romance

Aqua Follies – book review

I was excited when Aqua Follies launched a week or so ago, not only because it was written by my friend, Liv Rancourt, but also because I was an early beta-reader on this book and have been following its journey from the sidelines. So I guess this book is close to my heart and I want to share it with you.


Aqua Follies – blurb

AquaFollies_Digital_LargeThe 1950s. Postwar exuberance. Conformity. Rock and roll. Homophobia.

Russell tells himself he’ll marry Susie because it’s the right thing to do. His summer job coaching her water ballet team will give him plenty of opportunity to give her a ring. But on the team’s trip to the annual Aqua Follies, the joyful glide of a trumpet player’s solo hits Russell like a torpedo, blowing apart his carefully constructed plans.

From the orchestra pit, Skip watches Poseidon’s younger brother stalk along the pool deck. It never hurts to smile at a man, because sometimes good things can come of it. Once the last note has been played, Skip gives it a shot.

The tenuous connection forged by a simple smile leads to events that dismantle both their lives. Has the damage been done, or can they pick up the pieces together?


Aqua Follies – my review

There’s so much to love about Aqua Follies. The mid-1950s is not your usual setting for a male/male romance novel, but Liv Rancourt brings that era to life brilliantly well. There are party phone lines, jazz lounges, and pomaded pompadours. There are blazers and ties for the men, curled hair and red lipstick for the women. There’s the behaviour ‘accepted for a young lady’ and the girls struggling to break free of the shackles. And of course there’s the awful social and legal persecution of men suspected of being gay.

Aqua Follies is not a ‘sweetness and light’ read. It’s gritty and uncomfortable much of the time, because the society these young gay men are forced to live in is just so horrible. They’re forced to hide everything they feel, hide everything they do, hide in fact their true selves from the world.

For Russell, this results in denial and suppression, deep shame at being ‘perverted’, guilt when he succumbs. For Skip, on the other hand, raised among musicians and theatre types, it leads him to boldness and sometimes rash actions.

Skip is a loveable character. He’s open-hearted and he follows his heart. He’s part of an accepting community, and although he has his own struggles, he’s fully accepting of himself and goes after love with everything he has.

It’s really Russell’s story though, and he is a lot more complicated, constantly battling himself, denying himself, despising himself. He comes across as an asshole a lot of the time as he tramples Skip’s poor heart again and again, but his fears are very understandable and real. I adored him in the first third of the book, really felt for him as he found his object of desire and battled certain dark thoughts while trying to conform to the hetero ‘norm’. Then I got mad with him during the middle — and felt every bit of Skip’s frustration as Russell blew hot and cold cold cold. By the end, though, he melted my heart with his eventual self-acceptance and earnest love for Skip, especially as he takes decisive action and changes things in his life to be with him. Even though his self-realisation takes a while to arrive, he gets there in the end.

Overall, it’s a fabulous book that brings the 1950s to life and tells a fairly difficult love story that continues to resonate in my mind. The writing is slick and accomplished, the supporting characters vivid and present, the sex scenes judiciously placed and by no means gratuitous.

This is a novel with depth and complexity at both the emotional and historical level — as much a novel of Russell’s coming of age and a portrayal of life in the 1950s, as a romance. I now want a sequel to see how Russell and Skip get on with their lives, because the ending seems quite open-ended, particularly given the precarious nature of such relationships at that time.


Buy links for Aqua Follies

Amazon | B&N | iBooks | Kobo | More Stores

Book review: Red Dirt Heart sequence by N.R. Walker

aww-badge-2015-200x300Once again celebrating Australian Women Writers, today’s review is focused on the Red Dirt Heart sequence from N.R. Walker. It comprises four m/m romance novels set on a massive cattle station in the Northern Territory (north-east of Alice Springs), and deals primarily with themes of ‘being gay in outback Australia’ and family.

I love this series, warts and all. It’s a marvellous depiction of what life on a cattle station might be like — the heat, the dust, the animals, the isolation. There’s plenty of horseriding, cattle droving, bore-fixing, akubras (hats) and RM Williams riding boots. And lots and lots of love — of various kinds.

Charlie Sutton is the 25 yo owner of Sutton Station, having inherited on the death of his father a few years earlier. He loves his station and excels at running it, but he doesn’t realise how lonely he is until Travis rocks up from Texas for a four-week stint of work experience.

The first three books are all told in Charlie’s engaging and very distinct voice, as he tries to find love and hold himself and everyone around him together. He’s an over-thinker and a worrier when it comes to relationships, and tends to bottle things up and convince himself the worst is going to happen. Travis, who is even-tempered, positive, and communicative, balances him out beautifully.

Red Dirt Heart (the first book) takes place over the four weeks of Travis’s original placement. Charlie knows right away he’s in trouble, and he has no idea how to handle it. But love for these two happens swiftly (once Charlie gets his act together) and powerfully. There are plenty of issues to work through, but the actions of both men speak volumes. It will come as no surprise to know that at the end Travis stays on in Australia.

Red Dirt Heart 2 picks up the crew at Sutton Station about six months later. There’s Charlie and Travis of course, but also Charlie’s substitute parents George (his foreman) and Ma (cook and general mother figure), and his various station hands. There’s also a pet baby kangaroo called Matilda. In this installment, Charlie still needs to deal with his inner angsting, much of which is derived from the fear of people outside the station finding out he’s gay. And then there’s the Australian immigration officials threatening to deport Travis for overstaying his temporary working visa… Overall it’s a worthy followup to the first, with Charlie learning how to verbalise his feelings and growing to accept himself.

In Red Dirt Heart 3, Charlie has to deal with a host of new issues — including a loved one’s illness, a family bombshell and an attention-demanding baby wombat… Not to mention he is running for the board of the beef farmers association, and trying to finish his degree by correspondence. And then Travis needs to go home to Texas for his own personal reasons, and Charlie isn’t sure how to do any of that without him. This installment once again puts Charlie and Travis through the ringer, and they emerge stronger than ever.

Despite all Charlie’s hapless attempts to tear him and Travis apart through these three books, they are the real forever deal, and I just want to hug them. Travis, always the steadying influence, tempers Charlie’s strong emotions, and his quiet unconditional support gives Charlie extra confidence to shine.

When it comes to Red Dirt Heart 4, I have mixed feelings. It’s told from Travis’s perspective, and although I adore Travis, this book just lacks narrative drive. It’s more a series of anecdotes with some dramatic moments, but ultimately there is no overall story arc. It’s interesting to see Charlie through Travis’s eyes, but it comes at a time when their relationship is solid as a rock. There’s little conflict between them, and thus ultimately no drama. Nor does Travis have any agency. He just floats along with his world revolving around Charlie.

BUT after reading (and hopefully loving) the first three, you kinda still have to read this one, because it does take them further in terms of their commitment to each other, and Travis takes Charlie home to meet his parents in Texas. You can’t just miss this. And then there’s the rather lengthy epilogue, which sketches in their life afterwards for years and years… And you can’t miss that either. After three books, my investment in Charlie and Travis was sufficient to pull me through the fourth.

I also mentioned family is a strong theme across all books. Travis is close to his large family, and has to deal with being far away. Charlie, on the other hand, starts off with serious issues surrounding his relationship with his dead father, which Travis helps him work through. Later, he is confronted with other family members hitherto absent, and finds happiness in forging new relationships. The books also explore the differences between blood relatives and the ‘family’ at Sutton Station.

There’s so much more I could mention: Charlie’s wonderful relationship with his horse Shelby, the antics of Nugget the baby wombat, banter on Australian v American colloquialisms, nights in a swag under the Australian night sky… but I guess I’d better stop.

Finally, I need to point out that these books (which are self-published) could have done with a good edit and proof-read. There are careless timing issues on occasion, which pulled me out on occasion. And there are numerous words either extraneous or missing. The prose is rather rough around the edges, but that’s Charlie’s voice and I can buy that. But an experienced nip and tuck would not have gone astray.

Nonetheless, I do love the emotion and heart infused in these books. And they feel really Australian — even if it’s not a part of Australia I’m very familiar with. But they make me want to go and visit our red centre again. And I’ve never been to a cattle station.

Here’s the link to Red Dirt Heart on Amazon or check out the books on the author’s website here.

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.

What I read in November

Here’s my wrap up of books read in November…

One for the money – Janet Evanovich

oneformoneyThis is the mega best-selling first novel in Janet Evanovich’s widely acclaimed Stephanie Plum crime series, which is now up to book #21 or something… I’ve been intrigued to read it for a while, and was thrilled when one of my reading group friends selected it for us to read this year.

Pestered by her close New Jersey family, Stephanie Plum offers to catch high-school crush Joe Morelli, cop turned bail jumper, for her cousin Vinnie’s company. She questions “working girls” to find the missing girlfriend of vicious prizefighter Benito Ramirez while Joe secretly watches her back. Ranger mentors her and supplies vehicles when hers explode. – Goodreads

I enjoyed it some. It’s a fast-paced and snappy read about a young woman who loses her job and becomes a bounty hunter. She’s woefully under qualified, inept, headstrong, impulsive, dogged and (in my opinion) stupid. And since I’m not a huge fan of stupid protagonists, this did slightly mar my enjoyment.


Counterpoint and Crescendo – Rachel Haimowitz (Song of the Fallen)

counterpoint_origI came across this high-fantasy duet by accident, initially attracted by the covers and then curiosity and positive reviews. The series is set in a secondary world in which humans and elves have been mortal enemies for 300 years.

In Counterpoint, Ayden (a ranger elf) becomes the prisoner of Prince Freyrik (human), who is struggling to protect his people from assault by rabid and magically altered animals (ferals or darkers). The book is a love story at heart, with the two men having to overcome a bunch of stuff… I confess I wasn’t too comfortable with the whole ‘Stockholm syndrome’ thing happening here — although by protecting and favouring Ayden, Freyrik jeopardises his own position with his king and does have to make difficult decisions. But while Freyrik’s choices are moral, poor Ayden undergoes a great deal more, both physical and psychological. Having said that, the author does do a fairly good job of establishing an almost equal relationship by the end of the book, and I felt it worked.

The two main characters are well drawn and the fantasy world feels solid — although it’s all fairly familiar and doesn’t span far beyond forest, castle and villages. It’s a character piece primarily, featuring an overall story arc about fighting off the ferals, in which Ayden plays a key role. It’s a good read, but rather long… although it probably needs to be long for the gradual growth of the relationship. Anyhow, it ends with a cliffhanger, so one does need to move on to book #2.

Crescendo is a very different book and, while still character driven, has a lot more plot. Freyrik is hauled to the capital city for an unofficial disciplining for his lenient treatment of Ayden, and Ayden has his magic silenced. The two spend a lot of time apart (despite the fact they share quarters) — neither has much control over his respective situation. Freyrik finds himself embroiled in political machinations and more moral dilemmas and bad choices. Ayden has to deal with his own plight and that of all the other enslaved elves. Their love and trust in each other is what keeps them going… Again, Ayden in captivity suffers a great deal at the hands of merciless humans, which makes the book somewhat harrowing (yeah, I’m pathetic like that). But by the end, they’ve figured out what is causing the ferals to keep attacking humanity and all ends well.

As a pair of fantasy novels they work rather well.


SPECTR series – Jordan L. Hawk

hunterThis is a series of six urban paranormal fantasy novellas about Caleb (barista, artist, vegetarian and TK) who manages to get himself possessed by a Drakul (who takes the name of Gray), an entity who devours the etheric energy of demons. And John, an agent and exorcist with a paranormal-FBI-like group called SPECTR.

The first novella (Hunter of Demons) sets everything up. Caleb needs John to exorcise Gray, but the Drakul is too strong; moreover, they only have so many days (I forget how many) to figure out how to do it before the possession becomes permanent. Meanwhile though, Gray doesn’t seem to be a threat to humans, so he and Caleb reach an accord, with Gray manifesting when required to slay ghouls and other demons. He also imparts greater strength and psychic abilities to Caleb as the two cohabit the one body. They can converse with each other, although Gray isn’t much of a conversationalist. It’s pretty cool.

EaterOfLives_200x300And then there’s John, who falls in love with Caleb and ultimately Gray as well. And vice versa. It’s an interesting love triangle, and I expected Caleb to feel jealous of Gray, but he says at one point that he could never be jealous of someone who loves him so unconditionally.

The novellas progress through several episodes of demon infestations in need of solving, and then arc into conspiracy, espionage and revolution. The ultimate climax is grand in scale indeed, and the outcome doesn’t feel like a foregone conclusion — which in this type of series, heavily founded on the love story, is something of a feat.

I’m growing rather fond of the novella length, which I can read in a single evening, especially when I can line them up one after the other. Having said that, numbers 4-6 in this series do not really resolve individually and are more like parts of the same story; so I’m glad I wasn’t waiting for them to be published. You can purchase them in e-book omnibus (SPECTR 2), which I would recommend doing.

I do rather like the paranormal urban fantasy world Hawk has set up. Basically the demon spirits possess humans and make them do bad stuff — but if the SPECTR exorcists catch them in time, the humans can be saved. It’s a pretty simple concept, but works really well.


Fair Play – Josh Lanyon

This is the sequel to Fair Game (All’s Fair), which I read in September. Set in the Seattle area, Fair Play is about Elliot (former FBI agent, now college history professor) trying to solve the mystery of his father’s activist past (and voluntary disappearance) after someone burns down his father’s house. There’s a Cold Case involved. There is also a lover in the form of current FBI agent, Tucker, who alternately tries to persuade Elliot to stop investigating OR assists by providing resources, intel and backup. It’s a pretty good little family and political mystery, really.


And that’s it for another month. Finished listening to Persuasion (Jane Austen) in the car, a lovely driving experience. I’m now listening to The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton.

I’m not going to continue these monthly reading posts next year. They’re getting a bit long. I honestly did not expect to read so much. Instead I will try to write short, regular posts as I finish each book… One more month to go!

July reading: Drought and Debris

Books. July. This is what I read.

DebrisDebris – Jo Anderton

I picked up a copy of Debris, Jo Anderton’s acclaimed first novel (Angry Robot books) in the Veiled Worlds trilogy, in June at the launch of the third. And she very kindly signed it for me too. So, determined to get back on track with my reading of not only speculative fiction, but also Australian Women Authors, I fast-tracked this fantasy/science fiction novel to the top of my to-be-read pile.

It’s a classic ‘book 1’ of a trilogy — meaning that it’s clearly laying the groundwork for grander things. Debris focuses on introducing the reader to its rather unique world, which at this point is a cityscape that reminds me for some reason of the movie, Dark City. You can tell worldbuilding is important to Jo, because the city is a definite character in the novel. It’s futuristic, yet also archaic; the newer parts function using an unusual ‘magic’ system that binds matter together, the older parts are dilapidated with cracked lino and rusty pipes. It’s hard to decide whether this is fantasy or science fiction. Perhaps it’s both.

Anyway, the main character, Tanyana, once an influential architect, is now a social outcast who can only manipulate ‘debris’, which is the residue of the ‘magic’ she once wielded with such skill. She has to become accustomed to her change in circumstances, build new alliances among those who despise her, figure out why the hell this happened to her and whether justice will be hers. The narrative is closely centred around Tanyana and a small misfit group of debris collectors, and although there’s a definite sense of something bigger and nastier going on, the story doesn’t break into the grander scale until the end. It will be interesting to see where she takes it!

droughtBreaking the Drought – Lisa Ireland

Lisa is one of my very good friends and Breaking the Drought is her debut novel with Escape Publishing. It’s a “fish out of water” Australian rural romance novel (m/f to break the trend of my recent reading) and I’m so incredibly excited to see it published. Slick city girl meets country boy in a deftly handled tale, with horseriding, Jimmy Choos (not at the same time) and good old-fashioned romance. Lisa paints a believable Australian country and farming vibe (complete with bush dances and bushfires) and the pressures on the relationship of Jenna and Luke are realistic and nicely resolved.

midwinterprinceA Midwinter Prince – Harper Fox

Yes, all right, you suspected this was coming… right? Seems I’m not done with Ms Fox just yet. A Midwinter Prince is set in London, when Laurie, a young man with money, title and a domineering father, meets Sasha, a young Romani man huddled in a doorway in the dead of winter. Like all Harper Fox novels, both young men are tortured souls, struggling to overcome their pasts and find happiness together. With the Laurie seizing independence, it’s Sasha’s background that is mysterious and has the potential to rip them apart… Great stuff. And there’s a sequel (The Lost Prince), which I haven’t read yet.

I might also have re-read a couple more Harper Fox novels in July: Scrap Metal and Driftwood. More tortured young men falling in love. Again. Scrap Metal is perhaps one of the best explorations of pure unconditional love I’ve ever read. Of all Harper Fox’s books, I think Scrap Metal is the most powerful love story — and beautifully written. Definitely one of my favourites.

Well, that’s it from me for July. Of course, it’s half way through August now, so it won’t be too long before the August reading post!

Stories of Women to the Rescue

Last week, indie publisher Turtleduck Press launched a new fantasy anthology that sounds like a LOT of fun — especially if you’re someone who’s after more stories in which women seize control of their destinies.

Under Her Protection: Stories of Women to the Rescue is edited by Toronto-based author and keen fellow traveller, Siri Paulson. To celebrate the launch of the anthology (in which she also has a story), I’m most happy to have Siri here today answering a few questions.

But first, the official book blurb…

Under Her Protection: Stories of Women to the Rescue

Under Her Protection ebookSometimes men are the ones trapped in a tower, or bound by a curse, or doomed to stay in the underworld. Damsels or not, they need rescuing too. And these are just the women to do it…

A swordswoman and a scholar.
A grim reaper and a dead man.
A maidservant and an inventor.
A new university grad and a prince.

Fantasy romance stories from four indie writers about strong women… and men who need their help.

(With stories by Kit Campbell, Siri Paulson, KD Sarge, and Erin Zarro. Edited by Siri Paulson.)

BUY LINKS: Smashwords | Amazon | printed version


And now, here’s Siri to talk briefly about the anthology…

1. Can you tell us a little of the inspiration for your story (the one about the maidservant and the inventor)?

Last year I visited India for the first time, fell in love with it, and decided there was an unforgivable lack of fantasy and science fiction stories set in this vivid, contradictory, culturally rich nation. My inventor, Bijai, is based on an eighteenth-century Indian ruler, Jai Singh II, who really was fascinated by science. He is known for building enormous structures for doing astronomical calculations, just as Bijai does in the story. Beyond that, the palace and the tower are based on real places in Rajasthan, India.

2. What do you love most about the complete anthology?

The fact that it presents four completely different strong women, each saving the day and falling in love on her own terms. I’m always arguing that the term “strong woman” has many meanings — including but not limited to those who are good at physical fighting — and I’m proud of the way we’ve explored the term.

3. What is it about fantasy (spec fic) as a genre that inspires you — as a reader, as a writer?

The “sense of wonder”. Fantasy is all about showcasing wonder. That’s what drew me to it in the first place, and what keeps me coming back as a reader and a writer over and over again. In search of different ways to evoke the sense of wonder, the genre explores worlds and ideas of “infinite diversity in infinite combinations”, as the Vulcans say. There are just no limits, and that’s fabulous.

Thanks again for hosting me!

About Siri Paulson

Siri Paulson author photo 2011Siri Paulson writes all over the fantasy and science fiction spectrum, including (so far) secondary-world fantasy, urban fantasy, steampunk, historical paranormal, and things set in space. Maybe someday she’ll pick one and settle down.

Siri is an expatriate from Alberta, Canada, who now makes her home in Toronto with her significant other. In her non-writing life, she is an editor of non-fiction. Her other current passion is contra dance, a type of folk dance done to live Celtic and roots music. Her favourite places in the world are the Canadian Rocky Mountains and a little valley at the end of a fjord in Norway.

Siri is the acquisitions editor and copy editor at Turtleduck Press.


My thanks to Siri for stopping by. As I said, the anthology sounds like a lot of fun and I’ve just downloaded onto my kindle. (Go on! You know you want to!)

What would be your take on a woman to the rescue?

May reading: My Brother Michael and more

In honour of English author Mary Stewart, who died earlier this month (see my tribute), I’ve been re-reading for the umpteenth time, My Brother Michael – one of my favourites.

mybrothermichaelSipping coffee in Athens and wishing something would happen, Camilla accidentally agrees to drive a hire car to Delphi for someone called Simon. It turns out Simon is a young Englishman whose elder brother Michael was killed on Mount Parnassus during WWII (the novel is set in the 60s) — and he has no idea who ordered the car. He’s there to visit Michael’s grave and see the place where his brother was killed, but it soon becomes apparent that the circumstances surrounding Michael’s death were not as they seem… Camilla and Simon become embroiled in a deadly plot involving local Greek terrorist types, all set amid the wild rugged beauty of Delphi and the heights of Mount Parnassus.

Readers of this blog will know that setting is hugely important to me, and Mary Stewart’s settings are always amazing. Every time I read this book, I’m captivated by the idea of gliding through the ruins of ancient Delphi by starlight, of trekking along goat paths up into the mountains, of gazing up the Pilgrim’s Way from the foot of the hill. As I’ve said before, this book captured my imagination so much that Delphi was the first place I visited outside Australia.

Mary Stewart’s characters are all wonderfully complex, and the development of her relationships beautifully subtle. Yes, it is true her books are of their time — modern readers coming to them anew may chafe at the defined gender roles, which were so accepted in the 60s. But her male heroes are dominant and protective without being overbearing — they are caring and respectful and so very capable.

Simon Lester is no different. Without quite knowing why, Camilla finds herself agreeing to accompany Simon when he visits the Greek family who sheltered Michael during the war, and again on the hike up the mountain to see where he died. Camilla is a fabulous heroine: she’s observant with brilliant recall and an uncanny ability to add up the clues to arrive at the correct conclusion; she’s brave and adventurous and independent too.

My Brother Michael is steeped in classical references — Mary Stewart, herself a classicist, called it her love letter to Greece. It’s also infused with historical references about what went on during WWII with the resistance. But at heart it’s a thriller — with Camilla and Simon forced to fight for their lives as they thwart the bad guys and make an astonishing and wonderful discovery as well.

Other books read in May include:

  • Nine Lights over Edinburgh – Harper Fox (novella)
  • Brothers of the Wild North Sea – Harper Fox
  • Hainted – Jordan L Hawk
  • Enlightenment #1 Provoked – Joanna Chambers
  • Enlightenment #2 Beguiled – Joanna Chambers
  • Enlightenment #3 Enlightened – Joanna Chambers

Yes, more Harper Fox… Nine Lights over Edinburgh is something of a crime novel, with the main character’s (an undercover policeman with a drinking problem) daughter kidnapped by a crime boss he’s trying to put away. He’s assisted in her recovery by a rather divine Israeli secret service agent.

Brothers of the Wild North Sea is set in the middle ages: a reluctant Christian monk on an outpost island finds himself holding his community together in the face of Viking raids; at the same time he saves the life of one of the Vikings, left for dead after a raid, and the two have to reconcile their many differences for their love to survive. [This novel was too long for the subject matter, in my view. It’s a nice story, though.]

But the good news is I managed to read books by authors OTHER than Harper Fox… Hainted is a modern day paranormal m/m love story. Dan is young guy, resolutely in the closet, raising his kid brother and sister on the family farm. He’s a ‘Walker’ (guy who can deal with hauntings and such) in denial, when Leif, a fellow Walker and multi-pierced goth on the run, comes to beg his aid with a particularly nasty evil necromancer… Both men are partly broken by events in their past, and through teaming up and falling in love, manage to defeat two sets of evil (one each) and heal each other’s souls. [Great characters, good story, more of a ‘romance’ feel than Harper Fox’s books.]

Finally, the Joanna Chambers Enlightenment trilogy is set mainly in 19th century Edinburgh — a time and place where being gay was illegal and socially unacceptable, which meant such liaisons had to be very secret. The books are about David, an advocate/lawyer from a farming background and Lord Murdo Balfour, a peer with whom he becomes entangled. Their story is told over the three books, with a backdrop of civil unrest in the city, a royal visit, social prejudices, family intrigue, helping friends in need… I enjoyed these for the most part, but two things bothered me: 1) the end of the first book is left up in the air with no HEA so that you absolutely have to read the second… which ends better, although still with not much resolved. They’re really ONE story told over three books. 2) the end of the third book just fell flat for me; for the culmination of a three-book series, the resolution and HEA ending was too rushed. Guess she just doesn’t do endings well.

Thus ends my foray into m/m, I believe. I wasn’t intending to read beyond the Harper Fox books, but the others were so strongly recommended that I felt compelled to broaden the experiment. And, although I still prefer Harper Fox for her writing and characters and setting, I did enjoy the others. But it’s definitely time for me to move on…

 

 

Book Review: Forever and Ever, Amen ~ Liv Rancourt

Last Monday marked the launch of my friend Liv Rancourt‘s paranormal romance novel, Forever and Ever, Amen. Since I was lucky enough to score an Advanced Reader’s Copy, I thought I would share my thoughts on the book, which has been published as an e-book under the Crimson Romance label.

First, the official awesome blurb to put you in the picture:

Molly, a forty-something single mom, tangles with the wrong guy and gets a hell of a hickey. That blotch is really a demon’s mark, and she’ll have to face the three things that scare her most to get rid of it. First, Molly loses her job and then she has a near-sex experience with her philandering, not-quite-ex-husband. Worst of all, she has to sit by a hospital bed, wondering if her son is ever going to wake up.

The Powers That Be assign Cass to help her. He’s an angel who’s trying to earn a seat in the celestial choir by helping out a human in need. Vanquishing the demon would be his ticket up, but only if he plays by the rules. He’ll never earn his wings if he loses his heart to the lovely Molly. But she has even bigger things to worry about. She stands to lose her soul.

And here’s my review, which I’ve already posted on Amazon and Goodreads:

foreverandeveramen_LR

Forever and Ever, Amen ~
Liv Rancourt

Molly isn’t your average Romantic Heroine. For one thing, she spends as much energy caring for and worrying about her two rampant teenage kids, as she does dreaming about her guardian angel. Throw in the struggle for her soul with a demon, an ex-husband she’s clearly conflicted over, a job she hates, and a new entrepreneurial baking endeavor, and this story has many more dimensions than your average ‘Romance’.

I confess this threw me a little as I sat down to read my Advanced Reader’s Copy. My expectations of a ‘Romance Novel’ involve a fairly focused guy-girl storyline, often with little in the way of fleshed out secondary characters, and only minor subplots. But once I adjusted to (and embraced!) the fact that this book has far more substance than that, I settled back and very much enjoyed the journey.

In fact, Liv packs a lot of story into this little book. The many characters are clearly and individually drawn — including Molly’s daughter’s vampire boyfriend and a couple of hippy vegan occultists — and all story threads entwine relentlessly around Molly, hiking up the tension as her life disintegrates around her and she’s forced to reevaluate and reinvent herself in order to triumph.

But at the heart, of course, is Cass, Molly’s guardian angel. He appears in shiny surfaces at regular intervals to provide advice and encouragement, all the while trying not to fall for Molly, which is forbidden. One of the sexiest things about their relationship is that for most of the novel he exists in a different plane and cannot touch her — and when he finally breaches this restriction, Molly cannot look at him or he’ll be bound to the earthly plane. URST galore!

Rancourt’s writing style is witty and sharp with a good dose of humor, especially the dialog, which is used liberally. It all combines to generate a fast-paced and entertaining read. A small gripe I have would be that the demon is ultimately defeated a little too easily, but all the subplots are resolved with aplomb and if maybe the very end whisks by a little quickly I can forgive it.

It’s not often you see a forty-something woman as the romantic lead in such novels, and Molly is a worthy flag-bearer! If you like a gentle romance with a lot more going on than normal, this is definitely a book you should pick up!

 

Why I write – 5 reasons from Liv Rancourt

Paranormal and/or Romance author Liv Rancourt is my guest today and I like her post so much I think I’ll follow up next week with one of my own on the same topic. She’s addressing a question I ask myself frequently… Why do I write?

She’s also included an excerpt at the bottom from her recently published short story, The Santa Drag. I hope you enjoy and consider checking out her story.

Take it away, Liv!

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First I want to say thanks, Ellen, for the chance to do a guest post for your blog, and for your patience with my somewhat flexible deadline…

Why I write

In a recent blog post, Veronica Sicoe articulates the five things she wants to do with her writing. (Jump HERE for her post.) It’s a very thoughtful piece, and as I read it I thought, “Wow, I’m not sure I could come up with a similar five things if I wanted to.”

So of course, I decided to try.

With just a hint of a drum-roll, here are the five things I want my writing to accomplish. Assuming I can come up with five, that is

1. I want to write smart…

…because I believe if you write smart, you’ll make people think. While I know not everyone wants to grapple with IDEAS when they read – some people watch reality TV, too – I’m talking about little thoughts, more of the, “Wow, that’s sort of interesting,” scope. IDEAS belong to angst-ridden twenty-somethings, anyway. If I can gently prod someone into looking at things in a slightly different way, then I’ve done my job.

2. I want to write funny…

…because a spoon full of sugar helps…well, you know. Laughter is the lubricant that keeps the grinding gears of life turning. Wow. Deep. Did I just say that? I laugh at myself and, affectionately, at my characters. Life is strange. Enjoy it.

3. I want a place for all my previous obsessions to hang out.

I’m a neonatal nurse and for awhile I compulsively searched eBay looking for the perfect mid-century china and I can design and execute some pretty esoteric needlework patterns and I love singing Gregorian chant. And some, if not all, of that has turned up in my fiction, and will likely continue to do so. It saves on research time if you’ve already lived it.

4. I want to tell the truth, as I see it.

And I’ve had fifty years to experience it, so in theory at least I should have a handle on it. I don’t care how crazy your plot line is, if there’s not a substrate of truth in how the characters respond, then your readers won’t have as much fun reading it, and you can write clever dialogue till the cows come home, but if your reader can’t imagine anyone actually SAYING it, then you’ve lost them. It’s like peeling an apple. I throw down a bunch of ideas, then try to peel the B.S. away until only the good stuff is left.

5. I want to entertain readers…

…to surprise them, and most importantly, to make them set the book down with a warmer heart, no matter how gritty the subject matter is. In my books, the good guys win. Just wish real life was more like that…

And that, my friends, is what I want to do with my writing. I can’t say I’m 100% successful, but these are worthy goals. What about you? What do you want to accomplish with your writing?

Thanks again, Ellen! Happy Holidays!!

Liv

Excerpt from The Santa Drag
by Liv Rancourt
The Santa Drag2

So the only paying gig Mackenzie can find is playing Santa in the Mall…

On a particularly busy Saturday, I was tired and thinking more about a double shot of espresso than I was about the pile of kids who wanted to sit in my lap. The weak winter sun was making its circle over the atrium where the Christmas Village was set up, and my roommate Shauna was buzzing by every so often to giggle at me from the sidelines. She was trying to get all of her Christmas shopping done in one day, which was a good trick for someone with as many fertile brothers and sisters as she had.

“Come sit on Santa’s lap.” Maya, the photographer and kid-wrangler, invited the next kid in line approach my golden throne. Well, it was fake gold, but the kids didn’t know that.

“No,” said a little girl with a stubborn crease between her brows. She was dressed in Seattle’s version of Christmas formal, a stiff, red velvet dress, likely made from organic fabric dyed with beets and rose hips. On her feet were two-toned leather MaryJanes that probably cost sixty-five dollars. At least the green corkscrew ribbons tied around her blond pigtails looked like they belonged on a child. I made myself as approachable as possible, getting down to her level and producing a big smile.

“Come on, Thula,” her mother said, tapping one French manicured nail on her cell phone. “Go sit up there with Santa so we can take your picture.” She sounded as if this was just one more thing to knock off the list.

“It’s okay, sweetie.” Maya put on her encouraging smile. Maya was a tiny thing, barely bigger than most of the kids we saw, with long dark hair, a tiny gold hoop pierced through one nostril, and bugged-out eyes that looked like they’d been molded out of chocolate. She was non-threatening as an adult could possibly be. The kid stared at her and bit down on her bottom lip. At least she wasn’t crying. Yet.

“You want to come tell Santa what to bring you for Christmas?” I kept my voice pitched down somewhere under my sternum. It helped that I had one of those raspy lady voices that earned me a permanent spot in the tenor section whenever I sang in choir.

“No.”

Sometimes less is more when you’re dealing with preschoolers. We went back and forth for several minutes until the kid went from biting her bottom lip to letting it pooch out and tremble. Never a good sign. Finally, after a ton of coaxing, she was more-or-less close to me, squatting down on the other side of one of the big pretend presents that ringed my throne. That was good enough for her mom, and Maya snapped a picture.

When she was done, the little girl glared at me from behind the big, glossy red ribbon that topped the present. “Bring me a baby brother,” she bellowed and took off running.

Mom’s glare was meaner than the kid’s had been. Hey, it’s not like I made any promises.

The kid ran full tilt past the pseudo-Tyrolean houses that made the Village, and out through the crowds of shoppers. She stopped in the middle of an open space and cut loose, her sobs echoing around the smoky glass dome that covered us. We could hear her carrying on until she and her mom got swallowed up by the Ross store at the end of the north hallway. The whole place fell into a bit of a hush when she was gone, as everyone exhaled in relief. This close to Christmas, none of us needed a crying child to ratchet up the stress level.

A young mother was next in line. She came into the Christmas Village and positioned a slightly damp baby on my lap, moving as if something hurt. The baby was so young that Mom still looked a little pregnant under her loose denim-blue shirt. Or maybe she was already pregnant with number two. I’m not so good with the principles of baby production. Well, I understand the basic concepts, but haven’t had that many opportunities to put them into practice.

The brief quiet was interrupted by a yodeling squeal that I recognized. I stared into the crowd until I caught Maya looking at me funny. I stuck on a smile as close to my normal, jolly-Santa shtick as I could get, and she settled back down behind her camera. The reason for my roommate Shauna’s squeal had me completely rattled. In the two or three beats I’d looked out from behind my wire-rimmed glasses as Mack-the-girl, I’d seen Shauna giving someone a big hug. A really handsome someone. Joe McBride. Joseph Timothy McBride. The actor. The real-life, got a soap opera gig and several commercials and you saw him in Scream 2 actor. The only guy I ever really loved.

Ooh, now she’s got a problem! Will Mack turn all Creepy-Kringle? Will Joe recognize her? What’s a Santa to do? 😉

The Santa Drag is available from Still Moments Publishing, Smashwords, and Amazon.

About Liv Rancourt

Liv Rancourt writes paranormal and romance, often at the same time. She lives with her husband, two teenagers, two cats and one wayward puppy. She likes to create stories that have happy endings, and finds it is a good way to balance her other job in the neonatal intensive care unit. Liv can be found on-line at her website & blog (www.livrancourt.com), on Facebook (www.facebook.com/liv.rancourt), or on Twitter (www.twitter.com/LivRancourt).

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Thanks for hanging out here, Liv, and sharing with us your deepest thoughts and an excerpt from The Santa Drag.

foreverandeveramen_LRIs it also OK to mention your forthcoming publication under the Crimson Romance label — Forever and Ever, Amen — ?? Can we get excited for you??

To reiterate Liv’s questions (to writers) at the end of her post: What about you? What do you want to accomplish with your writing? Please do leave us a comment!

As mentioned, I intend to follow up with a similar post on ‘Why I write’ next week, and I hope other writers reading this will feel inspired to do likewise!

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

It doesn’t really surprise me that N.K. Jemisin’s debut fantasy novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, has been nominated/shortlisted for just about every SF award possible, including the Hugo and Nebula.

It’s a beautifully written tale not in the common style; in fact, the author breaks a few taboo rules and gets away with it. Yeine, a young woman dragged into a political battle for her life, is clearly telling her story to ‘someone’ and backtracks when she forgets things, addresses her audience, inserts backstory and setting info dumps at whim, and even lapses into dialogue with some unknown listener at times. The result is a darkly romantic first-person narrative that jumps around, but the writing is sparse and elegant and I found the whole construction intriguing and lyrical.

The story itself doesn’t try to get too complicated: Yeine first has to figure out the society into which she’s been injected (the amazing floating palace of Sky) and then survive it. At the heart of the story is a god (and three godlings) imprisoned in mortal flesh, and as Yeine becomes entwined in his/their battle for freedom, her life is irrevocably changed.

The setting is interesting too. While I would definitely classify it fantasy, it almost strays into science fiction at times: the palace of Sky, where 95% of the novel takes place, has almost a SF feel with its ‘ladies rooms’, running water, glowing walls, massive panes of glass, and its location on the top of a narrow column. All of this is explained vaguely as ‘magic’ but it works.

About my only complaint is that the climax and denouement fell away for me. Somehow the last few chapters seemed a little rushed and the ends too neatly tied, which is a shame considering the meticulous build-up.

But this is by no means a deal-breaker. It’s a lovely, darkly atmospheric novel, with a memorable and unique heroine in Yeine, and the supporting cast is well drawn too. Moreover, the romance between Yeine and the god Nahadoth is far from cliched and doesn’t dominate. I’m now looking forward to reading the second in the Inheritance Trilogy, The Broken Kingdoms, which evidently goes in quite a different direction . . .