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July 2016

Strong Signal and Fast Connection (Cyberlove 1 & 2) by Megan Erickson and Santino Hassell

28561501Strong Signal (Cyberlove #1):  Garrett Reid is serving the last 9 months of his military career deployed in Afghanistan.  He spends his precious few hours of downtime playing video games, where one day he is mercilessly destroyed by an overpowering opponent. Angry he decides to virtually track down the Orc only to discover that he is Kai Bannon,a "gaymer" with his own Twitch stream (video gameplay channel) with legions of adoring followers and subscribers. At first Garrett hate-watches the stream, trash-talking in the Chat, but before long he finds himself grudgingly admiring him and starting to feel protective of Kai (after hypocritically benefiting from tumblrs full of stalker/fan-fodder about Kai).  He can't resist sending Kai a concerned email. Kai and Garrett then start exchanging initially tense then later, funny and tentatively flirtatious emails, then gchats and more. They have a great opposites-attract dynamic that blossoms into a beautiful sense of compatibility for two people who struggle to be understood, seen and truly known.

There is so much going on in this novel and all of it good. Erickson and Hassell layer emotionally-rich and realistic portrayals of imperfectly loving families, online communities, economic pressures, sexual identity and the tensions and conflicts inherent in building authentic intimacy and friendships while interacting online.  While Kai and Garrett's sexual chemistry is hotter than fire it is not enough to overcome the serious obstacles they face in building something permanent. A lasting relationship require they both put in serious work on themselves and the way they communicate in order to make their relationship work.

I have a great deal of respect for how Hassell and Erickson dealt with Kai's mental health issues. Garrett and Kai love each other but that doesn't magically cure anxiety.  While having an understanding partner is super important, in the end therapy and medication is how those things are addressed. And it is powerful to have Kai be the one who puts in that work and effort, because he values himself and wants more for himself.

30415154Fast Connection (Cyberlove#2):

Dominic Costigan is at loose ends. Twenty-six and recently out of the military, he feels just as lost and directionless as he was at 18, living in his parents' basement and working the counter at the family bagel shop.  At the same time he feels extremely alienated from his old friends, who don't understand why he doesn't simply go back to being the hookup obsessed dude-bro  he used to be. Having only recently become aware of his bisexuality, he is completely unsure about how to approach men and signal he is looking for something more than just a one-night stand.

Luke Rawlings only wants one-night stands. After a disastrous relationship wrecked his career and endangered his family he keeps his sexual needs very separate from the rest of his life. But Dominic's charm, persistence and  vulnerability wear down Luke in bending and eventually breaking his strict compartmentalization, complicating his life in ways that he never expected to value.

I was again moved by the richness of the storytelling. Erickson and Hassell weave multiple storylines and themes into a very satisfying whole. I loved the centrality of family and how fragile but tangled those bonds can be. Both Dominic and Luke are very protective of their families, despite the very different ways those families operate. I love how Erickson and Hassell portray the tender work necessary to rebuild relationships after meltdowns.

Both these novels illustrate one of my favorite relationship lessons -- Relationships take work and while sex can spark relationships it is the commitments made to walk the hard path together that sustain them.  Time and time again Kai & Garrett and Luke and Dominic can get everything right sexually but it is the fact that they come back to each other when things get hard, when apologies need to be made and after things have gotten uncomfortable that builds toward the HEA.  Kai, Garrett, Luke and Dominic are broken, flawed people and they are worth of love in that brokenness.

I can't wait to dive into Santino Hassell and Megan Erickson's backlists and I eagerly look forward to Cyberlove #3.


A Curious Beginning (Veronica Speedwell #1) by Deanna Raybourn

51NzMcKLDSL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_I love historical fiction, mystery and adventure stories and this book had all of that and a touch of romance. This is the first book in a new mystery series set near the end of the Victorian Era, around the time of the Queen's Jubilee by Deanna Raybourn.  I loved Raybourn's Lady Jane mysteries and this series looks to be even more interesting.

Veronica Speedwell, a naturalist, who specializes in hunting rare butterflies, has just buried her last remaining relative, her adoptive aunt, in a small rural village. When she returns home to pack up her belongings and set off on her own she is attacked in her cottage by an intruder and rescued by a mysterious old German baron, who insists that her life is in danger and he is here to protect her. She reluctantly agrees to go with him to London (mostly to save herself the train fare) because he claims to have known her mother and might be able to tell her who her father was. He is however killed before he can tell her after leaving her in the care of a trusted associate, a gruff-disgraced former naturalist and adventurer, known as Stoker.

ACB-350Stoker and Veronica reluctantly team-up and they together and go on the run from those pursuing Veronica and work to solve the Baron's murder. The plot is twisty and the dialogue very clever and funny. Veronica and Stoker have great sexual/romantic tension as they forge their tentative partnership and I love the push/pull of their relationship. Neither of them are easy people, and both have lots of emotional baggage to overcome.  I enjoyed the colorful locations (a cluttered warehouse, a traveling carnival, a ramshackle ballroom stuffed with scientific treasure) where Veronica and Stoker take refuge and unusual  supporting characters  very much.  I am looking forward to reading Veronica and Stoker's future adventures.

I listened to this as an audiobook and the performance by the narrator, Angele Masters was fantastic, as she gave each character a distinctive voice without being distracting.


Gambled Away: A Historical Romance Anthology

51S13AejBxL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

I loved this anthology. Rich characterization and intriguing stories about resourcefulness, resilience and redemption that are never repetitive despite sharing a common plot element.

As this anthology includes many of my favorite authors I hope many people take a chance and explore some of their other novels and that they team up again in the future.

All or Nothing by Rose Lerner: This story was surprising, engrossing and emotionally complex. It is a story about lust, longing, trust, hope and how important it is to hold on to truth.  Maggie da Silva's life is outwardly glamorous. She and her best-friend and lover Henny host a small gambling den, where together they charm aristocrats into emptying their pockets for chance to be singled out to gamble on winning Maggie's sexual favors.  Simon Radcliffe-Gould is a struggling architect and terrible gambler who can't resist coming every week because he is infatuated with Maggie. He is titillated and mortified when he wins Maggie. Torn between honorable intentions and desire, he persuades Maggie to pose as his mistress at house-party hosted by Simon's ex-lover, so he can complete a commission without getting sucked back into a relationship with him.  

Lerner is masterful in balancing the emotional tension in this story, as both Maggie and Simon have a lot they need to figure out about themselves, their needs and what they are unwilling to compromise on before they can even consider how to turn their temporary entanglement into something lasting. I don't think I will be done thinking about Simon and Maggie and the truths they hold on to for a very long time. I was particularly moved by Maggie determination to reclaim her Jewish faith. Maggie's feelings about her faith are rich and complex as she seeks away to live authentically despite the challenges of growing up without any access to those who might have taught her the traditions her family was forced to abandon because of religious persecution and forced conversion.

“The Liar’s Dice” by Jeannie Lin

Set during the Tang Dynasty, Lin's novella is part of her fantastic Lotus Palace series and features many familiar characters as secondary characters while still being completely accessible to those who have  not be lucky enough to read the previous books.

Wei-wei, Lady Bai, has always been a dutiful daughter but she has grown restless and seeks to experience a little of bit of the freedom that would have been hers if she had been born a boy. After borrowing her brother's scholar's robes she sneaks into her sister-in-law's tea house to experience for herself what she has only ever read about. On her way back home she runs into Gao a shady acquaintance of her brother  and together they stumble upon murder victim. Worried that the murder might be connected to her brother's recently uncharacteristic behavior and could inadvertently destroy her brother's newfound joy, they team up to solve the murder.

The Liar's Dice was essentially a mystery novella with a touch of romance. Wei-wei tests the limits of her freedom, confronts her brother and gets to know a mysterious but unsuitable man in Gao. The ending of their flirtation is hopeful but far from assured. As a mystery novella it was highly enjoyable, full of fantastic and fascinating detail but as romance it left me somewhat unsatisfied.

“Raising The Stakes” by Isabel Cooper  As Okies stream into 1938 California, desperate as dust storms and drought push them off their land, Sam, a card-shark, wins a magical flute that allows her to summon a otherworldy fae warrior to come to her aid.  After the initial shock wears off, the clever and shrewd, Sam enlists Talathan's aid in conning a greedy revival preacher in order to save her family farm from foreclosure. Sharp, cunning Sam bewilders and tempts Talathan with her forthrightness and hidden vulnerabilities and makes them both long for something more than temporary team-up.

Cooper grounds her fantasy with great period detail and sells the partnerships between the nomadic gambler and fairy warrior through humor and snappy dialogue, but the romance between them still felt tentative by the end.

“Redeemed” by Molly O’Keefe 

Guilt-ridden Dr. James Madison is struggling to figure out how to rebuild his life, camping out in a brothel and turning away his friends. Addiction has wrecked his career and nearly destroyed the life of his assistant, but it is the daily grind of recovery and re-integration into society that is wearing him down. 

When Helen Winters, the caged singing star of the titillating traveling "Northern Spy" act  arrives in to town, James can't decide if he should intervene when it seems that Helen is being drugged and possibly held against her will by her manager and guardian. 

Like the previous stories in O'Keefe's fantastic post-Civil War western series, Into the Wilds, Redeemed explores the complicated legacy of the Civil War on its survivors.  All the characters are richly drawn and the romance was emotional and heart-wrenching.

“Gideon and the Den of Thieves” by Joanna Bourne When Gideon Gage a trader and mercenary infiltrates the lair of London's most powerful crimelord,  Lazarus, he finds unlikely allies in Hawker and Aimee, two of Lazarus's most loyal subjects.

Hawker and Aimee are conspiring to protect the ailing Lazarus from challengers, through a campaign of distraction and misdirection  because they know that Lazarus's perceived strength is all that keeps their little band of street urchins and waifs from utter destruction. Lazarus might be the devil but he is the devil they know and count on.

Bourne's novella is set is near the very beginning of her Spymaster's series chronology.  A very young Hawker, at his most  vicious, sarcastic and feral and Aimee, french refugee who works as Lazarus' s fence, is everything her heroines usually are, independent, resourceful and deeply scarred by her past.  I enjoyed the novella's focus on Aimee and Hawker's friendship and their relationship with Lazarus.

 

The anthology is currently available for free through Kindle Unlimited but it is more than worth its regular $2.99 price tag.  I received advance copy from the authors for review consideration.

 


Returning from a Reviewing Hiatus

My last review for my blog was May 10, when I hit a stress bubble in my offline life and had to let something go for my sanity.  I kept on reading and writing 140 character reviews on twitter but I didn't have any time to just think and write.  I am on vacation right now in Maunabo, and for the first time in months actually felt like I could coherently write something again.

I have a  review for the fantastic Gambled Away anthology  almost ready to go but I am waiting to finish one last novella in it before I hit publish.

I'm  stilling writing my reviews for RT so I am planning on linking to those in my next review.  RT is going through some major changes so I have drastically cut down the number of books I read for them as I wait through the transition to see if it still works for me to review for them.  

Although the blog has been hiatus and I've been turning down ARCs for most of the last month  I have been reading a ton.

I indulged in Kindle Unlimited subscription and  have read dozens of books on KU, mostly bikers, shifters and aliens and have dug through my TBR to read books I had forgotten I bought.  I have been playing around on a bookish app called Litsy ( a cross between Instagram and Goodreads for booklovers)

D1GwYJosOcS._SL250_FMpng_I read all the Ice Planet Barbarians books by Ruby Dixon, which had been repeatedly recommended to me by Michelle Mills and Elisabeth Lane (their book choices rarely overlap so for both of them to recommend them, meant I had to try them eventually).

 My favorite of them all was Barbarian Alien.  A traumatized Ice Barbarians kidnaps one of the human women he resonates with (they have a symbiote that alter their body to survive the harsh environment of the planet and it that identifies their mate, and amps up the mating drive) to ensure no one takes her from him.  Despite the whole alien abduction, symbiote driven mating drive the books are really good about consent.  The tension in the books is about having the character's feelings for each other catch up to their bodies ramped up lust, while overcoming language and cultural barriers.  Over all the heroes tend to be very protective and possessive but what I loved about Raahosh comes to understand Liz's need to be independent and learn to provide for herself in this new planet.  Ruby Dixon's worldbuilding was pretty great, and I was amused by how subtlety she tweeked our understanding of how resonance and mating work in the books to provide different conflicts and tensions for later couples.

After reading all the Ice Planet Books I read Ruby Dixon's Shift that collect five bear shifter novellas. These novellas were very cute and fun.  Bear shifters find their inconveniently human mates and respond in a variety of ways. 

I also tried Ruby Dixon's Bedlam Butcher series. I enjoyed Off Limits about the unlucky-sister of the Biker club's president, Lucky and Solo, the one partner-less biker in a band of bikers who are somewhat obsessed with the buddy system. When Lucky is targeted by a gang of white supremacists, Solo rescues her and together they bait the other gang into exposing themselves.  I enjoyed the suspense plot in the later books, but ended up skimming them because I couldn't suspend my disbelief enough to sink into the later books that are all menage. 

No KU binge can be complete without trying Alexa Riley again.  I had read and hated Mechanic and Coach, but I discovered that I very much enjoyed their Fairy Tale Shifter books.  All the elements that make me recoil from their contemporaries, work for me in their paranormals.  They write over-the-top uncomplicated books full of insta-love, possessive mates and mating urges, and I find I can only enjoy that when reading about shifters or aliens. B1qu-MZLx7S._SL250_FMpng_

I quite enjoyed Suzanne Wright's Phoenix Pack and Mercury Pack shifter books. The books had very interesting political pack dynamics and I enjoyed how blood thirsty and powerful the women in the series were. The romances were fun, with a lot emotional push and pull but I laughed and laughed when I realized that all the books had anal sex scenes because although almost all the characters had previous sexual partners they had saved anal sex for their true mate.  What I didn't enjoy was the high-mortality rate for the female exes and how often sexual rivalry drove the suspense conflict.

I'll be back to ARC reviewing in the next few weeks!