Review of The Wizard and the Werewolf (Mixed Mate Series#1) by Amber Kell

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Rating: 3.5 stars

Peter Moore, Alpha of his pack, doesn’t expect to start his day with a request from his sister Anna’s new Mate, Cyrus Kane.  Always shy in his presence, Cyrus seems especially nervous now.  Cyrus has a request to make of Peter and their pack.  Cyrus’ half brother Justin needs a place to stay for a few days and Cyrus suggested that he stay with him. Which wouldn’t be a problem except that Justin is a wizard, someone not always welcomed by shifters.  Justin also is a bit of a trouble magnet.  Still after granting his request, Peter is not prepared for the gorgeous man on a motorcycle roaring up his Pack’s driveway.  One look, one sniff, and Peter finds he has his Mate in Justin, something neither man is prepared for.

Justin is on the run, a small fact he has kept from his brother.  Justin has stolen a powerful talisman from Tom Frells, member of the Wizard Council and Justin’s exboyfriend. Tom has promised to track him down, retrieve the artifact and make him pay.  Could the timing be any worse on finding out that he has a Mate? Now not only must Justin keep his Cyrus and Anna safe, he has a possessive Alpha as Mate and a psychotic ex-boyfriend chasing him.  Justin must use all his wits and power if there is to be a future for them all.

The Wizard and the Werewolf is the beginning of a new series by Amber Kell and it has the makings of a good one.  This book sets up the story, the characters and the quest/conflict that will involve everyone in the books to come.  I like the cast of characters Kell has presented us with starting with Cyrus and Justin, half brothers superficially opposite and completely similiar inside where it counts, including giving shy, submissive Cyrus a core of steel.  The pack also has characters of note, from Peter Moore and his dominant sister, Anna to Gregory, his beta in the pack. Kell throws a demon and god for good measure.  But at 117 pages, there is just not enough time to satisfactorily and realistically accomplish all she has set down in the first book, which is such a shame. I find that the characters could have been more fully developed and a little less stereotypical.  Peter is a Alpha we have seen before as is the Gay for You element here. I wish she had given Peter her own twist to this character and the same goes for the bad boy  wizard, Justin.

Then there is the plot. We need a little more backstory here, why do the wizards and shifters not get along to the point of extermination? Tell us more about Gaia and her son. The narrative needed more polish and more depth than the length and Amber Kell was able to convey. All the questions brought up by the events in the book never received any answers by the end.  In fact, the book was more of a cliffhanger than anything else, a technique that, in my opinion, only belongs in a free serial story.Yes, one aspect was cleared up but so many more were left hanging. Leave hints, lay a trail or two to set up the next book in the series but finish what you start and leave the reader satisfied with the book they just finished.

Unfortunately the book came across as more of a hastily scribbled book outline that the author wanted to get off to the publisher to show what they were working on next.  I just wish Amber Kell has take the time to flesh out the story that she has created for us.  All the elements are there, including the mixed mates element which I really love.  This book gives us two mixed mates and several cross bondings, all of which adds the potential for this to be a great new series if the author brings the promise I see here to fruition.  I am looking forward to the next book, but if loose ends and cliffhangers leave you irritated and unsatisfied, perhaps you should wait until the series is further along to pick this one up.

Cover:  Nice design by artist Reese Dante but the  models look a little generic for me and nothing speaks to the storyline inside.

Review of Lessons in Temptation, Cambridge Fellows #5 by Charlie Cochrane

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Rating: 4.25

It’s 1907, and Drs. Coppersmith and Stewart find themselves in Bath with two different goals to accomplish. Orlando is to assess the value of several mathematical tomes that the College might wish to purchase and Jonty is trying to finish his treatise on the sonnets.  Once in Bath, they are approached by a man with a 20- year old murder mystery he wants them to solve.   Then Jimmy Harding appears,an old friend of Jonty’s, in Bath to stage a production of MacBeth. He is determined to pull Jonty into the production with the aim of separating him from Orlando and into his arms. With temptation, mystery and stress swirling around them, how will Orlando and Jonty survive their lessons in temptation.

With the fifth book in the series, Orlando and Jonty’s relationship is faced with yet another crisis, this one of faith and self knowledge.  I love that with each book, Charlie Cochrane moves her Cambridge Fellows relationship forward to another level, usually with the impetus of a crisis of either emotional or physical means.  And it is done in the middle of some murder mystery that must be solved, with a clue alluding to some missing component or pointing to some problematic area in their partnership. You always feel hat without some spark, Orlando would happily continue on, thinking all was well with their love.  Jonty usually provides the spark or explosion that sends one of them into the clouds of introspection and rumination and this time it is no different.

Jimmy Harding is the trigger that precipitates an avalanche of attraction and guilt in Jonty Stewart, who up until now has never felt the need to  look at other men, let alone act on a lust laden impulse.  Now he feels both when looking at his old friend and is at a loss as to what to do while keeping Orlando in the dark.  Jimmy on the other hand, is doing everything he can to tilt the odds in his direction, pulling Jonty into his play, popping up wherever Jonty happens to be and letting Orlando know that he intends to take Jonty from him.  Cochrane does a brilliant job of getting us into Jonty’s head, as he bends under his guilt, his confusion over how he can feel tempted to an affair knowing it would cost him everything he holds dear, including his own family who might never forgive him his adultery. Jonty’s temptation is so human, so believable that he is easy to empathize with even as you dread he might actually cheat on Orlando as the consequences of that act are clearly set in front of himself and the reader.  More than once I wanted to give Jimmy a bop on the nose to make him backoff but as Cochrane shows us, it is a moment of crisis that Jonty must overcome himself if his and Orlando’s relationship, strained under Jimmy’s assault, is to regain its footing and move them forward towards a deeper partnership on more equal footing.

Orlando is himself part of the problem.  While he has grown as a person, and here Charlie Cochrane inserts a really nice Galatea/Pygmalion metaphor, he is still seeing things in mostly black and white, including sexual relations.  Orlando can’t understand physical passion without love, and their  lovemaking has been rather one sided, with Orlando being the one to penetrate and Jonty being the one penetrated. This is a state of affairs that Jonty would love to overturn and has met with resistance from Orlando with he has mentioned it. Now with Jimmy making overtures, his dreams are filled with Jimmy and not Orlando, and he is physically sick from it.  Orlando is not as removed as Jonty would think from the stress and upheavel caused by Jimmy’s pursuit.  A depressive state never far off when his mind is in turmoil, Orlando is keenly aware that all is not well with Jonty but doesn’t know what to do, leaving him to investigate the murder on his own at times. Both men are inwardly upset and confused while outwardly behaving at though nothing was wrong.  And their pain is so real that it becomes ours as well. All of this recrimination and insight comes out with beautifully written passages that convey all the turbulence of Jonty’s thoughts  without leaving 1907 in terms of dialog and terminology.

Cochrane has such a talent in describing her historical settings that I feel as though I am walking the cobblestone streets with Jonty and Orlando as companions.  She imparts such knowledge of the times with her mentions of Stark’s pony, the Red Guide or the “threnody of discomfort”, or terms such as palaver, that give her books authenticity without overwhelming the reader with too many unfamiliar terms(although I will admit to running to the computer for illumination a time or two). From her perfect use of the phraseology of the times right down to the buildings and places of renown in the 1900’s, nary a wrong note is sounded.

With every book, my love for these fellows grows and we move forward in time. We are now a year away from the launching of the first dreadnought class of warship in Britain in 1906. There are 9 books in the series, the last taking place after WWI.  While I cannot wait to read the next in the series, I am beginning to dread what the future may hold for our lovely Cambridge Fellows knowing that the war is fast approaching.

Here are the Cambridge Fellows series in the order they were written and should be read to fully grasp the nature of the times, the historical feel of the novels, and the growth of the relationship between Orlando and Jonty.

Lessons in Love, Cambridge Fellows #1 my review here.

Lessons in Desire, Cambridge Fellows #2 – read my review here

Lessons in Discovery, Cambridge Fellows #3 – read my review here

Lessons in Power, Cambridge Fellows #4 – read my review here

Lessons in Temptation, Cambridge Fellows #5

Lessons in Seduction, Cambridge Fellows #6 – review coming

Lessons in Trust, Cambridge Fellows #7 – review coming

All Lessons Learned, Cambridge Fellows #8 – review coming

Lessons for Survivors, Cambridge Fellows #9 (book coming out from Cheyenne Publishing)

Cover;  I have loved the covers for this series but the inclusion of that model’s face to the left is a jarring modern touch.  He doesn’t not have the authentic feel of the previous models or art work. What a shame, it ruins the cover for me.

Review of Hawaiian Gothic by Heidi Belleau and Violetta Vane

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Rating: 4. 5 stars

Gregorio “Ori” Reyes has just arrived home in Hawaii after doing time in Leavenworth and given a dishonorable discharge from the Army for his crime.  In disgrace with his military oriented family and with dwindling funds in his pocket, Ori has come home for only one reason.  Kalani, his boyhood friend, the reason he joined the Army and the only man he has ever loved.  Thoughts of Kalani were his constant companions in Iraq and his images haunted Ori’s nights in Leavenworth.  Everywhere Ori looks Kalani appears, which is crazy.  Because Kalani is lying comatose in a hospital bed on Honolulu.  Kalani had been attacked by a gang of men and left for dead while Ori had been in prison.  And now feeling guilty and grief stricken, Ori has returned to Kalani too late to tell him how much he loves him.  Or so Ori thinks.

After one of his visits to Kalani’s bedside, Ori’s visit to a gay bar ends with him taking a guy home.  As things heat up, a loud noise stops the proceedings and Kalani appears.  Or actually Kalani’s spirit appears although he feels so very real to Ori.  While his broken body remains in the hospital, Kalani visits Ori, the man Kalani has loved even if he wasn’t ready to accept that it was romantic love.  Unsure why Kalani is able to physically appear to Ori, neither man wants to question the miracle until Kalani starts getting attacked in the spirit world.  Together Ori and Kalani must explore the secrets of Kalani’s past and venture forward into Hawaii’s ghost world to set Kalani free, either to return to his body or join his ancestors in the clouds.  Something must be done quickly or Kalani will be condemned to everlasting pain in between.

Hawaiian Gothic is an remarkable story.  From the start, authors Belleau and Vane submerge us in the Hawaiian culture beginning with the language of the islands flowing throughout the dialog.  It mingles effortlessly as one would expect from a local speaker. Belleau and Vane actually created an Hawaiian Gothic glossary of Native Hawaiian and Hawaiian pidgin terms used in the story.  It can be found here. And there’s the locations. The Hawaiian settings are so authentically rendered that I would think that the authors are natives themselves, right down to hidden beaches and non-touristy sites.  I almost felt like I had to wipe the sand off my feet at times so complete was my immersion in the islands.

The next outstanding elements in the book are the Hawaiian creationist myths and beliefs that swirled and rolled like the waves of the ocean around all the characters of the story, especially the main ones of Ori and Kalani.  Here the Hawaiian myths rise up and become real, able to rip one apart like the flashing teeth of a shark or the mandibles of a caterpillar or sooth like the lomilomi.  Before I started this book I was only familiar with one of the Hawaiian creation myths.  By the end, I was seeking out more resources so fantastic, so addictive did the Hawaiian gods and stories become.  Great job by the authors in seamlessly fusing mythic and contemporary worlds so that both stood on equal footing with the reader as far as realism and tone. The authors almost did too good a job with their descriptions so frightening were the keuwas, Hawaiian dead hungry souls, that the very thought of them lingered on into my nightmares that night.

Belleau and Vane give us great characters to inhabit a great story.  Ori is especially believable.  He is a former Army Ranger and MMA fighter (that’s mixed martial arts for those of you unfamiliar with the MMA) who has completed two tours of duty in Iraq.  He is a victim of PTSD, ashamed of his discharge, isolated from his family. He feels he has little future and helpless, especially with Kalani comotose.  He hid his love for Kalani and ran from him rather than force Kalani to face it for what it was -romantic love. It was so easy to empathize with Ori and I became invested in his character early on. Kalani is a little more of a mystery as the book starts and then the reader becomes more familiar with him as Ori’s memories of their shared past surface and you come to love him as much as Ori does.  All the secondary characters are as fully realized as Ori and Kalani, giving the story the depth it needs with all its complicated layers of flashbacks, memories and spirit worlds.

So why not give this story 5 stars?  Well, it certainly came close and I am still debating the rating even now.  But I am still quibbling over two things.  One concern is an m/f/m element here that was required for the exposition of a plot point. But for me its extended narrative went on too long and removed us from the main storyline unnecessarily. Plus I know that for some readers any m/m/f or combination thereof is not something they want to see in their m/m fiction. And usually I would agree with them.  But I absolutely understood its inclusion by the authors here.  My second quibble involves the numerous flashbacks used by the authors to highlight certain elements of their story.  Did it work well in most instances? Yes.  Most of the time it was a satisfactory method to better understand the main characters pov and history.  But then its continued use and varied time frames (1988, 2004, 2010, 2009, etc) started to become a little irritating and less effective, distracting rather than contributing to a captivating and addictive storyline.  And trust me, this is such a great story that nothing should ever divert the reader away from  the saga at hand.

So pick up Hawaiian Gothic and visit the islands. Whether you be Malahini or Kama’aina, this story will have you ohana in no time.  Make no mistake Hawaiian Gothic is da kine or the best in every way.  Aloha!

Cover.  I love this cover by artist April Martinez.  Its beautiful from its model to Hawaiian cloth.  Perfect for the story.

Review of Dance With The Devil (Dance With The Devil #1) by Megan Derr

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Rating: 4.5 stars

Chris White is a detective with a unique caseload and an even stranger group of clients. Or it would be unique if Chris wasn’t a detective of the supernatural in a City ruled by a storm demon.  And as for Chris White himself?  Well, he’s not exactly a normal either.  The son of a black witch and a ghost, he can become transparent and walk through solid objects, an ability that comes in handy if you are a detective. Doug, a free imp is his friend and co detective, a situation that came about from one of Chris’ first cases.  No case is refused, whether it be a missing normal, a sleeping alchemist who won’t wake up, a runaway vampire, warlock in search of a book, a frightened goblin and a demon lord with one interest, that of Christ White himself.

Megan Derr just keeps the terrific reads coming, one captivating book after another.  Dance With The Devil is the first book in the Dance With The Devil series and introduces us to Christ White, supernatural detective,the demon Lord, Cadfael, also known as Sable Brennus whose consort just happens to be Chris White, and all the denizens of the storm demon’s territory and neighboring lands.  I loved the structure of this book.  Instead of chapters, Derr gives us case files from the White’s Detective Agency.  The lower the case file  number, the earlier in the time line of the  book which starts at Case #503, which is present day with Chris already Sable Brennus’ Consort and Doug, a full grown imp, a friend and co detective.  They are looking for the daughter of a missing “normal” friend of Sable’s.  The next case? In another book, it would be a flashback but here it is Case No. 37-Devoured which brings Chris into his first contact with the storm demon ruling the city and our first look at the beginnings of their relationship. And so the book continues, after each case in present time, we get the characters backstory in a case from their past.  Case load by case load, we gather together the histories of the beings we meet and the social structure of the world they live in.  I loved this element. Already a mystery addict, this was a story construct that had me glued to the pages from the very first sentence.

The dimensions here are not only in the demon worlds, but in the characters created for the story.  I loved Chris White and his unusual family and backstory.  Even in a world full of supernatural creatures, he was still a small boy made fun of at school because of his ghostly half nature.  Chris, with his determination to take care of those in need, even if he doesn’t like them very much, is a honorable, if prickly Knight in jeans and leather jacket.  And the Woods, a section of town he lives in with all the other marginal creatures trying to get through every day, is so vividly described right down to the sad sack buildings and structures long past their glory days full of victims and predators is easily visualized by the reader. Doug is worthy of our sympathy for his beginnings and our delight in a knowledgeable, lonely being craving a love that he believes will never be his. Then there is Phil, Philipa actually, who starts out as a victim who dusts off her Louboutins (or the demon world’s equivalent) to become so much more than she started out to be.  One after another, memorable characters march into view to capture our hearts and tether our hopes to their efforts at achieving self worth, companionship and love.

And at the end of the book, I wanted more, much, much more! Dagnabbit! At 146 pages, it was just too short for me.  Happily, there are other books in this series which I have listed below and will review in the order they were written.  Next up?  Dancing in the Dark (Dance With The Devil #2).  Look for it coming soon.  Until then, it’s back to Case No. 629 and Phil’s first case!  That’s right, Philipa became a detective, ok a junior one, and got involved with a goblin….well, you just have to get the book and find out for yourself.  Trust me, you will love it!

Dance with the Devil (Dance with the Devil #1)

Dance In The Dark (Dance with the Devil #2)

Midnight (Dance with the Devil #3)

Ruffskin (Dance with the Devil #4)

Sword of the King (Dance with the Devil #5)

I like this cover but the rest of the series has a uniform format and design that I find much more appealing. London Burden is the cover designer and does just an outstanding job with Megan Derr’s series.

Review of A Self Portrait by J.P. Bowie

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Rating: 3.75 stars

Artist Peter Brandon is getting ready to have old friends visit for the weekend and is a little irritated that his partner, Jeff Stevens has scheduled a meeting in L. A. about a case at the same time he was hoping to have help with the preparations. As it gets closer for Jeff to leave, Peter starts having feelings of dread, twinges of intuition that have always been right in the past.  But Jeff goes anyway promising to be back in the evening. When Jeff doesn’t arrive home as planned and doesn’t answer Peter’s phone calls,  Peter knows that something terrible has happened. A vision shows him Jeff, hurt, bound and gagged and Peter  jumps into action, determined to rescue Jeff at any cost. And one of the people Peter counts on to help him is none other than the spirit of his dead lover, Phillip.

Peter finds out that Jeff had been pulled into a case involving a Satanic cult whose leader, Lefevre, has followers everywhere and the LA police have no leads on Jeff’s location.  As Peter and Jeff’s friends gather round to help in the search, Peter heads out with only Phillip as his guide. When Lefevre finds out about Phillip’s ability to aid Peter from beyond the grave, he plans to acquire the spirit and kill all who stands in his way.

In my opinion, A Self Portrait is really two separate books attached loosely two thirds of the way into the plot.  While I enjoyed each separately, I don’t that it worked successfully fused together.  The first two thirds of the book happens when Peter falls unconscious after hearing the news of Jeff’s disappearance. During this state, he remembers his love affair with Phillip from beginning at age 15 to the attack that killed Phillip and severely injured Peter to the point he remained in a coma for 3 years.  I loved their story although Phillip’s sheer perfection got on my nerves a bit. While I can see the memory of a deceased loved one become burnished over time so that their imperfections vanish, I don’t think that was the case here.  I just wish Bowie had Phillip gnaw on a cuticle or two, something to humanize Phillip more for the reader.  Peter is far more the believable human being here, with his flaws and imperfections front and center, I certainly liked Peter more.  And I was genuinely upset when the couple was attacked and devastated when Peter woke alone in the hospital.  That said, I also saw the attack coming, much like watching one of those college kids go down into the basement in Scary Movie.

The remaining third of the book deals with Peter, his visions, and his attempts to locate Jeff before they are all killed in a satanic ritual.  Again, Bowie built the reader’s apprehension and suspense bit by bit, so much so that in parts I was on the edge of my chair reading.  Very skillfully executed indeed.  The one thing that threw me off balance was Lefevre turning out to have real powers as opposed to being just another bogus whackjob with pretensions to evil.  J.P. Bowie never built a case for that happening so it didn’t seam to fit in with the rest of the story.  I did like the idea of Phillip’s spirit assisting Peter but wish we had a more solid base for all the actions of the last act, especially when the psychic powers become all important to the plot and its resolution. As I said I think that there are two successful books here, I just am not sure that A Self Portrait contains one.  I liked the book (with reservations), and I like the author.  If you find my quibbles palatable, then I recommend this book to you.

Cover.  This is not the cover on my book. The cover artist for that particular cover is Deana Jamroz.  But both covers have the same elements and work for the story

The Week Ahead and A Light Easy Cheesecake to Die For!

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Maryland has felt like Phoenix this week, right up until the storm that nailed parts of the area Friday night.  There are still thousands of people without power and in some cases homes due to the high winds that toppled power lines and trees.  Unreal.  With the heat index in the 100’s, it was a great time to have my nose buried in a book or 10 (easy to do with a Kindle).  The dogs totally agreed with that sentiment and kept me company, happy in the ac.  I did fix a new recipe from Bon Appetite, a light and fluffy cheesecake that will quickly become a favorite desert of yours as it did mine.  Yes, a fluffy cheesecake!  So look for the recipe after the week’s review schedule:

Monday:                                 A Self Portrait by JP Bowie

Tuesday:                                 Dance with the Devil by Megan Derr

Wednesday:                           Hawaiian Gothic by Heidi Belleau  and Violetta Vane*

Thursday:                               Lessons in Power, Cambridge Fellows #5 by Charlie Cochrane

Friday:                                     The Wizard and the Werewolf by Amber Kell

Saturday:                                 The Lonely War by Alan Chin

So you say you need a little something to go with a glass of Pinot Grigio and a good book?  Here is a recipe you must make courtesy of Bon Appetite Magazine, we ate ours right down to the last little crumb:

Cheesecake with Ginger-Lime Candied Raspberries:

Shortbread Crust Ingredients:

Nonstick vegetable oil spray
1 cup shortbread cookie crumbs made from 6 oz. shortbread cookies (such as Walkers), finely ground in a food processor
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Pinch of fine sea salt
Cheesecake Ingredients:
1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin2/3 cup sugar
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces, room temperaturePinch of fine sea salt
10 ounces cream cheese, cut into 10 pieces, room temperature
1/4 cup crème fraîche or sour cream
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 cup heavy cream, beaten to soft peaks
Ginger-Lime Candied Raspberries
1 6-oz. container fresh raspberries
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon minced peeled ginger
1 tablespoon thinly sliced fresh mint leaves plus more for garnish
1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
Preparation
Shortbread Crust
Lightly coat an 8x8x2″ baking pan with nonstick spray; line with plastic wrap, leaving a generous overhang.
Mix crumbs, butter, and salt in a medium bowl until it resembles moist sand. Press evenly onto bottom of pan. Cover; chill.
Cheesecake
Place 2 Tbsp. cold water in a small saucepan; sprinkle gelatin over. Let stand until gelatin is soft, 5-10 minutes.
Using an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat sugar, butter, and salt in a medium bowl until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. With motor running, add cream cheese 1 piece at a time, occasionally scraping down sides of bowl. Beat in crème fraîche, orange juice, and lime juice.
Gently heat gelatin over lowest heat, stirring constantly, just until gelatin dissolves. Scrape gelatin into cream cheese mixture; beat to blend. Fold in whipped cream just to incorporate. Pour mixture over crust; smooth top. Chill until set, about 3 hours. DO AHEAD: Cheesecake can be made 3 days ahead. Cover and keep chilled, or freeze airtight for up to 2 weeks.
Ginger-Lime Candied Raspberries
Cook first 3 ingredients, 1 Tbsp. mint, lime juice, and 1 Tbsp. water in a small saucepan over low heat until raspberries are soft and juices are released, 2-3 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for at least 1 hour and up to 1 day.
Using plastic wrap overhang, lift cheese-cake from pan and place on a flat surface. Cut into pieces; place on plates. Spoon candied raspberries over; drizzle with sauce and garnish with mint.

Review of Emerald Fire by A. Catherine Noon and Rachel Wilder

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Rating: 4.5

Keeper Teeka left his home at the Emerald Keep for his first Contract with Senior Hunter Brandt out in the deserts of their world Persis. Disaster hits only two months into his Contract when Hunter Brandt is killed on his Claim, leaving Teeka without a Contract far from his family and Keep.  When Teeka decides to Claim the find for himself and Brandt’s heir, he is surprised to find Brandt’s heir is none other than Senior Hunter Quill, a scarred, enigmatic Hunter who keeps to himself.  Quill offers to protect Teeka and together they decide to work the mine Teeka found to both honor Brandt’s memory and to register the Claim for themselves.

The head of the Hunters Guild gives Quill and Teeka  one month times to work the mlne.  If they don’t finish the lode, another Hunter may claim it and all their hard work will be for nothing.  As Hunter Quill mines the Claim, Teeka keeps for him, cooking, cleaning and making sure all of their equipments runs smoothly. Teeka also learns the process of mining the gems while their attraction to each other grows daily.  But a Keeper without a Contract must keep themselves chaste and their reputation clear of all gossip and their situation is not making that easy.

When Brandt’s death turns out to be murder instead of an accident, Quill and Teeka’s suspicions are raised, even about each other. And when others falls sick and Quill and Teeka come under attack, they must decide to trust each other and stand together or lose everything, even their chance at love.

Emerald Fire is a richly layered novel by two authors previously unknown to me.  Noon and Wilder have pulled together elements from cultures around the world as well as fabricated many of their own to build a gorgeously textured world called Persis.  They have left nothing out in their world building, from geology to biology with various habitats each with its own unique flora and fauna. Their vivid descriptions of Persis’ differing cultures  come complete with separate  the peoples beliefs, separate religions, government officials, laws, clothing, food, education, and transportation, I mean everything!  One of my favorite creations of theirs is a truffle.  A furred desert animal, it has a trunk, two sets of eyelids, short trunk like legs and an endearing personality.  I kept picturing a cross between a miniature elephant and a dog (the mind boggles).  I want one, perhaps two, just like Snuffles and Sniffles in the story.  And the cooking!  We get an intimate glimpse into Teeka’s meals including a roast he made of a sandcat (including his butchering technique), supplemented with roasted onions, moss bulbs, spices and a sauce.  And Teeka’s deserts including his famous lavender berries cake had my mouth watering.  They came up  with spices and cooking methods and complete menus – just amazing.

With some stories, an excess of minutiae works against the plot, swamping it with too much information.  Here the opposite is true, the details are seamlessly blended into the narrative, so like the spices in a dish, the details add depth and flavor to the story being created.  We learn how the tents work to exclude the heat of the two suns, the gloves and clothing worn to insulate the people, their inside garb, even the “necessities”, usually shared by a group of tents, where all shower and relieve themselves.  We get to wander into the market place to buy teas and vegetables or watch Teeka knitting socks or rugs from threads made of all types of matter, animal and vegetable much like here.  Each elements serving to wet our interest in life as it is lived on Persis.  I cannot congratulate the authors enough on the outstanding job they have done here.  Just remarkable.

Noon and Wilder build their characters the same way they built their world, with attention to detail and dimension.  No character is truly known from the start, not to the reader,not to each other.  Emerald Keeper Teeka starts off young, earnest, sure of his talents as a Keeper but he is only two months into his  first Contract and feels every bit the novice coming from a sheltered background.  He delights in each new sensation and experience and is devastated by Brandt’s death.  I had so many questions at the beginning.  What is a Keeper?  What is the training they keep referring to?  What is a Contract? Part of the joy of this story is that the answers are unveiled in small increments as the story unfolds. The character of Senior Hunter Quill is built in conjunction with that of Teeka, both characters fleshing out and becoming real the more we get to know them and their backstory (as told to each other).  Their secondary and side characters all equally authentic, all equally detailed.

I again wavered between a 4.5 and 5 rating with this story.  But a few things kept it from perfection with me.  Actually, that would be one thing,  the ending. Teeka’s future seemed headed in the right direction, as is the relationship between two main characters I have come to love.  But there was still so much more to be settled. I can’t give specifics here as I don’t want to spoil this wonderful book for anyone, I just felt that there was just a few too many loose ends left not tucked in to the beautiful tapestry they wove for us. Teeka would never have left one of his knitting projects in such a state nor did I expect it given all that went before in the story.  I hope both authors can be persuaded to continue Teeka and Quill’s saga.  They have made a great world and I, for one, am ready for more journeys there.

Cover:  Cover art by Alessio Brio, an artist I am also not familiar with.  Here she takes the colors I usually don’t like in a cover and uses them to create a stunning cover redolent of the heat beating down on the desert dunes.  Outstanding job.  Conveys the location of the story and the authors names are clear and easy to read.

Review of Second Time Lucky by Ethan Day

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Rating: 5 stars

Luke Landon is spending his birthday by himself, drinking and watching all his ex boyfriends pass by him at the bar, all seemingly happy without him. As the idea of another drink gets a happy internal hell yes, he hears a voice behind him saying the words, “Put your clothes back on and get back into your vehicle. The park has now closed.”  It’s Owen West, back in his life after fifteen years apart.  Their romance in college was so hot, so all encompassing they thought it would never end until it did, neither of them really understanding why.  But now Owen is here on his birthday and they get a second chance at love, a second chance to get it right whether it be luck or fate, if they are smart enough to take the chance.

Second Time Lucky reminds me almost immediately why Ethan Day is a must read author for me.  I never think of the personas he creates for his stories as characters, more like people I love listening to and spending time with.  You know, that one friend we are always on the phone with or going out to the bar with them, listening and laughing until our stomachs hurt.  Those are Ethan Day people.  And Luke Landon is another memorable Ethan Day person.  I was grinning with anticipation as I started to read Luke’s inner running commentary on his parade of exes at the bar.  After perusing a guy with whom he had a diasterous date, Luke thinks “Don’t expect a happily-ever-after when you accidently break a man’s masturbation hand—life lesson learned.” Or

“Usually, gay men stayed on the same cycle—similar to the menstrual variety in that we did our best to avoid the achy cramps that came with running into our past failures. We instinctively knew what nights and times to avoid certain bars. It was something we normally didn’t have to work at.The same way the moon orbits the earth which in turn does the same with regard to the sun, we managed to avoid one another without needing to consciously think.”  That’s pure Ethan Day.  Funny, sarcastic, a little twisted and totally true. I could quote him all day.

Told from Luke’s pov, we are privy to all the inner workings of Luke’s mind and heart, a complicated duo if ever there was.  Luke’s upbringing and current status with his mother make romantic relationships a hard sell. With three gay ex husbands behind her, Luke’s mother is not exactly a warm and supportive mother, and Luke’s abandonment by his father is an issue still impacting his relationships, whether he acknowledges that fact or not.  Mostly not.    Everything about Luke, from his pride in his work and his loyalty to his friends, makes him someone it is easy to empathize with and understand.  And his constant inner monologue with all his insecurities front and center bubbles to the surface of each page, buoyant on its own effervescence, until it spills over everything in its path, covering all the events with a Lukas perspective, even Owen West.  I really liked Owen West, a steady, good person with his own issues.  I could also get behind his frustrations with Luke even as he understood the basis for Luke’s actions.  Yes, Owen West feels like a real person too.  So do all the characters in Second Time Lucky.  I don’t need to talk about depth and dimension because it is unnecessary.  They are that real, that authentic.

Ethan Day also has a wonderful way with settings, from Missoula, Montana and Owen’s family ranch to Middleton where Luke works and lives, it all comes to life with Day’s vivid details and small deft touches.  Second Time Lucky is that complete package, full of laughter, outright guffaws, love and as with life, heartbreaking sobs and tears.  Have your box of tissues handy.  At one point in the story, a sudden occurrence hits Luke and the reader at the same time with the same impact.  My heart hurts just thinking about it now. Everything is tied up in a wonderful ending, that will send you back to the beginning of the story to  start reading it all over again. No quibbles here, not even a twinge.  Trust me, you will love this one.  I know I did.  Great job, great story!

Cover: Cover by Winterheart Designs.  Very eye catching, very flashy.  Not sure how I feel about it, perhaps a little divided.  From one standpoint I say, yes, that’s Lucky but under all that glitz is a man with depth.  Where is that man on the cover?

Review of Smooth Like Latte by Rawiya

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Rating: 3 stars

Brendan Walsh’s life has been devoted to pleasing his father, Alexander Walsh, head of Walsh Financial Corporation.  Unlike his older brother who defied his father and left to live his life on his own terms, Brendan went to school and got his degrees with one thing in mind, working for his father and taking over the business when Alexander retired.  And to achieve those goals, Brendan has also stayed in the closet, well aware of his father’s homophobia.  Living the closeted life in exchange for money and success had never been a problem for Brendan until he meets Latte, a barista in the coffee shop in the lobby of their company building.  One latte macchiatto later, and an attraction is formed between the two men that will change Brendan’s life forever.

Devori “Latte” Jenkins, artist and part-time barista, is in the groove at Cathy’s Coffee , making his coffee creations and talking to the customers when he sees Brendan Walsh in line waiting to place his order.  Devori is gay and the man in line is not only handsome but setting off his gaydar.  A quick conversation and Brendan leaves his business card with phone number along with his tip.  A phone call, then a date which leads to a weekend. But when Brendan confesses to Devori that he’s hiding the fact that he is gay from his family, Devori must decide if he can accept being the  secret boyfriend of a closeted gay man or will Brendan give up family and fortune for love?

Smooth LIke Latte is a short story of 99 pages and a very sweet tale at that.I could easily see Devori and Brandon as boyfriends struggling to find a way to make things work, given diverse background and disapproving families.  But a sweet story is sometimes just not enough to make a really good story.  To accomplish that, you must have realistic characterizations, dialog consistent with the age of the characters, and a great editor(or one you listen to). While I think the characters of Devori and Brendan are certainly more than superficial creations, their dialog and actions are those of much younger immature man.  I can’t think of any one of their apparent age using the terms “wuss” or “mushy” or making a list of goals that any preteen girl would recognize 1.) I want him to be my boyfriend  2) I want us to move in together in 6 no 3 months 3) I want to marry him and have kids etc.

A lack of uniform characterization continues with Alexander Walsh.  Obssessed with family name, business and a homophobe, he makes his views on gays clear to Brendan and when Brendan comes out to his father, Alexander rants about his son being a sinner, that he will burn in hell, how  could he do this to him, etc.  Homophobic and realistic.  Yet in the epilogue Alexander is so happy that Brendan is not going to be a competitor in the business world that he reinstates Brendan’s trust fund immediately, and happily turns over a hundred million dollars with no hesitation, totally at odds with the characteristics  previously introduced and used as the main reason Brendan has not come out earlier.  Considering his previous stance on gays, especially gays in his family, that seems highly unlikely. Then there is the time frame. Devori and Brendan meet, have sex, declare their love, melt down and breakup and finally reconcile – all in one week’s time.  Again so very Tiger Beat. Perfect for a young hormonal preteen angst yet not for those older.

The other big issue here is the odd use of some terms or in one case, a word is used in a manner that makes no sense.  The sentence is :”The duplicity of submission and domination was exquisite.” I think the author meant combination as duplicity means “deceitfulness: the fact of being deceptive, dishonest, or misleading”.  And there are so many more word choices that are just off or plain odd.  From a “figurative 2000 weight”, a “daylong swelling”, “to culminate a bittersweet moment”, “duration of the late evening”,right up until he “held onto his back muscles” and a “downtrodden look”, which is even worse in context.  And then there is the problem of a degree in publicity which we don’t have here in the US, you can get a degree in Advertising or Marketing but not publicity. The diverse writing styles of the story , which can change by the paragraph, almost seem as if it was written by more than one author, it has a “teen” sound, an odd/misuse of words that sometimes comes with poor translations,florid purple prose,combined with some passages that are very well written with none of the problems I have noted.  All very odd indeed. And then to cap it all off, you have the florid terms of bodice rippers such as “lily white thighs”, “chocolate brown pools”, and “swollen vessel” and “pink jewels”.  All of which are issues that a great editor and concrit partner could have taken care of and turned this sweet short story into a terrific short story.  The elements are there and the author’s bio says it is the author’s first solo work.  I wonder what their next story will bring.  I am very curious given the rollercoaster that is Smooth Like Latte.

Cover: What a delicious cover. Cover by Shane Willis of RAD ACT Photography, great job.

Review of Stone Rose (Lost Gods #3) by Megan Derr

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Rating: 5 stars

It has been nine hundred years since the death of the Basilisk and the Kingdom of Piedre has continued to pay the price for the loss of their god. The kingdom is being torn apart by feuding religious factions.  The Brotherhood of the Black Rose wants to make sure that the Basilisk never rises again, using its assassins to kill all that stand in their way.  The Brotherhood of the White Rose is using all its resources to try and bring the Basilisk back permanently.  And standing in between them is Prince Culebra, the latest mortal incarnation of the Basilisk, God of Death.

Bone white in coloration, eyes covered in black cloth, the Prince is a beautiful and deadly being.  He is also lonely, depressed and still grief stricken over the loss of his lovers, one to the mermaids of Kundou, the other to his grief over the loss of his brother.  It has never been harder to be the avatar of a God.  Targeted by assassins all his life, feared and hated by his family, Culebra moves through the castle with Ruisenor as his only confidant and protector.  That Ruisenor happens to be an enormous snake of unknown origin matters little to the Prince as snakes have always been his friends and companions. Lately the assassination attempts have increased in number as the anniversary of the Basilisk’s death approaches.  Only Ruisenor’s lethal intervention has kept him alive.  Culebra is aware that something must change and soon or he will surrender to his depression and death.Will the arrival of Prince Midori Kawa of Kundou spark that change?

Megan Derr’s Lost Gods saga just keeps getting better and better with each succeeding book. The Lost Gods series continues with the  outstanding Stone Rose, the third in the series and the third Lost God, the Basilisk. .  As the cover color indicates, the Stone Rose is a tale of darkness and death, from the land to the very God itself.  Piedra, the  kingdom on the map of the cover, is a hard land, covered in stones with rocky mountains and black forests that reek of death. Derr gives us a clear understanding of the kingdom with one sentence. “Piedre was more like a solemn temple, where no one dared to speak above a whisper.” Perfection.  The darkness of Piedre extends to its people who are dusky skinned with black hair and eyes.  As with the other kingdoms (Kundou and Pozhar), Piedre has been in decline since its god died. It’s populace is starving, the climate is changing, and its royal family is doing everything it can to hold onto power.

Culebra, like the Basilisk he embodies, has eyes that can kill which is why his have been bandaged since birth.  A reference to eyes and sight permeates the language of Piedra, an exquisite detail Derr has used throughout the Lost Gods to great impact.  “Eyes slay them”, “May kind eyes guide you” or “May you always gaze into friendly eyes”.  The colloquialisms  or expressions add to our understanding of  Piedre’s culture and gives the tale a layer of authenticity. And as Piedre is the land of death, those references color their speech as well.  Call someone a “corpse eater” or carrion feeder if you wish to be derogatory, “Bones and blood!” make a very satisfactory exclamation, and then there is the prayer “Blood the living to honor the dead. We live because you died. Life and death cannot exist without each other. In the name of the Basilisk, amen.”  Each phrase, each remark adds a layer to our understanding of the Piedre and their god.  I love the way Megan Derr builds her worlds from the little touches in the dialect to the population’s physical appearance, every detail is covered.  Once you enter into her world your immersion is complete, there is nothing to jar you loose.

Megan Derr outstanding characterizations continue in Stone Rose as well as a new twist to the saga.  In the previous books, Treasure (#1) and Burning Bright (#2), the identities of the Lost Gods were not revealed until the end of the story. With Prince Culebra as avatar, the Basilisk is already present at the beginning of the tale.  At least in its human form.  But again, nothing is ever as it seems.  What can appear to be a solid image can turn out to be a refracted likeness instead.  I love Culebra.  Every part of him isolates him from everyone around him, except for a selected few individuals and his snakes.  In a land of dusky skinned, dark haired people, he is the color of bleached bones from his skin to his hair.  The black bandages around his eyes only highlight his differences.  Culebra can taste death with a flick of his tongue and communicate with all the species of snakes who gather around him.  But he is also completely human in his need for love and companionship and his despair over his loss of his lovers.  Culebra seduces us from the beginning as he does Midori,

We first met Midori when he was a Captain in the Kundou Royal Navy. When we last saw him, his ship was transporting Prince Culebra and Count Krazny of Pozhar away from the Kumita after the mermaid attack.  He reappears in Piedre, demoted and banished for his efforts, mourning the loss of Prince Kyo.  With his green hair and blue eyes, Midori brings that wonderful world of Kundou with him, refreshing like a sea breeze. When Midori strides off the ship, he does so right into our hearts.  His banishment and demotions have made him more thoughtful and yet have freed him to become someone new.  With Midori, Derr also gets to have some fun.  In an altercation with soldiers, they call him a “fish” and “merslut”, he counters with “sharks” and the fight is on.  I loved that scene.  Midori was also the one who consoled Culebra on board when his lover  was devoured by mermaids.  Past, present and future are all tied up with Midori, a memorable characters among memorable characters.

Next is Cortez, the Black Princesa and Fidel the Dagger, both ex assassins for The Brotherhood of the Black Rose.  Next to Culebra, Cortez is one of the most commanding characters of the story and one of the most remarkable women I have come across in recent fiction.  Deadly and compassionate, hard yet still able to love, Cortez’s persona is so beautifully realized, so layered that I found it hard to find her equal in other stories.  Former whore, Cortez is a master of death but she only kills when the “killing” feels right.  She is as complex as Culebra, perhaps more so. When searching for a comparison Anita Black and Lara Croft came to mind, so did Xena.  But with her scarred face and body, what beauty she has left is buried deep within her and that separates her from the crowd. Fidel will get inside of you too but it takes a little longer. There is Dario, the lover left devastated by his brother’s death and Culebra’s dismissal of him.  I loved him too from the moment we see him in his drunken stupor. Can a enormous viper be a main character?  Absolutely.  Ruisenor slithers through the pages of the story, acting as puppy and predator, bodyguard and guide, a delightful addition to a great cast of characters.

Stone Rose diverges from the other stories in that the main romantic coupling is m/m/m instead of m/m.  Threesomes are not something I usually read but here it not only works but in some respects it is the only things that makes sense once the reader gets to know Culebra and understand his needs and insecurities.  You will mourn the loss of Granito (and go back to Treasure to pick up any references you may have missed then) and rejoice in the possibility of new love for Dario and Culebra.  Megan Derr has done just such an outstanding job with every element that I sit here in absolute amazement.  She has made me love and understand threesomes! *shakes head*

And while I wept all through Burning Bright, here she called up the laughter as well as sobs, all the more incredible in a book consumed with death and destruction.  There are still plenty of shocks and twists at the end, as sacrifice and rebirth are still major themes as the Lost Gods return to their lands.  What an ending!  I thought I saw the beginning of a quibble there but the more I thought about it, I know Derr is setting something up for us in the future and she hasn’t let me down yet. So the quibble wobbled and vanished in a poof of light and I am left, as I was at the end of the other stories, temporarily sated,  yet bereft and longing for more.  *shakes a fist at Derr*

So, now we journey next to Verde in Poison, the 4th book in the series.  Here I hope to see Allil, the White Beast of Verde and get reacquainted with one of my favorite characters in the series.  When we last saw him, he was gravely wounded in Pozhar and on his way back to Verde. It looks to be as traumatic, dramatic and addicting a tale as those before it.  I have no idea what to expect and I love it like that.  This series has had me mystified, incredulous, delighted, laughing hysterically and sobbing my eyes out.  Who knows what Megan Derr has in store for us?  I for one can’t wait to find out.  Bring it on!

Cover by London Burdon.  I love the covers in this series.  Each cover different and yet the same.  A map of Piedre on the cover and black for the death and destruction it stands for. Simple, elegant and perfect for the stories behind them.

Due to the complexity of the sage and in order to understand the characters and world building, the books should be read in the following order. Megan Derr’s Lost God series in the order they were written and should be read:

Treasure  (Lost Gods #1) Kingdom of Kundou  – read my review here

Burning Bright (Lost Gods #2) Kingdom of Pozhar – read my review here.

Stone Rose (Lost Gods #3) Kingdom of Piedre

Poison (Lost Gods #4) Kingdom of Verde (coming next)