Tag Archives: book review

Book Review: Conventionally Yours, by Annabeth Albert

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patrick never expected to be interested in anyone else.

Aubrey never expected to be happy.

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

Galaxies and Oceans, by N.R. Walker

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

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

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

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

Love him.

I can see why you love him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

1925 New York

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

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

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

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

5 out of 5!

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Accepting Submission, by Kris T. Bethke

Alphas aren’t made to submit.

Raised in a conservative clan, Asher Grant has done everything he could to be a good alpha. A good son. But denying his needs has made him weak, and he’s lost touch with his bear. No longer able to shift, his clan rejects him instead of helping. Desperate, there’s only one place Asher can turn.

Trey Carver leads his pack with a firm but gentle hand. Under his guidance, his wolves have flourished. Asher knows he won’t be welcome among the wolves, but Trey has something he needs. Asking for it isn’t easy. Accepting it when it’s offered is even harder.

As Trey teaches Asher the beauty of dominance and submission, Asher begins to heal. Accepting his true self has a power all its own. When Trey makes the ultimate offer, Asher feels honor bound to deny it. Can a wolf convince a bear that they are meant to be?

Accepting Submission, by Kris T. Bethke

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

I’ll start this review by noting that I was provided an advance readers copy for reasons mentioned below, but I am happy to provide an independent review.

I really enjoyed this. It’s told entirely from Asher’s point of view, and we get a close look at his insecurities and doubts. He is an outcast for not living up to his clan’s perceptions of what he should be and feels a complete failure. At his heart, though, he is a smart, sensitive man who just doesn’t fit expectations. I could wish we had some of Trey’s POV to have a better sense of his reactions, but I also understand how that could take the reader out of the story. The scenes of Asher and Trey just talking and learning about one another are what made the story for me, and they make a great couple.

D/s is not typically my thing, but I understand the mechanics of it and can absolutely sympathize with the power exchange concept (even a control freak like me can see the attraction of letting someone else make the decisions sometimes). I liked that it was made clear that being a sub doesn’t mean “anything goes”. If a sub has questions or concerns, it’s OK to do say so. Like any relationship, communication is what makes it work. Those aspects are what helped me connect more with the scenes here.

Oh, and about that ARC? If you note my username, and the fact that I have two sweet dogs, Nora and Charlie, you’ll understand. Any similarities beyond the names are purely coincidental, but it was a delightful surprise from Kris (although my Nora is every bit as sassy as the Nora in the story!).

I loved this fun, sexy novella! I look forward to reading more tales of the Carver pack.

Book Review: Upside Down, by N.R. Walker

Jordan O’Neill isn’t a fan of labels, considering he has a few. Gay, geek, a librarian, socially awkward, a nervous rambler, an introvert, an outsider. The last thing he needs is one more. But when he realizes adding the label ‘asexual’ might explain a lot, it turns his world upside down.

Hennessy Lang moved to Surry Hills after splitting with his boyfriend. His being asexual had seen the end of a lot of his romances, but he’s determined to stay true to himself. Leaving his North Shore support group behind, he starts his own in Surry Hills, where he meets first-time-attendee Jordan.

A little bewildered and scared, but completely adorable, Hennessy is struck by this guy who’s trying to find where he belongs. Maybe Hennessy can convince Jordan that his world hasn’t been turned upside down at all, but maybe it’s now—for the first time in his life—the right way up.

Upside Down, by N.R. Walker

Rating: 5 out of 5!

Nobody writes adorkable like N.R. Walker! Her low-angst, character-driven novels are always refreshing and enjoyable, and this book was no exception. Jordan is a nerdy sort, whose social anxiety leads to nervous chatter which actually gets to be pretty endearing. Hennessy is more laid-back, but more of a techno-geek. What begins as an crush on a stranger on a bus blossoms into something beautiful and charming.

One of the things that I loved about this book were the side characters: Merry, Jordan’s stoic co-worker and best friend, Angus, Jordan’s sweet-but-dense roommate, Michael, Hennessy’s best friend and boss. I especially got a kick out of “The Soup Crew”, strangers on the bus who become invested in Jordan and Hennessy’s growing relationship. As I’ve seen in other books, Walker has a tendency to tie the side-characters together neatly with some convenient coincidences, but that’s a minor nitpick.

As mentioned in the blurb, the story is about an asexual relationship, and Jordan’s coming to terms with his own asexual orientation. Recognizing that this is a concept that is new to many, Walker makes an effort to clearly explain what asexuality is and is not, and that is something that is much appreciated. As a man who continues to come to terms with his own asexuality this book spoke to me on a very personal level, and I could absolutely identify with a lot of Jordan’s feelings. The fact that asexuality is a spectrum not a fixed point is frequently frustrating, and for that reason Jordan’s self-doubt is quite relatable.

I listened to this on audio and while the story was great, I had some minor issues with Glen Lloyd’s narration. Some pauses between chapters and paragraphs where the setting changes would be appreciated. Also, the voices used for Hennessy and Jordan were very similar, at least to my American ear, making it difficult to tell who was talking at times.

I really enjoyed Upside Down and would highly recommend it to anyone, though it is especially good if you want to learn more about asexuality.

Note: To find out more about asexuality I suggest checking out The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network, which is a trove of useful information.

Book Review: The Last Sun (The Tarot Sequence, Book 1) by K. D. Edwards

Rune Saint John, last child of the fallen Sun Court, is hired to search for Lady Judgment’s missing son, Addam, on New Atlantis, the island city where the Atlanteans moved after ordinary humans destroyed their original home.

With his companion and bodyguard, Brand, he questions Addam’s relatives and business contacts through the highest ranks of the nobles of New Atlantis. But as they investigate, they uncover more than a missing man: a legendary creature connected to the secret of the massacre of Rune’s Court.

In looking for Addam, can Rune find the truth behind his family’s death and the torments of his past? 

The Last Sun (The Tarot Sequence, Book 1), by K.D. Edwards

Rating: 5 out of 5!

There was once a large land off what we know as the east coast of North America, Atlantis. They were a race of beings who possessed magic and used that magic to hide their existence while meddling in human affairs however they liked. This was all well and good until the first man in space looked out the window and saw something which should not be there. This discovery started a sequence of events that escalated to the Atlantean World War, a war that the Atlanteans lost. The decimated race retreated to the island of Nantucket, where they have created their own society in parallel with humans, consuming human popular culture, but with its own social mores and politics.

All of this has occurred before The Last Sun’s story begins, but the world-building here is glorious. With the Atlantean ability to translocate entire tracts of land to their island, we get an urban fantasy that has just enough of a touch of the real world to keep it anchored (and to easily envision where events are occurring). One of the gratifying things here is that this is all in the background, tacitly understood, which allows the story to flow around it.

And flow it does! We take up the story of Rune Saint John, disgraced child of a ruined family, eking out an existence on the fringes of Atlantean society. He is accompanied by his Companion, Brand, his bodyguard and best friend to whom he is linked empathically. What follows is part caper, part mystery, part political intrigue. Rune and Brand are great foils for one another, and the banter between them shows the underlying affection despite occasional exasperation.

To go any further into the plot gives away all kinds of spoilers, unfortunately. Technically speaking, though, this book is outstanding. The narrative framing, the development of the side characters, and the bit-by-bit unraveling of the mystery are all handled perfectly. This is the kind of book that when you get to the end, you’re sad that there’s not more. Great news, though! The sequel, The Hanged Man, is out and it is every bit as good as this book, if not better.

I listened to this book on audio, narrated by Josh Hurley. This is definitely not just narration, though! Hurley delivers a masterful performance, capturing the emotions and inflections of each character. Every character is distinct, and each develops a trademark way of speaking. I especially lover Brand’s snarkiness, and Addam’s Russian accent, which becomes more pronounced the more emotional he is. Hurley’s work made an excellent book even better!

Finally, two notes about this book. First, there is frank discussion of rape and abuse and the consequences thereof. It is handled thoughtfully and sensibly and is an important part of the story. Second, for all that this book came to my attention as an M/M romance, it would be far better classified as urban fantasy with characters who happen to not be straight. I would highly recommend this book to any fan of urban fantasy; without a doubt it is one of the best books I’ve read in the last five years.

Book Review: Wolf Lost (The Wolves of Kismet #1), by Sam Burns

Wolf Lost (The Wolves of Kismet #1), by Sam Burns

Sawyer Holt can’t go home. The Alpha who has replaced his father wants to use him as a tool to cement his political power, and Sawyer isn’t interested in marrying his father’s murderer.

Dez Sullivan’s leg may never heal from his last mission in Afghanistan, but he’s getting used to that. What he can’t adapt to are the nightmares and the tremor in his hand that the doctors insist is all in his head. Next to that, being a brand new werewolf seems easy, until Sawyer Holt blows into his life. The omega activates his burgeoning wolf instincts in a new way, and they threaten to overwhelm his common sense.

Both men are in Colorado searching for a new start, a new pack, and the safety they’ve lost. Their meeting is pure Kismet.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

This was a lovely read! The plot is nothing particularly complicated, but that’s OK because it left more time to focus on the characters. Dez, Ash, and Gavin are war buddies who have recently left the service following a vaguely-described incident that left Dez with a crushed leg, tremors, and major PTSD. Oh, and as a result of that incident Dez and Gavin are newly-minted werewolves. Minor point, I know. Sawyer has been assumed to be delicate and fragile all of his life, but underneath that is a fierce determination. He and Dez are a great couple, and I enjoyed seeing the sparks between them.

One of the things that I loved about this book is how it upends some typical werewolf tropes: Fated Mates (though we skirt that a bit), There Can Be Only One Alpha, and others. Of course, other tropes are knot avoided, but it’s all part of the fun. Dez and Gavin have only been werewolves for 5 or 6 weeks and are still ignorant of many of the traditions and cultural expectations. For the most part that doesn’t matter since it’s just the three of them isolated in the Colorado mountains, but it leads to some humorous moments as they make a faux pas, then shrug it off. They’re soldiers first, then werewolves second, and act accordingly.

If I have any complaint it’s that I would have liked to have seen more detail about what the mysterious event in Afghanistan was and how it affected Gavin and Ash, but I suspect that will be found in future books in the series. This is the foundation for a great series, and I look forward to the next book!

Review Roundup 1!

After too long away from writing these reviews, I wanted to do a quick roundup of what I’ve been reading (and listening) to lately. First, some audiobooks:

SPECTR Series 1, by Jordan L. Hawk, narrated by Brad Langer – I just loved the premise of this series of novellas: Regular guy Sean dies (briefly) in an accident and is possessed by a powerful spirit. When he is revived through CPR he finds that he’s not alone in his own head. This could get a little silly, but Hawk has a deft touch with the characters and creates a lovely romance between Sean and the government agent…and the spirit.

I haven’t come across this approach to a book series before but think of it like a season of a television show: an individual plot line for each “episode” (novella) with an overarching plot across the books. It works well here! Langer’s northeastern-US accent (somewhere between NYC and Boston, to my ear) is a little incongruous for stories set in and around Charleston, South Carolina, but once I got used to it I found he did a fine job. Now to move on to Series 2…

Rating: 4.5/5.0

Tyack & Frayne, Books 1-3 (Once Upon a Haunted Moor, Tinsel Fish, Don’t Let Go), by Harper Fox, narrated by Tim Gilbert – My goodness, does Harper Fox know how to set a mood! These books (the first three of a nine-book series) take place in Cornwall, and Fox paints a picture of a countryside sometimes delightfully alive, but sometimes oppressively dreary. Here we have Gideon, a steadfast police officer disinclined to believe in the paranormal, and Lee, a psychic who proves Gideon wrong. The attraction between these two characters is lovely, and they make a great couple. These are mystery/suspense books, and while they were engaging at times I felt there were some narrative threads that got dropped along the way or needed more explanation.

Rating: 4.0/5.0

Werewolves of Manhattan, Books 1 and 2 (His Omega, Remy’s Painter), by A. C. Katt, narrated by Joel Leslie – Don’t. Just don’t. Friends don’t let friends read bad werewolf smut. I mean, unless you’re into characters who are at times cartoonish, world-building that is not internally consistent, and guys who call their boyfriend “Baby” a lot. The only redeeming features of these are that I downloaded them for “free” as part of Audible’s Escape package (think Kindle Unlimited but for romance audiobooks), and Joel Leslie, who is always an excellent performer. If you have to pay for these, I suggest using that money for better things, like a pack of gum or something.

Rating: 2.0/5.0

Alpha & Omega, Books 1-5, by Patricia Briggs, narrated by Holter Graham – Wow, these were a whole lot of fun! I thoroughly enjoyed the 12 (!) Mercy Thompson novels by Briggs. It was fascinating to see the different narrative approaches she took in this series, set in the same world and overlapping at times, but mainly only in the sense they are on the same timeline. It was fun to see some small events which were alluded to in the MT books get a fuller explanation in this series. I really liked Anna and Charles, though Charles could be a bit opaque at times; that’s the nature of the character though so it makes sense. I enjoyed Anna’s sense of wonder in the beginning of the series, and how that colored her outlook as the series went on. The plotting on these can be intricate, and Briggs excels at populating her world with delightful characters and clear motivations (even if those motivations don’t become apparent until the end of the story). I highly recommend this series even if you haven’t read the Mercy Thompson books. They’re urban fantasy at its finest.

Rating: 5.0/5.0

How to Run with the Wolves, by Eli Easton – This is book 5 of the “Howl at the Moon” series by Easton, a delightful world where there are the Quickened, humans who can shift into dogs and have created their own isolated town, Mad Creek, in the mountains of California. I highly recommend the first four books in the series (I have previously reviewed the first two books). This is a great addition to the series. This posits that maybe the shifters of Mad Creek aren’t alone, as we find an isolated clan of dog shifters in the remote wilds of Alaska. These Quickened (“Qimmig”) are descended from Inuit sled dogs. Timo, an emissary of their clan, visits Mad Creek and struggles to understand a culture radically different from his own. In addition, there’s this very sweet St. Bernard shifter who he is starting to have very confusing feelings toward. This is something of a minefield for Easton as there are issues of coping with class differences and of understanding wildly different cultures. I think she navigates them well while still maintaining the lighthearted touch of the previous books. There’s a nice surprise in an author’s note at the end of the book, but I won’t spoil that for anyone!

Rating: 4.5/5.0

2018: A Year in Books

I’m a little (OK a lot) late but:

2018 has come to a close, so now it’s time for me to look back at the year in books. I read (or re-read) 129 books over the course of the year. Of those:

  • 100% were M/M romances
  • 74% were paranormal romances
  • 51% featured shifters (42% featured werewolves specifically)
  • 17% were audiobooks

Looking at my Goodreads ratings, my reviews broke down to:

  • Rating 5 out of 5 – 40%
  • Rating 4 out of 5 – 44%
  • Rating 3 out of 5 – 15%
  • Rating 2 out of 5 – 1%
  • Rating 1 out of 5 – 0% (none, actually)

No low ratings? Why is that?

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

Greatest Hits

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

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

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

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

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

Honorable Mentions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: In This Iron Ground, by Marina Vivancos

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

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

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

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

In This Iron Ground, by Marina Vivancos

Rating: 4.75 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 5 out of 5!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not so much.

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

Rating: 4.75 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Wolf Around the Corner, by Aidee Ladnier

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

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

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

Wolf Around the Corner, by Aidee Ladnier

Rating: 4 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Rome and Jules, by Tara Lain

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

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

Rome and Jules, by Tara Lain

Rating: 4 out of 5

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Ghost Wolf, by Hurri Cosmos

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

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

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

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

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

Yep, Ghost Wolf to the rescue.

2.25 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Blackbird in the Reeds, by Sam Burns

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

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

Blackbird in the Reeds, by Sam Burns

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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