5 Stars, Genre Romance, Heidi Cullinan, Reviewed by Jules, Samhain Publishing

Review: Lonely Hearts by Heidi Cullinan

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Title: Lonely Hearts (Love Lessons: Book Three)

Author: Heidi Cullinan

Publisher: Samhain Publishing

Pages/Word Count: 325 Pages

At a Glance: If this book isn’t perfect, I sure couldn’t find the flaws, and I read it twice just to be sure.

Reviewed By: Jules

Blurb: Even hot messes need a happily ever after.

With the quiet help of his wealthy family, Sebastian “Baz” Acker has successfully kept his painful past at bay. But as the end of college draws near, his friends—his buffer zone—are preparing to move on, while his own life is at a crippling standstill.

With loneliness bearing down on him, Baz hooks up—then opens up—with Elijah Prince, the guy Baz took a bullet for last year. The aftershocks of their one-night stand leave giant cracks in Baz’s carefully constructed armor. For the first time, the prospect isn’t terrifying.

Accustomed to escaping his demons by withdrawing into his imagination, Elijah isn’t used to having a happy herd of friends. He’s even less comfortable as the object of a notorious playboy’s affections. Yet all signs seem to indicate this time happiness might be within his grasp.

When Baz’s mother runs for a highly sought-after public office, the media hounds drag Baz’s and Elijah’s pasts into the light. In the blinding glare, Baz and Elijah face the ultimate test: discovering if they’re stronger together…or apart.

Warning: Contains sex in a Tesla, sex in a cupboard, sex under a piano, kinky role play, and a cappella RuPaul songs. Just a couple of boys groping, battling, then finally loving their way to becoming men.

Dividers

Review: In my reviews of both Love Lessons and Fever Pitch, the first two books in Heidi Cullinan’s Love Lessons series, I used the word ‘perfect’ – and I’m going to use it again here. If this book isn’t perfect, I sure couldn’t find the flaws, and I read it twice just to be sure. ;) Lonely Hearts is Baz and Elijah’s story. It’s my favorite of the series. And, it is perfection.

The title is just one of the myriad of wonderful things about this book. The theme of loneliness runs throughout…What makes them lonely, and how can they help each other not feel so alone. This passage hit me right in the gut…

“It makes me feel shitty and alone. I don’t want to be alone.” He sagged. “But I think maybe I have to be. Even in a crowd of people, my heart will always ache.”

The statement resonated in the furthest hollows of Baz’s soul. “Then we’ll be lonely hearts together.”

Both Elijah and Baz are profoundly lonely and coping in similar ways – i.e., largely through sarcasm, substance abuse, and sex – but when their hearts find each other? Swoon City. They do slowly begin to realize that they don’t have to feel alone, as there are so many unbelievably amazing people in their circle. All of the other residents of the White House, of course – Aaron and Giles, Mina and Jilly, Brian, and the fabulous new edition, Lejla/Lewis – along with Pastor and Liz, Ed and Laurie, Walter and Kelly, Marius, and Damien. As with the other books in the series, the ensemble is, once again, beyond fantastic.

One of the issues that Baz is having as Lonely Hearts begins, is dealing with the fact that Damien and Marius are graduating and moving out of the White House. Those two have been his confidants, his protectors, his cheerleaders, and his best friends since Baz started at Saint Timothy. Especially Marius. Not having them around in his daily life is a HUGE transition for him, and Heidi Cullinan does a fabulous job of portraying how that loss affects Baz, as well as how, as that hole is filled by Elijah, Baz depends on them less and less.

Elijah initially fights his attraction to Baz – Ok, he doesn’t fight that hard. They do have sex in the Tesla in chapter two, so he isn’t able to resist him for long. We see this reaction about a quarter of the way into the story:

So naked, so fucking naked without those glasses. So young. So handsome.

So Baz.

Elijah let out a sigh of surrender.

Eyes crinkling and twinkling in the shadows, Baz smiled.

The relationship between Baz and Elijah may begin in an unlikely manner, and they are both broken, hot messes at the start, but their growth is undeniable. The way they grow together, with each other and because of each other throughout the story is brilliant and gorgeous. They go from snarky comments and smart-ass flirtations, which they both use as armor, to open, honest grown-up interactions. And, somehow the sex just gets hotter and hotter!

One of my other favorite things about the story is that it is once again filled with music and pop culture references. At my house we are massive Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli fans, so I LOVED all of the nods to Howl’s Moving Castle (Baz and Elijah’s relationship is compared many times to Howl’s and Sophie’s, which is…wait for it…perfection) and all of the other Miyazaki films. Also, for a chunk of my reading I listened to Heidi Cullinan’s Spotify playlist that she made for the book. Completely. Fabulous. If you’ve never done this, I highly recommend it, especially this playlist; it was too good.

In closing…

Go. Read. Now.

I highlighted fifty-seven passages in this book, you guys. Fifty-seven. Highlighter orgies like that don’t happen every day. Read this book. Or, the series if you haven’t started it yet, beginning with Love Lessons, of course – because Walter.

Sidenote: Ed and Laurie are a FANTASTIC addition to this book. If you want to know their story, and haven’t read Dance with Me, it’s being rereleased with an amazing new cover on September 8th!!

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5 Stars, Drama, Genre Romance, Mel Bossa, Reviewed by Jules, Samhain Publishing

Release Day Review: Craving’s Creek by Mel Bossa

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Title: Craving’s Creek

Author: Mel Bossa

Publisher: Samhain Publishing

Pages/Word Count: 220 Pages

At a Glance: Craving’s Creek is truly a gripping page-turner.

Reviewed By: Jules

Blurb: For the man he loves, he will fight—body, mind, and soul.

Fourteen years ago, on a sun-drenched summer day on the banks of Craving’s Creek, Ryde swore to his best friend, Alistair, he’d never be alone in the world. Though Alistair was destined for the priesthood, there was something beyond holy about the first kiss they shared.

But a fun camping trip went horribly wrong when Alistair was involved in a horrific incident.

Now, at age thirty-one, Ryde’s life is a mess of alcohol and the painful imprint of his last look into Alistair’s desperate eyes. Since the evil they encountered on that shore, his first love has been lost to him—until he learns a friend’s wedding is to be officiated by a priest named Father Alistair Genet.

Amid the rush of emotions, one thought crystallizes: Ryde’s love for Alistair not only has never died, it’s stronger than ever. Stronger than God. But it may be no match for the church…and the repressed memories that are slowly tearing Alistair’s mind apart.

Dividers

Review: Craving’s Creek is truly a gripping page-turner. I was absolutely enthralled by this story. The blurb only hints at the drama that lies within the book; the story itself is MUCH more intense. I had a few guesses as to “the evil they encountered on the shore,” but having an idea of what might happen didn’t prepare me for the actual fear and sadness that hit me when reading it.

The emotions that you feel when an author puts characters through different experiences are a direct result of how good a job that author does at making you connect with those characters. Mel Bossa did a fantastic job. Both so well-developed and interesting, I was invested in Ryde and Alistair from the word go. When they were happy and carefree together, I was happy. When the unimaginable happened, and they were thrust into hell, my heart was ripped out.

The one constant in the story was Ryde’s love for Alistair, which was keenly felt all throughout the book. I liked Ryde so much. His strength, wit and sass always shone through, whether he was standing up to Alistair’s mother, interacting with his baby sisters, or challenging the priests at the presbytery after he reconnects with Alistair. Even while struggling with alcoholism he never comes off as weak to me. And the strength he has to draw on to help Alistair begin to heal is amazing.

Alistair is such a unique character. Very pure and childlike, and incredibly smart, yet so naïve at the same time. I loved the descriptions in the book of his beauty; I felt like I could see him perfectly. His story arc was so engrossing, I couldn’t put the book down. And his absolute faith and trust in Ryder, both when they were boys, and again when they reconnected as men, was truly beautiful. In fact, his unwavering faith in general was fascinating, as it was both his salvation and very nearly his destruction. Religion is a tough topic to tackle in a novel, and there are certainly some controversial viewpoints here, but ultimately the beauty of Alistair’s faith was nicely juxtaposed with Ryde’s disdain for organized religion.

There were many heart-racing moments, and moments that felt hopeless, but these guys have a wonderful cast of characters in their corner. Ryde’s parents are completely fantastic, and Jamie – Dr. Scarborough, the psychiatrist who helps Ryder, and then later, Alistair, deal with the trauma of what they went through when they were seventeen – was an amazing doctor and a good friend.

The end was a bit of a rollercoaster. I got a titch worried that things weren’t going to be resolved in time, and that perhaps I was headed for a cliffhanger. And then I thought, rather than the big, dramatic showdown, the author was going to take it in a different direction, which I was actually ‘ok’ with. But, then she DID do the big dramatic showdown before wrapping things up, which also worked fine. While it wasn’t a cliffhanger, it did leave me wanting a tad more closure. I would definitely not object to seeing more of these guys in the future! Either way, though, I’ll be checking out more of Mel Bossa’s work.

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5 Stars, Dreamspinner Press, Genre Romance, Mary Calmes, Reviewed by Jules

Release Day Review: Piece of Cake by Mary Calmes

PieceofCakeTitle: Piece of Cake (A Matter of Time Story)

Author: Mary Calmes

Publisher: Dreamspinner Press

Pages/Word Count: 69 Pages

At a Glance: We’ve all met the hot mess that is Jory Harcourt. Smooth sailing isn’t usually on the menu, but the adventure is unforgettable.

Reviewed By: Jules

Blurb: After years of domestic partnership, Jory Harcourt and Sam Kage are finally going to make it official in their home state of Illinois. It’s been a long and rocky road, and nothing—not disasters at work, not the weather, not a possible stalker, not even getting beat up and having to attend the ceremony looking like he just got mugged—will make Jory wait one more day to make an honest man of the love of his life.

Should be a piece of cake, right?

Dividers

Review: Man, I love these guys, all of Mary’s guys, but Sam and Jory? Yeah… *sigh*

It was so good to be back in Jory’s head for this little peek into the chaotic perfection that is their lives, and, of course, their wedding. The blurb killed me…Should be a piece of cake, right? Ha! We’ve all met the hot mess that is Jory Harcourt. Smooth sailing isn’t usually on the menu, but the adventure is unforgettable.

Mary Calmes has gifted us with a fabulous little wedding novella for our heroes. A Piece of Cake takes us from the wedding planning, through to the ceremony, with no shortage of shenanigans along the way. Jory, as usual, finds himself in the midst of some drama, and it takes Sam and a parade of our favorite characters from the series to get things sorted out. I loved all of the cameos in the story – Duncan and Aaron, Dane and Aja, etc. – but, my favorite was the hilarious little scene with Miro and Ian. I want the next Marshals book, like, now!

I was cracking up on page one:

“We’re still getting married, right?”

Swooning at the end:

“’You’re it,’ he whispered. ‘My love. You have my heart.’”

And, loved every page in between.

Now, I want to go back and start their story all over again!

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2 Stars, Harmony Ink Press, Reviewed by Jules, Young Adult

Review: The Geek and His Artist by Hope Ryan

Title: The Geek and His Artist

Author: Hope Ryan

Publisher: Harmony Ink Press

Pages/Word Count: 320 Pages

At a Glance: At the end of the day, this book just wasn’t for me.

Reviewed By: Jules

Blurb: Simon Williams spends his lunch periods drawing his geek and trying not to think about the terrors waiting for him at home. He needs to get away from his abusive father before he suffers the same grisly fate as his mother. Because he’s learned the hard way running away doesn’t work, he’s counting the days until his eighteenth birthday.

Jimmy Bennet should be spending his lunch studying so his senior GPA is good enough to get him into college, but he can’t seem to focus thanks to his distracting artist. When he’s given the opportunity to tutor Simon in Trig and discovers Simon’s home-life nightmare, he wants nothing more than to get Simon out of danger. This need becomes more urgent when Simon comes to school the Monday after their first date with bruises, but it takes a broken leg before Jimmy can convince his boyfriend the Bennets really want him.

But the danger Simon thought was past shows up at the most unexpected time, and he must stand up to the fears he’s held so long to protect not only himself, but the man he wants to spend his life with.

Dividers

Review: I tried with this book…I tried changing my framework – looking at it from a purely YA perspective; i.e. would the things that were bugging me about it have bugged me if I were in the target demographic? Would my fifteen or sixteen year old self have thought the handling of many of the topics was as After-School-Special-ish as my grown-up self did? I tried suspending belief on some of the dramatics, and giving the benefit of the doubt that these things did and could happen… But, at the end of the day, this book just wasn’t for me.

A Geek and His Artist tells the story of two high school kids who have both been watching each other from afar. Jimmy is a smart, sweet, mostly-closeted gay guy who has secretly been admiring “his artist” from a nearby cafeteria table for a few months. Simon is a quiet, artistic, skater boy who has similarly been watching, and drawing, Jimmy, “his geek”, for those same few months. They finally run into each other outside of school during winter break, and soon after begin talking – when Simon needs some tutoring – and then immediately begin a very serious relationship. I’m not kidding when I say immediately. These guys were calling each other “baby” (or, at least Jimmy was using the pet name for Simon, with zero surprise or objection from him) and labeling themselves as boyfriends within hours of their first conversation. And were discussing how serious they were, and actually getting engaged within a few months. Months! And, did I mention they were in high school? Yeah…

Aside from the über sweetness of the book, there was also tons of melodrama that was so completely over-the-top I couldn’t overlook it. Simon’s dad was an abusive prick. Full stop. It was well documented in the story. He even murdered – though he got away with it – Simon’s mother. It was also covered that The Bastard (this is how he was referred to in the book) did not sexually abuse Simon. There was huge worry, and then huge relief, for Jimmy after discovering Simon at least hadn’t been hurt in that way. So, I ask you, WHY did the author feel it was necessary to add the line, “…He, uh, he once told her if she’d had a girl, he might have left her alone.”? Completely unnecessary in my opinion, and added nothing to the story.

Any fondness I might have had for these guys was unfortunately completely overshadowed by the unrealistic gushy-sweetness with which they interacted, and the aforementioned melodrama. I wanted to love this book – I LOVE stories with geeks of all kinds, and artsy boys – and, in fact, I thought the Epilogue was well-done and very cute, but it wasn’t enough to save the book as a whole.

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3.5 Stars, Dreamspinner Press, Genre Romance, Reviewed by Jules, Tara Lain

Review: Knave of Broken Hearts by Tara Lain

Title: Knave of Broken Hearts (Love in Laguna: Book Two)

Author: Tara Lain

Publisher: Dreamspinner Press

Pages/Word Count: 224 Pages

At a Glance: In my opinion, this follow-up was definitely not as good as Knight of Ocean Avenue, but I’m still enjoying the series.

Reviewed By: Jules

Blurb: Jim Carney has a full time job—running from himself. Since he walked out on his wealthy family at sixteen because he’d wrecked his best friend’s life over some yaoi graphic novels, Jim has lived a macho, blue-collar existence of too much booze and too little responsibility. Then Billy Ballew, the man Jim most admires, gives Jim a chance to come through as his construction supervisor. For once, Jim is determined to make someone proud. Then Jim goes in for a physical for his new job, and his yaoi dream comes to life in the form of cardiologist Ken Tanaka. Jim discovers he has two heart problems—a wonky mitral valve and a serious attraction to his doctor. But Ken is a major player, and Jim might be just a notch on the doc’s stethoscope. To Ken, Jim is unforgettable—but the living embodiment of his traditional family’s worst nightmares. How come the minute Jim decides to be responsible, he finds himself taking care of his kid brother, getting a proposal from a wealthy woman, making a deal with the devil, and winding up in the hospital—when all he really wants is the Knave of Broken Hearts?

Dividers

Review: Knave of Broken Hearts, the second book in Tara Lain’s Love in Laguna series, is, if simplified, a romance about a blue-collar construction worker who falls for a rich, extremely handsome cardiologist. It’s not simply a straight ahead romance, however. There are a few important themes and messages at play throughout the book – overcoming fear and learning how to be who you are, accepting who you are, and being unwilling to compromise who you are to please others. Also, neither of the main characters are exactly what they seem and are both dealing with very stressful personal lives.

At first, I had a difficult time getting into the story; I didn’t immediately engage with the characters. But, since the same thing happened when I read Knight of Ocean Avenue, the first book in the series, and I ended up loving that one, I figured I would be invested before long, and, for the most part, I was.

I fell for Jim first, partially because of knowing him a bit from the first book, but also because his character was more richly developed. His backstory, especially the stuff with him and Hiro, and his estrangement from his family, was very interesting and engaging. I loved how Jim took the bull by the horns with the job opportunity that Billy gave him. He showed a lot of growth throughout the book – small lapse in judgement with regard to his father’s scheme and his part in it aside – and showed that he could really be someone that Billy, his brother, and everyone else could be proud of. Speaking of the brother…I ADORED Jim’s younger brother, Ian. He was smart and refreshing, lots of fun, and just a sweet kid. I reeeeaaally hope that the author is going to give him a story down the road in this series!

Ken’s character was a tougher sell for me, but I did grow to like him, especially in the last quarter of the book. And, even though I liked the Japanese culture elements, and thought it was sort of cute that his mother finally decided to embrace the fact that her son was gay, and tried to fix him up with a guy instead of girls, I honestly felt like he could have had more depth. In fact, Ken and Jim’s relationship just never quite took off for me. Though I thoroughly loved the ending – the gift that Ken gives Jim actually made me cry – I felt like they spent too much of the book either misunderstanding and dancing around each other, or having strange, sporadic, rushed sexual encounters. The attraction was established…we knew that they wanted to get into each other’s pants…but the love connection didn’t have much strength.

A few other observations…

The supporting cast was pretty great. I already mentioned Ian (Adored! Please give him a book!), but Constance, the building owner of the job the crew is working on, turned out to be a great gal (I love a strong female character who isn’t a cliché), and Billy totally stole the few scenes he was in. I absolutely loved all the moments with Billy and Jim.

ALL of the parents were assholes. Okay, Ken’s dad wasn’t an asshole per se, and his mom did end up trying to meet him halfway, I guess. But, Jim and Ian’s father? Total Asshole. And Constance’s dad? Asshole.

And, finally, what the hell with Mickey and the rapist crew? That came off a bit like unnecessary drama, especially that final scene with them. I wish there had been another way to show the pressure on Ken to be who his parents wanted, and get across the stress his mother put him through, other than to set him up with that nutjob.

I’d have to say that while I liked it, in my opinion, this follow-up was definitely not as good as Knight of Ocean Avenue, but I’m still enjoying the series and looking forward to Ru’s book coming next!

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3 Stars, Dreamspinner Press, Genre Romance, Kay Walker, Reviewed by Jules

Review: By Way of Vegan Donuts by Kay Walker

Title: By Way of Vegan Donuts

Author: Kay Walker

Publisher: Dreamspinner Press

Pages/Word Count: 48 Pages

At a Glance: Even though the writing lacked polish and consistency in places, By Way of Vegan Donuts was, overall, a pleasant little read.

Reviewed By: Jules

Blurb: In a tourist town in the Canadian Rockies, Simon is spending the summer working at his sister-in-law’s bookstore. Shy around new people, Simon prefers to keep his nose in a book. When Benji, a local who works at a café down the street, hears Simon is vegan, he figures the best way to welcome him is bake him a vegan donut.

Upon their first meeting, there’s an undeniable burst of chemistry. Simon is drawn to Benji’s outgoing personality and wants to get to know him better. All Simon has to do is figure out a way to get over his nervousness and ask the casually flirty Benji on a date.

Dividers

Review: The catchy title, cute cover, and the blurb drew me in on this one. A sweet, shy bookworm, and a laid back, flirty outdoorsman. That has to be good, right?! And, it was, for the most part. It wasn’t mind-blowing. Not every read can be – especially with under fifty pages to work with. But, it was a cute story.

The setting and descriptions of the scenery were amazing. The Canadian Rockies are spectacular, and the scenes that took place in Banff and Lake Louis were beautifully written and did a fabulous job of describing the majesty of the area. I wanted to be with the boys in that teahouse on the side of the mountain!

Simon and Benji were very sweet together. I definitely enjoyed their flirtatious banter; they were really fun to read at times. Simon is described as a shy hipster, which he is. Super mellow and sweet throughout the book, he loves his family, working at the bookstore, and reading in a cozy corner at the café while occasionally flirting with Benji. For his part, Benji was also very laid-back, as I said above—they were both very chill, polite Canadians—and he was extremely respectful of Simon and thoughtful in general where he was concerned. They were just cruising along…trying to get to know each other…

So, imagine my surprise when, in the last ten pages, things take a turn down Kinky Avenue! I like fun, kinky, spontaneous sex as much as the next girl, don’t get me wrong, but I felt like that last scene really came out of nowhere. It was like, Whoa! Very out of character all of a sudden. I mean, I’m okay with Simon going from shy hipster to a tiger in the sheets…but it needed more buildup.

Even though the writing lacked polish and consistency in places, By Way of Vegan Donuts was, overall, a pleasant little read.

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5 Stars, Genre Romance, Nash Summers, Reviewed by Jules, Self-Published

Review: fawn by Nash Summers

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Title: fawn

Author: Nash Summers

Publisher: Goodreads M/M Romance Group

Pages/Word Count: 78 Pages

At a Glance: Nash Summers is such a talented author. I can’t wait to see what she has in store for us in the future.

Reviewed By: Jules

Blurb: Heaven is rays of sunlight dancing slowly on wheat stalks. It’s wind twirling itself around chimes hung from low tree branches, and robust bursts of scent and color, far beyond anything describable with words.

Heaven is a flightless crow, a promise of forever tied to a necklace, and hidden love letters tucked away safely inside a tree.

Heaven is a fire-haired boy named Rust and his love for Ancel, a boy full of storm clouds.

Heaven is all the tiny threads of hope that hold them together.

Dividers

Review:

Didn’t he know how precious he was – how important it was that he keep himself safe? He was the most beautiful thing I had ever dreamed about, and yet he was covered in angry patterns that reminded me of how very human he was. – Nash Summers

After devouring Maps, I went to see what else I could get my hands on by Nash Summers, and discovered that she had an entry in this year’s Goodreads M/M Romance Group’s “Love is an Open Road” event. The story is called fawn, and what a treasure it is.

fawn is unbelievably beautiful. The writing and the characters are absolutely gorgeous. Rust is so indescribably unique and wonderful; I’ve honestly never read a character quite like him. And, Ancel is so broken and lost, and feeling even more lost because he doesn’t know how to deal with the way Rust makes him feel – which is, alive. Look at this passage…

Rust kissed like the ocean kisses the sands on the shore of a beach when the tide comes in. His soft lips opened easily, pressing against my own coyly. He shivered when I pressed my tongue into his mouth, and I thought just then I might liquefy.

And, one more, from Rust’s POV…

I was nothing like Ancel. I wasn’t made of glaciers and the midnight sky; I was made of the grass in the field, the warm breeze that flowed through it, and the dirt under the heels of my shoes.

There are so many beautiful words in this story. I’ve shared three snippets with you, and that doesn’t come close to showcasing the poetry to be found here. Rust’s passion and spirit, and his and Ancel’s story, will get right under your skin.

This was a beautifully executed short story. Long enough to give you everything you need to become invested, enough that it all comes together, even leaves you wanting more, but doesn’t leave you hanging, or with any type of rushed resolution. Nash Summers is such a talented author. I can’t wait to see what she has in store for us in the future.

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5 Stars, Drama, Dreamspinner Press, Genre Romance, Reviewed by Jules, Reviewed by Lisa, Santino Hassell

Buddy Review: Sutphin Boulevard by Santino Hassell

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I try not to hoard all the books submitted to us for review. Truly, I do try. But sometimes a book comes along that I want to read and review really, really bad. The problem is that sometimes someone else wants that book really, really bad too. That happened with Sutphin Boulevard. Jules and I read this book–not so much together, because we’re separated geographically by a three hour time zone difference, but we burned up the texting apps on our phones along the way in our virtual love-fest of it.

You won’t find a Point-Counterpoint aspect to our reviews. We love this book the same, so the only thing you’ll find different here is our writing and reviewing styles. Suffice it to say, though, that we’re still talking about Mikey and Nunzio, even now.

And when you read as much as we do, that sort of book is a rare beast, indeed.

Dividers

Title: Sutphin Boulevard (Five Burroughs: Book One)

Author: Santino Hassell

Publisher: Dreamspinner Press

Pages/Word Count: 264 Pages

At a Glance: Go. Buy. Now.

Reviewed By: Jules and Lisa

Blurb: Michael Rodriguez and Nunzio Medici have been friends for two decades. From escaping their dysfunctional families in the working-class neighborhood of South Jamaica, Queens to teaching in one of the city’s most queer friendly schools in Brooklyn, the two men have shared everything. Or so they thought until a sweltering night of dancing leads to an unexpected encounter that forever changes their friendship.

Now, casual touches and lingering looks are packed with sexual tension, and Michael can’t forget the feel of his best friend’s hands on him. Once problems rear up at work and home, Michael finds himself seeking constant escape in the effortless intimacy and mind-blowing sex he has with Nunzio. But things don’t stay easy for long.

When Michael’s world begins to crumble in a sea of tragedy and complications, he knows he has to make a choice: find solace in a path of self-destruction or accept the love of the man who has been by his side for twenty years.

Dividers

Jules’ Review: Santino Hassell’s writing has been described as ‘gritty’. And it is that, no doubt. But, it’s also full of beauty and heart and wit. And romance. I swooned HARD for these guys. The writing feels authentic, not researched. Santino Hassell is simply a great storyteller, and great storytelling begins with great characters. Lisa and I couldn’t stop talking about this book for weeks after we finished it. One of the things we both kept coming back to was that final scene, and how utterly perfect and gorgeous the writing was. Another thing that was repeated numerous times, though, in varying degrees of flail, depending on the scene being discussed, was how much we just fucking LOVED these characters. They are so real, and there is so much meat to them…we honestly just couldn’t get enough.

Sutphin Boulevard is Michael’s story…Michael’s journey…but I have to start with Nunzio. Gahhhhh, you guys. This man is so far beyond sexy there isn’t even a word for it. Some of the descriptions of him in the book are perfection – made even more perfect by the fact that they are views of him through Mikey’s eyes…

Nunzio’s pale blue eyes flashed the way they did when he was ready to light the fire on his Sicilian temper and go explosive on someone who had pushed him – or someone he cared about – a little too far.

Nunzio had always been the charming one of our duo. The one who could get an allegedly straight frat boy to drop his pants with no more than a suggestive comment and a raised brow.

Aside from being sexy, and fiery, and beautiful, though – even more importantly – he’s also the best person Michael has ever known.

I have so much love for Nunzio – for both of them – but, Nunzio is the tortured hero. The one holding everything together, until it becomes too much even for him. This line…

“I wish I knew what to do to help you. Both of you.”

Heart-wrenching. I loved every single minute he was on the page, and would have loved to be even more inside his head…but to feel his hurt directly through him, instead of just through Michael’s observations, may have put the angst level over the top.

Okay, let’s talk about Michael. As I said above, this is his journey, and I’m not gonna lie, it’s a rough one. Things haven’t been right since leaving his life in Manhattan, and moving back to his childhood home in Queens after his mother passes away. His brother Ray, who, at twenty-five, still can’t get his act together, also lives there and is a constant source of frustration and stress for Michael. We get hints throughout the book that Michael can’t handle his life, at least the turn it has taken in the last year, very well. The way he leans on Nunzio for support, and his constant need to escape, are evident from the beginning. But, once his father shows up out of the blue and announces that he’s moving back in, and that he’s dying, the shit truly hits the fan.

Born of his feeling trapped by his situation at home, Michael’s downward spiral is so tough to read. Clearly on the path to self-destruction, but feeling powerless to stop it, his apathy at times was maddening. How could he not care that he was about to lose his job? How could he put everyone through all of this agony, when even he admitted he knew full well what he was doing? How was he so blind to the rightness of his relationship with Nunzio, when he himself had observed so many times how centered Nunzio made him feel, and how he was the only one who could make him feel that way? Addiction, folks. That’s how.

Santino Hassell nailed the alcoholism/addiction aspect of this story – and, it was a huge part of the story. The emotions, the excuses, the denial, the apathy – not to mention Nunzio’s (and Ray’s) struggle and helplessness at watching it all go down – was soooo realistically and beautifully written.

Michael’s inability to handle the changes in his life, the biggest one, of course, being the shift in his and Nunzio’s relationship, leads him to heavier substance abuse. The heavier substance abuse causes him to withdraw and refuse to face what’s going on with them. His crippling fear of ruining their friendship almost takes everything away from him. Michael knows that he can’t live without Nunzio. He knows deep down that Nunzio is everything – that their relationship is everything – but, he can’t piece it all together because there is so much other ‘clutter’ in his life. He does finally have a moment of clarity in rehab, however, and we get this unforgettable line:

My thoughts had rerouted to an option I’d never even considered before: my best friend, my one-and-only, my fucking soul mate, Nunzio.

Where their friendship is the stuff of legends – completely rock solid, honest, and unbreakable – their romance is even more so. When I tell you these guys are ON FIRE, I mean their chemistry will melt your brain. The sex scenes in this book are BE-YOND hot.

Before wrapping up, I want to quickly touch on a few other important things…

A bit more about Michael: He’s so much more than the angst train he’s on throughout much of this book. He’s passionate, he’s sexy, he’s smart, he’s a fabulous teacher who is great with his students (the classroom/teaching scenes in this book are completely fantastic), and in the moments when he allows himself to be happy with Nunzio, we see how free and alive he can be.

David: Such a complex character. I can’t wait to get to know him better in the next book. Michael refers to him as a “poor, confused baby gay,” and I think that’s him through most of this story. Trying to fit in at McCleary. Trying to work through his mixed attraction and hero-worship of Michael and Nunzio. And, making bad decisions and poorly-handling his current relationship. The author does a good job of keeping him just this side of endearing, while also using him as a source of conflict in the book – but, we don’t truly get to see David, I don’t think, until the brilliant rehab scene when he and Ray go to visit Michael. That scene showed his potential as a friend, and how he could be a positive in Michael’s life. Fabulous stuff.

This book is amazing. Go forth and 1-Click!! You’ll be so glad you did! And now, I’ll leave you with this final thought:

That cover, tho…

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Lisa’s Review: This book… I have no idea how to express how much I love this book. Not loved. I’ve said, “I loved this book!” more times than I can count, but there is no past tense going on here. I am actively, right now, in love with this book in an obsessive way. Sutphin Boulevard is not a novel that ends at its final words. It’s a book that makes you want to read it over and over again, and I’ve read its final pivotal and epiphanous scene so many times I almost know it word for word now. That single scene is written so beautifully, is so subtly nuanced with need and emotion and hope, and resonates so deeply within the metaphor of Nunzio and the role he will play in Michael’s recovery from his addiction that I still can’t stop reading it even weeks later.

Sutphin Boulevard is so much more than a simple story of lifelong friends who fall in love. It’s a story of family dysfunction and all the ways in which the burden of becoming his father’s pawn and his adult brother’s keeper pushes Michael Rodriguez to the brink; then, eventually, sends him headlong over the edge into self-destruction. This is the story of a man who is connected so irrevocably to his best friend that his own emotional insight is obscured by the depth of intimacy they share, never imagining it as anything more than friendship. But most of all, this is the story of the crippling weight of problems Michael cannot solve, which leads him to the only solution he can live with, the one solution that could very well kill him. And, tear Nunzio Medici out of his life forever—which could very well produce the same result.

Santino Hassell has introduced subjects both simple and complex in Sutphin Boulevard and then penned a gorgeous novel around them, the story of one man hell bent on self-sabotage, and another whose love for that man is so profound that giving in to his feelings is the only option; giving up is his last—and unacceptable—resort. Hassell sketches an outline of Mikey and Nunzio at the outset of this novel in a blistering scene that would begin the altering of their friendship; then spends the rest of the word count shading and filling the story in, layer by layer, so we understand on a visceral level how deep their bond is, even as Michael is frustratingly unaware of all of Nunzio’s cues. Michael is our unreliable narrator when it comes to his and Nunzio’s relationship, and, in some ways, he is his own antihero while he is everything to everyone else—teacher, son, brother, mentor, friend… He’s so busy being everyone else’s someone that he forgets how to be the hero of his own life.

As the disease of addiction becomes Mikey’s self-fulfilling prophecy, and the only legacy his father left the one son who was supposed to fall far from that family tree, we are plunged along with him into the abyss created by alcoholism and drug abuse, watching while Michael begins to crave the abyss and the oblivion it provides, sinks deeper into the bottle where Nunzio can no longer reach him; nor is Nunzio’s love enough to light Mikey’s way through the darkness of his resentment and despair, his grief and anger, his need to escape his own life and the affliction it’s become.

Santino Hassell makes no clichés of his characters, nor does he shrink from the ugliness of Michael’s downward spiral. We watch as it affects his relationships, his job, and his interactions with David Butler, the man who could have become nothing more than a pastiche of every tedious and predictable stereotype we’ve seen in fiction, but in yet another show of finesse, David’s role extends beyond the predictable to the point that I loved him, much to my surprise; so much so that I’m at Defcon 1 maximum readiness for his book and the exploration of his friendship with Michael’s brother Raymond.

Sutphin Boulevard is a novel that explores the human condition at its best and worst: from hope to heartache, from wreckage to redemption, from family drama to relationship trauma, this story draws you in from the first to the last scenes. Its characters are real, and most of all, they are human, with the inherent frailties and faults that befall us all. Watching Michael’s personal life crumble even as he continues to mentor his students in the job he loves and was meant to do is a testament to the strength and wisdom he gifted to everyone but himself.

I’ll say here what I wanted to say in the first sentence of the first paragraph of this review. Read this book. Just…read it. Ironically, in the best possible way, it is itself deliciously addictive.

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5 Stars, Elle Kennedy, Genre Romance, Rennie Road Publishing, Reviewed by Jules, Sarina Bowen

Release Day Review: Him by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy

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Title: Him

Authors: Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy

Publisher: Rennie Roads Books

Pages/Word Count: 276 Pages

At a Glance: I could go on and on with things I loved about this book…

Reviewed By: Jules

Blurb: They don’t play for the same team. Or do they?

Jamie Canning has never been able to figure out how he lost his closest friend. Four years ago, his tattooed, wise-cracking, rule-breaking roommate cut him off without an explanation. So what if things got a little weird on the last night of hockey camp the summer they were eighteen? It was just a little drunken foolishness. Nobody died.

Ryan Wesley’s biggest regret is coaxing his very straight friend into a bet that pushed the boundaries of their relationship. Now, with their college teams set to face off at the national championship, he’ll finally get a chance to apologize. But all it takes is one look at his longtime crush, and the ache is stronger than ever.

Jamie has waited a long time for answers, but walks away with only more questions—
can one night of sex ruin a friendship? If not, how about six more weeks of it? When Wesley turns up to coach alongside Jamie for one more hot summer at camp, Jamie has a few things to discover about his old friend…and a big one to learn about himself.

Warning: contains sexual situations, hotties on hockey skates, skinnydipping, shenanigans in an SUV and proof that coming out to your family on social media is a dicey proposition.

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Review: Seriously hot. Seriously swoony. Seriously good.

When I first started reading Him, I was just coming off of a couple of really fantastic reads, both of which were completely different types of books from what I expected this one to be. I worried that I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to do adrenaline-fueled, high testosterone, alpha males. Him blew my expectations out of the water. I quickly realized that I was putting it in a certain box in my head, which also ended up getting blown to smithereens. I absolutely loved this book.

Aside from the guys – who I ADORED – the first thing I didn’t know I would love so much was the hockey! The writing team of Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy has made a hockey fan out of me. No joke. These ladies obviously know their stuff, which made the reading experience that much more fantastic and exciting. During the Frozen Four bit in the beginning, I felt like I was there. And, I loved the hockey metaphors and jokes used throughout the book. The main characters’ love of the game, particularly Wes’s, was so evident it made me love the game.

This book can be classified as so many things: Friends-to-lovers; Second Chances; Coming Out; and GFY being chief among them. But, I have to say I appreciate that the authors didn’t make it a full on GFY cliché. While Jamie has not – aside from the one experience with Wes at hockey camp when they were seniors in high school – ever been attracted to guys, and truly does love women, he does explore his feelings (Okay – he spends an afternoon watching gay porn. Same thing.) enough to know that he IS attracted to other men, not just Wes. I’m glad that the authors went the direction they did with it. It felt much more authentic and true to Jamie’s character.

I could go on and on with things I loved about this book…The friendship between these two, the strength and beauty of Wes, the humor, Jamie’s family, the HOT AS HELL SEX… Seriously – on and on and on. But you need to just go and experience it all for yourselves. Never having previously read either author, I honestly had no idea what to expect. What I got was an extremely tight, well-written, FUNNY, friends-to-lovers story that I whole-heartedly recommend, and am sure I will reread myself more than once. Don’t miss out on this one, guys!

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4.5 Stars, Genre Romance, JL Merrow, Reviewed by Jules, Samhain Publishing

Review: Played! by JL Merrow

Title: Played! (The Shamwell Tales: Book Two)

Author: JL Merrow

Publisher: Samhain Publishing

Pages/Word Count: 216 Pages

At a Glance: There was a little section at about three-quarters of the way through where I felt like it was dragging a bit. These guys danced around each other for sooo long. But, for the most part, the burn was good, as was their chemistry all along.

Reviewed By: Jules

Blurb: All the world’s a stage…but real-life lessons are hidden in the heart.

Though Tristan must join his family’s New York firm at summer’s end—no more farting around on stage, as his father so bluntly puts it—he can’t resist when Shamwell’s local amateur dramatics society begs him to take a role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The bonus: giving private acting lessons to a local handyman who’s been curiously resistant to Tristan’s advances. Not only is Con delicious, there’s fifty pounds riding on Tristan getting him in his bed.

A late-diagnosed dyslexic, Con’s never dared to act, convinced he’d never be able to learn his lines. But with Tristan’s help, he takes the chance. Trouble is, the last time Con fell for a guy, he ended up getting his heart broken. And with Tristan due to leave the country soon, Con is determined not to start anything that’s bound to finish badly.

Just as Tristan thinks he’s finally won Con’s heart—and given his own in return—disaster strikes. And the curtain may have fallen forever on their chance for happiness.

Warning: Contains a surfeit of Bottoms and asses, together with enough mangled quotations to have the Bard of Avon gyrating in his grave.

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Review: All the world’s a stage…but real-life lessons are hidden in the heart. – J.L. Merrow

I realize it’s only the second book in the series, but I do so love some Shamwell Tales. With Played!, JL Merrow has given us another bit of light, sassy, English fun. The formula here is basically the same as that in Caught!, once again pairing a working class fellow with a somewhat upper-crust, more educated one, but it works. I enjoy that dynamic, especially when the working class guy blows stereotypes and expectations out of the water, as Sean did in the first book, and Con does fantastically in this one.

The characters in Played! are once again fun, quirky, and sweet. Tristan, a talented stage actor, is adorably fabulous. Wordy and pretentious, I can see that he would be off-putting to some, but I found him funny and charming as hell. Here are a couple of my favorite moments that describe Tristan’s character:

He beamed at the stranger and barely restrained himself from a ‘hel-looo gorgeous.’ “You must be Sean.” The man’s face twisted, and he rubbed the back of his neck, displaying some nicely honed triceps and a tuft of armpit hair. Tristan’s inner princess swooned dramatically.

And:

Yes, that should do it: respectably covered, but with a hint of debauchery. And, nobody did debauchery like Tristan. He blew his reflection a saucy kiss and hurtled downstairs to open the door.

Con, the village handyman, is stoic and sexy and strong. And smart – even though he feels he isn’t. His friends recognize his talent for voices, and memorizing the material from all of the audiobooks he listens to, and encourage him to take a shot at a part in the local village production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Tristan offers to help coach him, which feels like both a blessing and a curse to Con, who is trying desperately to thwart Tristan’s flirtatious advances.

I loved that it felt like I was reading a play within a play throughout much of the book. The parallels between Con and Tristan and their A Midsummers Night’s Dream counterparts, Bottom and Puck, were fantastic. Very clever stuff. And I loved all of the Shakespeare, both within the ShamDrams production, and otherwise scattered throughout the story. At times it even felt like I was reading and Auntie Mame style romp. So fabulous.

There was a little section at about three-quarters of the way through where I felt like it was dragging a bit. These guys danced around each other for sooo long. But, for the most part, the burn was good, as was their chemistry all along, and when they finally got it together, it was fabulous! I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and would definitely recommend it. I have a couple of guesses, but can’t wait to see what’s in store for us next from Shamwell!

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5 Stars, Nash Summers, New Adult, Reviewed by Jules, Self-Published

Review: Maps by Nash Summers

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Title: Maps

Author: Nash Summers

Publisher: Self-Published

Pages/Word Count: 71 Pages

At a Glance: Go read this, guys. SO. Cute.

Reviewed By: Jules

Blurb: If Maps ruled the world, his best pal Benji would be court jester, and every day would celebrate a new experiment.

No, scratch that.

If Maps ruled the world, his best pal would still be living next door, and there wouldn’t be any gap-toothed new guy staring at him as if he’s bonkers.

Pity Maps doesn’t rule the world . . .

Dividers

Review: Omigosh, this book. Feels, you guys. So many good feels! Wonderful friendship moments, wonderful family moments, wonderful learning moments, and wonderful first-love moments. All wrapped up in the near-perfect seventy-one pages that is Maps by Nash Summers.

Mattie Wilson, aka Maps, is extremely bright, quirky as hell, neurotic, and HILARIOUS. And, I completely adored him. He and his best friend Benji have grown up next door to each other, but Benji has to move a few blocks away, leaving Maps vulnerable to dealing with…dun dun dunnnn…new neighbors. He is pretty sure his life is over – but, he’ll soon find out that perhaps it’s just beginning.

One of the new neighbors is a boy just a year older than Maps, a handsome jock for whom Maps starts having confusing feelings. Lane is incredibly sweet and kind. He really sees Maps, and as they get closer, he starts developing some confusing feelings of his own. I loved how, at first, he didn’t know what to do about his attraction to Maps – but, as soon as he realizes how much he misses him, and that he might lose him, he knows exactly what to do—whatever it takes to make Maps his. Including giving unbelievably creative, thoughtful, and romantic gifts that will leave you in a puddle right along with Maps.

The writing is so sharp. There were quite a few scenes, and what quickly became ‘classic Maps moments’ – his many “very manly” squeals/shrieks/squeals, for example – that had me laughing out loud. All of the characters were wonderful. The friendship between Maps and Benji was fantastic. The whole thing was adorable and sweet (but, not toothache, blergh sweet), romantic as heck…and, did I mention FUNNY? Oh! And, there is a sequel in the works!!! Can’t wait for Diamonds. :)

Go read this, guys. SO. Cute.

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5 Stars, Genre Romance, Megan Erickson, Penguin/InterMix, Reviewed by Jules

Excerpt and Review: Focus on Me by Megan Erickson

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Title: Focus on Me

Author: Megan Erickson

Publisher: Penguin/InterMix

Pages/Word Count: 204 Pages

At a Glance: Megan Erickson has hit another homerun.

Reviewed By: Jules

Blurb: Colin Hartman can now add college to his list of failures. On the coast-to-coast trek home from California, Colin stops at a gas station in the Nevada desert, and can’t help noticing the guy in tight jeans looking like he just stepped off a catwalk. When he realizes Catwalk is stranded, Colin offers a ride.

Riley only intended to take a short ride in Colin’s Jeep to the Grand Canyon. But one detour leads to another until they finally find themselves tumbling into bed together. However there are shadows in Riley’s eyes that hide a troubled past. And when those shadows threaten to bury the man whom Colin has fallen in love with, he vows to get Riley the help he needs. For once in his life, quitting isn’t an option…

Dividers

Excerpt: “Why’d you come back?” I asked, my voice hoarse.

He licked his lower lip, the underside of his tongue running across the ridges on the surface. I wanted that to be my tongue. I wanted to feel those ridges when I kissed him, when those lips rasped over mine. He took his bottom lip and sawed his top teeth over it, abusing the skin. I reached up and gripped his chin, pressing below his lip until it popped out between his teeth.

He met my gaze and blinked. “Because you’re the first person in a long time to make me feel anything. And because I want you.” His voice was barely a tone, just a series of sounds skating up his throat. I hadn’t realized how badly I wanted to hear those words, said in such a desperate, pleading way. And not just from anyone, but from Riley, with his eyes locked on mine while my fingers gripped his chin.

I leaned in and brushed my lips across his. My eyes drifted shut, and when I opened them, our noses were touching. “Show me, then.”

His breath rushed out, fanning my face, and then he slammed his lips onto mine, the force of it banging my head on the door behind me. I groaned and speared my fingers into his hair, clutching the strands with both hands as he ravaged my mouth.

And God, what a kiss. Those full lips bruising mine, that wicked tongue doing crazy things in my mouth. He made soft moans in the back of his throat, like he was finally getting his favorite indulgence, that first blessed bite of rich, dark chocolate. He plastered his body to mine, gripping my hips and grinding his hardness into me.

I could barely keep up with his kiss as he licked into my mouth and dueled with my tongue. I gripped his head and held on, letting him take whatever he wanted, because fuck, I was finally getting to taste Riley.

When he finally pulled way with a loud smack, his hips were rolling into mine with gentle thrusts, and we were breathing hard, chests bumping. He nuzzled against my neck, nibbling below my ear. I closed my eyes as goose bumps raced over my skin.

“Can’t tell you how long I’ve wanted to do that,” he whispered.

“Can’t or won’t?”

He paused and then he nipped my earlobe. “Smartass.”

“Riley?”

“Yeah?”

“Kiss me again.”

This kiss was less frenzied but no less intense. And now his hands were moving, sliding under the hem of my shirt. He brushed his knuckles over my abs, and I sucked in a sharp breath through my nose.

He pulled back and eyed my chest hungrily. “Take your shirt off, Col.”

I reached back with one hand and fisted my shirt at my upper back, tugging it over my head, then down my arms before I tossed it to the side.

He laid his hands flat on my pecs, then ran his palms over the smattering of hair I had on my chest. “I love how you look,” he said quietly, almost reverently, his gaze on his hands. He tugged a little on the hair around my nipples, and I grunted. He smiled.

If this were anyone but Riley, I would have been uncomfortable, maybe even embarrassed at the way I was being studied. But with him . . . I was almost proud of my size and my chest. Especially because of the way his eyes took me in, like I was a chocolate dessert. “You know I love how you look too, Catwalk.”

His gaze lifted to mine, and then he kissed me. Slowly. Like he was savoring the moment and my taste.

Fingers dipped into the waistband at my jeans. My belt rattled and loosened. Riley leaned back and pulled it from my belt loops, the leather slapping together as he tossed it to the side. He flicked open the top button of my jeans with one finger and lowered the zipper. He made a strangled noise when he found me commando. And then he sank to his knees.

Riley. On his knees. Shoving my pants down my thighs. Pressing his face along the length of my cock, his tongue licking one long swipe up the underside.

“Fuck, Ri,” I moaned, thunking my head back on the door and gripping his hair. “Fuck.”

Then that long tongue again, this time licking the seam of my balls, and I snapped my eyes open, because I didn’t want to miss a single moment of this. I wanted it burned in my brain, behind my eyelids, this sight of Riley between my legs, sucking one of my balls in his mouth, eyes closed, expression one of pure bliss.

His hand gripped my cock, pressing it up and into my belly while he licked and laved the skin of my balls. I loved this, always had, but not every guy was into this. It was like Riley was made for me.

And then his hand shifted, and a wet, hot mouth descended on the tip of my cock. I sucked in a breath and then watched as Riley slowly, ever so slowly, lowered his head, my shaft disappearing into his mouth as he took me down his throat.

My fingers flexed in his hair at the heat of his mouth and the swirl of his tongue. “Oh shit.”

He moaned, the vibration nearly bringing me to my knees. And then he began to work me. Like a fucking blow-job expert, he bobbed his head in time with his fist and rolled my balls with his other hand.

I watched my spit-slick shaft disappearing between those beautiful full lips. His cheeks hollowed as he sucked, rotating his wrist along with his head in a twisting motion that had me immobile. I could feel the orgasm starting, my balls tightening.

But there was one thing missing.

“Look at me,” I whispered.

He kept his eyes closed and didn’t react to my words.

“Ri, look at me.”

Still nothing.

I reached down and cupped his chin, my thumb pressing into the corner of his mouth, where my shaft slid in and out. “Baby,” I said softly, my accent thicker with arousal. “I want to see your eyes.”

He paused, then his eyelids raised as he pulled back. When only my tip remained in his mouth, his gaze met mine.

There was so much there, swirling and whirling, all his emotions—his need—right at the surface, and he knew it too, as the color rose on his cheeks. I saw why he wanted to keep it from me. And like the selfish bastard I was, I wanted it anyway. I’d asked for it.

With his eyes on mine, he bobbed his head once, twice, and then I was done. With a cry and a tightened fist in his hair, I shot down his throat. It felt like I came for five minutes straight, because Riley kept on sucking and swallowing, wringing every last drop from me.

Riley let my softened shaft slip from his mouth, a small smile on his lips as he kissed the wet tip. I leaned my head back against the wall, closing my eyes because my head was spinning. My hand was still in his hair, but my fingers slipped as he moved. My feet were lifted as he pulled off my boots and socks, one by one, then removed my pants. I opened my eyes as I stood in front of him, naked.

I licked my lips. “You gonna let me return the favor now?”

His eyes were at half-mast, his lips red and swollen.

He stepped closer, still in his T-shirt and jeans. He gripped my hip and then slid his hand around my waist to palm my ass. He leaned in close and pressed a kiss to the hinge of my jaw. “You gonna let me have this?”

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Review: I am a HUGE fan of the first book in this series, Trust the Focus, and with Focus on Me, Megan Erickson has hit another homerun. It is another road trip story, yet it’s completely and utterly different. Different vibe, different guys, just an all-around new, awesome experience.

The subject matter in this book is much more intense than that in Trust the Focus. Here, Erickson tackles the very serious issues of depression and anorexia – unfortunately, Riley suffers from both – and Colin eventually figures out that the issues are bigger than both of them, and that Riley needs real, professional help. At first things are wonderful and exciting, and as Colin pointed out, the good times were great. Unfortunately that couldn’t last, though, and their relationship quickly becomes one of codependency and enabling. The topic of mental illness of any kind is, sadly, so often mistreated in books, but Erickson handles Riley’s depression and anorexia realistically and with respect.

One of the other themes in the book that was also presented so well was with respect to self-perception. Neither of the guys sees himself as the other sees him. Riley sees Colin as this hot, sweet, Southern charmer, as someone he could be with for the long haul, but Colin sees himself as a not-so-bright hick who fails at just about everything. Colin initially sees Riley as Catwalk – a gorgeous, worldly guy who he is definitely not worthy of, yet when Riley looks in the mirror, he doesn’t like what he sees. At all. We gather most of this through Colin’s POV, as well as some conversations, but the emails to Landry that the author uses to allow us glimpses into Riley’s head were priceless and perfect. (I only wish we could have seen Landry’s replies!) I love this quote from one of Riley’s emails:

…Because he’s light and he doesn’t deserve all the dark that’s in my head. I’m like a plant, though, and no matter what, I find myself leaning toward his light.

The family and friend support system in the story are also amazing. The guys are struggling on their own throughout most of the book, but many people are on the sidelines, ready to have their backs when they need them. Riley’s parents are wonderful. Colin’s are too, for that matter. So many LGBT fiction books tell the story of the unaccepting, abusive, close-minded parents who disown their kids – and while this is a horrifying, everyday reality for too many LGBT youth, it was refreshing to read about two sets of supportive, loving parents, because those parents are out there as well.
I have to share one more quote from Colin’s little sister, because she was so very sweet – and wise…

“You made a difference in his life, just like he made a difference in yours. You have to quit keeping this tab in your head of what you lost and what you won. Because then you miss the journey.”

And, what a journey it is. *sigh* Megan Erickson has done a fantastic job with Colin and Riley’s story. Some of the most powerful moments in the book are also some of the toughest, including the promised cameo of JusLan, which comes at a pivotal moment…but it’s all beautifully written and not to be missed!

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3 Stars, Cecil Wilde, Genre Romance, Less Than Three Press, Reviewed by Jules

Review: A Boy Called Cin by Cecil Wilde

Title: A Boy Called Cin

Author: Cecil Wilde

Publisher: Less Than Three Press

Pages/Word Count: 150 Pages

At a Glance: I love diversity in my books. I have really enjoyed the few transgender-related books that I’ve read, but I think Cecil Wilde tried to do too much here.

Reviewed By: Jules

Blurb: On the search for a cup of coffee before the guest lecture he’s giving, Tom spies a tired, half-frozen young man who looks even more in need of coffee than him. On impulse, he buys the man a cup—but an attempt to strike up conversation ends in the young man walking off, seemingly put off by Tom Walford—the tabloids’ favourite billionaire—buying him coffee. But when he reappears in Tom’s lecture, all Tom knows is that he doesn’t want the man slipping away a second time.

Agreeing to dinner with a man he only knows from internet gossip columns isn’t the wisest decision Cin’s ever made, but he wants to like the infamous Tom Walford and he can’t do that if he doesn’t give the man a fair chance to be likeable. Which he is, almost frustratingly so, to the point Cin wishes maybe he hadn’t been so fair because he never had any intention of getting attached to Tom, who seems to come from a world far too different from his own for anything between them to last. Little does Cin know, they’ve got a lot more in common than he imagines—including their shared discomfort with their assigned genders, and all the complications that go with it.

Dividers

Review: This was a really interesting read…I’m actually having a bit of trouble putting into words all of my thoughts on this book. I’m not gonna do any type of synopsis recap – which I don’t typically do much of in my reviews anyway – but instead, I’m going with a sort of stream-of-consciousness of my thoughts.

I liked both main characters quite a bit. Tom is a sexy billionaire with a heart of gold, and Cin is a twenty-year-old art student. Cin is snarky and intelligent, and, honestly, seems very put-together for being so young. Tom is basically just a huge sweetheart, who seems to wear his heart on his sleeve. They were very cute and sweet together. In fact, for the most part, that’s how I would characterize A Boy Called Cin: cute and sweet. I would describe it as fairytale-ish, even – which I think perhaps was the author’s intent. I don’t think that every book that deals with heavy subjects has to necessarily feel heavy, so in that regard I like what Cecil Wilde did here.

A Boy Called Cin deals with gender topics that are oftentimes confusing for a lot of people, transgender and gender dysphoria, or genderqueer, mainly. Cin is transgender, born biologically female, but identifies as male. Tom, we discover, is genderqueer. He doesn’t feel like a girl, per se, but doesn’t always feel entirely male either. Then, the author throws in there that Tom’s sister, Poppy, is also trans. Now, I love diversity in my books. I have really enjoyed the few transgender-related books that I’ve read, but I think Cecil Wilde tried to do too much here. Learning about Cin and what he was going through, and what he needed in order to truly feel like himself, was interesting and engaging.
Tom’s story, on its own, is interesting. I would have been more satisfied with the story, though, if the two hadn’t been combined, not to mention bringing the transgender sister into the mix. I think Tom could have been the same intelligent, handsome, open-hearted, open-minded man that he was, who fell in love with Cin just as he was, without him also having gender issues. I felt like it took away from Cin’s story a bit. That’s just my opinion, of course. Perhaps the author is writing from experience, though…maybe a similar thing happened to them in their life. Who knows? I realize it’s not my story. As far as a reading experience, however, it was a lot to wrap my mind around.

The other slightly quirky thing about the book was the writing style. Written in the present tense, it definitely jumped out at me. On the one hand, it was kind of cool; the book read as a documentary almost – a sort of a play by play of the action. As most fiction books are written in the past tense, it was noticeably different. Unfortunately, because of that it was also somewhat of a distraction. I have to admit that it did pull me out of the story on several occasions, just because my mind kept recognizing it as unusual. It came across as somewhat less personal at times, especially during some of the more intimate scenes.

Overall, I enjoyed the characters and the snappy dialogue very much. Cin and Tom were just as cute as they could be. The book was definitely thought-provoking as well. I think if you can go into it with an open mind, and overlook some of the tidy set-ups, you will enjoy it and even learn a few things you may not have previously understood about gender.

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3.5 Stars, Genre Romance, Penguin/InterMix, Reviewed by Jules, Roni Loren

Review: Yours All Along by Roni Loren

Title: Yours All Along

Author: Roni Loren

Publisher: Penguin/InterMix

Pages/Word Count: 135 Pages

At a Glance: I definitely enjoyed the book, but I would have loved if it had been a little meatier.

Reviewed By: Jules

Blurb: Four years after an accident tore their friendship apart, Hunter and Devon are living separate lives. Hunter is now the all-America hero—a congressman’s son and a pro pitcher in Houston preparing to marry his beauty-queen girlfriend. Devon is in Dallas running a new restaurant.

But when Hunter unexpectedly shows up in Devon’s bar, Devon can’t turn him away. Damn it if the man isn’t still gorgeous. But engaged? Hell no. All he’s doing for Devon is bringing back memories of their college-roommate days, and the night their relationship went too far. Turns out Hunter has never forgotten it either.

Now Devon can’t help but be drawn in all over again by the only guy who’s ever gotten close enough to break his heart. Maybe one more night together would be enough for both of them to finally move on. Or maybe one night will change everything…

Dividers

Review: Wow. So that’s how it is, Roni Loren? Get me to fall completely in love with your guys, and then leave me cold?! Haha. Okay. I’m not happy with that ending…At. All. BUT, I’m going to give it a pass, because there were way more things about Yours All Along that I did like.

Hunter is a bit of a mess when we meet him. Working through an injury has caused a small rough patch in his baseball career, he’s trapped in an engagement he doesn’t want, and still living under the microscope of his overbearing, congressman father. His fiancée, seeing that he’s struggling, throws him a lifeline, and sends him on a weekend getaway on his own. To Dallas. Where his ex-roommate from college is living. Uh-oh.

Roni Loren does a great job early on of showing us Hunter’s discontentment with his life, and his desperation for escape. This trip to Dallas could mean definite trouble. Or, could it possibly be his salvation? When he gets there, he doesn’t plan on confronting Devon right away, but as soon as he sees him all the old feelings and memories are brought up again, and he can’t help himself.

The author uses a lengthy flashback to show us the boys in college, and how they got to be so close. How the feelings developed and changed – and then how it all fell apart. While I really enjoyed those chapters – and I do so love friends-to-lovers stories – I wish more time had also been spent in the present. Hunter and Devon are such good guys…both really genuinely good souls, and they had such a good connection and great chemistry it was a shame that we didn’t get to see more of them together outside of the flashback.

I definitely enjoyed the book. I understand it was a novella, and was more or less a companion piece to the rest of her Loving on the Edge series, but I would have loved if it had been a little meatier. Perhaps later books in the series will give readers an extra peek at Devon and Hunter.

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3.5 Stars, BDSM/Kink/Erotica, Dreamspinner Press, Genre Romance, Jaime Samms, Reviewed by Jules

Review: Bound to Fall by Jaime Samms

Title: Bound to Fall

Author: Jaime Samms

Publisher: Dreamspinner Press

Pages/Word Count: 350 Pages

At a Glance: But Bound to Fall wasn’t the smooth glide that Jaime’s books typically are for me.

Reviewed By: Jules

Blurb: With so many fences between them and happily ever after, two men wonder if it’s worth opening the gate.

Ten years ago Eddie Crane, an actor on the rise, loved his costar and dreamed of the day they could be together. But his love, with his submissive nature, couldn’t handle fame, and before Eddie could help him, he died in a car accident—with Eddie at the wheel.

Now, guilt-ridden, Eddie buries himself in bad decisions and prays that a stunt—on or off camera—will go wrong.

Teenaged fantasies about the actor on his wall distracted Arthur Pike from real life—his dead father, runaway mother, gruff grandparents, and his unrequited love for his cousin’s straight husband. Now grown and off the farm, Pike is a horse stuntman hired to teach a reluctant Eddie to ride.

Pike is drawn to Eddie’s dominant nature despite the sadness clinging to the actor. Eddie let one lover down, but in Pike’s submissiveness, he sees the possibility for redemption.

Dividers

Review: Eddie Crane’s career is teetering on the edge of disaster. His manager – the spitfire that is Margaret – has pulled some strings to get him a gig that could revive things for him if it goes well, but he hasn’t even bothered to read the script. Not a great way to start things off. Right off the bat, we see that Margaret has her hands full with Eddie (whose given name is completely fabulous, by the way: Angus Edwin McCrea – friends call him Annie, which I love), who has basically been on a ten year bender. Unable to get over the grief of losing his costar, best friend, and first love, it’s been a rough go for Eddie – but, it’s time for him to end the pity party and get his life back on track.

The new film calls for Eddie to be comfortable on a horse, so Mags takes him to a ranch in Canada to meet up with his stunt double, Arthur Pike, who is going to teach Eddie how to ride. I liked Pike very much. He has a lot of fire in him but is also very caring and gentle, which you can especially see in the way he interacts with the horses. The storyline involving Pike’s misplaced feelings for his cousin’s husband didn’t really add to the story for me. Pike was an extremely strong and likeable character, and his having such a hard time for so long over dealing with the reality of his relationship with Ryan didn’t feel entirely realistic.

I’m a fan of Jaime Samms’ work, and I liked many parts of this story…Passages like this one for instance:

“Pike had always loved that exact moment when the flowers were open before the petals snowed down on the grass. In the sparse light, the trees were globed shadows and the lawn stretched out, a sheet of lighter gray, like the color had been stripped from the world for a few hours.”

Beautiful, right?? She writes so many lovely words. And, I loved the little shout-outs she gave to Patchwork Heaven, both the boys from the band and the guys from The Detail. But Bound to Fall wasn’t the smooth glide that Jaime’s books typically are for me. I stumbled with this one quite a bit. The BDSM part of the book just never really came together. Things weren’t clearly defined, and the roles didn’t seem to fit or be true to the characters on either side. For the most part, Pike didn’t seem to have a submissive bone in his body – though I get that he craved dominance in the bedroom – and for the majority of the book, Eddie seemed to need Pike to take the lead almost as much as he wanted to dominate him.

I loved the nod to Brokeback Mountain, and the acknowledgement of the rough ride stardom can be for some of our brightest shining stars, and the care Jaime took in telling Annie’s story…I get all of that and love what her intention was…I just wish the story, overall, would have meshed better for me.

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4 Stars, Doug Lloyd, Dreamspinner Press, Historical Romance, Reviewed by Jules

Review: Memory by Doug Lloyd

Title: Memory

Author: Doug Lloyd

Publisher: Dreamspinner Press

Pages/Word Count: 270 Pages

At a Glance: I was impressed by Doug Lloyd’s debut novel. Memory is at once a beautiful love story, and a powerful story of bravery and being true to who you are, even in the face of bigotry and hatred.

Reviewed By: Jules

Blurb: Paul Nelson, a military veteran home from Korea, refuses to stand by and watch Kenneth Pittman, a young man he’s just met, get beat up by a group of teens. After a few chance encounters with Kenneth, Paul questions parts of his identity he’s been trying to suppress, and despite his struggles re-acclimating to civilian life and his personal fears, Paul finds the courage to ask Kenneth on a date. The two then begin a relationship.

But in the 1950s, cultural and societal norms threaten openly gay men. Paul and Kenneth can only see each other in secret, and Paul’s new boss, a former investigative journalist and proud bigot, has a habit of meddling in his employees’ lives. After tragedy strikes close to home, the two men question whether their slice of happiness is worth the trouble or if safety is more important.

After vacationing together in Provincetown, a gay haven, to escape the chaos, they decide to stick it out, only to return to the consequences of being outed to everyone they know. Ultimately, Paul realizes the freedom he fought for should apply to them too, and he must bravely act in defiance of society’s expectations to be with the man he loves.

Dividers

Review: I joked with a friend when I was reading this that I hadn’t read a “fade-to-black” since Twilight, which is a bit funny, but I’ll be the first to tell you that this book doesn’t need the explicit love scenes that so many of us are used to in romances these days. Doug Lloyd stays true to the time by keeping things fairly chaste on the page, and it really does work. I’m a big fan of historical fiction, and he did a great job of rooting us in the time. The guys absolutely appear to be true to what young men in the 50s were like, and the setting and descriptions of post-war 1952 Boston felt spot-on.

The book begins with Paul returning from the Korean War, and trying to make sense of his life back home. He lost both his parents while he was on duty, and his younger brother has gone away to college, leaving Paul to care for his parents’ home on his own. Immediately on his arrival back to his hometown, he meets a young man named Kenneth, who stirs up some old feelings for Paul. From here, Lloyd begins to weave his story – of Paul accepting his feelings, as well as his right to have them; of Paul and Kenneth, their fight to be together, and how they better each other’s lives; of how impossible it must have felt to be a GLBT citizen not all that long ago in our history. It was obviously not an easy time for young gay men, and the author does a fantastic job of depicting their struggles.

One bright spot amidst their daily battles with Paul’s hateful boss, a violent hate crime at Kenneth’s job, and general small-mindedness, was their trip to Provincetown. I loved that they had that respite and the chance to see what a world of acceptance could be like. Those moments of getting to openly hold hands, or be close to each other without any snide looks or comments, gave them the strength to imagine living their lives without fear. Without that fear of others knowing what they were to each other. Paul especially needed to draw on this strength later in the story.

Paul was amazing. I have so much love for him. His kind heart was evident in everything that he did – but, he could also be incredibly fierce when he needed to be. One of those occasions was toward the end of the book, when his brother Dave was down for a visit from school. Dave finds out about Paul and Kenneth, and doesn’t immediately react favorably. The tongue-lashing that Paul gives his poor brother is FANTASTIC. I just looked at the note on my highlight, and it made me chuckle and go back to read the bit again… “Epic speech is epic.”

I was impressed by Doug Lloyd’s debut novel. Memory is at once a beautiful love story, and a powerful story of bravery and being true to who you are, even in the face of bigotry and hatred. I truly enjoyed it – cover to cover. There were times – especially after a longer stretch of being more political – that I thought it could use a bit more ‘oomph’. But overall, the writing is very tight, and the character development was wonderful. No spoilers, but I will say that I went back and reread the last couple of chapters after I finished; they were that good. I was actually wiping tears from my cheeks as I read the final chapter. There is no doubt that the author has a talent for storytelling. I hope to be seeing more about his future endeavors!

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3 Stars, BDSM/Kink/Erotica, Dreamspinner Press, Katya Harris, Reviewed by Jules, Short Story

Review: A Life Without by Katya Harris

Title: A Life Without (A Daily Dose Story)

Author: Katya Harris

Publisher: Dreamspinner Press

Pages/Word Count: 47 Pages

At a Glance: Overall, A Life Without is a good read.

Reviewed By: Jules

Blurb: After decades of wondering and worrying over his submissive tendencies, fortysomething Todd decides to explore his fantasies. His first step is to join a BDSM club, and it’s there that he meets Malik, a young and beautiful Dominant who is very interested in introducing Todd to this world. In fact, Malik is interested in everything about Todd, which is startling to the older man given the differences in their ages. Malik helps Todd explore his submissiveness, but after an unpleasant meeting with Todd’s ex-boyfriend, he also encourages him to confront his demons so he will no longer live his life in shame.

Dividers

Review: A Life Without tells the story of Todd, a forty-something year old man who is at a crossroads in his life when we are introduced to him. After suffering a nasty breakup with his boyfriend of six years, Todd has decided to finally seek out the one thing that he has been lacking, the one thing that might make him truly happy…someone who will appreciate and understand his need to submit.

Todd joins a BDSM group, and is very fortunate when the manager introduces him to a young Dom named Malik on his first night at the club. I liked Malik and I liked that Todd wasn’t hung up on the ten year age difference. We find out later in the story that Todd’s ex is seven years older than him, so obviously age isn’t a big factor for Todd when considering a relationship. It was also interesting, and refreshing, that even though Malik was the younger one of the two, he was the one helping to guide Todd. I have found I really enjoy the dynamic of a younger Dom in BDSM books where there is an age gap.

I also enjoy books that explore the theme of seeking one’s happiness and trying to live your truth. And, for the most part, Katya Harris does a nice job with that aspect of the story for Todd. I love how brave he is – and that Malik acknowledges that fact – for finally going after what he desires. Todd does have a bit of shame to overcome before he can truly embrace his sexual needs, but I wish the author had come up with a better way for him to work through it. The encounter with the ex-boyfriend didn’t feel entirely natural to me, and she started to push the envelope a bit with some declarations of feelings, making the climax of the story come off as somewhat forced.

The very end of the book was cute, and though it’s tough to get too invested in the characters in a story of this length, I did like Todd and Malik together. Overall A Life Without is a good read, and a worthy addition to the 2015 Daily Dose Anthology.

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5 Stars, Amy Lane, Genre Romance, Reviewed by Jules, Riptide Publishing

Review: The Deep of the Sound by Amy Lane

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Title: The Deep of the Sound (A Bluewater Bay Novel)

Author: Amy Lane

Publisher: Riptide Publishing

Pages/Word Count: 308 Pages

At a Glance: Simply put, this is a gorgeous story.

Reviewed By: Jules

Blurb: Cal McCorkle has lived in Bluewater Bay his whole life. He works two jobs to support a brother with a laundry list of psychiatric diagnoses and a great-uncle with Alzheimer’s, and his personal life amounts to impersonal hookups with his boss. He’s got no time, no ambition, and no hope. All he has is family, and they’re killing him one responsibility at a time.

Avery Kennedy left Los Angeles, his family, and his sleazy boyfriend to attend a Wolf’s Landing convention, and he has no plans to return. But when he finds himself broke and car-less in Bluewater Bay, he’s worried he’ll have to slink home with his tail between his legs. Then Cal McCorkle rides to his rescue, and his urge to run away dies a quick death.

Avery may seem helpless at first, but he can charm Cal’s fractious brother, so Cal can pretty much forgive him anything. Even being adorkable. And giving him hope. But Cal can only promise Avery “until we can’t”—and the cost of changing that to “until forever” might be too high, however much they both want it.

Dividers

Review: I was just going back through my notes and highlights, trying to decide where to begin with this review, but there are just SO many. So, so many memorable lines, moments, images, scenes… Amy Lane is one of my absolute favorite authors – a definite auto-buy – and The Deep of the Sound is another perfect example of why that is.

I’ll start out with Cal, who I love ridiculous amounts. First of all, Cal McCorkle is one of the best character names I’ve come across in a while. I loved it so much, in fact, that I went and researched it a bit. (I’m a dork. I know.) The full name, Calladh, or Caladh as you’ll see it frequently, is both Irish and Scottish – in this case, Scottish, as Cal’s dad was a Scot – and in the old Scottish it means…wait for it…Harbor. How perfect is that?!?! Trust me. It’s so perfect.

Cal’s very being is bound to the water; he finds his peace out on the Sound, fishing in his father’s dory every morning that he can. Sure it’s a necessity, he desperately needs the money from selling the fish he catches to keep his family afloat, but for him, it’s as much a necessity for his sanity as anything else. And Cal’s sanity is hanging precariously in the balance. Desperately trapped by duty, as the blurb suggests, Cal has almost completely lost himself.

I can’t imagine how strong Cal must have had to be to get through the last six years, taking care of his great uncle Nascha and his brother Keir. Living with someone with Alzheimer’s is not easy. Living with someone with the combination of mental illnesses that Keir has to deal with is not easy. Both of them together??? I can’t imagine. When Nascha is on his meds, he’s fantastic. He’s once again the dear uncle that Cal remembers from his childhood. Keir, on the other hand, is a handful, even on his cocktail of medications.

Keir’s problems are many, and complex, and Keir is very dark. I imagine he must have been a difficult character to write, but Amy wrote him with guts and honesty. He can be very intimidating and scary, yet at times also endearing. It’s no secret that he loves his family, but there were times when that darkness came through that it was extremely scary for poor Cal. He is constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. So, when Avery Kennedy comes crashing into their lives, and almost immediately finds a way to connect and communicate with Keir, Cal can’t help but start to fall for him.

Avery is so wonderful. Just such a good egg. He’s sincere and driven and somewhat naïve, though charming and sweet. I love that he had the balls to get out of his horrible situation in LA, and simply decide to start his life over. There was nothing for him in his old life – shitty, uncaring parents and an asshat user of an ex-boyfriend – but he has everything to look forward to in Bluewater Bay. Especially when he meets Cal. Sigh. I love him and I love them together.

The writing in this book is spectacular. It’s heavy on the emotion, as you would expect from an Amy Lane book; it will absolutely tug on all of your feels. I just wanted to hug the shit out of Cal constantly. He and Avery get their moment, though, and the way that it all comes about in the end is pure perfection. The reverence with which Amy describes the Puget Sound, and her description of the fictional town, is also fantastic. The Puget Sound is an amazing place. Living in the area, I was particularly fond of the setting of this book. The Pacific Northwest truly IS breathtakingly beautiful, and Amy does a spectacular job of portraying its majesty.

The Deep of the Sound will stick with me for a long time. Cal and Avery, climbing out of their respective hopeless situations together, saving each other, will stick with me as well. Simply put, this was a gorgeous story.

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5 Stars, Dreamspinner Press, Mythology, Reviewed by Jules, Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Urban Fantasy, Shira Anthony

Review: Running with the Wind by Shira Anthony

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Title: Running with the Wind (Mermen of Ea: Book Three)

Author: Shira Anthony

Publisher: Dreamspinner Press

Pages/Word Count: 220 Pages

At a Glance: I loved the book. I absolutely, whole-heartedly recommend it. Go! Read! Now!

Reviewed By: Jules

Blurb: With the final confrontation between the island and mainland Ea factions looming, Taren and Ian sail with Odhrán to investigate a lost colony of merfolk in the Eastern Lands. Upon their arrival, the King of Astenya welcomes them as friends. Odhrán, however, isn’t so quick to trust the descendent of the man who held him prisoner for nearly a decade, especially now that he has someone to cherish and protect—the mysterious winged boy he rescued from the depths.

Armed with the knowledge he believes will save the Ea, Taren returns to the mainland. With Ian at his side, Taren convinces Vurin that their people must unite with their island brethren before it’s too late. When Seria and his men attack, Taren must call upon the ancient power of the rune stone to protect his comrades. But using the stone’s immeasurable power commands a hefty price—and Ian fears that price is Taren’s life.

Dividers

Review: Where do I even start, you guys??? I honestly get so blown away by the sheer force of imagination and the stunning beauty of this universe that I find it hard to get my full thoughts out. There is much to be said about this book, and this series, but I’m afraid it’s going to come out of my keyboard as ‘ASDLKJFALSJDFKSSDLSLF,’ as that’s how it feels in my head immediately after finishing this amazing story.

Running with the Wind jumps right in where Into the Wind left us – fresh out of a battle with the evil Seria and his followers, grieving the loss of Rider, and just having witnessed the transformation of Bastian, first into a dragon and then reincarnated as a winged boy, an Anuki, the ‘heavenly brethren of the Ea.’ Our heroes, Taren Laxley and Captain Ian Dunaidh, along with the pirate Odhrán, and the rest of their respective crews, are in shock, in mourning, and are trying to figure out where to go from there. Things are intense to say the least.

Taren really comes into his own in this book. Whereas in the past he was typically happy to defer to Ian on most things, in this book Taren is learning to trust himself and embrace who he is and who he is meant to be to his people. It was also so wonderful to see Ian supporting Taren, and encouraging him to fulfill his destiny. I absolutely loved this line:

“You’re no longer a slave, Taren. You’re no longer just a rigger. You’re no longer just my beloved. You’re the leader you were meant to be. You just haven’t realized it yet.”

There are so many fantastic things going on in this book. The romance between Taren and Ian – as well as their ancient counterparts, Treande and Owyn – is still off-the-charts fabulous; the rich detail of the world Shira Anthony has created is unbelievably intricate and as intriguing as ever, and the action sequences are incredible and heart-stopping. Though obviously it’s incredibly intense at times, there is still some humor interspersed throughout, and the different friendships – Taren and Odhrán, Ian and Renda, Bastian and Taren to name a few – are wonderful and heartwarming. We’re also introduced to a new character, Eiran, the King of Astenya, who I liked very much and hope to see again.

Okay. Let’s really get down to it. Everything I’ve said so far in my review is true. Ian and Taren…amazing world-building…beautifully detailed scenes and imagery…action-packed, intense battle scenes…high seas swashbuckling goodness…It’s all there. BUT, my heart was stolen by Bastian, and Bastian and Odhrán, on page one. Bastian is so fabulous, and his history, including all of the dragon lore, is beyond fascinating. I was also already a huge fan of Odhrán, so pairing him up with Bastian is so much win. A hybrid Ea/human and a dragon shifter – I still can’t believe he’s a dragon! – both immortal. How can that not be amazing?!?

Obviously I loved the book. I absolutely, whole-heartedly recommend it. Go! Read! Now! Heh, heh. The funny thing is, I started this series as sort of a dare from the lovely author herself…a challenge, if you will, to step outside of my bubble and try something different…and now, I never want it to end.

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3.5 Stars, CM Corett, Dreamspinner Press, Genre Romance, Reviewed by Jules

Review: Bindings and Books by CM Corett

Title: Bindings and Books (A Daily Dose 2015 Story)

Author: CM Corett

Publisher: Dreamspinner Press

Pages/Word Count: 71 Pages

At a Glance: This one was a bit hit and miss, but there was definitely some promise here.

Reviewed By: Jules

Blurb: James Connell is adamant—he’s not getting involved. The forty-two-year-old bookstore owner’s life is governed by respectability, order, and a dash of OCD—just the way he likes it. There is absolutely no place in his life for a way-too-young, sexy, carefree guy like Ash. What would people think?

Ash Bradley-Mills is determined—he wants James. Traveling the world testing snowboards and sports equipment has been great fun for Ash, but he’s ready for something more. He wants an adrenaline rush of a different kind, and tall, dark, handsome, and older James fits the criteria perfectly. Now all Ash needs to do is break through James’s defenses and lifelong fear of judgment. Easy! He’s got the perfect plan to push James out of his comfort zone and into his arms.

Dividers

Review: Bindings and Books is a cute little novella about a sexy bookstore owner in his mid-forties, and the equally sexy and spunky younger man who falls for him. James, our bookstore owner, is dead set against having anything to do with Ash, the hunk he meets out on the slopes, but Ash immediately feels a spark with James, and refuses to back down.

There were a few things I really liked, James being the main one. He came across as such a real, interesting character. I loved the OCD element – I totally dig atypical characters, or characters with quirks. I’m also a big fan of romances with a more significant age difference, so this anthology is a gold mine for those who love that trope. I also liked what CM Corett did with the story behind James’s reticence. Sure, there was the cliché of ‘I’m worried what people will think’, but what held the most weight for him was a much more unique reason.

The story started out strong, but there were a couple of things I didn’t like as well – the main one, unfortunately, being a major plot point. I can’t give away what happens, but, sadly, I definitely didn’t love the direction the author decided to go. It didn’t completely ruin the story for me…but it was a pretty big downer.

So, this one was a bit hit and miss, but there was definitely some promise here. Still an enjoyable short read. The hilarious opening scene on the ski slopes is worth checking it out all on its own!

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4 Stars, Genre Romance, Loose Id, Reviewed by Jules, Sage C. Holloway

Review: Spectacularly Broken by Sage C. Holloway

Title: Spectacularly Broken

Author: Sage C. Holloway

Publisher: Loose Id

Pages/Word Count: 204 Pages

At a Glance: To sum up: Lysander was completely FABULOUS. Cai was a beautiful soul. And together, they felt real, and…right.

Reviewed By: Jules

Blurb: Turns out naked and hungover on the floor is not the most strategically sound place to be when your dad comes home early. Take it from someone who learned the hard way: nineteen-year-old Lysander Shepherd–son of movie stars, spoiled brat, enthusiastic proponent of drugs and orgies…and now, unwilling resident of Oak Hill Manor, a retreat for troubled teenagers.

Before he knows what’s happening, his designer duds have been switched for tie-dye shirts in therapy team colors, and he is surrounded by an assortment of misfits: a timid nerd, a mute girl, a hyperactive kid…and captivating loner Cai Fields, who is admittedly pretty hot, but seems to hate the world in general and Lysander in particular.

Soon Lysander struggles with lies, withdrawal, and several uncomfortable revelations that he never intended to make, but he also gains surprising amounts of support right in the middle of secret late-night parties, fisticuffs over doing the dishes, and, of all things, croissant blackmail. Even as Cai and Lysander finally give in to the irresistible attraction between them and make a grasp for happiness, their darkest secrets remain–secrets with the power to destroy everything they’ve fought so hard to have.

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Review: Spectacularly Broken was another pleasant surprise during my Memorial Day weekend reading. Based on the blurb, I really expected this book to be a ride on the Angst Train, but that wasn’t at all the case. There was some drama, sure, and some very heavy subject matter, but it was so much more than that. The author did an excellent job of mixing quite a bit of levity in with the heavy, making the overall feel much less dark than I feared.

In the beginning, Lysander comes off as a brat – plain and simple. Massive sense of entitlement, partnered with severe abandonment issues, is certainly a recipe for disaster. So, when he’s told by his father that he is headed to Oak Hill Manor to get his shit together, of course his attitude is less than fabulous. He goes to meet his cousin Finn, who has hit a rough patch of his own and is also headed there, and they cook up a little extra trouble along the way.

Things at Oak Hill Manor are very Breakfast Club-ish, but in a good way. The characters in Lysander’s group are good eggs, and the author does a great job of letting us gradually get to know them through their time at the Manor. I loved the team-building exercises, which really helped the group open up to each other, as well as the way the therapy sessions were portrayed.

Lysander and one of the members of his group, Cai, initially butt heads, but soon come to an understanding and learn to see past the chip they each have on their shoulders. I love the chemistry between these guys, and everything about their romance. There is a big secret between them that threatens their relationship, and contributes to the major conflict at the end of the book – you’ll have to read it to find out what that is! – but in spite of that secret, the relationship really is built on a solid foundation of friendship, support for each other, and, yes, trust. I definitely found myself cheering for them.

I enjoyed the whole thing, but the last quarter of the book was especially gripping. The bonds that Lysander has formed with Finn, as well as with his new friends from the Manor, come into play in a major way, and it was really moving to see them all pull each other up when they needed it. Lysander and his dad also begin to come to an understanding about how things got so messed up between them, and try to figure out how to start making reparations, which was a very emotional and genuine part of the story.

To sum up: Lysander was completely FABULOUS. Cai was a beautiful soul. And together, they felt real, and…right. Sage C. Holloway built some fantastic characters, threw in some real emotions, and wrote a story that I would absolutely recommend to friends. Was this really her first novel?? Amazing debut. I’ll be on the lookout for her next one.

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5 Stars, Alexis Hall, BDSM/Kink/Erotica, Genre Romance, Reviewed by Jules, Riptide Publishing

Review: For Real by Alexis Hall

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Title: For Real

Author: Alexis Hall

Publisher: Riptide Publishing

Pages/Word Count: 437 Pages

At a Glance: The book is on the longer side, but the pacing is perfect. It didn’t feel long or drawn out in any way. I honestly could have read another four hundred pages!

Reviewed By: Jules

Blurb: Laurence Dalziel is worn down and washed up, and for him, the BDSM scene is all played out. Six years on from his last relationship, he’s pushing forty and tired of going through the motions of submission.

Then he meets Toby Finch. Nineteen years old. Fearless, fierce, and vulnerable. Everything Laurie can’t remember being.

Toby doesn’t know who he wants to be or what he wants to do. But he knows, with all the certainty of youth, that he wants Laurie. He wants him on his knees. He wants to make him hurt, he wants to make him beg, he wants to make him fall in love.

The problem is, while Laurie will surrender his body, he won’t surrender his heart. Because Toby is too young, too intense, too easy to hurt. And what they have—no matter how right it feels—can’t last. It can’t mean anything.

It can’t be real.

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Review:

But that’s sort of what love is, I guess. A perpetual state of semi-deranged partiality. – Alexis Hall

Laurie and Toby are both so very lost and broken when they meet. Six years post-breakup, Laurie is still not over the life he lost with his ex, and though he still has needs to be met, he’s become increasingly disenchanted with the BDSM scene. But, when he and Toby see each other at Pervocracy, neither can deny the instant zing that happens between them.

The BDSM relationship is very different here than in other books you may have read in the genre. Toby is far from your typical Dom, and Laurie’s submission looks different as well. Toby is completely certain of what he wants/needs, which is to put someone on his knees and make him beg – particularly, he wants those things with Laurie – however, he has NO idea how to get what he craves. I absolutely loved how the author painted the picture of this relationship. Laurie desperately wants someone to serve and take care of, as well as someone who is fearless in the bedroom, but it does take him some time to wrap his mind around the fact that it’s okay for that person to be Toby. Everything about this pairing worked for me. Toby’s unwavering belief in their connection and, eventually, love, is amazing. His naiveté is actually charming. I enjoyed his character so, so much.

Alexis Hall perfectly executes the alternating POV between the chapters. It changes each chapter, beginning with Laurie – though, there is one chapter near the very end where the author gives us both together – and I’ve never seen a better job done of giving such clear, distinct voices to the players. Granted, the age difference alone makes them completely disparate characters, but Hall gives Toby such a PERFECT nineteen-year-old voice, it makes all the difference. And, Laurie’s exasperation with his life in general, as well as his passion and reluctance to let Toby in, are written so incredibly well. I felt an instant connection to both of the guys.

Toby’s relationship with his grandfather is remarkable, and allows the reader to see where he got some of his stability and ideas of what love should be like. The way Hall trickled out the information about Toby’s mother, and kept it a bit of a mystery, was also interesting and worked very well. And, the class/economic differences between Toby and Laurie, and how that affected particularly Toby’s mindset and choices, was handled very well and was so realistic.

The book is on the longer side, but the pacing is perfect. It didn’t feel long or drawn out in any way. I honestly could have read another four hundred pages! The chemistry between Laurie and Toby is completely fabulous; they are wonderful together. I’m desperately hoping that the author is planning on giving us more of them, because they definitely have more story to tell! For Real is simply fantastic.

Oh! And, I have to mention the cover…I LOVE the depiction of one of the early scenes between Laurie and Toby, and what the cover artist has done with the colors. It’s gorgeous and represents the guys perfectly.

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5 Stars, Ethan Day, Genre Romance, Reviewed by Jules, Wilde City Press

Review: Love Me Tomorrow by Ethan Day

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Title: Love Me Tomorrow

Author: Ethan Day

Publisher: Wilde City Press

Pages/Word Count: 252 Pages

At a Glance: If you want to smile, and laugh, and feel good all the way down to your toes, read this book.

Reviewed By: Jules

Blurb: Event planner Levi Goode is positioned to inherit the newly vacated throne, becoming the in-demand party planner for Wilde City’s elite. Years of hard work and perseverance are finally paying off as Levi lands his next big fish, working with socialite Julia Freeman-Kingsley. Distracted by work and dealing with his head strong mother, an ex-Vegas-showgirl suffering from debilitating health issues, Levi has his hands full. Time for love or even the occasional one-night stand, is one aspect of life Levi hasn’t been able to master.

Sparks of interest fly during a chance meeting with a paramedic called to the aid of his mother, and thanks to Ruby’s meddling, Levi finds himself on a movie-date with the handsome Paramedic Jake. Personal and professional worlds collide when Levi realizes his new love interest is actually Jake Freeman, estranged brother to his brand new client. Discovering the man of his dreams already has a boyfriend, leaves Levi stunned realizing any hopes he had for something more with Jake were never going to be anything more than wishful thinking.

Struggling to downshift his expectations and remain friends with Jake while continuing to work closely with Julia quickly consumes all of his time and attention. Wondering if there will ever be a special someone to love him, is where Levi’s love story begins.

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Review: Love Me Tomorrow is only the second book I’ve read by Ethan Day, but it was all I needed to officially declare myself a HUGE fan. I loved this book. It made me smile like crazy and swoon so hard. I read it over the holiday weekend, and my family kept asking me, “What are you reading? You look so happy.” True story! I also thoroughly enjoyed his As You Are, which I listened to on audio, but this one…sigh…this one got me right in the heart; I’ve thought about it every day since I read it.

Top 5 things I loved about this book:

1. The characters. Levi is a beautiful human being. He has been through a lot to get to where he is in life, is incredibly resilient, and works hard to achieve his dreams and make others happy. Levi’s mom, Ruby, is fabulous and hilarious. She maybe didn’t always make good parenting choices, but there is no question that she adores her son, or that he felt loved growing up. Jake is struggling a bit personally, but is also such a good soul. And, he’s swoony and sexy as hell. I loved both Levi and Jake so much. Julia and Gregory, Jake’s sister and her husband, are also fantastic. It was just a great cast all around.

2. The settings. I think I want to live in Wilde City. How cool does this town sound?? I for sure want to live in Levi’s loft. :) Levi’s job is completely fantastic, and the author does an incredible job of painting the picture of the events and venues in the story. I felt like I was right there amidst the ritz and the glamour of these society parties.

3. The dialogue. Ethan Day writes such quick, witty banter, this book reads like you’re watching a movie. Between the snappy, sassy dialogue, and the awesome scene settings, it would translate so beautifully to film. There are so many fun pop culture references, and so many exchanges that made me laugh. Good, good stuff. And, bonus points for the mention of Auntie Mame – which always makes me smile!

4. The family connections. I love that Levi and Jake met through helping Ruby, and that Jake completely falls for her as well. The themes of familial love and the importance of family support are strong throughout the book. The connections are also completely realistic, however. Not all families get along all the time, and not all families are conventional. Levi doesn’t even know who his father is, and Jake gets little to no support from his parents. He was very close to his grandfather, though, and he and Julia are tight, and protective of each other.

5. And, finally, the love story. This was one of the most romantic books I’ve ever read. Some people will definitely take issue with the fact that Jake is still with his boyfriend of many years when he and Levi start to fall in love – but I had no problem with it whatsoever. People grow apart. That’s life. And sometimes you’re not with the right person for you, and stay with that person for the wrong reasons. The relationships were all handled with care, and though it was painful for Levi and Jake to not be together – the tension and the longing was gooooorgeously written, by the way – nothing was truly pursued until things were cleared up. The way Levi and Jake felt about each other was undeniable, though, and the last quarter of the book was just beyond romance.

If you want to smile, and laugh, and feel good all the way down to your toes, read this book. If you love romance and timeless love stories, you should absolutely read this book. In fact, I can’t think of a single reason for you to NOT read this book. I know I’m so glad I did!

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4 Stars, Dreamspinner Press, Genre Romance, Michaela Grey, Reviewed by Jules

Review: Coffee Cake by Michaela Grey

Title: Coffee Cake

Author: Michaela Grey

Publisher: Dreamspinner Press

Pages/Word Count: 220 Pages

At a Glance: I appreciated several things about Coffee Cake, Michaela Grey’s first foray into the M/M romance genre. The whole cast of characters was extremely likeable and eclectic.

Reviewed By: Jules

Blurb: Bran Kendrick never expected to fall in love. He’s asexual, after all. What chance does he have of finding someone who’ll see past that? So when Malachi Warren catches his eye, Bran tells himself his crush will pass. Malachi disagrees. He has been attracted to Bran for some time, something he is delighted to find Bran reciprocating. They begin to date and feel their way through an intimate relationship that meets both their needs.

Suddenly Bran finds himself juggling a new boyfriend, a demanding job, and a college degree he’s not sure he wants, but he couldn’t be happier—until a series of seemingly random accidents befall Malachi. When they escalate, Bran realizes someone is trying to take away the best thing that ever happened to him, and he must scramble to keep Malachi safe while they search for the would-be killer.

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Review: I want to start by talking about how much I adored Bran’s character in this book. Bran is fiercely loyal, sweet, and smart. I liked him immediately. He is dedicated and attentive to his studies, but clearly loves baking, creating new recipes and working at the café near campus as well; and he soon finds himself less interested in his class work, and frequently turning to the kitchen to center himself and take his mind off of what’s going on in his life. As the story goes on, it becomes more and more apparent that Bran’s talent for baking should be where he focuses his energies. I really enjoyed where the author took Bran on his personal journey.

I also really liked Malachi, who Bran has been admiring from afar for awhile when the story begins. Malachi is not quite what you see on the surface. He comes across as an extremely confident, popular, vivacious guy – and he is those things – but, on the inside, he’s actually battling lots of insecurity and is fairly unsure of himself and where he’s going in life. One would never know that he has a past he’s having a hard time putting behind him, and that it is also perhaps coming back to bite him in the ass.

In fact, I appreciated several things about Coffee Cake, Michaela Grey’s first foray into the M/M romance genre. The whole cast of characters was extremely likeable and eclectic. I enjoyed the way the author brought both Bran’s and Malachi’s brothers into the bulk of the story. Bran’s brother, Callan, is also fiercely loyal and protective of Bran, as well as being lots of fun. He obviously loves Bran a great deal. And, Malachi’s brother, Tristan, really grew on me throughout the story. He’s extremely dry, and comes across as very uptight most of the time, but he actually has a good sense of humor, and cares deeply for his brother. I would actually love to read even more about Tristan. I thought he was a fascinating character.

Along with the importance of friendships and family, another big theme in the book is Bran’s asexuality. The author does a very good job at showing that it’s just one tiny facet of what makes up Bran. Making it clear that it doesn’t have to define the person, as well as showing that they can still have a fulfilling sex life—if that’s something that they want with their partner—is certainly important, and she did very well with that. However, the scene in the beginning of the story, where Bran and Malachi first discuss their sexuality felt very contrived. Bran tells Malachi that he’s not interested in girls, and then says that he’s “not gay either”. From just these two statements, Malachi somehow instantly makes the leap to Bran being asexual, and states, “So you’re ace?” Maybe twenty and twenty-one year olds are much more progressive these days – I hope so – but I still find it hard to believe that asexuality is common enough for Malachi to have instantly inferred it from what Bran told him. Also, along with casually using the lingo, he asks Bran if he’s aromantic, and Bran doesn’t even know what that means. Bran…who has done lots of research trying to learn about his asexuality…doesn’t know what it means. Huh. Just didn’t quite sit right with me.

The mystery/drama element of the story was okay, but for me this was absolutely a character driven story, and the mystery aspect was really more just the vehicle for getting to know and enjoy all of the players, who were definitely the strength of the book. Bran and Malachi’s chemistry was great, and I loved how they supported and took care of each other through everything. They were the stars of the show.

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