Short, but Sweet…

TBR Challenge 2019: We Love Short Shorts and My Best of 2018 List

Here we are again at the start of a brand new year of TBR Challenge reading and reviews. I’m a week late (which is not uncommon for me, unfortunately) due to a freak accident in which I scalded my entire hand while pouring hot coffee into a travel mug… and missed the mug. That’s what happens when I try to function on very little sleep. It was a painful couple of days, but now I’m all healed up and ready to blog on.

2018 was a very long year. It wasn’t the worst year of my life. There have been plenty of years when I’ve lost more and gained less. But 2018 did claim its pound of flesh, so to speak, with plenty of ups and downs, and shock and awe in the romance community. I have to admit that all the scandals and upheaval seriously impacted my reading habits for several months. Whether I became more jaded and critical there for a while, or whether my disillusionment by certain authors and publishers robbed me of my usual level of joy and escapism I had come to expect from reading in this genre, I found it harder to find any true satisfaction from a lot of the books I read last year. Don’t get me wrong, I read some good books in 2018. Just not as many five star books, or books that effected me on a deeper-than-surface level. For a while there, I was afraid it was a permanent problem.

They say you can never go home again, but that’s what I did, in a round about way. And it helped me get back on track, not only with my reading enjoyment, but also back to my own writing. I dipped my toes in other, once-beloved but left-behind genres, like horror and dark fantasy and cozy mystery. I discovered T.J. Klune’s werewolves in the Green Creek series and reconnected with the lyrical brilliance of Anne Rice and her Vampire Chronicles. I set up playlists in my Spotify account and spent more time enjoying music I love, music that lifts my spirit and shifts my moods. In other words, I went on a mission to find myself again, the me that used to be, the me that still dreams and hopes and enjoys life. I joined a writing group and wrote my first short story, from concept to finish, after over twelve years of writers block. So, I say, sometimes you need to go home again,  back to your roots, and reconnect with your inner self. It did me a world of good.

Now, on with the reviews…

Watching Elijah Fall (Short North #1) by Amy Spector

A simple story about moving past the terrible things that life throws at you and finding happiness on the other side.

Months after his breakup with a long-term boyfriend, Jacob Pierce is still more than a little fragile, he has withdrawn from life, his friends are concerned and even he knows that something needs to change. With the encouragement of his friends and a nudge from the newest member of Jacob’s small circle, he agrees to sign up for a film based photography class.

Elijah Fall, a widowed photography teacher, is exactly the man to bring Jacob back to life. But, while Jacob may have found the man of his dreams, will Elijah, someone who has lost everything once, be willing to risk his heart again?

This is a sweet m/m love story of only sixty-seven pages, dealing with finding love and trust after experiencing grief and loss. One character is a widowed photography teacher still grieving his husband’s death and the other is a marketing photographer whose long-term boyfriend betrayed and abandoned him. This is a slow-building relationship that starts out as shared interests and then friendship before developing into a deeper connection. The older I get, the less I need on-page sex and the more I need a depth of character and a real connection between the main characters in a romance. This short novella delivered on that and prioritized the development of characters and connection over on-page sex scenes.

I liked this story and its characters. However, I feel it would have been enriched had it been lengthened and the storyline fleshed out further. The prologue/ending seemed a bit abrupt after the slower pace of the rest of the story, and there were a couple of unimportant yet dangling threads (Jacob’s mother, David’s former business partner) left unresolved, but overall it was an enjoyable story.

Belated Best of 2018:

I had every intention of writing up an end of year “best of” post the last week of December, like I do every year, but the time got away from me. The holidays were a chaotic rush of activity around my house. My sister and her husband were in town, my husband took two weeks vacation and was constantly throwing off my routine, my usual post-holiday drop kicked in, and the blog post never got completed. But I refuse to fail at acknowledging my highlights of this past year.

My Favorite Books Published in 2018:

Untrue (Scientific Method Universe #9) by Kris Ripper
Over and Over Again by Cole McCade
Nothing More Certain (Familiar Spirits #3) by R. Cooper
The Pumpkin Patch by Darien Cox and Kade Boehme
Sweet Clematis (Being(s) in Love #9) by R. Cooper

My Favorite Books Read in 2018 – Published Prior to 2018:

Everyday History by Alice Archer (2016)
Blackwood Farm (The Vampire Chronicles #9) by Anne Rice (2002)
Blink by Rick R. Reed (2015)
Thorn Jack (Night and Nothing #1) by Katherine Harbour (2014)
Wolfsong (Green Creek #1) by T.J. Klune (2016)

In addition to my favorite five star reads, I wanted to mention three series I discovered and thoroughly enjoyed in 2018.

The Rowan Harbor Cycle by Sam Burns

The Green Creek series by T.J. Klune

This Time Forever Series by Kelly Jensen

All three of these series have captivating characters with a depth of connection and a warm sense of community and family, both biological and chosen, and world-building that establishes a genuine sense of place. As you know, these are two attributes that I continually seek out in the books I choose to read.

And last, but not least…

My TV Highlights of 2018:


Pose
on FX Networks and 

The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix. 

 

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A Few of My Favorite Holiday Things

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Happy Jólabókaflóð (pronounced YO-la-bok-a-flothe) or “Yule Book Flood”! In Iceland, it’s a Christmas Eve tradition to exchange books as gifts and then spend the rest of the night snuggled up with a book, reading and drinking cocoa and/or eating chocolate. Sounds like an excellent way to spend the holiday, to me. (You can read more about it here.)

So, in honor of holiday reading traditions, I decided to once again compile my annual list of favorite holiday stories, novellas, and books, both old and new.

This year, I’ve decided to add this fabulous book gifting/reading/consuming chocolate idea into my own long list of seasonal traditions. Every year we put up the tree the weekend after Thanksgiving, hang the wreaths on both doors, and suspend the mistletoe ball in the doorway between the living room and dining room. We listen to my December Moods Spotify playlist music off and on for the entire month. My playlist is over nine and a half hours long, an eclectic mix of seasonal music, with a little something for everyone. Seriously, it shifts gears more than a sports car traveling on twisty, mountain roads. (You can check it out here, if you’re interested.)

We also watch a lot of Christmas movies in December: Love Actually, The Holiday, the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol, Holiday Inn, Christmas Vacation, A Christmas Story, This Christmas, and the animated How the Grinch Stole Christmas and A Charlie Brown Christmas, as well as plenty of Hallmark and Lifetime movies. My favorites of those are The Spirit of Christmas, Kristin’s Christmas Past, and Love at the Christmas Table.

Some years I feel motivated enough to make homemade tamales from Hubby’s grandma’s recipe and some years I’m a lazy sloth. However, I almost always bake fruitcake with dried pineapple, blueberries, cranberries, cherries, pecans and walnuts, and drench it with rum and whisky, or else I make my mom’s rum cake or some gingerbread. I also bake cookies and make candy for weeks leading up to Christmas. Honestly, we eat more butter and sugar in the month of December than we eat for the entire rest of the year.

And usually at least one point during the holiday season, I’ll mix up a batch of mulled wine, hot spiced cider spiked with Apple Pie Moonshine, or some good, old-fashioned wassail and we get a bit sloshed. This usually happens right after I spend an entire day wrapping presents and boxing them up to ship to my sisters in Florida and Tennessee and I’m feeling both exhausted and nostalgic for Christmases Past when my parents, grandmother, and aunts and uncles were all still alive and my sisters still lived close to me.

For the past decade or so, every Christmas Eve my husband grills/smokes a prime rib roast and we have a quiet dinner, just the two of us. Afterwards we enjoy a few adult beverages while listening to Christmas music or watching Christmas movies. Then on Christmas morning, we get up early and open presents. Hubby, being as OCD as I am, gathers all the wrapping paper, boxes, bags, etc., that can’t be salvaged to use again next year and carts them off, while I cook an elaborate breakfast casserole of some sort. Last year it was a steak and egg casserole with caramelized onions, mushrooms, hashbrowns and cheese. After breakfast is over, Christmas is pretty much done for us. There will be napping and snacking and TV watching off and on for the rest of the day, of course, but that’s basically the extent of our holiday season. When we were younger, we used to get all dressed up and go out to celebrate New Year’s Eve but nowadays we just stay home then, too, where it’s warm and cozy in our comfy clothes and watch the ball drop on the TV.

Anyway, enough of my nostalgic rambling. It’s time to move on to my recommendations list of holiday reads. Unfortunately, I ran out of time this weekend and didn’t get a chance to read one of my most anticipated books of the season, Kip’s Monster by Harper Fox, which was released December 21st on the Winter Solstice. But it’s on my Kindle and is next on my list to read. Really looking forward to that.

I hope you all have a lovely, happy holiday and that you receive many, many good books for Jólabókaflóð!

My Favorite New Holiday Reads for 2018:

Mr. Winterbourne’s Christmas by Joanna Chambers

Lysander Winterbourne and Adam Freeman have been living happily at Edgeley Park for the last eighteen months. By day Lysander is Adam’s estate manager, by night, his lover, but neither man has spoken of their deeper feelings. Is this a happy-ever-after or just a convenient arrangement?

When the two men are invited to Winterbourne Abbey for a family Christmas, matters quickly come to a head. Snowed in at the Abbey with a house full of guests, they have to face up to shocking revelations, long-held secrets and a choice Lysander never expected to have to make…

Tomte by Jamie Fessenden

RYAN ANDERSON has known something was wrong since he was a teenager. He’s been tormented by a sense of emptiness and loss—but what did he lose? He has no idea. Then a mysterious man appears, calling himself Tomte, a Swedish word Ryan remembers hearing from his grandmother in his childhood.

It means “Christmas elf.”

With the help of his older brother and his nine-year-old niece, Ryan begins a journey to discover what happened fifteen years ago, when he disappeared during a winter storm and didn’t reappear until spring. Not only has he forgotten those months, he’s forgotten the faithful dog who failed to come back with him.

As memories surface and impossible things happen all around him, Ryan senses Tomte, that beautiful man he’s inexplicably drawn to, is the key to everything—his past, his future, and his happiness.

Love Around the Corner (New Milton #1.5) by Sally Malcolm

Real life enemies, online lovers. Two lonely men, destined for each other—if only they knew it.

Alfie Carter grew up in New Milton, caring for his sick father and keeping their auto repair shop on its feet. He’s touchy about his poor education and doesn’t take kindly to snide remarks from the town’s prickly bookstore owner—no matter how cute he looks in his skinny jeans. Left to run the family business alone, Alfie spends his lonely evenings indulging his secret passion for classic fiction and chatting online with witty, romantic ‘LLB’ as they fall in love over literature.

Leo Novak’s new life as owner of Bayside Books is floundering. And he could do without the town’s gorgeous, moody mechanic holding a grudge against him after an unfortunate—and totally not his fault— encounter last Christmas. Still reeling from a bad breakup and struggling to make friends in New Milton, Leo seeks comfort in his blossoming online romance with thoughtful, bookish ‘Camaro89’.

But as the holidays approach, ‘LLB’ and ‘Camaro89’ are planning to meet, and realities are about to collide…

The Christmas Prince by Liv Rancourt

All Trevor wants for Christmas is a handsome man
and a reason to move out of his mother’s home.

All Prince Edward wants is a moment of relief
from the responsibility of being the heir to the British crown.

If they can find a way to solve each other’s problems,
this will be a very merry Christmas indeed!

Burning Down the House by Gregory L. Norris

Leo’s quiet vacation in Vermont is cut short by news that his beloved grandmother’s in the hospital because she tried to burn down her own house. Feeling low and depressed that she might be falling victim to dementia, Leo takes comfort in a man he meets in the hospital’s Quiet Room. The encounter’s supposed to be a one-night stand, one and done, no strings attached, but Leo’s surprised when he wants more.

The problem is that Aaron comes with strings and complications—ones Leo isn’t sure he wants to deal with on top of his own problems. Leo’s going to have to reach deep if he wants more than superficial, but he’s determined to try if the universe will just cooperate.

My Favorite Holiday Re-reads:


Bowl Full of Cherries (The Avona Tales #1) by Raine O’Tierney

Porker, Fatty, Tons-of-Fun: Crowley Fredericks has heard it all. He’s dropped a lot of weight since his high school days, but he’s still a big guy, and the painful words and bullying follow him. Rejected—again—because of his size, Crowley is starting to think that maybe love just isn’t meant for huskier men.

Averell Lang and his twin are so different they might as well not even be related. So when Rell’s brother brings his roommate home to snowy Susset for the holidays, Rell expects the worst—another uptight, pretentious hipster. What he discovers instead is Crowley. Nerdy, fascinating, attractive, Crowley. Rell never expected to look at a man this way, and what he sees in Crowley Fredericks is something he didn’t even know he was looking for. If both men can overcome their hang-ups, they might unwrap more than presents this holiday season.


The Holly Groweth Green by Amy Rae Durreson

When wounded doctor Laurence Payne is stranded in the snowy English countryside on Christmas Eve, 1946, he is surprised to stumble upon Mistle Cottage and its mysterious inhabitant. Avery claims to be an Elizabethan wizard, and Laurence struggles to explain away the atmosphere of the cottage as mere coincidence and trickery. He spends a magical twelve days of Christmas celebrating with Avery, but then wakes to find his lover has vanished and the cottage has fallen to ruin overnight.

Laurence’s investigations lead him to the story of an ancient fairy curse—Avery is doomed to spend only Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night in human form until he finds true love. Laurence sets out to give Avery the greatest gift of all—his heart and with it the chance to live for more than the fleeting winter weeks he’s been sentenced to.


A Wealth of Unsaid Words by R. Cooper

Alex has always known his bipolar disorder made him too flawed for his boyhood hero, Everett. So when his feelings for Everett became overwhelming, he forced a separation that saddened them both but gave Alex the clarity he needed. Now a year has passed, and he and Everett are together again when Everett’s noisy, imperfect family reunites for Christmas, pulling Alex into their chaotic warmth the way they always have. Can Everett convince Alex that, in spite of his fears, starting a relationship would make for the perfect holiday?


Gaudete by Amy Rae Durreson

Every Christmas, child chorister Jonah Lennox used to meet Callum Noakes at Aylminster cathedral when Callum’s mother came to sell roasted chestnuts at the market. After years of friendship, an argument separates them, apparently forever. Putting away the memories of his lost friend, Jonah left the cathedral and moved on with his life.

When Jonah returns to the cathedral after ten years away, the market in the cathedral brings back memories—and Callum, who has made a life for himself as a woodturner. Upon meeting again, attraction pulls them together, and the holiday may inspire their old friendship to mature into new romance.


The Winter Spirit by Indra Vaughn

Nathaniel O’Donnelly likes his life quiet, his guests happy, and his ghosts well-behaved.

Although a boyfriend wouldn’t go amiss. Someone to share his beautiful B&B with, even if it is in the middle of nowhere and he’s long past the wrong side of thirty. Problem is, Nathaniel’s living with a ghost who thinks he’s cupid, and whose arrows fly a little too straight.

Gabriel Wickfield had the unfortunate luck of dying before his time, and now he’s stuck trying to make romance happen to earn his right to move along. Not that he’s bored in the meantime—Nathaniel is just too easy to tease. And also a little bit scrumptious…

With the curse reaching its expiration date, Gabriel needs to make a final match this Christmas. Without it, nothing but darkness awaits.

Love can conquer all, but can it beat death?


Holly and Oak (Familiar Spirits #2) by R. Cooper

Once a year, the town of Ravenscroft celebrates the winter solstice by watching the Oak King symbolically slay the Holly King to ensure the death of winter. To most people, it’s a pagan ritual that has lost all meaning in the modern world, harmless fun during the week of Christmas. To the coven who founded the town, it’s a magic so important they entrusted it to the two strongest witches in generations.

Will Battle and Chester Sibley are opposites in every way, or so Ravenscroft residents insist. Quiet, polite Will is the town’s beloved adopted son, popular and admired. Defiant, outspoken Chester is disliked and avoided despite being a direct descendant of the town’s founders. It’s no wonder Will is the embodiment of spring and life as the Oak King and Chester was given the cold, dark Season of Holly. No one in town seems to realize their nice, well-mannered Oak King has iron at his core and their fearsome Holly King only wants to make people happy. Perhaps that’s also why not even the other witches suspect that Chester has been in love with Will for almost his entire life.

That’s how Chester wants it. He might dream of Will, but he’s learned to keep his dreams to himself. The trouble is Will. For all that he smiles and nods, Will has started quietly rebelling against both the town and the coven. With only days until the winter solstice, he issues Chester a challenge—to finally ask for what he wants. If Chester tells the truth, he risks losing Will and upsetting the ritual that has made the town prosperous. But there is more between them than magic, no matter how powerful or ancient, and Chester would do anything for Will, even, just maybe, coming in from the cold.


A Family for Christmas by Jay Northcote

Zac never had a family of his own, but Rudy has enough to share.

Shy, inexperienced Rudy has a crush on Zac from the moment his new colleague walks through the door. On an office night out before Christmas, Rudy finds the courage to make a move, and they form a tentative bond. When he discovers Zac will be alone at Christmas, he invites Zac to come home with him.

Zac prefers to keep people at arm’s length. Yet when Rudy offers him a family Christmas it’s impossible to resist. With no parents of his own, Zac is pleasantly surprised to be welcomed by Rudy’s. The only drawback is that everyone assumes they’re a couple. Unwilling to disappoint Rudy’s mum and make Christmas awkward, they decide not to deny it.

It’s not a chore for Zac to pose as Rudy’s boyfriend, but the pretence makes him want things that scare him—things like a real relationship with Rudy. Zac’s suffered enough rejection in his life already and is afraid to risk his heart. If he can get over his past rejection and let Rudy inside his armour, he might get more for Christmas than he ever imagined.


Merry Christmas, Mr. Miggles by Eli Easton

Toby Kincaid loves being the junior librarian in his hometown of Sandy Lake, Ohio. He spends his days surrounded by books and chatting with the library patrons. He especially adores the head librarian, Mr. Miggles, who is kind, witty, knowlegable about everything, and hopelessly addicted to Christmas. Sean Miggles is also pretty cute—especially for an older guy who wears ties and suit pants every day.

But Sean keeps himself at a distance, and there’s a sadness about him that Toby can’t figure out. When Sean is accused of a crime he didn’t commit, he gives up without a fight. Toby realizes that he alone can save the library—and their head librarian.

Toby will need to uncover the darkness in Sean’s past and prove to him that he deserves a second chance at life and at love too. And while Christmas miracles are being handed out, maybe Toby will get his own dearest wish—to love and be loved by Mr. Miggles.


Glass Tidings by Amy Jo Cousins

Eddie Rodrigues doesn’t stay in one place long enough to get attached. The only time he broke that rule, things went south fast. Now he’s on the road again, with barely enough cash in his pocket to hop a bus south after his (sort-of-stolen) car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, Midwest, USA.

He’s fine. He’ll manage. Until he watches that girl get hit by a car and left to die.

Local shop owner Grayson Croft isn’t in the habit of doing people any favors. But even a recluse can’t avoid everyone in a town as small as Clear Lake. And when the cop who played Juliet to your Romeo in the high school play asks you to put up her key witness for the night, you say yes.

Now Gray’s got a grouchy glass artist stomping around his big, empty house, and it turns out that he . . . maybe . . . kind of . . . likes the company.

But Eddie Rodrigues never sticks around.

Unless a Christmas shop owner who hates the season can show an orphan what it means to have family for the holidays.


Winter Oranges by Marie Sexton

Jason Walker is a child star turned teen heartthrob turned reluctant B-movie regular who’s sick of his failing career. So he gives up Hollywood for northern Idaho, far away from the press, the drama of LA, and the best friend he’s secretly been in love with for years.

There’s only one problem with his new life: a strange young man only he can see is haunting his guesthouse. Except Benjamin Ward isn’t a ghost. He’s a man caught out of time, trapped since the Civil War in a magical prison where he can only watch the lives of those around him. He’s also sweet, funny, and cute as hell, with an affinity for cheesy ’80s TV shows. And he’s thrilled to finally have someone to talk to.

But Jason quickly discovers that spending all his time with a man nobody else can see or hear isn’t without its problems—especially when the tabloids find him again and make him front-page news. The local sheriff thinks he’s on drugs, and his best friend thinks he’s crazy. But Jason knows he hasn’t lost his mind. Too bad he can’t say the same thing about his heart.


Yuletide Truce by Sandra Schwab

London, 1845

It’s December, Alan “Aigee” Garmond’s favorite time of the year, when the window display of the small bookshop where he works fills up with crimson Christmas books and sprays of holly. Everything could be perfect — if it weren’t for handsome Christopher Foreman, the brilliant writer for the fashionable magazine About Town, who has taken an inexplicable and public dislike to Aigee’s book reviews.

But why would a man such as Foreman choose to target reviews published in a small bookshop’s magazine? Aigee is determined to find out. And not, he tells himself, just because he finds Foreman so intriguing.

Aigee’s quest leads him from smoke-filled ale-houses into the dark, dingy alleys of one of London’s most notorious rookeries. And then, finally, to Foreman. Will Aigee be able to wrangle a Yuletide truce from his nemesis?


All I Want For Christmas by Izzy Van Swelm

Stuart, still grieving for his husband Oliver, is spending Christmas Eve evening in a village church watching his granddaughter in a nativity play. The location, play and carols bring back memories and so much more.

 

 

More Great Seasonal Reads for Ringing in the New Year:

Auld Lang Syne (Glasgow Lads #3.25) by Avery Cockburn

Written as a free and exclusive holiday short for the 2018 Rainbow Advent Calendar: https://averycockburn.com/auld-lang-s…

In this prequel to Playing in the Dark, wedding planner Ben and secret agent Evan meet for the first time on New Year’s Eve, at the wedding of Evan’s ex-boyfriend. Can Ben melt this jaded spy’s frozen heart and make him believe in love again?

“Auld Lang Syne” contains kilts, castles, and not-so-random acts of kindness.


The Belles of Times Square by Amy Lane

Every New Year’s Eve since 1946, Nate Meyer has ventured alone to Times Square to listen for the ghostly church bells he and his long-lost wartime lover vowed to hear together. This year, however, his grandson Blaine is pushing Nate through the Manhattan streets, revealing his secrets to his silent, stroke-stricken grandfather.

When Blaine introduces his boyfriend to his beloved grandfather, he has no idea that Nate holds a similar secret. As they endure the chilly death of the old year, Nate is drawn back in memory to a much earlier time . . . and to Walter.

Long before, in a peace carefully crafted in the heart of wartime tumult, Nate and Walter forged a loving home in the midst of violence and chaos. But nothing in war is permanent, and now all Nate has is memories of a man his family never knew existed. And a hope that he’ll finally hear the church bells that will unite everybody—including the lovers who hid the best and most sacred parts of their hearts.

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TBR Challenge: Holiday

It’s that time of year again. I can’t believe I’ve successfully achieved another whole year of the TBR Challenge… well, if I can count falling behind for five months and then  scrambling to catch up all in one long post back in October as a success.

Sorry for the brevity of this post. Today has been exhausting. My cat woke me up at 4:20 a.m., screaming for his breakfast or for attention or because he’s a sadist (or all of the above), and I haven’t had a chance to stop and catch my breath since.  I spent the day wrapping last minute presents and making dozens of homemade tamales — because it just isn’t Christmas for my husband until there are tamales like his grandmother used to make. Unfortunately, every task felt like swimming upstream. The cat went on a rampage, knocking things over and tearing things up, my relatively new Wi-Fi kitchen radio went on the fritz, telemarketers kept calling, corn husks kept tearing. It’s just been one of those days.

Holidays… gotta love them. Is Mercury back in retrograde and no one thought to tell me?

In any case, I’m all caught up on most of my holiday tasks. Now all that’s left is the fun stuff, i.e., the candies and cookies I’ll be making (and eating!) over the next few days. Oh, and this month’s TBR Challenge review, of course. Both of the following two shorts were still lingering in my to-be-read list from last year. Since they were short, I read both of them.

Homemade from the Heart by Bru Baker

Synopsis:

A story from the Dreamspinner Press 2017 Advent Calendar collection Stocking Stuffers.

Craft store owner Grant has always been a sucker for a pretty face, and that goes double for a pretty face with an adorable sidekick. When seven-year-old Aubrey has her heart set on taking Grant’s already-full holiday craft series, he caves and gives up his one day off a week so she (and her hot guardian, Josh) can take private lessons. Their flirting ramps up week after week, and even though Josh isn’t with Aubrey’s mother, Grant can’t be sure the man isn’t straight. Maybe he’s just being friendly. And Josh, who most definitely is not straight, is afraid of being the creepy guy hitting on the teacher.

Frustrated by their stubbornness and cluelessness, Aubrey takes matters into her own hands. She decides the best gift to give Josh is something homemade and from the heart—a boyfriend they’ll both love.

This was a delightful story, both sweet and funny. It’s the perfect light, charming tale to snuggle up with on an afternoon leading up to the Christmas holidays. The characters are entertaining, even the side characters, and seven year old Aubrey is an adorably precocious imp. This story is filled with feel-good holiday cheer. I only wish it had been a full length book because I enjoyed the company of these fictional people and their world, and would love to see this relationship develop further.


Christmas at the Wellands by Liz Jacobs

Synopsis:

Kev’s had a truly horrible year. After losing his mom, he was plunged into a deep depression, and only pulled through with his best friend Andrew’s help. So when Andrew invites him to spend Christmas with his family in Connecticut, it would be pretty crappy to turn down the invitation, despite not being sure how he would fit in with Andrew’s very white, very wholesome family.

As soon as they get there, Kev and Andrew are greeted with over-active and curious children, and many harried–and curious–adults. As Kev struggles to find his place amidst the chaos, he is also confronted by his awakening desire for something he really can’t have–his straight best friend.

But revelations, great and small, take everyone by surprise–and show that Christmas just might be the happiest time of the year, after all.

This is a moving, sensitive friends to lovers story. Not the typical fluffy holiday read, this one addresses the subjects of loss, depression, self-harm, and the culture shock of being immersed in a large, Caucasian, suburban Connecticut family Christmas through the eyes of a struggling inner-city black college student whose roommate/best friend/secret crush invites him home for the holidays. But, in spite of all that, this is not a dark, depressing story. It’s a story of friendship, family, acceptance, and love. The writing is strong, the storyline is compelling, and the characters are vibrant and realistic. I really enjoyed this novella. It left me feeling warm, comforted, and filled with hope.

At the time of this writing, Christmas at the Wellands is FREE on Amazon.

Premature Holidays & Sloppy Copy…

This has not been my month. I promised myself I would wait until after Thanksgiving before giving in to the onslaught of all things Christmas. However, in the words of my beloved Robert Burns, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men,” etc. For about the past week or so, I’ve been suffering through a flare-up of a chronic eye inflammation, and both reading on my Kindle and staring at my computer screen has been difficult and painful. Then yesterday while doing prep-cooking for the big Thanksgiving feast, I managed to burn the palm of my right hand on the 450 degree F, cast iron lid to my Dutch oven and spent seven hours clutching a bag of ice in order to drain the pain. So please forgive me that this post will be brief.

Last weekend, restless and depressed that I couldn’t read or get online because of my eye problems, I finally caved to the holiday bully that is Hallmark and found myself engulfed in the barrage of holiday movies they’ve been hurling at me since the weekend before Halloween. I’ve lost track of how many I’ve watched. They all kind of run together. Between the Hallmark Channel, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, and Lifetime, there has been a seemingly unending stream of Christmas romance flowing from my television. Therefore, when it came to choosing a book to read for this month’s TBR Challenge: Cover Girl (a book chosen because of its cover), it’s no wonder that my brainwashed self chose a Christmas book.

 

Ice, Snow, & Mistletoe (Ice and Snow Christmas #2)

by Jocelynn Drake

John Sullivan is escaping to Denver. Even with a massive snow storm on his heels, he plans to hide away in his cabin in the mountains and ignore Christmas. It’ll be just him and a bottle of whiskey until the new year when he must return to Cincinnati for his best friend’s wedding.

At least, that’s the plan until he runs into Oz at the airport.

Oz … the man who should have been just a fling. The man who was fun and laughs but quickly turned into so much more before he completely kicked John out of his life.

Oz who desperately needs his help…

John is ready to leave Oz stranded at the Denver airport in the coming blizzard, but he finds himself possibly staring down at the reason Oz pushed him away, and John can’t say no.

Second chances don’t come around often, but John is willing to fight for one with Oz.

This book could have been so much better. There were parts of it that I really liked. It’s a second chance at love with forced proximity and isolation, which is like catnip to me. It’s set during the holidays and there are deep-seated family issues, another plus for me. There is off-the-charts chemistry and sexual tension between the characters. But unfortunately the two things I hate most in a story are also present: 1.) The main conflicts stem from a lack of communication, and 2.) One of the main characters is a martyr. Call me selfish, but I am not a fan of self-denial and unnecessary sacrifice. I find it irritating and melodramatic. Also, for me, the story lacked cohesion. Different sections of the book felt as if they were written at different times and with a different attitude, leaving the overall flow of the story feeling disjointed. The moods and tone of this novella swing like a pendulum. By three quarters of the way in, I was just ready for it to be over. I’d give it a 2.5 star rating. It would have been 3 stars if not for that martyr character.

Now, not wanting to completely ignore Thanksgiving or push it aside, I picked up a Thanksgiving-themed f/f romance. It, too, has an attractive cover and fits in with this month’s theme. At the time of this writing it is available for .99 on Amazon.

 

Thankful by Edie Bryant

When Danielle comes home for Thanksgiving in an attempt to surprise her parents, things don’t go well. She has always tried to foster a decent relationship with her parents but despite this, there is a lot of tension between them. Tension that comes to a head when Danielle finds out that her parents have moved away from her hometown without even telling her, leaving her stranded at an empty house for the holidays.

Fortunately, right across the street is Danielle’s old best friend, Elise. They haven’t seen each other in years, but when Elise sees Danielle alone and confused she takes hold of the opportunity to invite her to Elise’s family’s Thanksgiving. As grateful as Danielle is, the romantic feelings she had tried to hide for years start bubbling up inside her and she is not sure how to hold them back anymore. Needless to say, it’s going to be an interesting Thanksgiving holiday.

The love story is a nice, sweet story with a variety of family drama interspersed. One MC’s parents are distant and cold, whereas the other’s family is close-knit and nurturing. The love between the two main characters rings true. That being said, this is obviously not the first version of this book. If you read through the reviews it becomes clear that this was originally published as a m/m romance and has been re-worked with a f/f dynamic.

The copy I read had quite a few typos where “he” was not replaced with “she.” Also there was one instance of inconsistency regarding Elise’s profession. At first it was stated she worked in finance as an accountant, but then later it suddenly said she was a realtor. There were also a couple of places where the names did not match up with the point of view and there was an unrealistic medical episode at the hospital toward the end of the book. But if you can put these nit-picky discrepancies aside, it was an enjoyable story of childhood best friends turned lovers, complete with an epilogue of their HEA.

The Call of the Wolf…

TBR Challenge: Paranormal

I can’t believe it’s almost Halloween. September zipped right by me and now October is more than halfway done. I spent most of the end of Summer counting down the days until the autumn equinox. I had such grand plans for Fall. I was going to visit a pumpkin patch. I was going to fight my way through a corn maze. I was going to take a drive up into the mountains to see the leaves turn from dusty green to gold and orange and garnet. I was going to go apple picking and make homemade caramel to dip them in. I was going to watch all of my favorite scary movies and read all my favorite ghost stories. But in spite of my hopes and plans, all I actually managed to do was eat two apple pies, a gallon of pumpkin spice ice cream, and a bag of Brach’s Autmn Mix Candy Corn and Mellowcreme Pumpkins. I didn’t even wash them down with apple cider. I have failed at Fall!

Well, maybe not failed, per se. I did manage to re-read some Shirley Jackson and watch a couple of Hammer vampire movies. I also started watching the new Netflix series adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House the other night and, so far, I’ve found it to be surprisingly well done.

Now, I have a small confession to make. The book I’m reviewing for this month’s TBR Challenge, Wolfsong (Green Creek #1) by T.J. Klune, I actually read about a month ago. In my defense, I haven’t read any new-to-me fiction for a few weeks now (only re-reads of old faves) because I’ve been focused on reading books on the craft of writing because – Yes – I’m finally (after all these years) writing again. And, oddly enough, in an indirect way, I have this book to thank for that. It started a kind of domino effect that led to my ability to overcome the writers block I’ve been battling for almost a decade and a half.

So, when it came time to pick a paranormal book to review for this month’s TBR Challenge, it was an obvious choice. It was on my TBR list for two whole years. I have no idea how I resisted it all that time, especially with everyone I know singing its praises the entire time, but resist it I did until very recently. All I know is, I’m so glad I read it. It shifted something inside of me and gave me a new lease on my own creativity. It was also one of the most wonderful books I’ve read in a long time. For that matter, so was its sequel. I can’t wait until the third installment comes out next year.


Wolfsong (Green River #1) by T.J. Klune

 

Synopsis:

Ox was twelve when his daddy taught him a very valuable lesson. He said that Ox wasn’t worth anything and people would never understand him. Then he left.

Ox was sixteen when he met the boy on the road, the boy who talked and talked and talked. Ox found out later the boy hadn’t spoken in almost two years before that day, and that the boy belonged to a family who had moved into the house at the end of the lane.

Ox was seventeen when he found out the boy’s secret, and it painted the world around him in colors of red and orange and violet, of Alpha and Beta and Omega.

Ox was twenty-three when murder came to town and tore a hole in his head and heart. The boy chased after the monster with revenge in his bloodred eyes, leaving Ox behind to pick up the pieces.

It’s been three years since that fateful day—and the boy is back. Except now he’s a man, and Ox can no longer ignore the song that howls between them.

This is not your typical romance, in that it doesn’t start out as a romance. When the main characters first meet, one of them is only ten years old and the other is sixteen. This story is a gradual, slow-building, friends-to-lovers romance that is about much more than just  romance. It’s about home and family and community. It’s about love and loss, tragedy and triumph, friendship and betrayal. It’s about belonging and responsibility and obligations. This book was one hell of an emotional roller-coaster and it was a truly  phenomenal ride. Beautifully written, evocative and visceral, this is an epic soulmates love story for the ages. It’s emotionally exhausting, but it’s so worth the book hangover it will leave you with. By the time I was halfway through it, it had already gutted me three times. It rips your heart apart but then it pieces it all back together again.

This book, as well as its sequel, Ravensong (Green Creek #2), are permanently going on my all-time favorite reading list. I’m convinced Heartsong (Green River #3) will also find a place on that list once it’s released next year.

 

Racing to Catch Up!

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Wow. Isn’t it strange how much faster time flies the older we get?  I have been AWOL from this blog since April — for six whole months! And it felt like only a few weeks slipped by. I’m so far behind on my TBR Challenge reviews (sorry, SuperWendy!), seasonal reading lists, book and movie recommendations, as well as my rambling thoughts and opinions on both obscure and timely topics.

Rest assured that even though I dropped off the grid for a while, I have indeed kept up with my TBR reading. I took notes and everything. So, in an effort to not feel like a total failure at follow-through, I’m going to include the past five months of TBR Challenge reviews that I missed in this one blog post.

Buckle up, gang. This is likely to be a lengthy post.

May: Contemporary

Late Fall by Noelle Adams

Synopsis: 

This is life. After summer, the green leaves always change colors and fall off the trees. Dogs die, no matter how much you love them. Land is sold, even if you used to tell yourself you were going to die on the property. And people get old.

Even me.

Ellie Davenport has watched the same valley change with the seasons since she was a child. A sharp and intelligent woman, she’s enjoyed a stellar professional career, a full love life featuring interesting men, and a small but loving circle of family and friends.

Now she’s on the other side of the valley, retired, alone, and the view is much different. She wants to believe that it’s just as beautiful from this side, looking back at her life, but the self-sufficient resiliency she’s always depended on to keep her path straight and people at arm’s length isn’t as reliable in the crowded and socially uncomfortable microcosm of assisted living.

The discovery that her old work rival, Dave Andrews, is just down the hall, just as annoyingly handsome, and keeps showing up on her daily hike is most definitely a disaster and not at all interesting.

I would have thought that, living as long as he has, some of that arrogance would have been burned off through the fires of life, but evidently it hasn’t been. He’s still the same jackass who showed up in my office one day and told me my budget for periodicals would be cut in half starting immediately.

Dave isn’t just the same as he always was. Loss has a way of moving into the heart and changing people. Except — sometimes a long walk with a smart woman can show you just how much room you still have left for love.

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried it, but telling yourself there’s nothing to hope for doesn’t ever work.

We’re human beings, after all. Hope is what we do.

A unique enemies-to-lovers romance set in an assisted living retirement community. Pacing of the story is done well. This is a subtle story about falling in love during the sunset years and the romance is handled with both a delicacy and a realistic approach that I found refreshing. What I liked best about this book was the validation that, even as we age, we are still inherently ourselves on the inside, tempered by wisdom and maturity. It is a story about the fears and challenges of aging, the rediscovery of self, and an affirmation of the hope of love, no matter at what age it may find you. It is also equally about coming to terms with the changes in both our circumstances and ourselves as we grow older. I liked the author’s use of the character’s memories and past experiences to illuminate her feelings and view of present day situations. I found the character’s practical, realistic outlook to be evocative and inspiring as I am now firmly entrenched in middle-age and heading toward retirement age. She’s always been fiercely independent and self-sufficient and has a difficult time admitting the need for help and support. Like real life, this story runs the gamut of human emotions. There is both laughter and tears, anger and sadness and joy. I thought it was a good story and will probably re-read it in the future.

 

June: Comfort Read

Thorn Jack by Katherine Harbour

Synopsis:

They call us things with teeth. These words from Lily Rose Sullivan the night of her death haunts her seventeen-year-old sister, Finn, who has moved with her widowed father to his hometown of Fair Hollow, New York. After befriending a boy named Christie Hart and his best friend, Sylvie Whitethorn, Finn is invited to a lakeside party where she encounters the alluring Jack Fata, a member of the town’s mysterious Fata family. Despite Jack’s air of danger and his clever words, Finn learns they have things in common.

One day, while unpacking, Finn finds her sister’s journal, scrawled with descriptions of creatures that bear a sinister resemblance to Jack’s family. Finn dismisses these stories as fiction, but Jack’s family has a secret—the Fatas are the children of nothing and night, nomadic beings who have been preying on humanity for centuries—and Jack fears that his friendship with Finn has drawn the attention of the most dangerous members of his family—Reiko Fata and vicious Caliban, otherwise known as the white snake and the crooked dog.

Plagued with nightmares about her sister, Finn attempts to discover what happened to Lily Rose and begins to suspect that the Fatas are somehow tied to Lily Rose’s untimely death. Drawn to Jack, determined to solve the mystery of her sister’s suicide, Finn must navigate a dangerous world where nothing is as it seems.

This book checked all the boxes on what I love and crave in a book. A modern interpretation and retelling of the old Scottish ballad Tam Lin, this story is part paranormal romance, part horror story, part folklore, and part-mystery. Based on traditional Celtic lore and symbology regarding the Fae, and sprinkled liberally with quotes from Shakespeare, Yeats, and Lady Gregory, it is steeped in Gothic atmosphere, gorgeous settings, and sensory description.

This book is an opposites-attract love story with impossible odds, set in an isolated small college town in upstate New York that is, beneath the surface, a long-held stronghold of the Fae. It is lyrical and mysterious, full of light and darkness, with life and death struggles. It is populated with the living and the dead, and those who are trapped in between. Where an ordinary young woman, grieving the loss of both her sister and her mother, becomes a champion in the face of malevolence and dark desires.

It touched on so many of my literary interests and personal weaknesses that I loved every moment of this book. It was exactly what I needed. The world-building was fantastic. This is a perfect read for Autumn, especially with Halloween fast approaching, as that is the time frame of the book. The story wrapped around me like a familiar blanket and I was indeed comforted. This is the first book in a series and ends with a HFN.

 

July: Favorite Trope

Sunshine After the Rain by Daisy James

Synopsis:

A summer that changes everything…

Frazzled workaholic Evie Johnson has finally had enough! When she’s blamed for a publicity disaster at the art gallery she loves, she decides to flee the bright lights of London for the sun-drenched shores of Corfu and turn her life upside-down.

Under the shade of the olive trees, she picks up her dusty paintbrushes and begins to chase the dreams she had put aside for so long. But she never expected to bump into drop-dead-gorgeous Sam Bradbury – and certainly not whilst wrapped only in a towel!

A summer fling is the last thing Evie wanted but a few stolen kisses under the stars might just begin to change her mind…

This book had two of my favorite things going for it: forced proximity and the virtual-vacation of an exotic locale. Corfu, Greece, to be exact. It’s also a friends-to-lovers romance and a journey of one woman’s rediscovery of both her lost passions and her true self. All in all, it’s a fun, entertaining adventure. The plot was a tad simplistic and predictable in places, but sometimes all I want is a quick, easy romance that I know will have a HEA. Artists, Greek Islands, and escapism, with a little comedy thrown in for good measure. What’s not to like about that?

 

August: Series

Blackbird in the Reeds (The Rowan Harbor Cycle #1)

by Sam Burns

Synopsis:

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

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

This is book one of a very addictive urban fantasy series, so be warned. You may want to immediately binge read all the rest of the available titles one right after the other just like I did. (There are currently six books out, with three more planned, and a spin-off novella.) This was a fast-moving, charming and enchanting read, and I fell in love with both the characters and the town.

The small seaside town of Rowan Harbor, Oregon is populated with a variety of supernatural beings hiding in plain sight of the few humans living among them. This series is billed as a trilogy of trilogies (9 books total) which follows three couples but each book is a complete story unto itself, although (aside from this first one) they probably cannot be read as stand alone books. This first book centers on prodigal grandson Devon, who is urgently summoned home by his grandmother, and deputy sheriff Wade, who happens to be his best friend’s little brother all grown up and grumpy. The fated-mates/soulmates trope is strongly utilized in these books, but it is written well and entertaining to watch unfold as Devon fights to ignore it and figure out what exactly is going on in his hometown. The plots are not too heavy or complex, but they are addictively intriguing, satisfying, and enchanting.

The world-building in this urban fantasy series is subtle and excellent. This is book one and it contains a great deal of world-building, character introductions, setting up the larger over-arcing story, etc., yet still delivers an engaging romance with a satisfying HFN.

 

September: Historical

Aunt Belle’s Time Travel & Collectibles

by Marshall Thornton

Synopsis:

Where would you go if you could travel to any part of your past? That’s the question Terrance faces on his 45th birthday—and right away, he knows. He wants to go back to 1992 and not meet Mr. Wrong. But what begins as a journey to change the past becomes a trip to find the future. From the writer of Femme comes a story of best friends, time travel and going backward to move forward.

This was as close as I could find to a historical read in my TBR list. A big part of this book does take place in the past — the recent past of 1992, but still the past – so I went with it.

If you could go back in time and make different choices, would you? This was a fast-paced, fun, feel-good story about choices, friendships, and second chances. It’s a friends-to-lovers romance. Although lighthearted and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny, this is not a superficial story. It is layered and nuanced with realizations, perspectives, emotions, and insights. A surprisingly enjoyable read.

Okay, now we’re all caught up on How I Spent My Summer (hint: reading. I spent most of the past six months reading), I need to get busy on this month’s TBR Challenge: Paranormal review of Wolfsong (Green Creek #1) by T.J. Klune.

Stay tuned!

TBR Challenge: The Fiery Cross (Outlander Book 5) by Diana Gabaldon

2018 TBR Challenge: Kicking It Old School

This month’s challenge involves books with an original publication date of at least ten years ago. For this challenge, I chose to resume reading a series that I loved and then abandoned two decades ago: Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Now, I realize that these books are not strictly Romance. They are classified as Romance, but they also fall into the categories of Historical Fiction and Science Fiction/Fantasy. Personally, I consider them to be more Magical Realism than Science Fiction, but that’s a debate for another day. The main crux of the Outlander saga is definitely the epic love story between 20th Century’s Claire Randall and 18th Century’s Jamie Fraser. So, I’m going with it as a Romance.

Since I own all the books in this series written to this date, it seemed an inevitable choice to dive back in where I left off. I stopped reading the series after the fourth book, Drums of Autumn, which was first published in December 1996. My mother and I shared a fierce love for the first three books. It was one of the many things that we bonded over after I became a fellow married adult and friend, rather than simply her daughter. We read them and reread them, passing them back and forth between us. When Drums of Autumn (Outlander Book 4) came out, it had been more than five years since the series began and we had been eagerly awaiting more of this series for three long years. But that winter was a turbulent time in my life and, with a pending divorce and a job I hated, it took me a while to get around to reading it. Thankfully, my husband and I were able to reconcile before the divorce was finalized and I was able to leave my job for a better job a few months later. My mother went ahead and read the book without me and was waiting for me to get around to reading it so we could discuss it. Long story short, my mother died in 1997 before I could read the book. I never got to hear her thoughts on it and, understandably, her death cast a bit of a pall over my own enjoyment of it. There were so many times while reading that book when I wanted to ask her opinion or point out specific sections to her and would then realize, over and over again, that I never could. It took me a long time to finish the book.

By the time The Fiery Cross (Outlander Book 5) was released in November 2001, I could not bring myself to continue reading the series. I bought the book (and subsequent books in the series, thereafter) but did not read it. Not only did the books remind me of my mother, our shared love of the series, and my loss of her but, after about two thirds of the way into the third book, Voyager (which is my favorite of the series, by far), I had begun to grow frustrated and impatient with the slow momentum of the storytelling. My mind would keep screaming, “Get back to the point and get on with it, already!” Have I mentioned that patience is not a virtue I’m overly familiar with? And I’m an editor, to boot, so concision is my Holy Grail. There were far too many side-trips into sometimes interesting (yet irrelevant) description and (redundant) analysis that did nothing to move the plot forward at a steady rate. This is another reason I stopped reading the series after plodding through The Drums of Autumn twenty years ago. It seemed an acceptable place to stop, all things considered. I was satisfied with where things stood for all involved by the end of that book.

Don’t get me wrong! I am eternally grateful to Diana Gabaldon for creating this fictional saga and for introducing these marvelous characters to the world. James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser may very well be the greatest fictional hero ever written and Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser is the epitome of the strong, willful, courageous heroine. I love the cast of characters of this series, the epic love, the fantastical premise, and the historical events and settings. That’s why I keep reading these books, even though they are getting harder for me to wade through the longer the series goes on. My investment in these characters compels me to want to know what ultimately becomes of them.

Which brings me to the TBR Challenge of the month…

 

The Fiery Cross (Outlander Book 5) by Diana Gabaldon

The year is 1771, and war is coming. Jamie Fraser’s wife tells him so. Little as he wishes to, he must believe it, for hers is a gift of dreadful prophecy—a time-traveler’s certain knowledge.

Born in the year of Our Lord 1918, Claire Randall served England as a nurse on the battlefields of World War II, and in the aftermath of peace found fresh conflicts when she walked through a cleftstone on the Scottish Highlands and found herself an outlander, an English lady in a place where no lady should be, in a time—1743—when the only English in Scotland were the officers and men of King George’s army.

Now wife, mother, and surgeon, Claire is still an outlander, out of place, and out of time, but now, by choice, linked by love to her only anchor—Jamie Fraser. Her unique view of the future has brought him both danger and deliverance in the past; her knowledge of the oncoming revolution is a flickering torch that may light his way through the perilous years ahead—or ignite a conflagration that will leave their lives in ashes….

Grand, sweeping, utterly unforgettable, The Fiery Cross is riveting entertainment, a vibrant tapestry of history and human drama.

At a staggering 1443 pages, it took me over a week to read this book. Me, who is accustomed to devouring at least one book every day or two, sometimes more. The longer it drug on, the more I grumbled about it. My husband teased me for days, calling it “The Neverending Book”.

Some parts of this book were riveting, especially the sections set at River Run and Alamance and at the end of the book. Other parts were fascinating glimpses into the day-to-day life in late 18th century Blue Ridge backcountry. But, unfortunately, the other parts were tedious or anxiety-inducing, drawn-out descriptions and seemingly pointless inner monologues or mind-numbing clinical entries into a physician’s journal. I felt the book was overly long and the story disjointed in its meandering. It reminded me more of a collection of short stories and vignettes than a novel. By about the last quarter of the book, I just wanted it to end or to simply get back on track. It was a dichotomy of  suspenseful, perilous adventures interspersed with the banality of routine daily tasks and events tangentially strung together into a loose semblance of a plot. It lacked the smooth forward momentum of the previous books.

Covering almost two years in the lives of these characters, it is packed with action, suspense, adventure, danger, romance, and mystery. But it is also filled with long passages of daily chores and abstract introspection. Remember those psychedelic rock songs from the late ’60’s and early ’70’s? They started off in one style and tempo, transitioned into a long, frantic instrumental solo, and then came back in an entirely different rhythm and tone. That’s what this book is like. I had to keep reminding myself what had happened hundreds of pages prior so I could pick up the threads of the various storylines as they came back around.

The characters were as consistently engaging as they’ve always been and their plights were as compelling as ever. It’s not that I regret reading it. I’m glad I did, if only to know all the things that have transpired with these characters thus far. It felt good to be in their presence again, like visiting old friends and catching up on what’s been going on in their lives. But, as an editor, I kept wanting to pick up my red pencil and streamline this story. I would have cut it by at least half.

Of Lateness, Lethargy, and Loss

TBR Challenge: Sugar or Spice (closed door romance or spicy romance)

A day late and a dollar short, as my granny used to say, seems to be a recurring theme in my life. I apologize for being late once again with my TBR Challenge 2018 review. I’ve been distracted, to put it mildly, and it’s been difficult to gather my thoughts – much less focus on the books I’ve been reading. For lack of a better reason, I guess I’m at a loss for words.

Ever watch the season three finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? I’m stalled in “fire bad, tree pretty” mode right now.

What a month, right? The recent tumult in the romance community hit a little too close to home for me. Between shock-and-awe revelations, discrimination and harassment scandals, and publishing houses closing to submissions or shutting down altogether, I’m feeling rather jaded, cynical, and disillusioned with the romance genre at the moment. It’s not the first time I’ve witnessed upheavals such as these and, unfortunately, it most likely won’t be the last. But it is extremely disheartening. Careers derailed, reputations damaged, whistle-blowers victimized, readers stunned and wary. It casts a pall over the entire community. Every time I begin to toy with the idea of coming out of retirement to start writing again, to start playing with character ideas and tinkering with plot elements like they’re puzzle pieces, dumpster fires like these crop up to remind me why I quit the business in the first place.

The books I’ve been reading lately have spanned the spectrum from sweet, no-sex-at-all love stories, to closed door romances, all the way through to explicitly spicy stories of love among phone sex workers, cam boys, and porn stars. None of these have succeeded in lifting me out of this pessimistic funk into which I’ve descended. Don’t get me wrong. They were all good books. The fault does not lie with the stories or with the writing. My head was just not in the game and I was unable to fully sink into these fictional worlds. I gave each of these seven books three stars on Goodreads because I liked them all. I just wasn’t in the frame of mind to truly appreciate them.

And for these same reasons, I’ve decided to postpone reading quite a few eagerly-anticipated books by writers I adore out of fear of having what should be a pleasurably satisfying experience tainted by my current mood and mindset.  Hopefully, this feeling will soon pass and I can get back to the blissful escapism of reading romance novels. For the time being, however, I believe I’ll be taking a dip back into horror by reading The Whites of Their Eyes: A Collection of Queer Horror by Xen Sanders and High Lonesome Sound by Jaye Wells.

And now, on to this month’s reviews….


Bon Bons to Yoga Pants (The Health and Happiness Society #1)

by Katie Cross

Lexie Greene has always had such a pretty face.

Unfortunately, that’s where it seemed to stop. She’s grown up hearing her Mother constantly remind her that she needs to lose weight. And twenty-two-year-old Lexie knows she’s overweight.

With her younger sister’s wedding on the horizon and a crush to stalk on Facebook, Lexie’s had enough. She gives up her constant daydreams about food and joins a dieting group. As the pounds melt away at the gym, she finds that life on the other side of junk food isn’t what she thought.

Bon Bons to Yoga Pants is an inspirational hit about a girl coming to terms with herself, and her past, all while navigating a world of food and fitness.

On the surface, this book is about a young woman’s journey into weight loss in an effort to be more attractive to a young man she meets online, but it’s a much deeper, more layered story of self-discovery and self-worth. It made me both laugh out loud and choke up and get teary-eyed at times but, ultimately, it’s a sweet and uplifting story of love, loss, and learning to be truly happy with oneself.


Love for Scale by Michaela Greene

Twenty-seven-year-old Rachel Stern is in a rut. Despite her mother’s best efforts, she is still single. At two-hundred and forty-two pounds, she still lives at home, the victim of a constantly-cooking Jewish mother whose force-feeding techniques have become legendary.

As if that isn’t bad enough, Rachel’s Friday and Saturday evenings are spent with her parents and her Saturday mornings consist of wedding gown shopping with her also single best friend. She is clearly going nowhere. But at least she’s not alone. Until her best friend snags a boyfriend.

Finally, unable to stand herself and her weight problem anymore, Rachel signs up for Weight Watchers.

Finnegan Schwartz, a young man who has already been successful at the Weight Watchers program, having lost a hundred pounds, champions Rachel and becomes her impromptu weight loss coach and newest friend. Rachel soon learns there’s so much more to this funny and shy guy who she’d overlooked before.

Amid her mother’s overzealous attempts to fix her up, bizarre family dinners and crises that threaten to unravel the entire Stern family, will Rachel be able to find something she’s never thought was hers for the taking: self-acceptance?

This one was a closed door romance. Aside from its abrupt ending that left me slightly disappointed, and a plot which was a bit of a cliché, this was an entertaining story. The characters are quirky, dysfunctional, and likeable. The family dynamics were relatable for me. The romance is a slow-building, friends to lovers relationship. Similar to the previous book, this story centers on a young woman’s journey of self-discovery and transformation, but this book focuses just as much on the character’s love for her family and her struggle for independence, as it does on her weight loss.  All in all, it was a nice, quick read.


A Cowboy to Remember (Canadays of Montana #1) by Barbara Ankrum

Twelve years ago, equestrian Olympic hopeful Olivia Canaday and her best friend, Jake Lassen, made a pinky-swear promise to reunite at the Big Marietta Fair on her thirtieth birthday and marry each other if they were both still single. But that was before they grew up and went their separate ways.

Now, after a disastrous divorce and a career-changing accident, Olivia limps home, minus her mojo, her courage and her faith in love. She retreats to her parents’ ranch, determined to play it safe, but when ex-Army helicopter pilot Jake Lassen arrives to make good on their promise, he reignites passion and hope, two things Olivia had forgotten existed.

Olivia resolves to keep Jake at arm’s length, even though the memory of his kisses keeps her up at night. She knows better than to let her heart get involved, but Jake is planning for the future. Their future. Can Jake convince her to risk it all one more time and really make this a fair to remember?

*Previously titled A Fair to Remember

This was a nice friends-to-lovers, second chance at love romance. I’d say it leans closer to sugar than spice. With the exception of one mildly described sex scene, it’s a sweet romance. I liked the shared history of the characters and the Western setting. I also liked the characters, for the most part, but the heroine did annoy me at times. I’m not a fan of self-pity or characters who deny themselves happiness when it’s right there for the taking. The conflict and resolution in this book felt a touch contrived to me but I still enjoyed the story, for the most part.


Choose Me, Cowboy (Canadays of Montana #2) by Barbara Ankrum

Marietta Kindergarten teacher, Kate Canaday, is doing perfectly well without the ex-love of her life mucking up her intention to stay gloriously uncommitted. So what if she’s become—according to her sisters—a serial dater? If pro-bullrider Finn Scott’s untimely defection six years ago taught her anything, it was that men come with an expiration date. And she’s more than happy to oblige them.

Trouble is, the sexier-than-ever Finn, now a devoted single father, has just moved to Marietta with his adorable five-year-old twins. He’s in an unexpected custody battle with his ex and too proud to ask Kate for help in making his crazy life look stable. But Kate sees helping him as a way of sealing off the hurt from her past once and for all. If they can just keep their hands off each other. After all…expiration date, right?

Not if Finn has anything to say about it…

This second installment to the series was spicier than the first and much more enjoyable. I liked the chemistry between these two characters and the enemies-to-lovers, marriage of convenience, second chance at love romance. This heroine is stronger and feistier than her sister was in the previous book, making her more likeable in my opinion. The stakes in this book are higher, the conflicts more realistic and relatable, the plot more complex and satisfying. I really enjoyed this book.


Hotline (Murmur Inc. #1) by Quinn Anderson

Zack never intended to become a phone sex operator, but with half a college degree and a smart mouth, his options were limited. It helps that he has a knack for thinking on his feet and a willingness to roll with whatever his clients throw at him. Sure, he gets his fair share of creeps and unconventional requests, but it pays the bills, and he’s in no danger of breaking his one rule: never fall for a client.

Until a man named “John” starts calling, and Zack finds himself interested in more than a paycheck. It’s not just that John has money, or that his rumbling baritone drives Zack wild. He’s everything Zack isn’t: educated, poised, and in total control of his life.

A twist of fate brings them face-to-face, and now that they’ve seen each other—and spent an unforgettable night together—they can’t go back to the way things were. A sex worker and a trust fund brat . . . It’s like Romeo and Juliet, but with less stabbing and slightly fewer dick jokes. Hopefully they can pull off a more successful ending.

This book, along with the other books in this series, definitely falls into the spicy category. The chemistry between these two characters was sizzling hot. Yes, it’s a stretch to believe a phone sex operator and client could fall in love and find a HEA, but once you get beyond that it’s a really good book. I felt it handled the power balance between these two disparate characters well. All the characters, including the side characters, are fleshed out and interesting. The resolution at the end felt a little too simplistic to me for the problem that warranted it. Otherwise this was a thoroughly enjoyable escape from reality.


Action (Murmur Inc. #2) by Quinn Anderson

Pete Griflow is the last person anyone would suspect of being a porn star. He’s quiet, gawky, and can’t even talk to guys without turning red. But on camera, he’s a different person. In the porn world, he’s Jaden Prime, a coquettish power bottom who’s been tantalizing fans for over a year now.

Pete is in a rut, though, and he knows it. And what’s worse, his boss knows it. If he can’t reignite his passion for the biz, he’s going to have trouble paying his none-too-cheap college tuition.

When Pete is given the opportunity to star in a huge summer production, sparks fly between him and his costar, Kyle Darko. Kyle is Pete’s opposite: he’s daring, achingly sexy, and in love with the sex industry. Their chemistry is palpable on and off screen, but dating on a porn set is tricky. Even pros struggle to separate fantasy from reality, especially with a script dictating their seduction. But what’s building between them can’t be ignored, and it’s so much more than getting some “action.”

As with the first book in the series, once you get past the skepticism of two porn stars falling in love and finding their HEA, this is a sweet, fun, sexy read. The author has a talent for creating interesting, fully realized characters and for drawing the reader into the story and making you care about these characters. This was another satisfying escape for me.


Cam Boy (Murmur Inc. #3) by Quinn Anderson

After years of making minimum wage, college dropout Josh Clemmons may have found his salvation. Murmur Inc., a local adult entertainment company, is hosting auditions for new performers, and Josh has been invited to try out. If he can make it as a porn star, he can kiss his money troubles goodbye.

Mike Harwood is a loud-and-proud professional adult entertainer. In the past three years, he’s starred in dozens of films, and he’s very good at what he does. But as focused as he’s been on work, he’s neglected everything else, including his love life. He’s so used to faking attraction, he can no longer tell when something real is staring him in the face.

Josh gets the job, but when porn fails to live up to the fantasy, he quits to do cam work instead. But he can’t stop thinking about the one scene he filmed, and the captivating man he filmed it with. Their chemistry is undeniable, but Mike knows better than to mix business with pleasure. Then again, with true love on the line, this unorthodox office romance may need a second take.

Just as in the previous two books in the series, the author once again makes it easy to suspend disbelief that romance can blossom on a porn set and lead to lasting love through the use of her impressive character development skills which pull the reader into the minds and hearts of these two main characters. This book deals with a bit more of the harsh realities sex workers face with a more unidealized portrayal of what goes into filming porn, as well as an HIV scare. This was a good story with a slow-building relationship between the characters. In my opinion, this was the most believable romance scenario of the three books in this series, but it was also my least favorite because the chemistry between these two men felt more forced than the previous ones, to me. All in all, still a good read.

Succumbing To The Charm…

TBR Challenge 2018: Backlist Glom (Author with multiple books in your TBR)

It dawned on me yesterday morning that this month’s TBR Challenge was upon me and I had yet to decide on a book, much less read it. My TBR list is packed with authors I could have chosen for this month’s theme. I have a habit of, when I read a book by a new-to-me author that I enjoy, adding several of that author’s titles to my Want-to-Read shelf on Goodreads. I also add books to the shelf when they are repeatedly recommended to me by friends and fellow readers whose opinions and taste in books I trust.  As I hurriedly debated who and what to read, one name kept resurfacing: K.J. Charles. And, in particular, her A Charm of Magpies series. I have been encouraged time and time again to read this series by so many of my friends and acquaintances over the past couple of years that I’m amazed I haven’t given in until now. So, I grabbed up The Magpie Lord and dived right in.

 

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

A lord in danger. A magician in turmoil. A snowball in hell.

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

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

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

Book 1 of the Charm of Magpies series. Previously published by Samhain.

We all know that I gravitate toward supernatural and paranormal stories, but historical is never my first choice. However, this book is also full of other elements I love in a good book: mystery and magic, action and suspense, attraction and desire. It’s a M/M Fantasy Romance set in Victorian era England, with its aristocratic obligations, societal expectations, and class distinctions, so there are many built-in conflicts and obstacles to begin with, aside from the added dangers of magical manipulation, attempted murder, a haunting, and sinister plots by unscrupulous practitioners.

The Magpie Lord was a fun, exhilarating ride and, from what I can tell from being partway into the second book, only the tip of the iceberg of this enchanting adventure of a series. It is a perfect blend of fantasy, romance, supernatural suspense, witty banter, and intelligent humor. I fell in love with not only these characters and their fictional world, but with the author’s writing itself. I am now going to devour the rest of this series and move on to all of the other K.J. Charles books languishing in my TBR list.

2018 TBR Challenge: Green’s Thumb (Men of Retail #1) by Alexander Elliott

It’s time for the 2018 TBR Challenge hosted by Wendy the Super Librarian! I had so much fun taking part in 2017 that I decided to sign on for 2018, as well. This month’s theme was We Love Short-Shorts, focusing on shorter reads.

Green’s Thumb (Men of Retail #1)

by Alexander Elliott

Mitch Graham and Karl Hartman are meant for each other – they just don’t know it yet. They’re both gay, middle aged, single, and hoping to meet that special someone. Problem is, they never get out of the house! Mitch’s gardening job at Green’s Thumb doesn’t pay enough for any sort of social life, and Karl works from home, so the chances of them meeting seem pretty slim. When Mitch decides on a whim to visit a new dog park, Karl’s greyhound takes a shine to him, bringing the men together. After Karl hires Mitch to spruce up his front yard, something special begins to grow along with the flowers.

112 page M/M Romance Novella

This is a pleasant enough little story about two middle-aged men who meet, date, and fall in love. It’s quiet, sweet, and simple, but there is no conflict. There were plenty of opportunities for conflict to occur, and I kept expecting it to occur every time I turned the page, but it never materialized. The author chose to allow the relationship to progress with no blips or obstacles standing in the way of the couple’s HEA. There is also a lot of telling rather than showing. I liked that the MCs were both in their fifties, were both working class, that they had both had previous long-term relationships, and I liked the slow-paced development of the physical part of their relationship. But it could have been a better, stronger story if the characters would have had to overcome something – anything – in order to find their HEA.

Although I genuinely liked these characters and enjoyed their romance, I was left feeling disappointed. This could have been a much stronger, more rewarding story. I give it 2.5 stars. I wish I could give it more because, in my opinion, there need to be more romance books focused on this age range. People do not stop feeling desire or falling in love just because they pass the big 5-0. There was so much I did like about this story (the characters, low-angst, the gardening aspect, second chance at happiness, etc.) but, without conflict and a few obstacles for the couple to face and overcome, it just felt too easy and fell a bit flat for me.