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 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 seven books out, with three more planned.) 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, OR 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 (not counting 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!

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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.

My Favorite Reads of 2017

Another year is at an end and it’s once again time to list my favorite of the books I’ve read during the year. I read a lot of books this year, 261 books in fact. Mostly contemporary romance, both m/m and m/f, but I also read a lot of fantasy, magical realism, some historical, and some chick-lit this year. I discovered new and new-to-me authors to add to my auto-buy list and made a major dent in my To-Be-Read List – although it doesn’t really help that I add books to the list as fast as I mark them off it. It’s a bit like running in place. In short, it was a challenge for me when it came time to choose favorites. My criteria (aside from being entertaining and well-written) was that the book had to (a.) have a deep emotional impact on me, and that it (b.) lingered in my mind long after I finished reading it.

My Top 10 Books of 2017:


 
( 1.) His Mossy Boy (Being(s) in Love #8) by R. Cooper

It’s no secret that R. Cooper is one of my favorite authors. All of her books and stories are emotionally satisfying to me. They are my #1 go-to comfort reads. They are subtle, well-crafted, layered stories and I love the way she writes characters who are beautifully fragile yet earnest and even hopeful in the face of adversity. They have depth and complexity and the author renders them skillfully. I love the way she weaves stories which are at once poignant, entrancing, and charming. I am particularly fond of the Being(s) in Love series, of which this book is the latest installment. It picks up not long after the previous book, Treasure for Treasure, and the main characters first appeared in that book. You don’t need to have read Treasure for Treasure prior to reading His Mossy Boy, but it did enhance my own enjoyment of this book because several of the characters reappear in this book. His Mossy Boy is a slow-burn romance full of longing, self-examination, and unresolved sexual tension, along with the endearing magical Beings that populate this series.

( 2.) The Remaking of Corbin Wale by Roan Parrish

I’m not sure how to describe this book. It’s like nothing I’ve ever read. It’s almost a modern day fairy tale with a touch of old world vibe. This is a beautiful story. The language is beautiful, the imagery, the gentleness. It’s charming and enchanting. Corbin Wale is a wonderfully unique and fascinating character. Alex Barrow is the most steadfast, genuine, honest character I’ve read in a while. Together they combine into a deeply rooted true love story for the ages.

( 3.) Peter Darling by Austin Chant

This book was marvelous and magical. It’s a beautifully written, compelling trans story of Peter Pan, now grown up, revisiting Neverland and discovering truths about both himself and his old nemesis, Captain Hook. It’s a captivating story that I never knew I needed until I read it. I’m in love with this book.

( 4.) Nocturne (Hours of the Night #2) by Irene Preston & Liv Rancourt

If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you know that I adore this series. It’s one of the strongest, best written paranormal series I’ve read in a very long time. Nocturne is everything I love in a story combined: mystery, suspense, romance, and the paranormal, all set in and around New Orleans during Mardi Gras season. The characters are compelling, the tension and suspense builds gradually but steadily and never stalls, the mysteries are not easily solved by either the characters or the reader (very huge plus for me, who usually figures everything out in the first quarter of a book and grow bored), and it’s filled with well-researched ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity. This book was excellent on every level. I can hardly wait for the next installment.

You can read more of my thoughts on the Hours of the Night series here and here.

( 5.) How to Blow It With a Billionaire (Arden St. Ives #2) by Alexis Hall

This series is brilliantly imagined and executed. Alexis Hall has taken a worn out, overdone trope and turned it on its ear. It’s fresh and fun and intense and an emotional rollercoaster ride. I almost cheated and listed both books in this series, because you need to have read the first book in order to understand everything that is going on in this one,  but I feel that this second book is a stronger book. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the first book. Arden is the most refreshing, most irresistibly vibrant and lovable character I’ve read in a long time. I love everything about him. And Caspian intrigues me. But much of the first book, How to Bang a Billionaire (Arden St. Ives #1), was spent setting up the series, introducing the cast of characters, laying the groundwork, etc. This book brings the story fully to the forefront. The characters are more developed and their interactions are on a deeper level and get us to the heart of this relationship. This book made me laugh out loud and it made my heart weep. This being the second book in a three book series, we are left with a cliffhanger and not a HEA or even a HFN. So, now I just really need to read the third book and it doesn’t come out for months and I’m left with this aching and longing in my soul. But I have faith in both Arden St. Ives and Alexis Hall to pull it all together in a satisfying climax in that final installment.

( 6.) Who We Are by Nicola Haken

This book runs the emotional gamut. There’s laughter and tears, frustration and despair, love and fear. It’s about everyday life, dreams put on hold, family responsibility and the struggles and triumphs that come along with it. These characters are realistic and relatable, fully-drawn and compelling. The supporting characters are fully-developed and intriguing in their own right. All in all, it’s everything I love in a story.

( 7.) House of Cards (Porthkennack Book 4) by Garrett Leigh

One of the highlights of 2017 for me has been the introduction of the Porthkennack series, a series of m/m romance books by a collaboration of talented authors which are all set in the charming, fictional Cornish seaside town of Porthkennack, a town with a long and sometimes sinister history. I’ve enjoyed all of the books in this series to a varying degree, but House of Cards has been my favorite, so far. It’s a slow-building  friends-to-lovers story with complicated, multi-dimensional characters who are both dealing with the demons of their pasts. It’s also populated with interesting side characters whom I hope to see more of in future books. There are also tattoo artists, smugglers, and chicken rescuers. 

( 8.) The Poison Within (Inspector Skaer #1) by Kasia Bacon

Although this is a short novella rather than a full length novel, it belongs on this list. I’ve enjoyed all of this author’s stories and novellas set in her The Order Universe thus far but this one was my favorite. Part romance, part police procedural, part paranormal, it’s a fully formed story brimming with intrigue and diversity, and populated by complex, well-developed characters. Kasia Bacon is that rare creature who can convey a wealth of character and atmosphere in a very concise yet vivid way. I spent over ten years editing short story anthologies and I’ve only seen a handful of writers as adept as this author at the short form.

( 9.) Foxglove Copse (Porthkennack Book 5) by Alex Beecroft (Trigger Warning for Bullying and Animal Abuse)

(10.) The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel (Trigger Warning for Sexual Abuse)

Now, these last two books were a tough call when it came to putting this list together. They are both powerful, provocative, and riveting stories, but they both contain disturbing and distasteful subject matter. They are also both masterfully written and stayed with me long after I finished reading them. If you like dark and twisted stories, these are definitely that. The Roanoke Girls, especially, is a f*cked up story and it will screw with your head, but it is intensely engrossing and I could not put it down.

Foxglove Copse disturbed me in a completely different way. One of the main characters suffers from severe anxiety, just like I do. Every time he had an anxiety attack, so did I. One of the characters in the book is a teenager who is bullied. I, too, was bullied as a teen. The crimes committed in the book are disturbing to me on a visceral level. But this story is so well-crafted and so thoroughly descriptive, I felt like I was living this book and it haunted me for quite a while.

Best Books I Read in 2017 That Were Published Before 2017:



( 1.) The Imperfection of Swans by Brandon Witt (2016) (Trigger warning for eating disorders)

This book is full of angst, unresolved sexual tension, personal struggles, and a ton of emotion. The romantic relationship is a slow-building, unhurried development, not rushed and not perfect for a while. But there is such depth to these characters. Their dreams are real, their fears are deep-seated, their struggles are realistically portrayed. It’s a powerful, moving journey that left me emotionally limp with a book hangover that lasted for days.

( 2.) Garden Spells (Waverley Family #1) by Sarah Addison Allen (2007)

The women of the Waverley family — whether they like it or not — are heirs to an unusual legacy, one that grows in a fenced plot behind their Queen Anne home on Pendland Street in Bascom, North Carolina. There, an apple tree bearing fruit of magical properties looms over a garden filled with herbs and edible flowers that possess the power to affect in curious ways anyone who eats them.

I read this book for my February 2017 TBR Challenge and loved it. I’ve since read every book by this author that I could get my hands on and I’m grateful to have been reminded how much I enjoy magical realism in books. The rhythm and lyricism of the storytelling in this book is beautiful and draws you in to this world of Bascom, North Carolina and into the heart of this town and this family, with their history and their heartache and their hopes for the future. It is told from multiple viewpoints, giving scope and perspective and a true sense of place to this enchanting world in which the tale unfolds.

( 3.) Wait For It  by Mariana Zapata (2016)

If anyone ever said being an adult was easy, they hadn’t been one long enough. Diana Casillas can admit it: she doesn’t know what the hell she’s doing half the time. How she’s made it through the last two years of her life without killing anyone is nothing short of a miracle. Being a grown-up wasn’t supposed to be so hard. With a new house, two little boys she inherited the most painful possible way, a giant dog, a job she usually loves, more than enough family, and friends, she has almost everything she could ever ask for. Except for a boyfriend. Or a husband. But who needs either one of those?

I’ve yet to read a book by Mariana Zapata that I didn’t love. Her voice is fresh and engaging and it pulls me into the story every time. Like most of her books, family plays a big part. There are also a couple of surprise guest appearances by characters from the author’s previous books, which I found delightful. I love that sense of recognition when I’m reading along and then, “Wait! I know you!” This is, once again, one of my favorite kind of books: a book about realistic characters dealing with real day to day life issues, family responsibility, unexpected twists and turns, and the families that we choose to form for ourselves.

( 4.) The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows (2008)

I really enjoyed this epistolary novel about the German Occupation of Guernsey in the Channel Islands during WWII, subtly interwoven with the description of the everyday lives of the inhabitants of the island and, in spite of the subject matter, this is not a dark story. It is charming and graceful and full of life and love and hope. I read this book for my May 2017 TBR Challenge. You can read my full review here.

( 5.) Stargazey Point (Stargazey #2) by Shelley Noble (2013)

Devastated by tragedy during her last project, documentarian Abbie Sinclair seeks refuge with three octogenarian siblings, who live in a looming plantation house at the edge of the world.

South Carolina’s Stargazey Point used to be a popular family beach resort, but the beaches have eroded, most of the businesses have closed, and the crowds have gone. It’s the perfect place to hide from the rest of world.

Economically depressed small town community, colorful, quirky, fully-fleshed  characters, slow-building romance, mysterious secrets from the past… what’s not to love? It helps to read the prequel novella, Stargazey Nights (Stargazey #1), to gain some deeper insight into some of the characters, but I don’t think it’s strictly necessary in order to follow this story – although it, too, is well worth the read.  Shelley Noble’s Stargazey Point is a beautiful story of love, heartbreak, friendship, and new beginnings.

( 6.) Chef’s Table by Lynn Charles (2014)

I’m a sucker for foodie fiction, especially when the characters are this likeable and the story is this deep quest for finding one’s true place and purpose in the world. There’s food, friendship, family, and love. It’s a great book all around.

( 7.) Angelina’s Bachelors: A Novel with Food by Brian O’Reilly (2011)

Filled to the brim with homemade warmth, Angelina’s Bachelors is a sweet tale of overcoming grief, redefining family, and following your heart through food.

Populated by an entertaining cast of characters and filled with amazing food and unexpected friendships, this book is one young widow’s journey to discover who she is and what she truly wants out of life after the sudden loss of the husband she’s built her life around. Set a few decades in the past (1960s or early ’70s, I believe) in South Philadelphia, it is another book about community and forming chosen families, which is a theme I love in books. It is also packed full of recipes, so be warned. Reading this book will make you hungry and possibly increase your waistline.

( 8.) Starting from Scratch by Susan Gilbert-Collins (2010) (Warning: Contains mentions of off page physical abuse and sexual assault.)

Why is someone who just defended her doctoral dissertation still wasting her time at her childhood home, two months after her mother’s funeral, making coq au vin and osso buco? Olivia Tschetter, the youngest of four high-achieving South Dakotan siblings, is not returning to “normal”—or to graduate school— quickly enough to suit her family. She wants only to bury herself in her mother’s kitchen, finding solace in their shared passion for cooking.

Threatened with grief counseling, Olivia accepts a temporary position at the local Meals on Wheels, where she stumbles upon some unfinished business from her mother’s past—and a dark family secret. Startling announcements from two siblings also challenge the family’s status quo. The last thing she needs is a deepening romantic interest in a close but platonic (she thought) friend.

But while Olivia’s mother is gone, her memory and spirit continue to engage Olivia, who finds herself daring to speak when she would never have spoken before. Told with humor and compassion, Starting from Scratch explores the shifting of family dynamics in the wake of shattering loss and the healing power of cooking.

This book evoked strong memories in me of the time following the loss of my mother and how lost I felt and how I needed to feel as if I was still connected to her and not let her memory fade. This is a story of the emotional journey of one woman’s quest to understand her mother and to keep her mother’s legacy alive while finding her own place in life now that school is behind her.

( 9.) The Wishing Thread by Lisa Van Allen (2013)

The Van Ripper women have been the talk of Tarrytown, New York, for centuries. Some say they’re angels; some say they’re crooks. In their tumbledown “Stitchery,” not far from the stomping grounds of the legendary Headless Horseman, the Van Ripper sisters—Aubrey, Bitty, and Meggie—are said to knit people’s most ardent wishes into beautiful scarves and mittens, granting them health, success, or even a blossoming romance. But for the magic to work, sacrifices must be made—and no one knows that better than the Van Rippers.

This book is an enchanting novel about the bonds between sisters, the indelible pull of the past, and the transformational power of love. In a similar vein to Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic and Sarah Addison Allen’s Garden Spells, The Wishing Thread is another story of family ties, mysterious heritage, and community history, laced with magical realism and the healing power of love and belief.

(10.) The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen (2011)

Sarah Addison Allen invites you to a quirky little Southern town with more magic than a full Carolina moon. Here two very different women discover how to find their place in the world–no matter how out of place they feel.

Can a hummingbird cake really bring back a lost love? Is there really a ghost dancing in Emily’s backyard? The answers are never what you expect. But in this town of lovable misfits, the unexpected fits right in.

Magical realism is a weakness of mine and Sarah Addison Allen is a master at this genre. This book ticks so many of my checklist boxes: tight-knit small town, quirky characters, mystery, and magic. Sometimes when you’re seeking answers, you end up with even more questions, and sometimes while searching for one thing you find something else entirely. This book is filled with mysterious occurrences, long hidden secrets, and enchanting intrigue interwoven with love, loss, and longing.

Further Recommendations – Other Books I Loved This Year:

All of The Order Universe stories and novellas by Kasia Bacon

All of the Porthkennack series books

The Amour et Chocolat series by Laura Florand

The La Vie en Roses series by Laura Florand

And last but not least, every book ever written by Sarah Addison Allen

Ring Out the Old, Ring In the New…

It’s hard to believe a year has passed since I started this blog and that December has rolled around again. A lot has happened in that time and I’ve been able to accomplish a few things that I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to do. For one thing, I’m writing again, slowly but steadily, and I hope that will continue to progress and improve into the new year. I’ve survived the loss of two people whom I loved dearly and who were major influences in my life and I’m still standing on (mostly) solid ground. I’m also proud of myself for following through on my commitment to the 2017 TBR Challenge organized by Wendy the Super Librarian. For those of you who don’t know me well, I am notorious for my lack of follow through, so this is a major accomplishment for me.

As for December, this year is shaping up to be a quieter, more contemplative holiday season for me. With the passing of my grandmother a couple of months ago, as well as stepfather and those other dear family members lost to me over the past year or two, I’m feeling nostalgic, a touch melancholy, and introspective. Instead of once again joining in with the crass commercialism of Christmas, I’ve focused more on decorating my home with holly and ivy, mistletoe and pinecones, filling the air with the scents of evergreen and citrus and spice, streaming my extensive, diverse, and eclectic seasonal playlist through the surround sound, exchanging greetings with friends far and near, and cooking and baking the traditional foods and flavors of my heritage.

I have also read some wonderful new holiday books this season that both suited and soothed my mood. They vary in length and time period, cover diverse winter holidays, fall within many sub-genres of the m/m romance genre, including magical realism, historical, urban fantasy, as well as alternative universe, and all five of these books have now been added to my list of all-time favorite holiday reads and will definitely be reread time and time again.

But before I get sidetracked by both my Top 5 new holiday reads and my Top 5 stories from Christmas Past, I read Christmas Wishes and Mistletoe Kisses by Jenny Hale for my December TBR Challenge: Holiday Themes. This book has been on my TBR list for a couple of years now and I never got around to reading it until now.

Thank you for reading my blog and for following my progress this year. I wish you all a happy holiday season and a bright and shining new year.


Christmas Wishes and Mistletoe Kisses

by Jenny Hale

Summary:

An uplifting, beautiful story about never letting go of your dreams, the special magic of a family Christmas… and the rush of falling in love under the mistletoe.

Single mother Abbey Fuller loves her family more than anything, and doesn’t regret for a moment having had to put her dreams of being an interior designer on hold. But with her son, Max, growing up, when a friend recommends her for a small design job she jumps at the chance. How hard can it be?

Nick Sinclair needs his house decorated in time for his family’s festive visit – and money is no object. What he doesn’t need is to be distracted from his multi-million dollar business – even if it is Christmas.

When Abbey pulls up to the huge Sinclair mansion, she has a feeling she might be out of her depth. And when she meets the gorgeous, brooding Nicholas Sinclair, she knows that she’s in real trouble…

With the snow falling all around, can Abbey take the chance to make her dreams of being a designer come true? And can she help Nick to finally enjoy the magic of Christmas?

This was a slow building, tender romance with so many things I love in a story: opposites attract, forced proximity, strangers to friends to lovers, tight-knit family bonds, shifting priorities, characters learning what is  truly valuable and important to them in life. It even has a semi-psychotic cat (to which I can totally relate). I really enjoyed this story and getting to know all these characters. By the end of the book, I was reluctant to leave their company. It was heartwarming, cozy, and comfortable, full of hope and home and hearth. It was just what I needed and a lovely lead up to the holidays.

Now, on to my Top 5 Holiday Books of 2017…


The Remaking of Corbin Wale by Roan Parrish

Last month, Alex Barrow’s whole life imploded—partner, home, job, all gone in forty-eight hours. But sometimes when everything falls apart, better things appear almost like magic. Now, he’s back in his Michigan hometown, finally opening the bakery he’s always dreamed of. But the pleasure of opening day is nothing compared to the lonely and beautiful man who bewitches Alex before he even orders.

Corbin Wale is a weirdo. At least, that’s what he’s heard his whole life. He knows he’s often in a fantasy world, but the things he feels are very real. And so is the reason why he can never, ever be with Alex Barrow. Even if Alex is everything he’s always fantasized about. Even if maybe, just maybe, Corbin is Alex’s fantasy too.

When Corbin begins working at the bakery, he and Alex can’t deny their connection any longer. As the holiday season works its magic, Alex yearns for the man who seems out of reach. But to be with Alex, Corbin will have to challenge every truth he’s ever known. If his holiday risk pays off, two men from different worlds will get the love they’ve always longed for.


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.


Holly & Oak 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.


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?


Blessing and Light by Kasia Bacon.

It’s the Night of Winter Lights.

Heedless of the holiday, the Commander of the H’Aren fortress, Captain Torýn Torhdhar, seems to find his satisfaction in work.

Such occurrence hardly surprises his Orderly, Sæbastyn Hyago, even though the young Lieutenant has spent a silent, aching decade wishing his superior officer would pursue pleasure elsewhere—specifically in his arms. But as the evening continues, nothing about it meets Sæbastyn’s expectations. Will the Lieutenant see his secret desires realised, or his heart shattered?

This alternative winter holiday short, which is a standalone set in the Order Universe.

And, finally, before the season ends, I also plan to revisit a few old favorites from my hoard of holiday stories. I have a collection of over 100 Christmas and Winter Holiday Books, Novellas, and Short Stories that I love and reread as the need arises. This year I’m in the mood for the following tales which are among my all-time favorites.


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?


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.

 

 

 


Merry Gentlemen by Josephine Myles

’Tis the season of goodwill to all men…even the one who dumped you.

Riley MacDermott’s ambitions are simple. Managing the annual Bath Christmas Market—which involves long hours in the cold and a whole lot of hassle—will secure the promotion he needs to afford to move out of his noisy, top-floor flat. Where not even his balcony is safe from an aggressive herring gull.

The last stallholder he expects to see is his ex. Riley never recovered from their break up, and five years on the old chemistry still sparkles. So does their habitual head butting.

Stan never wanted to leave the love of his life, but the pull of the woods was too strong—and Riley was firmly planted in the city. Reconnecting is painful, but Stan still jumps at the chance to stay with his old flame during the Market. And damn the consequences.

As the weeks pass, the two grow closer than ever. But despite scorching sex and cozy intimacy, they both know they face a cold and lonely future. Unless one of them can compromise.

Thanks For The Memories

Okay, I screwed up. Again. All month long I kept thinking the November TBR Challenge: Recommended Read was due on November 22 instead of November 15. Apparently, I was off a by a week. I got confused thinking that Thanksgiving was on the third Thursday of the month, not the fourth. My bad, as we used to say. Since November is the month of Thanksgiving, I plucked two Thanksgiving-themed novellas from my TBR pile: Apples Should Be Red by Penny Watson and Stuffed: A Thanksgiving Romance by Jessica Gadziala, both of which were recommended by friends who know I love seasonal stories.  And if you’re looking for a quick, light read to get you through the holiday weekend, (at the time of this writing) they are each available for $0.99 from Amazon.

I’ve been in a bit of a fog this month because my grandmother died at the end of October and because November is never an easy month for me. It reminds me of all my loved ones who are no longer with us. Both of my parents had birthdays in November, as did an uncle and an aunt. They are all gone now, but with family gatherings and the holidays coming on, they are ever present in my mind.

Tomorrow would have been my mother’s eighty-first birthday. November was her  favorite month. She loved the changing colors of the leaves and the crisp Fall air. She decorated her house with pumpkins, gourds and Indian corn. Chrysanthemums were her favorite flowers. And Thanksgiving was her favorite holiday of the year because, every so often, her birthday would fall on that day.

Twenty years ago last month, I received a phone call in the early morning hours telling me that my mother was dead. It was exactly one month shy of her sixty-first birthday. I had talked to her just a few hours earlier, before going to bed. She had been laughing and joking about how cold the weather had turned. And a few hours later, without warning, she was gone.

This year my grandmother, my mother’s mother, passed away the day before the anniversary of my mother’s death. Although she had been hospitalized for the last few weeks of her life and had been moved into hospice care a few days before her death, it is always a shock to the system when someone you love is suddenly gone. It’s hard to believe she’s actually not there anymore. She’s been there for me for all of my life. She was my first best friend, my childhood playmate, my confidant, my counselor, my mentor. She was fiercely independent and feisty and willful and stubborn and courageous. She was strong and opinionated. She could sew anything. She made my wedding dress and all four of the bridesmaids dresses. And nobody could cook up a Sunday dinner like my Granny. She used to make a Peking roast which we all laughingly called “coffee possum”, referring to an old joke from the Beverly Hillbillies show, and she baked the richest pound cake I’ve ever tasted. She made plum jelly from the plums off the tree in her backyard every Summer. She made quilts and tended to the multitude of flowers in her garden. She was never one to sit idle. She studied her bible and she read westerns and romance novels, one right after the other. She wrote poetry in secret. She bought me my first typewriter when I was thirteen. She was my hero.

Today as I remember my mother and my grandmother, their lives and their vibrant personalities, I am grateful to them both for the life they gave me, for the precedents they set for me to strive toward, and for the guidance they gave me that helped shape me into the person I have become. I am grateful to them for instilling in me a love of stories, of books, and a love of reading that has followed me throughout my life. I am grateful to them for encouraging me to write and for all of their support along the way. I am thankful to have had them in my life, even though it was for far too short a time.

And now on to the reviews.

With all of the melancholy thoughts and nostalgic feelings swirling around inside me lately, I purposely chose two lighthearted holiday stories focusing on hearth, home, and family for this month’s TBR Challenge.

 

Apples Should Be Red by Penny Watson

Description:

Recipe for Thanksgiving Dinner:

Start with 62-year old politically incorrect, chain-smoking, hard-cussing curmudgeon.

Add 59-year old sexually-repressed know-it-all in pearls.

Throw in a beer can-turkey, a battle for horticultural supremacy, and nudist next-door neighbor.

Serve on paper plates, garnished with garden gnome.

Tastes like happily ever after.

Award of Excellence finalist (2015 CoRWA)
DABWAHA finalist (2015)
“Best Romance Novels in 2014” list at About.com
Recommended Read at Romance Novel News

Penny Watson presents an over-fifty romantic comedy novella. 21,000 words. Story includes copious profanity and botanical references.

There was nothing I did not love about this story. It was a delightful, lighthearted  romantic comedy featuring older MCs which, in my opinion, the world could use a lot more of. This book was full of all my favorite tropes: opposites attract, enemies to lovers, and forced proximity. These characters are so well-drawn and the banter and interaction between them is funny and irreverent and charming. They are complete opposites, him a cranky, anti-social hermit, she a sexually-repressed, prim and proper Martha Stewart wannabe. Due to the fact that his son is married to her daughter, the two are forced into co-habitation the week of Thanksgiving and are due to host the holiday meal together. It is an endearing and entertaining tale and I laughed out loud more than a few times while reading it. It’s proof that life and love do not stop just because you get older.

 

Stuffed: A Thanksgiving Romance by Jessica Gadziala

Description:

I haven’t been home for Thanksgiving in six years. A couple days before I leave to head home, I am informed that my brother’s best friend, and also my huge, obnoxious adolescent crush, will be there as well.

So among a shaky work situation, a newfound potato chip addiction, and the usual stress of heading home for the holidays, I have a sudden urge to prove that I was no longer the mumbling, bumbling girl in Hogwarts robes and her nose in a book.

Not that anything was going to happen between us. Those hopes had died around the time I headed off to college.

But maybe….

** This is a quick romance full of sweet moments and enough steam to keep you turning the pages. Explicit content.

This was a fun, fast read about an awkward, nerdy introvert in forced proximity to her teenage crush, who happens to be her older brother’s best friend. When she comes home to spend Thanksgiving with her family for the first time in six years, the object of her adolescent fantasies is also there to spend the holiday week and he has only improved with age and time. He is more gorgeous and sexy than ever.

I enjoyed this book. It has laughs, warmth, sighs, and sizzles. It’s a sweet story with low angst and identifiable characters. In fact, I could recognize every character as a person from my own life. All in all, a cozy, comfortable read. I like that the epilogue takes us a year into the future to the next Thanksgiving and shows how much can change from one year to the next.

 

The Ghost of Halloween Past

royalty-free halloween

It saddens me how much Halloween has changed since I was a child. I saw a commercial the other day (I forget now what it was advertising) which showed a group of costumed children merrily trick-or-treating… in broad daylight. I understand the reasons and rationale behind it, but it still breaks my heart. In this day and age of child predators, feuding gangs, and food tampering, it is dangerous to allow our children to roam the streets at night, knocking on strangers’ doors and begging for consumables. The world is a much darker, uglier, more sinister place than it was in my youth and the Halloween experience is just one of the things that has been diminished by that fact.

In addition to the safety aspects, Halloween has also become commercialized and sanitized to the point that it is almost unrecognizable as the holiday I grew up with.

I count myself fortunate to have grown up in a simpler time, during the golden age of Halloween. It was the heyday of Hammer horror films and American International Pictures. Dark Shadows aired on our television screen every afternoon. My mother’s bookshelves were filled with Gothic romance novels. On the weekends, we had weekly movie matinees of the Universal Studios monsters. We watched The Munsters and The Addams Family and Bewitched every week on TV. And we read EC Comics narrated by Uncle Creepy and Cousin Eerie and Tales from the Crypt. In short, we were steeped in the macabre. We were glutted on depictions of ghosts, vampires, werewolves, witches and goblins of every sort year round.

Granted, there were sometimes slight drawbacks to that immersion. I, for one, was a morbid child who staked my Barbies and buried them in my grandmother’s garden. But then my oddities can be saved for another post at later time.

My point is: Halloween was our favorite holiday. How could it not be?

In those days, Trick or Treat was more than just an excuse to binge on free candy. It was an event – a grand adventure – that we prepared for and meticulously planned for weeks in advance. Most of our costumes were homemade and pieced together with items we found around the house or salvaged from thrift stores. We supplemented these treasures with our mother’s makeup and costume jewelry and cheap plastic fangs from the TG&Y.

We carved scary Jack-o-lanterns, reveling in being up to our elbows in the sticky goo of pumpkin guts. We decorated our houses and front yards with rubber bats and spooky spider webs and fake tombstones and witches on broomsticks and ghoulish dummy corpses hanging from our trees.

When Halloween night finally arrived, we were filled with a rush of fear and excitement. We waited impatiently for sunset and then, grabbing our cheap, plastic pumpkin buckets, we descended upon our neighborhood to plunder and pillage whatever tasty treats were to be had. Those were the days when it was still safe to accept popcorn balls, caramel apples, and Rice Krispie treats from your neighbors without worrying about hauling your bounty to be x-rayed at the hospital before eating them. As a matter of fact, half of the goodies we received were consumed along the way as fuel for our journey.

But it was never just about the treats. It was the experience of it all. You were outside after dark, in the cold October air, trekking door to door among costumed “strangers” who hid behind masks and elaborate makeup. The familiar neighborhood of our daylight hours was transformed into a spooky and alien landscape. Candles flickered from darkened windows. Eerie music drifted from opened doorways. Our imaginations ran wild. Was that really Johnny who sat behind me at school or a ghost returned from the land of the dead? Was that the neighbor’s dog howling or a werewolf on the prowl? There, flying in the sky, was that a vampire bat or just a nighthawk searching for moths? Man, Mrs. Applegate looks really convincing in that witch’s get-up. Is that a real cauldron she’s stirring? Is she secretly a real witch?

Still, the best part of Halloween for me was getting to check out everyone else’s costume creations and parading my own with great pride. I’m not talking about cute little cowboys and shiny super heroes, mind you. In my day, you weren’t just an princess. You were the ghost of a dead princess risen from the grave to haunt the living on All Hallow’s Eve, while the veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest.

Eventually, we would return home exhausted and full of sugar, with our senses on overload. We checked under our beds and inside our closets before crawling reluctantly into bed to relive in our dreams all the sights and sounds and spooky thrills we had experienced. And, even though a part of me knew it was only a myth, I stared out my window at the moon until I fell asleep, watching for a witch to fly past it on her broom.

But that was the mystery and magic of the holiday.

All things seemed possible on those long ago Halloween nights. And sometimes, when I’m lucky, that feeling and sense of possibility still visits me.

As I said, it makes me sad that the children of today will never know the wonder of the Halloweens that I remember from days gone by. They’ll never experience the same thrills and chills I looked forward to every October 31st.

They’ll never understand that it’s not about the candy. It was about the experience itself. The candy was always just an added bonus.

 

What To Read On A Chill October’s Eve

Halloween EveningFor me, mood, atmosphere, subtlety – that’s what makes for a great paranormal read. A slow building tension, a depth of characterization that ensures empathy, an intriguing premise that suspends disbelief in the reader to such a degree they immerse themselves in the story and experience it on a visceral level. In other words, it takes real skill to write a convincing and compelling paranormal story in this day and age filled with skeptics and cynics. Having cut my teeth, so to speak, on stories by the likes of Shirley Jackson and M.R. James, and novels such as The Uninvited by Dorothy Macardle and The House on Russian Hill by Florence Hurd, it’s often hard for me to find the kind of paranormal fiction that satisfies my inner literary snob.

I confess it. I can be a snob when it comes to paranormal fiction.

In order to understand where I’m coming from, here’s a little background on me. I spent a great deal of my early childhood in my grandmother’s haunted house. Yes, you read that correctly: haunted. In addition to that, some of my earliest memories are of watching Dark Shadows every afternoon on television with my mother. My favorite films growing up were the American International and Hammer horror films of the 1950’s and ’60’s. I spent most of my free time devouring Grimm’s fairy tales, classic horror stories and vampire tales, and every dimestore Gothic romance paperback from the sixties and seventies that I could lay my hands on.

Since this list would be endless without some kind of perimeters or criteria, I’ve chosen to limit myself to five (give or take) favorite M/M romances, mainly because I’ve read more in that genre than any other genres for the past few years.

A Little Familiar by R. Cooper

A powerful witch, Piotr Russell has resigned himself to loneliness, because ordinary humans can’t know what he is, and other witches are intimidated by his abilities. Generations of Russells have lived and died with only their familiars at their side. The presence of a friendly familiar is enough to keep even the loneliest witch sane, and yet Piotr deliberately hasn’t chosen one. He forces himself to keep busy instead, but the emptiness of his house haunts him even more than the spirit of Great-Great-Aunt Elysia in the parlor. With Samhain and Halloween approaching, he’ll have much to do, and knowing that, his concerned coven seizes the chance to intervene and sends help to his door in the form of Bartleby Dorchester.

The rarest of rare jewels, Bartleby is a human familiar: a witch with no magic of his own, and a desire to find a strong witch to help and serve. In particular, he desires to help and serve Piotr, and everything in Piotr wants to let him. Bartleby was meant to be his familiar; Piotr knows it as surely as he knows when it will rain or when the apples in his garden will ripen. But what Piotr wants from Bartleby, all he’s ever wanted, is for Bartleby to love him, something he thinks is impossible.

Russells live and die unloved, and he won’t allow Bartleby to feel obligated to spend his life with him as his familiar if he could be happy in love with someone else. But Samhain is a time for change, when walls come down and borders grow thin, and Bartleby isn’t going to waste what might be his last chance to convince Piotr that they were meant to be. He might have no magic, but love is a power all its own.

Two autumns ago, when I first discovered this story, I was in the midst of one of the most awful, difficult years of my life. My brother-in-law was recovering from a severe spinal cord injury, my cousin’s mother and his wife had recently died in a tragic house fire, and my aunt was in the final stages of her fight against lung cancer. Although autumn has always been my favorite season, full of magic and mystery, beauty and exhilaration, the last thing on my mind that year was the turning of the leaves or the cooling temperatures in the air. All of my usual anticipation and joy for the coming of autumn and for the Halloween season had drained away from me.

But this story was so charming and precious and lovely, it gave me a brief respite and a small taste of the season I love so much. It gave me a moment of peace and brought me comfort, like a warm, snuggly quilt wrapped around me on a chill autumn’s evening while I curled into a comfy chair before a crackling fire, sipping hot mulled cider. It encapsulated everything that represents the Halloween season to me. It was like a piece of my childhood brought to life. It was exactly what I needed and, quite possibly, saved me from a complete emotional breakdown that autumn. Now I reread it every year and I’m certain it will always remain one of my favorite stories of all time.

Ghost in the Penthouse by Kris Ripper

Hiram Sussman is haunted.

For the last decade, Hiram has holed up in his family’s penthouse apartment on the Upper East Side. On the eve of his thirtieth birthday, his parents finally decide it’s time for Hiram to move out, ghosts and all. If he can’t fend for himself, they’ll find a place for him somewhere bright, peaceful, and medicated.

He has a contingency plan for just such an event. Unfortunately, one thing stands in his way; Hiram is in love.

James Manderly is a hick from California, who escaped to Manhattan to remake himself in a place where no one knows him. Hiram’s the kind of gay guy he’d never meet back home, campy and ridiculous, except James doesn’t think he’s a joke. He thinks Hiram is the most ethereal, untouchable, irresistible man he’s ever met.

Four years down the hall from each other, and they’ve never even kissed. Because Hiram is crazy and James doesn’t sleep with men he actually knows, let alone rich recluses who tease him mercilessly but never make the first move. When James’s little brother (and his buddies) show up without warning, James can’t explain why he’s not with Hiram, and he definitely can’t claim he doesn’t want to be.

Hiram’s been hiding for far too long, but if he wants a future with James, he’ll need to beat back his ghosts and conquer the past.

Hands down, this is the best, most vividly atmospheric contemporary story of modern haunting I have read in many years. It lingered in my mind for a long time after I read it and I am compelled, from time to time, to revisit it. Hiram Sussman is a fascinating character and, for most of the story, the reader questions whether Hiram is truly haunted by actual spirits or by his own mind. This is my absolute favorite book by Kris Ripper and that’s saying a lot, as I adore zir work. Nobody does complex characterization and intricate interpersonal relationships better. Nobody writes better ensemble casts. And – oh, yeah – there’s also a wonderful friends-to-lovers romance, as well.

Spindrift by Amy Rae Durreson

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

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

First of all, I love the way Amy Rae Durreson tells a story. The use of language, the subtlety with which the tale unfolds, its cadence and rhythms and multi-faceted characters all combine into a very alluring and satisfying reading experience. There were many things that drew me to this book: the Yorkshire seaside village setting, the troubled artist struggling to heal from mental and physical trauma, the May-September romance, the mysterious haunting, the eerie echoes of a hidden past. This book had a very old school Gothic vibe to me, which I loved. It’s a multi-layered story, in which modern Gothic romance meets paranormal mystery. What’s not to love?

Raven’s Rest by Stephen Osborne

Michael Cook has left his abusive lover and settled in the small town of Banning, Illinois. Having nowhere else to go, he checks into the Raven’s Rest Inn and soon learns that the haunted reputation of the hotel is well deserved. Michael gets a job at a local café, where he meets Trey Ramsey. Though Michael has misgivings about starting up a new relationship, Trey seems to be the complete opposite of Michael’s controlling ex, so he decides to give Trey a chance.

Life at the Raven’s Rest becomes increasingly frightening when the ghost of Coleman Hollis appears in Michael’s room. Coleman seems to want something from Michael, and the mystery deepens when Michael discovers he’s the spitting image of Coleman’s lover from years ago. Together, Michael and Trey must discover why Coleman’s spirit is drawn to the Raven’s Rest—and to Michael.

Once again, this is one of my favorite type of stories, weaving multiple elements into an engaging whole. It has romance (two, in fact), a ghost story, a mystery, and suspense. The hotel is a great Gothic-esque setting. The characters, both in the present and the past, are compelling and endearing. The small town autumn setting gives off the right tone and atmosphere. All in all, a perfect read for this time of year.

Vespers (Hours of the Night #1)

by Irene Preston & Liv Rancourt

Thaddeus Dupont has had over eighty years to forget…

The vampire spends his nights chanting the Liturgy of the Hours and ruthlessly disciplines those unnatural urges he’s vowed never again to indulge. He is at the command of the White Monks, who summon him at will to destroy demons. In return, the monks provide for his sustenance and promise the return of his immortal soul.

Sarasija Mishra’s most compelling job qualification might be his type O blood…

The 22-year-old college grad just moved across the country to work for some recluse he can’t even find on the internet. Sounds sketchy, but the salary is awesome and he can’t afford to be picky. On arrival he discovers a few details his contract neglected to mention, like the alligator-infested swamp, the demon attacks, and the nature of his employer’s “special diet”. A smart guy would leave, but after one look into Dupont’s mesmerizing eyes, Sarasija can’t seem to walk away. Too bad his boss expected “Sara” to be a girl.

Falling in love is hard at any age…

The vampire can’t fight his hungers forever, especially since Sara’s brought him light, laughter and a very masculine heat. After yielding to temptation, Thaddeus must make a choice. Killing demons may save his soul, but keeping the faith will cost him his heart.

Bonfire (Hours of the Night #1.5)

by Irene Preston & Liv Rancourt

(See my prior review of this holiday novella here.)

Thaddeus and Sarasija are spending the holidays on the bayou, and while the vampire’s idea of Christmas cheer doesn’t quite match his assistant’s, they’re working on a compromise. Before they can get the tree trimmed, they’re interrupted by the appearance of the feu follet. The ghostly lights appear in the swamp at random and lead even the locals astray.

When the townsfolk link the phenomenon to the return of their most reclusive neighbor, suspicion falls on Thaddeus. These lights aren’t bringing glad tidings, and if Thad and Sara can’t find their source, the feu follet might herald a holiday tragedy for the whole town.

Nocturne (hours of the Night #2)

by Irene Preston & Liv Rancourt

It’s Mardi Gras, cher, but this year le bon temps kick off with murder…

For generations, the White Monks have treated the vampire Thaddeus Dupont as a weapon in their battle against demons. However, when a prominent matron drops dead at a party, Thaddeus and his lover Sarasija are asked to find her killer. Their investigation leads them to an old southern family with connections everywhere: Louisiana politics, big business, the Church, and an organization just as secret as the White Monks.

Meanwhile, an esoteric text containing spells for demon-summoning has disappeared, Thaddeus is losing control of le monstre, and Sara is troubled by disturbing dreams. These nightmares could be a side-effect of dating a vampire, or they could be a remnant of his brush with evil. As the nights wear on, Sara fears they are a manifestation of something darker – a secret that could destroy his relationship with Thaddeus.

This series is the best vampire concept I’ve read in decades. It’s complex and appealing, with exciting action, suspense, and mystery in addition to an unlikely yet captivating romance. It has wonderful, well-drawn characters that feel so real that you wouldn’t be surprised to meet them on the street.

For me Nocturne, the second book in the Hours of the Night series, was even better than Vespers and that’s saying a lot. I loved Vespers. I loved the characters, the setting, the premise of the series – everything. For the first time in more years than I can keep track of, there was finally an intelligent approach to writing a vampire character that hearkened back to the age-old struggle between good and evil. Not just the broader, exterior conflict, but a battle raging inside the character himself, between the Super-ego (the faith and religious devotion of the monk) and the Id (the baser instincts of the vampire) resulting in an Ego (Thaddeus himself) who is an immensely empathetic, identifiable anti-hero one can’t help but love and cheer for. Add to that the incredibly modern,  lovable, and agnostic Indian-American assistant, Sarasija Mishra, as well as the stellar storytelling skill of these two authors, and the series is nothing short of addictive and enthralling.

Nocturne was everything I love in a story combined: mystery, suspense, romance, and the paranormal, all set in and around New Orleans during Mardi Gras season. The characters are compelling, the tension and suspense builds gradually but steadily and never stalls, the mysteries are not easily solved by either the characters or the reader (very huge plus for me, who usually figures everything out in the first 1/4 of a book and grows bored), and it’s filled with well-researched ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity. This book was excellent on every level. I can hardly wait for the next installment.