Monday, December 15, 2014

Hilcia's Minis: Downfall & Best Gay Stories 2014

DOWNFALL by Rob Thurman

Downfall is the 9th installment of Rob Thurman's Leandros Brothers urban fantasy series. I was supposed to review this with my fellow bloggers Leslie and Nath at Breezing Through. Unfortunately, unexpected circumstances interfered with our plans. Instead, here are my random impressions on the book:

Good Things:
1) I love that Robin Goodfellow's witty, self-aggrandizing, vain point of view is finally utilized as part of the narration in Downfall. It's about time. Fabulous!
2) Cal's inner monster seems to be in a mellow mood just as his physical self is changing into the monster. I found him to be more human, balanced, and dare I say mature (?) than before. It shows amazing character growth for Cal.
3) Niko's fears, as well as his vulnerabilities, are exposed through Goodfellows point of view. That's a big like for me. Niko is further humanized in this installment because the reader doesn't see him from Cal's idolizing eyes or from his own harsh judgmental ones. Goodfellow sees Niko and Cal as they are with both flaws and virtues: virtues in their flaws, and flaws in their virtues. :)
4) Robin and Ishia's relationship and true feelings for each other are touched on. I like that Ishia as a niggling mystery is finally resolved. Another big like.

Problems:
1) I don't love the introspective, stream of thought style used for Cal's narrative.
2) Introspection trumps action.
3)This introspection is used as a vehicle to remind readers of past events, however, it makes this installment repetitive. Cal's narrative is composed of reminisces about all the previous cases, monsters, and scrapes that he, Niko and Goodfellow investigated and survived in previous installments. As a result, the usual relentless action suffers, slowing the pace at the beginning to a crawl, and to a lesser degree throughout the rest of the novel.

Closing Threads:
1) Thurman closes threads, or seems to, in this installment. She circles back to Delilah, the Vigil, Grimm, and the Auphe. Are these threads really closed? I believe so, unless Thurman comes up with something else. Personally I hope she is done with the Auphe.
2) Additionally, Thurman further explores reincarnation to close threads and reinforce friendship, and the brotherhood theme in this UF series.
3) There is a sense that this is the end to the series -- that, or the series is about to veer in a different direction. Old characters return to give this book that end of series atmosphere. Good or bad? We will have to wait and find out.

Overall, in my opinion, Goodfellow's point of view carries most of Downfall. However, although Cal's sections are repetitive and the introspective, stream of thought style cuts down on the action, the character's maturity or sense of growth keeps the reader interested. This a solid installment with a great ending. And you know what? If it turns out that Downfall is the end, I would be satisfied.
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BEST GAY STORIES 2014 ed. Steve Berman


New York City. Moscow. Guanajuato. Pelion. A nameless suburb that could be found down any street. Trysts, old flames, pulp tales. Gay men are neither confined by locale nor are their stories. The 2014 volume of Best Gay Stories features essays, fiction and memoirs that encompass the myriad experiences gay life has to offer: from the insecurity and longings of youth to the complacency and nostalgia that comes with age. Along the way readers will discover themselves captivated by moments of discontent, of strife, and of revelation.

The above summary reflects the anthology's content. The settings are very different from one piece to another as are the stories. However, my deepest impression of this year's "best of" anthology is that it reflects the current trend in gay fiction and non-fiction -- that of dissecting or exploring recent gay history.
"It was always sad leaving Manhattan. He looked back through the dirty train window at the city, and then rested his head against the seat and closed his eyes. There was nothing to look forward to. He could not help Miles. He was lucky to have escaped himself." "There's a Small Hotel" by Andrew Holleran
Halloran's short story is an excellent example of one man stuck in the past while another revisits his old lifestyle and struggles not to get caught up reliving that tempting cycle. Tommi Avicolli Mecca's biographical essay, "Ma Tu Sei Pazzo?!" (Are you nuts?!), best exemplifies the thrust of this anthology with a look at the past and present with thoughts on how those events may affect the LGBT community's future as a whole.

The 2014 edition of Steve Berman's Best Gay Stories is composed of fiction, essays and memoirs by 20 gay writers, playwrights, activists, and teachers whose diverse contributions of previously printed short works make this collection an eclectic feast. My recommendation is to set some time aside to read and enjoy this anthology.

Contributors: Michael Alenyikov, Richard Bowes, Michael Carroll, Lou Dellaguzzo, Michael Thomas Ford, L.A. Fields , Guy Mark Foster, James Gifford, Trebor Healy, Andrew Halloran, Ed Kurtz, Dmitry Kuzmin, Tommi Avicolli Mecca, Sam J. Miller, James Powers-Black, Jason Schneiderman, Max Steele, Stefen Styrsky, Josef Winkler, Mario Alberto Zambrano

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Both books are 2014 releases read in their entirety before December -- Downfall by Rob Thurman in September 2014 and Best Gay Stories 2014 ed. by Steve Berman in May 2014. My minis are based on notes, impressions, and drafts prepared for reviews.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Hilcia's Minis: Provoked, Beguiled, Enlightened by Joanna Chambers

Provoked is a great read on a few different levels. The two main characters are conflicted and therefore intriguing. There's a high level of chemistry and the sexual tension between them is off the charts throughout the story. David with his naive honesty comes off as a bit of a prig, but a lovely one. Murdo is more worldly and outwardly a bit of a cynic, but his passion just burns. They are each right and wrong and although there is not a "happy ever after" or even a "happy for now" ending to this book, Chambers sets up this slowly developing romance perfectly for the second installment. Edinburgh as the main setting gives this book a unique atmosphere. I particularly like how Joanna Chambers uses historical facts from the Radical War in this first installment. It is always a pleasure to read a historical romance where "history" is both well researched and well incorporated. Highly recommended. (Samhain Publishing, July 2013)

After reading Provoked, I couldn't resist and immediately picked up Beguiled.


Provoked hooked me on this series, but with Beguiled I fell in love with the characters. Two years later during King George IV's first visit to Edinburgh, Murdo and David meet again, and the passion between them is scorching! Chambers uses those two years of separation as the basis for character growth. David is still honest and straight forward but now open to what Murdo has to offer. Murdo's passion for David is palpable but tenderness also becomes an obvious, beguiling factor that goes along with the rest. The historical details are just as good in Beguiled as they were in the first installment. Chambers brings back secondary characters from Provoked and, by utilizing David's friend Elizabeth's bad marriage, develops a side story focusing on women's lack of rights and/or choices during that period in time. Additionally, pomp and ceremony details from King George IV's first visit to Edinburgh are featured as background. Sensuality is on the high end of the scale with many more bedroom scenes than in Provoked. The end to Beguiled is dramatic and keeps the reader in tenterhooks wondering how things will work out in the end for Murdo and David. Highly recommended. (Samhain Publishing, December 2013)


After reading Beguiled, I immediately downloaded Enlightened.

Enlightened focuses on David and Murdo. It gives the characters the together time and space to work out the remaining conflicts in the slow-burn of a relationship that was ignited in Provoked and burst into flame in Beguiled. That slow burn has evolved into a passionate attachment that neither man will name but both feel. For David it is all about his inner doubts, but for Murdo the conflicts come from personal mistakes and an outside source. Chambers uses multiple settings for this book. It all begins in Laverock House, Murdo's estate in Perthshire, Scotland where David has been recuperating from his injuries, briefly moves on to Edinburgh, and goes on to London where both men have business to attend to. David must contact Elizabeth and Euan to warn them of possible danger, while Murdo has unknown business with his father. In this last book of the Enlightenment trilogy, there are secrets and revelations that affect the growing love and trust between our main characters. But really the main thrust of this story is about the characters allowing themselves to finally grasp that elusive happiness. The pacing is inconsistent with a slow start that picks up after a while and stays true to the end. It is really tough to find a workable or believable resolution in m/m historical romances, however, Chambers finds her way around those problematic points quite well. Both characters surrender important parts of their lives to achieve happiness, but in the end Murdo and David get the beautiful life they deserve. Together. Recommended. (Samhain Publishing, May 2014)

Of the three books Provoked and Beguiled are my favorite, with Enlightened dragging a bit, but still coming in as a solid read by providing all the right answers. Overall, Enlightenment is a great m/m historical romance trilogy with excellent atmosphere and historical research, and a romance that is memorable for the author's fabulous use of sexual tension and sensuality to build-up a relationship that begins with a sexual encounter between strangers and ends with a fantastic happy ever after. Highly recommended.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Reading Habits: Thoughts On Introductions

Do you read introductions to books, anthologies and/or collections? Editor Steve Berman posits that question in the introduction to his Wilde Stories 2014 anthology. He wonders if readers read introductions at all. This query interested me because somewhere in my vast accumulated list of drafts there is an unfinished post with the title: "Introductions: Hook or Deal Breaker?" Personally, I find that introductions often anchor books, anthologies, and collections.

A good introduction is often the "hook" driving me to read on. If not well written, however, an introduction becomes a detriment. I have encountered quite a few introductions that bored the heck out of me, and others where the editor's theme choice for an anthology or collection turned me off. The result in both cases is unfair to the contributors but always the same: I place the book aside and don't give the stories a chance. Then there are those collections that leave me floundering and wondering what the editor intended when gathering the stories because there is no foreword, introduction, or afterword. In that case curiosity almost always gets the best of me and I read on, but whether I finish the book or not depends on writing, flow, and how well the stories fit together.

Of course I have read introductions that are so memorable they are intrinsically edged in my mind along with the collection's content. Here are some examples:

  • Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's introduction to the mammoth collection The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories with its extensive narrative has an educational style covering the history and evolution of 'the weird' beginning with H.P. Lovecraft, Kafka, Borges and others and ending with today's modern version or 'the new weird.' This introduction is worth reading prior to tackling the fantastic content even if the reader is familiar with the history.
  • A similar educational style can be found in the fabulous anthology edited by Grace L. Dillon, Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction in that it also gives the  chronological and evolutionary history of contributions by indigenous writers to science fiction.   However, this introduction is presented in the dry, dense format often found in textbooks. This style is not for everyone, but since I was not well-versed on the subject matter it served as the perfect learning tool. 
  • And, Tom Cardamone's short, well-written introduction to the speculative fiction anthology The Lavender Menace: Tales of Queer Villainy! is a perfect example of an editor who hooks the reader with intent and theme. I not only came to understand what Cardamone wanted to achieve with his collection of stories as a final product, but his introduction kept me focused as I read each story. And isn't that the point?
So yes, I believe introductions are meant to be read, and that a great/fantastic or well-thought out introduction can become key to a successful book, anthology, or single author collection.


Do you read introductions before or after picking up a book? Do you read introductions at all? 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Joining: The 2015 Science Fiction Experience

Space by Stephan Martieniere
Used with permission from the artist
To view complete Portfolio visit artist's website
The Sci-Fi Experience, hosted by Carl V. of Stainless Steel Droppings, has become a favorite yearly event. As in previous years, The 2015 Sci-Fi Experience is a celebration of Science Fiction in all its glory. This is NOT a challenge, but a way to enjoy and share love for the genre. I personally love that it gives me the opportunity to share my enjoyment of Sci-Fi through book, film, and television program discussions.

The fun began on December 1, 2014 and it will end on January 31, 2015. If interested in joining, read more about it here. If you just want to follow reviews, recommendations, and/or commentary, check out the review site where all participants post links to their reviews.

I read some excellent Sci-Fi this past year. However, I still have a stack of books to read. I plan to be realistic and go with the flow and my mood. There is no pressure and I'm hoping this event will help get me excited about reading and blogging regularly again. So let's see how far I get and which books I end up reading. In the meantime, here is my tentative list:

  • A Confederation of Valor Omnibus (Valor's Choice and The Better Part of Valor) by Tanya Huff
  • Star Soldiers by Andre Norton
  • The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Abaddon's Gate (The Expanse #3) by James S.A. Corey
  • Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Thomas Sweterlitsch

I usually watch and comment on at least one science fiction film or television program. Let's see what appeals this year.

Let the fun begin.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

November Reads + Favorites

I hope everyone in the States had a Happy Thanksgiving and holiday weekend with family and loved ones. My monthly reading summary is short. I read a total of 6 books during the month of November. I began a few others that I didn't finish mostly because of poor concentration on my part. The following are the books that kept my attention:

November Total Books: 6
Historical Romance: 2
Science Fiction: 1
LGBT: 3 (Fantasy 1, M/M Mystery Romance 1, M/M Romance 1)

My Favorite Books:
That Door Is a Mischief by Alex Jeffers: A
This gay fantasy about men and fairies obviously hit the spot for me and is an all around winner. Jeffers is an extremely talented writer, hard to resist because he consistently brings on that winning combination of great prose, depth, and imagination to his books.

Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch #2) by Ann Leckie: B+
Ancillary Sword is the follow up to the one of my favorite reads of the year, Ancillary Justice. I particularly love the tight focus that led to further exploration of character and world in this second installment.

A Place Called Harmony by Jodi Thomas: B
If you are familiar with Jodi Thomas's books you know that both her historical and contemporary romances are filled with warmth that leave the reader feeling great. A Place Called Harmony is a western historical romance that leaves the reader satisfied because of the warmth, love and kindness found in the individual characters, as well as the loyalty and strength found in them collectively as community. I enjoyed this book from beginning to end.

Fair Play by Josh Lanyon: B
I became a big fan of Elliot and Tucker after reading Fair Game, one of my Lanyon favorite reads. Fair Play has a good combination of crime mystery and enough emotional battles between Elliot and Tucker to keep their romance interesting. Elliot's issues with control outside the bedroom and his struggles to understand Tucker's tenderness and love continue. Elliot is such an over-sensitive, prickly, contradictory character! The mystery is particularly interesting as it involves Elliot's radical father and his involvement in 60's politics and anti-government activities. Lanyon lays out the differences in belief between father and son, as well as the reasoning behind violent vs. peaceful radicalism during those times. Overall, a solid installment with a wish that this series continues.

Darling Beast (Maiden Lane #7) by Elizabeth Hoyt: B
Darling Beast is a solid, enjoyable historical romance by Elizabeth Hoyt with plenty of heat. One thought that I did not include in my mini-impressions: I'm not sure where Hoyt is going with the Maiden Lane series. The main thrust of the series has shifted it no longer has that dark, heavy atmosphere, or the everyday characters that I so loved in the first few books. It seems that although there are still non-aristocrats as characters, aristocracy wins the day -- Dukes, Viscounts, Ladies. I will continue reading the series, but, will Hoyt return to the troublesome streets and dirty alleys of London? I can only hope that the wonderful atmosphere that initially won me over will return to this series.

There's Something About Ari by L.B. Gregg: C+
I enjoyed this friends-to-lovers m/m romance by L.B. Gregg. This is a good story about a young man whose best friend ran away and returns home after succeeding as an actor. Of course he still lives at the same address and works at the same place -- his future smashed to pieces when his mother died and he had to take care of his young brother. I like the reasoning behind this couple's separation and lack of communication, as well as how this couple of friends come together. I believe that, for me, this story is a bit short and needs that extra LBG pop and sizzle to make it a personal favorite. Overall, an enjoyable read.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

November Minis: Darling Beast & A Place Called Harmony

Historical romances have been sorely missing from my reading menu this year and I miss them. In November I picked up two books by favorite authors.

I began by reading Darling Beast (Maiden Lane #7), by Elizabeth Hoyt. This has been one of my favorite historical romance series for a few years now.


Darling Beast covers the reasons Apollo Greaves, Viscount Kilbourne, ended up temporarily mute after spending time in Bedlam, and solves the crime mystery that placed him there. In the process, Apollo finds the love of his life in actress and playwright Lily Stump (stage name Robin Goodfellow), as well as happiness her child Indio and his dog Daff. Of course it's all more complicated than that, but that's the simple summary.

In Darling Beast, Hoyt combines and balances the developing romance, heat, and crime mystery. With two exceptions, secondary characters do not interfere with the main thrust of this romance. The child Indio and his dog Daff take a bit too much page time and, although cute and adorable, their contribution often comes off over the top cute. I enjoyed the light, humorous beginning to the romance combined with danger from unknown sources. Later it was the passion that develops between Apollo and Lily, and the small clues and red herrings that Hoyt uses to throw off the reader from the finding the real culprit that kept me reading. Surprisingly, of the secondary characters I was most intrigued by the Duke of Montgomery (what makes this guy tick anyway?), instead of the slightly revolting Ira Makepeace. What?

Darling Beast does not stand above other more intensely gratifying books in this series. It is, however, a solid installment with an enjoyable romance, likable characters, and an overall good story.

Maiden Lane Series Reviews: Books #1 through #6

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The second historical romance I picked up in November was A Place Called Harmony by Jodi Thomas.

For true fans of the contemporary Harmony series, A Place Called Harmony is a 'must' read. For readers who do not follow the series, this is a wonderful western historical romance that stands well on its own.

This book is a prequel that basically gives an accounting of how the town of Harmony, Texas was founded by weaving in the dangers plaguing the original trading post, as well as the romances of the three original couples who helped build the town.

The main characters are Captain Gillian and Daisy Matheson, a married couple with four little boys. There is true love but also uncertainty in this relationship between two people who feel they've made the wrong choices for themselves and their boys in the past. Patrick and Annie McAllen are a very sweet, naive young couple running away from abusive lives with their parents. They provide much of the humor, in and out of the sheets, and contribute to the overall sense of community and warmth. The romance between Clint and Karrisa Truman is the slowest to build and therefore has the most tension and biggest payoff at the end. Clint's hard shell and Karrisa's mysterious stint in jail add interest, but the trust-building and tenderness between them become the clincher. Rounding off the cast of characters we have the fiercely loyal, silent and highly intelligent Shelly McAllen, Patrick's brother, Momma Roma and her sons, and old Harmon Ely, the man who started it all with a trading post, land, and a dream.

Jodi Thomas's signature writing style is all over this book. You will find family warmth, kindness, loving, loyalty, honesty, and passion, as well as danger and a community that comes together to fight in order to survive. A truly satisfying read.

Contemporary Harmony Series Reviews & Minis 

Monday, November 24, 2014

November Reading: Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

My reading throughout the month of November has been sporadic at best. But, I'm reading which is a good sign. I began reading again by picking up Ancillary Sword, the second book in Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch science fiction trilogy.

As a follow-up to her much lauded Ancillary Justice, it did not disappoint. On the contrary, as her world-building has already been established, Leckie focuses this middle book on the main character, AI Breq/One Esk Nineteen, who has been given her own ship after having been promoted to Fleet Captain.

Through Breq's introspection, as she and her crew are confined to Athoek station and the planet it orbits, Leckie explores questionable social issues previously introduced in Ancillary Justice. These issues have arisen as a result of thousands of years of annexations or colonization by the Imperial Radch and their mandate to absorb planets and civilizations into their own. For example, the author digs deeper into the difference between being human vs. humane. The treatment of colonized civilizations are also explored in depth from the point of view of the conquered as well as their conquerors and the significance of the word "civilized" when applied in this context. This is most significant as the exploration is from the perspective of an "artificial intelligence" unsuccessfully attempting to remain detached. Gender blurring by using the female gender as default continues and in this second installment becomes organic within the narrative making for a smoother read.

The characters are isolated, and whether civil war within the Radch Empire has begun is unknown at this point as most of the plot is confined to a closed space. As a result the pacing is slower than in Ancillary Justice with sporadic action scenes. The slower pace and tight focus serve to strengthen the central character, as well as to give readers a better understanding of the Radch Empire, its weaknesses and strengths. The split viewpoint experienced in the first book through One Esk as an ancillary has not been entirely eliminated, instead it has transitioned and smoothed over.

The strong interpersonal relationships established by Leckie in Ancillary Justice are somewhat lacking in Ancillary Sword as those characters do not play a significant role in this story -- Seivarden Vendaai in particular is sorely missed due to her small role in this piece and lack of interaction with Breq. The high emotions between the new characters, however, are present and although Breq struck me as more of an AI in this installment than she did in Ancillary Justice, the depth of her humanity is blatantly displayed. A contradiction, I know, but true. Breq's bonding with her ship and crew is particularly notable.

What comes next? It seems that aliens may become a factor, as will ancillaries of some sort. Like Breq? We won't know the answer to those questions until the third book. Many of the questions raised in the first book remain unresolved. I do know that I won't miss the end of this magnificent trilogy.

Related Review and Post:
Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch #1) by Ann Leckie
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie: Reread Impressions -- Interpersonal Relationships

Thursday, November 20, 2014

...On That Door Is a Mischief by Alex Jeffers


Growing up in rural Massachusetts, Liam Shea is very well aware of being different from other high school students. It's not just having a gay dad that draws the bullies' attention. For Liam is not an ordinary earthbound, timebound boy but a fairy. An ethereal creature with great glowing golden eyes, dragonfly wings between his shoulders, and an allergy to cold iron. When an emissary from fairyland opens a magical door, teenage Liam chooses not to accept the seductive invitation of the unchanging lands, not to abandon his loving father as he was abandoned by his own kind.

How will a fairy live in the twenty-first century (and beyond), seeking balance between inconstant mortal concerns and his own nature? A fairy's nature is not to change. Or is it? In the human world of bullies and best friends and lovers, perhaps not. The door to the twilit country will open again, the airs of his native place call, the whims and instincts of his own folk ensnare him. Few choices there are any person - even a fairy - may face only once.


"That door is a mischief," said the house in fairyland, "and my heart is sorrowful for your troubles."

There is beauty and sorrow in this tale. The fantasy and the reality in Alex Jeffers' world of men and fairies merge into one until the reader becomes immersed in his characters' lives -- pieces of life reflecting the passing of time as they encounter the light, dark, and all the grey areas in between, including love, passion, and loss.

Key to this fantasy is the door which becomes a symbol for choices and a bridge between an ever evolving world and an unchanging one, between the person born and the one he chooses to be, the families we are born to and the ones we choose for ourselves. Most of all, at the heart of this story there is a sense of giving and coming to understand the depths and realities of love.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Minis: An American Duchess & The Forever Watch

An American Duchess by Sharon Page

This historical romance set in both England and the United States, a few years after World War I, is a solid read but expect a two-part sort of read, first filled with passion and then with angst. The tension leading to the romance between the main protagonists ends about half way through the book when they marry after falling in love. This romantic section is very much what might be expected of a historical novel with that immediate dislike/attraction between a modern, independent, headstrong American woman and a conservative English aristocrat. It leads to some pretty passionate scenes and eventually to a promising future. The second part of the story focuses mainly on the aftereffects of war and how the male protagonist's PTSD affects the marriage. Page's characters describe PTSD as it was viewed in those times, as war madness and other less than acceptable terms used to describe it. The problematic issues that arise between this couple are not instantly resolved and I like that about this book. There are, however, what I think of as over-the-top Hollywood scenes toward the end that interfered negatively with the intimacy between the protagonists. Overall, however, a solid historical with good World War I background.

The Forever Watch by David Ramirez

The Forever Watch is a science fiction story with a mystery at its core. It also contains a romance, alien technology, and the creation of a new AI. It has a familiar world-building with people traveling in a spaceship searching for a new world after Earth is destroyed. Individuals receive implants as children to help them realize their potential in a class conscious society that otherwise has no knowledge of decease, religion, or war. The story is slow to begin and overall  slow to develop. Science is detailed and it is obvious that Ramirez spent much time developing this aspect of the story, however it comes off as convoluted and hard to follow at times. The final few chapters are fantastic, but it was rough getting there. I put down and picked up this book countless times before finishing it. I had to raise my eyebrows at the final "message," if that was the purpose, but this is what I got out of it: those in power keep realities from the masses, for their own good of course, because they wouldn't be able to handle the truth. Hmm. . .