Friday, January 31, 2014

Completing: The 2014 Sci-Fi Experience & The Vintage Sci-Fi Month

The 2014 Sci-Fi Experience

The 2014 Science Fiction Experience hosted by science fiction enthusiast Carl V from Stainless Steel Droppings ends today. As always I had a wonderful time reading fantastic books and discovering a few new-to-me authors, although it seems that every year I end up wishing for just one more month to read all the books in my list.

My main goal this year was to read a couple of books by Ursula K. Le Guin, and although I didn't get to The Dispossessed, I did finish one novel and one large collection of short stories. I'm happy with the results.

Here's a list of all reviews and related posts:

Spotlight: Ursula K. Le Guin & The Hainish Cycle Series
The Kassa Gambit by M.C. Planck
The Birthday of the World: and Other Stories by Ursula K. Le Guin
Favorite Books of 2013 (includes Sci-Fi/Fiction/Urban Fantasy/Speculative Fiction)
Mini-Review: Tenth of December by George Saunders
SF Movies: Elysium & Oblivion
2014 Most Anticipated Books: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Urban Fantasy
Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch #1) by Ann Leckie
The Left Hand of Darkness (Hainish Cycle #4) by Usula K. Le Guin

Read not reviewed:
Fortune's Pawn (Paradox #1) by Rachel Bach -- Late review.
ASIMOV'S SCIENCE FICTION MAGAZINE - February 1, 2014 Edition: Short Stories: "Ball and Chain" by Maggie Shen King, "Last Day at the Ice Man Cafe" by M. Bennardo, "The Transdimensional Horsemaster Rabbis of Mpumalanga Province" by Sarah Pinsker, and "Ask Citizen Etiquette" by Marissa Lingen

The Vintage Science Fiction Month

Also ending today is The Vintage Science Fiction Month hosted by The Little Red Reviewer. 

Unfortunately, as you will see below, my participation this year was pathetic. My reading "mood" shifted at the wrong time toward more recent releases and my stack of oldies but goodies is basically intact. However, as I mention above, my goal this year was to explore works by Ursula K. Le Guin, and the one (yes, one!) review posted is by this author.

Book Review*:
The Left Hand of Darkness (Hainish Cycle #4) by Usula K. Le Guin

*Related Post (although posted in December, it is related to the author, series & book)
Spotlight: Ursula K. Le Guin & The Hainish Cycle Series

Until next year!

Thursday, January 30, 2014

LGBT YA & WWI Historical Releases: February/March 2014

From the LGBT pool of upcoming releases, I am highlighting four books I'm either reading or plan to read. The first book is by Bob Sennett, a new-to-me author. It caught my attention because of the time period, World War I, the main setting, Ireland, and the main character, a music lover/teacher. The other three books in my list are young adult books written by known or favorite writers.

Steve Berman is already well-known as an author of young adult material with Vintage, a classic YA LGBT novel that earned him numerous awards, as part of his repertoire. This is a new collection of speculative fiction short stories and his latest offering to the LGBT youth. The multi-talented Jeff Mann is a favorite author whose works focusing on the gay Bear community have garnered him multiple awards and recognition, so I am quite excited to read his latest, a young adult romance geared toward the young Cubs in his community. I am also familiar with the works of the talented Jeffrey Ricker and plan to read his new young adult fantasy -- the amazons and prophesies did it for me.


THE MUSIC TEACHER -- Releasing February 1, 2014 from Lethe Press
Category: Historical (WWI) Gay Fiction Novel
Pages: 298

Growing up in the early years of the twentieth century, Joe Dooley allows his love for music and his passionate friendships with other young men to blind him to the tides of revolution rising around him in British-dominated Ireland. When he realizes he can't support himself teaching music in Dublin, he enlists in the British Army's peacetime reserves--only to be swept up by the Great War convulsing Europe. Guiding his men through the chaos of the Western Front, Joe comforts himself with music and memories of dear friends: adventurous Severin Coole, an Irish Nationalist, and fiercely loyal Harry Vogeler, an expatriate of Germany. A sniper's bullet throws Joe into the care of conscientious objector Davy Rose, in whose arms he begins to discover a kind of love he had not believed possible. But then he learns that Severin is actively working to liberate Ireland of the British yoke, and during the Christmas Truce discovers Harry across the trenches in the German army. Loyalties increasingly divided, Joe must choose which cause is truly his and which man will be his true partner.


Releasing February 14, 2014 by Lethe Press
Category: LGBT Young Adult Speculative Fiction, Single Author Collection
Pages: 215

Red Caps might be a rock band. Or they might be something more sinister, a fey source of sounds that are but the backdrop to thrills and misadventures. These thirteen stories provide readers jaded by the traditional, Old World fairy tales with tempting new stories that will entice bored readers from their suburban ennui. Closets are waiting to be explored. Escape from work camp leads to a dangerous encounter on a wet road. That high school year book is magical and might be mocking you...or helping you find love. And isn't love one of the central premises of the fairy tale? These teenage boys and girls need not fear that their love has no worth, because Steve Berman has written for them princesses who love maidens and adorkable students who have wondrous and smart boyfriends. Readers can be assured that, if the tale does not end happily, it ends most memorably.


CUB -- Releasing February 14, 2014 by Bear Bones Books
Category: LGBT/Gay Young Adult Romance
Pages: 215

Not every gay teen yearns for fashion and popular culture. Some boys are pure country folk and like the feel of flannel and the smell of the farm. And they're neither lithe nor muscle-bound but stocky boys, the ones who develop hairy chests, arms, and faces years earlier than their peers. One such seventeen-year-old is Travis Ferrell, shy among most of the other kids at school, but proud of his West Virginia roots. He has not yet admitted his passion for handsome guys--and his idea of what handsome is and what handsome does is not much different from him. Soon he'll learn that he's not unique; gay culture has a name for young men like him. Cubs. Lambda Literary Award-winning author Jeff Mann has written a touching romance for the outsider in us all.


THE UNWANTED -- Releasing March 18, 2014 by Bold Strokes Books
Category: LGBT/Gay Young Adult Fantasy
Pages: 264

Jamie Thomas has enough trouble on his hands trying to get through junior year of high school without being pulverized by Billy Stratton, his bully and tormentor. But the mother he was always told was dead is actually alive—and she’s an Amazon! Sixteen years after she left him on his father’s doorstep, she’s back… and needs Jamie’s help. A curse has caused the ancient tribe of warrior women to give birth to nothing but boys, dooming them to extinction—until prophecy reveals that salvation lies with one of the offspring they abandoned. Putting his life on the line, Jamie must find the courage to confront the wrath of an angry god to save a society that rejected him.

PS: What do you think of the covers? I like them all! But, my eyes keep focusing on the red hearts and lettering for Red Caps and the whole cover for Cub. Hearts and bears! :)

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Left Hand of Darkness (Hainish Cycle #4) by Ursula K. Le Guin

First published in 1969, The Left Hand of Darkness is considered a science fiction classic. The best science fiction novel I read in 2013, this is book #4 (also the first full length novel) in Le Guin's Hainish Cycle series. You can read my overview of the Le Guin's Hainish Cycle series, biography, and basis for the author's world-building here.

As mentioned in my previous post, most of the worlds explored by Ekumen are populated by descendants from Terra's (or Earth's) humans, however, in the Left Hand of Darkness the story takes place in the frozen planet Winter or Gethen where it is suspected that the population may have evolved as a result of experimentation conducted on the population when it was first colonized. This complex story begins as a report from Genly Ai, a Terran who as an Ekumen mobile becomes the first envoy to contact Gethenians in their frozen planet, and follows his journey to understanding a radically different people and world.

Genly Ai has resided in Karhide's capital City Erhenrang for two years. Attempting, without success, to accomplish his mission by convincing the king to willingly agree to trade or join Ekumen in their galactic civilization. His attempts to obtain an audience with the king, however, have failed. The powerful Therem Harth rem ir Estraven is his only ally and a man Genly doesn't like or trust. Unfortunately, Estraven falls out of favor with the king and after a rather cryptic conversation flees the city, leaving Genly Ai floundering with conflicted feelings of relief and betrayal.

Besides Winter's frigid weather, Genly Ai has one big problem. After two years, he cannot seem to get over the fact that Gethenians are neither male nor female. They are both, and as such, possess physical and personality traits found in both sexes. Intellectually he knows how it all works. Genly understands the customs and biology. He knows that sexual interaction takes place only during the lunar cycle, what Gethenians call kemmer, and that the rest of the month their sexual drive is dormant. He also knows that there is no separation of gender roles, but psychologically he hasn't been able to come to terms with the differences.
"Though I had been nearly two years in Winter I was still far from being able to see the people of the planet through their own eyes. I tried to, but my efforts took the form of self-consciously seeing a Gethenian first as a man, then as a woman, forcing him into those categories so irrelevant to his nature and so essential to my own."
It is this kind of binary thinking that makes it almost impossible for Genly to understand Gethenians as individuals, so he misunderstands or fails to grasp cultural, social and political cues that are key if he is to achieve his mission's goal. Incapable of understanding the local population, Genly feels deeply isolated.
"A friend. What is a friend, in a world where any friend may be a lover at a new phase of the moon? Not I, locked in my virility; no friend to Therem Harth, or any other of his race. Neither man nor woman, neither and both, cyclic, lunar, metamorphosing under the hand's touch, changelings in the human cradle, they were no flesh of mine, no friends; no love between us."
Genly leaves for other parts of the Gethenian world to try his luck with other governments and meets Estraven under different circumstances. The two embark on a danger-filled adventure through the frozen tundras of Winter, but personally I think of theirs as a journey toward understanding. The result is a science fiction piece where Le Guin brilliantly experiments by integrating gender roles with cultural and sociopolitical issues in detail, but at its core brilliantly explores the subject of duality. Finally, Le Guin's prose makes The Left Hand of Darkness a fluid, fantastic read that I won't soon forget.
"Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light,
Two are one, life and death,
lying together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way."
PERSONAL NOTE: I read this book back in November but decided to post my comments on the book during my participation in the Vintage Science Fiction Month and The 2014 Sci-Fi Experience. It was my first novel by Le Guin and it will not be my last. There are a few reasons behind that decision: one, her science fiction literary writing style is a plus for me. Two, I was surprised not only by the fact that she experimented with this subject matter back in the 1960's, but by the brilliant results. And, three: her exploration of gender roles, culture, sociopolitical issues, and inclusion of racial diversity in a science fiction setting and far away world are all part of what fascinated me about this book. It is what encouraged me to immediately look for the rest of her backlist, including some of her older novellas. Highly recommended.

Related Posts:
Spotlight: Ursula K. Le Guin & The Hainish Cycle
Review: The Birthday of the World: and Other Stories by Ursula K. Le Guin

Monday, January 27, 2014

Review: Can't Buy Me Love (Crooked Creek Ranch #1) by Molly O'Keefe

I've read and really enjoyed Molly O'Keefe's category romances, but none of her full-length contemporary novels. I've had Can't Buy Me Love and Can't Hurry Love in my TBR pile for a long while and decided it was time to give them a try, particularly since I'm interested in reading her 2014 future release Never Been Kissed.

I like Tara Jean. How could I not? She's been through hell in her life and is doing whatever is necessary to survive. After having come clean with old man Lyle Baker about her past, Tara agrees to go along with a fake engagement to the 89 year old man just so he can bring his children home before he dies. But, Tara Jean has some major unresolved issues and seems to have multiple personalities: one minute she's a sex bomb, the other she's a smart woman with insight into other people's pain, and the next she's a 'mean as a skunk' survivor, refusing to turn into a pile of goo or a vulnerable flower. And, the reader never knows which Tara Jean is going to come out and play at any given point.

Luc Baker may be an aging, injured hokey player, but please don't get him confused with the type you'll find in other sports romances. It's true that he's steaming hot! Hockey is his world, and he has a lot of unresolved anger. But Luc is a good, honest man, with the patience of Job, who cares about his family and will do anything for them -- sister Victoria, mother Celeste, and nephew Jacob -- and that includes going back to Crooked Creek Ranch to stop his abusive father from marrying Bimbo Barbie because his sister Victoria insists that she needs her portion of the inheritance to survive.

Luc plays the asshat for about a minute, but it doesn't take him long to see past Tara Jean's Bimbo Barbie masquerade, and he likes what he sees. So does Tara Jean. They both have issues, but hers become the problem. He harbors unresolved anger toward his abusive father and is fighting for his career, but he's also honest, sweet and more than understanding. She's scared, confused, dishonest, and allows her dysfunctional past to interfere in her new life, but is also insightful and gives Luc and others the support they need when needed. And don't get me wrong, as a couple, Luc and Tara Jean share some scorching chemistry and emotionally charged moments. O'Keefe throws in a sex scene in the backseat of a car that is smoking!!

Secondary characters are a mixed crew -- some are likable and others not so much -- with their futures left hanging at the end of Can't Buy Me Love. Victoria, Luc's sister, plays the type of woman who has been so damaged by her father's abuse that she has zero self-confidence and less than zero judgment. She has always relied on others to look after her -- her brother, the wealthy dead husband who left her with a mountain of debt -- and hopes her father's money or a future husband will continue to do the job. Victoria plays the angry, pathetic figure in this story, with plenty of room for growth. On the other hand, Luc's mother Celeste, a wealthy ex-model, is cool with more insight and empathy than expected. Eli, the ranch foreman, plays the angry man who feels cheated by the Bakers and shows some redeeming qualities that give me hope for his future.

External conflicts involving Tara Jean and her past provide some rather over-the-top climactic scenes and are used as a device to resolve some of her issues, and in turn Luc's. I love Luc's character in this romance and the way O'Keefe portrays an aging athlete without making him a total idiot, even as occasionally he plays the asshat. But after all is said and done, Tara Jean is one of those female protagonists who feels undeserving of love, and although as readers we share her magnificent struggle, we never witness what exactly made Tara Jean turnaround and believe. Too many unresolved doubts, and as a read, a mixed bag for me.

Category: Contemporary Romance
Series: Crooked Creek Ranch #1
Publisher/Release Date: Bantam/June 26, 2012
From: TBR Read - Kindle Edition
Grade: B-

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Review: Now and Forever (A Last Chance Romance #2) by Logan Belle

Now and Forever is the second part of Logan Belle's A Last Chance Romance two-part contemporary series. The conclusion to this series was a much anticipated book and worth the wait. In Now or Never, Part 1, Belle begins the process of weaving complex conflicts faced by her characters and introducing some fantastic heat and raw emotions. In Now and Forever, Belle hits her stride and delivers as she completes the characterization process and the full emotional punch of Claire's and Justin's story.

Whereas in Now or Never the focus was maintained on Claire, in Now and Forever that focus shifts to both characters, as Belle expands Claire's first point of view narration to include Justin's. This shift gives the reader the full scope of emotions needed to fully understand both characters. This is important because in this second installment Justin's background, motivations, and emotions are as fully explored as Claire's.

Claire's story begins in Now or Never when she is diagnosed with breast cancer and is told she has the BRCA gene. She makes the difficult but safe choice, which means a double mastectomy with reconstructive breast surgery and a hysterectomy to follow. She gets involved with younger, handsome Justin who becomes a friend and her wingman as Claire goes on to fulfill sexual fantasies in her "Now or Never" bucket list, going as far as ignoring reality and postponing the inevitable surgery. Claire is attracted to Justin even after he explains that he only ever has one-night stands. She gets her wish and looses her friend. Now and Forever begins exactly where Now or Never ends, with Justin walking away.

As we follow the story, Justin realizes that he can't let Claire's friendship go, furthermore he wants her badly and that one-night stand rule is not going to hold with her. He also misses his friend. It begins that way, but slowly, as the story moves along, he comes to some tough realizations about his feelings for Claire. Meanwhile, Claire has decided to stop running from reality and focuses on herself. She also realizes that although she has strong feelings for Justin, his tendency to run when things get tough doesn't make him trustworthy. Besides, she doesn't want him around when she goes through the pain or the changes that a mastectomy entails. Claire pushes Justin away.

If Justin ran away from a relationship at the beginning of their friendship, now Claire becomes the rabbit. She was game when it came to exploring sex, but love? No way. Her distrust of Justin and lack of belief in herself are monumental. Justin doesn't give up though. I loved him for that. For becoming Claire's friend and being there even when he wasn't there, and others, like her son Max and girlfriend Patti were allowed to take that place. Claire's young son Max who turns out to be a non-judgmental rock of understanding, and girlfriend Patti whose lack of understanding and judgmental ways are not as important to Claire as the fact that she's always there when needed.

I was enthralled by Claire's journey. She's a 40 something woman falling in love with a younger man just as she's going through what most women fear. Belle takes Claire, along with the reader, for a journey that begins with denial and ends with the healing process. Of course along with cancer and her growing love for Justin, Claire is also forced to face other problems in her life -- a dead-end job at a department store's make-up counter where younger women, but in particular a younger female manager first disregards and then steals her ideas and dismisses her experience, that empty nest her son Max used to fill, and facing herself in the mirror only to see a woman who let life and passion pass her by.

Belle tackles Claire's journey -- passion and lust, lack of confidence, feelings of inadequacy, pain and doubts, the healing process, and growth -- with a knowledgeable hand. Justin's journey to self-awareness, recognizing his weaknesses and Claire's strengths, leading to passion, love and true understanding of her, complete this story.

Now and Forever is a romance with some heated moments, a happy ending, and a subject matter pertinent to today's woman. Claire and Justin's journey are the icing and the cake. It resonated with me just as I am sure it will resonate with many others. I strongly recommend that both books be read to fully enjoy the experience. Highly recommended.

Category: Contemporary Romance
ebook, 165 pages
Publisher/Release Date: Moxie Books/January 11th 2014
Grade: A

Two-Part Series:
Now or Never, Part 1

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch #1) by Ann Leckie

OVERVIEW: The Radch Empire. Lead by the many-bodied Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch, this is a civilization that conquered the galaxy by annexing and absorbing worlds throughout thousands of years. Their mightiest weapons are starships equipped with an artificial intelligence core that links thousands of "corpse" or ancillary soldiers, allowing the AI to become mobile. As the Radchaai move from one annexed world to another force is used and resistance guarantees death, but once they triumph all inhabitants of that world become civilized citizens worthy of protection. With a class-based society as its core, for thousands of years the wealthy aristocratic Houses of Radch held the power and coveted positions in the military, grabbing first connections for future money-making endeavors when annexing new worlds. That changes when members of small provincial Houses begin to fill some of those positions and the seeds of resentment from the aristocratic Houses are planted and begin to grow.

Ancillary Justice focuses on characterization and an action driven slow-to-reveal plot instead of space battles, however, it is definitely a space opera with all of the romantic, melodramatic action, weaponry and science fiction details that are required of such a piece. The world-building is pure science fiction with alien-like places that provide excellent atmosphere, excellent gadgetry, and a particular focus placed on details pertaining to AI and the workings and evolution of the ancillary soldiers. Another unique aspect of the world-building is that in the Radchaai language only the female pronoun exists to specify gender. Everyone is referred to as "she" or "her," so that it is up to the reader to carefully asses who is male or female.

Although Breq Ghaiad is our main character and the narration is from her perspective, in reality, at times, there is a three-in-one narrative and perspective -- Justice of Toren, One Esk, and Breq. It sounds confusing, but it all becomes crystal clear and works quite well. Justice of Toren, a massive starship, once served the Radch Empire for over two-thousand years. Her artificial intelligence linked thousands of ancillary soldiers, including One Esk, the ancillary segment known for singing and collecting songs from different worlds. But twenty years ago, Justice of Toren was betrayed and destroyed along with her ancillaries. The only surviving segment of her intelligence is Breq, a lone AI soldier looking for revenge against the betrayer. This character's inner evolution and actions carry and drive the novel. She is thoroughly complex, with a hard core, the cold side of an AI soldier accustomed to violence and a sensitivity for music and love of singing that opens up unimagined doors.
My heart is a fish
Hiding in the water grass
In the green, in the green
-- One Esk's favorite song from Ors
Joining Breq in her journey is Captain Seivarden Vendaai. Long ago, the arrogant and aristocratic Captain Seivarden Vendaai had been one of Justice of Toren's lieutenants, although definitely not a favorite one. Later promoted to her own command, she had been thought dead for a thousand years when her ship was lost during a failed annexation. Seivarden was found frozen in a space pod, but unable to adapt to losses and changes that occurred during those thousand years, she finds herself lost and unstable. Breq finds her nearly frozen, bruised, bloody and almost dead in a remote planet, now an addict and a wastrel. Reluctantly, she takes Seirvarden along in her quest for revenge. Seirvarden's relationship with Breq is filled with revelations about both characters and becomes a catalyst as each pushes and pulls. The result is one of the strongest factors in this space opera, character growth. "Sometimes I don't know why I do the things I do." -- Breq

Breq's story shifts between the present and her past, alternating between chapters, as One Esk/Justice of Toren takes the reader back 20 years, narrating events that changed her world and lead to the present, and introducing Esk Decade Lieutenant Awn Elming. During the annexation of the planet Shis'urna, Lieutenant Awn has been in command of the city of Ors for two years at the request of the Devine priest. She has One Esk at her side along with a small twenty Esk ancillary unit from Justice of Toren under her command. Originally from an annexed world and a provincial House, Awn feels vulnerable in her position, but she is honorable, sensitive, brave and to One Esk, she is a favorite worthy of admiration. Her affair with the aristocratic Lieutenant Skaaiat Awer leaves her open to attack and eventually leads to disaster. Like tumbling dominoes, the devastating events that unfold in Ors end with One Esk set on the path to becoming Breq, the avenging soldier.

In the Ors sections, Leckie makes her revelations as the story moves along, divulging secrets at the most unexpected of times and keeping the reader on edge. Additionally, here is also where Leckie uses a multiple-perspective narrative from Justice of Toren and the different Esk segments -- a simultaneous narrative -- that gives the reader the complete scope of what is happening instead of the single point of view narrative. At the beginning, this style can be a bit disconcerting, but overall Leckie handled it beautifully. It is so well tied together that it seems possible.

Last, but not least, we have Anaander Mianaai the feared, all powerful and seemingly all knowing leader. Her actions in this story are questionable and she becomes Breq's bitter enemy. She is a key figure in this novel and a huge mystery. I will leave it at that.

CONCLUSION: If you want to know what surprised me the most about this space opera, it is how high emotions factor into the story, particularly since the narrator is well… artificial intelligence.  I became so immersed and involved with the characters, as well as the action, that I didn't want to stop reading. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie is the first book in the Imperial Radch science fiction space opera. It is unique for its focus on the evolution of its characters as opposed to space battles. What does it mean to be human in a galaxy where artificial intelligence rules, but is also used by humans as a nothing but a weapon to conquer and build an empire? What does it mean to be civilized? What does it mean to be human? With one of the best AI narrative voices I've encountered for a long while, these are the questions that Leckie poses in her stunning sci-fi debut novel. Highly recommended.

Visit Ann Leckie here.

Trilogy (Series) by Orbit Publishers:
Ancillary Justice (2013)
Ancillary Sword (2014)
Ancillary Mercy (2015)

The 2014 Sci-Fi Experience

Monday, January 20, 2014

2014 Most Anticipated Books: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Urban Fantasy

This year my list of anticipated reads in the science fiction, fantasy and urban fantasy categories is extensive. A few of the authors I'm gloaming at the moment (see Seanan McGuire and Kelley Armstrong) have more than one book releasing in 2014, either because they already have multiple series published, or because they are launching a new series. Or, as in the case of Jeff VanderMeer, all three volumes of his latest work, a trilogy, are releasing in 2014.

Most of the books I'm looking forward to reading are from already favorite authors, but a few are from new-to-me writers such as David Edison whose book was added to my list because I loved the summary, and Weston Osche who was added immediately because I'm always looking for a good military science fiction series to follow.

JEFF VANDERMEER: Southern Reach Trilogy

Annihilation by (Southern Reach Trilogy #1) -- Releasing February 4, 2014 by FSG Originals
Authority (Southern Reach #2) - Releasing June, 2014
Acceptance (Southern Reach #3) - Releasing September, 2014
Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.

This is the twelfth expedition.

Their group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.

They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them, and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another, that change everything.


The Waking Engine -- Releasing February 11, 2014 by Tor Books
Welcome to the City Unspoken, where Gods and Mortals come to die.

Contrary to popular wisdom, death is not the end, nor is it a passage to some transcendent afterlife. Those who die merely awake as themselves on one of a million worlds, where they are fated to live until they die again, and wake up somewhere new. All are born only once, but die many times . . . until they come at last to the City Unspoken, where the gateway to True Death can be found.

Wayfarers and pilgrims are drawn to the City, which is home to murderous aristocrats, disguised gods and goddesses, a sadistic faerie princess, immortal prostitutes and queens, a captive angel, gangs of feral Death Boys and Charnel Girls . . . and one very confused New Yorker.

Late of Manhattan, Cooper finds himself in a City that is not what it once was. The gateway to True Death is failing, so that the City is becoming overrun by the Dying, who clot its byzantine streets and alleys . . . and a spreading madness threatens to engulf the entire metaverse.


Murder of Crows (The Others #2) -- Releasing March 4, 2014 by Roc
After winning the trust of the terra indigene residing in the Lakeside Courtyard, Meg Corbyn has had trouble figuring out what it means to live among them. As a human, Meg should be barely tolerated prey, but her abilities as a cassandra sangue make her something more.

The appearance of two addictive drugs has sparked violence between the humans and the Others, resulting in the murder of both species in nearby cities. So when Meg has a dream about blood and black feathers in the snow, Simon Wolfgard—Lakeside’s shape-shifting leader—wonders if their blood prophet dreamed of a past attack or a future threat.

As the urge to speak prophecies strikes Meg more frequently, trouble finds its way inside the Courtyard. Now, the Others and the handful of humans residing there must work together to stop the man bent on reclaiming their blood prophet—and stop the danger that threatens to destroy them all.

SEANAN MCGUIRE: InCryptid Series, Ghost Stories Series #1, October Daye Series

Half-Off Raganoff (InCryptid #3) -- Releasing in March 4, 2014 by DAW
When Alex Price agreed to go to Ohio to oversee a basilisk breeding program and assist in the recovery of his psychic cousin, he didn't expect people to start dropping dead. But bodies are cropping up at the zoo where he works, and his girlfriend--Shelby Tanner, an Australian zoologist with a fondness for big cats--is starting to get suspicious.

Worse yet, the bodies have all been turned partially to stone…

The third book in the InCryptid series takes us to a new location and a new member of the family, as Alex tries to balance life, work, and the strong desire not to become a piece of garden statuary. Old friends and new are on the scene, and danger lurks around every corner.

Of course, so do the talking mice.
Also by Seanan McGuire:

Sparrow Hill Road (Ghost Stories #1) -- Releasing in May 6, 2014 by DAW
Rose Marshall died in 1952 in Buckley Township, Michigan, run off the road by a man named Bobby Cross—a man who had sold his soul to live forever, and intended to use her death to pay the price of his immortality. Trouble was, he didn’t ask Rose what she thought of the idea.

It’s been more than sixty years since that night, and she’s still sixteen, and she’s still running.

They have names for her all over the country: the Girl in the Diner. The Phantom Prom Date. The Girl in the Green Silk Gown. Mostly she just goes by “Rose,” a hitchhiking ghost girl with her thumb out and her eyes fixed on the horizon, trying to outrace a man who never sleeps, never stops, and never gives up on the idea of claiming what’s his. She’s the angel of the overpass, she’s the darling of the truck stops, and she’s going to figure out a way to win her freedom. After all, it’s not like it can kill her.

You can’t kill what’s already dead.
And, last but not least:

The Winter Long (October Daye #8) -- Releasing in September, 2014 by

The cover and summary are not yet available for the next installment in the Toby Daye series by McGuire. But, I will keep my eye out for it and will definitely read it when it releases in September. :)


The Goblin Emperor -- Releasing April 1, 2014 by Tor Books
A vividly imagined fantasy of court intrigue and dark magics in a steampunk-inflected world, by a brilliant young talent.

The youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor has lived his entire life in exile, distant from the Imperial Court and the deadly intrigue that suffuses it. But when his father and three sons in line for the throne are killed in an "accident," he has no choice but to take his place as the only surviving rightful heir.

Entirely unschooled in the art of court politics, he has no friends, no advisors, and the sure knowledge that whoever assassinated his father and brothers could make an attempt on his life at any moment.

Surrounded by sycophants eager to curry favor with the naïve new emperor, and overwhelmed by the burdens of his new life, he can trust nobody. Amid the swirl of plots to depose him, offers of arranged marriages, and the specter of the unknown conspirators who lurk in the shadows, he must quickly adjust to life as the Goblin Emperor. All the while, he is alone, and trying to find even a single friend... and hoping for the possibility of romance, yet also vigilant against the unseen enemies that threaten him, lest he lose his throne – or his life.

KELLEY ARMSTRONG: Age of Legends Series #1, Cainsville Series

Sea of Shadows: Age of Legends -- Releasing April 8, 2014 by Harper Collins
Kelley Armstrong, #1 New York Times bestselling author, takes an exciting new direction with this big, breathtaking blend of fantasy, romance, horror, and pulse-pounding action, perfect for fans of Graceling and Game of Thrones.

Twin sisters Moria and Ashyn were marked at birth to become the Keeper and the Seeker of Edgewood, beginning with their sixteenth birthday. Trained in fighting and in the secret rites of the spirits, they lead an annual trip into the Forest of the Dead. There, the veil between the living world and the beyond is thinnest, and the girls pay respect to the spirits who have passed.

But this year, their trip goes dreadfully wrong.

And I cannot wait to read:

Visions (Cainsville #2) -- Releasing August 14, 2014 by Dauton Adult
Omens, the first installment in Kelley Armstrong’s exciting new series, introduced Olivia Taylor-Jones, daughter of notorious serial killers, and Gabriel Walsh, the self-serving, morally ambiguous lawyer who became her unlikely ally. Together, they chased down a devious killer and partially cleared her parents of their horrifying crimes.

Their success, however, is short-lived. While Olivia takes refuge in the old, secluded town of Cainsville, Gabriel’s past mistakes have come to light, creating a rift between the pair just when she needs his help the most.

Olivia finds a dead woman in her car, dressed to look like her, but the body vanishes before anyone else sees it. Olivia’s convinced it’s another omen, a sign of impending danger. But then she learns that a troubled young woman went missing just days ago—the same woman Olivia found dead in her car. Someone has gone to great lengths to kill and leave this young woman as a warning. But why? And what role has her new home played in this disturbing murder?

Olivia’s effort to uncover the truth places her in the crosshairs of old and powerful forces, forces that have their own agenda, and closely guarded secrets they don’t want revealed.

ELIZABETH BEAR: Eternal Sky Trilogy

Steles of the Sky (Eternal Sky Trilogy #3) -- Releasing in April 8, 2014 by Tor Books
Elizabeth Bear concludes her award-winning epic fantasy Eternal Sky trilogy in Steles of the Sky.

Re Temur, legitimate heir to his grandfather’s Khaganate, has finally raised his banner and declared himself at war with his usurping uncle. With his companions—the Wizard Samarkar, the Cho-tse Hrahima, and the silent monk Brother Hsiung—he must make his way to Dragon Lake to gather in his army of followers. But Temur’s enemies are not idle; the leader of the Nameless Assassins, who has shattered the peace of the Steppe, has struck at Temur’s uncle already. To the south, in the Rasan empire, plague rages. To the east, the great city of Asmaracanda has burned, and the Uthman Caliph is deposed. All the world seems to be on fire, and who knows if even the beloved son of the Eternal Sky can save it?

WESTON OCHSE: Task Force Ombra Series #1

Grunt Life -- Releasing April 29, 2014 by Solaris
This is a brand new Military SF series from Weston Ochse, an experienced military man and author.

Earth has been invaded and the insect-like aliens have established secret hives across the world. The only thing standing between Earth and domination by these creatures are the Grunts, men whose business is soldiering. But this time they must learn how to defeat a very different kind of enemy to any human foe.

NALINI SINGH: Psy/Changeling Series

Shield of Winter (Psy/Changeling #13) - Releasing June 4, 2014 by Berkeley
Assassin. Soldier. Arrow. That is who Vasic is, who he will always be. His soul drenched in blood, his conscience heavy with the weight of all he’s done, he exists in the shadows, far from the hope his people can almost touch—if only they do not first drown in the murderous insanity of a lethal contagion. To stop the wave of death, Vasic must complete the simplest and most difficult mission of his life.

For if the Psy race is to survive, the empaths must wake…

Having rebuilt her life after medical “treatment” that violated her mind and sought to suffocate her abilities, Ivy should have run from the black-clad Arrow with eyes of winter frost. But Ivy Jane has never done what she should. Now, she’ll fight for her people, and for this Arrow who stands as her living shield, yet believes he is beyond redemption. But as the world turns to screaming crimson, even Ivy’s fierce will may not be enough to save Vasic from the cold darkness…

JAMES S.A. COREY: The Expanse Series

Cibola Burn (The Expanse #4) -- Releases June 17, 2014 by Orbit
The gates have opened the way to thousands of habitable planets, and the land rush has begun. Settlers stream out from humanity's home planets in a vast, poorly controlled flood, landing on a new world. Among them, the Rocinante, haunted by the vast, posthuman network of the protomolecule as they investigate what destroyed the great intergalactic society that built the gates and the protomolecule.

But Holden and his crew must also contend with the growing tensions between the settlers and the company which owns the official claim to the planet. Both sides will stop at nothing to defend what's theirs, but soon a terrible disease strikes and only Holden - with help from the ghostly Detective Miller - can find the cure.

ILONA ANDREWS: Kate Daniels Series

Magic Breaks (Kate Daniels #7) -- Releasing July 29, 2014 by Ace
As the mate of the Beast Lord, Curran, former mercenary Kate Daniels has more responsibilities than it seems possible to juggle. Not only is she still struggling to keep her investigative business afloat, she must now deal with the affairs of the pack, including preparing her people for attack from Roland, a cruel ancient being with god-like powers. Since Kate’s connection to Roland has come out into the open, no one is safe—especially those closest to Kate.

As Roland’s long shadow looms ever nearer, Kate is called to attend the Conclave, a gathering of the leaders from the various supernatural factions in Atlanta. When one of the Masters of the Dead is found murdered there, apparently at the hands of a shapeshifter, Kate is given only twenty-four hours to hunt down the killer. And this time, if she fails, she’ll find herself embroiled in a war which could destroy everything she holds dear…

MELJEAN BROOK: Iron Seas Series

The Kraken King -- All I know about this book is that it will first release in serialized format between April &  June with the complete ebook and trade paperback releasing around August or so -- all to be confirmed. It's all hush hush. I don't have a summary or a cover either, but I love this series and won't miss the book! There be a Kraken!

ANN LECKIE: Imperial Radch Series

Ancillary Sword (2014, Orbit) - I just read Ancillary Justice, the first book in Leckie's Imperial Radch space opera trilogy, and now I'm anxiously waiting for the second book Ancillary Sword. I don't have a release date, but I'm guessing it will be during the last quarter of the year. I also believe that Ancillary Mercy, the last book of this trilogy, could be ready for 2015. But for now, I have high hopes for the second book!


Lock In -- Releasing August 26, 2014 - I can't find a cover or a summary for this book either, but this is another standalone by Scalzi. I won't miss it. I became a Scalzi fan a few years ago, but last year I talked my husband into reading Old Man's War and that was it. He has become a John Scalzi fan-a-tic. The man is reading all of Scalzi's works back-to-back and is already ahead of me (and bugging me to catch up so we can discuss). I will be getting this book for both of us!

These are the books I had in my "must read" list, but there are more out there that I have slated as possible (probable) reads. There are too many to mention, particularly in the SFF (and spec fic) categories. So those will be a surprise to you and me along the way. :) How about you? What SFF/UF books are you looking forward to reading in 2014?

The 2014 Sci-Fi Experience

Friday, January 17, 2014

December Reads & 2013 Year-End Recap

My last monthly recap of 2013 and then I will be done with the year!

In December, I read a few new releases, but mostly I picked up books from my TBR, some of them from the beginning of the year, and others from 2012. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I was on vacation for two weeks and am still catching up with my December reviews. Nevertheless here is my list:

Total Books Read in December 2013: 24

Contemporary Romance: 6
Historical Romance: 1
Contemporary Women's Fiction: 1
Science Fiction: 2
Non-Fiction: 1
Mainstream Contemporary Fiction: 3
LGBT: 10

Favorite Book of the Month:

Tenth of December by George Saunders: A-

Christmas Kitsch by Amy Lane: A-
The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout: B+
The Birthday of the World: and Other Stories by Ursula K. Le Guin: B+
The One That Got Away by Kelly Hunter: B+
Sweet & Sour by Astrid Amara: B+
The Haunted Heart: Winter by Josh Lanyon: B+
Cards on the Table by Josh Lanyon: B+
Love A Little Sideways (Kowalski #7) by Shannon Stacey: B
Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris: B
The Sum of All Kisses (Smythe-Smith #3) by Julia Quinn: B
A Familiar Beast by Panio Gianopoulos: B
Fall Hard by J.L. Merrow: B
I Spy Something Bloody by Josh Lanyon: B
Someone Else's Love Story by Joshilyn Jackson: B-
I Spy Something Wicked: B-
The Kassa Gambit by M.C. Planck: C
I Spy Something Christmas: C
The House on Main Street by Shirlee McCoy: C
All She Wants for Christmas (Kent Brothers #1) Jaci Burton: C
A Rare Gift (Kent Brothers #2) Jaci Burton: C-
The Best Thing (Kent Brothers #3) Jaci Burton: C-
Try (Temptation #1) by Ella Frank: D
Secrets & Ink by Lou Harper: D


I read more in 2013 than I have in the past few years. I suspect the reason is that due to my crazy schedule and stressful family issues, my blogging took a hit during the second half of the year. I needed every single minute of my spare time to relax and I made a conscious decision to spend that time reading. Fortunately, that led me to read loads of great books!

Total Books Read: 222 (including rereads)
Total New Books Read: 212
   LGBT (all categories): 76
   Contemporary (includes romance & fiction: 53
   Historical (includes romance & fiction): 23
   Paranormal Romance: 6
   Urban Fantasy: 19
   Sci-Fi/Fantasy: 27
   Non-Fiction: 3
   Poetry: 5

A= 27
B= 117
C= 56
D= 13

My numbers always surprise me at the end of the year. I'm not surprised that my LGBT numbers are the highest, but I read more contemporary romance and fiction than expected, and my science fiction/fantasy and urban fantasy numbers really went up in 2013. Unfortunately, my historical romance numbers are way down. That number up there is combined with historical fiction! When it comes to grades, I dished out more A's, C's and D's in 2013 than in previous years, however, not surprisingly, the B's have the highest number.

I'm not really setting specific goals for myself for the coming year. If possible, I would just like to get back to my regular blogging schedule of three or four times per week. As far as reading goes, I will continue to read where my mood takes me, I can't do anything else. :)

That's it for my 2013 yearly recap. On to 2014!

Thank you all for your continued support.


Thursday, January 16, 2014

Minis: Lanyon, Merrow, Frank & Harper

And because I'm still catching up with my December reviews, here are my impressions of a few m/m romance reads -- some I picked out from the old TBR pile, and others are brand new releases.

The Haunted Heart: Winter by Josh Lanyon: B+

Lanyon's latest release surprise me! The Haunted Heart: Winter is more of a speculative fiction/horror story, a great first installment. It is the beginning of a new series of four (winter, spring, summer, fall) seasonal novels by Lanyon, and a fantastic beginning it is. The two main characters meet at an isolated haunted house where they are staying alone. Our narrator is a conflicted young man whose loss of his partner left him feeling suicidal and vulnerable to the darkness he encounters at the house. I really love that the focus of this book is on the narrator, and that the man who becomes his partner in solving the haunting is supportive, but remains a mystery. The base for a future romance is laid out by Lanyon, and should be developed slowly and fully within the rest of the series. For me, that is a positive. I'm already anxious to read the next installment.

The "I Spy" series by Josh Lanyon: Grade B

I Spy Something Bloody (B) is a solid piece about a man who has been a spy for most of his adult life. He finds the right man, but fails to contact him for two years while deep undercover, but he is taken prisoner and contacting the man he loves becomes impossible -- talk about taking someone for granted! He returns to his lover a broken man, and finds that during the years he's been away, his lover found a new man. This is a solid piece about love, understanding, and redemption. Lanyon made this work and it hit the spot for me.

The other short stories in this series, I Spy Something Wicked (B-) and I Spy Something Christmas ( C), are holiday companion pieces and further reinforce the main characters' happy ever after.

Cards on the Table by Josh Lanyon: B+

Also from my TBR, Cards on the Table is one of those Lanyon pieces set in a modern Hollywood, but with magnificent retro atmosphere ala Black Dhalia. The main characters are a journalist writing a book about an old Hollywood murder and the cop who helps him when the situation gets complicated. This couple already has a history when the story begins, which immediately establishes the romantic attraction while the personal the conflict is slowly revealed. We've seen this pairing from Lanyon before, but I love the freshness that our narrator brings to the story. The mystery itself is the type that Lanyon excels at writing, with some great red herrings, some scary action, and a great resolution at the end. Cards on the Table is a good mystery that I enjoyed from beginning to end, with a hot pair that provided a few memorable intimate moments along the way. And PS: I love the cover for this novella, it fits the content of the book perfectly.

Fall Hard by J.L. Merrow: Grade B

This story set in Iceland worked for me. Merrow combines Icelandic myth with the strength of the main character and a plot full of slow revelations. I don't usually like the amnesia plot device, but in this case it works because of the circumstances. The uncertainty of the main character Paul and the discoveries he makes about the circumstances surrounding the terrible accident that injured him, killed his live-in lover, and the introduction old friends as strangers, kept me riveted, but the intimate facts and revelations Paul finds about himself give the story depth. The romance with the man who loves him, a gorgeous Viking, with all its conflicts also worked for me. There are repetitive, informational sections that slowed down the story, but overall this is a solid read.

Try (Temptation #1) by Ella Frank: Grade D

Try was a disappointing read for me personally. It pushed some major buttons and most of my reading experience ended up on the negative side of the spectrum. These were my last impressions of the book:
In the end, there's not much in this story that separates it from many other reads with repetitive sexual scenes expected of an m/m erotic romance. These are two bisexual men who get involved in a gay sexual relationship -- with one man initially sexually harassed and ruthlessly pushed into it by the other -- that may lead to more in the future. The story ends in a cliffhanger since it seems there is an upcoming sequel in the works.
Sexual harassment on the job is a deal breaker for me, and I couldn't shake the feeling that a fine line was crossed in Try one time too many. Additionally, I had problems with the dialog and found the legal research used to develop the story, poor. Needless to say, the book did not work out for me on many levels.

Secrets and Ink by Lou Harper: Grade D

This is a romance between Jem, a man who believes he was cursed by a meter maid because of his arrogance, and that's the reason behind all the bad luck experienced during his adult life, and Nic, a cop who is attracted to Jem until he sees a tattoo that reminds him that years ago he arrested an under-aged Jem for prostitution. I don't know what to say about this romance. Jem blames his poor decisions on a curse and Nic uses a long-ago guilt trip to back off a possible relationship and instead hides behind friendship. I don't know who shows poorer judgment throughout this story, Jem or Nic. But, regardless of my like or dislike of the characters or their motivations, this story was just all over the place with neither the romance nor the obvious crime mystery working for me.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

TBR Review: One White Rose (The Clayborne Brides, Book 2) by Julie Garwood

For my first post as part of the TBR Challenge 2014, I have chosen a book that fits the theme: short stories, novellas, category romance. I received One White Rose by Julie Garwood, along with the rest of The Clayborne Brides trilogy, over three years ago from Mariana, as part of our New Jersey Blogger's book swap in 2010.

From the prologue:
"Long ago there lived a remarkable family. They were the Clayborne brothers, and they were held together by bonds far stronger than blood.

They met when they were boys living on the streets in New York City. Runaway slave Adam, pickpocket Douglas, gunslinger Cole, and con man Travis survived by protecting one another from the older gangs roaming the city. When they found an abandoned baby girl in their alley, they vowed to make a better life for her and headed west. They eventually settled on a piece of land they named Rosehill, deep in the heart of Montana Territory."
One White Rose is the second novel of "The Clayborne Brides" trilogy, part of the Rosehill series than began with Julie Garwood's novel For the Roses. In this 150 page book, Douglas Clayborne finds happiness, but not before he encounters danger and lots of frustration.

Douglas goes to meet a man about a horse and instead finds his widow Isabel Grant at the other end of a shotgun believing that he is a hired goon sent by the wealthy man who killed her husband and keeping her from going into town. But there's more to the situation, Isabel is going into labor, and Douglas has to take charge of that situation immediately. However, soon he realizes that Isabel's isolation has placed her and now her baby in real danger. Douglas can't easily convince Isabel to leave and after she steals his heart, there is no way he will leave her behind.

This is a short and to the point western historical romance. Garwood eliminates all the extraneous scenes, places Douglas and Isabel in a cabin for about ten weeks with very little physical influence from secondary characters and lets the romance take off. Friendly intimacy is quickly established, which makes sense because of their first encounter, the birth. However, the rest takes longer as Garwood uses daily contact to build up sexual tension between the characters. For Douglas, protective, tender feelings for both Isabel and her baby slowly turn to a frustrated possessive love. Isabel takes longer to realize what is happening and seems to be confused about her longing, and frustrated bickering soon replaces all the friendly banter.

I enjoyed this quick romance. Released in 1997, it's now considered "old school," and yes it does have that feel with the over-protective hero and the damsel in distress. But, I must say that once Isabel has that baby, she is a strong-minded woman who knows what she wants and is not easily manipulated, and Douglas, a tender man, is in no way an overly alpha hero. On the contrary, he is a too honorable and honest man and of course, in the end that's where the real conflict lies between this couple.

The rest of the story is kept off the pages until almost the very end, with an interlude here and there maintaining tension and anxiety about upcoming danger alive for the reader. Fans of the series will enjoy appearances by all the Clayborne brothers. Ultimately, not overly sweet with tender moments and more sexual tension than bedroom scenes, this western historical romance was a tasty little morsel.

Category: Historical Romance/Western
Series: The Clayborne Brides, #2
Publisher/Release Date: Pocket Books/July 1997
Grade: B

Monday, January 13, 2014

End-of-Year Recap: The 2013 TBR Challenge

One of my favorite, as well as one of the most productive challenges around, is The TBR Challenge, hosted by Wendy from The Misadventures of Super Librarian.

In 2013, I read and reviewed some fabulous books and also ended up not finishing many others. But, the general idea is to either read or weed out those books that have been lingering in shelves or readers for too long, and in 2013 I read books from my TBR in spades! I also got rid of books that did not make the grade. Unfortunately, I did not (don't usually) blog about my DNF reads. One of my goals is to change that in 2014.

Below is a recap a of my TBR reviews:

January 2013 - Theme: Shorts
Within Reach by Sarah Mayberry: A-

February 2013 - Theme: Recommended Read
Psy/Cop Series by Jordan Castillo Price: B+
I did not read a romance. Instead I read an entire LGBT urban fantasy series and posted an overview of the 6 novels and 5 novellas.

March 2013 - Theme: Series Catch-up
Bone and Jewel Creatures by Elizabeth Bear: B+
I did not read a romance. Caught up on the Eternal Sky fantasy series (prequel novella)

April 2013 - Theme: New-to-Me Author
Here Comes the Bride by Pamela Morsi: B
Did not follow the theme and discarded book after book!

May 2013 - Theme: Author with more than one book in my TBR
Unexpected Family by Molly O'Keefe: B-

June 2013 - Theme: Lovely Rita
Unraveling the Past by Beth Andrews: B-
I did not read a Rita Award Winning book, instead I read a book by a Rita Award winning author.

July 2013 - Theme: A Classic, author, book, theme.
The Notorious Rake (Waite #3) by Mary Balogh: A-
I read three books for review this month including Years and Twice Loved by Lavyrle Spencer, and reviewed The Notorious Rake. This is the only book I officially reviewed for the TBR Challenge that made it to my 2013 favorite books list.

December 2013 - Theme: Holiday (any holiday)
All She Wants for Christmas (Kent Brothers #1) by Jaci Burton: B-
I read the entire Kent Brothers trilogy by Jaci Brothers, and planned on doing an overview of the contemporary series. But in the end, decided to just review the first book.

Did you notice that I did not post in August, September, October and November? During the second half of the year my schedule was off kilter and my posting days did not often coincide with the allotted review days, and in some instances I DNF the books I chose to read. But, I didn't stop reading books from my TBR pile during that time and ended up reviewing many of them after the deadline.

I consider The 2013 TBR Challenge a personal success. I discarded one box of print books and many more from my Kindle, and in the process found a few keepers.

Thanks Wendy!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Mini-Reviews: Kelly Hunter, Shannon Stacey, Amy Lane, Astrid Amara

Continuing with books I really enjoyed in December, here are a few more mini-reviews.

The One That Got Away by Kelly Hunter (2013, Harlequin/KISS)

I'm still upset that I didn't read this book earlier in the year. A recommendation from Nath, this category romance has a bit more of a bite, or edge than I expected, particularly since it's from Harlequin's KISS brand and from my previous experience so far, there is nothing edgy about KISS romances. What provides the edge in this romance? The relationship that develops between the main couple is based on the exploration of sexual pleasure/pain through dominant/submissive roles. Much of it is effectively addressed and implied without resorting to overly graphic scenes. In this case, the prologue is key in establishing the background for the sexual relationship and focus for the story to come.

Logan is a tortured man, and Evie is a strong woman who knows her mind and what she wants. I really liked her. The conflict between them worked for me. The passion that runs beneath the surface when they are together and apart and explodes in the bedroom, and the fact that both realize that they are meant to go through with an adult sexual relationship is a plus. The fact that neither gives up successful careers for the other, instead coming to a mutual, workable arrangement that benefits both is refreshing. And, I believe that the story gains depth through the exploration of Logan's childhood and background story. This is a well-done and necessary aspect of the story. What does not work for me has to do with Max, Logan's half brother and his very sudden transformation and romantic feelings for a certain co-worker.

Overall, The One That Got Away felt like a much longer, meaty book because it is so well executed. It's a different type of read from Harlequin, very modern and up to the moment, yet still fits within their guidelines of not going over the top. It walks a fine line that I enjoyed. It is without a doubt my favorite read of the year by Kelly Hunter.

Category: Contemporary Romance
Grade: B+

Love a Little Sideways (Kowalski #7) by Shannon Stacey (2013, Harlequin)

I took the plunge and read Love a Little Sideways by Shannon Stacey even though I haven't been keeping up with the whole Kowalski series. This is such a cute contemporary romance series and this installment turned out to be an enjoyable addition.

Liz Kowalski is moving back home from New Mexico. The first person she meets is Sheriff Drew Miller, her brother Mitch's best friend and a man who has been a part of her family since childhood. That wouldn't be a problem except that the two of them had a passionate one night stand on the night of Mitch's wedding (All He Ever Desired #5) while they were both on the rebound from other relationships, and now they are both feeling awkward about it. Drew because Liz is his best friend's sister and there are rules between guys about that! And, he never told Mitch. And, Liz because she's not interested in anything long term, but she's really attracted to Drew. Of course regardless of concerns or guilt, Liz and Drew are pulled into a lusty affair.

Stacey uses loads of sexual tension and the encounters between Drew and Liz are smoking hot. The conflicts between them are not insurmountable. Telling Mitch becomes a problem for Drew, as does Liz's inability to commit. I like that she's the one who wants to take her time before making a commitment to the relationship, while Drew is the one who craves it. Of course the whole family gets involved and interfere in their love lives and decision-making. And, this is were my problems came in with this romance. As much as I love the Kowalski's there were just too many hands in the pie in this one. It's to the point that there are so many Kowalski couples and children and extraneous family members that after a while, I had a tough time keeping up with them.

Overall, however, this is a solid contemporary romance with a fine couple, loads of good times, and plenty of great moments. I enjoyed it.

Category: Contemporary Romance
Grade: B

Christmas Kitsch by Amy Lane (2013, Riple Publishing)

It's a little late for holiday romance reviews, but I can't not say a little something about one of my favorite Christmas romances of 2013. This is a recommendation for next holiday season. Christmas Kitsch is a straight up M/M Romance Christmas story by Amy Lane. There is nothing really overtly fresh if you think of this story in general terms: "the well-to-do jock befriends the smart geeky gay kid in high school." However, as a holiday read, this story hits all the right points.

Rusty is a slow learner whose wealthy parents push him to excel and perform above his learning abilities. He and Oliver strike up a friendship because they like each other, but yes, Oliver helps him to get through high school until Rusty goes to Berkeley where he becomes deeply disturbed and unhappy when he can't make it. Rusty is also going through a sexual identity crisis triggered by feelings for Oliver, which places even more pressure on him. Meanwhile, even when apart, Oliver is Rusty's sounding board for everything -- his daily struggles with school work, feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem, sexual frustrations and confusion, and overall fear of failure. There's good reason for Rusty's fears. His parents have never been supportive, and when push comes to shove, let him down. Self-confident Oliver, however, with his great family and strong sense of self, is up to the task and takes up the slack. When Rusty finds himself out of school, homeless, and jobless after his mother sees him kissing Oliver, Oliver and his family come to the rescue, and by Christmas, Rusty learns the real meaning of friendship, family, and home.

In this holiday story, Amy Lane throws a little bit of everything into the mix, including emotion, a little angst, and a couple of adorable characters. Rusty is particularly lovable. Oliver is typically impatient. He wants what he wants, now! And what he wants is Rusty. But, he's supportive, understanding and loving. Oliver's family, Rusty's sister, and his college roommate Felix make excellent secondary characters. Christmas Kitsch is not an overtly angsty piece, but it does have that emotional holiday kick and sweetness that makes it highly enjoyable during the holiday season.

Category: M/M Romance/Christmas
Grade: A-

Sweet and Sour by Astrid Amara (2013, Loose Id)

I absolutely loved the romance in Sweet and Sour by Astrid Amara. It's one of the few Hanukkah holiday romances I've read, and because it's set in 2013, the holiday coincides with Thanksgiving. A double holiday read. Amara sets her romance in Seattle, Washington where the main character, Miles Piekus, owns an established family kosher pickle business turned Jewish deli. He's having a frustrating time with his live-in partner, Itai, who was supposed to help but is too busy with his own concerns. So, Miles is short handed and overwhelmed with cooking, serving, and manning the cash register. In comes Detective Dominic 'Nic' Delbane, gorgeous cop and pickle aficionado, requesting to use the deli for a stake out to catch a drug dealer. Nic needs to work undercover as an employee at the deli and Miles needs an extra pair of hands during the holidays, so both agree this will work out perfectly.

I absolutely love Miles's internal monologue, as well as his dry wit. The combination of humor in the dialogue with sad and hopeful plot points are just right. It is always sad when a relationship that was once important comes to an end, and Miles and Itai's is unraveling, badly. Amara captures Miles's reluctance to accept the inevitable while knowing the end is coming, as well as Itai's ambivalence and total self-absorption. Most importantly, Amara simultaneously weaves in the romance between Nic and Miles with just the right touch by making them an unlikely, compatible pair. There's real attraction, sexual tension, and later passionate moments between them, although I personally fell in love with the cooking scenes. They were so personal and intimate. The evolution of Miles and Nic's romance is filled with those small moments and details that make it truly lovely. Oh, and by the way, Nic and his crew do catch that pesky drug dealer…

So, you can save this wonderful romance for the upcoming Hanukkah or Thanksgiving holiday seasons, or you can read it any time of the year. Either way, Sweet and Sour is worth it!

Category: M/M Romance/Hanukkah/Thanksgiving
Grade: B+