Saturday, January 31, 2015

Hilcia's Minis: UF by SM Reine, Dannika Dark & Melissa F. Olson

What else have I read in January beside fiction? I purchased the 'Shifters After Dark Box Set' (October 22, 2014, Steel Magnolia Press) a PNR/UF bundle that contains five books and one novella. A couple of reasons behind that decision:
(1) the price is right ($0.99);
(2) It is great to have a few UF books with wolves and vampires handy for when the "mood" strikes;
(3) I may find a new UF series to follow.

From this bundle, I read two novels and an 'origins' novella. All books are part of already existing series.

Of Wings and Wolves (The Cain Chronicles #6) by SM Reine

I had a hard time with this story since it is apparently the sixth book of a series. Of course I did not know this fact until after I read it. The main characters, twins Summer and Abram, are whisked away by their grandmother to another dimension, and while the babies' parents are supposed to follow, they never make it. Once they grow up, Summer meets Nash Adamson, a powerful, angsty angel she suspects he wants something from her but can't help but find him very attractive. This attraction is mutual, of course. Later, another dangerous angel, along with her minions, makes an appearance and it is revealed that the twins' whole lives are based on a lie. Shifters, angels, secrets, lies, and alternate dimensions are the main components that make the world turn in this novel. Unfortunately for me, I did not really gain real understanding of how everything began or where the overall story arc was going by reading Of Wings and Wolves. I found it to be a confusing, unfinished read.

Seven Years (Seven #1) by Dannika Dark

I liked the premise for Seven Years. Wolf shifters and mages are the main players in this first UF installment. Dannika Dark begins by introducing a still grieving Lexi Knight on the seventh anniversary of her brother's death, as well as her brother's best friend Austin Cole who has just returned home after having been gone those seven years. He is a young wolf alpha only just assembling his pack, and his return home is filled with guilt caused by his discovery that Lexi and her family have been abandoned and left without protection by her father after Lexi's brother's death. She and her family are in danger and Austin arrives on the scene just in time to become their protector.

Austin comes off as too overprotective, but he is a nice guy who gives Lexi choices we don't usually find in other stories with alpha shifters as protagonists. Lexi and her family have been targeted from a few different fronts. She is independent and used to taking care of her mother and little sister, but Lexi, who is new the world of shifters and magic, doesn't ask the right questions and suffers from lack of judgment. On the other hand, Austin doesn't explain situations clearly and makes some pretty basic mistakes himself. Some of it has to do with their mutual attraction, but much of it seems to be lack of experience or stubbornness from both sides.

I like many of the secondary characters in this UF series and the whole mage with shifters magic that develops. Some sections of the storyline did not quite make sense, i.e., Lexi inheriting a business when she is admittedly not the most knowledgeable or close to the person who left it to her. But it could be that this thread is further developed later on. So, overall a good first installment filled with a sense of menace, action, and interesting secondary characters. Even with some of the issues mentioned above, Seven Years is a good enough read that I will follow up by picking up the second book of the series.

Bloodsick: An Old World Novella by Melissa F. Olson
CONTENT WARNING: Violent physical abuse & admission of rape by victim

Bloodsick is an origins novella focused on Will Carling, the werewolf alpha from Melissa F. Olson's Scarlett Bernard UF trilogy. It chronicles how he became a werewolf after he unknowingly falls in love with the young and powerful witch Sashi, and in doing so makes some powerful enemies. However, we do not actually get Will's point of view, as the story is narrated by young Sashi and Astrid, an abused female werewolf belonging to the local pack.

There are two parallel stories going on at the same time. In the first, Sashi is being pressured by her famous mother, Dr. Noring, to follow in her footsteps. To use her powers to heal through touch by listening to the bodies of humans who are terminally ill. But Sashi's powers are different from her mother's, she is not only more powerful but she is also emphatic and cannot deal with the emotional pain involved with healing. She fights her mother but goes along until she meets one of her mother's patients, a young Will Carling and they begin dating against her mother's wishes. The second story involves Astrid, a female wolf who was brought into the local pack with the sole purpose of being mated to the alpha. Except that Astrid's wolf is incompatible with his and will not submit. This results in increasingly violent, physical and non-consensual sexual encounters between the two that end with Astrid needing Dr. Noring's healing powers on a regular basis. These two threads become entangled after Sashi witnesses healing sessions and unwittingly involves Will in her attempt to save Astrid.

In my mind the title of this novella should be "betrayal" because no matter where you look betrayal at the core of the overall story. There are multiple victims, victims who pay the price for the other characters' mistakes, suffering, and/or hubris. This novella, although violent and for the most part downright depressing, kept my interest through Will's character.

Dead Spots (Scarlett Bernard #1) by Melissa F. Olson

Reading Bloodsick led me to give the original Scarlett Bernard UF trilogy a try, so I borrowed the first book, Dead Spots, from Amazon. Unfortunately, although there are some unique additions to the world-building such as the fact that the heroine is a null or someone who nullifies the magic powers of those around her (vampires, witches, and werewolves) and physically vulnerable instead of kick-ass, everything else is pretty much old news in this UF world. The heroine works exclusively for the two powerful vampire and werewolf alpha leaders as well as the head of the witches, and is at their beck and call day and night. The story is narrated from two points of view: that of the heroine and a human cop. They partner up to solve a gruesome multiple-murder and beat a deadline set the vampire alpha at the end of which, if they fail, he kills them both. There is a requisite love triangle developing between the heroine who doesn't believe in love or commitment, the werewolf Beta with whom she has had a few drunken-fueled sexual encounters (he is emotionally involved, she only wants sex), and the human cop with whom she shares a mutual attraction and could potentially give her a 'normal' life.

The crime investigation, world and character building take up most of the page time, with the potential for romance taking a back seat. The crime investigation means there is action and a mystery to solve. Olson gives enough background story about Scarlett and her family so that we know why she has become emotionally stunted, and we get a good look at the vampire alpha and Scarlett's love interests. In this first book, however, Scarlett comes off as not much more than her employers' gofer and scared witless of the vampire alpha. I looked for Will Carling, the werewolf alpha from Bloodsick, and although he is involved in the storyline his appearances are as underwhelming as the overall story in Dead Spots.

I had some issues with this bundle.
(1) Including a book from an already established series that does not stand well on its own and feels like an unfinished product (Of Wings and Wolves, Cain Chronicles #6) is frustrating and does not give me the incentive to look for previous books.
(2) The novella (Bloodsick) has interesting enough characters that I went looking for more information about them and followed through by reading the first book of the series. Unfortunately, the one character is minor and underwhelming while the others are missing. Additionally, the plot and characters in the first book of the series turn out to be predictable and disappointing.
(3) Although I did not mention it in my minis, the editing throughout all three books need extensive work.

In the end, Seven Years (Seven #1) by Dannika Dark is the best read of this bunch. I may read the other three books included in this bundle when my "mood" for vampires and werewolves strikes again.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty (Putnam Adult, July 2014) is pure 'women's fiction.' It follows three women: Madeline, Celeste as the two old friends meet Jane and her son while attending kindergarten orientation with their own children and take her under their wing.

Moriarty builds a whole story around the dangers of keeping secrets and telling small lies. It all actually begins with a murder investigation and goes back in time to an incident that occurred at the school during kindergarten orientation. At the center of this story, and providing much of its humor, you will find 'helicopter' moms who spend most of their time micro-parenting and behaving worse than their kindergarten children at the school yard. There are 'mom cliques,' fights, malicious gossip, and petitions bandied about that affect both kids and parents. It is all done with biting humor and a healthy dose of sarcasm, but I found it all mean, petty, thoughtless, and generally detrimental to the little ones.

There are, however, other darker threads running through the story that are not humorous at all. First we have the issue of 'bullying' in school, which of course is mishandled by all adults concerned because they are too busy 'outdoing' each other and playing the judgmental card to really pay attention to the children. Second, we have a conflict between a mother and teenage daughter who decides to move in with her father and his new wife, the ex-husband who abandoned them both early on. Then, there are two 'violence against women' threads: a current 'physical abuse behind closed doors' thread that grows increasingly violent as the story unfolds, and the other a past experience with date-rape that still affects the victim deeply and as a result the victim's child.

This novel is rather tough to describe. It is bitingly humorous, but darkly so. There are moments when it is easy to laugh, particularly at the adults' ridiculous behavior -- Madeline for example has some great lines. But, the dark and violent moments are tough to read through. Moriarty portrays the abused woman's delusional state of mind, self-blame, and the progression of violence in the relationship quite well. I am, however, deeply disappointed that after all is said and done the state of her children's mental health is neglected.

And that is my main problem with this novel. It is ambitious in that it tackles multiple issues affecting women and children. Some aspects of these multiple threads are well rendered yet there is so much going on that some issues are superficially touched on while others are ignored. The narrative is well done and entertaining enough to keep readers involved. Unfortunately, the entertainment factor or light approach often takes away from the seriousness of heavier issues and vice versa. As the perfect example I will use the climactic scene, a combination comedic farce (bordering on slapstick) with dark revelations culminating in murder.

I believe that Big Little Lies will appeal to women's fiction readers who may be fans of Moriarty's light and mordant humorous approach to serious subject matter or fans of books with a similar style. I am leaving a lot of what goes on out of this post: dysfunctional children, poor parenting, a romance with a happy ending, infidelities, and more. I enjoyed a few out-loud laughs toward the beginning, before the numbing truth surfaced and those horrifying violent scenes began to trickle in. In the end I found the story to be well written with some admittedly good messages, but over-the-top and somewhat confounding.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Non-Fiction: The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood by Richard Blanco

The way my January reading has progressed is interesting. I'm reading books I wanted to read in 2014, mostly mainstream fiction, non-fiction, or literary fiction, that have been lingering in my Kindle since 2014. Books like The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood by Richard Blanco (September 30, 2014, Ecco).

In 2013, Blanco was the fifth, youngest, first Latino, immigrant and openly gay writer to be chosen as inaugural poet of United States. He read the original poem One Today. With The Prince of Los Cocuyos, Blanco veers from poetry on to the realm of creative non-fiction. He takes a collection of linked short stories that when assembled become a partial biographical tale focusing on Blanco's childhood in Miami where his exiled Cuban family settled.

Blanco chooses slices from his childhood -- moments, memories -- and gives the reader an understanding of the Cuban exile's experience and culture in Miami beginning in the early 1970's. These slices or memories are separated into chapters, each with a title. "The First Real San Giving Day," in which as a little boy Riqui yearns for a real American experience during the Thanksgiving holiday and manipulates his grandmother into making it happen, contains much of what is found throughout this book to make it work. There are funny moments, but it also presents a portrait of the immigrant's experience from an intimate perspective, one that is also encased in frustration and nostalgia.

Nostalgia is the recurring theme. Blanco attempts to understand the seemingly perennial sense of nostalgia that surrounds the Cuban exile community by exploring or dissecting different events that take place in his personal life. However, Blanco also explores the effects cultural differences and language barrier have on an immigrant community, specifically how isolation from the mainstream and fear of the unknown prevents individuals from moving outside the "safety zone" their community represents. Additionally, he goes on to show the frustration and ambivalence of children growing up with two strong cultures pushing and pulling at them. Children who need to be part of the mainstream American culture, yet  want to understand their parents, their love of the 'old country' and cultural traditions.

An excellent example of this effect can be found in "El Ratoncito Miguel," one of the funniest, most touching chapters of the book. Riqui leaves Miami for the first time on a trip to Disney World with his parents and brother. Away from the "safety zone," Riqui's father becomes self-conscious and less confident. Riqui and his brother take control of situations for their parents because they speak English and later, when necessary, both become their parents' protectors. This is a sort of role reversal that many children with monolingual parents experience early on.

On the amusing side of things, in this same chapter Blanco also introduces his mother's "por si las moscas" (meaning or taking the place of "por si acaso" or "just in case") tote bag where she carries the most unexpected items -- some embarrassing, others dangerous. This "in case of flies bag," which Blanco translates literally, becomes a recurring joke throughout the rest of the book. The literal translation makes it even funnier in the context of the stories. Blanco translates most of the Spanish words he uses in the book, and uses literal translations for many of the Cuban sayings -- what he refers to in a later chapter as "Cubichi speech" or Cubanisms.

In one of my favorite chapters, "Queen of the Copa," Miami's glamorous history is integrated along with Miami's diminishing Jewish community, which Blanco uses to further explore the nostalgia theme. And throughout the entire book, including the remaining chapters, "It takes un Pueblo," "Listening to Mermaids," and "El Farito," Blanco also incorporates early difficulties encountered with family, community, and himself while coming to terms with his sexuality. His grandmother, a fierce woman who held old-fashioned, homophobic views, makes a particularly strong impact:
"it's better to be it and not look like it, than to look like it even if you are not it." 
From a personal perspective, I found myself relating strongly to quite a few of the circumstances Blanco portrays in this book. Looking at The Prince of Los Cocuyos from a bit of a distance, I found his storytelling to be touching, insightful, and hysterically funny at times with a bit too much emphasis placed on the nostalgia factor. The book as a whole comes across as genuine, heartfelt, and extremely intimate, depicting strengths and weaknesses in his family, himself, as well as in his community. As a great companion read, I recommend Blanco's poetry volume Looking for the Gulf Motel.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

TBR Review: Big Boy (Strangers On A Train) by Ruthie Knox

The TBR Challenge theme for January 2015 is "We Love Short Shorts -- Category Romances, Novellas, Short Stories."
He’ll be any man she wants—except himself.

A Strangers on a Train Story

Meet me at the train museum after dark. Dress for 1957.

When Mandy joins an online dating service, she keeps her expectations low. All she wants is a distraction from the drudgery of single parenthood and full-time work. But the invitation she receives from a handsome man who won’t share his real name promises an adventure—and a chance to pretend she’s someone else for a few hours.

She doesn’t want romance to complicate her life, but Mandy’s monthly role-playing dates with her stranger on a train—each to a different time period—become the erotic escape she desperately needs. And a soul connection she never expected.

Yet when she tries to draw her lover out of the shadows, Mandy has a fight on her hands…to convince him there’s a place for their fantasy love in the light of day.

Warning: Contains sexy role-playing, theatrical application of coal dust, and a hero who can rock a pair of brown polyester pants.
I'm probably the last person to read Big Boy! I purchased it as soon as it released after having read two books by Ruthie Knox that I just loved. Unfortunately, I never seemed to be in the right mood to read it and let it just lie there on my Kindle.

Mandy is a very young, busy, stressed out single mom. She became mother to her baby nephew Josh after her sister, brother-in-law, and three year old niece died in a tragic accident. Of course it changed her life irrevocably at a time when she was not quite ready for it. To ease stress and give herself time to breathe, once a month Mandy goes out on role-playing dates with a man she met online. Rules are set from the beginning, they each dress-up in period costumes, keep up with their individual role during the dates, and do not exchange names or personal information.

Although technically Mandy and her hot, role-playing partner had only met a total of nine times in nine months when this story began, Knox worked to build this relationship for over a year. That slowly becomes obvious as the story progresses. It shows in how both characters, but particularly Mandy, have changed and influenced each other over that period of time through conversations, the role playing characters, and the anticipation of seeing each other again.

The role playing itself is a fantastic part of this novella for different reasons. I love the descriptions of the costumes they wore and how well Mandy and her partner-in-sexy times get into their roles. And that brings us to Knox's sex scenes which are steamy hot as well as sensual. No need for dom/sub titillation in this novella either. Take a look at the "warning" at the bottom of the summary, those brown polyester pants were hot. What a scene!

Part of the excitement comes from the fact that these two people are strangers, and pretend that they are someone else. Let themselves go. Give themselves a break. But, this is a contemporary and as such, I always look at behavior through a contemporary lens. So, of course there is one huge niggle that made the hairs at the back of my neck stand straight up. It has to do with Mandy going on a first date with someone she met through the internet and met, alone, at a secluded place that first time! I don't care if she had mace as precaution, this is not safe behavior. If you have a daughter who dates, I don't care the age, this will bother you too. I had to suspend disbelief in order to continue with the story because who does that these days? It bothered me.

Once I placed that aside, however, I loved Big Boy, the trains and historical bits about them. Knox executed the romance and eroticism in this novella beautifully and I found that the conflict between the protagonists was valid and well thought out. I like both characters and believe they had good reasons for seeing each other and for keeping the relationship "as is" as long as they did. The epilogue showed a good happy ending that I found satisfying. A great, quick read. Grade: B+

Monday, January 19, 2015

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (Penguin Press, June 26, 2014), is her debut novel. A period piece that begins in the late 50's with the main story taking place in the early to mid-70's, it focuses on the lives of a mixed-raced couple, Marilyn and James Lee and their three children, Nathan, Lydia, and Hannah.

The anti-miscegenation laws were found unconstitutional in 1967, so this was a time in America when racism was still ripe and a family composed of a Chinese/American man, a white woman and their three children did not fit anywhere, at least not in a small town in Ohio. This was a time when people of Asian descent were referred to as "Oriental," a term used by Celeste Ng throughout this novel to describe James Lee and his children. This was also a time when men were condescending to women with dreams of a career, and those women often had to choose between a career and having a family because it was not socially acceptable to have both.

The book begins "Lydia was dead. But nobody knew it yet. . . " Lydia was the Lees' middle child, the blue-eyed, most beloved child around whom everything revolved, the vessel holding her parents' combined dreams -- her father's need to blend in, and her mother's long-lost dream of becoming a doctor. With Lydia's death, a family filled with secrets, self-deception, and guilt unravels, and the truth of a small town's bigotry and lack of compassion comes to the surface. Everyone she left behind is affected. The parents who made Lydia responsible for their happiness and made of her the glue that kept them together. Nathan, the often ignored and resentful but loving older brother who became Lydia's source of strength and savior, but who in the end could not save her. Little sister Hannah, the invisible little girl who saw everything but whom no one in the family acknowledged. And Jack, the wild boy across the street whose life is entangled with the Lee's through Lydia and who becomes the focus of Nathan's rage.

This is a quiet, multi-layered story that makes an impact.  It focuses on family, the damage that may come of the too-high expectations parents place on their children while children base their "love" on meeting those expectations, love and rivalry between siblings, children caught in the middle, the effects of racism and misogyny, racial identity, love, infidelity, and so much more. It is a story that digs into each and every character and the motivation behind their actions. There are no stones left unturned and all is revealed, including what happens to Lydia.

I thought long and hard about these characters, this story, after I finished the book: about history and the high price so many people of color, immigrants, and their children have paid while reaching for the undeniably alluring and often unreachable "American dream," the price we as women have paid (and still pay) on our long journey forward, as well as the damage parents can, unknowingly and thoughtlessly, inflict on their children. This is a beautifully written, thought-provoking debut by Celeste Ng. Highly recommended.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

What Have I Read Lately? The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

This January I'm basically catching up by reading books from my "most wanted" list in 2014. Some of these books were on my TBR, others are recent recommendations from friends. As far as Fiction/Non Fiction go, from my TBR, I read two books I've had in my Kindle since last year, The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood by Richard Blanco, a creative non-fiction book that reads like a novel, and I just finished Everything I Never Told You, a contemporary fiction, debut novel by Celeste Ng. Right now I am reading Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, a book that falls under 'women's fiction' and promises to be a good read. I will come back with reviews or impressions on all of the books mentioned, but today I am concentrating on my first read of 2015.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (Algonquin, April 2014)
"Why is anyone book different from any other book? They are different, A.J. decides, because they are. We have to look inside many. We have to believe. We agree to be disappointed sometimes so that we can be exhilarated every now and again."
I began the year by reading The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, a contemporary fiction book recommended by Christine for our Internet Book Club. The main character, a book store owner and avid reader, loves literary short stories. He references books, titles, characters and plot to describe events occurring in his life. AJ was always an introvert but once he loses his wife in a tragic accident, he further isolates himself in a world of books. A literary snob, he only places value on specific literary works and refuses to read (or buy) anything else. Then, AJ's rare copy of an early book by Edgar Allan Poe is stolen and his plans for retirement are dashed. Luckily for AJ, a little girl comes into his life and everything changes, allowing him a second chance at life and love. "No man is an island." A.J. evolves, and as a result makes a big impact in other people's lives through love, his love of books, and the bookstore.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a multi-layered story. The author keeps the reader immersed by tying events occurring in the main character(s) lives through AJ's perspective as a reader -- AJ's critique of short stories, analysis of construction and writers' abilities, personal views on content (preferences and biases).
"Maya, novels certainly have their charms, but the most elegant creation in the prose universe is a short story. Master the short story and you'll have mastered the universe."
Each chapter begins with one page highlighting the title of a short story and a short critique by AJ which includes facts pertaining to his life at that very moment. I love how the author shows A.J.'s evolution as he builds a canon of short stories for his little girl that also serves as a guide to life.
"My life is in these books, he wants to tell her. Read these and know my heart.
We are not quite novels.
The analogy he is looking for is almost there.
We are not quite short stories. At this point, his life is seeming closest to that.
In the end, we are collected works."
The author touches on issues pertinent to the book world: critiquing, giving obscure or new books/authors a fair chance, ebooks v. print books, the disappearance of brick and mortar book stores, keeping a small, independent book store afloat, dealing with publisher representatives and their seasonal book catalogues. There is a twist to do with Maya that I did not see coming. Of course, looking back, all the clues were in place and waiting to be discovered, a few niggled at the time, but I missed them. AJ as the main character is indispensable but so are the secondary characters because without them there would not be a story to tell. There are little mysteries and twists, love stories and personality conflicts, resolution and absolution.

This is a beautiful book for book lovers. But this is the thing, Zevin takes all of that and integrates it into a story about life itself with all the messy "disappointments and exhilarating moments that make life beautiful now and again." Highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

December 2014 Recap: Books Read + Minis

I am finally going to close 2014 by posting my December recap. I was on vacation throughout the holidays and took the opportunity to read a few books that had been lingering in my TBR. As you can see below, there is only one new holiday book included in my least of reads.

Total books read in December: 11
Contemporary Romance: 1
Paranormal/Urban Fantasy: 1
Science Fiction/Fantasy: 3

1) City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett: B+
2-4) Provoked, Beguiled, Enlightened (Enlightenment Trilogy Books 1-3) by Joanna Chambers: B+
5) Turnbull House (Porcelain Dog) by Jess Faraday: B+

My favorite December reads were City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett, a SFF book that has received positive responses from readers. I meant to read it earlier in the year, unfortunately City of Stairs was the last book I read in 2014 and did not get a chance to review it. I plan to review it this month.

The other December favorites are Turnbull House (Porcelain Dog #2) by Jess Faraday, and Joanna Chambers' Enlightenment trilogy. Both were included in my LGBT Favorite Books and Authors list -- one as part of a duology and the other (all 3 books) as a highly recommended trilogy.

6) The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers: B
7) Night Shift with Nalini Singh, Ilona Andrews, Lisa Shearin, Mila Vane: B
8) Between the Sheets by Molly O'Keefe: B
9) Comfort and Joy with Joanna Chambers, Harper Fox, L.B. Gregg, Josh Lanyon: B

My B reads are all on the strong side. My thoughts about The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers are outlined in my review. However, I also enjoyed the PNR/Urban fantasy anthology Night Shift in its entirety. Although I do admit that my favorite story is "Magic Steals" by Ilona Andrews. I mean who doesn't love Jim and Dali?

The contemporary romance Between the Sheets by Molly O'Keefe deserves a better title. The content just goes so much deeper than that title implies. There is sex (seldom between the sheets), and it is the hot kind, but there are other, deeper issues going on in this story that make this contemporary by O'Keefe a strong read.

And, the Comfort and Joy m/m romance holiday anthology is quite solid and one I'm keeping on my reread pile. I gave two of the stories a higher grade, but all four are enjoyable! These were my minimalistic (rushed) comments at Goodreads:
Rest and be Thankful by Joanna Chambers - Great! (4.5)
Out by Harper Fox - Solid (4.0)
Waiting for Winter by L.B. Gregg - Cute (3.5)
Baby, it's Cold by Josh Lanyon - Yummy (3.5)
Overall, a solid anthology that may become a "comfort" holiday reread in the future. Recommended.

10) The Boy with the Painful Tattoo by Josh Lanyon: C
11) Memory of Water by Emmi Itaranta: C-

The Boy with the Painful Tattoo is the third installment of Lanyon's Holmes and Moriarity romance/mystery series. I have really enjoyed this series and the characters thus far. So I hate to say this, but this installment, although good, did not quite do it for me. Chris and JX do not spend enough time together or working on their relationship, and the level of Chris' neurosis is so high that it hurts to read it. All of the above interfered with my enjoyment of the mystery which, taken on its own, was good.

And Memory of Water is a young adult speculative fiction novel by Finnish author Emmi Itaranta. This is the English translation of the novel. I gave it 2 stars at Goodreads because frankly the writing is beautiful, but my enjoyment of the book was next to nill. Here are my comments such as they are: "I wanted to love this book. The writing style is beautiful and the world-building interesting [enough]. Unfortunately, I ended up reading it in fits and starts. It just became a tedious, slow read and I forced myself to finish it. Obviously not for me." This is an award-winning book, loved and lauded by some readers and not-so-loved by others. Obviously, I fall under the latter.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Closing: The 2014 TBR Challenge

The 2014 TBR Challenge turned out to be a real challenge for me. I was surprised that my list included 8 books out of 12 and that in the end I only missed participating 4 months throughout the year. The books themselves presented a reading challenge. I 'discovered' some fabulous reads in my TBR, i.e., Always to Remember by Lorraine Heath and Broken by Megan Hart, and also books that challenged my comfort zone, i.e., Me Before You by JoJo Moyes and Motorcycle Man by Kristen Ashley. Interestingly enough, in the end, both the best reads and challenges became memorable reads.

Following is my list of TBR reads for 2014: (Click on titles to read reviews)

January: One White Rose (The Clayborne Brides, Book 2) by Julie Garwood
Theme: We Love Short Shorts

March: Me Before You by JoJo Moyes
Theme: New-to-me author

April: A Light at Winter's End (Cedar Springs #3) by Julia London
Theme: Contemporary Romance

May: Motorcycle Man (Dream Man #4) by Kristen Ashley
Theme: More than one book by an author

June: Always to Remember by Lorraine Heath
Theme: Classics

July: The Iron King (Iron Fey #1) Julie Kagawa
Theme: Lovely RITA

August: Broken by Megan Hart
Theme: Luscious Love Scenes

September: The Winter Lodge (Lakeshore Chronicles #1) by Susan Wiggs
Theme: Not followed

As always, thanks to Wendy from The Misadventures of Super Librarian for hosting this fun and very useful yearly challenge.

Now on to 2015!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

SF Mini: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Written in an episodic style, Becky Chambers' debut novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is an intergalactic journey driven by the characters. The author focuses on the close-knit crew, the changing relationships between them, and the intimacy of the world they inhabit within their ship, the Wayfarer. Additionally, Chambers highlights how the crew as a whole and each individual crew member is affected by events occurring and reshaping the vibrant, vastly diverse galaxy outside of the small bubble they have created for themselves inside the ship.

The Wayfarer builds man-made wormholes that allow for faster intergalactic travel. It is an ugly old ship pieced together by its techs and fueled by algae grown on the ship. Chambers includes technical details about the ship's function, the ship's AI, and specifically how it goes about creating those wormholes, but it is the Wayfarer's diverse crew and their life experiences that hold the reader's attention.

Led by a pacifist captain, the crew is composed of aliens from different worlds, a sentient AI, and humans from diverse backgrounds -- humans who grew up in an environmentally depleted Earth, others descendants from humans who escaped to Mars, and still others who grew up in space ships. Aliens are the majority and hold the power in the galaxy, and humans, a minority in this world, survived extinction through self-destruction only by shear dumb luck. Chambers builds a whole galaxy through her characters, their different worlds and cultures of origin.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is all about the crew's long journey to a final destination. Once there, everything ends quickly. Although not necessarily a negative factor for this style of science fiction tale, perhaps the plotting could have used a bit more outside conflict, particularly since it is such a long journey to that "small, angry planet." Having said that, the world-building, characters, and relationships make this story shine. The episodic style works in this novel, with each episode/chapter having a beginning and an end, but fitting well with the ongoing story. I thoroughly enjoyed traveling through space with this crew, loving every new discovery about their world along the way.
2015 Sci-Fi Experience

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Becky Chambers is a writer and editor. Her work has appeared at The Mary Sue,, and elsewhere around the internet. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is her first novel. Born and bred in California, Becky lives with her partner in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

2014: Top Books of the Year

My 2014 Top Books of the Year post is late! Unfortunately it could not be helped. I always say, better late than never. :) In 2014, my reading was not as prolific as it has been in previous years. Fortunately, I read many memorable books, particularly during the first half of the year and during the summer.

Below, you will notice that my favorite books fall under three different headings: Science Fiction/Fantasy, Romance, and Honorable Mentions. Out of 114 books read during the year, I have chosen the most memorable from those rated A/A- (5.0/4.75), and a few "honorable mentions" from books rated B+ (4.5). These are books that were highly recommended and quite memorable despite the lower grade.

SFF: (Click on titles to read reviews)

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
Fantasy (2014, Tor Books)

I loved this stand-alone fantasy and ended up reading it more than once this past year. The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison stands out from the rest with a hopeful outlook and an unforgettable central character.

Ancillary Justice* & Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
Science Fiction Space Opera (2014, Orbit)

Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie are, without a doubt, my favorite science fiction books of 2014, with Ancillary Justice (*2013, Orbit) read in January 2014, taking the top spot. I also reread these books throughout the year. I love the unique world-building and characters, and was particularly taken with the characterization and emotional impact that Leckie achieved in this a science fiction opera with an AI as central character.

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
Speculative Fiction (2014, FSG Original)

With its nameless characters and truly mysterious Area X, VanderMeer's Annihilation drew me into the mind of a biologist whose skewed perspective and detached narrative took me away from reality. This is a book I could not stop reading.

The Girl with All The Gifts by M.R. Carey
Speculative Fiction Thriller/Horror (2014, Orbit)

Post-apocalyptic zombies? We've heard of those before and I am not a fan. But The Girl with All The Gifts is not that typical a book, and after having read the first 10 chapters, I was hooked by a little girl named Melanie. This book is a fantastic read that I devoured as soon as it was released. A keeper!

World of Trouble (The Last Policeman III) by Ben H. Winters
Science Fiction Pre-Apocalyptic Mystery (2014, Quirk Books)

World of Trouble is the last book in Ben H. Winters The Last Policeman pre-apocalyptic mystery trilogy. Hank Palace's actions may seem obsolete to some, but he is one of my favorite, most memorable characters of the year. This is a trilogy that makes readers ask questions of themselves, and with World of Trouble, Winters ended Palace's journey just the way it should.

The Winter Long (October Daye #8) by Seanan McGuire
Urban Fantasy (2014, DAW)

In 2013 I read the entire October Daye UF series and it took me a while to warm up to the main character Toby and to the series as a whole. So it was a surprise to me when The Winter Long turned out to be my favorite UF read of the year. McGuire's execution is particularly notable. She opens up this series, drives it forward, while revealing some long-held secrets and closing up threads. A fabulous read!


It Happened One Wedding by Julie James
Contemporary Romance (2014, Jove)

I loved this contemporary romance by Julie James with its snappy dialog, sense of humor, and narrow focus on the main couple. It is fun and sexy, with an oblivious couple whose love grows from one fantastic hostile meeting that is used to build heat between the two, until surprise! They are in love. This romance is the perfect example of an up-to-the moment, sexy, fun, read.

Now and Forever (A Last Past Romance, Part 2) by Logan Belle
Contemporary Romance  (2014, Moxie Books)

Now and Forever is Part 2 of Logan Belle's A Last Chance Romance. I love that this two-part series is all about an adult woman's journey. She finds love with the right man while dealing with real-life conflicts. With a sexy, erotic romance, and pertinent, relatable conflicts to today's woman, Now and Forever is one of my favorite reads of the year.

Always to Remember by Lorraine Heath
Historical Romance (Kindle Ed. 2010, Harper Collins)

Always to Remember came as a complete surprise to me! I read it up for Wendy's TBR Challenge as it had been in my Kindle for a long time. This book is also the only historical romance to have received an A grade from me in 2014. A fantastic American post-civil war romance set in Texas, this RITA Award winner is exquisitely executed by Lorraine Heath. With both a memorable plot and characters, there is no question that it belongs right here. A classic!


The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine
YA/Historical Fantasy-based Fiction (2014, Atria Books)

The Paradox Trilogy by Rachel Bach 
Science Fiction Space Opera (2014, Orbit)

Seduced (Into the Wild #1) by Molly O'Keefe
Historical Romance Western (2014, Molly Fader) 

In Want of a Wife by Jo Goodman
Historical Romance Western (2014, Berkley)

Some interesting facts:
  • Of the 114 books read (I did not count rereads or DNFs), most of the favorite reads on this list are SFF (Science Fiction / Fantasy).
  • I read few historical romances in 2014. Regardless, it is interesting to note that my top 3 are all western historical romances.
  • I read more westerns than usual, across the board: romance (historical, contemporary, YA, m/m), mystery, young adult fiction, LGBT.
  • Mysteries take the top spot though. Even some of my science fiction and fantasy books had a mystery as the core plot. Lots of mystery mash-ups in 2014!
  • As in previous years, I read some fantastic LGBT books. My favorites are listed on a separate post. You can see them here.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

LGBT: 2014 Favorite Books & Authors

Happy New Year everyone! I wish you all the best for the coming year -- health, love, happiness, and prosperity!

I am beginning my blogging year by posting a list of favorite LGBT books and authors of 2014. My reading was not as prolific in 2014 as in previous years. Fortunately, my reading experience was excellent and I recommended many wonderful books along the way. In the end, however, my choices came from the most memorable books read, reviewed, and graded A (5.0) and A-/B+ (4.75/4.5) throughout the year. Following, in no particular order, is my list of the talented authors or editors whose LGBT themed novels and short stories became my favorite reads of the year:


Scruffians! Stories of Better Sodomites by Hal Duncan
SFF Single Author Short Story Collection (2014, Lethe Press)
Hal Duncan is one of those authors whose short works always leave me craving one more story. In Scruffians!, a homoerotic collection of fantasy and mythology-based short stories with its fairies, pirates, and other adventures, Hal Duncan's writing skills, imagination and extraordinary capacity for weaving dreams can be really appreciated. I read this collection early in 2014 and needless to say, it continues to be a favorite.

Cub by Jeff Mann
YA Contemporary Romance Novel (2014, Bear Bones Books)
Jeff Mann! Now here is a favorite author whose talent seems to have no bounds. He just keeps on adding to his already magnificent backlist of winners. This, of course, is not surprising to readers familiar with Mann's works -- poetry, fiction, erotica, historical romance. With Cub, the ultimate outsider YA story, Mann adds to his already impressive repertoire by writing one of the most unique LGBT YA books I've read to date. I can't help but believe that it became a classic the moment Mann finished writing it.

Butcher's Road by Lee Thomas
Historical Thriller Novel (2014, Lethe Press)
Lee Thomas is a personal favorite and his works always seem to make it to my favorite list at the end of the year. In 2014 it was Butcher's Road, a historical, spec fic/mystery thriller that was so good it spoiled my reading momentum for a while. I just wanted more of that edge-of-my-seat, adrenaline high I get from reading Thomas's books. Butcher's Road is dark, violent, bloody, and filled with magnificent contrasts masterfully rendered by the author. A winner!

Wingmen by Ensan Case 
Historical Fiction / Romance (Reprint, 2014, Lethe Press)
Talk about a 2014 reading obsession! This World War II novel with its subtle, yearning romance, sexual tension, well-researched historical background, down-to-earth, sexy as hell fly boys and epic air battles, was it for me. I read, researched battles, read, research airplanes, read, and loved! What is there not to love about this epic historical fiction novel by Ensan Case? I gushed in my review, I'm gushing now, I know, but if you want to read a fantastic LGBT epic tale set in the Pacific during World War II, this is it.

The Unwanted by Jeffrey Ricker
YA Fantasy Novel (2014, Bold Strokes Books)
Jeffrey Ricker's mythology-based fantasy with a gay young adult as the central character is a book I would recommend to any young adult. And that's one of the many reasons it belongs right here on my list of favorites. The mythology is well integrated with family and young adult conflicts. Most importantly, young adults can relate and see themselves in Ricker's characters. I particularly love the end of this book where Ricker takes a huge risk and wins. I'm hoping for a sequel!

The Bears of Winter ed. Jerry L. Wheeler
Gay Erotic Fiction Anthology (2014, Bear Bones Books)
I adored this anthology! It is Bear erotic fiction and all of those factors are reflected in the stories. The eroticism is strong, but so is the "fiction" factor, which adds depth to the collection as a whole. Wheeler's introduction, editing, and choice of talented writers did it for me, making The Bears of Winter my favorite, most reread anthology of the year!

The Affair of the Porcelain Dog & Turnbull House by Jess Faraday
Historical Fiction/Mystery (2011/2014, Bold Strokes Books)
What a fantastic duology! I read a slew of LGBT historical mysteries this past summer and Jess Faraday's Porcelain Dog duology was a stand out. Its focus on mysteries set in London's gritty East End has a fabulous atmosphere. Combine that with Faraday's morally questionable characters and the historical facts she utilizes as background to build on the gay theme that gives depth to this duology, and you have a winner.

That Door is a Mischief by Alex Jeffers
Gay Fantasy Novel (2014, Lethe Press)
It just seems that I read this gay fantasy by Alex Jeffers at the right moment. I was struck by the beauty of his prose and imagination, yes. But, I believe that for me this story's beauty lies in Jeffers' ability to marry fantasy with reality, to let the reader see behind that magical door into life's truths. Life is beautiful and magical -- happiness and sorrow are just part of the magic. A gorgeous book!

My Favorite Uncle by Marshall Thornton
Gay Comedic Romantic Fiction Novel (2014, Wilde City Press)
I had such fun reading this book. My favorite aspect of My Favorite Uncle is the great combination of wit and depth Thornton uses to develop this generational tale. It clearly details how two different generations of gay men see, experience, and navigate the world. But, this is also a family story with all the dysfunctions that go along with that. Thornton integrates both threads with wit and a deft hand. This book is on my reread shelf!

Provoked, Beguiled, Enlightened (Enlightenment Trilogy) by Joanna Chambers
M/M Romance (2013/2014, Samhain)
The Enlightenment trilogy by Joanna Chambers is a late addition to my list of favorites as it was read in December, but it is a fabulous addition. The slow building romance filled with sexual tension, sensuality, and both inner and outer conflicts make the final outcome worth the journey. Additionally, the setting and atmosphere, as well as the well incorporated historical facts and details are a big plus to this beautiful m/m romance trilogy.

FAVORITE SHORT WORKS: My favorite short works are all chosen from single author collections and anthologies read and reviewed during 2014. All collections are highly recommended in their entirety. I have chosen 10 short stories and believe me, that was not an easy task this year! Here they are, in no particular order:

"Anthology of Spoon River AIDS Walk" & "One Hundred Kisses"
Naming Ceremony: Stories by Chip Livingston (2014, Lethe Press)

"Cruel Movember" & "Persimmon, Teeth, and Boys"
Red Caps: New Fairy Tales for Out of the Ordinary Readers by Steve Berman (2014, Lethe Press)

"The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere" by John Chu" (also reviewed edition)*
"Caress" by Eli Easton
"57 Reasons for the Slate Quarry Suicides" by Sam J Miller
"Super Bass" by Kai Ashante Wilson
Wilde Stories 2014: The Year's Best Gay Speculative Fiction ed. Steve Berman (2014, Lethe Press)

"Werewolf" by Michael Carroll 
With: New Gay Fiction ed. Jameson Currier (2013, Chelsea Station)

"Ma tu sei pazzo?!" Tommi Avicolli Mecca

2013 Favorite LGBT Books & Authors
2012 Favorite LGBT Books & Authors
2011 Favorite LGBT Books & Authors
2010 Favorite LGBT Books & Authors
2009 Top Reads