Grade: A

All posts in the Grade: A category

Dies the Fire by S. M. Stirling

Published May 15, 2014 by Shannon

Dies the Fire (Emberverse, #1)

I’ve been doing a lot of rereading lately. This is going to fuck my usual track record of reading more women than men to hell and gone by the end of the month, but sometimes you do just need to visit familiar characters and pick up on the nuances you’ve missed.

S. M. Stirling has an impressive body of work. He writes several different alternate history series, but the Emberverse seems to be the one that’s the longest-running. Naturally, I haven’t finished it. But I did start rereading Dies the Fire, the first in the series.

The synopsis goes:

The Change occurred when an electrical storm centered over the island of Nantucket produced a blinding white flash that rendered all electronic devices and fuels inoperable. What follows is the most terrible global catastrophe in the history of the human race-and a Dark Age more universal and complete than could possibly be imagined.

“Dies the Fire kept me reading till five in the morning so I could finish at one great gulp…”—New York Times bestselling author Harry Turtledove.

As Goodreads says, this is a post-apocalypse story in which the world abruptly changes when all technology ceases to function. Our primary protagonists are Mike Havel, a former Marine who is flying the Larsson family to their ranch in Montana, and Juniper McKenzie, a Wiccan folk singer who should appropriately be voiced by Heather Alexander. The major criticism of Dies the Fire is that both of these people are incredibly lucky. Rather than panic, they each take steps to improve their situation as well as the situations of those around them, and they do keep meeting exactly the right people at the right time.
What appeals to me about these books is that Stirling’s vision of humanity isn’t bleak. Oh, it’s hard. Millions die in his universe. But the ones that are left find it in themselves to be compassionate. They’re realistic about it, but they try, and to me, reading a book that is ultimately optimistic about human nature is a more rewarding experience than reading one that is terribly bleak.

I do recognize that Dies the Fire has flaws. None of the characters ever transcend their broad outlines. Occasionally, I do have to wonder if people would really behave that way. I find myself amused that in this world, it’s the people who are into renaissance fairs and the Society for Creative Anachronisms who’d survive. It makes logical sense, but still feels like something of a “Take that” against all the people who don’t find those pursuits useful. I don’t know if Stirling quite manages to represent Wiccans the way they might like, although I wasn’t bothered. And this time through, I noticed the window dressing of the harem slave girls in the brief sections from the point of view of the series villain. (I really wanted answers as to how progressive feminist types would have been so easily cowed into that role, but I guess that is what fanfic is for.)

There are a lot more things I think he does get right, though. For one, the cast is diverse. A prominent character survives at least the trilogy being a black man who doesn’t bite it in the end. LGBT people become important characters in later novels. The women are written as competent, and a lot of them get to be bad-ass fighters. The book even passes the Bechtel Test. It is also compulsively readable. Even on this reread, when I meant to savor it slowly, I dove in quickly and didn’t come up for air unless I absolutely had to. I find myself wanting to explore the nooks and crannies of this world. It’s a world that cries out for fanfic, and I wish I could write some of it.

Now I’m on to the second book.

Final Grade: A squeeful A.

Review: Nowhere Ranch by Heidi Cullinan

Published April 21, 2014 by Shannon

Nowhere Ranch

I know. It’s been a couple of weeks since we last explored the controversial topic of Heidi Cullinan, whose books long-time readers will know that I adore beyond all reason. However, I thought it was time I wrote another flailing review.
Nowhere Ranch features things I love: tough but taciturn cowboys, a story of people finding their way toward having a home and acceptance, and a sweet romance. It also features heavily a couple of tropes I wasn’t sure about–a first person narrator and some more kinks I would back away slowly from in the hands of another author. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Here’s the Goodreads synopsis:

Roe Davis is a man who works hard, keeps to himself, and never mixes business with pleasure — until he takes a weekend away from his new job at Nowhere Ranch and runs into the owner at the only gay bar for two hundred miles. Getting involved with the boss is a bad idea, but Travis Loving is hard to say no to, especially when it turns out their kinks line up like a pair of custom-cut rails. As Loving points out, so long as this is sex on the side, no interfering with the job, they could make it work.

The truth is, there’s good reason Roe never settles down and always spends his birthdays and holidays celebrating alone. Shut out in the cold by his family years ago, Roe survived by declaring he didn’t need a home. As his affair with Loving grows into more than just sex, Roe finds out what happens when he stays put a little bit too long: the past always catches up with you. Eventually, even a loner gets lonely, and home will grow up through whatever cracks you leave open for it — even in a place called Nowhere.

Publisher’s Note: This book contains explicit sexual content, graphic language, and situations that some readers may find objectionable: Male/male sexual practices, strong BDSM theme and elements, fetish play.

I shouldn’t have been shocked, but it turns out I loved this book. This is due in no small part to Roe, our erstwhile narrator. He is a perfect combination of tough yet vulnerable. His voice feels authentic, and I heard it as male in my head, which does not always happen when I read first-person male POVs written by women.

The thing that makes this book work for me is that it’s gritty. There is a lot of anger permeating the text, which Sarah F. highlights in this review. In addition, Cullinan doesn’t glamorize the lives of her characters. Ranching is difficult, and Travis Loving is not going to be a millionaire doing this work.

Lastly, there’s Roe. In the beginning, he’s kind of a dick. He keeps at a distance, even from the reader, and there were a few lines–particularly about how he despised women–that made me cringe. They were true to the character, though, and what Cullinan does to make this character into my absolute favorite of the men she’s written about so far is just lovely. I have to admit that the point at which Roe earned his place in my heart was when he used his newfound knowledge of good essay writing techniques to write an essay for Travis about why Travis should fuck him. So adorable, and it made my nerdy heart melt.

Lastly, I should talk about the sex. Again, Cullinan introduces me to kinks I’m not terribly comfortable with. I’m still not sure she managed to make me think they were hot, but I was shocked at how much I was rooting for there to be a certain fisting scene. (And put that on the books as the only time I have ever thought, ‘I hope there is a fisting scene’ in any work of fiction.) By the time we got there, I still felt uncomfortable reading it, but I was pulling for both the characters and I was glad they were enjoying themselves.

As for the romance itself, it was lovely. It starts out fairly understated, with Roe seeing Travis as little more than a convenient sex partner. Gradually, though, his feelings for Travis deepen, and Cullinan does a good job of letting the reader see that Travis has reciprocated those feelings in subtle ways. I also adored that Travis’s last name was Loving. He teaches Roe how to be a more loving person, and he clearly has a lot of love to give. The name was a nice touch. This is another book where the sex scenes felt integral, and even though they didn’t always work for me–because they’re not my kinks–I thought they illustrated the growing tenderness between the two men. And, oh, the ways that Travis is there for Roe make me so melty. There was one particular scene–nearly the black moment–where Roe realizes the depths of his feelings for Travis–that brought tears to my eyes.

There’s other great stuff, too. Again, Cullinan brings in a strong female character to be the foil for Roe. I liked Haley a lot, and loved that she was a positive force in Roe’s life.

I also loved the way Cullinan handled Roe’s family situation. It’s not good, and at the end, while things are better, I never felt like everyone had achieved true acceptance and forgiveness. They were working on it, but ultimately, Roe has to forge his own path, and I appreciated that.

So yes. This was another winner from Ms. Cullinan. I adored it, and think Roe will stick with me for a long while yet.

Final Grade: A.

Recent Reads: Books that Make Me Happy Edition

Published March 23, 2014 by Shannon

Having realized I was super behind on writing reviews, I’ve decided to just do quickie thoughts about a bunch of books and call the slate clean.

  1. The Blue Castle by L M Montgomery:

    Why I Read it: Because the Anne of Green Gables books are absolutely delightful and I wanted to try more Montgomery.

    Synopsis: Valancy, a timid spinster, decides to live life to the fullest after she’s been told she has a year to live, with results beyond her imagining.
    What I Liked: Valancy was a delight. I ended up identifying very strongly with her, and rooting for her success. Montgomery’s wry humor is very much in evidence, and the love interest was swoon worthy.

    What I Didn’t Like: Besides Valancy, most of the characters don’t rise far from stereotypes and general flat characterization. I couldn’t really take any of them seriously.

    Should you Read It: We all know I like sweet and whimsical. That’s what this book has in spades. Some of the themes–about living life to its fullest and taking risks–are universal and still very much applicable. If you’ve not read Montgomery, this would be a good place to figure out if she’s for you. For me, this gets an A.

  2. Ask the Passengers by A S King:

    Why I Read it: It’s the March pick for the Forever Young Adult book club.

    Synopsis: Astrid lives in small-town America and is dealing with questions of her sexuality.

    What I Liked: Astrid’s voice is snarky and self-aware, but not without a little whimsy. I love that one of the things she does is send her love up to passengers in planes as they fly overhead. There’s a great relationship between Astrid and her sister Ellis.

    What didn’t Work for Me: I thought Astrid could have done better than her love interest. I was satisfied with how that arc resolved itself at the end, but I didn’t feel the swoon.

    Should You Read It: If you like smart, self-aware YA that handles complicated topics with a light touch without making them trivial, then yes. I had fun with this one, and am hoping for a good discussion at the book club. For me, this rates a B.

  3. One True Thing by Piper Vaughn and M. J. O’Shea:

    Why I Read it: The previous book in this duology, One Small Thing was the perfect sort of comfort reading M/M that I like, so I was delighted there was a sequel.

    Synopsis: Dusty falls in insta-lust with a cute boy on his first day in California, but it turns out the cute boy has an identical twin brother. Wacky hijinks ensue.

    What I Liked: Despite that flippant summary, there’s a lot of heart in this story. Dusty and Asher spend a lot of time circling around each other, and when they get together, it is sweet, though not always smooth sailing. I also loved the presence of Eric and Rue from the previous book. The authors deal with questions of family in ways that indicate that sometimes family is just complicated. The fact that not everything is fine with everyone in both protagonists’ families was a nice touch of realism.
    What Didn’t Work: I think the pacing could have been a little tighter. The boys circle around each other far too long, considering their instant connection. That instant connection was cheesy, too, and I’m not quite sure what I think of the final resolution of the major conflict.

    Should You Read It: If you like your M/M on the cheesy side, then by all means, pick this one up. It gave me all the feels for the afternoon that I read it, and both authors have substantial backlists, a lot of which are free, so I’m glad I rediscovered them. This one rates an A.

  4. An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler:

    Why I Read It: I think this one got on my TBR pile because of my friend Lauren. (The sci-fi geek Lauren, as opposed to the Lauren who writes long, involved fanfic about shows I don’t watch and who reads similar YA to me).) Sometimes I like reading food writing because it allows me to dream that one day I will finally be like, “Yes! Cooking is magical!” and then I’ll want to do it more.

    Synopsis: The author asserts that even you can learn to cook well.
    What I Liked: The author’s voice seems gentle and reassuring. She did make everything sound easy.

    What Didn’t Work for Me: The likelihood that I will try anything from this cookbook is infinitesimal. But that’s on me, not the book.

    Should you Read It: If you like cookbooks, you might enjoy this one. It never made me terribly excited about cooking, so it gets a C.

  5. Riding the Bus with My Sister by Rachel Simon:

    Why I Read It: Rachel Simon has been on my radar for a while, but I think it was one of my fellow Shannons who recommended this one.

    Synopsis: Workaholic Rachel takes a year to ride the city buses with her mentally disabled sister, Beth, and learns life lessons.

    What I Liked: This was a feel-good read with some elements of realism. Rachel’s relationship with Beth isn’t always easy, and I appreciated her honesty about that. Also, I’m glad she learned about self-determination and discussed its importance even while she acknowledges its pitfalls.
    What Didn’t Work for Me: I mean, it’s still a narrative about what the disabled can teach normal people. There’s no way that can be made not problematic for a disabled reader. That said, I never felt like Rachel was condescending about her sister.

    Should You Read It: It was engrossing for me, and I like “Person stops to do unusual stuff” memoirs. I pretty much devoured it in a single sitting, and I suspect that my non-disabled readers can probably get past the niggling, “Oh, man, another disabled person being inspiring” reaction. For me this rates a B.

  6. His Kind of Woman by Nona Raines:
    Why I Read It: It was a nominee in this year’s Dabwaha tournament. Seeing that it had a trans* character as one of the leads made it a guaranteed sale.

    Synopsis: Roy wants to make amends to one of the people his brother Travis bullied in high school, but it turns out that Victor is now Venetia.

    What I Liked: This was another sweet novella. Both Roy and Venetia were likable characters, and they had to do a lot of talking before they could reach a satisfactory ending. I also liked that the ending didn’t wrap everything up in a neat and tidy bow of forgiveness, and that the author dealt with bullying in a sensitive and thoughtful manner.

    What Didn’t Work for Me: It was a little didactic in places. I guess that’s to be expected, but the preachiness was there. Also, of course Venetia had all her surgeries. It must be nice to be able to pay for such expensive procedures.I know that’s kind of a silly complaint because fictional characters being privileged is kind of par for the course, but I found myself wondering if this was a way to have a trans character without squicking people out about the thought of reading about a woman with a penis.

    Should You Read It: It’ll take an hour of your life. It’s a sweet story, and I’m glad to see something a little different. Also yay trans characters. For me, this rates a B.

  7. Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson:

    Why I Read It: This book got a lot of buzz when it first came out, and has been languishing in obscurity in my TBR for years.

    Synopsis: Scarlett Martin lives with her family in a historic hotel in New York City. When Mrs. Amberson, a former starlet, moves into the hotel, Scarlett is tasked with being her assistant. Mrs. Amberson becomes the manic pixie dream girl that causes wacky hijinks in the lives of all the Martins.

    What I Liked: Johnson is doubtless funny, and the third-person narration was witty and smart, and the screwball comedy aspects of the book were a pleasure. I loved the relationships between Scarlett and her family, particularly between Scarlett and her older brother Spencer.

    What I Didn’t Like: Another YA where the romantic interest didn’t bring the swoon. In the end, that conflict just petered out. Also, the Martin parents were too of the most useless adults I’ve encountered in YA in quite a while.

    Should You Read It: If you like screwball comedies, and interesting settings, this won’t take you long. It’s funny, and the bits with Scarlett’s family have a lot of heart. Just don’t read for the romance. For me, this rates a B.

  8. Geek with the Cat Tattoo by Teresa Weir:

    Why I Read It: Another Dabwaha nominee. Also, it featured a beta guy, and that is my crack.

    Synopsis: Shy Emerson works at a music repair shop and is totally hot for Lola. He only gets up the courage to make a move on her after he rescues a stray cat named Sam.

    What I Liked: Shy hero. Heroine who’d been burned by love. These two were adorable. I read the novella with a smile on my face the entire time.

    What didn’t Work: The cat veered into cutesy way too often. I wanted Lola to realize Emerson didn’t, like, randomly turn into an asshole, but, “Oh, he’s really socially awkward” never really seems to cross her mind.

    Should You Read It: Again, it’ll take an hour or so. The romance is sweet, and you’ll enjoy it if you’re a cat person. For me, it’s another B.

Review: Dirty Laundry by Heidi Cullinan

Published February 20, 2014 by Shannon

Dirty Laundry (Tucker Springs, #3)
I love Heidi Cullinan. If you search through back posts, you will find that the ones concerning her are all me flailing about how awesome she is. It occurs to me, though, that some people might not think this is an adequate reason you should read her books.

Here, then, is a review of Dirty Laundry, which was the most recent Cullinan book I’ve finished.

Goodreads says:

Entomology grad student Adam Ellery meets Denver Rogers, a muscle-bound hunk of sexy, when Denver effortlessly dispatches the drunken frat boys harassing Adam at the Tucker Springs laundromat. Thanking him turns into flirting, and then, much to Adam’s delight, hot sex over the laundry table.

Though Denver’s job as a bouncer at a gay bar means he gets his pick of geek-sexy college twinks, he can’t get Adam out of his head. Adam seems to need the same rough play Denver does, and it’s damn hard to say no to such a perfect fit.

Trouble is, Adam isn’t just shy: he has obsessive compulsive disorder and clinical anxiety, conditions which have ruined past relationships. And while Denver might be able to bench-press a pile of grad students, he comes from a history of abuse and is terrified of getting his GED. Neither Denver nor Adam want to face their dirty laundry, but to stay together, they’re going to have to come clean.

As I mentioned before, I loved this book. There are three reasons for this. They are:

    Cullinan deals frankly with the issue of disability.

  1. The BDSM scenes were written in a way that I understood what the characters got out of the play, and I never had any doubt about anyone’s consent.
  2. Louisa. That is all.

Let’s start with the disability aspect. Adam is, as the blurb informs us, obsessive-compulsive, and he has an anxiety disorder. When he meets Denver, even after the smoking hot sex, Adam still has OCD and anxiety issues. Denver doesn’t fix him with the power of his Mighty Wang. (BTW, one of the reasons I’m glad I can’t see is that I can’t even imagine the pictures that come up when you google ‘mighty wang’.) Adam also doesn’t need for Denver to fix him. He likes who he is when Denver’s around, but he acknowledges that he’s got to keep going to therapy and keep finding ways to cope with his mental illnesses. At no point does he think to himself, ‘My mother has cancer, and I am having lots of good sex, so I’ll just stop taking my medication.’ Nor did he help to inspire some sad sack of a non-disabled person with his super special bravery.

The BDSM angle was a pleasant surprise. BDSM is a sub genre that I understand intellectually, but it doesn’t really do it for me as written in about 85 percent of the BDSM-themed romances I’ve read. This is because in the books I’ve read, the mind-reading dom knows exactly what the sub wants, and gives it to her. He just knows that nipple clamps and elaborate Japanese rope tricks and figging (!!!) are exactly what the heroine wants. (That last link is maybe not something you want to click on if you don’t care to learn about certain kinky practices. Also that actually came up in a book I read once, and threw me out of the story really hard.)And of course the sub wants all of it and it’s hot but I’m left wondering, “Wait, why would anyone voluntarily submit to that?” I don’t mean to judge any real live kinky people that read my blog. Go on with your bad selves. Characters in books, though, are another thing entirely.

I never felt that way with the scenes in Dirty Laundry. Cullinan explains exactly what it is the characters are getting out of the scenes, and once she does, and makes it clear that everyone is consenting enthusiastically, the resultant sexytimes were extremely hot, even if they didn’t turn my particular crank. She also does this without pausing the action for needless info-dumping.

Lastly, I want to mention Louisa. I have expressed my frustrations about finding a lack of positive portrayal of trans folks in my reading. Louisa, a fellow grad student who befriends Adam, is just such a character. She’s kind, she’s sensitive, and she’s not without problems or issues of her own. She also reminded me of my own dear friend who is trans, because I could see her filling a similar role for someone in her own life. She hit me on a very personal level, and I adored her. I want her to have her own story, to find someone as awesome to share her life with. I really hope this can somehow happen.

As for the Adam/Denver romance, it was lovely. There was a bit of instalust on Adam’s part, but I loved how after their initial encounter, it’s Denver who pursues Adam, mostly because no one has ever taken his number and then not followed up. He was endearingly awkward about it, and I love endearingly awkward. I also loved that Denver took Adam as he was, without needing to change or analyze him. He gave him the space and safety to work through his stuff. And I loved that Adam provided Denver with emotional support as well. I never got the sense that one or both of them were going to regret their life choices after the HEA.

In sum, I loved this book. Small-town contemporaries are rarely my favorite things, but this was sweet and charming, as well as being one of the best depictions of a good, balanced BDSM relationship I’ve read lately.

Grade: A

Review: Marked by Kit Rocha, Vivian Arend, and Lauren Dane

Published February 10, 2014 by Shannon

Marked (Beyond, #3.5; Thompson & Sons, #1)

Disclaimer: I received an ARC of Marked from Bree, half of the writing team that is Kit Rocha because we are friends. Being smart humans, regular readers might notice that this makes me a touch biased.

This is an anthology of romance novellas from three of the best writers in the genre who are not Heidi Cullinan. I imagine it’s going to get hyped all over the place, but I promise, the hype is worth it. I want to point to this anthology every time someone stridently proclaims that romances can’t be feminist, because all of these stories are, to one degree or other.

The anthology opens with Kit Rocha’s “Beyond Temptation”, which is book 3.5 in their Beyond series. From their website:

Kit Rocha returns to Sector Four in BEYOND TEMPTATION. A promise to a dying friend backfires when Noah Lennox finds that the girl he was supposed to rescue is all grown up–and wearing O’Kane ink. He wants to protect her from the secrets of their past, but she wants him. And an O’Kane woman always gets what she wants.

We all know that I am Not generally a fan of the trend toward motorcycle club romances. That isn’t exactly what the Beyond series is, but people do tend to recommend them to readers who like that sort of story. Hell, I know I would myself, if our library were ever to carry any of Kit’s books.

There are two things that set the O’Kanes apart from other motorcycle club stories: the heroines are even matches for the heroes, and the setting is dystopian. The first shouldn’t need to be explained, except to elaborate that I buy Rocha’s romances so much more because the power is evenly distributed between the couple and I never feel like anyone is getting into something they didn’t consent to. As to the second, Dallas O’Kane is practically a purring kitten compared to the other criminals in the Sectors, and they, in turn, at least have a sense of freedom which the more “law-abiding” members of society, who live in the walled city of Eden, which the sectors border, entirely lack. Reading Rocha’s books, I’m convinced that, no, I wouldn’t want to live in Eden, so, yes, life in the Sectors with the criminal element is, in fact, preferable. Neither Wylde nor Ashley ever got me around to that position, and if an author can’t convince me their criminal gangs are the best choice of people to hang out with, I can’t buy it for their heroines.

Beyond Temptation” is excellent, and it stands alone. (I’ve read the first Beyond book, and have the second and third on the TBR pile. I was able to keep up with no confusion, and I enjoyed meeting both our hero and heroine.

Emma has been with the O’Kanes for several years, where she’s carved out a place for herself as the apprentice to Ace, the main tattoo artist in the Sector. She still misses Noah, the best friend of her older brother, for whom she’s always had feelings. When he turns up in Sector Four, in order to do a favor for Dallas O’Kane, the leader of the gang, Emma wants nothing more than for Noah to stay so they can explore the attraction they’ve both felt for a long time.

For Noah’s part, he wants too things: to protect Emma and to bring down Mac Fleming, the leader of Sector Five. For damn sure he doesn’t want to be distracted by Emma, who is not the innocent, naive young girl he left behind. She’s strong, capable and competent, and he finds that alluring and sexy.

Both of these characters were well-drawn. I particularly loved that Noah got to be a bad-ass alpha man while also being a top-notch hacker. It’s like people are complicated or something, and like they don’t always adhere to obnoxious stereotypes! Emma is also great. She’s tough as nails, and she’s been through a lot. She stands up for what she wants, and gives as good as she gets. Also, she juggles knives, which I love. Naturally, the two of them have smoking chemistry, which is all entirely consensual.

A lot happens in this story. Rocha drops the reader in and expects her to keep up. I appreciate my intelligence being respected. I don’t need you to explain your world to me if you’ve done a sufficiently good job telling a story in that world. This is also clearly a slice of a larger story. It stands perfectly well on its own, but fits neatly into the rest of the series. The reader is given tantalizing glimpses of other characters, but never in a way that feels like sequel baiting. I particularly loved the introduction of Trix, a fellow refugee from Sector Five, a recovering addict who gives Noah some straight talk he desperately needs. She’s a complex character, and I want her story.

TLDR: A great start to the anthology, a fast-paced tour de force of a story. I really need to catch up on this series. A.

Vivian Arend’s “Rocky Ride” is the second story in the anthology. I’ve read Wolf Signs, one of her paranormal novellas, which was cute and sweet, and which I should remember about more often because it had a deaf heroine who was competent and kicked ass all over the place and wasn’t an inspirational story for the hero, but I haven’t read anything else she’s written, a fact that I intend to remedy soonest. “Rocky Ride”, is the start of her new Thompson and Sons series, which in itself is a spin-off to her Six Pack Ranch books. It stands alone, and was a complete delight. Here’s the blurb from Vivian’s website:

He’s got a touch that’s hotter than hot

It took a hell of a lot of fast-talking and more than a few speeding tickets before Mitch Thompson convinced Constable Anna Coleman to take him for a ride. Only now that she’s loosened off her stiff RCMP uniform, it’s not nearly enough. Their secret sexual escapades are mind-blowing, but Mitch wants more than her body—he wants her heart.

Her world could go up in flames

It’s a dangerous road to walk, and Anna doesn’t know how far she can safely tread. Bad boy Mitch may have lured her wild side out to play, but giving in to their increasingly passionate desires could endanger her very civilized career. Somewhere between yearning and obsession there has to be a balance point.

Or they’re both going to get burned.

I loved a lot of things about this novella. I loved that it was set in Canada. It’s weird how few genre novels I can think of that aren’t either US or UK-centric. Granted, Canada is not a truly exotic locale, but it was nice to see mounties in some other context than “Due South,” you know?

Anna, our erstwhile heroine, is an RCMP officer. I thought she was great. She’s allowed to be competent. Not once does someone need to rescue her from herself. In fact, though she doesn’t go off on an anti-sexism rant, she clearly labors under conditions that do not afflict her male coworkers in the same way. Yet, she still triumphs. She insists on equal partnership with Mitch, our hero, and by God, she gets it. I suspect some romance readers will find her strident and pushy and aggressive, but she’s a cop. Meek is kind of not in the job description. At least it isn’t for the kind of cops I want going after bad guys.

Mitch is awesome, too. He’s cultivated a bad-boy image, but at heart he’s a good man. I loved what a caring partner he was for Anna, and I loved the interactions he had with his family. (In fact, Arend writes family dynamics that feel very familiar to me, with people sniping at each other a lot, but where the love is obvious.) Mitch is no pushover, either, and in the end, I thought he and Anna made a great couple. Plus, he’s a working class man who is not, in fact, part of the criminal element. That’s also rare, in my experience.

The sex is hot, too. There’s a lot of it, but Arend integrates it well into the relationship and highlighting how the dynamics change as Mitch and Anna go from fuck buddies to people with a real relationship.

As with the Rocha story, I got the sense that Mitch and Anna had full and complete lives before the story began and would have full and complete lives after it was over. I’m now eager to read her SixPack Ranch books, which, from the blurbs, look like they’re similar to books I’ve read and loved by Lorelei James. If they’re all this fantastically feminist, I am so on bored for more! A.

Rounding out the anthology is “All That Remains” by Lauren Dane. I didn’t love this story as much as I did the other two. That being said, I enjoyed it, so we’re talking B+ love rather than A love, which is still not too shabby. The blurb goes like this:

New York Times and USA Today Bestselling author Lauren Dane takes you into a brand new world in ALL THAT REMAINS. Summer Killian falls fast and hard when Charlie arrives in Paradise Village. But the heat turns all the way up when she learns Charlie is also with Hatch – the man she loved four years before. While she’s not sure she’s cut out for a triad, neither man is going to give her up.

M/M/F is a setup that turns my particular erotic romance crank. I love the idea of two men who are hot for each other being hot for a woman. With a setup like that, you don’t run into the question of, “Oh, my. What if their penises accidentally touch one fine day while they’re boinking the heroine?” Plus, it seems to me that a relationship like that is less likely to leave someone out in the cold. It’s also been my experience that M/M/F stories tend to develop their heroes better and give them individual personalities, whereas M/F/M stories (that’s the one where there is no penis touching, no sir!) often trade character development for sexytimes. Your mileage may vary, of course.
What I loved about “All That Remains” is that Dane makes the relationship between these three characters plausible. It’s also commonplace and unremarkable. There’s some fiddly bits of SF to explain why this is which really worked for me, and I appreciated an explanation beyond, “Oh, well, you know, it’s what they do.” By making the M/M/F triad a thing that is unremarkable, Dane is free to highlight the way that the three characters negotiate that relationship. Summer is drawn to Charlie, but can’t forget Hatch, who left her once before. Hatch is blunt and strong-willed, and he and Summer butt heads, so Charlie has to negotiate being a mediator for both of them. All of these characters had distinct personalities, and I really liked that I couldn’t just say, “Oh, yeah. He’s always and forever the alpha. That guy’s the beta.” It didn’t work like that.

I also appreciated the fact that Summer had female friends. We didn’t get much page time with them, but I loved that Dane acknowledged how important Summer found her relationships with her sister and her female boss, especially in a world where, because of post-apocalypse reasons, women outnumber men. Other authors would have insisted that was cause for women to be catty backstabbing bitches, but Dane avoids that route.

The other thing I loved was that Summer, despite being with two men, never lost her agency. She actually calls Hatch and Charlie out for trying to police her emotions. It seems so rare that I read a woman in a romance utter the words, “Hey, dude, that is not cool what you just did/said/had done to me.” without treading into silly, feisty territory.

I do think there wasn’t quite enough of a story in this novella. There was an awful lot of sex, and while it was generally well-written, I found myself zoning out after a while.

My real problem with “All That Remains”, really, is that it isn’t Captivated, which was one of my favorite reads of 2012. I loved that book so much, and “All That Remains” didn’t quite capture the magic for me. I do look forward to Summer’s sister Dulce’s book, despite the fact that I am going to stubbornly wait until it’s all available to read because, ugh, not a fan of serials. She’s got quite a helping of backstory angst, and I’m sure I’ll be delighted to see more of Summer and her men in Dulce’s book.

In summary, I loved this anthology. All of the stories were excellent, and I have lots of new books to look forward to reading and catching up on.

Best books of 2013

Published January 2, 2014 by Shannon

I meant to post this weeks ago, but holidays and travel happened, and ultimately I got distracted, but here we are now. Enjoy!

All told I read a respectable 136 books. I didn’t keep track of how the ratings broke down, but I found plenty I loved. Going through the best books I read in 2013 is an exercise in trying to map out my personal taste. A lot of the books I gave 5 stars to aren’t the books I’d recommend to the world, but they hit me just right at one particular moment in my life, and since every blogger has put together best of 2013 lists, here is mine. Maybe you’ll find something here. Maybe you’ll just figure out we’re not book twins after all. Also I did not limit myself to books published in 2013, because as we all know, I am not on the cutting edge of bookish circles and that’s OK.

My top pick for the year is Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. It’s a beautiful story about how well-meaning people can do things that lead to dire consequences. There’s lots of talk of faith and what that means. It broke me, and after I finished reading, I couldn’t read anything else for days. I have the sequel on the TBR, but I’m afraid to read it because I don’t trust the magic to still be there. Eventually, I will get over this.

I met a couple of fascinating detectives in a bid to become a mystery reader. My favorite of these was Inspector Armand Gamache, introduced in Still Life by Louise Penny. I’ve since gone on to read A Fatal Grace, the sequel. Three Pines, the picturesque Canadian village where the series takes place, is populated with lovely, endearing characters who are all too human in their flaws. Penny is an author whose books I want to parce out for when I know I want something good to read. I also love that her mysteries all have consequences. No one is strangely oblivious to the fact that hey, there was a murder in Three Pines last year, too, and those earlier books still effect the characters.

I’d been meaning to read Carol Berg for a while, and was intrigued by the premise of Transformation, the first in her Rae Kirrah trilogy. Reviews promised me an excellent fantasy story with slashy overtones. That’s what I got. Aleksander and Seyon were fascinating, and while the first book stood alone quite well, there appears to be plenty of fresh torment for the characters in the future. The one thing that has kept me from pursuing the second book is the promise of the romantic story arc, though. Ugh, stupid female characters who exist only to be loyal to the male protagonists. But Berg gave me all the feels, so hopefully she won’t take the conventional path.

Speaking of torment, it’s hard to top what the protagonist of Erin Lange’s young adult novel Butter goes through. The book is morbidly fascinating as an obese boy decides to eat himself to death via webcam. I found Butter uncomfortably relatable, and the ending was perfect. It’s not a book I’m likely to reread, but it’s stuck in my head months later, despite also having a love interest with no discernible personality other than unattainable girl for the hereto lust after.

Margo Lanagan is not capable of writing bad books. The Brides of Rollrock Island continued the tradition of Tender Morsels, depicting a rich world of fantasy and magic. In this one, she plays with the selkie myth to poignant effect. Miskaela is another character I won’t soon forget, and I wish Lanatgan haed more novels, though I am working my way through her short story collections. The Brides of Rollrock Island is pretty much what I’d hoped Gregory Maguire’s Wicked would have been, but wasn’t. It’s a confusing book that asks you to keep up, but if you can, the reward is well worth it, and, oh, that ending!

My favorite nonfiction of the year was Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of advice columns she wrote as “Dear Sugar.” She relates to her correspondents with warmth and compassion, and the writing was lyrical and lovely. It’s far from the treacle of your average Chicken Soup for the Soul, and far more real as a result. I found that several of Sugar’sresponses elicited tears, and even though I meant to dole this collection out over several days, I ended up reading it straight through and feeling uplifted as a result.

My favorite romance of the year was Anne Tenino’s Sweet Young Thang, which featured two of the most endearing leads I’d read about in a long time. It’s another book that, once I finished, I couldn’t let go of, and I think I’ve read it two or three times now. Whatever that magical book chemistry between author and reader was, I had it with Sweet Young Thang. Honorable mention goes to Heidi Cullinan’s Love Lessons, which made me cry. In public. I’m starting to think Ms. Cullinan can’t write a bad book, either, because Let It Snow was also beautiful and warm and while not laugh out loud funny, still made me smile. All of these are M/M books, but that’s where my romance loving heart seems to be taking me these days when I want a romance that will work for me. I’m not sure why that should be, but I think it’s been true for a while.

That said, Eleanor & Park was a lovely young adult romance set in the 1980’s that was M/F and just about perfect. Both the characters were relatable, with problems that weren’t easily solved. The author is one to watch, and I have both her other novels from Audible against the day when I need for my heart to be broken a little and then mended again.

Lastly, I have to mention Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys. Part dark fantasy, part coming of age novel, and part story of friendship, this book has some of the best writing I’ve read, and a plot that didn’t go in the direction I expected. I adored it, and thought the sequel, The Dream Thieves, was also excellent.

I’m excited to see what 2014 brings to my reading. What have you all read? I’d love to read your thoughts in comments.

Some thoughts on The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater

Published December 20, 2013 by Shannon

Note: This is a fairly spoiler-free review, but it’s not entirely devoid of spoilers, because there’s one bit of characterization I wanted to talk about that isn’t revealed until the second book. You’ve been warned.

When I was in high school, back in the late 90’s, I fell in with a group of boys who changed my life for the better in ways I was completely oblivious to at the time. They were all friends of the boy I spent all of those years obsessed with in the way of teenaged first love. I don’t remember that we used the word ‘geek’ to describe what we were, but that was us. We played role playing games, we read and wrote science fiction and fantasy stories, we discussed philosophy, we spent hours endlessly dissecting and solving the world’s problems. Because of those boys, I began exploring Paganism, though that was something of a fraught process, since I didn’t have many resources and only the expertise of people my own age who, all of us being teenagers, thought they were wise beyond their years. Needless to say, this was not an optimal learning environment.

We all moved on in due course. That boy and I drifted apart. I still have those memories, though, which is why I’m drawn to young adult fiction. I want to remember those intense feelings, the way that life seemed like an exciting adventure and I was confident and less afraid because I had my people with me. Sometimes it doesn’t quite work; I have no desire to read about snooty girls and their relationships with their frenemies, because even if I believed that was as common an occurrence as books would have you think, the worldviewthat encourages that sort of thinking is way too grim for me.

Paranormal YA rarely works for me, either. I couldn’t enjoy the fantasy of Bella finding her Edward because that particular sparkly vampire was creepy as hell and downright abusive. Plus it bothered me that Bella had no friends outside of him. But that’s another post.

Initially, I dismissed Maggie Stiefvater as yet another YA author cashing in on the paranormal romance YA craze. Sure, her books garnered rave reviews, but all of them seemed to promise all the things I hated: overwrought conflict, stupid love triangles, and bland heroines. I probably would have continued dismissing what turned out to be a huge treat if it hadn’t been for this review of The Raven Boys. Renay doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would go in for excessive schmoop and silly love triangle nonsense. Her review was so passionate and articulate that I knew I had to meet these characters for myself.

Blue has always known her future. If she kisses her true love, he will die. Ergo, the sensible thing to do is not to get involved with anyone, little say the Raven Boys, the sons of the wealthy and elite who attend Aglionby Academy, a prestigious private school in Blue’s hometown of Henrietta, Virginia. So far that’s going well for her, until she accompanies her aunt, who is psychic like the rest of Blue’s family, to perform a ritual on St. Mark’s Eve. Blue’s not psychic herself, but she can amplify a psychic’s abilities. As Blue’s aunt catalogues the spirits of the dead passing during their vigil, Blue hears a voice, and learns a name. The voice belongs to a boy called Gansey, who is one of those aforementioned Aglionby boys. Blue’s aunt informs her that the only way she’d have heard that voice is if she killed him.

A few days later, Gansey shows up at Blue’s home hoping for a psychic reading. It turns out he is obsessed with finding the remains of a Welsh king who is believed to be buried somewhere near Henrietta. He’s brought his friends, scholarship student Adam, brittle Ronan, and taciturn Noah, and Blue soon finds that her life is inextricably tied to the raven boys, all of whom have secrets.

I knew I was going to love The Raven Boys right away. I was introduced to a whole plethora of characters, and Stiefvater expected me to keep up with them. I got the sense that Blue, Gansey and the rest had had full and complete lives before I showed up to read their book, and would go on having their own lives long after I turned the last pages. I loved that Blue’s family was eccentric, but not altogether useless. I felt I’d stepped into an early Charles de Lintnovel, where the magic was slightly sinister but hidden just beneath the surface.

I also got that sense of nostalgia I love when reading a good YA. Granted, none of the boys I remember from my own high school days were rich, and none of us had to deal with all the stuff that gets thrown at the Aglionby boys, but the chemistry between all of them felt authentic and genuine. It was also fantastic to read about a girl’s relationship with boys that was mostly platonic. (Oh, there is a love triangle here, but it’s not framed as why-can’t-she-just-make-up-her-mind? It’s a complicating factor, and I don’t know how it will be resolved, but there are other, more interesting things going on than the romance.)

The Raven Boys starts off relatively slowly, introducing all the characters and letting the reader get to know them. The writing is lovely, and Stiefvater avoids the trap of becoming too much of an info- dump. I had become attached to Blue and her boys, so when one of the first major plot twists happened,about two thirds through the book,causing the plot to shift abruptly into high gear, I was on the edge of my seat. As with most opening volumes of series, the book ends with a lot more questions than answers. It’s not a true cliffhanger, or at least it didn’t feel like a “Gotcha. You need the next book right now!” sort of ending. Nonetheless, I had gotten so wrapped up in the lives of Blue, Gansey, Adam, Ronan and Noah that I didn’t want to let them go, so of course, I bought the next book. The Dream Thieves picks up a few weeks after The Raven Boys ends, and the readers left to keep up with the plot on her own. This time, the story centers around Ronan, who was my least favorite of the boys. He’s the bad boy, the one who has scars that are close to the surface. I normally don’t enjoy those types of heroes, either in adult romance or in YA, because the expectation usually is that once you introduce a bad boy, there’s got to be a love interest who comes along to tame and reform him. In this way, Stiefvater subverts those tropes because that doesn’t actually happen, and it’s a credit to her writing that I fell hard for Ronan despite him embodying a character type I typically hate.

Ronan has the ability to manifest things from his dreams into the waking world. Needless to say, there are people who find that ability useful, people whose intentions are not honorable.

This second volume of the Raven Cycle is much darker than its predecessor. All of the characters have to make difficult choices. All of them have to face the darkest parts of themselves. Yet again, the end brings closure of a sort, but there are still puzzles to be solved. (What is the Grey Man’s role in the larger story? Where did all the people who disappear go?) I’m disappointed that I have to wait a whole other year to find out.

The romance is still an important subplot, but it’s not the important subplot. I love that Stiefvater isn’t teasing us with different possibilities for shipping–the pairing is fairly obvious and seems inevitable–but it’s all dark. After all, how are Blue and Gansey going to have any kind of relationship if when she kisses him, he’ll die?

And can I just say… Gansey is quite swoon worthy. Angie makes a great case in her review for the awesome brokenness that is Adam, but Gansey had my heart from the first. He’s a geek, he’s fascinated with the occult, he has a lot of love, and he tries so hard to fix people, which is convincingly presented in the text as a significant character flaw.
Speaking of romance (and here’s where I get a little spoilery, so look away now and come back in a paragraph) I thought Ronan being gay was handled well. It’s not overt, but the signs are all there. It’s not a very important element to the overall plot, but it explains a lot. I want Ronan to meet a nice boy who is going to return his feelings without necessarily needing to fix him and polish his rough edges. Or I want a polyamorous relationship between all of the characters. Sadly,the latter is probably not in the offing.

I listened to both of these books on audio. The first was through the NationalLibrary Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped audiobook program. The narrator they picked was a cheerful, pleasant-voiced woman of the sort who is often asked to narrate YA books. I expected a similar experience when I got to The Dream Thieves, and was surprised when I bought the commercial version and ran across Will Patton. He has a raspy, three-packs-a-day voice, and did an excellent job bringing the darker aspects of the story to the fore. I’m not sure I’d have come to like Ronan quite so much if it wasn’t for the way Patton read him. But they were totally different reading experiences and I enjoyed them both in different ways.

There’s so much more I want to say about this series. I still find myself thinking about it weeks later–and it’s taken a long time to finish this review. Ultimately, though, the only thing I have to say is that if you like well-constructed, character-driven fantasy and YA, you should read it immediately.

Final Grade for both: An A for The Raven Boys and a B+ for The Dream Thieves.

Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Published August 10, 2012 by Shannon

Gone Girl

Title: Gone Girl
Author: Gillian Flynn
Genre: thriller
Read on: July 24, 2012
Source: ebook

Synopsis from goodreads:

Marriage can be a real killer.    One of the most critically acclaimed suspense writers of our time, New York Times bestseller Gillian Flynn takes that statement to its darkest place in this unputdownable masterpiece about a marriage gone terribly, terribly wrong. The Chicago Tribune proclaimed that her work “draws you in and keeps you reading with the force of a pure but nasty addiction.” Gone Girl’s toxic mix of sharp-edged wit and deliciously chilling prose creates a nerve-fraying thriller that confounds you at every turn.    On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s clever and beautiful wife disappears from their rented McMansion on the Mississippi River. Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but passages from Amy’s diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media—as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents—the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter—but is he really a killer?    As the cops close in, every couple in town is soon wondering how well they know the one that they love. With his twin sister, Margo, at his side, Nick stands by his innocence. Trouble is, if Nick didn’t do it, where is that beautiful wife? And what was in that silvery gift box hidden in the back of her bedroom closet?   With her razor-sharp writing and trademark psychological insight, Gillian Flynn delivers a fast-paced, devilishly dark, and ingeniously plotted thriller that confirms her status as one of the hottest writers around.

I’ve been struggling for a couple of weeks to figure out what to say about this book. After all “OMG I loved it go read it now now now!” does not make a compelling book review, even though it’s pretty much the most coherent set of thoughts I’ve formulated so far.

Books with unreliable narrators don’t always work for me. It’s not that I’m not smart enough to understand what’s going on, or to work things out for myself, but I usually tend to find that style to be a bit of a turnoff. I guess I’m just a fan of conventional storytelling, and it also doesn’t help that the books I can think of that used this device were ones I hated. LOLITA anyone? GONE GIRL was different, though. I can’t say that I liked either Nick or Amy, who alternate in narrating the story, but I understood them, or at least I thought I did. Nick and Amy, it turns out, are liars. Self-serving, glorious liars. They lie in different ways, but they still do it. One of the delights of this book is seeing how deftly Ms. Flynn plays with your assumptions as a reader, and she played me quite skillfully as I tried to figure out the truth from the fiction in the separate narratives. Even now, I don’t think I’ve entirely succeeded, and I want to read this book again, to see if I can pick up any other nuances I missed the second time around.

I can’t talk about the plot without spoiling it, but I will say that it’s been one of the few books in recent memory where I’ve had to stop reading to marvel at a plot twist I didn’t see coming. I got on twitter, in fact, so I could flail about it. But it was such a perfect thing to happen, and when the first plot twist came and I realized how cleverly I’d been manipulated I was in love.

The characters, as I said, are hard to like. But they are easy to understand. I sympathized with both of their struggles, even as they both made me angry with attitudes and opinions I found distasteful. Of course, they also both did and said things that I agreed with and admired, too, which makes my thoughts about them rather complex and difficult to sort out. It also helps that Ms. Flynn is a brilliant writer. She’s full of sharp insight into modern life, and her thoughts on crimes and crime fiction were fascinating. I love when a book treads into meta territory, and this one did so quite well.

In the end, I can’t say I liked what happened in GONE GIRL. However, it is the ending that the characters deserved. To say more would spoil it.

I recommend this book highly. Go forth and read it, then come talk to me about it. There’s so much fodder for interesting discussion that I don’t feel I even began to touch on in this review.

Grade: A

Up next: I take on a classic of the various genres I read, and survive, mostly unscathed.

Review twofer: Bear Necessities and Cynful by Dana Marie Bell

Published August 6, 2012 by Shannon

Another review twofer. It’s another post where I wax fangirlish about a new to me author. Good times, yes?

Bear Necessities (Halle Shifters, #1)

Title: Bear Necessities
Author: Dana Marie Bell
Genre: paranormal romance
Series: Halle Shifters 1
Read on July 13, 2012
Source: Kindle

Synopsis:

To hold onto his love, he must release his beast. Halle Shifters, Book 1 Once a Bear sets his mind on a mission, it’s best to stay out of his way. Alexander “Bunny” Bunsun is that Bear. Something’s not right with his cousin Chloe, and he’s come to Halle, PA, to sort it out, turn his Harley around and head home to Oregon. Until an enticing scent lures him into the local tattoo shop. There she is. An inked, Southern-drawled she-Wolf with lime-green hair. His perfect mate. Tabitha Garwood’s rotten day just got worse. Her Outcast status makes her a target for harassment with alarming regularity. And now, in the middle of a root touch-up, looking like a half-melted Skittle, she’s met her destined mate. The only upside? She finally has a protector in the form of a huge, tattooed, shaved-head Bear who vibrates with carefully restrained power. When Chloe is left for dead and Tabby is threatened, only Alex can keep his growing family safe. Giving Tabby the loving home she needs, though, could come at a price-Alex must give up the control he’s worked a lifetime to attain. Which means someone could die at the hands-and claws-of his beast. Warning: This novel contains explicit sex, graphic language, a hunky Bear named Bunny and . . . Yes. I said a Bear named Bunny. I don’t know about you but I’m not brave enough to make fun of it.

Dana Marie Bell has written a series that ticks off all of my buttons for things that make me happy in paranormal romances. We’ve got bear shape shifters, which there should be more of, we’ve got humor, we’ve got an active community of secondary characters, and we have female friendships and strong family connections.

Alexander “Bunny” Bunsun has come to town to figure out what’s up with his cousin Chloe, who doesn’t seem quite herself lately. He doesn’t expect anything to happen, but then he happens to meet Tabby at the local tattoo shop. Tabby’s an outcast werewolf, banished from her pack due to trumped-up charges made by the Pack’s alpha. She’s been harassed by the local wolves, but she doesn’t think there’s much she can do. She just wants to live her life and hope they leave her alone. Then she meets Bunny, and the two realize they’re fated mates.

It’s telling that, even though I normally hate fated mates stories, Dana Marie Bell is the exception that proves the rule. I didn’t find the trope annoying at all, as I usually do. The romance here isn’t very conflict-heavy. Both of these characters, being shifters, are good with the whole mate thing. They jump into bed quickly, and their love is never in doubt.

Normally, this could make for some boring reading, but I didn’t find it to be so. I liked both Tabby and Bunny on their own, and the sex scenes were hot. I also loved all the secondary characters, and was especially pleased that Tabby had Cyn and Glory, clearly the heroines of the next two books, as her friends. There need to be more female friendships in romance, says I. At one point, Bunny’s family shows up, and I loved that they squabbled while still being close, and were generally overwhelming to Tabby, but in a good way.

I enjoyed the suspense subplot. The villains were fairly predictable, but the heroes got to kick plenty of ass.

This book isn’t going to win any prizes for fine works of literature, but it is great fun, with a hero who was all macho and protective while still being a sweetheart and a heroine who had angst but wasn’t a martyr. I hope there are many more stories where this comes from.

Grade: B+

Cynful (Halle Shifters, #2)

Title: Cynful
Author: Dana Marie Bell
Genre: Paranormal romance
Series: Halle Shifters, book 2
Source: Kindle
Read on July 16, 2012

Synopsis via goodreads:

To save the woman he loves, he must push his gifts to the brink. Halle Shifters, Book 2 Julian DuCharme, a rare Spirit Bear with legendary healing powers, is finally free from the threat of death, finally free to claim his mate—but she’s not having it. While his Bear screams it’s time to mate, the love of his life wants to date. Holding his Bear in check while convincing her he’s not out to control her won’t be easy. She’s stubborn and a closeted geek—in other words, perfect for him. Cynthia “Cyn” Reyes, owner of Living Art Tattoos, thinks Julian is the hottest thing on two legs. That doesn’t mean she’s going to roll over for his masculine charm. She watched her mother flounder when her father passed away, and she’s determined to never lose herself to someone else. Not even a man who would jump the moon for her, if she asked that of him. When the women of Living Art are targeted by a killer, Julian doesn’t think twice about pouring out his last drop of power to keep Cyn safe. But it’s Cyn who’ll give up everything—her independence, even her humanity—to keep a terrifying vision from coming true. One of his death. Warning: This novel contains explicit sex, graphic language, a tattooed heroine and the Bear who loves her. Maybe he’ll finally convince her to tattoo him with “Property of Cyn”.

This one features Cynthia, the owner of the tattoo shop Tabby worked for in the previous book. It’s pretty clear from the first book that Tabby’s best friend, Julian, is her destined mate, and while Cyn, who’s human, is pretty accepting of the whole supernatural thing, the destined mate she has? Not so much. She’s known her fair share of controlling men, given that one of them was her father, so there’s no way she’s going to have that for herself.

Julian’s wanted Cyn for a long time, but the timing wasn’t right. As a rare spirit bear, he’s in tune with such things, Now that the time is right, he’s got to keep his bear from raging out of control and just taking her, allowing her to set the pace of their relationship. It’s difficult, though, because as a healer, he seems to be drawn to trouble. And then there are the small matter of the violent events happening in and around Cyn’s shop.

I don’t think this book would work well as a standalone. It builds on the previous book and all the characters we met in BEAR NECESSITIES show up here too. As with the last book, I was sucked in right away and fell in love with the characters.

I admit to being a perverse reader. I like it that the hero, in this case, was the gentler of the two characters. Other readers might find Julian to be too much of a weenie, but he worked for me. He read like a convincing guy, and I loved that both he and Cyn bonded over their mutual geekdom. I read a goodreads review that stated that she liked the book except that the hero cries. Normally, that might bother me, too, but given the gentle, nurturing person Julian was, the tears felt consistent with his character.

Cyn is definitely a kick-ass heroine, and while she could have been annoying, with her stubbornness and her intense need to fight to protect what’s hers, she never crossed that line. I particularly loved her forays into the spirit world once she accepts her mating with Julian. (That is surely not a spoiler!) I also continue to love the relationship between Cyn and her friends.

The story leaves open the possibility for more books in this series, and if that’s the case, I cannot wait. If they’re all as fun as this one was, I’m all in.

Grade: A-

Up next, fractious fillies and cowboy strippers, oh my!

Review: the Brook Street trilogy by Ava March

Published July 18, 2012 by Shannon

I’m excited to bring you today’s review of the Brook Street trilogy by Ava March. Ms. March is the best discovery I’ve made all year, and I have devoured most of her books like the M&M’s of historical romance that they are. In fact, I wanted to start blogging again so I could post about them where others might see my fangirl squees and laugh at my expense.

This series does a number of things right. I loved all of the couples, I loved the idea of these men finding love in Regency England, and I felt for all of them. However, I also giggled a lot at the fact that at least one of the heroes in each book makes me think, rather unfortunately, of children’s television.

All that out of the way, let’s get started!

********************

Thief (Brook Street, #1)

Title: Thief
Series: Brook Street 1
Source: ebook
Read: June 30, 2012

Unfortunate association: A character who shares a name with one of our heroes was one of the human friends of the Gummi Bears.. Thankfully, the audio on that video is horrible, so you will hopefully be spared the ear worm that is that show’s theme.

Synopsis from goodreads:

(40,000 words) London, 1822 … It was only supposed to be one night. One night to determine once and for all if he truly preferred men. But the last thing Lord Benjamin Parker expected to find in a questionable gambling hell is a gorgeous young man who steals his heart. It was only supposed to be a job. Cavin Fox has done it many times — select a prime mark, distract him with lust, and leave his pockets empty. Yet when Cavin slips away under the cover of darkness, the only part of Benjamin he leaves untouched is his pockets. With a taste of his fantasies fulfilled, Benjamin wants more than one night with Cavin. But convincing the elusive young man to give them a chance proves difficult. Living with a band of thieves in the worst area of London, Cavin knows there’s no place for him in a gentleman’s life. Yet Benjamin isn’t about to let Cavin—and love—continue to slip away from him.

As an introduction to Ava March’s writing, I couldn’t have asked for better. It was a fluffy sort of book, the kind of book that I immediately knew was going to become a comfort read. Oh, sure, the characters had their moments of angst, but I knew they’d be all right in the end. They were both so *nice*. How could it be otherwise?

I loved Ben and Cavin. I wanted to take them both home and feed them cookies. Particularly Ben. Oh, man. I love a romance hero who falls hard and fast and knows exactly what he wants. Ben wants Cavin, and keeps being hurt that Cavin keeps running away from him. There was also something endearing about a guy who went about trying to figure out if he really preferred men in such a logical manner. I also liked that he was described as “pleasant looking”. He’s not a hottie by any means, and that was refreshing.

As for Cavin, he broke my heart. His life has truly been grim, and he doesn’t seem to have a chance of things getting better. At least until Ben. He’s living with a street gang, with a despot in charge, and he’s afraid of what will happen to Sam, the boy he looks on as a brother. He doesn’t want to see Sam whored out to line the gang leader’s pockets more than they already are, and he wants to be worthy of Ben, but no one except for Ben will give him a chance.

My only complaint with this book was that, considering the real class issues that are between Cavin and Ben, the resolution was too easy. Hale, the Bill Sykes wannabe gang leader Cavin works for is presented as a genuine problem, but he’s easily shrugged off, and I wanted a little more of a payoff there. Or maybe I just wanted Ben to be awesome and bad-ass. That plot thread just gets dropped, though, and I couldn’t help thinking that if Hale were really so powerful he would have done more to thwart Cavin’s plans. Also, the resolution was a little too pat. It’s an HEA if you like Cinderella stories, but the major class issues between Ben and Cavin are swept neatly under a rug, because Ben doesn’t think they matter. Ergo, they don’t. I find that a little hard to swallow, and can’t think much of Ben’s friends for not suddenly wondering why it is that Ben simply chooses to eschew the social scene. The resolution doesn’t really give Cavin much of an opportunity for a life of his own, either. Even as I write all this, though, I know I’m overanalyzing, because the pat ending certainly didn’t bother me when I devoured this book.

I’m often of two minds about historical fiction. If I like the story, the way I liked this one, historical authenticity doesn’t bother me. The whole premise of the Brook Street trilogy doesn’t actually stand up very well to close historical scrutiny, since the next books feature noblemen who prefer other men, too. Not that homosexuality didn’t exist back in the Regency period. It certainly did. But the characters are all remarkably blasé about the whole issue. That said, this book works beautifully as a Cinderella story, and it hooked me completely.

Grade: B

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Fortune Hunter (Brook Street, #2)
Title: Fortune Hunter
Series: Brook Street 2
Source: Ebook
Read: June 30, 2012

Unfortunate association: One of our heroes could not be any more different from everyone’s favorite garbage-loving curmudgeon. Though they do share a name.

Synopsis from goodreads:

London, 1822 Impoverished Julian Parker returns to London with one goal: marry an heiress. He’ll do whatever it takes, even if it means denying his desire for men. After all, with a fortune comes happiness and social acceptance–which have eluded Julian his entire life. The only things a vast fortune has brought Oscar Woodhaven are greedy relatives and loneliness. At twenty-one years of age, he has everything a man could possibly want–except someone to love him. When he meets devastatingly handsome Julian Parker, he believes his luck has turned. Between Oscar’s lavish gifts and their searing-hot nights, Julian is caught between what he thinks he needs and what his heart truly desires. But when a betrayal threatens to tear them apart, Julian discovers he’ll do whatever it takes to convince Oscar the greatest fortune of all is love. 44,000 words.

I love this book. Love it to bits. I want to hug it and squeeze it and call it George. I’ve been trying to figure out why this one, out of all the Brook Street books, is the one I keep going back to. I’ve read it three times now, which is a little excessive for someone with the kind of TBR pile I have. I even used one of my Audible credits on the book.

The best answer I can give is that I love Oscar and Julian. I loved Oscar for his sweet nature and kind personality, and even though the poor little rich boy trope can get tiresome, it worked for him. I was predisposed favorably toward Julian, because as I’ve mentioned before, Julian is one of my favorite romancelandia names, and if I can’t admit to shallowness on my own blog, where can I? Julian was flawed but basically a decent guy. Sure, maybe hunting for a wife was a bit too mercenary, but it’s not like he’s the first Regency character, or even the first Regency gentleman, to hit on the idea. Also, I could see how his upbringing wouldn’t exactly teach him self-reliance and hard-working American values, since his parents weren’t great examples of same, which was a nice breaking of traditional stereotypes.

Separately, I loved these two, and I loved them together. Oscar needed someone to love him for who he was, not for his fortune, and Julian needed someone to love him in spite of his family.

the end is a bit pat, as with the first book, but I don’t even care. That devastating betrayal eluded to in the synopsis was such a hard scene for me to read, but Julian gives good grovel, and I’m not sure how it could have ended that would have satisfied me with a HEA and not been pat. That said, I would have liked a post-grovel sex scene, though that has more to do with me being shallow than any real need for such a scene.

A note on the Audible version: First, I love that Harlequin is embracing audiobooks. They should keep doing that! Especially at Carina Press prices.

That said, I wondered if the narrator’s accent was real or put on. Also, I didn’t agree with his choice to read Julian in a higher, more fluty, almost feminine voice. I suppose it is important to distinguish voices, but I felt it was an odd choice for an M/M romance and I thought it smacked a little of wanting to turn one of the heroes into the “girl”.

This book has a firm place on my favorite reads of 2012, despite my quibbles with the audio.

Grade: A

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Rogues (Brook Street, #3)

Title: rogues
Series: Brook Street 3
Source: ebook
Read: July 1, 2012
Unfortunate association: Did they believe in the Great Pumpkin in Regency England?
Synopsis from goodreads:

London, 1822 Two of London’s most notorious rakehells, Linus Radcliffe and Robert Anderson, are the best of friends. They share almost everything-clothes, servants, their homes, and even each other’s bed on occasion. The one thing they don’t share: lovers. For while Linus prefers men, Robert prefers women…except when it comes to Linus. As another Season nears its end, Robert can’t ignore his growing jealousy. He hates watching Linus disappear from balls to dally with other men. Women are lovely, but Linus rouses feelings he’s never felt with another. Unwilling to share his gorgeous friend another night, Robert has a proposition for Linus. A proposition Linus flatly refuses-but not for the reasons Robert thinks. Still, Robert won’t take no for an answer. He sets out to prove a thing or two to his best friend-yet will learn something about the heart himself. 28,000 words

This one wasn’t as good as the first two in the series. I still liked it quite a lot, but a part of my disappointment stems from my unreasoning love for the previous book, and another part stems from there just not being enough of a story. There’s really nothing keeping Linus and Robert apart except for their own issues. Or rather, Linus’s issues. Those issues just weren’t enough to sustain a conflict. That said, I find Ava March incredibly readable and addictive, even at her weakest, which this book is not.

It helps that I love the concept of friends becoming lovers, when it’s done in a way that works for me. Often I find I can’t entirely believe the friendship. Even though this is more like fuckbuddies to lovers, it was an example of the trope that worked for me. As with the previous sets of heroes, Rob and Linus are sweethearts, and even though I thought that their conflict was thin, I understood it. Linus hasn’t seen much in the way of real commitment from the people in his life, so when his BFF suggests they become exclusive, he’s afraid it’ll all end badly and he’ll lose both his friend and their love. It’s a conflict I can sympathize and relate to, and I loved watching Rob try to prove himself to Linus. This was a pleasant way to wrap up the series.

Grade: B

Up next: She’s a poor street urchin turned governess with a wicked sense of humor and a tendency toward fangirlishness. He’s a calculated and reserved marquess who never does anything spontaneously. What will happen when these crazy kids meet?