Monday, October 21, 2013

Reading Habits: Moments, Blood & Guts, Cowboys & PI's

I had this post almost ready before the dreaded flu hit me over a week ago now, but it still holds since I've read very little since then. It's a little update on my reading habits, books I'm reading, and books read.
Reading Habits:
Sometimes my reading habits get the best of me and other times they work like clockwork. I read different books at different times during the day. I use my Kindle and iPhone during my commutes to and from work and at lunch time, and read print books at home during the evening and weekends. That means that I'm usually reading multiple books at the same time. It gets crazy sometimes! For example, at the same time I went nuts reading gay cowboy romances and an entire mystery series, in print and in my Kindle I was reading contemporary fiction, literary fiction and other books that I don't often review here.

In a previous post, I mentioned that I am reading Dear Life, the last collection of short stories by Alice Munro. In this book, Munro captures what seem like ordinary moments that change people's (mostly women's) lives. Sometimes the decisions that lead to those changes seem... mundane, but turn out to be life altering. Not all the stories are working for me on the same level, but one thing I can say about Munro, with few words she can pack a lifetime of information in a short story.

Blood & Guts:
I am also in the process of reading Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, one of the most gruesomely violent books I've ever read. The writing is fantastic -- sparse, tight, yet so freaking descriptive. It's like he punches you with words one minute and just lulls you with beauty the next. The worse part of it, and the most effective, is when the beauty of his words calmly and nonchalantly describe the horror and violence that humans achieve without even trying. Mr. McCarthy's perspective of the human condition and the lack of humanity in his portrayal of the historical American West is turning out to be rather daunting.

Blood & Guts - A Legal Battle: 
I also just began reading Gilbert King's Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner for general nonfiction. I am not too far into this book yet, but I can relate a little bit of information on it. So far I'm struck by Gilbert King's excellent creative nonfiction style of writing -- this book reads more like a novel, and it is not a dry accounting of events. The book begins with a brief accounting of landmark cases that Thurgood Marshall argued in Southern Courts and before the U.S. Supreme Court beginning and after the mid-1940's when he served as counsel for the NAACP during the Jim Crow South era. He is best known for his 1951 win Brown v. Board of Education, which brought about the desegregation of public schools, and for serving as Justice of the Supreme Court, the first black man to do so. However, this book specifically focuses on one of Marshall's less known cases, the 1949 Florida case known as the Groveland Boys.
Anyway, before the flu got me, I was reading like a machine. For example, this month I finished a crazy reading spree of contemporary western M/M romances. Don't ask me why, except that I love westerns and while reading one book something began to bug me, so I decided to do some comparison reading and went on an unexpected marathon.

As I moved along from one book to another, I realized that what was bugging me was that the core of these westerns all seem to have "required" points. There is the closeted cowboy or rancher who struggles to make the tough decision to come out of the closet when that one man shows up in their lives, the requisite homophobes, and the other closeted gay cowboys who pop out of the woodwork and are always lying in wait to give support and advice when needed. This sounds cynical, I know, but as a reader, this trend just hit me as a "truly tired" plot device. I read five books in a row and all hit the above mentioned points, as have many other contemporary western M/M romances I've read before. After a while I stopped making notes and just wrote a few lines about what was different. There is always the matter of different writing styles, and a different angle thrown here and there.

In Heart of a Cowboy by Z.A. Maxfield, I enjoyed the writing and the fact that the main character is honest with himself, his lover, and those around him. In Long Tall Drink by L.C. Chase, story trumps sex and both main characters are given backgrounds that are explored and used to develop the overall story and romantic conflict. In Pickup Men by L.C. Chase, a frustrating read, the fact that the story begins with the couple breaking up is rather unique. But the most interesting aspect of this piece is that Chase incorporates two different perspectives dealing with the consequences that arise from sending young gay men to "rehabilitation camps." And, in No Going Home and Duncan's World, T.A. Chase focuses his novels on fathers who physically abuse their sons, and psychologically lost young men who need and look for "daddies" in their lovers and require their support in order to come out of the closet.

On my iPhone, I read the first book of Marshall Thornton's Nick Nowack Mystery series, Boystown: Three Nick Nowack Mysteries. This is a series that my friend Indigene highly recommended to me because she knows how much I love good LGBT mysteries. I fell in love with the gritty central character Nick, the 1980's Chicago setting, Mr. Thornton's pared down writing, and the book format. The book is separated into three sections with titles (novellas), each with a mystery solved by Nick, but the overall storyarc focuses on Nick's personal life and the recurring characters give the book (and overall series) continuity.

This is a great first book with wonderful mysteries that hooked me and a fantastic, rather captivating, ex-cop turned PI whose prolific sexual escapades mask the heartbreak of losing the ex-lover who shoved him out of the closet resulting in the loss of both his family and job with the Chicago PD. I liked the first book so much that I ended up reading the entire Nick Nowack Mystery series up to the latest release, including Little Boy Dead: A Boystown Prequel, Boystown 2: Three Nick Nowak Mysteries, Boystown 3: Two Nick Nowak Mysteries, Boystown 4: Time for Secrets, and Boystown 5: Murder Book. I became so invested in Nick that frankly, I can't wait to find out where Thornton takes this character as well as some secondary characters I've become attached to -- particularly since we know some of what is coming and after the heartbreaking events in Murder Book.
What Else?:
I've finished a few books since I began writing this post, The Tilted World by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly, a historical fiction/romance book set in 1927 during the Mississippi Flood (Kindle ed.), The Padișah's Son and the Fox by Alex Jeffers, a Turkish erotic fairy tale (Print ed.), and 'Nathan Burgoine's debut full-length novel Light, a combination superhero action/adventure romance, with strong spec-fic elements (Kindle ed.).

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Alice Munro: A Prize & An Excerpt

Just last week, my brother A. and I were discussing short stories and great short story writers over drinks, and I told him that the older I get, the more I seem to love and appreciate both. He and I share the love. So, here I am smack in the middle of reading Alice Munro's last book, Dear Life, and first thing this morning he wakes me up (early!) with a text to let me know that Ms. Munro won the 2013 Nobel Prize in literature. Needless to say we were both excited by the news.

Alice Munro is a Canadian author born in the southwestern Ontario area, a setting she uses in most of her stories. Her writing and works are admired and have been widely recognized. The Academy's announcement for the Nobel Prize calls her a "master of the contemporary short story." Peter Englund, permanent secretary for the academy told The Associated Press that, "She has taken an art form, the short story, which has tended to come a little bit in the shadow behind the novel, and she has cultivated it almost to perfection"

Since I am reading Dear Life at the moment, I'd like to share a short, rather interesting excerpt* from Munro's short story,"To Reach Japan."

Greta should have realized that this attitude -- hands off, tolerant -- was a blessing for her, because she was a poet, and there were things in her poems that were in no way cheerful or easy to explain.

(Peter's mother and the people he worked with -- those who knew about it -- still said poetess. She had trained him not to. Otherwise, no training necessary. The relatives she had left behind in her life, and the people she knew now in her role as a housewife and mother, did not have to be trained because they knew nothing about this peculiarity.)

It would become hard to explain, later on in her life, just what was okay in that time and what was not. You might say, well, feminism was not. But then you would have to explain that feminism was not even a word people used. Then you would get all tied up saying that having any serious idea, let alone ambition, or maybe even reading a real book, could be seen as suspect, having something to do with your child's getting pneumonia, and a political remark at an office party might have cost your husband his promotion. It would not have mattered which political party either. It was a woman's shooting off her mouth that did it.

People would laugh and say, Oh surely you are joking and you would have to say, Well, but not that much. Then she would say, one thing, though, was that if you were writing poetry it was somewhat safer to be a woman than a man. That was where the word poetess came in handy, like a web of spun sugar.

Copyright, 2013 Alice Munro

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Wicked Deeds of Daniel Mackenzie (Highland Pleasures #6) by Jennifer Ashley

Daniel Mackenzie. Slow goodness. What a sexy, sweet, man our Daniel turned out to be! Ashley outdid herself with this Mackenzie character. Of course, Daniel has the advantage of having been developed and loved, as a character throughout the whole series. More than just sexy, Daniel is a sensualist who enjoys life to its fullest.

With the romance between Daniel and his Violet, Ashley moves this series to that exciting period in time when motorcars, balloons, and mechanical inventions were just beginning to make an impact and spiritualists were all the rage in many of the best salons in Europe. Both Daniel and Violet are an integral part of both worlds. Daniel with his keen, obsessive mind is an inventor, and Violet is part of a spiritualist team along with her mother, but she also has a knack for understanding and creating her own mechanical inventions. Daniel is attracted to Violet physically, but her mind is what really hooks him.

Daniel and Violet fall for each other pretty early in their journey to happiness. The main conflicts arise from terrible past experiences that Violet survived only by running away. but has not been able to overcome. She remains a partially broken woman who needs healing. And that is where Daniel comes in, not to save the day (although he tries) but to show Violet that she has the strength to deal with the past and to move on with her life. They are a wonderful pair, Daniel with his easy, charming ways and wonderful laugh, and Violet with her deep need to understand what honesty means, what it is to feel safe, to be truly cared for, loved, and understood.

The plot follows an interesting path, taking the reader from London to Marseille, back to England, going on to a climactic scene in Paris, and a final epilogue in Scotland. The Mackenzie family as a whole is intricately involved in Daniel's life and in his romantic adventure. I love how he deals with his whole family as they interfere with his life. He listens and is loving in his dealings with all of them, and then. . . takes off and does his own thing. Daniel has their number. He knows Ian won't sell him out to the rest of the family... so he's the best confidant. So yes, Ian, more so than his father Cameron, plays a role in helping Daniel find happiness.

Was there anything that did not entirely work for me? Well, there were two moments too many of near-death and survival that didn't quite work for me. Daniel's role as an avenger toward the end just... troubled me, and the appearance of Fellows came out of nowhere! I was. . . surprised by his participation in this storyline. Really, I was! However, the rest of the book was delightful, with excellent inner and outer conflicts that are satisfactorily resolved and, more than just sexual, some wonderful sensual scenes between Daniel and Violet. So, yes, The Wicked Deeds of Daniel Mackenzie is one of my favorite books of the series.

Category: Historical Romance
Series: Highland Pleasures
Publisher/Release Date: Berkley Sensation/October 1, 2013
Grade: B+

The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie, # 1
Lady Isabella's Scandalous Marriage, #2
The Many Sins of Lord Cameron, # 3
The Duke's Perfect Wife, #4
A Mackenzie Family Christmas: The Perfect Gift, #4.5
The Seduction of Elliot McBride, #5
The Untamed Mackenzie (Highland Pleasures #5.5)
The Wicked Deeds of Daniel Mackenzie, #6

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Halloween Reads: Creepy, Disturbing UF/Fantasy/LGBT/Spec Fic & Horror!

It's October. Time for reading the spooky and disturbing. I have a stack of books that I have been reading or checking out -- not a Stephen King book in sight either... but we all already know he's the King! My list is a combination of books that have an edge of the dark stuff, and others that are made of darkness. You may or may not have heard of them, but what they all have in common is that they are all great reads!

URBAN FANTASY AND FANTASY with an edge and a dash of the dark stuff. If you don't like too much of the creepy stuff that comes with horror but enjoy a bit of edge, urban fantasy, and fantasy can provide that. The following is a list of books I highly enjoyed, beginning with a few I read recently:
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (Novel 2013, Fantasy) - An adult fairy tale with the Gaiman magic and a darker, more adult plot at its core. There are some pretty disturbing scenes in this fairy tale, and not all of them come from the magic-side of things.
Written in Red by Anne Bishop (Novel, 2013 - Fantasy) - This fantasy piece has some fantastically gruesome shifters! I mean these are not cookie cutter vampires or shifters. The story has darkness and edge with a dash of warmth and humor providing balance. A great beginning to a new fantasy series by Ms. Bishop.
Omens (Cainsville #1) by Kelley Armstrong (Novel, 2013 - Urban Fantasy) - Omens is the beginning of a new urban fantasy series by Armstrong. However, the fantasy aspects of the story are a bit blunted in the first book, but overall the story is definitely unsettling -- more of a suspense read with light paranormal elements and an edgy flavor.
Bone and Jewel Creatures by Elizabeth Bear (Novella, 2010 - Fantasy) This novella with necromancy as a central theme is gorgeously dark. It also serves as a sort of prequel to Elizabeth Bear's Eternal Sky fantasy series.

In Search Of and Others by Will Ludwigsen (Collection 2013, Speculative Fiction) is one of the best collections of speculative fiction short stories I read this past year. It has those disturbing, unsettling pieces, and the ones that just make you think and wonder.
The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Doctor Spencer Black by E.B. Hudspeth (Illustrated Book, 2013 - Speculative Fiction/Horror) is one of the most creative pieces I read this year. This book has some magnificent illustrations and a very short story about Doctor Spencer Black, separate they are a curiosity, together they become a uniquely gruesome experience.
Fungi edited by Orrin Grey and Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Anthology, 2012 - Speculative Fiction/Horror) I began reading Fungi last year, finished it in 2013, and never reviewed it. It's a shame because this is such a great collection. I have favorite pieces that are stuck in my mind as if I read them yesterday, either because they're disturbing or downright unique. Two quick examples: "Last Bloom on the Sage by Andrew Penn Romine" is a memorable short with fantastic characters, world building, action and a plot that combines western steampunk with mushroom weirdness. And, in "Midnight Mushrumps by W. H. Pugmire" the beginning reads like a dream that quickly gains the atmosphere of a dark fairy tale and veers off into a dank, fungi infested, horror-filled nightmare.

READING: Moving on to a list of books I'm reading at the moment, you will find everything from the mild to pure unadulterated horror!
Still Life with Murder (Gilded Age Mystery #1) by P. B. Ryan (2003 Historical Mystery/Suspense) I saw a recommendation for this book at Li's site Me and My Books and decided to check it out. I'm already 25% through the book. It is set in the midst of aristocratic Boston during the Civil War and the main character is an Irish immigrant. It has an upstairs/downstairs sort of flavor with scenes that range from posh settings to the Bostonian Irish ghettos. I'm really liking it. Not a horror or speculative fiction read, but definitely a good mystery so far.
The Dust of Wonderland by Lee Thomas (2013, Novel Rerelease - LGBT Speculative Fiction/Horror) This story, set in New Orleans, is all about atmosphere and suspense. Lee Thomas always keeps me at the edge of my seat, and that's exactly what happened as soon as I began reading the prologue. I'm about 25% through the book and will let you know how it turns out. Mr. Thomas is an author whose works I absolutely, positively recommend if you want to read excellent spec-fic/suspense/horror that has a deeper, more meaningful subplot at its core. He does not disappoint.
Zombies: Shambling through the Ages ed. by Steve Berman (2013, Anthology - Horror) I am reading this collection at the moment. I am enjoying the creative way zombies are portrayed by the different authors, some of them are quite unusual. The book is divided in such a way that it more or less gives a history of the zombie, so the stories follow a fascinating progression. I was really hooked by the first short story "Blood Marker by Victoria Janssen," which almost serves as a sort of introduction to the Before Lazarus section and sets up a precedent for the uniqueness that follows.
I have more! My list was rather long this year, but I paired it down to ten which was not easy. I also have a "want to read" list and TBR pile that is a mile long. Do you read spooky stories, mysteries or crime suspense during October? What books do you recommend?

2012 Halloween Recs
2012 Xtra Scary Recs
2011 Halloween Reads

Friday, October 4, 2013

September 2013 Recap: Books Read + Minis

I am in the middle of what I am calling an "Indescribably Severe Period of Blogger's Fatigue." I'm half-way through my fifth year of blogging, and it has been seven years (or is it eight) since I've been hanging around the blogosphere. Perhaps it's the seven year itch and I just need a little pick-me up. Someone prepare a strong and refreshing mint julep for me, please!

Anyway, here are my reads for September 2013:

Total Books Read: 18
Contemporary: 1 (YA Fiction)
Historical: 1 (Romance)
Urban Fantasy: 10
Fantasy: 4 (Historical Fantasy Fiction: 2)
LGBT: 2 (Gay Fiction: 1, M/M Romance: 1)

Top 3 Reads of the month:

Desire: Tales of New Orleans by William Sterling Walker: A
I loved this book so much that I read it twice. You can read my review, but let me tell you... I had to retrain myself! This book is so gorgeous, I had enough notes and quotes to write a saga instead of a review. I can't believe I missed this collection in 2012.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman: A-
This is a fantastic adult fairy tale. I can't recommend it enough to lovers of fantasy as a "must read."
Ashes of Honor (October Daye #6) by Seanan McGuire: A-
After reading the whole October Daye series by Seanan McGuire, this book was definitely my favorite. It is the one book of the series where everything came together and worked for me: Toby, the plot, the relationships, and the world-building.
One Salt Sea (October Daye #5) by Seanan McGuire: B+
I love the additional world-building in One Salt Sea. McGuire's inclusion of the Undersea Faerie Folk was fantastic. The revelations about the Luidaeg's history was a definite plus. And, this book has one of the funniest scenes as well as some of the saddest of the whole series. I was kind of relieved that some characters were finally disposed of and that decisions that needed to be made were faced by Toby.
The House of Impossible Loves by Cristina Lopez Barrio: B
This Latin American style magical realism yarn has teeth and challenges comfort zones with a few taboo subjects, love, angst, some truly hateful characters, and a gorgeous historical setting. Not for everyone.
Cry Wolf (Alpha & Omega #1) by Patricia Briggs: B
I thoroughly enjoyed this tale of werewolves and witches. Briggs's world-building is quite attractive and I liked the characters much more in this book than in the introductory novella, On the Prowl. However, I feel that without reading that novella, this book would be incomplete as it really explains Anna's psychological state of mind and how Charles came into her life. A solid read!
The Untamed Mackenzie by Jennifer Ashley: B
The lovely romance between detective Chief Inspector Lloyd Fellows and Lady Louisa Scranton is a novella. It contains passion and a wonderful crime mystery. I enjoyed getting to know Fellows while he yearned for his Louisa, and wished that there had been more page time when it ended.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green: B
This was our Internet Book Club choice for the month of September. The Fault in Our Stars is not a book I intended to read, but it was recommended by Mariana's young daughter and of course I had to give it a go. If this book were a movie, it would fall under the "tear jerker" category. I found it to be relentlessly sad with three dimensional characters that pulled me in and under until the end. So yes, this is a great read, but I could not help but be relieved when it finally ended. Augustus and Hazel Grace are memorable characters I won't soon forget. A really great book for young adults.
Late Eclipses (October Daye #4) by Seanan McGuire: B
Late Eclipses is the book that was needed to give this series a boost, in my humble opinion. It's filled with great revelations about Toby, her magic, and her mother Amandine that help make sense of what happened in the previous three books. Finally! A solid, solid installment.
Rosemary & Rue (October Daye #1) by Seanan McGuire: B-
Rosemary and Rue begins with a bang, fizzles out, and then picks up with the kind of great world-building that I love and kept me reading this series.
Chimes at Midnight (October Daye #7) by Seanan McGuire: B-
The latest release in the Toby Daye series was a mixed bag for me. The plot felt disjointed and not quite up to snuff, particularly after reading Ashes of Honor #6 -- a much tighter installment. In the end, I found the central theme of the book, pureblood superiority/inferiority with its power or lack of it, disturbing.
Carniepunk Anthology: B-
A dark urban fantasy anthology that is packed with stories that are part of ongoing series, although a few are free standing. I enjoyed enough of them to recommend this as a good October, Halloween read.
An Artificial Night (October Daye #3) by Seanan McGuire: C+
Another book I'm not crazy about, but I liked better than book #2 because characters such as Raj, Tybalt's nephew, are introduced, Quentin's relationship with Toby is further developed as is her relationship with the Luidaeg, plus the excellent fantasy world-building continues.
My Cowboy Heart by Z. A. Maxfield: C+
This was a good M/M Western Romance by ZAM but nothing really unique. This story about a foreman in his 30's who becomes aware that he is gay when a new out and proud gay ranch hand is hired, has been done before. It's not a gay for you story. Anyway, ZAM writes a good contemporary western yarn, better than some others I've read with this same plot device. I'm actually interested in reading the follow-up story about two older ranch hands, one of them an alcoholic.
On the Prowl (Alpha & Omega 0.5) by Patricia Briggs: C
A short novella with great central characters, but one that felt incomplete. It has that insta-mine paranormal device that feels a bit tired and an overly abusive storyline toward the female protagonist that nearly turned me off from continuing to the first book of the series. The world-building seemed interesting and I wanted to give Briggs a shot, so I continued on to Cry Wolf.
La Rosa de Fuego (The Rose of Fire: The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, #0.5) by Carlos Ruiz Zafon: C
I read the Spanish version of this fantasy-based prequel to Zafon's Cemetery series and enjoyed his prose and writing style. Set in 15th Century Barcelona during the time of the inquisition, Zafon incorporates religion, ignorance, and the prejudicial mores of the times, along with a rather heavy handed dose of fantasy. This prequel is a bit too short and lacks depth.
A Local Habitation (October Daye #2) by Seanan McGuire: C-
Unfortunately this book drove me insane! Why? The setting for the plot in this book is limited for the most part to one very uninviting, cold place, the characters introduced are not compelling or interesting, and Toby is not well prepared to investigate the crimes occurring in this place. Yet, the relationship and world-building continued and that kept me reading.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman: A
This is ghoulish children's fairy tale, that is true, but at its core it is a family-oriented fairy tale that deals beautifully and warmly with the subject of adoption. This was a reread for me, and yes I fell in love with the characters and Gaiman's storytelling talent all over again.

I will remember September 2013 as the month I went nuts reading UF! I began a couple of books from other UF series, but in the end settled for McGuire and Briggs. Maybe by the end of the year I'll read a few more of those "first books in a series" that have been hanging out in my TBR for years.

How was your September? I fell in love with Desire: Tales of New Orleans by William Sterling Walker and The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. Did you fall in love with any books last month?

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Desire: Tales of New Orleans by William Sterling Walker

There are places that exude an atmosphere of casual sensuality that can be felt, smelled, and tasted. The residents of such places absorb the atmosphere like sponges until they become part of the place and the place becomes part of them. The City of New Orleans is such a place. In his collection of loosely related short stories, Desire: Tales of New Orleans, William Sterling Walker captures the essence of this city until, with its strong presence and influence, New Orleans takes center stage and breaths life into each and every character. Walker's beautiful integration of music -- classical, jazz, 80's pop -- and art adds to the overall sense of time and place, capturing moments, depth of feeling, and often creating the illusion of a written snapshot suspended in time.

Walker's descriptions of New Orleans are also intrinsically connected to themes found in his collection, -- with "connection" the most prevalent theme throughout -- to the character's conflicts, and to their personal desires. The heat and oppressive humidity may be connected to voracious or subtle physical needs. The stagnation of a place where the past is present may be found in conflicts faced by quite a few of the men, and the gravitational pull that the city exerts on its denizens as if it were a living entity is mirrored in the friendships and relationships between the characters.

The word desire, as in the title of the book, usually brings to mind sexual want or hunger. Humans, however, desire much more from each other than the physical and Walker incorporates both in his stories. He breathes life into his stories through his characters, the friendships they share, their loves, losses, needs and desires. Moments, events, conversations, assignations, paralyzing fear, pain and regret, all become connected through friendships and hookups in a pre-Katrina gay community that learned early about tragic loss while experiencing the plague years.

I first read Walker's short story "Farewell to Wise's" in the Best Gay Stories 2013 anthology and what really struck me about it at the time, what made me love it, was the fact that the place and characters became real to me. I found that same quality in the rest of his stories. Walker develops intimate interactions and dialog between his characters, slowly revealing layers and, in the process, giving them a depth that becomes an essential part of his portrayals. This development leads readers to become fully invested in both the characters and the conflicts they face.

I know I will reread this book for a couple of reasons. Throughout the time it took me to read it, and after, I fell asleep in New Orleans thinking about the characters and woke up the next day in New Orleans still communing with them. But, most importantly, Desire: Tales of New Orleans is a book that strongly reminded me of the "why" behind my love for short stories. Highly recommended.

Category: LGBT/Gay Fiction
Series: None
Publisher/Release Date: Chelsea Station Editions/November 1, 2012
Grade: A

Visit William Sterling Walker here.