book reviews

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…)

September

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.

October

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!

November

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.

December

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 Marion series. Borrowing Blue and Taming Teddy were swiftly followed by Jumping Jude. Each book is completely different, but each features one of the Marion 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 Marion, 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.

May

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?

June

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.

July

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.

August

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.

January

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.

February

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).

March

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.

April

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!

Driftwood

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?

Thoughts on Among Others by Jo Walton

I recently read Jo Walton’s Among Others, winner of the 2012 Nebula, Hugo and British Fantasy Awards for best novel. Since it’s one of the few recent SF novels I’ve read of late, I thought I would share some of my thoughts. [Mild spoilers…]

Among_Others_(Jo_Walton_novel)

Among Others has been described as many things: a fairy story, a love-letter to science fiction, an aftermath story, a magical boarding school story…

… and the cool thing is it’s ALL of these things at once. It’s also a young adult story about coming of age and healing of the heart and soul.

Set in 1979, the story is told in diary form by Morwenna, Mori for short, a 15 year-old Welsh girl whose twin sister has been killed in an unspecified magical showdown with their deranged mother. Mori has fled her mother and the fairy-populated Welsh hills of her childhood, and been sent to live with her estranged father, who sends her to a typical English boarding school. Struggling to deal with her new life and circumstances, Mori finds solace in the voracious reading of fantasy and science fiction novels. These also prove an area of common ground with her father, but it isn’t until she finds the local science fiction book club, populated by kindred spirits, that she starts to deal with the trauma in her past and embrace her new life.

As the narrator, Mori’s voice is engaging, forthright, and passionate (especially when discussing and naming the vast number of books she reads). She writes with conviction about magic and fairies, explaining how the magic works, the nature of her mother’s magical vindictiveness, what the fairies look like and the nature of her relationship with them.  Yet at the same time she’s awkward as she tries to make sense of boarding school culture, her relationship with her father, her growth from a child into a young woman.

It’s complex and many-layered. Lots to think about and question. I think the author does a great job of subtly adjusting Mori’s voice and tone as the story progresses, reflecting the lifting of her spirits and the introduction of hope into her life.

It’s not a fast-paced novel, more a gentle unfurling of light out of dark. The big events have happened in the past and Among Others is about picking up the broken pieces, adapting and getting on with it. The fairy elements and the science fiction/fantasy elements and the boarding school elements and the family elements are all woven seamlessly together. The different threads glitter at different times, depending on which way you hold the fabric up.

It’s by no means a necessity, but to get the most out of this book it would probably help to have an appreciation for science fiction and fantasy — or reading at the very least. There are, it has to be said, many discussions about science fiction and fantasy novels, but they’re not that lengthy. Nonetheless, scores (hundreds?) of books, most of them classics of the 1970s, are mentioned by name and author as they pass through Mori’s reading pile with amazing speed.

I’ve heard the book criticised for this, but even though I’d read very few of the books mentioned, I was willing to go with their inclusion, since I felt it was such an intrinsic part of Mori’s character.

I enjoyed this book a lot. It warmed me and made me smile, without blowing my mind. And although I believe it’s technically classed as a genre book, it’s not typical of such and I think it would be very accessible and enjoyable for non-genre readers. I can see why it won so many awards.

If you’ve read Among Others, what did you think of it?

How reviews influence my choice of books

Once upon a time it seemed as though I had hours and hours a day in which to read. I devoured books at an impressive rate. Although I’m not a particularly fast reader, I made up for it in sheer number of hours devoted to the cause.

But that was before I started writing in the evenings, watched less TV, and there was no such thing as social media, let alone a blog.

So. Since these other things do now exist, my reading time has been slashed to negligible… unless I suddenly find myself consumed by a book to the exclusion of most other things for a few days or so.

This all means choosing what to read carries rather more weight than once it did. Particularly as there is now so much more choice.

Back in the ‘olden days’ I obtained most of my reading material from the bookshop. It was my one vice as a poor university student: I never begrudged myself spending money on novels. I judged them mainly from reading the blurb on the back of the book and to a lesser extent the cover. Plus I always flicked to random sections in the text to gain an idea of the writing style.

Short of reading reviews in the paper, that was pretty much the only option available. That and word of mouth, of course. And it was hit and miss.

The internet has changed the scene considerably. Now we can google any book we like and find a hundred reviews on various bookshop sites, newspaper portals and book blogs. These days, everyone has an opinion and is willing to share it. This behaviour is even encouraged!

Moreover, we now hear about books we might never otherwise have heard of, via Amazon recommendation algorithms and social media shares. No more the somewhat limited shelves of the local bookshop. Now the options are virtually unlimited.

So how does one choose? Aside from those books that generate buzz — such as award finalists and winners, or blatant bestsellers — it can be difficult. Invariably I tend to investigate books based on recommendations I come across in the interwebs and blogosphere. Then of course there are all the books written by my writer friends, who I try to support.

Since I’m buying a lot on Kindle, I do tend to read a few of the Amazon reviews to get a general indication of whether it sounds to be my kind of book, but it’s very difficult to gauge quality. Mind you, I’m a fairly forgiving reader if the story is gripping enough. But I don’t think I set a huge store on the number of stars, because there is so much disparity of opinion and taste. Not to mention understanding of how the star-rating system works…

The inspiration for this post was the fourth of my eleven questions: Do reviews influence your choice of reads? My bottom line answer would be yes, but not for the obvious reason. The simple fact that reviews are so prevalent means that they’re bringing books to my attention and influencing my choice by providing more information about books than I would otherwise have.

Reviews have largely replaced the bookshop shelves as the source of my information — because let’s face the very sad fact that most of the bookshops seem to be closing down. And it can still be hit and miss.

For the record: I am currently reading Dragon Haven, by Robin Hobb. I was given the audiobook of this and its predecessor, Dragon Keeper, but soon downloaded both onto my Kindle so I can read and listen in tandem. It’s kind of like playing tag. Thus, in this case, reviews had zero impact on my choice, although I have read some to see what other people thought of the books. I may even feel compelled to ‘review’ them myself here when I’m done. 😉

What about you? How do you choose books? What are you reading right now and how did you choose it?