3 Stars, Bold Strokes Books, Erotica, Reviewed by Rena, Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Urban Fantasy, Simon Hawk

Review: Blackthorn by Simon Hawk

Title: Blackthorn

Author: Simon Hawk

Publisher: Bold Strokes Books

Pages/Word Count: 240 Pages

At a Glance: While I hesitate to recommend this book to romance fans, I’ll gladly do so to fans of erotic gay fiction.

Reviewed By: Rena

Blurb: Rian Blackthorn’s Gypsy and Elven heritage have earned him the title Master of the Hall of Swords in the realm of Brystyn. There, eighteen-year-old Rian has been training boys in the Ways of the Blade. However, his most promising student, Prince Corin, has fallen deeply in love with him. Already pledged to an Elven Prince of the Vale of Seven Rivers, Rian has managed to keep Corey at bay for the past two years. But when the prince’s journal of erotic writings is delivered to Rian, he discovers a conspiracy that may result in Corey’s death. And when Corey is abducted by Will the Wizard of Winterwood, a sexual deviant, Rian’s love for Corey is slowly awakened. And if by life or death, he can save him, he most certainly will.

Dividers

Review: The premise of Simon Hawk’s fantasy novel certainly has a lot of promise – that it’s an erotic fantasy can be a plus, depending on the reader’s preferences. Once I started reading it, I quickly understood what kind of erotic fiction it is, i.e., that it’s more along the lines of a James Lear novel, for instance, than what gay erotic romance readers might be familiar with. That’s not a bad thing by any stretch. I’ve read a few erotic gay novels before and found some to be either cheeky or campy fun, depending on the writers. With Blackthorn, the fantasy setting caught my attention, and I wanted to see how plot and erotic elements worked together.

To an extent, they complement each other in that in a fantasy world, it’s quite liberating seeing different characters enjoy each other in scenes that run the gamut – from wildly erotic to bizarre (the mad prince’s sex romps) to touching, at least after the fact (Tannen’s erotic dream spell on Rian). The sexual traditions within certain races, and the open relationships everyone has with each other, make logical sense within the context of the world Hawk has created, even with certain groups harboring extreme prejudice against homosexuality.

Unfortunately, that’s really where the erotic elements end insofar as their effect on the overall story’s concerned. The difficulty I had with the book was the way the sex seemed to override the plot itself. I reckon the rate of sex scenes would be around 1-2 per chapter, and they tended to make the story come to a full stop every time, to the point where I ended up forgetting who’s who, what’s what, and where I was once the story picked up again at the beginning of the next chapter.

There’s certainly a great deal more attention placed on the sex scenes, as far as details go, from what I’ve seen. The setting and characters overall, both major and minor, are very vaguely drawn, and readers are left to depend on more generic physical descriptions (everyone has long hair) of people and places, which, to me, doesn’t work very well in grounding the story to its world and giving it its unique edge. The language used, particularly during sex, is inconsistent in that characters speak anachronistically modern phrases – I remember one character crying out, “Oh, my God!” – while in non-sexual scenes, the dialogue tends to be a little more fantasy-like with its slightly formal sentence structure.

And the plot is pretty complex, which could’ve benefitted from that extra attention. As it stands, I often found myself confused about different races or tribes coming together against a common enemy – and especially the reasons behind certain animosities. A number of the characters also go by nicknames, some of which are close enough for me to completely lose track of which name refers to whom (Shadow vs. Sparrow, for instance). And as noted, it doesn’t help that sex scenes cut off the action abruptly and go on for a number of pages, and I’m forced to skip forward in order to catch up.

It’s because of this generalized treatment of individual characters that relationships also don’t materialize as I’d hoped. There’s a romantic relationship between Tannen and Rian, for instance, but we don’t really see that because they spend most of the book apart from each other, and when they’re together, they have lots of sex that really echoes every other character’s sex scenes. If Rian realizes he’s in love with Corin (or Corey), it’s also not terribly convincing as he has lots of sex with Corin in addition to everyone else. As far as I could see, anyway, there’s really nothing setting any of those intimate moments (between Rian and Corin) apart from everyone else that indicates a deeper connection between them. I can say the same thing regarding any regular interaction between the two, besides Rian protecting or saving Corin from Will’s lusty clutches.

So anyone who hopes to enjoy some sense of romance might find him/herself disappointed in this regard.

There are quite a few shadows of Tolkien throughout the book that I found to be rather cheeky touches. Helm’s Deep comes to mind as well as Bilbo’s line about not seeing dragons during his birthday party. Whether or not they were intentional, I still found myself chuckling and nodding when I read those passages.

In the end, while I hesitate to recommend this book to romance fans, I’ll gladly do so to fans of erotic gay fiction. Even though the erotic elements don’t merge smoothly enough with the book’s plot, there’s still some fun to be had, seeing certain fantasy tropes – such as those mystical, dignified elves – turned on their heads with a great deal of winking and nudging.






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3 Stars, K.C. Burn, Loose Id, Mystery/Suspense/Action Thriller, Paranormal Romance, Reviewed by Rena

Review: North on Drummond by K.C. Burn

Title: North on Drummond

Author: K.C. Burn

Publisher: Loose Id

Pages/Word Count: 287 Pages

At a Glance: A too-light hand in its treatment of conflict and characterization left me wishing for more.

Reviewed By: Rena

Blurb: Sandy Bottom Bay, Florida – Come for the Haunts, Stay for the Beaches!

Drew Drummond might call himself a psychic tarot reader, but he doesnt believe in the supernatural. The business was left to him by his grandmother, and seemed the best way to rise above the chronic criminal behavior of the Drummond family. Despite his efforts, few of the townspeople consider him a good romantic match. Being gay only makes finding love more difficult.

When Cliff Garcia, Drews teenaged crush, moves back to town and joins the police force, Drew doesnt think he has a chance. After all, the skeptical cop considers Drews profession on par with professional con man, and Cliff had spent his entire school career feuding with Drews volatile brothers. Despite the obstacles, Drew and Cliff begin a fiery relationship.

Just when Drew starts to believe they might have a chance, he suffers a head injury and begins having visions of the future. If Drew tells Cliff the truth, hell lose the man hes falling for, but keeping his new ability a secret is no longer an option. If he cant convince Cliff hes for real, a murderer will walk free.

Dividers

Review: North on Drummond is chock-full of potential as a paranormal, suspense-filled novel with a generous helping of romance on the side. Considering the setting – Sandy Bottom Bay – a town known for its terrible past and the possibility of lots of juicy hauntings, the environment offers us a tantalizing backdrop for mysteries and even a mixed bag of otherworldly and faux-paranormal happenings. Add to that a colorful cast of characters from wildly differing backgrounds, along with the encroaching of more insidious elements from Hollywood, and we’ve got a recipe for a great, absorbing read.

The problem, however, is that the plot ends up rather disjointed, and the characters – save for perhaps Drew – stay firmly in their two-dimensional molds.

I was really hoping to see the setting develop beyond being a mere backdrop. Given the extent to which Sandy Bottom Bay has shaped Cliff’s past and his subsequent desire to run the hell away from the place the first chance he got, I’d at first expected a more thorough weaving of the environment, his past, and his present in order to provide us a good understanding of his personality. His history, as he regards it, is pretty traumatic for him with his parents’ divorce and his belief of his mother’s indifference. Her apparent gullibility when it comes to all things supernatural is also a pretty big issue for Cliff, who’s developed an antipathy toward other people’s beliefs that’s extreme to the point of being judgmental and even condescending. And that’s pretty much the reason why I started off cool toward Cliff, and ended the book disliking him a lot.

There’s so much attention placed on the romance and the sex scenes that the plot simply falls to the wayside. Cliff, especially, could’ve been a complex character and, in fact, starts the book with a promise of good development that would’ve helped me sympathize with him and accept his flaws. Unfortunately we don’t go beyond knowing basic facts about him, and the only reason we do is because we’re told that, not shown it. Cliff doesn’t really interact with his mother, save for two brief scenes, and there’s not much going on in those.

The same goes with the way complications are handled. By and large, they promise us an absorbing read, but the manner in which they unfold and are sorted out is surprisingly light. The lovers’ quarrel, for instance, blows up and then is fixed within a handful of hours, and even then, the cause of the quarrel stands on shaky ground (see: Cliff’s characterization), and the resolution doesn’t even absolve Cliff because he doesn’t arrive at understanding through his own efforts. Instead, someone else gives him what for, and that’s it. There’s a frequent defaulting to misunderstanding and lack of communication as sources of romantic angst. Even the murder mystery’s resolution happens off-screen. The problem with this light and almost dismissive treatment of different conflicts is that every subplot is interconnected, and if one gets glossed over, the rest don’t hold up to scrutiny as well as they should – like a domino effect.

Some of the side characters also suffer from a lack of development, even if only a smidge. Brett’s a one-dimensional jerk through and through, and Cliff’s mom, who sounds like a fantastic foil to Cliff, also remains a benevolent shadow in the background. Rob and Wyatt, at least, give us something a little more, but Scott doesn’t, even as an awesome straight buddy. Again, considering the roles these side characters play in Cliff’s life, it was a disappointment seeing them painted with very, very light brushstrokes.

Drew, on the other hand, doesn’t suffer as much along the same lines. He’s written in a more sympathetic light, and his doubts and fears, in tandem with his remarkable background as a Drummond, allow him more layers than what we see in Cliff.

So as much as I’d have loved to have gotten really swept up by this book, things didn’t quite turn out the way I’d hoped. As it is, a too-light hand in its treatment of conflict and characterization left me wishing for more.






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3 Stars, Breathless Press, Paranormal Romance, Pelaam, Reviewed by Rena

Review: Haunted by the Past by Pelaam

Title: Haunted by the Past

Author: Pelaam

Publisher: Breathless Press

Pages/Word Count: 44 Pages

At a Glance: Haunted by the Past is a nice, quick read overall, though, if you want something not too involved but still quite romantic.

Reviewed By: Rena

Blurb: Jared didn’t believe in ghosts or love, until he moved into his new house and found both.

Finding a house that suits him, Jared makes the move to reclaim his independence. However, he doesn’t expect to find himself both attracted to and concerned for the almost-reclusive gardener, Evander.

Jared believes Evander is hiding an eating disorder. But the appearance of old photographs and love letters in the house cause him to wonder about the stoic man. As their friendship becomes more, he wants to help and uncover the secrets he knows Evander is hiding. Each of them are haunted by something, and it’s not the house.

When a ghost from Jared’s past appears, they must fight for their own happiness, even if it means exposing themselves and the truth.

Dividers

Review: I’m a huge, huge fan of haunted house stories and am always dying to read a gay romance that takes place in an old house with dark secrets. Pelaam’s Haunted By the Past delivers some of that but ultimately falls short of developing a number of things highlighted in the blurb. It’s a novelette, clocking in at around 12,000 words, and the short length means some shortcuts were made in some way or other regarding the plot. In this instance, I’d loved to have seen a heavier emphasis on the haunted house, its backstory, as well as Evander’s, and how all of those work together to affect the budding romance between Evander and Jared. In the end, however, much of the attention was placed on the sex scenes instead.

It’s not to say that Pelaam ignores the house and all the unexplained experiences Jared has as a renter. Far from it – faces in windows, cold spots, flitting shadows – they’re all there, providing us with a great foundation for some really spooky supernatural moments. The letters, especially, and the creepy manner with which Jared discovers them, are a fantastic touch that adds a human element to the house’s history. It’s just too bad those are relegated to the background, by and large, and are mostly skimmed over.

While the book’s a romance, ergo, the focus should be on the developing relationship of the main characters, the house, its past, and everything (and everyone) connected to it are relevant to the romance. The letters are surprisingly brushed aside after their discovery, and while Jared acknowledges their significance, they’re forgotten till the end of the story, when their link to everything is revealed.

The romance itself is really sweet, and we get to see everything unfold through Jared’s POV. He’s the quintessential artist-dreamer who falls madly in love with the quintessential silent, brooding mystery on two legs that’s Evander. His efforts at reaching out to Evander and moving their relationship forward despite what appear to be barriers are heartfelt and sincere, and there’s not much of a leap for the reader to make when empathizing with him. In a longer story, I think the process of getting to know each other more would’ve been much more compelling, but by and large, given the length of this book, what we get works pretty well.

That said, both men’s back stories come out of the blue at the last minute, which threw me off. Of the two, Evander’s history – and the reason behind his odd behavior – has already been hinted at from the beginning. Or at least we already know something’s up with him, so for his history to come out after the climactic moment is less jarring than Jared’s. Mind you, it’s a great backstory to read about, which gave me even more reason to wish this were a longer book, considering the implications. Without getting into spoilers, let me just say that his revelation means a much larger picture involving supernatural elements. It’s not just limited to the house and its weird past. And we don’t get that from the story leading up to the climax – no mention of anything remotely otherworldly happening elsewhere, beyond Evander and his connection to the house.

As for Jared’s backstory, it was the one that made me blink in confusion because I didn’t see that coming, and nowhere in the book, at any point, was anything hinted at. We only get an idea from the blurb. So to have certain complications ensue with no preparation beforehand threw me off somewhat, and I ended up feeling as though Jared’s backstory was tacked on as a means of placing the lovers in danger and forcing Evander’s history out into the open. If I were to step back and look at all of the different subplots objectively, I can see how they all work together to form a great, compelling story. However, the novelette’s length cuts down quite a bit on any opportunities at developing all of them for a more fleshed-out book, and whatever chances are there are largely devoted to the sex scenes.

Haunted by the Past is a nice, quick read overall, though, if you want something not too involved but still quite romantic.






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5 Stars, Historical Romance, KJ Charles, Paranormal Romance, Reviewed by Rena, Samhain Publishing

Review: Jackdaw by KJ Charles

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Title: Jackdaw

Author: KJ Charles

Publisher: Samhain Publishing

Pages/Word Count: 189 Pages

At a Glance: Jackdaw is a wonderfully written romance between two all-too-human young men.

Reviewed By: Rena

Blurb: If you stop running, you fall.

Jonah Pastern is a magician, a liar, a windwalker, a professional thief…and for six months, he was the love of police constable Ben Spenser s life. Until his betrayal left Ben jailed, ruined, alone, and looking for revenge.

Ben is determined to make Jonah pay. But he can t seem to forget what they once shared, and Jonah refuses to let him. Soon Ben is entangled in Jonah s chaotic existence all over again, and they re running together – from the police, the justiciary, and some dangerous people with a lethal grudge against them.

Threatened on all sides by betrayals, secrets, and the laws of the land, can they find a way to live and love before the past catches up with them?

This story is set in the world of the Charm of Magpies series.

Dividers

Note: If you haven’t read the entire Charm of Magpies trilogy, this review contains what could be considered a spoiler.

Review: As a big old fan of KJ Charles’ Charm of Magpies series, I was thrilled to see a new novel whose events take place in the same universe and timeline. If anything, the book is a kind of a sequel to Flight of Magpies, and not only do we enjoy the adventures of a completely different couple, we also get to see Stephen Day and Lord Crane as side characters who peripherally affect Ben and Jonah’s predicament, and also bid goodbye to England for better lives in the East.

The main difference between Jackdaw and the Magpies series is that Ben and Jonah’s story is a lot more grounded than Stephen and Lucius’. And that’s because our POV character is Ben, who’s an ordinary man who’s suffered horribly as a consequence of Jonah’s errors in judgment. And, yes, Jonah – who first appears in Charm of Magpies – is a windwalker, but he’s not a justiciar like Stephen nor is blessed (cursed?) with a bloodline steeped in deadly magic like Crane. Both Ben and Jonah are, in truth, simple men who’re deeply, deeply in love with each other and are desperately fighting for nothing more than a chance to live quietly and happily together. But as the blurb notes, not only are they up against some pretty dangerous sorts – law enforcement and justiciars – they also struggle against questions of trust, forgiveness, and second chances.

Just like Day and Crane, Ben and Jonah are made out to be very complex characters who, unfortunately, are up against some pretty overwhelming odds. Every difficulty in their relationship and past actions isn’t easily resolved because nothing’s in black and white. Painful questions regarding choices made in reference to sacrificing innocents in order to save one’s love are constantly thrown at both of them, and it’s pretty heartbreaking watching them deal with their conscience, especially when hard, inescapable facts force them to make ultimate sacrifices for each other in the climax of the book. They don’t have the benefit of a support group, unlike Day and Crane. They’re both outcasts on so many levels – both dirt poor, rejected by their families, and unemployed, with Jonah completely illiterate – swimming against rough currents without any hope for help, save from each other.

And because their relationship takes center stage in this book, one can’t help but wish the worst for Stephen Day sometimes, as he goes about his usual stick-up-the-butt, moral way. That said, I appreciate the fact that, again, everything’s laid out in so many different shades of gray that despite my resentment toward Stephen in some scenes, I’m also shown how human he is as a man who simply wishes to see justice done – and it’s so in character for him to hold on to the case like a little red-haired pit bull. Stephen’s heart’s in the right place, but he doesn’t get to see the truth as clearly as we’d like him to. As always, Crane gives us the much-needed spark of dark humor and clarity when things seem so bleak – the triumph of amorality, I think, in a world that can never be dealt with in black and white terms. It’s also a triumph in that it’s a concession, a willingness to see the good in imperfection despite the risks.

The plot takes us away from London and into a more bucolic environment: a village in Cornwall. At the very tip of southwestern England, it’s just the perfect place for two ordinary men to find the peaceful sanctuary they desperately need. Simple and rustic, filled with fishermen and other poor locals whose day-to-day concerns are nowhere near the bizarre, metaphysical events that shadow Stephen’s life as a justiciar and drive Crane batty as Stephen’s lover. There are so many parallels that can be drawn between the two couples and their respective environments, as well as the manner of, and reasons behind, their self-imposed exiles. As with the Magpies series, this book offers us something much more than just a surface reading of two lovers’ struggles, so a big hat tip to Charles for keeping up the complexity in her books.

Jackdaw is a wonderfully written romance between two all-too-human young men. With its less colorful and relatively quieter conflict compared to the three books in the Magpies series, we get to be brought down to earth in a sense, enjoy a more old-fashioned love story despite its darker, bloodier, and more magic-soaked past. The shift in focus toward an idyllic backdrop in rural England also serves to complete Stephen and Crane’s story in a bittersweet yet triumphant way. While Charles could’ve easily written a full novel about their departure from England, I’m glad she chose to approach it in this manner. There’s no complicated melodrama, no craziness, no destructive magic shrouding them this time – just a simple, quiet exit that lends them a certain melancholy dignity, bolstered by the rustic perfection of Ben and Jonah’s new life together.

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5 Stars, Alexis Hall, Reviewed by Rena, Riptide Publishing, Steampunk

Review: Liberty & Other Stories by Alexis Hall

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Title: Liberty & Other Stories

Author: Alexis Hall

Publisher: Riptide Publishing

Pages/Word Count: 308 Pages

At a Glance: A pastiche that’s done not just amazingly well but with unexpected touches of hilarity in deeply serious moments.

Reviewed By: Rena

Blurb: For the delight and edification of discerning readers, we present diverse stories concerning the lives, histories, and adventures of the crew of the aethership Shadowless.

Lament! as an upstanding clergyman falls into the villainous clutches of a notorious criminal mastermind.

Question your sanity! as a dissolute governess confronts blasphemies from beyond creation.

Wonder! at the journey of the dashing skycaptain Byron Kae across sapphire oceans, through smog-choked streets, and to the depths of the sky itself.

Gasp! at an entirely true and accurately rendered tale of pirates, cavalrymen, aethermancers, scientists, and a power to unmake the world.

Plus, hitherto unseen extracts from the meticulous and illuminating journals of Mrs. Miranda Lovelace, rogue scientist and first of the aethermancers.

Dividers

Review: As a big fan of Alexis Hall’s Prosperity, I was thrilled to learn about the upcoming stand-alone titles that serve as prequels and sequels to the novel (upcoming back then, anyway, when I first read Prosperity; I’ve been, alas, rather late to the party since). Liberty and Other Stories is a collection of novelettes and novellas focusing on Picaddilly, Byron Kae, Jane Grey, Milord, and Ruben Crowe – recounting, through wonderfully diverse narrative approaches, their stories leading up to the events in Prosperity as well as those following.

The collection begins with “Shackles”, which is a prequel that goes over Milord and Ruben Crowe’s relationship before they cross paths again in Prosperity. Now, I was really looking forward to this installment as I was hoping to warm up to Ruben Crowe after his rather dull presence in the novel. With only him and Milord taking center stage in this novelette, we get to enjoy the sizzling chemistry these two men have as they desperately and doggedly resist their attraction to each other. Unfortunately, I finished the story still not a fan of Ruben Crowe.

Firstly, of the four titles in this collection, “Shackles” seems to be the weakest. Against the zany steampunk adventures of everyone else in this collection, this story comes across as too standard and by-the-numbers in terms of the exploration of the two heroes, and I’m afraid it was rather easy for me to forget the plot once I started reading “Squamous With a Chance of Rain”, the second novelette in the anthology. And secondly, Ruben is – Ruben. Yes, he’s a preacher (or former preacher) who finds himself torn against his beliefs and his nature, but I still find his characterization rather more like wallpaper against which Milord distinguishes himself. Had the story been told from Milord’s POV, maybe my perceptions of Ruben would be altered in some way or another since Milord’s colorful personality and quirks would influence my views. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t, and I was glad to move on from it.

The rest of the anthology – “Squamous With a Chance of Rain”, Cloudy Climes and Starless Skies, and Liberty – more than make up for “Shackles”. And that’s because we’re once again blessed to see all kinds of adventures unfold through the eyes of the more electric members of the Prosperity cast. I also would like to emphasize the fact that in these three stories, Alexis Hall goes all out and approaches them through a variety of narrative styles and devices: the epistolary novel, the dialogue, journal entries, and even court records. Each is a pastiche that’s done not just amazingly well but with unexpected touches of hilarity in deeply serious moments, particularly in the last two books.

Jane Grey’s story is told in epistolary fiction style – a style I’ve always loved, having been introduced to it in my college English Lit classes. It’s a narrative approach that can provide the reader with a fantastic view of the letter writer’s personality, especially when the same character writes to different people (in this case, Jane writes exclusively to her friend). Tone changes, language shifts, details are either held back or expanded on, depending on the recipient and the writer’s relationship with him/her. And in Jane’s case, we get to enjoy a pretty hysterical account of her “origin story”, as it were, and how she got her bizarre abilities and her drug addiction. It’s also a pastiche on a number of levels, which was fun to pick at as I read through it. Jane Grey, i.e., Jane Eyre (gothic governess story by Charlotte Brontë) and Agnes Grey (Victorian governess story about the horribleness of teaching someone’s brats by Anne Brontë) – as I read both books before, I couldn’t help but pounce on those. Add to that a generous dose of The Sound of Music, and you’ve got Jane’s pre-Prosperity life in all its gothic, close-harmony singing and laudanum-spiced glory.

Cloudy Climes and Starless Skies is an account of Byron Kae’s history – really the saddest and most bittersweet installment in this collection. It’s told from Byron’s POV as a dialogue with Dil, and that dialogue takes place some time after the events in Prosperity. Dil here is now a young man, not a scrappy boy – wiser than ever, more adventurous than ever, and certainly proving himself Byron’s perfect partner in more ways than one. Throughout the story, Dil interrupts the narrative with questions, observations, and other things in typical Dil style – generously peppered with expletives, coarseness, and keen insight spelled out with the kind of openness and earnestness that’d make you laugh and break your heart at the same time. And it’s through Dil’s (most welcome) interruptions that Byron’s story doesn’t get weighed down too much with sadness. The closing paragraphs prior to the epilogue, especially, would’ve brought me to tears had I not been laughing at something Dil was saying leading up to that part. On the whole, this novella was perhaps the most beautifully written of the stories in the collection.

Liberty goes beyond the private worlds of the characters we love and raises issues regarding power and its abuse. It’s also the most complex of the stories in the anthology, told in a series of a few random journal entries and letters, but mostly court documents. Other characters are introduced, their purposes mostly nefarious save for one man who risks execution as a traitor to England by listening to his conscience at the very last minute. It’s a fun adventure in which different characters tell their stories (to the court, of course), their voices so wonderfully distinct from each other that you end up not wanting to have the chaotic incident in Liberty recounted in any other way. Expletives are, of course, redacted, to hysterical effect. And, as icing on the cake, we’re given pretty serious warnings or instructions from transcribers regarding recordings on wax cylinders and what one can hear when said cylinders are played back or played backwards.

This anthology really serves its purpose in further fleshing out the world created in Prosperity. My indifference toward “Shackles” didn’t really hurt my enjoyment of the rest of the stories, and I highly recommend the entire series to anyone who loves both steampunk and some really colorful pastiche.






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3 Stars, Erotica, Extasy Books, Ora Le Brocq, Reviewed by Rena, Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Urban Fantasy

Review: The Moonwar: The Beginning by Ora Le Brocq

Title: The Moonwar: The Beginning

Author: Ora Le Brocq

Publisher: eXtasy Books

Pages/Word Count: 56 Pages

At a Glance: It’d be interesting to see where the series takes us, for sure, though I hope the next installment offers us something more.

Reviewed By: Rena

Blurb: Can two young men find love against the horrific outbreak of the Moon War? Will they even survive the first attack by an unseen, unknown alien foe?

The landlord’s son of the Fox and Grapes welcomes everyone with a cheerful smile and good service, but when William meets Professor Ethan Wanstead, his service becomes far more intimate.

Unfortunately, William doesn’t know that Ethan has a hidden agenda. Ethan knows that the Earth is in danger, for this is the start of the Moon War. Ethan may be the planet’s only hope, so it is unfortunate that he is suddenly experiencing a whole new world of physical and emotional pleasure with William…

Dividers

Review: “The Moon War” is one of those stories that I wish I could talk about in more detail but really can’t because it’s not only very short in length, it’s also very short in plot and content. At around 12K words, most of that isn’t even spent in the establishing of the events noted in the blurb, but on two concurrent sex scenes.

And it’s a shame. When I read the blurb the first time around, I was absolutely intrigued by the concept of moon wars and Ethan’s mysterious role. I was hoping that the book took the time to lay out the foundation – however lightly – for future installments of the series, but unfortunately the instant attraction between William and Ethan turned into the book’s focal point, followed by Oz’s somewhat hilarious romp in the hay (literally).

By the time things begin to happen, we only get a glimpse of a catastrophe and Ethan’s frantic claims about someone trying to destroy the moon with a tachyon beam. On one hand, we’re left with a cliffhanger of sorts, but on the other hand, I found it difficult caring for the characters considering how little we’re given insofar as the context of danger is concerned. While Will and Ethan appear to be a lovely couple, and Oz is a humorous scoundrel-sidekick type of character, there’s still not much to hang anything on when it comes to characterization.

It’d be interesting to see where the series takes us, for sure, though I hope the next installment offers us something more. And as a final note, this book is Ora Le Brocq’s first attempt at writing M/M, having established herself as a writer of erotic het fiction. The sex scenes are well-written, for sure, and do her much credit for her first effort.






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3 Stars, Breathless Press, Fairy Tale/Mythology/Folk Lore, Holiday Romance, Pelaam, Reviewed by Rena

Review: Horse of Bells by Pelaam

Title: Horse of Bells

Author: Pelaam

Publisher: Breathless Press

Pages/Word Count: 29000 Words

At a Glance: While the novella’s a quick, fun read, I still can’t help but think of missed opportunities

Blurb: A legendary horse, magic, and a man shrouded in mystery. Who can he trust? Caolan risks both his heart and his life to uncover the truth.

When his life is saved by a stranger, Prince Caolan feels an immediate connection to the man, and promises to meet him again. Forced to break that promise to protect his brother Donal, Caolan waits for the day he can return to the forest.

On their trip home, almost a year later, he and Donal are tricked by their step-mother into attempting to steal the legendary Horse of Bells from the infamous Dark Prince Tuathal. Honor-bound to accept the geis she set them, the brothers leave their castle to complete the quest.

During their journey, they meet the enigmatic Traveler. Caolan is confused and troubled by his reaction to the man. Is he a friend, or are his intentions darker and more deadly?

Dividers

Review: Horse of Bells is a novella in which things go – pretty fast – with not much by way of character or plot development. As a light fairy tale romance, it certainly works, and for fans of insta-love plots with light conflict, this fits the bill.

When I say things move quickly, it’s exactly that. Caolan meets a stranger in the forest while hunting wild boars. They make eye contact, and within seconds, they’re kissing. There’s a great deal made about gut feelings telling each man that the person he’s looking at is the one, as in the one and only true love of his life, with whom he’ll be sharing the rest of his years. But there’s not much else done about it besides the brief ten-month separation that Caolan reluctantly agrees to. And even then, the time apart isn’t really explored by way of how it affects the lovers. When they do reunite, the tension is there, sure, but again, the problem is sorted out easily, and they consummate their love.

The same goes with Donal and Tuathal, who meet under near-catastrophic circumstances but within hours are in bed, declaring undying love to each other. The rest of the book’s conflict, which is Doireann’s ambitions to take over the kingdom, is dealt with also pretty quickly. The book could’ve used a little more development both in terms of characterization and also setting. It’s a fantasy story, and the setting – what little we’re given, anyway – sounds absolutely wonderful, but there are barely any descriptions of time and place. References to drawbridges and forests and cottages are few and far between, and they also tend to be pretty generic, so whatever mental picture you might have of a Medieval castle, for instance, would fit the bill.

Much of the focus of the book is on Caolan, the younger brother who suffers from unjust expectations (or lack thereof) from the king. And his story follows a pretty standard plot for gay romances, especially those that hew very closely to yaoi conventions as I saw it. The characters are all archetypes, which is fine to begin with, but they never really go beyond that. Caolan is young, beautiful, emotional, and is always in danger and is always rescued by his lover (who’s older and stronger). It isn’t till the end of the book where Caolan asserts himself, which made me wish there’d been more to him (as well as the other characters) from the start.

There are only two female characters in the book, and one’s killed off, while the other is the main villain. Doireann sounds like a great nemesis, but she’s also not as fully developed as I’d expected, which is a shame.

What does stand out for me – and I loved it – was the backstory serving as a thread that connects Tuathal, Berach, and Doireann. It’s a great little backstory that’s rich in folklore elements, with a generous helping of mysticism. The horse itself is a strange, magical creature, and its existence adds that extra layer of mystery and magic that go beyond human understanding.

On a more technical level, there are odd errors peppered throughout the book involving the use of periods where commas should be in dialogue. For instance (not taken from the book, obviously, but it’s here to illustrate my point):

“Jack and Jill fell down a hill.” Mary said.

On the whole, while the novella’s a quick, fun read, I still can’t help but think of missed opportunities for a fully developed fairy tale romance. The book clocks in at over 29K words, so it certainly could’ve been expanded into a category length romance, if not a long novella, that provides us with a richer, more layered cast of characters and a setting that we can really sink our teeth into.






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4 Stars, Historical Romance, Owen Keehnen, Reviewed by Rena, Wilde City Press

Review: December 1903: The Iroquois by Owen Keehnan

Title: December 1903: The Iroquois

Author: Owen Keehnan

Publisher: Wilde City Press

Pages/Word Count: 36 Pages

At a Glance: Owen Keehnen is able to construct a complete story that not only provides us with some great background material about theatre life in the early 20th century, but also the terrible cost of poor planning

Blurb: Chicago during the holiday season in 1903 was a bustling place. This is a tale of passion and love set against a backdrop of the tragic fire at the Iroquois Theatre which killed hundreds. As a love story it is the tale of two men from very different worlds who meet by chance on the street. Frankie is an actor working in the show Mr. Bluebeard which is currently playing at the Iroquois. Following a cast meeting, Frankie leaves the theater en route to his room at a local boarding house until the evening show. On the street he makes knowing eye contact with a handsome and dapper man. The two make small talk. The stranger introduces himself as Otto and in only a few moments the two head off to Frankie s boarding house. Though Frankie knows absolutely nothing about Otto s life outside of the room, they meet again the next night, and the next. As the cold winter wind howls outside the boardinghouse window, they make plans to run away and start a new life elsewhere. They agree to meet on the alley behind the theater that day after the matinee. Frankie has bought Otto a gallery ticket so that he can see him upon the stage. During that day s matinee tragedy strikes and the tragic inferno consumes the theatre. Will one or the other or both lovers perish in the blaze? Can love even survive in the wake of such unspeakable tragedy.

Dividers

Review: At around 14,000 words, Owen Keehnen is able to construct a complete story that not only provides us with some great background material about theatre life in the early 20th century – at least in America – but also the terrible cost of poor planning, the absence of safety laws, and, in the middle of all of that, a love story in the process of blooming. I do want to emphasize that this novelette is a tragedy on many levels. If you’re looking for a romantic HEA, I’ll warn you that this book doesn’t guarantee anything, having a real-life tragedy for its dramatic backdrop, and its conclusion is something that works on a very realistic level. There’s so much mystery behind Otto that ending Frankie’s story the way Keehnen does makes a lot of sense.

The story, from the get-go, isn’t a happy one. Not only do we see Frankie’s struggles to survive as an actor and the lengths he’s forced to go to in order to make it, we also watch him find solace from his loneliness as a gay man by skulking in shadowy alleys, keeping an eye out for possible one-night-stands. When he and Otto cross paths one evening, he knows he’s found the one, and even Otto claims the same thing. There’s so much hinging on their moments alone that even their lovemaking is somewhat tainted by a mild undercurrent of paranoia. Frankie lives in a run-down apartment, and every movement seems magnified by the floorboards or the walls. So that even within the privacy of his home, he really can’t feel safe enough from discovery.

Frankie falls hopelessly in love with Otto, and in an uneven kind of relationship that bummed me out, Frankie shares everything about himself while Otto holds back. Right off the bat, Otto’s at a complete advantage, and it doesn’t take him much to woo Frankie with gifts and declarations of love. When the lovers talk about running away, I could still sense some odd distance from him, and after a certain point, I was questioning my own judgments about the character. It’s one of those kinds of characterization that I enjoy reading – the mystery, the riddle, the person with that quality that’s a little off in such a subtle way. He came across to me as a gray area, who can go either way: throw everything to the wind and run away with Frankie, or suddenly vanish without another word.

And it’s that mystery that muddies the waters following the tragic fire in the theatre where Frankie works.

The fire itself did happen, and the novelette ends with some notes regarding the incident. As can only be expected, so many people died in the fire – both audience and performers alike. With it being the early 20th century, you can only imagine the state of such buildings back then. Emergency exits, fire alarms, what have you – none of those existed then. In fact, reading through the detailed account of the fire, its progress, and the horrific aftermath called to mind the Triangle Factory Fire, another tragedy that makes me ill just thinking about it. The victims’ entrapment are similar. The desperate and ultimately doomed attempts at fleeing, particularly from the upper floors, are also the same.

What follows after the tragedy is almost dream-like in atmosphere and approach. Since we’re seeing everything unfold from Frankie’s POV (first person), we’re very limited in our understanding of how the tragedy affected his and Otto’s relationship. Scenes seem to blend into each other, almost as though we’re walking around in a daze.

For this story, there’s a great deal more telling than there is showing. On the one hand, it distances us from the raw emotion of the events; on the other hand, it distances us from the raw emotion of the events. As much as I’d like to see the narrative broken up more often by dialogue and action (or interaction), particularly after the fire, on another level, I was also somewhat grateful that the tragedy and the aftermath were muted in a way through the heavier reliance on telling.

There are a number of ways one can interpret the story’s denouement, the way I see it. And to Keehnen’s credit, every possibility I could think of works very well with the story, given the nature of the lovers’ relationship and the fact that we’re limited to Frankie’s POV – his biases, his weaknesses, his dreams. Every possibility is realistic, regardless of whether or not it pains us. It’s an effective – not to mention gutsy – way of following through Frankie’s story, and I’m grateful we’re not cheated out of it with something implausible or just plain far out there.






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4 Stars, Holiday Romance, MLR Press, Reviewed by Rena, S.A. Garcia

Review: The Green Man’s Bounty by S.A. Garcia

Title: The Green Man’s Bounty

Author: S.A. Garcia

Publisher: MLR Press

Pages/Word Count: 68 Pages

At a Glance: A worthwhile read, though the satisfaction came more from the exploration of rich traditions and the focus on traumatized, displaced children than from anything romantic or fantastical

Blurb: Can a Druid accept Christmas by helping WW2 orphans?

When a war-torn Druid meets his legendary Green Man, he discovers a new meaning to Christmas by helping Jewish orphans.

Dividers

Review: I’ll have to admit, the blurb for this book is too skimpy for anyone to get a clear idea of what the book is really about. On the whole, it’s well-written on a technical level; there’s quite a bit of attention paid to religion – at least on the pagan side of things, in a manner of speaking. But we do get to enjoy a more diverse picture of paganism and how religion runs a full spectrum. There’s no black-and-white dichotomy of Christianism and paganism. In fact, we get to see – through Lynn – a nice blending of both in that he considers himself a Christian pagan and provides us a quick explanation toward the end of the book.

I do have issues regarding the way the book’s categorized, beyond it being a historical romance. It’s marketed as fantasy as well, but the fantasy is more about the atmosphere of the holiday season with so many different religions coming together in a lovely, harmonious way. There are no fantastical elements in the sense that there are no otherworldly or supernatural entities involved. There are several references to Mother Earth in addition to certain traditions practiced by Roger, who belongs to the Ancient Order of the Druids. He fondly refers to Lynn as his “Green Man”, and while that term certainly fixes the story firmly in its physical setting, it’s by no means a literal description of Lynn. Roger makes occasional references to Old Man Winter and Mother Nature as though they were actual characters, but those references appear to be more in line with the Druid’s way.

So, no, besides the rich pagan traditions that add so many layers and color to the story, there aren’t any fantasy elements I could see.

The plot itself is pretty idly paced, which works very well with the chosen period (the winter season and Christmas, not necessarily post-WWII). The conflict is also very light, if any, and that really only involves the orphaned Jewish children Roger and Lynn take in for Christmas and how they adapt to the temporary arrangements. There’s also the ongoing reminder of the illegal nature of gay relationships as well as paganism – at least in some places for the latter (residence and employment). But those are really barely touched on, and we’re simply reminded of those not because of actual situations that are explored in great detail, but because Roger mentions it a few times in addition to a couple of fleeting instances in which we’re shown the fear of discovery.

Since the plot revolves around the nature of Christmas and the plight of the orphaned children, I didn’t get much by way of the romance. Yes, there are sex scenes, and the book’s climactic moment – no pun intended – is a long, detailed erotic scene for our two heroes. But I didn’t sense much chemistry between Lynn and Roger, largely because the rest of the story’s heavily weighted in favor of those two points I mentioned. Not that it’s a bad thing, mind you, but if you’re looking for a sweet romance or even a torrid one, this book offers a little of both but not necessarily an emotionally convincing connection.

In the end, I still found this book a worthwhile read, though the satisfaction really came more from the exploration of rich traditions and the focus on traumatized, displaced children than from anything romantic or fantastical.






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4 Stars, JMS Books LLC, Reviewed by Rena, Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Urban Fantasy, Short Story, T.A. Creech

Review: Slither by T.A. Creech

Title: Slither

Author: T.A. Creech

Publisher: JMS Books LLC

Pages/Word Count: 17 Pages

At a Glance: A pretty classic sci-fi plot that can be traced back all the way to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Blurb: War awaits on Ilmare, between the humans and the constructs they created. Considered flawed designs by their creators, Selati and his other sentient comrades live the life of refugees on the run, hiding and fighting in Ilmare’s vast jungles. They want only the freedom to pursue their newly awakened sentience away from human interference.

Aleledai taught Selati all he knows of a life without chains and suffering. Neither can know what tomorrow will bring, rather all too well what it could take from them both. On the cusp of war, Selati returns to his lover to spend one last night in the peaceful world that only exists in Aleledai’s arms.

Dividers

Review: “Slither”, at a little over 5,000 words, is a short story that effectively makes use of two events – one very public and overarching, the other, an intimate moment between a married couple – in order to provide us with a story that’s not quite complete on the surface but leaves an emotional resonance at the end. By and large, it’s not much more than a vignette, and short stories can easily be botched up when an author attempts to cram too much into such a small word count. What works in this case is the fact that T.A. Creech has chosen to highlight the backstory as well as the sex scene as a way of establishing the emotional context of Selati and Aleledai’s night together before a great battle. And rather than spoonfeed readers one scene following another, we’re encouraged to connect the dots, stretch our imaginations further, and emotionally connect with not just the couple, but also their race.

The story has a pretty classic sci-fi plot that can be traced back all the way to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Here we have instead humans who defy Nature and create a race meant for nothing else but hard labor. Moral issues arise when the constructs slowly evolve and develop sentience, and like Frankenstein’s monster, they rebel against their creators and abusers. A lot of books and movies have been done along those lines. For “Slither”, things are scaled down further (no pun intended on the “scale” reference), and we’re shown something more like a microcosm that focuses strictly on Selati and Aleledai’s lives together as a married pair of “unnaturals”.

The backstory is told in a somewhat lengthy summary at the start, and it provides a backdrop against which the couple enjoy a night together before the battle. It’s a sharp and somewhat harsh contrast, and it’s because of that we’re made to see just how unfair it all is. The story doesn’t give us any answers, but with the melancholy fatalism that pervades every scene, it’s really not necessary in the end. We only need to see how awful it is for the constructs to live the way they do, and for the story to end the way it does allows us not only to feel deeply for them, but also hold on to the hope that good fortune can still go their way.






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5 Stars, Charlie Cochrane, Historical Romance, Mystery/Suspense/Action Thriller, Reviewed by Rena, Riptide Publishing

Review: Lessons for Survivors by Charlie Cochrane

22741271Title: Lessons for Survivors (A Cambridge Fellows Mystery)

Author: Charlie Cochrane

Publisher: Riptide Publishing

Pages/Word Count: 265 Pages

At a Glance: Like sitting in one’s favorite chair on a rainy day with a cup of hot tea and quiet music playing in the background

Blurb: A more than professional interest . . . a more than personal intrigue.

Orlando Coppersmith should be happy. WWI is almost a year in the past, he’s back at St. Bride’s College in Cambridge, his lover and best friend Jonty Stewart is at his side again, and—to top it all—he’s about to be made Forster Professor of Applied Mathematics. And although he and Jonty have precious little time for an investigative commission, they can’t resist a suspected murder case that must be solved in a month so a clergyman can claim his rightful inheritance.

But the courses of scholarship, true love, and amateur detecting never did run smooth. Orlando’s inaugural lecture proves almost impossible to write. A plagiarism case he’s adjudicating on turns nasty with a threat of blackmail against him and Jonty. And the murder investigation turns up too many leads and too little hard evidence.

Orlando and Jonty may be facing their first failure as amateur detectives, and the ruin of their professional and private reputations. Brains, brawn, the pleasures of the double bed—they’ll need them all to lay their problems to rest.

Dividers

Review: Lisa via e-mail recently quipped, “Jonty and Orlando are like comfort food.” Ayup. Most definitely. Charlie Cochrane’s Cambridge Fellows series is my trusty bowl of comfort grub. I can depend on Jonty and Orlando to provide me with some nice, warm, comfy, fully satisfying escapism, and since I’ve read the entire series so far, it’s always great to come back to the familiar.

I first read Lessons for Survivors some months ago, just before Cheyenne Publishing closed their doors (a sore blow for us historical gay fiction fans). Seeing this book pop up in its second edition under Riptide gave me a lot of hope in seeing Cochrane’s Edwardian amateur sleuths continue their adventures. I was informed that this edition of the book contains some minor changes and additions, which I don’t mind at all. Seeing as how I can’t remember all of the details in the first edition, anyway, I dove into this new version as though I were reading this specific mystery for the first time.

The events in this book take place after the Great War, which was explored in a previous installment in the series. Jonathan “Jonty” Stewart and Orlando Coppersmith are older now – almost forty years old, together as a couple for fourteen years since the first book – and the physical descriptions of the pair certainly left their mark on me. Though poignant, the acknowledgment of the passage of time is significant and very much appreciated, and that shows not only in the physical descriptions of the characters, but also what happens to everyone around them, their work as respected academics, and their behavior toward each other as lovers and partners in detection. Having gotten used to the presence of certain side characters throughout the series, it was pretty heartbreaking finding some of them gone. Occasional references to them as well as to expressions of loss in either or both Jonty and Orlando can really twist your heart, which gives this book an elegiac quality that’s difficult to dismiss.

As with the previous books in this series, this book’s perfectly balanced in tone, with darker elements involving murder, an abusive father and husband, and a rejected child are woven neatly together with the lighthearted, witty banter fans of this series have long grown to love and expect. Jonty and Orlando might be fourteen years older from the time they first met, but they still behave like lovesick twenty-somethings, and they still kick each other’s shins in warning or as punishment, if not call each other names, with a great deal of affection. They throw euphemisms around when it comes to sex, but with their maturity comes a good dose of self-awareness that sometimes borders on rueful whenever they try to talk about not just their still-outlawed relationship, but the act of lovemaking. I tend to interpret those euphemisms – and the manner with which they’re used – as something more along the lines of nostalgia, like a keen awareness of their younger, more frightened versions as a kind of a reference point for their current selves. While the act itself has never diminished in passion, there’s a deeper understanding of its significance, considering how far they’ve gone and how the laws have yet to change. While still eager and passionate, their intimacy is also edged with – and enriched by – a certain level of pragmatism.

Side characters who survived the Great War and past epidemics are just as cheeky and subversive when called on for help, and in their dwindling circle, Jonty and Orlando find their much-needed grounding when duty (academic and sleuthing) threatens to overwhelm them. Dr. Panesar, especially, is fantastic, and I hope to see him make more frequent appearances in future installments.

For this book, two events are taking place simultaneously: the murder (primary event) and the plagiarism case, which includes a blackmail threat (secondary event). And this is where things get a little wobbly for me. The main mystery is handled very, very well. When at first everything appears to be so cut and dry – to the point where I wondered how Cochrane would be able to stretch out the riddle into a full novel – we’re thrown surprises and red herrings along the way. So much so, whatever initial “Aha! I know whodunnit!” we might’ve entertained at the beginning (and I love racing against the detectives when reading a mystery, solving the puzzle pieces myself before anyone can figure stuff out) is easily overrun by false leads and new revelations that force us to go back to square one.

To me, the way the secondary problem was resolved was underwhelming, not because everything gets tied up so easily and neatly in the end, but because the solution to the problem depends way too much on coincidence. In addition to Owens (and his college) being painted as low-grade trash with zero redeeming qualities, to have Jonty’s family’s very convenient connections as a means by which the problem would be solved proved to be a bit of a disappointment for me. Unless Cochrane’s setting us up for further adventures that follow this remarkable coincidence in a future book, I ended up wondering why have this subplot to begin with. As it stands, given my response to it, it seems superfluous, and what it does do is not only make the rival college a one-dimensional haven of hopeless fools (something already established in previous books), but also reiterate just how lucky and influential the Stewart family is (something already established in previous books). From the outset, then, Orlando and Jonty weren’t in any real trouble, which pretty much undermined the conflict of the blackmail threat.

Beyond that, though, I was delighted with the book, and the subplot didn’t really diminish much of my enjoyment. There’s nothing like coming back to what’s familiar and comfortable and reacquainting myself with a slowly graying pair of lovebirds. Like sitting in one’s favorite chair on a rainy day with a cup of hot tea and quiet music playing in the background.






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5 Stars, Barbara Sheridan, Historical Romance, JMS Books LLC, Reviewed by Rena

Review: Most Wanted by Barbara Sheridan

Title: Most Wanted

Author: Barbara Sheridan

Publisher: JMS Books LLC

Pages/Word Count: 47 Pages

At a Glance: A prime example of a complete short piece

Blurb: Boston born and bred Tim Dwyer doesn’t relish the thought of giving up Eastern comforts for life in the rough-and-tumble West. But when he finds himself with no job, little money, and no place else to go, he accepts a position at his cousin’s weekly newspaper in the Indian Territory. When his cousin and new editor cook up a roving reporter assignment, Tim learns that spending a mere week in the life of U.S. Deputy Marshal Jon Sauvage won’t ever be enough to satisfy his needs.

Choctaw lawman “Savage Jon” Sauvage has spent his entire adult life content with chasing wanted men and taking his pleasures wherever and however he can. But once he’s roped into letting a big city reporter tag along with him on a manhunt, Jon soon suspects that Tim Dwyer might just capture his heart.

Dividers

Review: Barbara Sheridan’s Most Wanted is a prime example of a complete short piece without any cramming of unnecessary information or the sacrifice of a plot by a too-lengthy sex scene (or more). At 15,000 words, it’s a novelette that works like a mini-novel, providing us with a great backstory for both Tim and Jon, accidental meetings whose sexual tensions spiral, a first-hand view of the dangers of law enforcement in Indian Territory, and the eventual coming together of two men who risk a good deal for their happiness.

While I’ve referred to overly used tropes in previous reviews, I really don’t mind them so long as the author gives us a different spin on them. In this case, while Tim and Jon are classic yin and yang romance heroes, each man is at least given distinctive qualities that keep them from disappearing against hundreds of other yin and yang couples who’ve been written before. Tim perhaps hews the most closely to the familiar as the wide-eyed ingenue type (albeit male), the naïve city boy who finds himself in over his head when he ventures into uncharted territory. But while he’s uncertain and somewhat shy, he’s definitely no pushover, though at the same time gets his way without resorting to a sudden switch to hypermasculinity. One can’t help but feel both sympathetic and yet amused when he ultimately bows to the authority of the law because he really is a fish out of water and is practically flopping around despite his insistence at getting what he wants as a newbie reporter.

Jon, on the other hand, is the hardened lawman who barely manages to keep his secret safe while living off what he could in the exercise of his duties. It’s a harsh and lonely existence he faces day in and day out, the constant fear of discovery hanging over his head with his reputation as a perpetual bachelor. At the same time, he’s not the quintessential embittered alpha male who roughly pushes people away, particularly those he finds himself genuinely attracted to. There’s a softness in him that lets itself be shown whenever his guard’s down, and it’s so refreshing to see this kind of characterization for someone with very dominant traits like his. While hardened, he’s never unemotional, cold, or even cruel. He’s in every way a sympathetic character, which melds quite nicely with Tim’s whenever they find themselves alone together.

The ending’s quite beautiful as well – poignant without being overly sentimental and realistic without resorting to tragedy. It is a romance, so we know what to expect, and Sheridan gives us exactly that but with a nice, non-melodramatic reminder of the historical context and the unfair secrecy that gay lovers are forced to resort to. If I were to wax poetic about the final scenes, I’d say that I’d never before expected the coming together of love, art, and a simple campfire to be so mystical.






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3 Stars, JMS Books LLC, Lynn Townsend, Reviewed by Rena, Steampunk

Review: London Steam by Lynn Townsend

Title: London Steam

Author: Lynn Townsend

Publisher: JMS Books

Pages/Word Count: 99 Pages

At a Glance: Two loosely related novellas and a surprise M/F ending in the second, make for an overall uneven read

Blurb: In a reimagined 1890’s London, where steam-driven airships rule the skies and monsters roam the streets, the Galileo Observatory’s Club for Gentlemen welcomes all — gwr, shape-changers, vampires, and lords. A high-stakes game leads more than a few men astray.

Poindexter Fitzhughes, renowned hero and scientist, learns just how much trouble a full-blooded gwr can be when he attempts to cure his lover, Lord Seth Maitland, of the disease. But when their backs are against the wall, the two must learn to trust in each other, and more importantly, in their true natures, to prevail.

Meanwhile, Duncan Farnsworth discovers being a vampire has not improved his social life, his chances of finding love, continuing the family line, or getting a bite to eat. Maneuvering his way around a sarcastic butler, his spinster sister, a run-in with an amorous werewolf, and a confrontation with a dead soldier and a French airship captain, Duncan finally finds exactly what he is thirsting for.

Dividers

Review: London Steam is actually two lightly connected, short novellas in one book. I say lightly because the main couple in the first novella make a cameo appearance in the second, but the plots diverge completely. Moreover, the first novella is clearly M/M, while the second is M/F/M with the M/F elements pretty much overriding everything else. More on that in a bit.

The first novella focuses on Dex and Seth, both of whom have fantastic – albeit tragic – histories that define their lives in pretty unpleasant ways. Dex was attacked by a gwr he was trying to save and consequently walks around with one blind eye and horrible scars on half of his face. Since this is steampunk London, he’s able to make himself a half-mask with its own artificial eye in order to function in society. Seth, on the other hand, is turned into a gwr in a moment that’s uncomfortably non-con. In brief, both men are forever reminded of their pasts, and when they meet, it’s a blessing for both since they can at least find comfort in each other, as well as use what influence they have together to help bring about social changes where non-humans are concerned.

The plot moves at a pretty brisk pace. The coming together of the two – emotionally, that is – happens off-screen following their initial coupling. But that’s not the point of the story, and I’m glad we’re not forced through romantic tangents at the expense of the main conflict. That said, the briskness of the pacing also applies to the conflict in some places that left me wishing for more. The climax scene is more evenly paced, and we get to see a pretty bloody battle from start to finish. The denouement, however, is largely summarized, with events whizzing past that, to me, somewhat diminishes Dex and Seth’s predicament and even the gwr community’s. Considering the long, angst-and-danger-filled buildup leading to the climax, the conclusion felt like a bit of a letdown.

The second novella was a little more problematic to me on a technical and personal level. On the personal side, I was somewhat blindsided by the M/F/M, and I confess to not being a fan of ménage – of any stripe. When I read the book blurb initially, I didn’t see any indications of ménages anywhere and so didn’t expect it to be a part of the story, let alone a significant one. It is a personal bias, however, and anyone who shares it might need to keep this in mind. For those who enjoy both M/M and M/F/M, you’ll find a nice diverse spectrum of relationships from cover to cover with this book.

The technical problem is a curious one. While it’s part of the same book, the second novella is less polished than the first in the sense that I found a number of typos throughout the story, while the first one didn’t have any. A couple would’ve been fine, but seeing more than that can be a distraction after a while.

While the entire book ended up being a pretty uneven read for me, I was glad I took it on, and I loved the setting. There are a number of original touches in the way steampunk London was fleshed out, which really added to the dynamic quality of the plot and character relationships.






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3 Stars, Edward Kendrick, Historical Romance, Paranormal Romance, Reviewed by Rena, Wilde City Press

Review: L’histoire de François: Vampire by Edward Kendrick

Title: L’histoire de François: Vampire (Mortal Angst #1)

Author: Edward Kendrick

Publisher: Wilde City Press

Pages/Word Count: 64 Pages

At a Glance: A good deal of missed opportunity

Blurb: Since his turning in 1022 young spy, François, has hated all humans. And yet, in 1347, he falls in love with one, only to be betrayed by Giles who tells his liege lord that François is a vampire. The lord blackmails François into spying for him. Years later, François gains his revenge on Giles through his son.

In 1876 New Orleans, François joins forces with Vasile, a master of the city, to take on human vampire hunters. Then Vasile’s human lover dies and Vasile turns to François for comfort. Will love ensue, or is François destined to always be alone?

Dividers

Review: L’histoire de Francois… is a paranormal historical novella that’s quite sweeping in its scope, as far as time period goes. It’s also the first volume of what looks to be a novella series centering on Francois, a young Frenchman who’s turned into a vampire and subsequently becomes a pawn for humans in times of war or bitter political rivalry. It’s a clever use of vampirism, really, seeing as how vampires are immortals and can withstand torture should they be caught spying. Francois – whose last name’s never revealed, but he comes from aristocratic stock – has a pretty rich history, which includes his turning, but we’re really not given much to savor.

The first half of the book focuses on Francois’s past, and the second half skips forward a few centuries and moves the action from France to New Orleans. Because of the novella’s length (about 20K words), so much history covered in such a short book means a lot of summaries and details left out. And that’s too bad because Francois’s history is incredibly rich and fascinating, and that doesn’t include his turning. He’s a seasoned spy at twenty-three, he comes from a line of nobles, and he’s got a bit of a rivalry going on with his older brother, Lothaire, who becomes peripherally instrumental in Francois’s fate. Since his family knows nothing about his secret life, the resulting tension or even perhaps ambivalence in Francois could’ve been explored.

As it happens, though, only his time with Giles is given some attention, and even then, it still has a rushed quality to it. The result of this for me was a lack of emotional connection with Francois. I felt no sympathy for him, even during those moments spent with Giles, and everything seemed so ephemeral and barely fleshed out that I didn’t care much about him by the end of the book. There’s a good deal of missed opportunity, and I wished the book just focused on the events of the first half, expanding Francois’s past and his experiences with Giles and the aftermath of Giles’ betrayal. If anything, the only real sense of emotion I got from the book was how much Francois hated humans, and that’s only because we’re always reminded of that fact, not necessarily shown or allowed to explore those experiences that ultimately led him to that much loathing.

The setting’s also not fully established or described in enough detail as to firmly plant the reader in both time and place. Besides the more generalized references to cities, we don’t really get to “see” Francois’s world, regardless of time period. And that just added to the diminishment of any emotional connection I might’ve enjoyed with the hero.

As this is the first book in a series, however, it probably serves a more general purpose of establishing Francois’s past, and the rest of the novellas following it might offer us something meatier to sink our teeth into – no pun intended.






You can buy L’histoire de François: Vampire (Mortal Angst #1) here:

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5 Stars, Alex Beecroft, Historical Romance, Reviewed by Rena, Samhain Publishing

Review: The Reluctant Berserker by Alex Beecroft

Title: The Reluctant Berserker

Author: Alex Beecroft

Publisher: Samhain Publishing

Pages/Word Count: 248 Pages

At a Glance: A dense, intricately plotted, and meticulously written book

Blurb: Manhood is about more than who’s on top.

Wulfstan, a noble and fearsome Saxon warrior, has spent most of his life hiding the fact that he would love to be cherished by someone stronger than himself. Not some slight, beautiful nobody of a harper who pushes him up against a wall and kisses him.

In the aftermath, Wulfstan isn’t sure what he regrets most – that he only punched the churl in the face, or that he really wanted to give in.

Leofgar is determined to prove he’s as much of a man as any Saxon. But now he s got a bigger problem than a bloody nose. The lord who’s given him shelter from the killing cold is eyeing him like a wolf eyes a wounded hare.

When Wulfstan accidentally kills a friend who is about to blurt his secret, he flees in panic and meets Leofgar, who is on the run from his lord’s lust. Together, pursued by a mother’s curse, they battle guilt, outlaws, and the powers of the underworld, armed only with music…and love that must overcome murderous shame to survive.

Dividers

Review: Alex Beecroft’s The Reluctant Berserker is a dense, intricately plotted, and meticulously written book that may test some readers’ patience in some ways but also rewards them with a lovely story that doesn’t once shy away from difficult questions. I’m not very conversant of the Anglo-Saxon world, but I’m familiar with Alex Beecroft’s work, and I know I’m assured a pretty authentic view of the book’s time period.

Because of the time period, in fact, the novel has about it a very dreamy quality. Religion and superstition are strong forces that drive character movements forward from start to finish. Religion and superstition also help bring about full understanding in Wulfstan and Leofgar. The world-building is impeccable, and the readers are walked through scene after scene with a great deal of care and patience on the writer’s part. We get to see how dirty, dingy, wild, and dangerous Wulfstan and Leofgar’s world is; in fact, the descriptions are so detailed and dense that I found myself grimacing a little whenever the heroes kiss or get intimate in some way or another, since I can’t get the image of filth and bad hygiene out of my head.

That said, because of Beecroft’s amazing attention to detail in the way she shapes each scene and allows it to melt gradually into the next, readers who’re used to fast-paced and less intricately written fiction might find their patience tested somewhat. The payoff is well worth the time and effort plowing through such dense text, though. In the end, when enemies come together and face off, we’re treated to some of the most heart-rending moments exploring the complexities of human nature. The Tatwine-Leofgar moment is compelling, to be sure, but it pales in comparison to the Saewyn-Wulfstan scene, which left me in tears. Both moments raise a lot of painful questions that are also resolved in somewhat more diverging ways. I felt that Wulfstan’s situation was a lot more satisfying than Leofgar’s, but that, again, is the beauty of The Reluctant Berserker – that is, nothing’s cut-and-dry, even in the end. Not everyone walks away fully satisfied with the way things are sorted out.

I also found the dichotomy involving the genders to be a pretty fascinating approach to the narrative. I don’t know if Beecroft meant it to be so, but Wulfstan’s dilemma hinges a great deal on the feminine, while Leofgar’s is on the masculine. Their pursuers also reflect that gender dichotomy, i.e., Saewyn and Tatwine. But perhaps the most intriguing element about all this is the uncomfortable issue of misogyny that, unfortunately, is something that we should expect from people who lived in that time. A gay man being the bottom means a man taking on a woman’s trait, which is deplorable in Leofgar’s eyes – as well as other people’s. It’s even more significant since the tropes are inverted in terms of physicality – Leofgar’s the dominant of the two, and he’s the slender, artistic “pretty boy”, while Wulfstan’s the beefy warrior with the temper, and he’s the submissive.

At the same time, though, women are also firmly and easily compartmentalized in this culture: as mothers, wives, and saints. Every female character – even the venerated St. Aethelthryth, from whom Wulfstan finds strength and peace – is firmly locked in her role, for which she’s alternately worshipped, feared, and, of course, treated as chattel. That Wulfstan (the “woman” of the pair) would turn to a female saint and a mother for forgiveness and redemption – while Leofgar (the “man” of the pair) would learn his lesson from a monk and Jesus Christ – only highlights this stark and conflicting views of women. It’s a plot point that caught me off-guard in the best way because it gave me a lot of food for thought throughout my reading of the book. It’s also sadly a rather timely issue, considering the advances society has made where women’s rights are concerned; if anything, it’s almost an uncomfortable reminder of just how much farther we need to go.

I suppose the only issue I had with the book involved Leofgar. While it’s gratifying to see romance tropes turned on their heads, I found him to be a difficult character to sympathize with. He’s too proud, and his distaste for the way he’s treated because of his appearance exacerbates that problem as well as his own views of all things feminine. I think I’d have felt much better about him had he learned his lesson a little sooner, but as it happened, not only did his epiphany take place very late in the game, it also came across to me as one of those “too little, too late” kind of deals. His change of heart toward Wulfstan in the end – especially his romantic feelings for him – suffers from what I felt was a certain hollowness despite his sincere expressions of love. Much of the time the two spent together, after all, involved his rejection of poor Wulfstan for the reasons I gave, and the end seemed too quickly and tidily sorted out.

That said, it’s still a beautifully written book that’s well worth the time and effort walking through a dark dreamscape of sorts. It can be a challenging read to some, but I’d recommend this book if you’re looking for something outside your comfort zone.








You can buy The Reluctant Berserker here:

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3 Stars, Bottom Drawer Publications, Fairy Tale/Mythology/Folk Lore, L.J. LaBarthe, Reviewed by Rena

Review: Mythica by L.J. LaBarthe

Title: Mythica

Author: L.J. LaBarthe

Publisher: Bottom Drawer Publications

Pages/Word Count: 235 Pages

Rating: 3 Stars

Blurb: Caiden Jones is part-selkie and lives an idyllic life by the sea in South Australia. He’s had his fair share of disappointments, like being kept out of the Navy due to his mythica status, but overall he’s got a pretty good life. Until he’s in the wrong place at the right time. Continue reading

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3 Stars, Historical Romance, Literary Fiction, Owen Keehnen, Reviewed by Rena, Wilde City Press

Review: Springtime 1962, The Lawson YMCA by Owen Keehnen

Title: Springtime 1962, The Lawson YMCA

Author: Owen Keehnen

Publisher: Wilde City Press

Pages/Word Count: 72 Pages

Rating: 3 Stars

Blurb: A diary is found in a secondhand bookstore. The narrator opens the dusty cover and discovers that the book is the intimate diary of a man named Joseph. Reading the entries, the narrator is quickly drawn into a passionate gay intergenerational love story of two retail workers in Chicago during the spring of 1962. In his mid 40s, Joseph has worked at a large downtown department store for years. One day a young muscled man in his early 20s named Clint is hired. Later, Joseph sees him again at the Lawson YMCA and realizes that they both live there. Soon the two began spending a great deal of time together, going to movies, working out in the weight room, taking work lunches together in the park, and so on. Soon they fall in love despite the closeted nature of their work and lives. Both men thought the feelings that they have for one another and love they share were impossibilities. In time Joseph learns that Clint harbors a grave secret that threatens their relationship and both of their futures. Will outside forces destroy the magic they have discovered? Continue reading

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5 Stars, Cornelia Grey, Erotica, Reviewed by Rena, Storm Moon Press

Review: Benjamin Pepperwhistle and the Fantabulous Circus of Wonders by Cornelia Grey

Title: Benjamin Pepperwhistle and the Fantabulous Circus of Wonders

Author: Cornelia Grey

Publisher: Storm Moon Press

Pages/Word Count: 65 Pages

Rating: 5 Stars

Blurb: Benjamin Pepperwhistle has one overriding desire: to handle the glorious machinery that is a gun. So when he decides to run away to join the circus, it’s only natural that he should seek out the legendary pistoleer, Cole Beauchamp, and beg to be his assistant. Life in the circus has definite ups and downs, but as Benjamin settles in to his role, he finds that some perks are even better than he’d anticipated. Continue reading

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3.5 Stars, Historical Romance, Nico Jaye, Reviewed by Rena, Self-Published, Short Story

Review: A Time for Loving by Nico Jaye

Title: A Time for Loving

Author: Nico Jaye

Publisher: Self-Published

Pages/Word Count: 26 Pages

Rating: 3.5 Stars

Blurb: Jack and Christopher have made it through years of campaigning and the horrors of Waterloo together–side by side by day and, by night, in each other’s arms. After the war is over, however, will the love shared between this batman and his officer survive when Christopher returns to the life of a gentleman? Continue reading

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4 Stars, Historical Romance, Loose Id, Lydia Gastrell, Reviewed by Rena

Review: One Indulgence by Lydia Gastrell

Title: One Indulgence

Author: Lydia Gastrell

Publisher: Loose Id

Pages/Word Count: 252 Pages

Rating: 4 Stars

Blurb: When Henry Cortland, the Earl of Brenleigh, comes to London to fulfill his duty and take a wife, he also decides to first fulfill his most secret and suppressed desires. He wants to spend just one night with a man. A sultry encounter with a handsome stranger surpasses all his hopes, leaving him certain that he will live off the memories for the rest of his life. Continue reading

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4 Stars, Elin Gregory, Historical Romance, Literary Fiction, Love Lane Books, Reviewed by Rena

Review: A Taste of Copper by Elin Gregory

Title: A Taste of Copper

Author: Elin Gregory

Publisher: Love Lane Books

Pages/Word Count: 71 Pages

Rating: 4 Stars

Blurb: Your master has the field for today, but his name, whatever it might be, is without honour.

Olivier the squire worships the Black Knight and takes a fierce joy in his prowess as he defends a bridge against all comers. Olivier only wishes that his master loved him as much in return instead of treating him as a servant and occasional plaything. Continue reading

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5 Stars, Alexis Hall, Historical Romance, Reviewed by Rena, Riptide Publishing, Steampunk

Review: Prosperity by Alexis Hall

Title: Prosperity

Author: Alexis Hall

Publisher: Riptide Publishing

Pages/Word Count: 190 Pages

Rating: 5 Stars

Blurb: A breathtaking tale of passion and adventure in the untamed skies!

Prosperity, 1863: a lawless skytown where varlets, chancers, and ne’er-do-wells risk everything to chase a fortune in the clouds, and where a Gaslight guttersnipe named Piccadilly is about to cheat the wrong man. This mistake will endanger his life . . . and his heart. Continue reading

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5 Stars, Bold Strokes Books, Historical Romance, Literary Fiction, Reviewed by Rena, Richard Natale

Review: Junior Willis by Richard Natale

Title: Junior Willis

Author: Richard Natale

Publisher: Bold Strokes Books

Pages/Word Count: 84 Pages

Rating: 5 Stars

Blurb: From the moment he leaves the Midwest in the early 1950s, Tom Larson is forced to confront his sexual and romantic desires at every turn. His awakening begins in Korea where he has an affair with his commanding officer. On a trip to pre-Castro Havana with his then fiancée, he embarks on a star-crossed romance with a young Cuban zealot. In Los Angeles, during the life-altering summer of 1969, Tom, now a successful film/TV writer, is consumed by shame by his unrequited love for Junior Willis, a handsome young man who taunts him with vivid tales of heterosexual prowess. Tom’s tortured journey from self-loathing to self-acceptance and happiness mirrors the slow but steady evolution of gay consciousness from the post-War War II years to Stonewall. But when he finally stops questioning his nature and his yearning for affection, love finds its way to Tom’s doorstep. Continue reading

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5 Stars, Historical Romance, KJ Charles, Paranormal Romance, Reviewed by Rena, Samhain Publishing

Review: Flight of Magpies by KJ Charles

Title: Flight of Magpies

Author: KJ Charles

Publisher: Samhain Publishing

Pages/Word Count: 212 Pages

Rating: 5 Stars

Blurb: Danger in the air. Lovers on the brink.

A Charm of Magpies: Book 3

With the justiciary understaffed, a series of horrifying occult murders to be investigated, and a young student who is flying – literally – off the rails, magical law enforcer Stephen Day is under increasing stress. And his relationship with his aristocratic lover, Lord Crane, is beginning to feel the strain. Continue reading

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