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.

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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.

TBR Challenge: Paranormal

(I apologize ahead of time for the brevity of this month’s TBR Challenge review. My grandmother recently entered hospice care and my brain is mush. The past week and a half have been chaos and I’ve had to rely on the brief, choppy notes I kept while working my way through these books.)

Once upon a time, when I was trying to transition from writing horror to writing middle grade suspense and YA paranormal, I spent close to a decade reading predominantly within those genres. Since then I’ve broadened my scope considerably, although I do still read YA books from time to time. This month’s TBR Challenge: Paranormal motivated me to revisit a series I abandoned a while back about halfway through.

Clearwater Witches is a six book YA paranormal series that should have been a trilogy. As with many YA series, there is a love triangle. There is also plenty of angst and the prerequisite self-sacrifice. If you break it down and analyze the premise, overall it’s basically the same character dynamics and plot elements as L.J. Smith’s The Secret Circle trilogy. The difference is L.J. Smith did it first, did it better, and confined it to three books. The Clearwater Witches’ main encompassing story arc was stretched far too thin over the course of these six books, which weakened the tension and diluted the impact. Instead of going out with a satisfying resolution, it went out with a long, drawn out fizzle.

The first two books were pretty good reads. I liked the characters, the setting, the dilemma. They held my interest and kept me turning the pages to find out what happened next. The third book had the potential to be even better but did not quite deliver. The ending felt rushed and too simple. The main character, Krissa, became more annoying and self-absorbed throughout this book, while remaining somewhat oblivious. In fact, she even acted out like a spoiled child. This is the point where I took a break from the series, so this is also where I picked it up again for this month’s TBR Challenge and continued reading until I’d finished the series.

The fourth book was excruciatingly slow going until close to the end, possibly due to the introduction of a new POV character in addition to both Krissa’s and Crystal’s POV. There was a lot of jumping around from one character’s head to another and there was a lot of repetitive internal dwelling and circular thinking. If that wasn’t bad enough, the storyline also took a sharp left turn from the previous three books. It was similar to watching a train wreck in slow motion. The pacing did pick back up in the fifth book and it seemed like the story might be getting back on track, but by the last book I was skimming just so I could get through the tedium and find out how the series finally wrapped up. (Because my inquiring, OCD mind always wants to know, whether I’m enjoying a story or not. Once begun, I have to know how it ends.)

By the sixth book, the story seriously dragged with too much internal exposition, self-analysis, and soul-searching, and not enough action to progress the plot. Also (at least during the first half of the book), removed from the usual setting of Clearwater, which the reader has become familiar with over the course of the five preceding books, and without the constant infusion and balance of the majority of the supporting cast of characters, it feels so far removed from the rest of the series as to make it feel alien and disjointed. The ending was all over the place, convoluted and drawn out. By the time I finished reading the last few of chapters, I was exhausted and slightly confused.

Maybe I’m just done with clichéd love triangles and teen angst and needless, misguided self-sacrifice, but all of last three books in this series left me disappointed, dissatisfied, and underwhelmed.


Crystal Magic (Clearwater Witches #1) by Madeline Freeman –

Nothing is safe around Kristyl Barnette. Windows break. Books rocket across the room. Lights flicker. Strange occurrences follow the sixteen-year-old everywhere.

When tragedy forces her to move to the small town of Clearwater, Michigan, with her estranged aunt Jodi, Kristyl tries to leave her past behind. But Clearwater has secrets of its own—a mystical history that intersects with Kristyl’s life and might shed light on the inexplicable events that plague her.

When a mysterious illness threatens her aunt’s life, Kristyl will do anything to cure her. Enlisting the help of witches could save Jodi, but is dealing in magic worth the consequences?


Wild Magic (Clearwater Witches #2) by Madeline Freeman –

Kristyl Barnette’s life was finally coming together. In Clearwater, she found the reason why she could hear people’s thoughts and make objects move. She found friends to stand by her. And, in Owen Marsh, she even found someone she could love.

But one spell changed everything.

Thrust into an alternate reality, Kristyl must navigate a new past and different relationships, all while keeping the secret only she and Crystal Jamison know: In their attempt to find a powerful stone for the circle of witches to anchor to, they altered the present.

Owen barely looks at her. She’s forced to act like she’s friends with the circle and to pretend she’s been dating Fox Holloway for years. And to make matters worse, the quartz stone she retrieved from the past might not be the source of pure energy the circle hoped for. There’s a darkness to it Kristyl doesn’t trust.

Now people are dying mysteriously, and Kristyl must form new alliances with old friends in order to prevent more deaths–and to save the circle from destruction.

Power comes at a price. Will Kristyl be able to pay it before it’s too late?


Circle Magic (Clearwater Witches #3) by Madeline Freeman – It’s only a matter of time before everything Krissa Barnette knows and loves is destroyed.

Seth Whitacre, a centuries-old psychic witch, is determined to exact his revenge on everyone who stands between him and his ultimate goal: taking over the town of Clearwater and turning it into a stronghold for people with abilities. People like him. When Krissa thwarted his attempt to regain his full strength, she became his number one enemy.

Krissa’s father, absent for five years, returns to reveal the reason he left was to learn how to defeat Seth. His mysterious companion, Anya, possesses a wealth of knowledge about the fight but conceals many secrets.

But Krissa has secrets, too, including the reason why she and Owen Marsh have a connection. And it’s difficult to keep the truth from Fox Holloway now that the three of them are linked by a binding ritual.

It’s a race against time to enact the spell that will rid the world of Seth once and for all, but with threats coming from all angles, will Krissa and her friends succeed?


Moon Magic (Clearwater Witches #4) by Madeline Freeman –

What force can stop someone who will stop at nothing?

Haunted by a single night four months ago, Krissa has cut herself off from her friends and loved ones, afraid to taint them with the darkness swelling within her.

Left reeling from the consequences of the spell that removed an unwanted consciousness from her body, Crystal will do anything to reclaim the magic she lost.

Set adrift in a world she never prepared to live in, Sasha clings to the one thing she believes will bring her peace: seeking revenge against the person who destroyed her future.

When a new threat emerges against Krissa and her friends, will she be strong enough to do what is necessary to save those she loves?


Cursed Magic (Clearwater Witches #5) by Madeline Freeman –

Since the night of the Influence spell, Krissa has changed. She’s doing her best to live a normal life, but it gets more difficult every day as the energy inside her grows and becomes harder to control.

Will she win the fight against the darkness within her? Or will it overwhelm her and turn her into someone she’s not?


Dark Magic (Clearwater Witches Book 6) by Madeline Freeman

– After darkness consumes Krissa, is there any hope for salvation?

When Krissa disappears to join the Amaranthine, Fox knows he has to save her. But the magical world beyond Clearwater is more dangerous than he can imagine, and even with Sasha’s help, locating Krissa can have deadly consequences.

With time running out before the Amaranthine achieve eternal life and become invulnerable, Fox and Sasha must team up with a menacing group with a fearsome reputation if they hope to find their friend.

But locating Krissa isn’t enough. If they can’t remove the darkness from within her the Amaranthine will unleash an immortal assassin on the world. Killing Krissa may be the only alternative, but is that a line Fox is willing to cross?

The Best & Worst of Times

TBR Challenge 2017: Historical

I know, I know. I’ve been negligent in my blogly duties as of late. And I had been so proud of myself for being able to consistently post every month, thanks to this challenge, up until now. With my track record of procrastination, distraction, and lack of follow-through, that’s an accomplishment. But now I’m back on track and (fingers crossed) will not be derailed or diverted again this year.

My apologies for missing out on August’s TBR Challenge: Kicking It Old School (publication date 10 years or older), which was due on or around August 16. I did read a book for that challenge. In fact, I read Bread Alone by Judith Ryan Hendricks (published May 28, 2002), as well as its two sequels: The Baker’s Apprentice (published March 14, 2006) and Baker’s Blues (published August 24, 2015). They were all three very intensely evocative reads and took me to an emotional place I was unable to translate into words. I will write those reviews, just not quite yet. The subject matter hit a little too close to home for me on several levels and triggered some memories and feelings that I needed time to process and work my way back from.

Now, this month’s TBR Challenge: Historical was a definite challenge for me. You see, I’m not overly fond of historical fiction. (Those who know me well would probably be boggled by the ironic dichotomy of this fact, but that is a discussion too complex for this review post. Suffice it to say that if a psychiatrist ever had the opportunity to analyze the inner workings of my mind, they would have their life’s work laid out before them.) But for me to willingly choose to read a book set in the past, there needs to be a compelling reason. Yes, there are definitely exceptions (usually involving paranormal or fantasy elements), as I’ve stated in a past post, but as a general rule I don’t seek these books out and the pickings within my TBR list were slim.

Thankfully, an author of my acquaintance whose taste and opinion on books I trust and admire recommended Victorian Holiday Hearts, a collection of holiday themed, Victorian era M/M romance novellas written by Bonnie Dee and Summer Devon. Having previously read and enjoyed Summer Devon’s short story, The Gentleman and the Lamplighter, I decided to give these stories a whirl.

All four of these novellas were endearingly charming and I enjoyed them immensely. They are all very quick reads full of entertaining characters and all four stories are interconnected through the boisterous, eccentric, loving and lovable Andrews family, who serve as background characters in each brother’s story. As each season is different, one from another, so also is each brother’s story different from the other, which is  exemplified through differing moods and tone. From the melancholy to the comic, from the lighthearted to the passionate, from the solemn to the hopeful, from the mysterious to the devoted, each of these romantic pairings cross social, class, and economic barriers to reach their HFN/HEA to satisfy any romantic reader’s hopeful heart.

Four seasons, four novellas about one theatrical family. A boxed set of love.
They were the source of entertainment in a world without movies or television. Magic, singing and dancing, acting — the adopted and biological sons of the Andrews family could do it all. And in the warmth of their eccentric and large family circle, they could be anyone they wanted or love whomever they wished. In a world where men loving men was a crime, the Andrews and their friends found refuge for true love.

The stories:

Simon and the Christmas Spirit –  The holiday spirit has forsaken Simon Harris. A recent reminder of the man who used then left him sends lonely Simon on a glum visit to his club to while away a few hours. A breath of fresh air in the form of Christopher Andrews is about to enter his stale life.

Performer of many talents and faces, Christopher gained entrée into the club to win money at cards. Unfortunately, he’s losing. But the evening needn’t be a complete disappointment as he strikes up a friendship with a gentleman which ends in a bedroom.

Simon and Christopher enjoy a few hours of pleasure together, never expecting to see each other again, but Simon’s newfound resolution to change might just transform both their holidays.

A short story, which includes a brief excerpt. Simon and Christopher’s future will appear in our next short: Will and the Valentine Saint.

 
Will and the Valentine Saint –  Will Andrews wishes to escape the craziness of his bohemian family and create some order in his life. Hiding his eccentric theater background and presenting false letters of recommendation, he interviews for a position at a legal aid society. The last thing he expects is to fall hard for his genteel employer, Hugh St. John.


When Hugh needs a secretary, one magnetic candidate draws him. Will Andrews shares his vision for the Society and is also the most attractive man he’s ever met. But Hugh has never even kissed a man and would never throw himself at an employee.


As the pair plans a Valentine charity dinner, they grow ever closer to surrendering to Cupid’s arrow. But when Will’s false credentials and true background are revealed, can Hugh forgive his lies and omissions? Can fragile romance blossom into true love after trust is broken?

 
Mike and the Spring AwakeningYoung Micah “Mike” Cordett’s privileged life explodes when he is caught naked with a schoolmate. Running away from disgrace, he blunders into a trap in a seamy part of London and endures months of abuse before escaping. But with the help of the Andrews family, he’s begun to climb out of his fear. Yet, when a reminder of his happier past erupts into his life in the form of Lucas Spring, Mike’s not certain he’s ready to face the remnants of the charmed life he’d once enjoyed. He’s certainly not ready for love.

Lucas Spring pined for Mike from afar when they were in school. This shadow of the confident boy he once knew shocks him, and Lucas vows to do anything he can to help restore the person he’d so admired. With patience and determination, he hopes to ease Mike’s fears and perhaps even win his love.

But when a violent figure from Mike’s past looms into his present, will the tender shoots of a new beginning be crushed?

WARNING: Contains themes of sexual abuse that may trigger some readers.

Delaney and the Autumn MasqueDelaney, former pickpocket and now a member of the Andrews theater clan, performs magic tricks as Billbo the Magnificent. Hired to entertain at a fancy dress ball, the magician is struck by the lurking, dramatic figure of the Grim Reaper. He follows Death to a quiet room for a glorious, lustful encounter.

With his identity hidden, impoverished gentleman Bartholomew Bancroft dares to indulge in an out-of-character moment to quench his forbidden yearning for another man’s touch. But in the light of day, he can’t dismiss his memories of the mysterious magician or a craving to see him again.

Bartholomew enlists the dexterous conjurer to teach him to pick pockets. His plan: to retrieve his hand-crafted jewelry taken by a vengeful ex-lover. During the lessons, Bartholomew and Delaney yield to desire, certain their affair will last only until they retrieve Bartholomew’s stolen work.

At another costume ball, the gentleman and the magician work together to foil the thief, but when all masks are abandoned at last, can lasting love remain?

 

 

If At First You Don’t Succeed…

Fall cannot come soon enough for me. This summer seems to be dragging by in excruciatingly slow misery. Heat, humidity, illegal fireworks, shady neighborhood goings-on, personal physical discomfort, and – on top of all that – one dissatisfying read after another. I don’t know whether the fault lies with me, the season, the societal climate, or the actual quality of the books themselves, but the majority of the books I’ve read over the past couple of months have left me feeling disappointingly flat. The only stand-outs to wake me from my apathetic stupor this summer have been Peter Darling by Austin Chant, The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel, The Imperfection of Swans by Brandon Witt, my binge read of Sarah Addison Allen’s entire back catalog, and R. Cooper’s newest novella, For Better or Worse. I’ve read over 50 titles so far this summer and only eight of them have captured my full attention.

So for this month’s TBR Challenge, our mission was Series Catch-up. This is where we pick back up on a series we were behind on and I had several to choose from. You see, I have a bad habit of growing bored with a series that follows the same couple over more than one book. I prefer series that feature a different couple for each book in the series. The only exceptions to this are the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon (and even with this I am still behind because I stopped reading partway into the fifth book — but more about that next month!) and The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare.

It took me two tries before I was able to meet this month’s challenge.


Rusty Nailed by Alice Clayton

Synopsis:

In this sequel to Wallbanger, fan favorites Caroline Reynolds and Simon Parker negotiate the rollercoaster of their new relationship while house-sitting in Sausalito.

Playing house was never so much fun—or so confusing. With her boss on an extended honeymoon, Caroline’s working crazy-long hours to keep the interior design company running—especially since she’s also the lead designer for the renovation of a gorgeous old hotel. And with Simon, her hotshot photographer boyfriend, gallivanting all over the world for his job, the couple is heavy-duty into “absence makes the heart grow fonder” mode. No complaints about the great reunion sex, though!

Then a trip back east to his childhood home has Simon questioning his nomadic lifestyle. He decides to be home more. A lot more. And he wants Caroline home more, too. Though their friends’ romantic lives provide plenty of welcome distraction, eventually Caroline and Simon have to sort out their relationship. Sure, more togetherness is a good thing—but does less traveling and working have to mean the other extreme? Apple pie and picket fences? With this second book in the Cocktail series, USA TODAY bestselling author Alice Clayton delivers another delicious, frothy confection of a book, shaking up her characters, stirring in laugh-out-loud humor, and serving sizzling romance straight up!

My first attempt was to read Rusty Nailed (The Cocktail Series Book 2) by Alice Clayton. Let me just say that I loved Wallbanger, the first book in the series. It was hilariously fantastic and I loved every minute of it. Which is why I’ve been reluctant to read this second book. It’s just been sitting on my Kindle for three years. So, I tried reading it for this month’s challenge and I only made it 15% into the story before I couldn’t bring myself to read any more of it. As I said, revisiting characters who have already achieved their HFN in a previous book is not something I enjoy or something that comes easy to me. I find it difficult to care about a couple the second time around and I find 9 out of 10 of those type of stories tedious and disappointing and this was no exception. It felt disjointed and forced. The beginning was choppy and rambling and I just couldn’t get into it. Maybe someday I’ll go back and finish it. Maybe I won’t.


Swear (My Blood Approves Book 5) by Amanda Hocking

Synopsis:

In the final book of the My Blood Approves series…

Alice has moved on and is settling into a new country with a new career as a vampire hunter. Finally, she’s created a stable, happy life for herself and her family, including her boyfriend Jack. Or at least as stable as her life can be, especially with a dangerous vampire cult resurfacing.

But everything she’s worked for is put in jeopardy when she receives a disturbing message – one that sends her on a quest that delves into a tragic mystery that has haunted Peter for years.

When I first discovered this series five years ago, I binge read the first four books in less than a week. I hated the way the fourth book ended. It left me feeling betrayed. I know better than to read books containing love triangles. They never turn out well for me. Hell, I’m still pissed off about Bella choosing Edward in the Twilight books. Needless to say, I would have made a very different choice than Alice made. I was so disappointed that I was grateful Amanda Hocking kept delaying the fifth book. I wanted to forget about this whole series. But while I was updating my Goodreads account at the first of this year, I discovered the fifth book was finally published last November and I caved in, adding it to my TBR. I had to know if maybe Alice changed her mind or if fate stepped in and altered the outcome. You have to understand that I was really rooting for the other guy. He was the obvious choice to me and I was particularly fond of him. Unfortunately, I was disappointed yet again. But I do, at least, feel like I have a sense of closure now that I did not have at the end of book four. I still don’t like it, but I do understand the author’s choices and respect them. Even if she did rip my heart out at the end of this book.

Now, this book wasn’t as well-written as the first four books. It was set five years from the end of the last book. The story felt rushed and the copy was very sloppy. When I spend hard earned money on an ebook, I at least expect it to be a clean copy with all the words present and in the right order. Grammatically, this read like a rough draft. A lot of missing words in scrambled sentences. The more I have to work at deciphering the text of a story, the less likely I am to sink into that story. This also read as if the author had lost touch with her characters, or just wasn’t interested in them anymore, and just wanted to be finished with this series, once and for all. The plot was relatively straightforward and uncomplicated, with most of the big reveals telegraphed well in advance.  All in all, my opinion about the characters aside, it wrapped up all the loose ends and tied up all the dangling threads with a satisfactory conclusion to the series.

But that doesn’t mean I’m happy about it. Just feeling less betrayed than I was at the end of book four and heartbroken for an entirely new reason.