their bar.

So, I want to start with a couple of prefatory notes. First, I had previously read Eden Winters’ Naked Tails (reviewed here) and I thought it was quite an enjoyable read. Not perfect, but worth the time. That’s what led me to this book. Second, it is a fact in the m/m romance genre that explicit descriptions of guys getting it on are included in the price of admission. I’d feel worse about not making a bigger deal about it in my reviews but having sat through/read countless depictions of heterosexual intercourse in my life, I figure y’all can deal with a couple of scenes of guys screwing.

And then we have this book. I found it entertaining, if nothing else. I have to imagine the author listing the characters and then calculating all of the possible permutations. And most every permutation is covered here, too!

In the world of A Bear Walks Into a Bar, shifters are a secret from the rest of modern society. It appears that shifters are all variety of mammals – bears, wolves, elk, cougars, rabbits, and more. The shifters are tribal within their species and all look upon one another with suspicion. Sawyer is the bear in charge of them all and has to deal with the different factions. So that sets up the plot, and indeed covers most of the plot in the book.

What fills the rest? Pure, unadulterated smut. Which is just fine by me, but it doesn’t make for a particularly deep reading experience. To be clear, the book is literally 75% sex scenes and 25% plot. The characters are fun, though, and the situations are damn hot. Dillon is adorable, a shy caregiver type. Sawyer is the big gruff alpha who is learning that maybe he doesn’t have to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. And then there’s Brad, the fox shifter. He’s cute, he’s insecure, and if he doesn’t have at least one orifice filled he’s probably asleep. (Furries may nod knowingly here.)

On the basis of content I’d give this a 3 out of 5, but for entertainment value I’d give it a 5. Let’s take an average and call it a rating of 4 out of 5. Enjoy!

Book Review: Change of Heart, by Mary Calmes

Change of Heart by Mary Calmes

As a young gay man-and a werepanther-all Jin Rayne yearns for is a normal life. Having fled his past, he wants nothing more than to start over, but Jin’s old life doesn’t want to let him go. When his travels bring him to a new city, he crosses paths with the leader of the local were-tribe. Logan Church is a shock and an enigma, and Jin fears that Logan is both the mate he fears and the love of his life. Jin doesn’t want to go back to the old ways, and mating would irrevocably tie him to them.

But Jin is the mate Logan needs at his side to help him lead his tribe, and he won’t give Jin up so easily. It will take time and trust for Jin to discover the joy in belonging to Logan and how to love without restraint.

Rating: 2.75 out of 5

This was an intriguing set-up. Shifters as a secret in modern society, ugly-duckling-becomes-a-swan story, and a nonconformist bucking the system. And for a good portion of the book, it was. Then it devolved into Jin acting like a whiny teenager who annoyed the heck out of me. I have a pet peeve about stories where the primary dramatic conflict could be resolved if the main characters just sat down and talked frankly like responsible adults. If this book had done that it would have been about half the length it was.

The problem I had was that a lot of the pseudo-Egyptian terminology threw me off. Many of the elements of the world building were just missing, leaving the reader to guess at many aspects, but at the same time there were many MANY references to The Rules that every werepanther should know (even if the clan leader doesn’t. Um, what?). Add to all of this the usual insta-love/fated mates trope and I’m left disappointed.

The final tally:
+4 for quality of writing
-0.25 for enough baffling Rules to fill a set of encyclopedias
-0.50 for “I have just met you and I love you!” (I mean, I guess it worked for Dug in Up, but still…)
-0.50 for annoying, uncommunicative man-children
Grand total: 2.75

I won’t recommend it, but I won’t say don’t read it either. Maybe your tolerance for some of this foolishness is better than mine.

(No points off, but a side note: That book cover. It’s certainly a thing, yes. Wow.)

Book Review: The Sumage Solution, by G.L. Carriger

The Sumage Solution, by G.L. Carriger

Max fails everything – magic, relationships, life. So he works for DURPS (the DMV for supernatural creatures) as a sumage, cleaning up other mages’ messes. The job sucks and he’s in no mood to cope with redneck biker werewolves. Unfortunately, there’s something oddly appealing about the huge, muscled Beta visiting his office for processing.

Bryan AKA Biff (yeah, he knows) is gay but he’s not out. There’s a good chance Max might be reason enough to leave the closet, if he can only get the man to go on a date. Everyone knows werewolves hate mages, but Bryan is determined to prove everyone wrong, even the mage in question.

Rating: 5 out of 5!

Based on the quality of writing in the short story “Marine Biology” (which I loved and reviewed here), I knew going in that this was going to be an enjoyable book. I was not disappointed! Max first appears as bureaucratic drudge, pushing papers all day long. As I learned more about him, what makes him tick and his terrible history, Max became a very sympathetic character for me. The guy has been through a lot but he’s not prepared for what is to come.

Bryan (“Biff” – ugh) is a sweetheart. A caretaker to the nth degree by nature, he is a gentle giant and he knows it. He’s not above using his size and strength as a threat, but only in service to those he cares about. Max desperately needs someone like Bryan in his life. Watching the two dance around the blossoming relationship was a little frustrating, but worth the wait.

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.

This is a wonderful book that doesn’t take itself too seriously. I highly recommend it, and hope that sequels are in the works!

Greatest Hits from the Great Western Road Trip

As you’ve seen, I took a hell of a lot of photos along the way during my trip, and I’ve only posted a fraction of what I took! Here are my favorite shots from the trip. Note that all of these were taken with an iPhone 6 and retouched using Picasa. My phone tends to dim the photos a bit and desaturate the colors, so I was able to offset that with the retouching.

These photos are licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0). You are free to share (copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format) and adapt (remix, transform, and build upon the material ) them.

Great Western Road Trip: Lessons Learned

And now, one final post to cap off The Great Western Road Trip. After 24 days on the road through 3 provinces and 13 states, what did I learn? Well, I learned a lot of things.

  • I need to work on my trip scheduling.
    When I laid out my itinerary my thinking was, I get into town in the afternoon/evening, I have a day in a city, and I leave the next morning. Three days, right? Wrong. I didn’t account for the distances out west. Mornings had me on the road by 7 AM and with few exceptions I arrived at my destination after 5 PM. After that much driving in a day, the idea of jumping back in the car to explore a city is unpalatable at best. Next time, I either need to limit the number of stops I make and allow better for distances between stops, or I need to take more time for the trip.
  • Renting a car was a good idea
    That was 6,400 miles I didn’t put on my 2012 Subaru Outback. I would have made the trip like a trooper, but I’d rather put all that on someone else’s car. (Rental car guy: “Wow. In all the time I’ve run this place I’ve never had someone turn in a car after putting that many miles on it!”) Side note: If you’re in the northwest Chicago suburbs, Mo at the Avis/Budget office in Lake Zurich is a fantastic guy to work with. Friendly and incredibly helpful! (Also he gave me the hookup for the satellite radio for the duration of the rental)
  • The Ford Mustang is a fun car
    Oh my goodness, yes. For mountain driving, for having to speed up quickly to pass someone, for a smooth ride, Mustangs are a blast. I don’t think I would ever own one – it’s a bit impractical for me – I sure as hell plan to rent one again if needed.
  • Convertibles are fun, up to a point
    I had visions of driving everywhere with the top down, feeling the wind around me, luxuriating in the scenery. Well, I didn’t account for the fact that after a while driving at highway speeds you can get a headache from the wind all around you. It can be difficult to hear spoken word stuff, like NPR or audiobooks. And then there’s the sun. Even so, though, I wouldn’t have traded it for the world. Driving with the top down on cool mornings, through Glacier National Park and the California mountains, along the California coast – all of these were definitely worth it.
  • Sunburns suck
    Sure, you can apply sunscreen. But you have to reapply it. And you stink of sunscreen, and so do your clothes. I got sunburned a few times early in the trip before I got better at managing things, but that was no fun.
  • Rocks to the windshield suck
    Yeah, I got hit with a rock that created cracks that traveled across the windshield. Twice. The replacement windshield and installation cost about US$500 each time. The good news is that I have full coverage via my Chase Sapphire card, with no deductible.
  • Interstates out west are far more fun to drive.
    I generally maintained a limit of speed limit + 5 mph. This made me slower than the speed demons but faster than that slowpokes, and that was just fine by me. But once you get out west, the speed limits go up, from 70 mph on rural roads in Montana to 80 mph on interstates in Nevada and Utah. That is a whole lot more fun! And yes, I did take the Mustang up to 130 mph on a long, straight section of interstate with no one around and good sight distances to see cops ahead. I could have gone faster, but at those speeds, the car has a bit of float to it and it was getting past the point where I felt safe.
  • Canadians don’t celebrate Canada Day very long
    This amused me greatly. I saw this in both Winnipeg and Regina. Canada Day (their 150th anniversary, so a really big deal) fell on a Saturday. Most people had the following Monday off. In the US, this would be cause for big 3- or 4-day festivals. What I saw was a huge to-do on Saturday, with concerts, fireworks, and big festivities. And by Sunday morning? Gone. The only thing left is some scaffolding around the stages, the rest of it all packed up and everyone has gone home. It’s admirably efficient, if nothing else.
  • There are only two bridges between Vancouver, Washington and Portland, Oregon
    Good lord, what a mess. Portland and Vancouver are separated by the Columbia River, which is huge. There are two bridges: Interstates 5 and 205. That’s it. The next closest bridges in either direction are both 40 miles away. Vancouver is a huge suburb, so you can imagine that traffic can be a nightmare. And yet, I’d still say it’s worth it.
  • I love exploring places that are new to me
    I need to go back to Glacier National Park. And Portland. And Winnipeg. And Regina. And Yosemite National Park. And Denver. I didn’t have enough time to explore these places as much as I would have liked, and I found them and the people there to be wonderful. On the bright side, I now have added to my list of future travel destinations!
  • Salads are a good thing
    Man, being on the road for three weeks is murder on how you eat. I tried to keep things light, but it wasn’t always easy and in the end I still gained 8 pounds. Too much sitting, not enough moving. I was able to find a lot of great salads along the way though, and that helped.
  • Beer is a good thing
    Antithetical to the previous observation, isn’t it? And yet I love trying new beers from different breweries. All told, I entered 60 new beers into Untappd on this trip, which include a good number of flights. A nice side-effect is that I also met a lot of really nice bartenders and brewery employees who were friendly and enjoyed chatting.
  • I need dogs in my life (Jasper, Zoey, Kiska, Nathan, and the other Zoe)
    I missed Charlie and Nora so much on this trip. I’m glad I didn’t take them with me because that would have been a level of complexity that would be quite difficult, but I sure wish I could have. Happily, I got to meet, pet, and play with my friends’ dogs: Jasper and Zoey, Kiska, Nathan, and Zoe. Wonderful pups, all!
  • Very few people in this world get me the way that Ford Shepherd does.
    We drifted apart for a while but now he is back in my life, and for this I am very grateful. Us gay Southern boys need to stick together!
  • Sometimes I need to be alone.
    My itinerary included 14 stops. In 11 of those I met up with friends, something for which I was grateful. Even so, the few stops where I didn’t meet anyone were a nice break. I needed the downtime, even though I spent 125+ hours alone by myself on the road. Sometimes socializing can be exhausting.
  • Death is an awkward subject.
    I want to stress that I am not criticizing anyone I met on this trip. I understand, I really do. For most people, Dan’s passing was an event – it is something that happened, and that was it. For those of us who knew him intimately it is a process, one that continues and will continue for quite a long time. Dan did not come up in many conversations on this trip and initially I wondered at this, but then I realized that death is something that we are just not equipped to discuss. It’s awkward, it’s depressing, and we don’t want to trigger any bad reactions. And that’s OK. I realized that the best things my friends can do for me is to just be there.

Out of all of this the best lesson that I learned, though, is that I have SO MANY wonderful friends. To all of you who were able to join me even for a few hours on this trip, thank you so much. You brought home that for all that I have lost, I am never alone. I cannot begin to express my gratitude for this. Thanks to Kellic, Cyn, Mwako, Charles, Lego, Plonq, Atara, Lydia, Andrew, Wolfish, Silver, Tiggs, Thallanor, Tina, Thumper, Hegdish, Drake, Ford, Brophey, Karwood, Partran, Luagha, Baja, Didge, Tyco, Tango, Rooth, Whiteyfawks, Orthrus, Adjacent, Rama, and K. I cannot wait to see you all again sometime soon!

For all that I thought my skills at meeting new people have gotten rusty, it was a nice surprise to be proven wrong. It was great to meet Chris, Jason, Kalypso, Beancat, River Pup, some of the great BLFC staff, and Iberian. Part of the joy of making a trip like this is making new friends, and I was fortunate to do so.

Also, thank you to everyone who followed along on this trip, on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, or Dreamwidth. Your comments and kind words have kept me company even if you couldn’t join me on the road.

During this trip I posted a song for each day, which a good friend collected into a Spotify playlist and an Apple Music playlist. These reflected my moods, my feelings about the trip, the landscape, and the people I met as I drove. I leave you with one last song, then: “No One Is Alone” from Into the Woods.

Sometimes people leave you.
Halfway through the wood…
But no one is alone.

 

Great Western Road Trip, Day 24 – FINAL DAY!

Current Location: Volo, Illinois

Today’s Song: 65daysofstatic – Supermoon

Something about this song describes the scenery of this entire trip to me – starting off slow through the Canadian Prairie Provinces, then into the mountains and the coast and returning over the mountains, and back to the plains.

For the final leg of the road trip, I made the short (this constitutes “short” now!) drive from St. Louis, Missouri to Volo, Illinois. I was intent on getting home, so drove it as quickly as possible, with only a stop in Dwight, Illinois, for lunch. Continuing my attempts to stick to local places, I went to Dwight Pizza, which had a 4.5 star rating on Yelp. It was…OK. The owner was friendly, possibly overly so, but it was a welcome break from the road.

I got home and unloaded the car, put stuff away, and started a load of laundry, then went to pick up Charlie and Nora from Ma’s. To say they were happy to see me was an understatement.

Thus ends the Great Western Road Trip. The final totals:

6,409 miles traveled

126 hours and 10 minutes of driving

I’ll have a final post with my overall thoughts in a day or so, but to answer the biggest questions I get from friends and co-workers:

Was it worth it? Absolutely.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. I might rearrange the scheduling a bit, but that was one of the best vacations of my life.

Stay tuned for the wrap-up!

Great Western Road Trip, Day 23

Current Location: Florissant, Missouri

Today’s Song: Lazlo Bane – Superman (Theme from Scrubs)

I need you here with me
Cause love is all we need
Just take a hold of the hand that breaks the fall
Well I know what I’ve been told
Gotta break free to break the mold
But I can’t do this all on my own
I’m no superman

Yeah. I think too much sometimes.

This is the penultimate day of this road trip. I started the day on the outskirts of Kansas City. Through he power of Yelp (which is really served me remarkably well on this trip) I found a wonderful little bakery/restaurant in Overland Park called McClain’s Market. I fueled up with a granola parfait and an Americano (ever since I left Canada I’ve been hooked on Americanos – go figure).

Then it was an uneventful drive across Missouri. It scares me that at this point anything less than six hours constitutes a “short” drive. If you do this long enough, I guess that’s what happens. Along the way I finished my second audiobook of the trip, this one also be T.J. Klune (The first was The Lightning-Struck Heart). This one was Wolfsong, which I have read before. It is an intensely emotional book and had me crying several times as I traced the relationship between Joe and Ox to mine and Dan’s. A tough listen, but so, so worth it.

I met up with Rama and K at Sugarfire Smoke House in St. Charles, Missouri for lunch. It’s a fun, quirky place with great BBQ sauces. After that we went back to their place and…didn’t do much. Rama and I sat around and talked convention stuff and watched some TV. It was lovely, and considering that it was 105 F outside it was a great alternative to venturing out. A big plus was that I got to pet Zoe, their 90-pound Great Dane puppy!

For dinner we went to Ferguson Brewing Company where I enjoyed my last beer flight of the trip, which had some unusually generous pours!

After a stop for frozen custard on the way home (because St. Louis), I quickly crashed for the night and slept quite well, with the exception of being woken up a couple of times by some very loud thunderstorms.

Tomorrow: HOME!

Miles Driven Today: 257 miles

Time Driving Today: 4:05

Total Miles Driven: 6,075 miles

Total Time Driving: 120:12

Great Western Road Trip, Day 22

Current Location: Lenexa, Kansas

Today’s Song: Mark Knopfler – Guide My Sword (from The Princess Bride Soundtrack)

A contemplative piece from one of my favorite soundtracks. I’ve been thinking a lot during this trip, and this matches up to my mood.

It was another early start today – up at 5:15 AM. After packing up, rearranging my luggage, cleaning the car, and checking out, I was able to walk to the coffee shop just across the street right as they opened at 6:30 AM.

Today was going to be a very long leg of driving, and not much to see or do along the way. Dring out of Denver was slow going.

The only saving grace was that the air conditioning in the Mustang was in excellent working order, which is good because today was a day when it was absolutely necessary!

I made very few stops, pushing ahead as quickly as I can. After three weeks of glorious scenery and being excited to see more, I’ve reached the point where I’m ready to get on my way home. Kansas wasn’t as boring as expected (there’s a lot more trees than I thought there would be) but it wasn’t particularly visually stimulating either. Fortunately between my audiobook and NPR I was able to make the time pass pretty quickly.

For dinner, I met up with Orthrus and Adjacent at a restaurant nearby. I first met Orthrus many, many years ago over the net. This was the first time that I met him face to face, and got to meet his husband as well. They’re both great, fun guys and the evening’s conversation was wide-ranging and enjoyable.

Tomorrow, the penultimate day of my road trip: a short 4-hour jaunt across Missouri to St. Louis.

Miles Driven Today: 614 miles

Time Driving Today: 8:52

Total Miles Driven: 5,818 miles

Total Time Driving: 116:07

Note that the totals are revised since I think that the Automatic dongle wasn’t reading correctly while I was in Canada, or anywhere that I was outside of cellular service. A definite limitation of the product. These are the numbers directly from the Mustang’s gauges.

Great Western Road Trip, Day 21

Current Location: Denver, Colorado

Today’s Song: Fairport Convention – Meet on the Ledge

Meet on the ledge, we’re gonna meet on the ledge
When my time is up I’m gonna see all my friends
Meet on the ledge, we’re gonna meet on the ledge
If you really mean it, it all comes round again

I like the idea that, in the end, we see all of our friends and loved ones again. It’s a lovely thought.

Today was a day off the road, and a welcome one at that! I was slow to get started, but after getting some breakfast at the coffee shop across the way (it was…meh) I went back to the room and caught up on all of my work emails and tried to gauge what crap-bombs have been dropped in my absence. It appears that I’ll be walking into a bit of a hornet’s next on Monday, but it’ll be manageable. Then it was over to the auto glass place to have them replace the windshield on the rental car (AGAIN). At least it was quick and painless.

Having heard some entertaining things about them on the podcast Kevin and Ursula Eat Cheap (specifically Episode 250, “Giraffe Snuff Film”), I drove up to Boulder to check out Decadent Saint/Wild Cider. The ciders were…OK. Nothing that particularly excited me, though the Lemon Basil Cider was pretty good. The Decadent Saint products were far more interesting, though. They are a wine-based spiced concentrate that is made to be mixed with cocktails or diluted and consumed on its own. Apparently they have had a hard time marketing this since there were two different variations of labels for the four products, all with different names. Currently they are calling them “sangrias” although it’s a bit odd to call something that looks like chocolate milk a sangria.

After tasting a flight of them, I picked up bottles of the Passionfruit, Raspberry, and Dark Chocolate. Quite tasty, and I look forward to experimenting with them!

I had checked with Troy, an old friend from college who is well-familiar with Boulder, on places that I should check out. It boiled down to “Go to Pearl Street, park, and walk.” My first stop was at Pizza Locale, where I was instructed to ask for Alex. It turns out that he and Troy are old friends, and Alex was incredibly sweet. We chatted as he worked the bar, and he was very kind when I mentioned why I was taking this road trip. It was a lovely visit, and I left feeling like I’d made a new friend. (Also, he’s damned cute!)

I walked down Pearl Street (and Pearl Street Mall), stopping at a few places that Troy had suggested and finding some of my own. I had to check out Mountain Sun Pub and Brewery and enjoyed a Belgian tripel there. My last stop in Boulder was Hazel’s, a liquor store similar in size to a large Binny’s in Chicago. I picked up some specifically local items that I know I can’t get in Illinois.

I finished up just in time to get on the road for Evergreen, Colorado, where I had been invited to Tango and Iberian’s place for dinner. Evergreen is a good ways out into the mountains – barely a Denver suburb, but manageable. At first I wondered why they would live so far out but as I drove and admired the scenery I began to understand. They have a lovely home there, and I’m sure it’s very cozy and comfortable in the wintertime. We were joined by Rooth and Whiteyfawks, and we had a delicious dinner while catching up on each other’s lives and geeking about various conventions.  It was 10 PM when we wrapped up, and I was pleasantly surprised just how short the drive was back to my hotel – just a hair over 30 minutes. That’s perfectly accessible – heck, they can get to Denver faster than I can get to Chicago from my place!

Tomorrow: The long, long drive across Kansas.

Miles Driven Today: 103 miles

Time Driving Today: 3:27

Total Miles Driven: 4,201 miles

Total Time Driving: 89:15

(There seems to be a large discrepancy between the mileage and time driven recorded by Automatic and the readings on the Mustang. I need to look into this and may revise this tomorrow.)

Great Western Road Trip, Day 20

Current Location: Lakewood, Colorado

Today’s Song: Carbon Leaf – 1 Wolf, 2 Wolf, 2 Wolf, 4

This one is all about the wide open spaces of the west, and driving miles and miles before seeing another person. A nice, contemplative piece, I think.

I started the day super-early in Salt Lake City, Utah. It took some doing, but I finally found one of the few coffee shops open at 6 AM in downtown SLC. Then it was on the road on Interstate 80 eastbound. Just as I was passing through a construction zone on the outskirts of town, I heard a *THOK* and looked over to find…

Sure enough, the crack started traveling across the windshield. This is my second cracked windshield of the trip, but at least now I know the routine – get it fixed myself, Budget doesn’t have to know about it, get reimbursed through my Chase Sapphire card (by the way, this card is AMAZING – automatic trip and rental car insurance for anything that you charge with the card. This has saved me thousands of dollars.)

That unpleasantness aside, it was a pleasant and uncrowded drive northeast up into Wyoming, where I stopped for a breakfast bagel.

Next stop: Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area. The drive just to get there was pretty in its own right.

I loved the fact that as you drove through the surrounding area the geology was on full display, and Utah helped with this by posting signs along the road explaining different features.

There was a ton of twisty-turns mountain driving, which is so much fun in a Mustang! It helps that there weren’t that many people on the road on a weekday morning so I could pretty much set my own speed, within reason. The views, though. Simply spectacular!

I was originally going to go over the Flaming Gorge Dam and take Browns Park Road overland. It’s an intriguing route, 30+ miles of unpaved road through the middle of nowhere. I had to drop the idea due to 1. Nearby forest fires making it a very real possibility that the road could be closed, and 2. I really didn’t want to possibly damage the dang car any further! Instead, I skipped the dam and went south through Vernal, Utah, where I stopped for a tasty lunch and to make geeky dad jokes.

Then it was a long, long drive to Denver. I didn’t make any stops because it was frequently pouring down rain (the first time in this entire trip, amazingly enough!). The drive down I-70 is always amazing though – beautiful views and very cool road engineering. I finally pulled into my destination, the Hyatt House in Lakewood, Colorado, a suburb of Denver, at 7 PM, 12 hours after I left downtown Salt Lake City. This was the longest I’ve driven in one day on this whole trip and I’m glad I won’t have to do that again!

I really like the Hyatt House brand – they have some great room designs.

For dinner I walked across the street to Brodo, an Italian place. The service was very lacking initially, but once the dinner rush died down it got better. I had a delicious steak salad, and got into a great conversation with the bartender about tonic syrups, gins, and aperitifs. It was a great evening.

Tomorrow I’ll be hanging around Denver to get the windshield fixed, then exploring Boulder, Colorado, and enjoying dinner with friends.

Miles Driven Today: 556 miles

Time Driving Today: 10:13

Total Miles Driven: 4,098 miles

Total Time Driving: 85:48

Great Western Road Trip, Day 19

 

Current Location: Salt Lake City, Utah

Today’s Song: This Will Destroy You – They Move On Tracks of Never-Ending Light

This song makes me think of the miles and miles of desert I drove through today, with the promise of mountains in all directions. I expected it to be a little monotonous, but it was actually a beautiful landscape surrounded by the Toiyabe Range and the Ruby Mountains. The contrast between the dry salt flats and the snow-capped mountains just beyond was stunning.

The drive out of Reno was quite lovely this morning, winding up through the foothills.

I put on the 20-hour audiobook for T. J. Klune’s Wolfsong (which I have read before and I know it is absolutely amazing) and this helped the miles fly by. The only downside is that the book will put you through the emotional wringer, and had me crying several times during the drive. I made a couple of stops along the way to admire the landscape.

I stopped in Winnemucca, Nevada for a quick breakfast/lunch at a lovely little diner. Once again, Yelp steers me to good places. As long as you know that you can’t really rely on the ratings for any place with less than a couple of dozen reviews, it’s a fantastic resource.

I rolled into Salt Lake City at 4:30 PM and checked into my hotel for the night, a Hyatt House. I’ve never stayed in one of these before and it’s a nice step up from a Hyatt Place, geared to those spending several nights in one place.

Dinner was at Red Rock Brewery, an easy walk from the hotel. Their beers are quite good, and the warm goat cheese salad really hit the spot.

Tomorrow the trip continues. This will be an interesting leg, SLC to Denver but clipping the southwestern corner of Wyoming then driving into the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, then overland across northwestern Colorado. I expect this is going to be a long one, so I’m going to try to get on the road as early as possible.

Miles Driven Today: 513 miles

Time Driving Today: 7:19

Total Miles Driven: 3,542 miles

Total Time Driving: 75:35

Great Western Road Trip, Day 18

Current Location: Reno, Nevada

Today’s Song: Kathleen Edwards – Goodnight California

This is such a great song that sets up a nice groove. This is another case where the emphasis is less on the song lyrics and more evocative of the feeling of driving through the Central Valley and up into the Sierra Nevadas.

I started the day in Manteca, California, heading out north on California 99 to Carson Pass Highway. It’s a good hour just to get to the mountains, but the loom ahead of you the entire time and provide a lovely backdrop and contrast to the flat farmlands all around you.

Then it was into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and wow, that is just spectacular. The road goes up, up, up from the valley to Carson Pass.

The geology of the area is quite unique, as my friend Neowolf pointed out. It provided a nice place to take a break and enjoy the view.

There are some interesting-looking resorts up there, and I am sure that the skiing is pretty impressive as well…providing you can get to the resorts. I saw a lot of “Chains Required” signs waiting to be used and Ford mentioned that the drive can get quite exciting, what with the avalanche risk and all.

After the hours of mountain driving, it was time for a stop in South Lake Tahoe for lunch and an opportunity to enjoy the local brews.

The trip out of the mountains from there was surprisingly quick, though the views were quite impressive descending down the eastward slopes.

I checked into my hotel in Reno (a Hyatt Place, the first of a long line of Hyatts this week – all free! ????). On my friend Rifka’s advice, I sought out one of the local breweries before dinner to check out their offerings. They were all quite good!

Then it was off to meet Tyco and a bunch of other staff from Biggest Little Fur Con, a convention that started just a few years ago here and quickly blew up into 5,000 or more attendees.

Dinner was lovely and the opportunity to chat with these good folks was welcome. They’re a damn smart bunch, and the convention has a good organization behind it. After dinner Tyco was kind enough to provide a tour of the Grand Sierra Resort’s convention facilities with some background on how the space is used and the convention’s relationship with the hotel. After seeing all of this I am not remotely surprised the convention has grown as quickly as it has. The GSR is an ideal venue for a furry convention! I definitely hope to attend next year.

Tomorrow it’s back on the road for the long drive to Salt Lake City, Utah. This is a part of the country I have never seen before so I look forward to seeing some new terrain.

Miles Driven Today: 215 miles

Time Driving Today: 5:11

Total Miles Driven: 3,029 miles

Total Time Driving: 68:16

Great Western Road Trip, Day 17

Current Location: Manteca, California

Today’s Song: Kate Wolf – Pacheco/Red-Tailed Hawk

An iconic California song for me, originally by Robin Williamson. Although I didn’t go through Pacheco Pass I did go over the Diablo Range, the same set of mountains, as I headed east out of the San Francisco Bay Area. This to me is summer in California:

Purple clouds turn scarlet in the setting sun
Where sagebrush turns to alive oak and the white tail run
The air is cool as music when the day is gone
And God paints the sky above Pacheco

This morning had me getting up bright and early to hit the road. I was pleased that I was able to find a nearby location of one of my favorite coffee places in the area, Philz Coffee.

I made it to Chris (Didge) and Brian (Baja)’s place a little before 9 AM. The temperature was already in the upper 80s on its way to a high for the day of 107 F. We quickly packed everything up and started the long drive to our destination for the day, Yosemite National Park. It took three hours each way, but it was very much worth it! (Also, it was about 25 degrees cooler!)

Our first stop was at Bridalveil Falls, where I got some hint of just how crowded the park would be as it took about 10 minutes to find a parking space.

Still, it was worth it to get a chance to clamber up the rocks and stand in the fine mist of the falls.

The views all around were simply stunning – the park was definitely everything that I have heard it was. We parked the car where we could and walked over to Yosemite Falls, where we enjoyed the spectacular views and got up-close and personal with the local wildlife.

Chris and Brian were wonderful travel companions, and we had a great time walking around the park!

On the way back we stopped at a Mexican restaurant near their house with a bizarre Christmas-themed menu (“We think they bought it a few years ago and never figured out how to change it.”) but delicious food and a great salsa bar. After that it was back to the house where we watched the last part of Kung Fu Hustle and all of Doctor Strange. The latter was a pretty good movie, but I learned that ambulance and hospital scenes still cause me intense discomfort, and the scene of someone dying on the operating table reduced me to tears. The scars run deep, unfortunately.

No mileage today since Chris was kind enough to drive us in his SUV and I was content to be a passenger. It was nice to see a good bit of country and not have to drive! Day 18 will take me even further east, up and over the Sierra Nevada mountains to Reno, Nevada.

Miles Driven Today: 0 miles

Time Driving Today: 0:00

Total Miles Driven: 2,814 miles

Total Time Driving: 63:05

Great Western Road Trip, Day 16

Current Location: Sunnyvale, California

Today’s Song: Eastmountainsouth – You Dance

Another day of not doing much, and that’s OK. It was a lovely, lazy day that was simply perfect.  I hung out at Ford’s all morning, getting an excellent therapeutic massage from River Pup. He is truly outstanding, for all that he is still in school. If you are in the Bay Area, I can highly recommend him – he’s damn good, and a heck of a nice guy. Funny thing: we actually hung out together at Mephit Furmeet in 2000 or so 🙂

Lunch was a wonderful get-together with Brophey, Karwood, Partran, and Luagha. it was so great to see these guys again!

The afternoon was spent cooking (well, Ford was cooking, I was assisting and providing company!). Dinner was a delicious pork tenderloin Wellington, roasted Brussels sprouts, and blueberry pie. After that a low-key evening of sitting around chatting in the cool breeze out by the pool. I needed this time, and I needed time with wonderfully dear friends. I’m sad I have to leave Ford and Sunnyvale, but the trip must continue. This trip has been a reminder of the incredible number of close friends I am blessed with, and all of the places that I need to revisit again soon.

Next up: the Central Valley doubling as the fifth circle of hell, and Yosemite National Park!

Miles Driven Today: 0 miles

Time Driving Today: 0:00

Total Miles Driven: 2,814 miles

Total Time Driving: 63:05

Great Western Road Trip, Day 15

Current Location: Sunnyvale, California

Today’s Song: Dougie MacLean – Restless Fool

The lyrics to this song aren’t particularly relavent, but the general mood matches mine perfectly these days. Plus, Dougie MacLean is an excellent musician.

On Day 15, I rested. I spent the day mostly hanging out by the backyard pool with Ford and catching up. It was, quite frankly, delightful and one of the highlights of the trip.

In the evening, we met up with Latte, Dax, Smackjackal, Shyhoof, and Izzy for dinner at SoFA Market in San Jose, California. It was wonderful to catch up with these folks and enjoy a delicious spicy tune poke bowl.

After dinner we wandered over to Haberdasher for some craft cocktails. All in all it was a wonderful day!

Miles Driven Today: 0 miles

Time Driving Today: 0:00

Total Miles Driven: 2,814 miles

Total Time Driving: 63:05

Great Western Road Trip, Day 14

Current Location: Sunnyvale, California

Today’s Song: Bruce Cockburn – Train in the Rain

This is a great traveling song, and one that makes me think of making steady progress down the road, which is what yesterday was all about. Incidentally, my friend Five-Toed Sloth Bear is collecting these songs as they are posted into a Spotify playlist:

(Also, there is an Apple Music playlist available as well.)

I started the day in cold, gray Crescent City, California. Breakfast was a tasty ham, Swiss, and egg sandwich.

This was a good start but the coffee was kind of weak. It got me through to Arcata, California, which is a highly entertaining town. I first heard of Arcata from graduates of Humboldt State University there, and it did not disappoint. It is pretty much the epitome of the Northern California hippie town, but I liked the vibe. I first stopped by a coffee house that was entertaing primarily because the (tattooed, pierced, and awesomely friendly) barista identified the artist and vendor of my current favorite T-shirt that I was wearing. I adjourned across the street for what was supposed to be a light snack, but it was great anyway.

It was a straight shot down to San Francisco from there, where I got to experience the fun of rush hour traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge.

Getting through downtown San Francisco at rush hour was everything I expected it to be, but 2 hours later I made it to Ford’s place in Sunnyvale. After chatting for a bit we swung over to his boyfriend Bramble’s and picked up him and his roommate Umbral and went out for a wonderful sushi dinner.

Today will be a pretty relaxing day, hanging out at Ford’s then meeting up with friends for dinner. Having a couple of days off the road is going to be a wonderful thing!

Miles Driven Today: 395 miles

Time Driving Today: 8:15

Total Miles Driven: 2,814 miles

Total Time Driving: 63:05

Great Western Road Trip, Day 13

Current Location: Crescent City, CA

Today’s Song: Colin Hay – I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You

Portland, Oregon was such a wonderful town I hated to leave it, but the road trip must go on! And so I jumped in the car bright and early, hit the road, and…sat in traffic.

Portland is connected to Vancouver, Washington (a large suburb) and many other suburbs by only two bridges, Interstate 5 and Interstate 205. The next closest bridges over the Columbia River are an hour in either direction. This produces traffic chaos like clockwork, unfortunately (and that doesn’t even take into account that I-5 is also an active drawbridge!).

After a pit stop in Salem, Oregon, for gas and a small bite for breakfast (and coffee, of course), it was onward to the coast.

Well, almost. 5 minutes from the coast I stopped in the tiny town of Toledo, Oregon, for an early lunch. I didn’t realize the name of the place until I saw the sign on the door, but it seemed simply perfect for me! I ordered the “Working Man’s Breakfast” which was potatoes, onions, green peppers, and scrambled eggs, covered in sausage gravy. It tasted a lot better than it looked!

Then it was back on the road, and the Pacific Ocean quickly put in its appearance.

(The pedants of Twitter immediately chimed in with all of the locations in the US that are further west than where I was. I ignored them. Protip: If you are about to tweet something that could easily be prefaced with, “Well, actually…” delete it and sit on your hands until the urge to post passes.)

Then it was the long down the coast on US Highway 101, which will eventually carry me to San Francisco. I stopped at numerous beautiful locations along the way, including the spectacular Cape Perpetua, waaaaay up over the shoreline.

Oh, and there were other sights too!]

South of Florence, Oregon I decided it was time to make up some time so no more stops after that. I rolled in to The Lighthouse Inn in Crescent City, California, at a little after 7 PM. With stops, that was about 12 hours of travel and pretty exhausting! I decided to reward myself with a tasty dinner:

Then it was back to my hotel room, which despite its questionable design choices was clean, comfortable, and quiet. I’m glad I sleep with a white noise generator though because there was a lot of incidental noise from the hallway and upstairs.

I drove a lot in silence down the coast, doing some of that Deep Thinking I knew was part of this trip. I got pretty down because I kept thinking that, despite all of the hours in the car, Dan would have loved this trip – seeing old friends, visiting beautiful locations, and just experiencing the adventure of it all. His smile and laughter are with me always. I’ll need to think more about how how all of this makes me feel beyond “sad”, because it is of course it’s much more complex than that.

One good cry and a sound night’s sleep later, I am up and ready to hit the road. Today will take me down US 101 through Redwood Country and then to Sunnyvale, California, where I’m staying with my old friend Ford Shepherd. I’m looking forward to seeing him again!

Miles Driven Today: 384 miles

Time Driving Today: 8:52

Total Miles Driven: 2,419 miles

Total Time Driving: 54:50

Great Western Road Trip, Day 12

Current Location: Vancouver, Washington

Today’s Song: John Powell – Test Drive (How To Train Your Dragon Soundtrack)

Today’s song is a sweeping, exciting piece that reminds me of my experiences and landscapes so far in this trip, and the excitement still to come. It was also one of Dan’s favorite soundtracks and is one of mine as well, so it provides a touchstone for the journey.

Portland was on the agenda for today, and I had a great time exploring  the downtown and surroundings. The weather was amazing if almost a little chilly to start the day.

Knowing traffic was going to be terrible (lots of traffic + only 2 bridges across the Columbia River = so many traffic jams!), I stayed on the northern side of the river and went to downtown Vancouver for some coffee and a small bite to eat. I tried a couple of places and got my first taste of the ethos of the area.

This was to become a running theme, I found. So many rainbow flags everywhere (which, granted, were probably left over from Pride but the fact they were still flying is appreciated)!

Once I decided to brave the traffic, I took a jaunt out of the way, up to Sauvie Island. I wanted to check out Collins Beach there and wasted an enjoyable hour and a half or so there. By lunchtime it was time to head downtown. Thumper had given me some good pointers on where to park and places to check out, which I made use of. After stopping for a cup of coffee because Portland) I struck out for Powell’s City of Books. I had hoped to wander around a bit and maybe get a nice sweeping picture of a ton of books, but it turns out the place is a rabbit warren of interconnecting rooms, each one stuffed to the gills with new and used books. I did find some amusing signage and fun stuff to look at though.

Next it was off to The Brewery District, because Portland has a Brewery District and how could I not go there? I first stopped by Fat Head’s Brewery but didn’t buy anythign because their menu boasted 6-8 different kinds of India Pale Ales and a few boring, less-hoppy beers. Pass.

10 Barrel Brewery was my next stop. I had lunch, which was a BLTAE (Bacon, Lettuce, Tomato, Avocado, and Egg) sandwich, which was surprisingly quite good. They also had a better beer selection, and true to their name their beer flight consisted of ten different beers.

And what is this I see across the street? The Rogue Distillery and Public House! I’ve been wanting to try their spirits without buying an entire bottle, so…

I took my time walking back to my car so I was good to go when I got there! After a short stop back at Thumper and Kalypso’s to do some laundry, it was back into Portland to meet Drake and Hegdish for dinner. We met at a crazy place called McMenamin’s Kennedy School. They have taken an old elementary school and converted it into an entire entertainment complex, with meeting rooms, a pool, hotel rooms, several different bars, a restaurant, and heaven knows what else! We had a leisurely dinner on the patio and had a great time catching up and chatting. They’re both great guys and it was a real delight to see them again!

Tomorrow has me back on the road again, this time driving to the Oregon coast and heading south into northern California. It’ll be an early start once again, because this could be a long day of driving!

Miles Driven Today: 90 miles

Time Driving Today: 3:34

Total Miles Driven: 2,035 miles

Total Time Driving: 45:58

 

Great Western Road Trip, Day 11

Current Location: Vancouver, Washington

Today’s Song: Explosions in the Sky – Your Hand in Mine

This song captures more of a feeling for me than anything else – the feeling of driving out across the rolling desert hills of eastern Washington, then the grandeur of the Columbia River Gorge.

I slept in a little late this morning, then met up with (carazy Canadian birder friend) Tina for coffee, a pastry, and some more pleasant conversation. I could talk with her for hours, and she is simply delightful company! All too soon, though, it was time to hit the road.

Granted, I didn’t go all that far! Less than an hour down the road I decided to stop at Hermiston Brewing Company for a quick lunch and a beer from a local brewery. On the way I stopped by McNary Dam, which was scenic in an arid kind of way.

Then it was on for lunch! I had a halibut wrap with a salad, which was immediately offset by all of the beer.

The beer was…whelming. Ah well, you can’t win them all. In the interest of speed I then took to Interstate 84 and headed west along the Columbia River.

The scenery started to pick up as I approached the Columbia River Gorge, and the landscape become more and more beautiful.

One nifty random thing along the trip: I popped to the northern side of the river into Washington because gas is substantially cheaper there. After I filled up I chatted with the cashier, who was curious about my Illinois license plates. I explained that I was on an extended road trip looking for cool things, and she directed me a short ways back the way I came to check out Schreiner Farms, a free exotic animal farm where you can drive in and see then animals (from your car). This was a fun, random break in the trip!

After that it was back over to the Oregon side and I received a lovely welcome as I headed west.

Based on Thumper’s recommendation, I stopped at Multnomah Falls and hiked up to the top. It’s a 1.25 mile hike with an elevation rise of about 700-800 feet. A moderate workout, but welcome all the same after sitting in the car all day!

After that invigorating hike, I fought my way through rush hour traffic to Thumper and Kalypso’s place. They are kind enough to put me up while I am in town and I am incredibly appreciative! We got a good dinner at BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse. Great cider, and decent beer too.

Tomorrow I plan to dive into downtown Portland and wander around and find neat things, which is my general approach to new cities. I expect lots of coffee, beer, cider, and who knows what else?

Miles Driven Today: 227 miles

Time Driving Today: 5:09

Total Miles Driven: 1,945 miles

Total Time Driving: 42:24

Great Western Road Trip, Day 10

Current Location: Richland, Washington

Today’s Song: Nickel Creek – Where Is Love Now?

If I could wait here for you
Without hope or knowing what to do
Watch the light fade away
Without fear or knowing what to say
Cry the tears from my eyes
Leave me here long enough to realize
Where is love now?
Where is love now
Out here in the dark?
Yeah. This covers a lot of my feelings over the last few months.
Day 10 found me driving from Kalispell, Montana to Richland, Washington (part of the Tri-Cities, with Pasco and Kennewick. Paging Mercy Thompson…). It brought quite an interesting range of terrain. I got an early start to the day; the drive through the Flathead River Valley along Flathead Lake was absolutely beautiful.
I stopped for lunch in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. I’d had a hankering for grilled cheese so I decided it was time to indulge.
I’ve been having problems with my phone’s battery reading fluctuating wildly and randomly shutting down. In the morning I backed up my computer to my laptop and after lunch I found a spot in a coffee shop and sat down to do a full restore. That whole process took almost 90 minutes, much to my chagrin. Still, it was nice to sit and relax for a bit too.
I got into Richland at around 4 PM, and met up with Tina (aka “crazy Canadian birder friend Tina” for those who follow Ursula Vernon). We had a great time chatting and finally adjourned to a local winery/restaurant that was really, really good.
I had the wild mushroom and herb risotto with grilled chicken and it was very well-done – nice creaminess, and the mushrooms were so meaty and flavorful that the chicken was an unnecessary addition on my part. We each ordered a flight of reds and while some were so-so, we found a couple that were quite good, to Tina picked up a few bottles.
After dinner we retired back to Tina’s hotel room and spent the rest of the evening chatting, catching up, and generally having a nice, low-key time. I enjoyed it immensely.
Today, after I meet Tina for breakfast, I will be making the relatively short (~4 hours) drive to Vancouver, Washington, which is right across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon. I look forward to taking my time and finding cool stuff along the way!

Miles Driven Today: 386 miles

Time Driving Today: 6:58

Total Miles Driven: 2,104 miles

Total Time Driving: 44:13

Great Western Road Trip, Day 9

Current Location: Kalispell, Montana

Today’s Song: Spirit of the West – Canadian Skye

A great song from one of my favorite bands, this evokes to me the wide open prairies, the exuberance I observed for Canada Day in Winnipeg and the Calgary Stampede. I listen to this and I think of the miles and miles of fields flying by under the wide Canadian skies.

With this I complete my swing through Canada, and I can reveal a bit of an easter egg – following Canadian content rules, all of the artists posted while I was north of the border were Canadian.

This was a big day – my last day in Canada and my first venture into the mountains. The more I travel the more I realize I am just not made for the flatlands. Mountains make my spirits soar. I drove the entire way through Glacier National Park with a big grin on my face because I was loving the drive so much! I took an enormous number of pictures even before and after Going-To-The-Sun Road through Glacier National Park – it took me almost 3 hours to go 50 miles because I was stopping so often.

I was up and out of Lindsey and Richard’s place in Chestermere by 7 AM. After a brief stop for coffee, it was straight down Alberta Highway 2. The tiny town of Pincher Creek turned out to have a wonderful little coffee shop that had the best breakfast sandwich (the bright yellow yolk shows how fresh the egg was, and it tasted great too!).

The foothills gradually turned into small mountains as the landscape rose up around me.

There was about a 15 minute wait at the Chief Mountain border crossing, but I just had a brief conversation with the officer and I was on my way.

Following a light lunch at a little cafe in St. Mary, Montana, that made a fantastic strawberry-rhubarb pie, it was off into Glacier National Park!

Going-To-The-Sun Road is a 50-mile road through Glacier National Park. It is an engineering feat, and the views throughout are nothing short of stunning. At the gate to the park I found out there is a $30 fee to use the park for a day, or for $80 you can get an annual pass good 12 months from purchase. Considering I’ll be going to Yosemite National Park next week and knowing the dire financial straits of the National Park Service, I was more than happy to purchase an annual pass. Even if I never use it again I feel it’s money well spent!

I hate to do this but it’s crazy late and I have to be up early in the morning; I will refer you to my Twitter feed for photos (and videos!) inside the park. The trip was incredible and one that I hope to repeat when I have more time (those lakes beg for some quality kayaking time!).

Tomorrow I am off to Richland, Washington. Not much there, but it’s a good stopping point along the way, plus I will be meeting up with a friend for dinner. It should be a great time!

Miles Driven Today: 331 miles

Time Driving Today: 8:26

Total Miles Driven: 1,718 miles

Total Time Driving: 37:15

Great Western Road Trip, Day 8

Current Location: Calgary, Alberta

Today’s Song: Shark Tank – Out For a Rip (NSFW!)

This song speaks to the quintissential Prairie Province Canadian. Yeah, redneck as all hell, but who cares?

Today was crazy busy, but I had so much fun! I started out the day at an auto glass repair place, where they replaced the windshield on the Mustang in a little under 90 minutes.

Next, I joined Lindsey, Richard, and Lindsey’s father at the Aviation Row Hoedown BBQ to celebrate the arrival of the Calgary Stampede. This took place in one of the hangers at Calgary International Airport, and they had pulled up a Beechcraft 1900D, a BA RJ100, and a Bombardier Dash 8 for everyone to walk around, go in, and check out from top to bottom. It was a really nifty experience! (Love the jet-shaped grill too!)

And then it was time for the day’s main event: The Calgary Stampede!

To crib info from Wikipedia, the Stampede “attracts over one million visitors per year and features one of the world’s largest rodeos, a parade, midway, stage shows, concerts, agricultural competitions, chuckwagon racing and First Nations exhibitions.” Think the Texas State Fair with a bunch of stuff added. To say it’s enormous is an understatement. We spent 6 hours there today and saw maybe a quarter of the grounds. Still, we had a great time! We met up with two great guys from Edmonton, Thallanor and Tiggs, and enjoyed goofing around, eating terrible food, and drinking a bit more beer than was probably wise. Also: a fun dog exhibition that was definitely geared to kids, but it’s always great to see dogs having great fun as they run through their paces.

And now I’m back at Lindsey and Richard’s place. They are en route to the airport for an insane quick weekend trip to Montreal (their flight leaves here at 1 AM!), so it’s just me, the cats, and Kiska (who smells much better after her bath, by the way!).

I want to thank Richard and Lindsey for their wonderful hospitality. I know that they had a lot going on this week between work and other plans and it really meant a lot to me that they were able to take the time to put me up in their oh-so-comfy guest bedroom and hang out. I had so much fun, and I was reminded again that Calgary is a wonderful city, and I am blessed with some very dear friends here.

And so my visit to Calgary comes to a close. Early tomorrow morning I hit the road bright and early, going south out of Calgary and headed back into the United States. Ideally my travels will take me to Glacier National Park and Going-To-The-Sun Road; we shall see how that works out. I have multiple possibilities in mind just in case. From there it’s on to my destination for the day, Kalispell, Montana.

Miles Driven Today: 20 miles

Time Driving Today: 0:51

Total Miles Driven: 1,387 miles

Total Time Driving: 28:49

Great Western Road Trip, Day 7

Current Location: Calgary, Alberta

Today’s song: Life Is a Highway, by Tom Cochran

Life’s like a road that you travel on
When there’s one day here and the next day gone
Sometimes you bend, sometimes you stand
Sometimes you turn your back to the wind

Yeah, this song speaks to me as I drive on this trip.

No long-distance driving today! Instead, I wandered around Calgary and found cool stuff, which is what I enjoy doing in interesting cities.

Breakfast was at a nifty espresso/wine bar. I decided to forgo the wine since it was 9 O’Clock in the morning.

While getting breakfast I got a call from the guy I rented the Mustang from (Budget/Avis in Lake Zurich, IL – highly recommended!). He told me to go ahead and get the windshield crack repaired. This was good since I noticed that the crack was continuing to travel the length of the windshield. My next stop was to the most highly recommended windshield replacement place on Yelp (hey, you’ve got to start somewhere!). There were extremely helpful and ordered the replacement to arrive tonight. I’ll be there at 8 AM tomorrow to have them install it.

My next stop was Nose Hill Park. This is a gorgeous park that rises just to the north of downtown Calgary and offered great views of the city and surrounding area. I slathered on some sunscreen and went for an extended walk around.

From there it was lunchtime. I was in the mood for something light but filling. Pho it was!

A few more stops around town later and it was back to Lindsey and Richard’s place to relax a bit and shower to get all the sunscreen off. I rested a bit in the afternoon and got caught up on social media and laundry.

Dinner was a delicious Mexican dinner at Salt and Pepper, followed by a stroll through the Inglewood neighborhood. We stopped by a lovely little liquor store that had my number: “Oh, that gin looks interesting to you? Here, I have some you can try…”

In case you were wondering, it was astounding. I bought it. And then came, “Oh, if you want to try a really high-end gin, how about this…” I did. It was So. Damn. Good.

So I bought it, of course. Whoops!

And tonight? I see hot tubbing in my future!

Tomorrow is going to be busy. Lindsey has invited me to join her and Richard at a Stampede BBQ at her employer (y’all will love the pics!), followed by meeting up with friends and going to the Calgary Stampede where there will be so-so beer and copious terrifying food!

Miles Driven Today: 111 miles (lots of driving around town!)

Time Driving Today: 2:09

Total Miles Driven: 1,367 miles

Total Time Driving: 27:58

 

Great Western Road Trip, Day 6

Today’s Song: The Last Saskatchewan Pirate, by Captain Tractor

Current Location: Chestermere, Alberta

Today’s song speaks for itself, I think ????

Today had me driving from Regina, Saskatchewan to Calgary, Alberta (Well, Chestermere – close enough). It’s an easy 7-hour drive if you take the TransCanada Highway. I, of course, did not, and so it took me over 9 hours.

I woke up WAY too early (5 AM) and decided to shower and hit the road. After finding coffee and a quick pastry for breakfast I was off, heading northwest out of Regina. After a few hours, I stopped for a true Canadian experience that everyone had been telling me I needed to do.

About halfway to Saskatoon, I turned due west and proceeded overland, through field after field of canola and rapeseed.

Unfortunately, I also experiences what I am told is one of the common pitfalls of driving in the prairie provinces. As I approached Rosetown, SK, a passing truck kicked up a rock, which smacked right into my windshield.

 

I’ll need to keep an eye on it and if it gets worse, I may need to do something about it. Unfortunately that may mean them asking for me to swap cars, and OH HELL NO.

From there it was a pretty uneventful drive to my destination. I had hopped to maybe stop in Drumheller, AB to see the museum there but between delays, traffic, and construction I had to pass. I arrived at Richard and Lindsey’s in time for Richard and I to go out for dinner and drinks. The rest of the evening was a nice bit of relaxing and unwinding from the day.

Tomorrow: On my own wandering around Calgary!

Miles Driven Today: 469 miles

Time Driving Today: 8:22

Total Miles Driven: 1,725 miles

Total Time Driving: 34:11