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?

 

 

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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.

Of Favorites and Failures

Today is the first official day of Summer, but the weather has been miserably hot for weeks. This and the fact that I’ve been plagued by hormonal hot flashes and am not a fan of the humidity or bugs that come along with the season, have left me in a cranky, irritable mood. It does not help that my latest read disappointed me greatly.

For this month’s TBR Challenge, our theme is favorite trope. I chose a book that is a hybrid combination of “enemies to lovers” and “second chance at love,” two of my favorite tropes. It also revolves around a wedding, which I also normally enjoy. If I remember correctly, I picked this ebook up while it was discounted on Amazon to stash back for a rainy day when I had nothing new to read. I had high hopes for this book when I first read the summary. It held such promise of being an awesome book but, sadly, it did not live up to its potential.

The Runaway Groom (The Logan Series #1)
by Sally Clements

Synopsis:

Seven years ago, Matthew Logan ran out on his wedding to June Leigh.

Life is good for fledgling dress-designer April Leigh. She couldn’t be happier that her sister has found a new love, and is excited about her very first commission, June’s wedding dress.

When April discovers June has invited runaway groom Matthew Logan to the wedding, she has to intervene. Matthew’s presence will ruin everything – her father hates him, and just the sight of him in the church might give her mother a heart attack.

Matthew Logan has no intention of going to June’s wedding, but when intriguing April arrives on his doorstep, he can’t resist getting to know her better. When a disaster forces them together neither can deny the passion that combusts into a red-hot affair.

Discovering the truth about the past shifts April’s feelings from lust to love, but bitter experience has taught Matthew to guard his heart.

When it looks as though Matthew will lose her forever, will he fight or flee?

 

Remember a couple of months ago when I compared certain books to popcorn? Well, this one was more like stale popcorn. There were so many things about this book that failed to satisfy me that I’m not sure where to begin.

It gets off to a very slow start. Nothing actually happens to move the story forward until about 16% into the book. Just a lot of backstory and the heroine working on her sister’s wedding dress and hanging out with her friends and fuming about how the hero hurt her family in the past. About halfway in, it gets better… but not by much.

I found the character of April, our heroine, to be not very likeable or identifiable. For a twenty-three year old fashion designer, living and working on her own in London, she came off as immature. She was also a touch judgemental. I felt she was definitely too old to be that naïve about her sister’s true colors. She also seemed to just go along with whatever popped up in her life without making conscious choices or taking decisive actions, apart from her decision to confront the hero, Matthew, about not showing up at her sister’s wedding. Everything else in her life seems serendipitous rather than planned or worked toward. She’s not a decisive, take-charge type. She is a leaf borne on the winds of circumstance rather than forging her own fate. To paraphrase a line from the movie, The Holiday, she doesn’t seem to be the leading lady of her own life story. She’s an impassive chess piece being moved around the board of life by circumstances and other people’s whims. In other words, not my kind of heroine.

In fact, I had a hard time caring about any of these characters. Their issues seemed petty and trifling to me, and everything could have been easily solved if the characters simply communicated with each other openly and honestly. The main conflict, the hero’s supposed jilting of April’s sister, June, seven years prior, wasn’t enough to carry the plot. The stakes just weren’t high enough. April placed way more importance on the event than was warranted, over-inflating the significance and the impact of her burgeoning feelings for him on her family. The plot feels contrived. Some of the viewpoint shifts were abrupt and jarring. The characters seem flat, the writing stiff. The characters emotions, and even some of their physical details, were inconsistent. For example, at the beginning of the book Matthew’s eyes are described as dark blue and, in the middle of the book, they’re suddenly dark brown and then, toward the end, are back to being blue again.

It could have been a really good book if the characters had actually had any depth to their personalities and if the actions and choices of the characters hadn’t come off as juvenile. These characters are supposed to be in their mid-twenties, not teens. April is naïve and Matthew is vacillating. April’s sister, June, is a manipulative, spoiled princess. The friends are opinionated busy-bodies. The parents are basically props.

Of all the characters, I liked Matthew best. Most of the time he was a smart, successful, confident, sexy man who seemed to have his life in order. Then, toward the end of the book, he comes across as almost neurotic with his mood-swings and mixed messages. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear this character had a split personality.  In fact, by the end of the book, the actions of neither the hero nor the heroine ring true or realistic in any way.

I was severely disappointed in this book because it should have been a fantastic read. But it ended up being mediocre instead.

 

 

 

Of Letters & Literature

TBR Challenge 2017: Something Different

This month’s theme required a book which either falls outside my comfort zone, has an unusual setting, is a non-romance, etc. It took me quite a while to locate a book in my TBR list that I felt best fit this criteria. After much consideration, I finally settled on  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, which is an epistolary novel. For those who are unfamiliar with this term, an epistolary novel is a novel written entirely through letters, notes, telegrams, diary entries, newspaper clippings and/or other documents. They are not my preference for daily recreational reading because it’s a difficult form to master and takes a skilled author to successfully pull off. In the wrong author’s hands, it can become a tedious torture to wade through. Epistolary novels also have a tendency to distance the reader from the action of the story, thus slowing the pace. They are a more leisurely, contemplative read than the usual fast-paced, contemporary romances, chick-lit, paranormal suspense, and cozy  mysteries I habitually devour. That is the first reason I chose this book as my ‘Something Different.”

The second reason this was outside my comfort zone is the WWII era historical setting of the story. I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction. Of course there have been books that have been exceptions (books by Diana Gabaldon, or Anne Rice, or Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, for example), but for the most part, historical fiction is not something I seek out.

Thirdly, I rarely read any books with a wartime setting, during any era. They are, more often than not, depressingly bleak and full of suffering and sorrow and I try to avoid those feelings at all costs. There is far too much of that in reality. I don’t want it in my escapism.

That said, thank goodness for the TBR Challenge! Otherwise I might never have read this gem of a book.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Synopsis:

 “ I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some sort of secret homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.”

January 1946: London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War, and writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next book subject. Who could imagine that she would find it in a letter from a man she’s never met, a native of the island of Guernsey, who has come across her name written inside a book by Charles Lamb….

As Juliet and her new correspondent exchange letters, Juliet is drawn into the world of this man and his friends—and what a wonderfully eccentric world it is. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society—born as a spur-of-the-moment alibi when its members were discovered breaking curfew by the Germans occupying their island—boasts a charming, funny, deeply human cast of characters, from pig farmers to phrenologists, literature lovers all.

Juliet begins a remarkable correspondence with the society’s members, learning about their island, their taste in books, and the impact the recent German occupation has had on their lives. Captivated by their stories, she sets sail for Guernsey, and what she finds will change her forever.

Written with warmth and humor as a series of letters, this novel is a celebration of the written word in all its guises, and of finding connection in the most surprising ways.

This was a wonderful story full of subtlety and grace, a quiet love story gently folded into a poignant tale of hardship, suffering, war, and the triumph of the human spirit, and populated with quirky, resilient, engaging characters.

I confess, up until reading this book, I was completely ignorant about the Channel Islands, of their being occupied by the Germans for five years during WWII, and of the horrors and tragedies that befell the islanders. This book unveils the struggles and plight of these people in a subtle and personal way through the eyes of these characters who experienced and survived it. Information depicting the German Occupation of Guernsey was 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 was thoroughly enchanted by it and highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading about WWII history, eccentric tight-knit communities, abiding friendships, the power of literature, or the indomitable human spirit.

The only other book set during WWII that I’ve read and truly loved was Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society evoked a strong desire in me to revisit Ms. Harris’s book.

 

Junk Food for the Stressed-Out Brain

April TBR Challenge: Contemporary

There has been a lot going on in my life lately and not much of it good.

The world seems to be descending into chaos, my social circle has been shifting and realigning and evolving, my body is aging and my hormones are in a state of flux, and all the while my anxiety and depression levels have been playing see-saw on a teeter totter.

Needless to say, I have not felt up to heavy reading. I have, instead, been indulging in comfort re-reads of old favorites, how-to books on the craft of writing, and fluff.

So, for this month’s TBR Challenge I read a contemporary, friends-to-lovers rom-com that has been languishing on my TBR list since November 2013.

Against the Wall by Julie Prestsater

Synopsis:  Shelly Gelson had it all…a job teaching English at Carver High, her best friend Mel working by her side and she’s engaged to her high school sweetheart Chase Marino. That is until Chase breaks her heart and leaves her for another teacher at the school. Now Shel is left broken-hearted and trying to figure out what she wants while watching Chase and the home wrecker make moon eyes at each other. Enter Matt Fuller, Shel’s friend for the past 5 years and the perfect rebound. He’s gorgeous, smart, funny, and fits into Shel’s idea of the right guy. Only problem is there may be more there than just a simple rebound. Is it a way to fill a void left by Chase, or is there more smoldering between these two friends? Find out what happens when the bell rings and the teenage drama ends and the adult drama begins. Who says being a teacher is boring? They obviously haven’t met the teachers at Carver High.

This is a fast, amusing little read full of close friendships, laughter, and beer. It even made this jaded cynic chuckle a time or two. Much like eating popcorn, it’s (time) filling and entertaining without being complex or complicated. It leaves you feeling neither heavy nor fully sated, but it’s not the worst way to spend an afternoon when you want to give your brain a rest from the stress and angst of the real world. The characters are neither deep nor emotionally mature. In fact, they are often immature, petty, and judgemental. And they drink a lot. These are supposed to be high school teachers, but they come off more like high school kids most of the time.

I rate it at 2 1/2 stars. It was okay, but it’s not worth a second read.

As of this writing (April 18, 2017), Against the Wall is currently free on Amazon.

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Hello, Darkness, My Old Friend

TBR Challenge 2017: Comfort Read

Although I am a full week late posting my TBR Challenge 2017 review for this month’s Comfort Read theme, I was determined to not skip it, in spite of the fact I’ve been floundering for the past few weeks to find a book – any book – that could hold my interest for more than a chapter and make me care at least a little about the characters and/or the story. I’ve been in a serious reading rut. I’ve started so many books over the past month, only to discard them in frustration and disappointment. Maybe it’s because my TBR list is lacking in quality reads. Maybe it’s due to my annual bout of what I like to call my own personal March Madness, wherein I typically slide into a self-pitying, depressive spiral of reminiscence, reflection, and regret during the week of my birthday. Hell, maybe it’s just that my tastes have seriously changed since adding a lot of those titles to the list and it needs to be purged. Whatever the reason, none of the books languishing in my TBR list fit the bill as a Comfort Read. I am, therefore, forced to stretch the rules of the TBR Challenge theme this month.

My own personal writing roots are in horror, Gothic romance, paranormal mystery, and supernatural suspense. These are the genres that feel like home to me and feed my need for emotional comfort; they are my mental escape when the real world gets to feeling too real.

As luck (or fate) would have it, one of my favorite authors had his newest book released last week and it was exactly what I needed. Although it is a new release, I added Insight (The Community: Book 1) to my TBR list last year as soon as I first heard it was scheduled for publication, so it technically fits the parameters of the challenge. And, since Santino Hassell is a favorite, auto-buy author for me and the paranormal is my comfort zone, this book also fits this month’s theme of Comfort Read.


Insight (The Community: Book 1) by Santino Hassell

Synopsis:

Growing up the outcast in an infamous family of psychics, Nate Black never learned how to control his empath abilities. Then after five years without contact, his estranged twin turns up dead in New York City. The claim of suicide doesn’t ring true, especially when a mysterious vision tells Nate it was murder. Now his long-hated gift is his only tool to investigate.

Hitching from his tiny Texas town, Nate is picked up by Trent, a gorgeous engineer who thrives on sarcasm and skepticism. The heat that sparks between them is instant and intense, and Nate ends up trusting Trent with his secrets — something he’s never done before. But once they arrive in the city, the secrets multiply when Nate discovers an underground supernatural community, more missing psychics, and frightening information about his own talent.

Nate is left questioning his connection with Trent. Are their feelings real, or are they being propelled by abilities Nate didn’t realize he had? His fear of his power grows, but Nate must overcome it to find his brother’s killer and trust himself with Trent’s heart.

Review:

Although Insight is categorized as paranormal romantic suspense, the romance between Nate and Trent is not the driving force of this story. This book is primarily a mystery/thriller with elements of romance and paranormal suspense skillfully woven throughout the main story. There are even faint traces of Southern Gothic in the very beginning of Insight as we’re getting to know Nate’s backstory, his estranged relationship with his dysfunctional family, and the dark secrets and implied dangers that seem to pervade the Black family. This was not surprising to me once I recognized that Nate Black is a relative of Jeremy Black, the main character of the author’s stand-alone Southern Gothic horror novel, Stygian.

Santino Hassell is a master at setting a gritty, realistic tone and then creating atmospheric undercurrents of unease and anticipation. He seamlessly weaves a complex, multi-layered plot with subtlety and skill. The world building was superb and the introduction of intriguing secondary characters (whom I’m assuming will play more prominent roles in the second and third books) laid a strong foundation for the remaining books in this series. He has a knack for creating characters that are relatable in their realistic imperfections and you can’t help but be drawn into their struggle.

While some might argue that the relationship between Nate and Trent developed too quickly or too easily, I felt their relationship evolved naturally and was completely believable, especially considering Nate’s empath abilities and their almost constant close proximity for the three or four days they spent traveling together from Texas to New York. It began with a mutual attraction, grew into a friendship based on shared interests, and finally culminated with a sexual chemistry that strengthened their trust in each other and secured their bond.

Though not the main focus of the story, the romance between these two young men is an integral part of it. Throughout all the twists and turns, the unease and surprising revelations, Trent remains Nate’s touchstone, his lifeline, his port in the storm. He is the one person Nate knows he can trust. Trent keeps Nate sane and on track in the midst of the overwhelming tide of suspicion, danger, and uncertainty as he searches for the truth about his brother’s death.

Every time I thought I had it all figured out, another piece of the puzzle would drop into place, shifting my perceptions of characters and causing me to re-examine my theories. I confess, I did solve a couple of the mysteries long before the big reveal. Chalk that up to the dozens of mysteries I’ve read and my obsession with the Investigation Discovery Channel. Nevertheless, the journey toward the unveiling of those revelations was an enthralling and entertaining ride. The story began at a slower pace, gradually gaining momentum as the mercurial clues slid into place. The climax was action-packed and adrenaline-charged and the resolution was satisfying.

Although the mystery of Nate’s brother’s death has been solved by the end of Insight, there were deeper mysteries uncovered which now linger. This book, which is the first in this series, just peeled away the first layer of conspiracy and deception in the psychic world. Hopefully, books 2 and 3 will reveal the flesh and bones of these darker secrets hidden within The Community.

I can’t wait for Oversight (The Community: Book 2) to come out this summer!

A Garden of Enchantments

TBR Challenge 2017: New-To-Me Authors

As per usual for me, I delved headfirst into this New-To-Me Author category and have read more than one book in more than one series by more than one new-to-me author this month. In fact, I ended up reading eight books in three series by three new-to-me authors in the past week for this challenge.

(This obsessive compulsive nature of mine may well be my undoing someday!)

One of the things I have always loved most about this time of the year, after the Winter holidays and before Spring bursts forth, is the arrival of seed catalogs and garden planning magazines. My mind always drifts to fresh turned earth and new growth, the promise of warm sunlight and green-scented breezes. So, it was easy for me to find a theme for this month’s reading binge.There is nothing like a garden to chase away the Winter doldrums.

Although I would categorize all three of these series as Romance, two of them are what I’d call Magical Realism (with the first of those edging toward Literary), and the third one is more straight forward Romance with a contemporary nod and wink toward classic fairy tales. Yet they all have an enchanted garden feel to them.

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

First Frost (Waverley Family #2) by Sarah Addison Allen

Ever since I read a sample chapter of Garden Spells months ago, I’ve been craving it. Sarah Addison Allen writes the kind of prose that soothes my senses and nourishes my soul. The only reason I didn’t devour it immediately upon discovery was because it is not a cheap book, even as a digital download. I had been trying to keep myself to a monthly book budget and simply could not justify spending $11.99 on one book when I could buy two or three less expensive books by authors I was already familiar with for that amount. This challenge gave me the perfect excuse to splurge and I am so glad I finally did.

Garden Spells  is vaguely reminiscent of Practical Magic, but only in that it revolves around an old, established family of eccentric women who are rumored to have magical abilities. The rhythm and lyricism of the storytelling 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. The town itself feels almost like a personality unto itself and the voice and tone and pace of the writing weaving throughout this story, like the ivy insinuating itself into the garden, draws you in.

I loved this book so much that I immediately read the sequel, First Frost, which I also loved, just so I could spend more time among these characters in this town and in that garden.

The Garden of Magic (The Language of Spells 0.5) by Sarah Painter

The Language of Spells (The Language of Spells #1) by Sarah Painter

The Secrets of Ghosts (The Language of Spells #2) by Sarah Painter

I liked this series well enough but, if I’m honest, it was a bit predictable in terms of plot and the characters, though likeable, lacked depth. Maybe it was because I read it too soon after reading the Waverley Family books. Maybe it was a bit like dining on home cooking after eating at a five-star restaurant. There is nothing wrong with these books or with Sarah Painter’s writing. They contain elements I love reading about: magical realism, hedgewitchery, herbal healing, tight-knit village life, family heritage and traditions.

As I said, I liked these books, especially The Garden of Magic, the prequel novella. I found the character of Iris Harper to be the strongest, most interesting character in the entire series. The Language of Spells was good, but I didn’t enjoy Gwen’s story as much as Iris’s. I had high hopes for The Secrets of Ghosts because I was hoping Katie’s story would be stronger than it turned out to be, but the majority of the story took place at the hotel where Katie worked rather than at the old Harper house and garden and I had to force myself to finish reading it because I figured it all out way ahead of the characters and wanted to shake some sense into them. I was disappointed in how naïve and clueless the character of Katie turned out to be, and that felt out of place to me as she had supposedly been studying her craft with her Aunt Gwen for seven years. It was a letdown because I actually liked Katie’s spunky attitude as a teenager in Gwen’s book.

Once Upon a Rose (La Vie en Roses #1) by Laura Florand

A Wish Upon Jasmine (La Vie en Roses #2) by Laura Florand

A Crown of Bitter Orange (La Vie en Roses #3) by Laura Florand

I first became aware of this series through recommendations by Amy Jo Cousins. When Amy Jo Cousins recommends a book, I immediately pay attention because that is how I have discovered a great many of my favorite authors. However, I did not read the first book in this series until after the third book was released and once again had my attention brought back around to these books.

I liked the first book, Once Upon a Rose, even though it was a tad sweet for my taste. Not enough conflict. The relationship between Matt and Layla seemed to come too easy. The stakes didn’t feel high enough. BUT… the setting was phenomenal. A valley of roses in the Grasse region in the South of France? A family heritage of perfume creation and production stretching back to the Renaissance? Strong, stubborn, independent elders who were WWII Resistance heroes? Five gorgeous, virile cousins – heirs to the Rosier perfume dynasty – in search of true love? Yes, please, to all of the above!

Although the sweetness and simplicity of the first book were not quite to my taste, the second and third books more than made up for it, with each book growing less saccharine and more sanguine, family secrets unfurling and wrapping stronger tendrils around my heart, like a flowering vine rooted in fertile soil and reaching for the sun. With the romance of the region, and the history of the valley and the medieval walled towns overlooking the Mediterranean coast as the backdrop to these stories of an enduring, tight-knit family of strong, passionate men and the women who capture their hearts, I am now desperately impatient for the next book to be released.

In the meantime, I’ll probably be working my way through Laura Florand’s backlist and treating myself to a Sarah Addison Allen book every now and then, as I can afford them.

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Of Vampires & Werewolves

As I mentioned in my last post, I am taking part in the TBR Challenge 2017 organized by Wendy at The Misadventures of Super Librarian. The premise is simple: “Once a month participants pull a long-neglected book out of their TBR (To-Be-Read) piles, read it, and provide “commentary” on that book on the 3rd Wednesday of the month.” It’s a fun and motivating way to work your way through your TBR list, hopefully decreasing it to a manageable size along the way. Each month has a theme. Although sticking to the theme is not mandatory, I like the idea of having a guideline or game plan to follow. Especially since my TBR list is vast and multi-faceted. This year’s themes are as follows:

January 18 – We Love Short Shorts! (category romance, short stories, novella etc.)
February 15 – New-To-You Author
March 15 – Comfort Read (Favorite Author? Favorite Trope? Favorite Sub Genre?)
April 19 – Contemporary
May 17 – Something Different (outside your comfort zone, unusual setting, non-romance etc.)
June 21 – Favorite Trope (a favorite theme – amnesia? secret baby? fairy tale? friends-to-lovers? etc.)
July 19 – Series Catch-Up (a book from a series you’re behind on)
August 16 – Kicking It Old School (publication date 10 years or older)
September 20 – Historical
October 18 – Paranormal or Romantic Suspense
November 15 – Recommended Read (a book recommended to you by someone)
December 20 – Holiday Themes

Which brings me to the post at hand and to the title of this post. I chose not just one but two novellas, both of which are M/M Paranormal Romance, for my first TBR Challenge Wednesday: We Love Short Shorts!

Wolf Hall by Harper Fox has been sitting in my Kindle since November 2015. I attempted to read it when I first bought it but stopped after a few pages. For some reason I just couldn’t get into the story. It was already November, so maybe I was burned out on Halloween stories. Who knows? Maybe I was in a weird head space. That happens to me sometimes. One thing I can assure you, it had nothing to do with the quality of the writing. Harper Fox is a master storyteller and I have never been disappointed in any of her books that I’ve read thus far. But somehow this book got shuffled aside and I never got back to it until now.

This week when I settled in for a fresh read of Wolf Hall, I was pulled right into the story and thoroughly enjoyed the ride. It starts out with a gritty, contemporary vibe. The main character is David Bell, a young man trying to build a better life for himself. But his troubled past, in the form of a criminal ex-boyfriend threatening blackmail, is determined to drag him back down and keep him down.The story takes place on All Hallows Eve, a night when the veil between worlds is at its thinnest. After a violent altercation with his ex, David flees for his life into the night and into the wild countryside beneath the full Blood Moon. It is here that the story subtly begins to shift toward a more gothic atmosphere and touches on fairy tale elements. The transition is gradual and handled beautifully by the author. Exhausted and near freezing, David encounters a pack of animals, strange voices in the woods, and Lowrie Devlin, a charming young man who invites him back to his home, Wolf Hall,where things may or may not be exactly as they seem.

Now, I’ve read the reviews where some have claimed the story was too ambiguous and left too much up to the readers imagination. I disagree. I like that some things were described with broader brushstrokes rather than belabored with detailed explanations. It adds to the mystical quality of this Halloween tale. I like that some details were left up to the reader to draw their own conclusions about certain events. It makes the story more personally satisfying, in my opinion.

For me, the overall theme of this story is about transition. The ever-changing cycle of life. From childhood to adulthood, from friend to enemy, from boy to man, from man to beast. From a dead-end past to a better future full of possibility.


Bonfire (Hours of the Night Book 1.5) by Irene Preston and Liv Rancourt is a holiday novella set following the events which occurred in Vespers (Hours of the Night Book 1), the first book in this exciting and suspenseful paranormal series. In this continuation of their story, we revisit Thaddeus, the disciplined century-old vampire monk/demon assassin, and Sarasija, his young outgoing modern assistant/lover, still struggling to find their way in this new, unexpected relationship. It is set during the Christmas season but the holiday serves more as a background for this eerie mystery than the main focus. As Sara and Thad prepare for their first Christmas together, legends and folklore become a reality as mysterious lights (called the feu follet by locals) begin to appear, luring people off-course and causing even the most seasoned locals to lose their way in the swamp’s wilderness. The supporting cast of characters and the sense of isolation in this secluded small bayou community gives an added depth and texture to the story, making the world in which the Hours of the Night series is set more solid and realistic than many other series of its kind.

I found the mystery of the lights every bit as compelling as the strengthening and evolving relationship between Thad and Sara, as well as the danger inherent in the rising suspicions and tensions from  the locals in the community. The contrasts and dichotomies found within this story keep the reader riveted as the story unfolds. Thad striving toward, yet fighting against, his long-forgotten humanity and opening himself up more in terms of his emotions. Sara struggling to become stronger in his patience, more mature and more courageous in his actions. Both the unity and safety of being part of a small inclusive community, as well as the danger and suspicion of being outside that community. Relationships of all kinds are about finding common ground, compromise and meeting in the middle.

This story is a suspenseful, captivating journey that is richly satisfying and skillfully woven. Although the story can probably be enjoyed as a stand-alone read, I highly recommend reading the first book in the series, Vespers, to fully understand and appreciate the characters and setting of the Hours of the Night series before reading this installment.

All Things Shiny and New

I don’t know about you, but the start of a new year fills me with an optimistic sense of possibility. It’s a fresh start, a clean slate, even if those concepts are merely symbolic and illusory. For me, the passage from the old year to the new is liberating. It’s a metaphorical reset button and the weight of self-perceived failures and missed opportunities can be shrugged off my shoulders like a worn out coat. I get filled with this restless energy and anticipation. I start making lists and organizing files and clearing out clutter that’s accumulated in my life.

During my most recent cleaning/organizing frenzy, I began updating my Goodreads account. I migrated to a brand new one, in fact, in order to better track my reading goals,  habits, and achievements. And I realized something in the process: the quality of my reading choices has vastly improved over the past two years. Another thing I realized as I scrolled through the dark recesses of my Kindle history is that I used to read a lot of trashy smut. Some of it redeemable because it was hung upon the bones of a decently constructed and compelling plot and contained likeable, well-drawn characters, but some of it embarrassingly void of any literary merit whatsoever. There were also many books in my library that I either bought and never read or that I did read but were apparently forgettable.

Now, I’m not one for making New Year’s resolutions. Therein lies failure, especially with my obsessive/compulsive nature. But I do believe in setting goals and in striving for continual improvement. One of the goals I am setting for myself this year is Quality over Quantity. I plan to spend my book dollars more wisely, to only pre-order books by authors I love, to pay closer attention to reviews and recommendations by people I trust, and to reread favorite titles during book release lulls rather than buying tons of mediocre reads that will only leave me feeling empty, dissatisfied, and broke.

Another goal I have for myself in 2017 is to get more of my own writing done. I have a drawer full of notes and outlines and snippets of stories that need to be written. What I need is more self-discipline and better time management skills.

All in all, I’m looking forward to a lot of things in 2017. Here are just a few things I’m eagerly anticipating in the coming months:

  1. The winter premiere of Shadowhunters tonight at 7:00 pm CST on Freeform.
  2. Patience Griffin’s newest book It Happened in Scotland (Kilts and  Quilts #6) releasing tomorrow on January 3, 2017.
  3. The fourth and final season of Black Sails which premieres January 29, 2017 on STARZ.
  4. The first book of Santino Hassell’s new paranormal series Insight (The Community #1) due to release on March 13, 2017.
  5. The live-action Beauty and the Beast movie in theaters March 17, 2017.
  6. The new Arden St. Ives series by Alexis Hall, the first of which is expected to release on April 18, 2017.
  7. Season 3 of Outlander, hopefully premiering in April or sooner, on STARZ
  8. Taking part in the 2017 TBR Challenge.

So, as this new year begins, I have high hopes for positive changes in my life. I have good things to look forward to and plans for exciting new projects and personal improvement. And I have this fresh new blog space in which to review, report, and ruminate.

To quote the old Nina Simone song: it’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me, and I’m feeling good.

My Top 50 Reads of 2016

Here it is, the last day of the year, and I’m playing catch-up. I thought I was doing so well through the holidays to stay on top of things. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I was an organized, productive dervish of accomplishment, checking items off my list of shopping, wrapping, mailing, decorating, and baking – everything needed to make the season bright. I had even begun a few lists of new projects for the coming new year. And then Christmas day arrived with its post-celebratory let-down, the news of George Michael’s death, and a decided crash of my energy and enthusiasm. Therefore the launching of this new blog is more rushed and thrown together than I had intended. The time got away from me while I was wallowing in grief and memories.

It being the end of the year, I wanted to organize my library and decide which titles were worthy of hoarding. One thing is certain: I read a lot of books this year. On average I generally read between three to five books a week, and that’s a low-ball figure. Sometimes I go through a feverish binge and read at least a book a day. Needless to say, narrowing down my reading list for 2016 was a time-consuming process. I thought about doing a Top 10 or Top 20 like I’ve seen others do, but there were just too many great books this year. So my solution was a Top 50 + 2 anthologies in order to represent each week of the year. The only significance to the order in which they are listed is the order in which I bought them. The majority of these are LGBTQ romance but a few of them are not. There are a couple of chick-lit, mainstream, and YA in the mix. The two anthologies I recommend are Follow Me Into Darkness: Five Tales of Carnivale Romance (containing stories by Santino Hassell, J.C. Lillis, J.R. Gray, Kris Ripper, and Roan Parrish) and All in Fear: A Collection of Six Horror Tales (containing stories by Roan Parrish, Kris Ripper, KJ Charles, Steve Berman, Avon Gale, and J.A. Rock).

My Top 50 Favorite Books of 2016:

  1. Status Update (#gaymers Book 1) by Annabeth Albert
  2. Dancing Lessons by R. Cooper
  3. Strong Signal (Cyberlove Book 1) by Megan Erickson & Santino Hassell
  4. Love Me Tenor (Perfect Harmony Book 2) by Annabeth Albert
  5. Take the Leap (New Halliday Book 3) by Kris Ripper
  6. Out of Nowhere (Middle of Somewhere Book 2) by Roan Parrish
  7. Out of Frame (In Focus Book 3) by Megan Erickson
  8. Lady Midnight (The Dark Artifices Book 1) by Cassandra Clare
  9. Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Bend or Break #6-7) by Amy Jo Cousins
  10. The Raven Cycle #4: The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater
  11. Out! (The Shamwell Tales #3) by JL Merrow
  12. Knit Tight (Portland Heat Book 4) by Annabeth Albert
  13. First and First (Five Boroughs Book 3) by Santino Hassell
  14. The Wall of Winnipeg and Me by Mariana Zapata
  15. Beta Test (#gaymers Book 2) by Annabeth Albert
  16. Light from the Dark by Mercy Celeste
  17. Hottie Scotty and Mr. Porter by R. Cooper
  18. Priddy’s Tale by Harper Fox
  19. The Winter Prince by R. Cooper
  20. Fast Connection (Cyberlove Book 2) by Megan Erickson & Santino Hassell
  21. Gays of our Lives (Queers of La Vista Book 1) by Kris Ripper
  22. Blow Down (The Plumber’s Mate Book 4) by JL Merrow
  23. All Note Long (Perfect Harmony Book 3) by Annabeth Albert
  24. The Sunshine and Biscotti Club by Jenny Oliver
  25. Change Up (Homeruns Book 5) by Sloan Johnson
  26. Zac’s Mulligan (Guarding the Gods Book 1) by Ann Lister
  27. Looking for Group by Alexis Hall
  28. The Butch and The Beautiful (Queers of La Vista Book 2) by Kris Ripper
  29. Save of the Game (Scoring Chances Book 2) by Avon Gale
  30. Connection Error (#gaymers Book 3) by Annabeth Albert
  31. Spindrift by Amy Rae Durreson
  32. Vespers (Hours of the Night Book 1) by Irene Preston & Liv Rancourt
  33. Documenting Light by EE Ottoman
  34. Overexposed (In Focus Book 4) by Megan Erickson
  35. Where We Left Off (Middle of Somewhere Book 3) by Roan Parrish
  36. Outsider (Exodus End World Tour Book 2) by Olivia Cunning
  37. Say It Louder (Tattoo Thief Book 4) by Heidi Joy Tretheway
  38. Raven’s Rest by Stephen Osborne
  39. The Weight of It All by NR Walker
  40. Enjoy the Dance (Dancing Book 2) by Heidi Cullinan
  41. Pansies (Spires Universe) by Alexis Hall
  42. Interborough (Five Boroughs Book 3) by Santino Hassell
  43. The Queer and the Restless (Queers of La Vista Book 3) by Kris Ripper
  44. A Family for Christmas by Jay Northcote
  45. Merry Christmas, Mr. Miggles by Eli Easton
  46. Glass Tidings by Amy Jo Cousins
  47. Wrapped Together (Portland Heat Book 5) by Annabeth Albert
  48. David, Renewed by Diana Copland
  49. Treasure for Treasure (Being(s) in Love Book 7) by R. Cooper
  50. One Life to Lose (Queers of La Vista Book 4) by Kris Ripper