book reviews

Reading Highlights from 2017 – Part 3 (Final roundup)

It’s time for the third and final post in my 2017 reading highlights. At this point I will explain that for the past couple of years I’ve been keeping a list of all the books I read, assigning them a rank out of 10. So far my top ranking is 9.

Favourites for the year!

A ranking of 9/10 means I adored the book all round — story, writing, characters etc. It means the book resonated with me and I keep thinking about it and will almost certainly re-read, maybe more than once. A 9/10 generally means it is pretty well written, or at least there’s something I love about the writing, although it may not necessarily be perfect from a craft perspective.

In 2017, I rated the following 12 books and series as 9/10:

  • Spindrift — Amy Rae Durreson
  • Stygian — XX (name removed)
  • Spirit — John Inman
  • Spectred Isle (The Green Men book 1) — KJ Charles
  • Sins of the Cities (series of three) — KJ Charles
  • The Community (series of three) — XX (name removed)
  • Wolfsong — TJ Klune
  • Bear, Otter, and the Kid (series of four) — TJ Klune
  • House of Cards — Garrett Leigh
  • Preacher, Prophet, Beast (Tyack & Frayne book 7) — Harper Fox
  • Locked in Silence (Pelican Bay book 1) — Sloane Kennedy
  • Murder in Pastel — Josh Lanyon

The above list will likely explain why I focused on TJ Klune, XX and KJ Charles in my first highlights post, and then spotlighted three “spooky house” stories in my second highlights post.

Here are a few thoughts on the remaining novels in the above list.

house-of-cardsHouse of Cards by Garrett Leigh is one of the multi-author Porthkennack series, which spans both contemporary and historical m/m romances set in the fictitious village of Porthkennack in Cornwall. For starters, I’m instantly attracted to anything set in a Cornish village, and I love all the Garrett Leigh books I’ve read; she writes about broken characters wonderfully well.

Here, a tattoo artist flees a toxic relationship and finds himself staying with a friend (another tattoo artist) in Porthkennack. In addition to the gorgeous setting, it’s all the small details I love: the beloved old-style tattoo machine, the chicken rescue activities, the smuggling(!), the fascinating secondary characters. I’ll be reading this one again soon, so I can dive into the next one by Ms Leigh (Junkyard Heart).

preacher-prophet-beastPreacher, Prophet, Beast by Harper Fox is the seventh in her Tyack and Frayne series. It’s also the only novel-length installment and takes our heroes and their daughter to some interesting and horrifying places, centred as usual around paranormal happenings in Cornwall, and specifically their new family home on Bodmin Moor.

This is a wonderful series that takes Gideon (a policeman) and Lee (a psychic) from their first meeting (in the brilliant Once Upon a Haunted Moor) through dating, marriage, fatherhood… and in this installment they’ve been married for three years. It’s a series (mostly longish novellas) I will re-read over and over again.

locked-in-silenceLocked in Silence is the first in a new series from the extremely prolific Sloane Kennedy. It’s very different in style from her popular Protectors and Barretti Security series — and a level above, I think. This one is more grounded in reality. More poignant, as both men have been wrongfully accused and vilified for different transgressions.

The premise is not earth shattering: a concert violinist returns to his home town broken and in disgrace, only to discover his childhood nemesis suffered a tragedy that broke him and ensured he’s never left… But the journey is layered and complex, with all the feels. I hope Ms Kennedy returns to Pelican Bay soon.

murder-in-pastelFinally, Murder in Pastel is a republication of one of Josh Lanyon’s early works (originally under another pseudonym, apparently). I’m a big fan of Ms Lanyon, whose novels usually revolve around some form of crime to be solved. This one is a whodunnit set in a seaside art colony in California, and involves the usual cast of eccentric characters.

The viewpoint character is a young mystery writer and son of a renowned painter who disappeared a decade ago, along with his masterpiece painting — so, in addition to the person who inevitably gets murdered, there’s a cold case to solve too. It’s kind of timeless, the way it’s written, and it’s probably now one of my favourite Josh Lanyon novels. (The Adrien English series would come first.)

Also worth mentioning

In my personal ranking system, a rating of 8/10 means it’s above average in terms of my enjoyment, and I logged 45 of these. I’m not gonna list them all, but here are some particularly worth mentioning:

  • Hailey Turner’s Metahuman Files is kind of x-men meets military adventure series (3 books)
  • Undaunted by Devin Harnois is a secondary world quest fantasy with vampires and werewolves(!)
  • Anna Butler’s Taking Shield series is excellent award-winning military science fiction set in the far-distant future (4 books so far, more to come)
  • NR Walker’s two-part Imago series is set in Australia with butterflies, her Thomas Elkin series is a three-part May-December romance featuring architects, and Switched is a fabulous standalone novel about a man who discovers he was switched at birth
  • Leta Blake’s Slow Heat is a sophisticated take on the MPreg non-shifter genre (if you can get past the whole MPreg thing)
  • Aqua Follies by Liv Rancourt brings 1950s rock n roll to life in a gritty romance with jazz and synchronised swimming
  • Amelia Faulkner’s incredible Inheritance series features ancient gods and psychic powers in San Diego
  • Silver Scars by Posey Roberts is about two scarred men who meet through a work secondment
  • Renae Kaye’s The Blinding Light set in Western Australia is about a guy who takes on a housekeeping job for a blind man

And that, my friends, is the end of my annual reading highlights. If you’ve made it this far, you’ve been very patient.

If you read in the m/m genre, I hope you’ve found a few interesting ones to try. There are certainly heaps of speculative fiction titles listed — both urban paranormal series, classic science fiction and some fantasy.

Thanks for reading this post! I wish you all another fabulous year of wonderful books.

This post has been edited to remove references to a particular author, who was revealed to be seven shades of unsavoury.

Reading Highlights from 2017 – Part 2 (Spooky House stories)

Three of my favourite individual books from last year were “spooky house” stories. Two were straight up ghost stories — Spirit by John Inman and Spindrift by Amy Rae Durreson. The third was a different kind of paranormal story, although had a similar spooky feel — Stygian by XX (name removed).

Each of these three novels has lingered with me long past finishing, and I will definitely be re-reading them, probably in the very near future.

Interestingly and coincidentally (I think?), all three are published by Dreamspinner Press, where they’re available in all formats of e-book, paperback and audio — I’ve included buy links.

Spindrift – Amy Rae Durreson

spindriftOfficial Blurb:

When lonely artist Siôn Ruston retreats to the seaside village of Rosewick Bay, Yorkshire, to recover from a suicide attempt, he doesn’t expect to encounter any ghosts, let alone the one who appears in his bedroom every morning at dawn. He also doesn’t expect to meet his ghost’s gorgeous, flirty descendant working at the local museum… and the village pub, and as a lifeboat volunteer. But Mattie’s great-great-grandfather isn’t the only specter in Rosewick Bay, and as Siôn and Mattie investigate an ill-fated love affair from a bygone era, they begin a romance of their own, one that will hopefully escape the tragedy Mattie’s ancestor suffered.

But the ghosts aren’t the only ones with secrets, and the things Siôn and Mattie are keeping from each other threaten to tear them apart. And all the while, the dead are biding their time, because the curse of Rosewick Bay has never been broken. If the ghosts are seen on the streets, local tradition foretells a man will drown before the summer’s end.

Seriously, that blurb alone gives me chills of the very best kind. I adore stories set in English villages. I adore everyday people trying to solve mysteries from the past. The characters are distinctive and complex and endearing. The setting is gorgeous. The atmosphere is dark and brooding.

In short, I adore everything about this book. Get it here from Dreamspinner Press.

Spirit – John Inman

spiritThe cover caught my attention with this book — I am a complete sucker for two guys and a kid. And a spooky basement.

Right, so this one is about a guy, Jason, who agrees to babysit his four-year-old nephew, Timmy, for four weeks while his single mum has a holiday with her boyfriend. Turns out that there’s a ghost in his house and Timmy’s presence seems to activate it. Then Timmy’s uncle on his estranged father’s side comes to visit…

There’s a lot more light and humour in this book (compared to the dark and brooding Spindrift), but the mystery is no less intense and the romance between Timmy’s uncles is sweet.

It all blends into another fabulous ghost story / murder mystery that I can’t wait to experience again! Get it here from Dreamspinner Press

Stygian – XX

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This post has been edited to remove references to a particular author, who was revealed to be seven shades of unsavoury.

The first post in the Annual Reading Highlights 2017 series looked at three authors I read (and loved) a lot last year:

And there will be more posts to come. Stay tuned!

Reading Highlights from 2017 – part 1 (Three standout authors)

Here we are again at the end of another big year of reading. The total comes to exactly 200 novels and novellas, of which 30 were re-reads.

I didn’t reach the same giddying heights as last year (242 total), which I count as a win, because it means I exercised a bit more restraint. Still, 200 is an average of around four per week, so… Maybe only a tiny bit of restraint. Heh.

When it comes time to reflect on twelve months’ worth of books, I always wish I wrote more reviews of the books I loved during the year, rather than trying to do them justice at the death. But, you know what? I was too busy reading them. Maybe next year.

As I did for the 2016 highlights, I’m going to write a series of posts over the next few weeks. This time, however, they’ll be arranged by theme rather than month.

To start with, I’m going to reflect upon three standout authors I encountered this year through significant bodies of work: TJ Klune, [XX– name removed] and KJ Charles.

Only one of them was new to me (TJ Klune). Indeed, I’ve previously read several brilliant books by each of XX and KJ Charles, both of whom consistently stand out above most of the others in the m/m genre.

TJ Klune

How come it took me so long to find TJ Klune? He’s written some of the most iconic works in the m/m genre, and I suspect I’ll be working my way through his backlist for a while.

My first experience of Klune was just last month (November) through one of his newer novels, Wolfsong, which is a beautiful (and beautifully written) wolf shifter story. It’s more sophisticated than most paranormals, with a strong plot about an isolated shifter pack under threat from an evil wolf and a human who becomes part of their pack. It covers a blend of shifter politics and folklore, paranormal fantasy, and a love story — with themes of found family, vengeance, belonging and loyalty. Brilliant. (I think there’s a sequel coming — can’t wait!)

Then I dived into Bear, Otter, and the Kid, TJ Klune’s first novel, which is centred around Bear, whose mother abandoned him when he was 18, leaving his six-year-old kid brother, Tyson, in his care. The premise is heart-wrenching, but the whole series (also comprising Who We Are, The Art of Breathing, and The Long and Winding Road) is amazing and filled with so much heart.

The series takes place over about 15 years, and is about the (fierce) bond between brothers and found family and waiting and fighting for love. The first two books are centred on Bear at 21 as he falls in love with Otter (his best friend’s older brother). Bear is such a wonderful character — completely neurotic with a wild imagination, but so devoted to taking care of his genius (vegetarian, ecoterrorist-in-training) nine year old brother, Tyson. Otter, a little older and calmer, is the perfect addition to their family.

The Art of Breathing is Tyson’s story as he comes of age and finds love; then The Long and Winding Road returns to Bear’s perspective to tell Bear and Otter’s story, no longer focused on raising Tyson, as they grow their family.

I read the four ‘BOATK’ books back-to-back and ended up with a major book hangover. (Just now, reading this over before I post, I feel a little teary.) They are deeply emotional (although hysterically funny in parts) and beautifully written. I laughed (a lot), I cried, I loved. Just fabulous.

KJ Charles

Once again, KJ Charles has produced a wonderful historical series in Sins of the Cities — comprising An Unseen Attraction, An Unnatural Vice and An Unsuitable Heir. Set in Victorian London with Dickensian influences, this series features fabulous, colourful characters from different walks of life and an overarching mystery surrounding an aristocratic family.

In An Unseen Attraction, the main characters are a boarding house keeper (who is the half-Indian half-brother of an unlikable duke) and a taxidermist (or ‘stuffer’). Their romance is very sweet, as someone is murdered and the nature of the mystery comes to light. An Unnatural Vice is about a journalist who gets embroiled with a charlatan spiritualist who holds a clue to the mystery; it has a very different feel, and the whole of this novel is imbued with the London fog of 1892.

The third book, An Unsuitable Heir is my favourite of the three. One of the main characters is a gender fluid acrobat, who discovers he’s actually a lost duke. His non-binary gender identity is dealt with wonderfully well — complicated by the expectations of the time, particularly with issues of male inheritance. I also loved the love story between him and the ‘enquiry agent’ (private investigator) who tracked him down.

I deliberately waited until the whole series was released before reading — and I’m really glad I did, since the mystery spans all three books and many of the characters are present in all three as well. Loved it.

As if that wasn’t enough, I also loved KJ Charles’s book, Spectred Isle (Green Men Book 1). This is a historical paranormal spin-off of the Simon Feximal series, set in London after the Great War. This one has demons and archaeology and occult events and creepy things happening. And, of course, a love story, this time between an archaeologist and an occultist. There are more to come in this series, I believe. (Yay!)

(For the record, my other favourite works of KJ Charles are The Society of Gentlemen series, and the standalone novel, Think of England.)


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This post has been edited to remove references to a particular author, who was revealed to be seven shades of unsavoury.

Reading highlights from 2016 – part 3

So the final reading tally for the year is 242 novels and novellas, of which 204 were new (clearly I got some reading done in the last week or so, some of them ‘holiday stories’).

I was going to write a single post about my favourites from the year, but I had too much to say it turns out, so it became three posts. This final post covers September to December. (Read part 1 (January to April) and part 2 (May to August) if you dare…)


weightoftheworldI spent much of September (and in fact August) re-reading Alexa Land‘s massive First & Forever series (13 books and counting…) in preparation for reading the latest ones I hadn’t yet read (10.5, 11 & 12). Of these new ones, I was pretty blown away by Who I used to be (12), which dealt with themes of heroin addiction and HIV positive status. Both the main characters are introduced in earlier novels, and although it was an intense book to read in parts, it was also incredibly uplifting and accented with many wonderful and familiar characters. This series deals with all manner of issues — some serious as in this novel, some much less so — and it’s like sitting down with a bunch of old friends every time. (The 13th book in the series just came out and is sitting on my kindle…)

The other memorable book for September was Weight of the world, by Devon McCormack and Riley Hart. Riley Hart is one of my favourite m/m authors, so it was pretty much a given that I’d read this. It’s written alternating first person POV (I think, from memory) and is about a guy (Zack) who was talked off the ledge (literally) by another guy (Rob)… who ended up jumping himself half an hour later. Shocked and trying to understand what happened, Zack seeks out Rob’s brother Tommy and the two become, er, friendly. It’s a fairly simply but deep story about dealing with grief and healing and love.


overexposedI read quite a few good ones in October… The first I want to mention is The Game Changer by Kay Simone. It’s about a ‘straight’ quarterback who gets injured and has to undergo physical therapy — and the relationship that ensues with his physical therapist. It’s a fairly simple story, but it deals with the issues of intolerance when it comes to sports stars and I really liked the way it was written.

I also really liked Overexposed, the fourth book in Megan Erickson‘s ‘In focus’ series. I’ve liked all the books in this series a lot — this one was set mostly on the Appalachian Trail and made me want to walk at least some of it.

Model Citizen by Lisa Kasey features an interesting main character who is both a male ‘femme’ supermodel and unlicensed private investigator, a bit out of his depth trying to run his brother’s PI business after his brother is killed. It’s both mystery and interesting character drama, with a love story developing with his brother’s friend who helps with the PI business.

Three’s Company by N.R. Walker is about two guys who are running a hotel and invite a male guest, Wilson (who’s just out of a relationship), into their bed for fun… and things get a bit more serious than anticipated. Wilson is a chef, and naturally there’s ample opportunity in a hotel for him to step in and make himself indispensable.

Finally, It was always you is an anthology featuring novellas from several of my favourite authors along the theme of ‘best friends to lovers’. I don’t read a lot of anthologies, but I really really liked this one!


daringfateThe fourth book (this time a novella) in Riley Hart‘s Crossroads series was Jumpstart. I love this whole series, especially Crossroads (one of my top 5 for last year). I’ll automatically buy anything Riley Hart (and her alter ego Nyrae Dawn) writes.

I also really enjoyed Megan Erickson‘s m/m paranormal, Daring Fate. This was set in a post-apocalyptic world in which humans have completely died out, leaving only werewolves (human/wolf), weres (which have three forms: human, wolf and scary beast thing), and zombie weres. I thought the world setup was great, with the weres and werewolves living in pack-based compounds, each headed by an alpha, trying to avoid getting killed by zombie weres. The story itself is your classic ‘fated mates’ trope you find in shifter romances (which I don’t mind), and I liked the way it was handled.

Finally for November, there was Heidi Cullinan‘s fourth book in the ‘Minnesota Christmas’ series, Santa Baby (although it’s a stupid title). I found this book really interesting, because it takes the couple from the second book (Sleigh ride) and adds a third man to their relationship. But it isn’t an equal menage m/m/m relationship. Basically the new addition (Dale) is polyamorous, which seems to mean for him that he prefers to be with men who are already in a relationship. He falls in love with Gabriel… who learns that he seems to be polyamorous too. It takes a bit for Gabriel (who is a fairly conservative librarian) to come to terms with this, but surprisingly his partner (husband?) Arthur is remarkably accepting of this new development. And this may be because Arthur (a dom) recognises that Dale is a sub, so they end up in their own non-romantic D/s relationship. Confused yet? Well, it may not be your cup of tea, but I found the character dynamics really interesting.


sevensummernightsMy favourite book in December was Seven Summer Nights by Harper Fox. I love love loved this book, which was definitely one of my favourites for the year. Set post WWII, it’s a complex weave of archeological and mythological mystery, the after-effects of war and post-traumatic stress, and a passionate love story between Rufus, an archaeologist, and Archie, a most unconventional vicar. It’s multi-layered and wonderful and I reviewed it in full here.

I was also thrilled to discover Lucy Lennox, who published the first three novels in her Made Marian series. Borrowing Blue and Taming Teddy were swiftly followed by Jumping Jude. Each book is completely different, but each features one of the Marian brothers.

Borrowing Blue mostly takes place over a week at a vineyard where Blue’s sister is getting married, with Blue falling in love with the brother of the groom, who happens to be the owner of the vineyard. Taming Teddy takes place over several months, with Blue’s brother Jamie, a wildlife expert in Alaska, being pursued by wildlife photographer Teddy for a photographic feature. Jumping Jude takes place concurrently with both these books, and is about the relationship between Jude Marian, a country music superstar, and his bodyguard, Derek. These books are sweet and simple love stories, but there’s something about them that elevates them above much of the genre fodder.

Finally, I have just finished The Aftermath by Kay Simone. This was sitting on my kindle for at least half the year, because it’s loooong (>600 pages) and I was admittedly avoiding the time commitment. But I’m glad I finally read it. The central premise is the relationship between a high school senior (Daniel) and his young English teacher (Will). Some of the conflict is derived from fear of discovery, but just as much is the result of Will’s baggage. It’s written from a third-person omniscient perspective, but gets well into the heads of both main characters. I loved all the literary discussions — the novel references many great works in some detail as part of English classes and also general discussions between the two men — and the almost literary narrative style. I do think it’s too long, but overall I found it beautiful.

And that wraps up the annual highlights! From all the novels I’ve mentioned in the last three posts, I thought I’d make a top ten (in the order I read them):

  1. Adrien English mysteries (series of five) – Josh Lanyon
  2. Out of Focus – L.A. Witt
  3. Kings Rising – C.S. Pacat
  4. Broken – Nicola Haken
  5. The Society of Gentlemen (series of three) – K.J. Charles
  6. Absolution – Sloane Kennedy
  7. In the middle of somewhere/Out of nowhere – Roan Parrish
  8. Priddy’s Tale – Harper Fox
  9. Between Ghosts – Garrett Leigh
  10. Seven Summer Nights – Harper Fox

I’m still a huge fan of Harper Fox, Josh Lanyon, L.A. Witt, Megan Erickson, Santino Hassell, Alexa Land, Riley Hart, Heidi Cullinan… and was pleased to discover Sloane Kennedy, Garrett Leigh, Kay Simone and most recently Lucy Lennox (among many others).

And now it’s 2017 and I have kindle full of more books… I wish you all a glorious year of reading.

The other two 2016 highlights posts: January to April | May to August

Reading highlights from 2016 – part 2

Climbing out of my post-Christmas stupor (and read-a-thon), it’s time for the second installment of my annual reading highlights. You can read January-April highlights in the previous post. This post will cover May-August. Once again, all the highlights are from the m/m romance genre.


inthemiddleofsomewhereThis month is noteworthy for the discovery of Roan Parrish, whose books In the middle of somewhere and then Out of nowhere are wonderful. The first is about Daniel, a guy who takes a college teaching position in a small Northern Michigan town, where he meets the reclusive Rex, a local furniture maker. In addition to being a gorgeous love story, it’s about Daniel’s struggles to connect with his auto-mechanic father and brothers (who live in Philadelphia), and reconcile their differences. Told first-person present-tense (which I love), this story is not high action drama, but instead deep and soulful and character-complex. It’s a beautiful book.

Out of nowhere is about Daniel’s brother Colin, portrayed as excessively homophobic and vicious towards Daniel in the first book, but who is in fact dealing with his secret developing relationship with social worker, Raphael. (That was probably a bit of a spoiler for In the middle of somewhere, but it can’t be helped — sorry!) This book runs in parallel for much of In the middle of somewhere — and I loved seeing some of the same events from the opposing viewpoint. Set in Philadelphia, much of it around a youth LGBT centre, Out of nowhere a very different book from the first. Colin’s journey is more angst-ridden, and his transformation more profound than Daniel’s. This is also a fabulous book, but I think as a pair these two make more than the sum of their parts.

iftheseascatchfireAnother fabulous book for May was If the seas catch fire by L.A. Witt. (Yep, she’s definitely one of my favourite authors.) This one is high action and high angst, involving the forbidden romance between two hitmen. It’s set in an Italian Mafia-ruled American town in which Dom’s is one of the ‘ruling’ families. Meanwhile, Sergei is a lone wolf assassin with his own quest for vengeance. The two cross paths, fall in love, and although it’s not exactly a Romeo & Juliet scenario, there are plenty of conflicting agendas. Dom is actually a gentle and decent man trapped by circumstances, while Sergei is the victim of past wrongs in need of redemption. The road to these two finding a way to be together involves plenty of assassinations (some of them heartbreaking), plenty of danger (I was shaking in my boots), the highest of high stakes and OMG it is soooo good.

But wait, there’s more! Another memorable read for the month of May included Saving Samuel by Nicole Colville. This is m/m/m about Daniel (a firefighter), Samuel (who Daniel rescues from a burning building), and Milo (a cop who’s in a casual relationship with Daniel… and who is also investigating the case of the burning building). Samuel has a mysterious and tormented past that sees him in need of protection, and who better than a hunky fireman and police officer, who find their difficult relationship just needed the addition of a third to make it work?


giventakenMore L.A. Witt in June, this time a paranormal menage trilogy involving werewolves and vampires… The Tooth & Claw trilogy comprises The given and the taken, The healing and the dying, and The united and the divided. The premise of these books sounds so unlikely, and the covers are not so great, but despite all this I decided to trust in LAW and I ended up loving the whole series.

It’s set in a alternative NW America (both USA and Canada), in which werewolves are accepted in human society and hold a fair amount of power, but vampires are hunted and reviled. These books involve road trips and car chases and plenty of werewolves with guns. There are also betrayals and hidden sanctuaries and a vampire turned into part werewolf and a werewolf turned into part vampire… and it’s just so crazy it’s awesome. Not to mention an interesting m/m/m relationship.

My other favourite book in June was Strong Signal (Cyberlove – book 1) by Megan Erickson and Santino Hassell. This was about two gamers — one who is a reclusive gaming genius with a live feed on one of the gaming channels, and one who is deployed in the Middle East. They fall for each other online, but the second half of the book is what happens when they meet in person. It’s fabulous.


priddyIn July I absolutely fell in love with Priddy’s Tale, a gorgeous new novella by Harper Fox. I loved this so much I immediately read it again and wrote a full review. It’s a fantastical tale about a lost young guy who lives in a Cornish lighthouse and falls in love with a charismatic merman. Set in the wild and exciting south-western tip of Cornwall, Priddy’s Tale filled with magical and impossible things, and infused with beautiful language and an abundance of ocean-themed imagery. I would recommend this book to anybody and everybody. Utterly beautiful and one of my highlights of the year.

I discovered the English author Garrett Leigh in July. The first I read was Misfits, which I loved. It’s another m/m/m, this time involving a chef and his restaurateur lover/business partner, who have an open relationship that leads to the addition of a guy who turns out to be the missing link in their relationship and partnership.

betweenghostsEven better, though, was Between Ghosts, which is set among a British SAS unit in Iraq during 2006. Connor is a journalist embedded with the SAS unit, who is seeking closure and answers related to his brother, killed in Mosul three years earlier.

Nat is the commander of the unit, and their love story takes place amid the drama and blood and terror of war. I loved the vivid setting — it gives amazing insight into the conditions faced by the British troops. And there’s plenty of danger and intrigue as the SAS unit seek out certain sensitive information and attend to their duties. I loved this book so much.


It was a quieter month of reading in August, but one of my favourite books for the month was yet another by L.A. WittRunning with Scissors. This one is set around a popular rock band. I also enjoyed the first three books in Santino Hassell‘s Five Boroughs seriesSutphin Boulevard (which was a re-read), Sunset Park and First and First.

So many great books — I just want to re-read them all right now! I’ll publish the final installment of 2016 reading highlights in the new year.

(Read January to April)

Reading highlights from 2016 – part 1

Gosh. How many books have I read this year? (So far 235 books and novellas, of which 198 were new and 37 were re-reads… and still counting.) My inner bookworm continues to devour and my finger continues to madly one-click. In fact, there’s been more one-clicking, because someone introduced me to bookbub.

Bookbub is a website that sends me emails with daily e-book deals in my selected genres (and authors), with direct links to Amazon. There’s many a $1 (or free) book sitting on my kindle, just waiting for me to get around to reading it… I do realise this still adds up in $ terms, but I just tell myself I’m supporting the authors. And if I don’t like a particular book, I don’t have to finish it.

I’m no longer trying to kid myself that I’m reading much of anything other than m/m (or m/m/m). I could probably count the non-m/m books read this year on one hand. (Actually, I did branch out and try some f/f this year, but so far that hasn’t captivated me much.)

But one of the fabulous things about m/m is that it spans all genres — fantasy, science fiction, mystery, crime/thrillers, historical, deep angst-ridden drama… even comedy, although that’s not my thing. So I bounce around from genre to genre, depending on my mood.

This year, there have been some fabulous new releases from favourite authors, and I’ve discovered some new authors as well. Over three posts, I’m going to summarise my favourites month by month, with some wrapping up at the end. This post covers January to April.


fatal-shadowsThe absolute highlight of January — and maybe the year — was Josh Lanyon’s Adrien English series (Fatal shadows, A dangerous thing, The hell you say, Death of a pirate king, The dark tide). I do not have the words to say how amazing, fabulous, wonderful this series is, in terms of the love story arc across five books. Each book is an individual mystery, but it is not until the end of the final book that the relationship between Adrien and Jake resolves — and it’s breathtaking. I was numb the afternoon I finished The dark tide, and poured out my feelings onto the page in a post I never did publish. I was so raw. Nothing I wrote encapsulated what I felt. Even now, 11 months later, my heart still rushes as I remember the ending. Aaaaand, there’s a sixth Adrien & Jake novella due out in mid-January. I will be feverishly re-reading these books and slipping straight into that one. My heart rushes just thinking about it.

coldfusionJanuary was also the month Cold Fusion by Harper Fox came out. This book has wonderfully complex, flawed characters who transcend themselves by the end, Harper Fox’s beautiful poetic language. And, as always with Harper Fox’s books, the fabulous sense of place — in this case the northern wilds of Scotland. Love it. (See my full review here.)

And I also loved Out of Focus by L.A. Witt. This one is m/m/m and deals with a couple of guys who have been together for a decade, and who like to bring submissives into the bedroom from time to time… and they find an adorable guy they decide to keep. It’s not heavy BDSM, and deals more with the relationship side of things. I’ve come to adore m/m/m books where I can believe in all the sides of the relationship. LAW has started a series where she writes the prequels for couples who feature in her menage stories, and I would love to read how Dante and Angel first got together.


kingsrisingThe highlight for February was the much-anticipated Kings Rising by C.S. Pacat, third book in the Captive Prince fantasy trilogy. I was so worried this wouldn’t live up to the anticipation, because I adored the first two in this series — which I re-read prior to launching into the third. Aside from a few wobbles at the start and the end, Kings Rising was awesome and I love love love this fantasy trilogy so much. Like with the Adrien English series, I had a major book hangover once I finished. To quote myself: “Damen and Laurent. Oh. My. Fucking. God.” I reviewed Captive Prince/Prince’s Gambit here and Kings Rising here.

Other great reads for February were Shifting Gears by Riley Hart (the sequel to Crossroads, one of my top 5 for last year, and still one of my all-time favourites), Lonely Hearts by Heidi Cullinan (book 3 in the Love Lessons series), and Tough Love also by Heidi Cullinan (book 3 in the fabulous Special Delivery series).


brokenIn March, the best book I read was Broken by Nicola Haken. This is an example of deep angst-ridden drama/romance, and deals with triggery themes of self-harm, depression and suicide. It’s incredibly intense and well-written. I felt pretty wrung-out at the end, but the wonderful thing about this genre is that the books usually end with hope and healing and the power of love. I will definitely be reading this one again.

I also read Us by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy, which is the sequel to Him. Him was probably one of my favourite reads last year (new adult, ice hockey players). Us didn’t reach the same heights, but I enjoyed it.


More brilliance in April! This time from K.J. Charles and her Society of Gentlemen series (The ruin of Gabriel Ashleigh (novella), A fashionable indulgence, A seditious affair, A gentleman’s position). These are English historicals, and not the usual kind. There is a whole host of upheaval going on, with a dash of political activism and class conflict and of course the terrors of discovery. Oh my, this series is brilliant. It’s exquisitely researched and crafted from both a plotting and writing perspective. And each book is completely different. A must for fans of historicals.

absolutionAnother of my April favourites was Absolution by Sloane Kennedy. This was my first encounter with this author, who is a veritable machine when it comes to her publishing frequency. I’ve since read most of her books — Absolution is the first in her Protectors series, another of note is her Barretti Security series — but Absolution is probably my favourite. It’s m/m/m and deals with Jonas (an artist with a traumatic past), who is the target of hitman Mace (don’t hate him; there’s a reason), and Cole (an ex-Navy SEAL whose sister Jonas once knew). The fates of all three men intersect around a thriller-style plot, and… aw, they are so sweet together. This one works for me, because Kennedy takes the time to build the three sides of the relationship and I believed in them.

I also enjoyed Imperfect Harmony by Jay Northcote, not least because it’s set around a community choir, which reminded me of my own singing experiences of the past few years. She’s another new author for me this year, and I’ve enjoyed several of her books.

Stay tuned for Part 2: May – August reading highlights between Christmas and New Year. I’m glad I started writing this early!

If you’re interested, read my Reading Highlights from 2015 post as well.

Seven Summer Nights – Book Review

seven-summer-nightsSeven Summer Nights is another wonderful novel from Harper Fox — a complex weave of archeological and mythological mystery, the after-effects of war and post-traumatic stress, and a passionate love story.

This book filled me with wonder and fear and horror and joy as we follow the story of Rufus Denby, a celebrated archaeologist and WW2 veteran, whose PTSD and amnesia are giving him nightmares and violent blackouts, leaving his career — and his life, really — in tatters.

The first two-thirds of the novel, which is set in the summer following World War Two, are told in third-person from Rufus’s point of view (Part 1 – Into the Labyrinth). He’s broken and desperate, barely holding on, when he travels to the tiny Sussex town of Droyton Parva to take a look at its ancient church. There he meets the Reverend Archie Thorne, a most unconventional vicar who loves motorbikes and cars, and housing people who have nowhere else to go. Archie is far from the crusty religious specimen Rufus expected to encounter, and the two strike up a friendship based on Rufus’s ability to fix Archie’s Norton motorbike and Rufus’s work at the church.

Rufus’s discovery of an ancient and important artefact in the church, along with his interpretation of some of the murals, set off a chain of mystical events and archeological discovery that are simply thrilling. (Several of Harper Fox’s works involve archaeological and/or mystical themes, and they are among my favourites. For example: The Salisbury Key, the Tyack and Frayne series, even In Search of Saints.) As with all Harper Fox’s work, the setting of Droyton Parva (and its various inhabitants) is fabulously well-drawn and forms the heart of the story itself.

Woven through and around this is another plotline revolving around Rufus’s wartime experiences and a memory he has suppressed involving his deceased brother-in-law. The effect this has on Rufus’s mental health, and the pressure brought to bear on him to undergo shock therapy to retrieve the memory, plays out beautifully through part 1 until Rufus finally cracks. I particularly loved the labyrinthine theme woven through both these plotlines, which binds them together tightly.

And then, of course, there’s the beautiful, slow-burn romance between Rufus and Archie. (Although, since it happens in just ‘seven summer nights’, I guess it’s not that slow.) Rufus is about as openly gay as you could get in the 1940s — which is to say, not at all, but he has lived with a man in the past, and a few trusted people know his orientation. He starts falling for the adorable Archie almost right away, but they are hindered by general bigotry and fear of arrest if such proclivities are discovered. Needless to say, they find each other eventually and Archie’s care and compassion for poor, broken Rufus is heart-meltingly beautiful. Here, I loved the recurring use of one of W.H. Auden’s poems, quoted between Rufus and Archie.

Which brings me to Part 2 – Into the sun, comprising the final third of the novel. Having written such a masterful, tightly woven piece to the end of part 1, I can imagine the author tearing out her hair trying to figure out how the end should play out. And so we switch to Archie’s point of view, first as he charges to Rufus’s rescue, and then as the church mysteries play out.

If I’m honest, part 2 didn’t resonate with me to the extent part 1 did. It’s action-packed, dramatic and eventful… and everything is wrapped up in a satisfying conclusion. And I absolutely love the fact this labyrinthine tale curls around on itself at the very end. However, part 2 somehow lacks some of the magic of part 1. Despite being mostly in Archie’s point of view, I didn’t feel as though I got enough new depth of insight into his character — although he does prove endearingly resourceful and determined and loyal. I think, after experiencing Rufus’s painful journey in part 1, I wanted to be in his perspective as the big events played out and resolved. Rather than the tightly woven tale of part 1, part 2 events played out in more linear fashion… I think maybe the amnesia plotline got a bit too complicated for the story.

But these are minor quibbles, really. Seven Summer Nights is still a fabulous book, even if part 2 doesn’t quite stand up to the marvellousness of part 1. It’s rich in theme and history and language and complexity and character.

It has a large supporting cast of characters, all well-drawn with a part to play. And, unlike many male/male love stories, a huge number of the supporting cast are resourceful and independent women. In fact, this is another theme explored in the novel — the effect of WW2 on the role of women in Britain. Yes, there is a huge amount of stuff going on this book!

I could keep going on about all the wonderful layers in Seven Summer Nights, but it’s probably better if you just go read it. Highly recommended.

Buy at Amazon | Smashwords

What I read in December

Yet again, I read a fair few books in December. In fact, I’ve become somewhat addicted to nose-in-kindle and am at the point where I get a little agitated if I try to take a break.

Seriously. I wasn’t joking in my last post when I said I’d spent every day since Christmas on the sofa with a book. Some days/evenings I tried to stop upon completion of the latest novel, but then the next moment I was downloading a new book on to my kindle. (That Amazon one-click ordering is dangerous!)

So, yes, the December tally is looking hefty.

However, I do intend to follow up this post with my 2014 top 10, so I will TRY to keep this brief… but somehow that doesn’t always work. [No. It didn’t work… oops]

(NOTE: In keeping with the theme for 2014, all books in December seem to be m/m love stories in various sub-genres, including science fiction, supernatural and crime. So if you’re not into queer, you might as well stop reading now. But there are some good ones!)

The Haunted Heart: Winter – Josh Lanyon

hauntedThis is a short novel (almost a novella) about Flynn, who’s still badly grieving over the sudden death of his lover and soulmate a year ago. He’s sorting through a bunch of old antiques in an old house he’s inherited, when he sees something in the mirror… Yep, this is part ghost story, part mystery and part love story — although to be honest it’s more about friendship and healing than romantic love. Flynn is reluctantly befriended by Kirk, a playwright and military veteran with some form of PTSD, who is tenanted in the downstairs half of the house.

I mostly loved this book. I’m always partial to paranormal elements and stories that involve researching origins and history and travelling to said locations. Flynn is really really messed up and even though Kirk is a bit messed up too, he is kind and strong and supportive. My only real disappointment was with where it ended up… which wasn’t quite where I wanted it to. But it’s supposed to be part of a series, so I am really really hanging out for the next installment.

I actually wrote an Amazon review for this one:

I really really enjoyed this book, but it didn’t quite end in the place I wanted it to and I’m left waiting for sequels, which I do hope are on the way. Loved the character of Kirk in particular as the reluctant saviour of poor Flynn, who really is in a bad emotional state. I loved the supernatural elements as well, and the ensuing quest to solve the mystery. It’s a beautiful story of healing and the human spirit. Would probably give 4.5 — would have given it 5 with an ending that made me smile, rather than anxious… But it’s fabulous for all that.

A Flight of Magpies – KJ Charles (A Charm of Magpies)

This is the third in a historical-supernatural-mystery-m/m trilogy set in London in the early 20thC, following the adventures and relationship between reluctant peer Lucian (Lord Crane) and Stephen, a powerful ‘practitioner’ (wielder of magic). I mentioned the first two in this very fun and unique series back in October. In this third book there’s a new problem to solve involving magic paintings, an old foe bent on revenge and the various repercussions of a blood-and-sex-bond shared by Crane and Stephen.

The best thing about this series is the interesting take on supernatural London, especially the Chinese influences. Crane and Stephen are still not my favourite couple ever, but with every book they get better. I’ve been trying to put my finger on what my issue is (because these are very popular books) and I think maybe it’s the less intimate writing style that doesn’t let me close enough to the characters. I need to be more inside their heads and hearts…

Knight Errant, His Faithful Squire & Even the Score – KD Sarge

These three science fiction (space opera) books follow the adventures and relationship of Taro and Rafe, two wildly unique and engaging characters created by KD Sarge. All three books are completely different from each other, so I’ll go through each separately:

knighterrantKnight Errant is easily my favourite of the three. I loved this book a lot. It’s narrated in the unique voice of Taro, young and energetic, mouthy, martial artist, former pickpocket, would-be pilot, gambler, quick to jump into a fight. He’s spent the past year trying to be good to please his elder sister and guardian Eve, the no-nonsense and kick-ass captain of a freighter ship (Pendragon’s Dream – the Dream for short), which has included hiding the fact he’s gay. When joy-boy Rafe comes onboard, Taro thinks he’s pretty useless… but when the two are stranded together on a largely uninhabited planet, he comes to revise his opinion.

Taro and Rafe are very different from each other, but their relationship is so sweet. Taro does everything fiercely — including loving and protecting and fighting to keep Rafe. He’s an intense bundle of strong emotion, a little firecracker. Rafe’s sweet and amiable disposition is like a soothing balm for Taro, keeping him from exploding too often. The story takes Taro, Rafe and the entire crew of the Dream through a number of different locations, building up to a finale that squeezed my heart. Taro just feels things so hard.

Even though it’s definitely a m/m love story, there are no sex scenes in this book (although the boys have a lot of sex). The science fiction elements are a backdrop only, providing an interesting setting without having too much impact on events. It’s all about the characters, which I found very engaging. The supporting cast is pretty well fleshed out too.

His Faithful Squire is set a couple of years later, when Taro (now 18) and Rafe leave the Dream and Eve’s guardianship and strike out on their own. It’s narrated in a completely different style and voice by the charming (and besotted) Rafe, and the overall theme is about Rafe and Taro finding more equality in their relationship on a number of different levels. Rafe in particular deals with issues of identity and self-worth, as he struggles to break out of his habitual submissive role and understand his intrinsic value beyond the bedroom. They drift through several different spaceship-based jobs on this voyage of discovery, and at times the book lacks narrative drive; but it’s great to continue their story and get Rafe’s perspective. Because they’re so young, there are plenty of relationship issues to deal with, even though they are very committed to each other.

Even the Score has only recently been published, some years after the first two, and returns to Taro as narrator. It’s once again set another couple of years later, when Taro and Rafe have settled on a wild and rugged planet. Rafe has opened a successful restaurant, while Taro has had a few different jobs and is currently a wilderness safety instructor. This involves him leading a survival training expedition into the dangerous back of beyond… and Rafe goes along for a bit of a break so they can spend some time together. Everything starts going pear-shaped when Taro’s students start dying and the expedition becomes a true battle for survival.

As far as stories go, Even the Score is mostly a thriller, although the plot was a bit linear for me and I don’t think the resolution was watertight enough. But it was an enjoyable enough read for fans of Taro and Rafe, whose relationship continues to develop and grow throughout this novel as well. I don’t think Taro’s voice was quite as engaging in this one, though — even allowing for the greater maturity of 20-year old Taro compared with 16-year old Taro. I would have liked to see greater consistency in the use of language (particularly swear words)… but that’s being very picky!

Out & Wolf Hall – Harper Fox

wolfhallImagine my excitement when I discovered not one, but two new novellas released by my favourite author of the year, Harper Fox. Out is a Christmas release about Cosmo, chief housekeeper in a posh Edinburgh hotel, who suffers from severe agoraphobia after a trauma, and hasn’t left the hotel in exactly a year.

When ‘accountant’ Ren turns up searching for his missing friend, the two connect and… gee, this story is so sweet. I’ve felt some of Ms Fox’s more recent releases have been a bit underdone, but this one feels like she is back! There’s a mystery to solve, poor Cosmo’s agoraphobia to heal, Christmas to celebrate. And all wrapped up in Ms Fox’s lyrical prose and deep characterisation. Loved it. (This one has no naughty bits either, so if you’re not into that sort of thing, but want to read a gorgeous love story, this is one for you.)

Wolf Hall came out at Halloween, and is a paranormal featuring David, who stumbles onto the moors after an incident and finds himself rescued and given refuge by a mysterious young man called Lowrie. The two open themselves to each other during the long, dark, spooky night, when all is not as it seems. I enjoyed Wolf Hall, although not nearly as much as Out. Whereas Out worked at its short length, I felt Wolf Hall didn’t take things far enough.

Smoky Mountain Dreams – Leta Blake

I downloaded this on a whim to commence my post-Christmas reading hibernation. It’s quite long for a love story at over 400 pages, but didn’t feel that length at all. It’s about Christopher, a country music singer whose tilt at Nashville failed a few years ago, leaving him as a backup artist at the Smoky Mountain Dreams theme park. Local bespoke jewellery artist Jesse is Christopher’s biggest (secret) fan — and is thus delighted when Christopher commissions him to make a locket for his grandmother.

What I loved about this novel was the natural and realistic way in which their relationship develops, from dating and getting to know each other, sharing details of their lives, falling slowly and irrevocably in love. The main complication is that Jesse has two kids and a wife Marcy (his best friend through school, who he dearly loved) in a vegetative state on life support. All the supporting cast is well fleshed out — Marcy’s loving and supportive family, Jesse’s troubled kids, his confidant sister, Christopher’s various family members (some bigoted, others loving) and friends. Jesse has to get past his guilt and sense of obligation towards Marcy, while Christopher has to deal with both his low self-esteem and his bigoted Christian fundamentalist mother and stepfather.

The story is told from alternating viewpoints, with great emotional intensity and honesty, the relationship always building as Christopher and Jesse gradually come to depend more and more on each other. Christopher’s music is used beautifully in some heart-stopping scenes, and another thread throughout the whole book is the desperate mission of Jesse’s 12-year old daughter to fold 2000 paper cranes before Christmas so that she might make two wishes.

Smoky Mountain Dreams is beautifully constructed and impossible to put down. I’ll definitely be re-reading this one, and fairly soon.

Training Season – Leta Blake

training seasonFollowing Smoky Mountain Dreams, I picked up Training Season. This is another great book, and focuses on Matty Markus, Olympic Figure Skater, who takes on a high-paying ranch house-sitting gig in Montana, while coming back from injury and Olympic failure. He’s highly driven and training hard so that when six months are up he’s ready to take up with a high-profile coach for his next tilt at the Olympics.

The challenge is that he’s also fallen in love with neighbouring rancher, Rob. They both know Matty will be gone, that he owes it to himself and his family who have sacrificed so much to pursue his dream. But gee, it’s going to be hard on both Matty and Rob to part.

The highlight of this book is the character of Matty. I didn’t think I’d like a book about a figure skater, but he’s just so engaging. He first opens the door to Rob (who’s brought firewood) wearing a yellow sequinned vest, mink coat, and a fully made-up face with eyeshadow and sparkling lip gloss. And that’s Matty — brazenly gay, effervescent, charming, health-conscious. It’s also an interesting insight into just what elite athletes give up for their sport, and also celebrates the achievements of all those athletes who make it to the Olympics without necessarily winning a medal.

About the only thing I didn’t like so much was some BDSM aspects… and one scene in particular. But for all that, it’s worth the read.

The River Leith – Leta Blake

It’s three out of three with Leta Blake. The River Leith follows amateur boxer Leith, who wakes up from a coma after a fight with the past three years of his memory missing. This means he’s also forgotten his devastated lover, Zach, who’s introduced merely as his ‘best friend’.

Leith’s frustration at losing his memories (most likely permanently), his confusion at his almost instant response and attraction to Zach (when he doesn’t actually identify as gay), and his dilemma regarding what to do with the rest of his life are dealt with really well. The difficulties of Zach’s situation, facing the possible loss of the love of his life, are also gut-wrenching. The story of how they overcome certain challenges and deal with the need to start again from scratch is just sweet.

OK. That was not keeping it short. Sorry. If you’ve made it through the above 2000 words — thank you!

This was the last monthly reading post I’ll be doing, and in 2015 I’ll write reviews only when I feel like it and as I feel like it. It’s nice to have a record of everything I read in the year, but the length of this post is just ridiculous!

I will write a post soon highlighting my top 10 for the year, though. I’ll have so much fun going through all the monthly posts to see which ones stood out.

April reading: The Salisbury Key and more Harper Fox

After discovering author Harper Fox in March, I spent April working my way through a chunk of her backlist. Seriously, I haven’t been able to get enough of her books. It’s been a revelation, because the male/male romance genre is not one I usually read in, or indeed expected to like. Were it not for a chance mention of Bodmin Moor in a blurb (Once upon a haunted moor – the first one I read – and awesome), I would never ever have gone there.

But I’m so pleased I did.

Harper Fox writes with lyrical splendour, her settings are fascinating and vividly drawn, and the emotional journey of her characters truly resonates with me. That’s all I really ask for in a book.

The Salisbury Key

SalisburyKeyMy favourite so far (of all) has been The Salisbury Key — I liked it so much I read it twice in the month. (Yep, it’s true.) Daniel, a young archeology professor in Salisbury (UK), has been in a relationship with Jason, the head of his department, for three years, when Jason commits suicide, leaving Daniel a mystery to solve in the form of a map… Grieving and uncomprehending, Daniel decides to proceed with an important dig on Salisbury Plain, where the army has just granted access. He’s assigned a munitions expert, Lieutenant Reyne, who helps him solve the mystery of Jason’s past and why he killed himself.

The friendship between these two men develops so beautifully. Reyne is actually my favourite of all Fox’s heroes — masculine, gentle, caring, tough, totally hot. The way he handles Daniel, who’s not entirely sane with grief, is just amazing. Daniel is attracted to him from the start — then has to deal with the guilt on top of his grief over Jason. As for Reyne, well, he doesn’t even think of himself as gay to start off with, so his journey is also profound.

Yes, there are some fairly explicit m/m sex scenes in this book — as there are in all Fox’s books. But they are not the primary focus. (Nor do they go for pages and pages.) At heart The Salisbury Key is a love story and a mystery, with character relationships at the heart of it. I love the dynamic between male lovers portrayed by Fox — it’s so equal, with the roles of protector, nurturer, aggressor completely interchangeable. The book also deals with the relationship between two estranged brothers and Daniel dealing with some ghosts from his past.

Anyway, I loved Daniel and Reyne so much I had to read their story again — and you should too. Click here!


The other novel-length work of Harper Fox’s I read in April was Driftwood, set down on Cornwall’s Penwith Pensinsula — more standing stones. Tom’s a former army GP broken by his service in the Middle East. Flynn’s an air rescue helicopter pilot fighting off a different set of demons from his past. Their burgeoning relationship heals them both. I recommend this one too, although second to The Salisbury Key.

In April I also read three of Harper Fox’s novellas:

  • Life after Joe — About a guy badly handling the breakup of a long-term relationship, when he meets a mysterious and caring man in a bar.
  • Winter Knights — About a couple of doctoral students of mythology/religion who have to deal with the fact one of them hasn’t come out to his family… There’s also a mystical ‘threesome’ encounter with Art and Lance, two rescue workers.
  • Kestrel’s Chance — About two mountain rescue climbers in Scotland, one of whom is secretly lusting after the other…

My favourite of the novellas was Life after Joe — it has a similar dynamic to The Salisbury Key, in that the first person narrator is all broken up, and is healed through a relationship with a caring yet masculine guy who nonetheless has his own demons.

Common threads

There are some common threads among the works I’ve read so far — many of her heroes are academics, doctors, or involved in military service or rescue work (or similar). They’re an intriguing mix of intellectual, intelligent and men of action.

Another recurring scenario is a period of unconsciousness for one or other in the relationship — life and death, that sort of thing. A sickbed vigil is just the scenario for a fraught lover.

Many of Fox’s heroes cry a fair bit too — as in multiple times per book — which has surprised me. It’s not that I believe men don’t cry, and if their lover is dead (or nearly) then it’s fair enough; but if a woman were to cry this much in a novel she would be severely frowned upon as being pathetic. Just an observation. (I don’t find these men pathetic at all.)

So that was my reading for April (unless you count re-reads of Fox’s three Frayne and Tyack novellas as well – sshh). And a very enjoyable month it was too!

What did you read in April?


Book Review: Winter be my shield

winter be my shield2It’s been good to finally get my teeth into some contemporary epic fantasy in the form of Australian author Jo Spurrier’s Winter be my shield (Children of the Black Sun – Book 1).

From the very start this novel gripped me in its icy vices and – even if perhaps it faded a little in the second half – kept me reading into the early hours of the morning.

Sierra is a young ‘sympath’ mage who has just escaped two years of enslavement and servitude to a sadistic blood-mage. She’s now on the run from the blood-mage’s apprentice, Rasten, assigned to retrieve her. Floundering in the freezing, snow-bound wilds, she encounters the exiled prince Cammarian, who has recently rescued his foster brother Isidro from the same clutches. Having been brutally tortured by Rasten, Isidro is crippled and ill, and Sierra’s arrival sets off a chain of events that sees them all struggling to stay alive in the face of pursuit from Rasten, raids by invading slavers from another country, and politicking between the local clan leaders and the foreign king.

Overlaid on all this is Sierra’s struggle to control her growing power in a land where magecraft has been outlawed… But others are seeking its lost secrets.

The tensions pulling between (and within) the main characters provide much of the conflict. Sierra’s rare power is derived from the pain and suffering of others, making her the object of suspicion and despite among would-be allies. Yet use of her extreme power is also coveted. Isidro’s crippling injuries make him a liability to his companions as they move around in the snowy landscape. Yet Cam is committed to keeping him safe at all cost. Rasten, despised and feared by both Sierra and Isidro, nonetheless clearly has his own agenda that sometimes involves coming to their aid…

Rasten is actually a fascinating character. From the start we know he has tortured and crippled Isidro, helped incarcerate and torment Sierra, and we witness him skinning people alive and carving out hearts as part of his blood-ritual to obtain power. He thinks little of rape and murder, seems completely amoral and somewhat mad, yet even so we sense he might be redeemable. He genuinely cares for Sierra to the point of obsession and will do anything to ensure she survives whatever ordeal she brings upon herself (largely because he also needs her power to secure his freedom). I am intrigued to see how his character develops in the second book.

A stand-out feature of Winter be my shield is the way the wintry environment pervades everything.

The reader is never allowed to forget that it’s freezing and wet and even dark at times. By constantly using small amounts of detail, the environment is reinforced again and again — but the point is never laboured. A strong setting is a really important aspect of fantasy for me, and Spurrier does setting in this book really really well. From the spruce floors of the deerhide tents, to the heavy woollen jackets, to lamps and light stones, camp stoves, tent ties, snow shoes…

Isidro’s incessant pain is really well conveyed too. Spurrier never lets up on poor Isidro as his shattered arm is knocked or jolted, and his physical weakness, fatigue and one-handed limitations are exposed time and again. The foundations are laid so well early on that even when his injuries etc are not mentioned, they’re instilled in the mind of the reader. We intuitively understand why he’s a liability to his friends and feel for him desperately.

As far as the story goes, there are a couple of major changes in direction that give it an awkward structure in my view. Somewhere in the middle of the book, one set of characters departs stage right around the time two additional and separate groups arrive stage left. And then it ends on a something of a cliffhanger… (Cue Book 2: Black sun light my way.)

I liked the first half of the book best — when Sierra, Cam and Isidro (with a few others) are desperate and on the run. It is tough and intimate and cold and painful. The second half of the book, when their journeys diverge, seemed a little disjointed and disconnected. The throbbing urgency drops off and I also think Cam’s identity as an exiled prince gets a bit lost.

I have a few other minor quibbles as well — the choice of point of view is a little all over the place, the time elapsed seemed inconsistent at times, and I felt the depth of characterisation dropped off with the influx off all the new characters in the second half. On top of this, there is a LOT of torture and threat of rape (of both men and women), which I felt became overdone. It’s also interesting that one of the main looming threats, the blood-mage Kell, doesn’t even appear in this novel, which undermines his effectiveness.

However, these quibbles are mainly personal irritations which maybe wouldn’t bother most readers. I’ve read a few reviews that complained about the slow pace of the first half, so it just goes to show that different readers appreciate different things.

The writing itself is otherwise solid and the story keeps moving. It’s worth noting though that although romantic relationships develop between the various characters, they happen quite incidentally. Although these relationships are key to the plot, they are not really subplots in themselves.

Anyway, even if the second half of Winter be my shield didn’t quite live up to the first half, I still enjoyed it immensely and finished it in less than a week. I reckon I’d give it 4 stars. Now I’m reading the sequel and enjoying that too. More on that later!

If you’ve read Winter be my shield, what did you think of it? If not, are you a little bit tempted?