February 2014 Summary of Reviews and Best Covers of the Month

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February

February 2014 Review Summary

*Key:
S series
C contemporary
F-fantasy
SF-science fiction
PN-paranormal
SP-supernatural
H-historical
HR-horror
N-Nonfiction
YA-young adult

Rating Scale: 1 to 5, 5 stars is outstanding

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5 Star Rating:

Be My Valentine, Bobby Bryson by Geoffrey Knight C, short story
Lying With Scorpions by Aleksandr Voinov, S, SF
Of Last Resort by Megan Derr, S, F

4 to 4.75 Star Rating:

Battle of Will by Sasha L. Miller (4.5) F, S
Bloody Love Spats by Valentina Heart (4.25) S, SP
Ghosts of Bourbon Street by Rowen Speedwell (4) SP
Kept Tears by Jana Denardo (4), F
It’s All Geek To Me by J.L. Merrow (4.25) C
It’s Only Make Believe by Havan Fellows (4.25) C
Reviewing Life by Lara Brukz (4), S, C
Second Star to the Right by A.F. Henley (4.25) C
Strain by Amelia C. Gormley (4) S, SF
Succulent Dark by D. J. Manley (4.25), S, SP
The Experiment by Alicia Nordwell (4), S, SF
Where You Lead by Mary Calmes (4), C

3 to 3.75 Star Rating:

Cupcakes by Sean Michael (3.5) C
Jasper’s Mountain by John Inman (3.75), C
Pretty Poison by Kari Gregg (3.75) SP
The Prince and the Practitioner by Christian Baines,  (3) HR, SP

2 to 2.75 Star Rating:

Nightfall by Jenna Byrnes (2.75) S, SP

1 to 1.75 Rating: None

Best Covers of February 2014

The Experiment coverWhere You Lead coverJasper's MountainKept Tears cover

ItsAllGeekToMe_600x900Pretty Poison coverBloody Love spats coverGhosts of Bourbon Street

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Bloody Love Spats, Cover artist Maria Fanning
Ghosts of Bourbon Street, cover artist Jared Rackler
It’s All Geek To Me, cover art by LC Chase
Jasper’s Mountain, cover art by Reese Dante
Pretty Poison, cover art by Lou Harper
Kept Tears, cover by Paul Richmond
The Experiment, cover art by Christine Griffin
Where You Lead, cover art by Reese Dante

Review: The Prince and the Practitioner by Christian Baines

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Rating: 3 stars out of 5

The Prince and the Practitioner coverEliot had been practicing magic for most of his life but never had he been successful in summoning a demon…until now.  Far too impulsive for his own good, Eliot’s spell casting has always been a hit or miss proposition.  Sometimes it worked, mostly it didn’t.  So when the summoning succeeded and brought forth a demon, it didn’t work out exactly as Eliot had hoped.  Instead of a demon to control, the demon Prynthius now had control of Eliot.  With Prynthius deep within Eliot’s body, Eliot decides, to his horror and pain, that the only way to dislodge the demon is to pass him on to another unsuspecting body, one that the demon must approve of before the transfer is made.

Dean, tall, gorgeous and sexy, seems like the perfect target when Eliot sees him at the local gay hookup bar.  With the demon’s pain induced instructions echoing in his mind, Eliot accepts Dean’s invitation to return home with him for a night full of hot sex and kinky exploration.  But is Dean as straightforward as he appears?  Who will be left standing when all the secrets are exposed?

Christian Baines’ first novel, The Beast Without, was a terrific supernatural tale of horror.  It contained multidimensional characters and a complex plot.  At 234 pages, the author gave himself the length necessary to explore in detail the world he was creating as well as construct a complex history for his main and secondary characters.  It was a refreshing take on creatures dominating all forms of media these days,  vampires and werewolves, and I loved it.

The Prince and the Practitioner has many of the same elements that exemplified The Beast Without but at approximately 27 pages it seems to be missing the breadth and detail necessary to make this story feel as well constructed and polished as the one that preceded it.

Once again Christian Baines has chosen to feature in his story a couple of creatures seen often in novels and on tv and movie screens these days, the demon and the wizard.  Baines appears to enjoy tearing away any romantic overlay from often used character types to pare them down to the horrific bare bones they are capable of.  That is certainly the case with his characters here.     Eliot is not an especially admirable person.  He is certainly not one most readers will relate to.  His is a slapdash morality, one more composed of expediency and self interest than one based in any sort of ethicality and righteousness. Prynthius is everything a malevolent demon should be or at least the backstory provided by the author makes him out to be.  Prynthius is more a dubious outline of a monster than a fleshed out one.  And that lack of solidity lessens the impact his demon is supposed to make.

Dean only snaps into place as a credible character midway through the story.  I can understand why the author made this decision but again it delays the cohesion to the narrative.  The story starts off more like a simplistic piece of porn than a tale of horror.  Had Baines given the reader a little more substance, a little more back story to the opening scenes of The Prince and the Practitioner, this would have felt more polished and solid than the story it finally morphed into.

I don’t have to like a book  or its characters to admire the cleverness of the plot is or the preciseness of the prose, both of which can be found within this story. Like fun house mirrors, nothing is as it seems here but still I had an issue or two with Eliot. With characters whose sense of morality has the same properties as a puddle of muddy water, one character’s righteous indignation at the end seemed false and out of place, especially considering the events that preceded it.  Either the author meant to show Eliot’s gift of self deception to be as endless as I felt it was or the hypocrisy of the scene didn’t bother him as it did me.  This departure from the persona the author has created felt like a break in the characterization, an unnecessary one to my mind.

I do feel the twist at the end elevated The Prince and the Practitioner past porn into a story with layers as opposed to merely sequential sex scenes.  I only wish that the author had included trace elements early on that hinted at the depth and twists of plot to come.  So too does any tenderness and compassion feel completely out of place among these egocentric masters of magic.

This short story contains elements of bdsm (whipping to be precise), D/s, and non con.  For some readers, including lovers of horror, this quick read might be just the thing for you.  For others, especially those lovers of stories of romantic love, I recommend you look elsewhere and to another author as romance does not seem to be in Christian Baines’ box of literary ingredients the way horror and the supernatural most certainly are.

I am looking  forward to what his imagination turns to next.  At any rate I expect it to be entertaining and worthy of discussion.  I leave any recommendations up to you.

Cover art by Wilde City Press.  This cover has a generic feel to it.  It certainly does not speak to the magic and demon you will find inside.

Book Details:

ebook, 1st Edition
Published January 15th 2014 by Wilde City Press

Review: Jasper’s Mountain by John Inman

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Rating:  3.75 stars out of 5

Jasper's MountainJasper Stone has few needs.  A writer, Jasper loves his solitude and quiet, something he gets plenty of on his ninety acre ranch, high on the side of the Juniper Mountains.  Living alone in his rustic cabin, Jasper’s only companions are the animal menagerie the kind hearted author has managed to accumulate since his arrival.  While all his dogs and cats keep Jasper from being alone, they don’t always keep him from being lonely.  Then Jasper finds a young man with a fever hiding in his chicken coop and everything changes.

When small-time thief Timmy Harwell carjacks a Cadillac, he tumbles into something much more dangerous than just stealing a car.  That outrageously outfitted Cadillac belongs to Miguel Garcia, aka El Poco, a Tijuana drug dealer, known for his ruthless manner and killer reputation.  And it’s not just the drug dealer’s favorite car that Timmy has stolen, no, its the $100,000 he finds in the trunk as well.  Soon, Timmy is on the run, trying to put as much distance between him and El Poco as possible.

But a storm forces Timmy to hide out on Jasper’s ranch until he falls ill from exposure. Jasper finds Timmy and nurses him back to health, becoming fond of the young man during his recovery.  But Timmy recognizes that Jasper is everything he is not.  Jasper is kind, and honest, valuing trust and the truth above all.  So Timmy hides who he is and what he has done behind lie after lie.  When the past and El Poco catches up to Timmy on Jasper’s mountain, Timmy realizes its not just himself he has placed in danger but Jasper too, a man he has come to love and admire.  When it all comes down to making a choice, will Timmy choose survival?  Or will he decide honesty and Jasper is the only choice his  heart desires?

I first found John Inman through a series of novels with a comedic bent to their plots and characters.  And although each contained a serious element or two in the narrative, they were generally light hearted fare that left you smiling or perhaps even guffawing long after you had finished reading them.  So I found myself surprised by the gravity of Jasper’s Mountain, a novel with a few endearing scenes to lighten a storyline of unusual seriousness by this author of humorous tales.

The characters that John Inman creates have always been people that felt authentic. Their personalities, character traits and relationship issues seeming more those of your neighbors than of created personas.  That holds true here for Jasper Stone and Timmy Hartwell.  Jasper, especially, resonated with me.  Jasper is 32 years old, and more fond of animals than he is of people.  Animals have never let him down the way people have.  And Jasper’s mistrust of people combined with  his awkwardness and dislike of society have caused him to retreat to his mountain sanctuary and the company of animals.  Further isolating this man is his chosen profession of writing, something he is only moderately successful at. Jasper sells enough manuscripts to sustain himself and his pets but not  for anything more.  Everything about Jasper feels real, if not relatable.

Timmy Hartwell also comes across as a believable young thief.  Stealing is a way of life Timmy just fell into, driven by a desire never to be poor again after a childhood spent in foster care.  A lack of discipline, no impulse control and a flexible morality made life as a thief an easy occupation.  If Timmy saw it and wanted it, well, then he stole it.  And thought about the consequences later.  Even Timmy admitted to himself that he probably wasn’t very smart about his life choices, just went with the flow of events and easy choices.  Only the choice of hiding spots causes a change in outlook, not a desire to go straight.  Another beautifully layered portrait from John Inman of a young confused human being with a life of bad choices behind him and more of the same in his future.

As with all Inman novels, the animal characters that pop up haphazardly about the story are as vivid and realistic as the people around them.  Whether it is Harry and Harriet, pigs destined never to be bacon,  Guatemala and Fiji, the cats with appetites for alligator lizards and the comforts of home, or Bobber, Jumper, and Lola, the dogs of indeterminate breeding that Jasper adopts, all the animals have larger than life personalities that support and enhance the people they are attached to.  In this instance, the menagerie that Jasper has accumulated makes Jasper’s decision to help and then house another, albeit human, stray feel authentic to the character and situation.  Jasper collects animals in need, what’s one more?  The problem arises in that Timmy is a liar and a thief, someone Jasper cannot count on, unlike the unwavering love and loyalty of his animal family.  It’s a great plot idea, but does it make a great romance?

As I stated before, Jasper’s Mountain is a departure from the typical lighthearted story I expect from this author.  And that more serious aspect runs through the entire narrative.  The biggest issue between the characters also becomes the biggest issue, in my opinion, between the readers relating to and believing in a romance between Jasper and Timmy.  Timmy consistently lies to Jasper throughout the story.  Over his background, over the events that lead him to Jasper’s ranch, over the peril he places Jasper in, and well, everything about the situation Timmy has created.   Timmy is not just in the well, he’s in the Carlsbad Cavern of bad places, so deep and perilous is the position he has created for himself and  Jasper.  And the more he lies he tells Jasper, the more distance Timmy puts between himself and the reader’s emotional involvement in his future.  I am not sure that Inman recognized the extent that the dishonesty of Timmy’s character would decrease the attachment one would feel towards Timmy. It also keeps the reader from investing in their romance.  Even towards the end, Timmy is not honest about the head games he has been playing.  We understand his desperation, the acts he commits in order to survive.    John Inman has made Timmy a thoroughly believable little thief.  I’m just not sure how much a reader will like him.  That may depend on how much empathy you are able to extend towards Timmy and his situation.

The authenticity of Inman’s scenario extends to the story’s resolution as well.  It’s not a HEA or even a HFN.  More like a gritty probability that hope and the right decision will make a future possible.  I liked that the author remained committed to a more likely ending than creating one that discounted all the events and characters that went before.  For me, it was the only way this story could end and stay plausible.  Love and hope sometimes has to be enough.  John Inman understands that as well.

If you are looking for a lighthearted romance, then this is probably not the story for you.  But Jasper’s Mountain has so much to offer.  Its well written, believable, and full of layered characters that will hold your attention from start to finish.  And no matter how I felt about Jasper and Timmy as a couple, I never stopped reading, not once.  Pick it up and decide for yourself.

Cover artist Reese Dante gave Jasper’s Mountain a beautiful, memorable cover.  One of the best of the year.

Book Details:

ebook, 204 pages
Published August 16th 2013 by Dreamspinner Press (first published August 15th 2013)
ISBN 1627980733 (ISBN13: 9781627980739)
edition language English
Author Details:

Review: Where You Lead by Mary Calmes

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Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Where You Lead coverChicago-based ATF agent Peter Lomax’s past relationships never seemed to work out.  Ex boyfriends had issues with his possessiveness as well as his job.  Then Peter meets Carver Fleming at a friends party and everything changes.  Artist and gallery owner, Carver doesn’t mind that Peter is possessive.  It is a quality that Carver understands quite well as he feels the same. Nor is he bothered by the fact that law enforcement is far from his artistic world. From the beginning Peter and Carver recognize that they are perfect for each other and soon settle in to a committed relationship.

But six months into the relationship, Carver gets a call from home that changes everything.  Carver’s mother has had a stroke and he is needed home to help his father cope with his mother’s changed condition.  Unbeknownst to Peter, Carver agrees to return home, knowing such a move would not be temporary but permanent.   From Chicago to Colt, Carver’s small hometown in Kentucky is a drastic change and he realizes that not telling Peter about his plans will cause major problems between them.

Carver doesn’t want to lose Peter.  He knows that Peter’s friends and career are based in Chicago and that Peter won’t want to leave a city he loves.  So Carver plans for the two of them to visit his parents at Christmas, hoping the visit and his surprise plans will get Peter to agree to come with Carver when he moves to Colt permanently.  Carver is hoping that the charm of his hometown and his loving family will win Peter over.  Can love triumph over the hurt Peter feels at being left out of Carver’s plans?  And can a man with no family attachments of his own find one to love in Carver’s?  At Christmas, anything is possible as Peter and Carver are about to find out.

A trademark of all of Mary Calmes’ stories is that she always populates them with genuinely likable people. Her characters are guaranteed to endear themselves to the reader almost immediately from the moment they appear on the page, and our affections for them only deepen as the story progresses.    It is one of the elements that make Mary Calmes a  must read author for me and so many others.  Where You Lead is another such short story from this prolific author.

While Calmes does not provide too much back history on Peter and Carver, both men still manage to resonate with the readers.  Peter had not had a satisfactory long term relationship and neither has Carver, although for different reasons. They come complete with relationship issues anyone would recognize.  And when Peter and Carver meet, the connection between them snaps into place with lusty enthusiasm that continues throughout the story.

The story begins in Chicago at an art gallery opening to benefit the fallen agents fund.  Peter is there with his ATF partner Elliot and his wife.  The dialogue between Peter and Elliot feels appropriately affectionate and boyishly juvenile, just what you would expect of old friends.  With just a few sentences, Calmes delivers a working partnership that feels real and honest.  I wish we could have seen a little more of Peter’s life with the ATF and Elliot.   As his profession is such a large part of who Peter is as a person, additional background or scenes of his work would have fleshed this part of the character out for me.

As the location switches to Carver’s home in Colt and the situation with his mother, the plot develops further to include not just romantic love but that of family as well.  This for me is where the story really came to life.  I loved Carver’s parents.  His mother is such a strong character, especially as she deals with not only a stroke but the onset of dementia, possibly from Alzheimer’s.  It’s such a loving and painful portrait of a woman who realizes she is losing herself and the effects on those she loves.  Carver’s father is another fully realized persona and the dynamics of the father-son relationship feel authentic and grounded in reality of two such opposite personalities.

Where You Lead is only 68 pages long, and you will want the story to continue once the end is reached.  I felt as though a evening with friends had ended before I was ready for it to be over.  I would have loved for a little more exposition, maybe a epilogue to furnish a little more resolution to a heartwarming story.  It was never in doubt as to what Peter would do.  So the only real angst here is the family as it faces the reality of his mother’s heartrending future. That they will do it with love and each other’s support is a gift that they will give each other, another certainty that Calmes shares with her readers.

This story was released at Christmas but can be read at any time of the year.  Its message of love and family reaches beyond any holiday celebration.  I love this author and definitely recommend this story for all lovers of contemporary romance.

Cover art by Reese Dante.  This  cover is exquisite.  One of the best of the year.

Book Details:

ebook, 68 pages
Published December 25th 2013 by Dreamspinner Press (first published December 24th 2013)
ISBN 1627984763 (ISBN13: 9781627984768)
edition languageEnglish
urlhttp://www.marycalmesauthor.com/

Review: The Experiment by Alicia Nordwell

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Rating: 4 stars out of 5

The Experiment coverHumans have poisoned the Earth and are desperate for other worlds to colonize.  Now at war a rich world, Caeorleia, whose resources they covet, Earth forces will use anything and anyone to reach their goal.  Human Ryker has lost family and home as the war has raged on further depleting Earth’s final resources. Seeing an advertisement for volunteers for a science project on an alien world, he agreed, thinking that it was just a benign experiment to see if humans could live peacefully with Caeorleians.

But the reality was a 5-year horror in which he became an unwilling scientific experimental subject, tortured and surgically altered by sadistic scientists until he was changed into something less than Caeorleian but no longer human.  Then the scientists had one more surprise for him.  Aboard the science ship with Ryker is an alien,  captured Caeorleian, Seral Iorflas. By injecting Ryker with Seral’s blood, the scientists hope to finish the transformation and use Ryker as a spy against the very aliens he now resembles.

But Ryker isn’t human any more and his treatment as an experiment has  shattered his loyalties.  A blood bond forms between Ryker and Seral that grows increasingly stronger when they join together against the scientists that hold them.  As the war between Earth and Caeorleia intensifies, where will Ryker’s heart and loyalties lie?

The Experiment is the first story in a new series by Alicia Nordwell and it is one guaranteed to hold your attention into the second story and beyond.  Nordwell sets the stage by bringing the reader into the horror that Ryker’s life has become as an experimental animal aboard a medical ship headed towards Caeorleia.  The ship journey has taken five years, during which Ryker was tortured, experimented on without anesthesia or any other humane medical protocol, starved and raped repeatedly by his captures and guards.  At first there were 12 of them but we seen through Ryker’s memories, their numbers dwindle, unable to stand the abuse and experiments.  Told from Ryker’s pov,  the unrelenting pain and horror that Ryker has gone through and is currently feeling is brought immediately home to the reader.   And although the excruciating details are mentioned in passing, we do not have to actually “be there in the moment” during the actual operations, thankfully.  The descriptions we are given are enough to bring up the worst of Nazi Germany and Mengele’ notorious experiments.

One of the best things about The Experiment is Nordwell’s world building.  She has come up with some ingenious and wonderful creations and rituals for Caeorleia and its denizens.  I was charmed by the yellow flowers that moved at will, looking like a golden carpet floating over the landscape. So too the Sampanga trees, unmoored by roots, taking trace bits of energy from beings around it and fleeing if someone or something hurts them.  Even the food Nordwell created for the various Caeorleians to eat sounded quite marvelous.  Nordwell makes it extremely plausible that someone from a ruined Earth would want not only to conquer it but to stay there, amidst fresh air, lush foliage and clean water, no matter how strange.

Nordwell’s aliens too are fascinating.  They are covered with swirling designs and are drawn to partners with similar patterns as well as pheromones, much like many species around us.   Once matched up, the bond is cemented through a blood exchange which changes each partner’s chemistry and initiates a final change in pattern for both beings, although in different areas of the body.  I don’t what to reveal too much more about their physiology but the author’s ability to tie in a  reasonable explanation for Ryker and Seral’s bond through the Caeorlian physiology and the events that happen on board the ship really make this emotional bond between Ryker and Seral work for me.  No instant love which would have harmed her story.  No unbelievable romance but a clear scientific explanation that works and waits for the rest to follow.

Nordwell’s characters are appealing, accessible and fascinating.  It’s not just Ryker and Seral the reader will love.  but Seral’s large family, including his birth mother which just happens to be one of his “fathers”, again the explanation of which follows along several natural history examples of species either switching genders when needed or the several scientific speculations on male child bearing abilities.  Plus all the rest of the sisters, brothers, and extended families that swirl around a royal compound such as Seral’s.  The author used every bit of her 270 pages to lay out her world building along with her characters and plots while never forgetting to fold in the background science that supports some of her most basic building blocks.

There are some issues here that stood out, the first of which is her  overuse of certain epithets. “Small male, small man” to reference Ryker is found over and over again until their constant appearance becomes irritating.   Less numerous (although not by much) as well as vexing is Seral’s “little tziu, small  tziu”, the term tziu being a Caeorlian word for mate. Although it might have several meanings as Nordwell throws in segments of the Caeorlian language she has created for the series as well.  That language is both a positive and negative element for me.  Ryker has been fitted with a “translator” of sorts by the scientists so he is able to communicate with the Caeorlians.  But not all the words translate, including tziu, which have to be explained.  That makes complete sense.  Not so later on when Ryker uses the word “love” and get its back in return.  The Caeorlians have no translator nor has Ryker explained human love or its terminology so why is it being repeated back?  And why is it understood to begin with? Sigh.  Oh the problems that can arise in world building if not all the elements are accounted for.

But all those issues are blanketed by the emotional impact of Ryker’s story and the challenges he, Seral and the rest of the Caeorlian world face against the warships and armies of Earth. We are gripped by their defiance as the Earth forces attack.  And as they race to find some weapon, some plan that can be used to stop the war and the armies, we are there with them, holding our breath to see what will happen next.

The author has many twists for the reader here in her story, none of which I either anticipated or will reveal.  That pleasure I leave to you.  The second book in the series will appear this Fall 2014.  I will be happily awaiting the release date.  I will keep you informed. In the meantime, if you are a lover of science fiction or romance, then this is the book for you.

Cover artist Christine Griffin.  I love everything about this cover, from the colors to the design.  One of the best I have seen lately.

Author Alicia Nordwell can be found at http://www.ciasstories.blogspot.com

.Book Details:

ebook, 270 pages
Published January 27th 2014 by Dreamspinner Press (first published January 26th 2014)
ISBN 1627983546 (ISBN13: 9781627983549)
edition languageEnglish
urlhttp://www.dreamspinnerpress.com/store/product_info.php?products_id=4625

A Touch of Spring, a Ray of Sunshine and the Week Ahead in Review

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Winter-Tree-34870004It’s 60 degrees here today.  The sun is shining, the snow is melting, and thoughts of Spring are crowding into my mind.  I know that February still has to run its course.  And March can and most likely will be blustery and cold.  And yet, and yet.  All this warmth and sunshine is playing games with my head, luring me out to garden centers bare of plants and hardware stores still packed full of snow shovels and sand for the driveway.

There I linger not over the snowblowers and mittens, but the seed packets and starting trays.  The small portable greenhouses and adjustable hoes for tilling around established plants in the gardens.  New feeders and birdbaths beckon, and then even more until I have to flee before I find myself laden down with purchases at the counter.

Instead I am heading off to lunch with our DC Metro Romance Group of authors, publishers, bloggers and readers.  We postponed it already once this month due to snow.  I can’t wait to hear how every one is handling this long winter.  New books, new conferences, time to get caught up.

Here is the week ahead….Its almost March and I hear my gardens calling.

Monday, Feb. 24:           The Experiment by Alicia Nordwell

Tuesday, Feb. 25:           Where You Lead by Mary Calmes

Wed., Feb. 26:                 Jasper’s Mountain by John Inman

Thurs., Feb. 27:               The Prince and the Practitioner by Christian Baines

Friday, Feb. 28:              February 2014 Summary of Reviews, Best Covers of the Month

Sat., March 1:                  Hunter By Blood by Robin White

Review: Lying with Scorpions (Memory of Scorpions #2) by Aleksandr Voinov

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Rating: 5 stars out of 5

If you lie with scorpions, you’d better have a taste for poison.

Lying with Scorpions coverNow that Adrastes, ex leader of the Scorpions and Kendras’s lover, has assumed the throne of Dalman along with his sister Queen, Kendras is finding himself increasingly out of his depths. He feels uncertain not only his own leadership of the Scorpions but of Adrastes the King. Kendras was brought up to fight, his enemy clear.  Now he is smothered in political games of treachery, poison and succession.  Even his past is shaken when old memories are stirred up of his childhood and parents.

Adrastes has a new role for the Scorpions, one which means leaving their centuries old rules and traditions behind to become a fighting army for the king.  Once Kendras would have followed Adrastes blindly but now he starts to have questions.  And with the arrival of the formidable Commander Graukar, General of the West, Kendras becomes even more unsettled.  Graukar is the opposite of everything that Adrastes seems to becoming.  Graukar is forthright, a formidable fighter, a person  unlike any Kendras has known before.  Now the future seems uncertain. What is the truth and what is false?  Can Kendras, the Officer and lover, still trust the man he risked everything to find and save?  Or is there more going on around Kendras that even he can imagine.

What a brutal and brilliant saga this is turning out to be.  In the first story of the series,Scorpion (Memory of Scorpions, #1), we are introduced to Kendras, member of the Scorpions, an elite fighting force that has been decimated by the constant warfare between the rival cities.  Kendras’ world has been a very straightforward place up until recently.  He had a mission, to find and rescue his Officer, the leader of the Scorpions who also happens to be his lover.  No person or obstacles kept Kendras from accomplishing his task.   His life is the Scorpions, a group of men who have become a family steeped in the traditions of this mercenary unit.  But by the end of that story, Adrastes, the Officer Kendras rescued turns out to be someone unexpected, a King. And upon assuming the throne, the title and responsibilities of the leadership of the Scorpions passes to Kendras.  Suddenly his life is overwhelmingly complicated and his loyalties stretched to include not just his close-knit band of fighters but a king and his political agenda.

One of the elements I appreciated with this story is the manner in which Voinov deepens his characterizations to compete with the equally evolving complexity of his plot.  With each new political intrigue or added plot layer the author unfolds a revelation about a character to ensure that all the elements remain in balance. Central to the story is the growth that Kendras must experience in order to cope with his ever changing (and precarious) position in almost every aspect of his life.   The author paints a very clear portrait of a man out of his depths, a “rank in file” soldier promoted to Officer, a position he reluctantly assumes.  His lover went from Officer of a small fighting corp to ruler of two city kingdoms and possibly more. Kendras used to be certain where he belonged and his role in the Scorpions, now everything around him feels like smoke and mirrors, leaving Kendras desperate to adjust.  The story is again told from Kendras’ point of view, and that provides the reader with a front seat to his confusion and increasing doubts about Adrastes, his role in the King’s life and indeed, the very future of the Scorpions themselves.

Voinov has a gift of creating characters that exude a  great vitality, a certain brutal realism that is perfect for the world they inhabit. This ability to believe in Kendras, Adrastes, Widow, and all the others makes it relatively easy to slide into their lives and the conflicts that arise around them.  Kendras is the core of the story and its through his eyes that we watch his world undergo fundamental changes that start to force him to question the very tenets of his life.   The introduction of new important characters is one aspect of the change in direction for both storyline and character growth.   It is also one of the most disconcerting elements of Voinov’s series.  Much like Game of Thrones, this is a savagely violent and ruthless world where conflict and death is the norm and lives are short lived.  It contains merciless killers, barbarous priests, and sadistic, conniving rulers.  Deceit and treachery are not only commonplace but almost necessary for survival.  Need I say that to get too fond of anyone in the series is probably a mistake?  Because everyone in this series seems expendable, perhaps even Kendras himself.

The author starts expanding his universe with this story.  New lands and seas are added, and the Jaishani themselves make a remarkable and stunning entrance into the story and Kendras’ life.  Richer in texture and more deeply layered, Lying with Scorpions is full of surprises and twists.  Like shards of glass, small bits of information are laid out for Kendras and the reader to ponder, wondering where they will fall and who they will cut the deepest.  Foreshadowing of the future or a deception designed to obscure instead of instruct?  A mask, a mosaic and even a legend, all have the ability to bring forth both shivers of dread as well as anticipation.  Just more of Voinov’s master storytelling at work.

Prepare to undergo as many changes as Kendras in your feelings towards all the characters here.  Some you thought trustworthy prove otherwise, and some show sides of themselves that will surprise you with their resourcefulness as well as their loyalties.  I loved the character of Lord/Lady Amrash as well as that of Runner.  Not surprisingly, I fear for their future in the next story, A Taste of Poison (Memory of Scorpions #3) coming soon.

I quickly became addicted to this series with Scorpion, and this story only saw that addiction deepen.  I am fascinated by the author’s ability to get under the reader’s skin with his  believable characters, imaginative plot and ever widening world building.  If you are a lover of warriors, of ancient kingdoms, of lust and loyalty and so much more, then this intense magnificent saga is for you.  Lying with Scorpions ends with a bit of a cliffhanger so I am desperately waiting for the next story to arrive.  I don’t expect any quick or neat resolutions nor do I want them.  It’s not Voinov’s style nor would it work for this character and series.  I will be content to let the anticipation build.

If you are new to the series, start with the first book, Scorpions (Memory of Scorpions #1).  There are two versions.  Make sure you  have the recently revised and redited one to start with.  The cover is the quickest indication you have the correct one.  Then more on to Lying with Scorpions.  It will take your breath away.  One of ScatteredThoughtsandRogueWords Best of 2014.

Cover by Reese Dante.  At first I thought the subject of the cover was Kendras and the lack of blue eyes confused me. But the author informs me that the person on the cover is Adrastes,  who is half-caste,  being the son from a sacred marriage between the Jaishani Besh and Ashangul who is white.  He was chosen for the cover because the story is mostly about his rise to power.  He has brown eyes per the description in the first story in the series.

Books in the series in the order they should be read to fully understand the characters and complex plot are:

Scorpion (Memory of Scorpions #1)
Lying with Scorpions (Memory of Scorpions #2)
A Taste of Poison (Memory of Scorpions #3) coming soon

Book Details:

ebook, 317 pages
Published January 20th 2014 by Riptide Publishing (first published January 18th 2014)
ISBN139781626491106
edition languageEnglish
urlhttp://www.riptidepublishing.com/titles/lying-with-scorpions
series: Memory of Scorpions

Blue Notes (2nd edition) Giveaway: The Winner is….

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Thank you everyone for your comments.  So many romantic cities were mentioned, now if we only had tickets!  The winner of the ebook copy of Blue Notes is Antonia (amaquilante(at)gmail(dot)com.  Again, thanks for participating.

Keep checking in with ScatteredThoughtsandRogueWords.com for more book giveaways and author contests.

My thanks to Shira Anthony for her wonderful post and contest.

You can follow Shira Anthony at:

Blue Notes (a Blue Notes story, 2nd ed.)

BlueNotes[2ndEd]LGBlue Notes (a Blue Notes story):

Blurb: Blame it on jet lag. Jason Greene thought he had everything: a dream job as a partner in a large Philadelphia law firm, a beautiful fiancée, and more money than he could ever hope to spend. Then he finds his future wife in bed with another man, and he’s forced to rethink his life and his choices. On a moment’s notice, he runs away to Paris, hoping to make peace with his life. But Jason’s leave of absence becomes a true journey of the heart when he meets Jules, a struggling jazz violinist with his own cross to bear. In the City of Love, it doesn’t take them long to fall into bed, but as they’re both about to learn, they can’t run from the past. Sooner or later, they’ll have to face the music.

Check out the entire Blue Notes series here.  And you can purchase your copy of Blue Notes here.

Review: Strain by Amelia C. Gormley

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Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Strain_500x750When a deadly virus is unleashed, it spreads and mutates quickly, wiping out most of the human race.  Rhys Cooper and his small family has escaped the virus and its consequences by living in a small compound under the rule of a puritanical preacher and his son.  But soon the zombie like plague victims discover them and all are killed except Rhys and Jacob, the preacher’s son.  They are rescued by a special militia corp, but not before Rhys and Jacob were exposed to the virus themselves.

Sergeant Darius Murrell  belongs to a group that used to be Army and nows roams the country looking for survivors.  They are also charged with finding and killing the people the virus has turned into cannibalistic murderers who spread the virus by various means including blood sprays.  When Darius and his unit find Rhys, he is covered in the blood of a revenant, their name for the infected.  Rhys and Jacob are surely infected themselves by their exposure to the revenants that killed the rest of their group.  When the militia’s medic comes up with a last ditch experiment that might save Rhys and Jacob’s lives, Rhys is begins to think that dying is preferable to the experiment the soldiers propose.

Xolani, the medic present, knows that her squad cannot return to base with the survivors in time to save them so Rhys and Jacob’s only hope is to be infected by another strain of the virus and that the combination might confer immunity. The problem? The virus needed is one that’s sexually transmitted, and the only means to obtain it is to sexually submit to the entire squad of soldiers as many times possible daily over a six-week time period.  At what cost is his survival, Rhys wonders.  Would he rather die than become the sexual plaything of a bunch of hardened soldiers?  And if Rhys chooses to try the experiment, will he be able to live with the memories and the humiliation afterwards?

Of all the thoughts that crowded into my mind after finishing this story, first and foremost is the one that said that Strain is a story people will either love or hate or even possibly hate to love.  The plot alone is one of such emotional impact that the blurb itself just might be a turn off that will leave some would be readers cold.  At its barest outline, you have a teenager who has just watched his family killed by revenants and is now forced to have sex with multiple partners and not yet once but as many times a day as his body can stand.  Throw in the fact that he is a virgin and I can almost see potential readers cringing in dismay, wanting to avoid any emotional involvement this story will demand.

This is not a story for the faint of heart or stomach.  It rears up and commands a reaction from its reader.  And gets it.  At almost 400 pages in length, the reader, once committed to the story, will find themselves on an emotional roller coaster that will include a range of responses, from disbelief to distain, hopefulness to despair, and even moments of hostility towards the author for putting Rhys through such torment for such a long duration.  But if you stick with this story, then it also had its own rewards.

Some of the issues that crop up at first glance are blatantly in your face huge. First, there is Rhys.  He is 19 and a virgin.  Raised in a religious sect environment, he has been abused, starved, and finally deprived of those he loves when they are killed by the revenants that infect him. And in order to live he must whore himself out to a group of unknown hardened soldiers, trusting that the experiment isn’t just a falsehood used to gain his services.  I defy any one out there to to deny the emotions that arise within themselves just by reading that description.

Secondly his rescuer, Darius, that Rhys comes to have feelings for, is 42 years of age.  Think of that difference in age, experience and outlook on sexuality and morals.  Once the reader adjusts and gets past those elements, more arrive to be dealt with.  Additional issues will depend upon how your tolerance and acceptance of the fact that the only method available to transmit the virus is near constant coitus, the more partners Rhys has the greater exposure to different variations of the strain he requires.  I will admit that I was skeptical of the science behind this experiment at the beginning.  Thoughts of injections, blood exchanges or other field methods that an army medic would have at their disposable, even on the go as this company is, rose up to make me question the plausibility that such extreme measures as they require of Rhys and Jacob.  But again, the author managed to answer all my questions, convincing me of the science behind it and the medic’s explanations as the story progresses.  All it takes is sticking with the story, even if you have to stumble past those sections that make you cringe.

Then there is the sexuality that prevails throughout the story.  It is crude, harsh, with elements of voyeurism, D/s, bdsm, and other kinks.  It is noncon, almost noncon, sprinkled with “boy”, dirty language, and the need for pain and humiliation.  That is most likely the biggest hurdle of them all.  Rhys and his initiation into sex by such a horrific requirement is the element that will give most people pause.  I think my take on the events and changes that occur within Rhys might vary from those found within.

Gormley takes Rhys from virgin to one who adjusts his morality to include casual sex among partners while still needing to have relations with someone who cares about him, all within a month’s time.  Towards the end he has adjusted his outlook to become more flexible in his thinking and morality.  Here is Darius’ take on Rhys somewhere in the middle of the story:

“Of course given the way that Rhys seemed to like a rough and dangerous edge to his sex, maybe it was time for that to change. Toby and Jie might be right up his alley.”

For me this is by far the largest issue here. My opinion is that if you take a 19-virgin who has been isolated from others and made to feel that sex is for procreation, including the idea that same sex feelings are a perversion, you have an almost fragile blank canvas in the person of Rhys. Then by  subjecting  him to constant near rape, you are practically hardwiring him to not only accept the role he has been made to play but also that casual rough sex and domination are the norm because he doesn’t have any other frame of reference.  It verges on Stockholm Syndrome in my opinion.  That odd lack of recognition that Darius and the group’s treatment of Rhys might have played a role in the formation of his sexual preferences makes this aspect of the story its biggest obstacle in my opinion.

So why stick with this story and why give it such a high rating?  Because for all those elements, and distasteful to some, storylines, Strain is a well written and absorbing novel.   The further into the novel the reader gets, the deeper the reader sinks emotionally. It grabs onto your heart or should I say Rhys does, and, refuses to let go.  Trust me when I say you will be sobbing at certain junctures within this story.  Rhys will break your heart over and over.  And not just because of his current situation either.

You will find yourself getting angry or disgusted at times during the narrative.  “Why should that happen to Rhys?  It’s all so unfair” you might find yourself saying, conveniently forgetting that Rhys and the injustice of his situation are the product of a fine imagination.  Truly despicable characters along with those that pull at your heartstrings come not from poorly layered constructs but from wonderful characterizations.  If at times you forget everything but the world the author has created, then that person, in this case, Amelia C. Gormley, has done their job and then some.

This is a HFN story.  Indeed given such a post apocalyptic world and constant peril, it is the only reasonable ending the author could apply.  For some people, Strain will be a difficult book to read, for others a complete joy and for still others, the wide array of strong elements pose just a mild discomfort, a small price to pay for such a complex and compelling tale.  Take a moment to think and make the decision for yourself.

This is how it all starts:

D eath smelled like old wooden pews whose varnish and cushions had become saturated with acrid layers of dust. It smelled like mildewing carpet rotting from rain that had leaked through a roof he’d never had the skill or resources to repair. The hymnals had long since been used for tinder, but the musty scent of old books—once so comforting but now vaguely nauseating—remained.

Cover Art by Kanaxa.  I think the cover fails to deliver any idea of the story or character within.  Rhys is rail thin, disheveled, a survivor.  The model here looks the very antithesis of Rhys Cooper.

Book Details:

ebook, 375 pages
Published February 17th 2014 by Riptide Publishing (first published February 15th 2014)
ISBN13 9781626490710
edition language English
 Book was received as an ARC through Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

Celebrate the Release of the 2nd edition of Blue Notes with Shira Anthony (Contest included)

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ScatteredThoughts is so happy to have Shira Anthony here today to celebrate the release of Blue Notes (2nd edition).  Welcome, Shira!

Thank you, Melanie, for hosting me today to celebrate the 2nd edition of the original Blue Notes! I’m giving away one ebook copy of the book to a lucky someone who comments on this post. Just tell me what your favorite city is in a comment, leave your email addy, and you’re entered in the drawing. I’ll ask Melanie to choose a winner after midnight tonight.

Melanie asked me to write about why Blue Notes is getting a spiffy new 2nd edition. I promise I’ll get to that in just a minute. But first, let me tell you a bit about how Blue Notes and the Blue Notes Series came to be….

Paris is my favorite city. Hands down. Maybe it’s because I lived in France for several years when I was a teenager and attended the Conservatoire de Grenoble for violin. Maybe because it’s the first city I ever traveled to (I was a whopping 6 months old!). Maybe it’s because I lived in Paris when I was about 5 years old and went to school there. Or maybe it’s because I’m a true romantic at heart, and I find Paris to be one of the most romantic cities I know. Yes, it’s probably all of those things.

I go back to Paris every five years or so (I only wish I could go more often). In my early 20s, back when I was still singing, I spent several weeks in Paris. There I met a gorgeous Frenchman (another musician, of course!) and we had a brief but very torrid affair. peripherique-parisI remember rides around the Périphérique (the freeway that loops around the city) on the back of his scooter (“moto”). I also remember dinners in his loft apartment with friends, afternoons spent lounging at a café, nursing our coffees while people watching, and making love at night to the sounds of jazz and be-bop. Have I mentioned I love French men? Philippe was the first of several Frenchmen I dated before I got married. There’s just something about their comfortable, casual attitude, good looks, and the way the French language sounds when they speak that makes them so damn sexy….

The inspiration for Blue Notes came about five years ago now, when two girlfriends and I spent two weeks in Paris. We stayed at my brother-in-law’s apartment near the Jardins du Luxembourg, a gorgeous park complete with long gravel walkways, gardens, a Jardin_du_Luxembourgreflecting pool, and, of course, a chateau. A fifteen minute walk from the Seine and Notre Dame de Paris, the area is one of my favorites. We shopped, went sightseeing, and ate very well. It was January, after a heavy snow (unusual for Paris, which tends toward milder weather), and the skies were overcast and gray. It didn’t matter. Each time I walked out of the apartment, I imagined romance. In fact, I imagined a very particular romance: the romance that was the inspiration for the first book in my Blue Notes series of music-themed gay romances. I imagined Blue Notes.

Jason Greene (the main character in the book) and I share much in common. We’re both former musicians who became lawyers. We both have felt the pain of loss of our music, and we’ve both found our way back to it (although in different ways). Like me, Jason spent several years in France as a teenager, where he studied music. He and I even share a hometown: Cleveland, Ohio.

When Blue Notes was originally released by Dreamspinner Press in 2011, I felt I’d missed an opportunity to share more of Jason’s past with readers. In fact, I wrote a short story called “Knowing,” based on a reader suggestion for a Goodreads Gay-Straight Alliance’s project: “Am I straight or am I gay?” It’s a question Jason asks himself over the years, but one which he finds easier not to answer. That is, until he meets Jules Bardon, a young man confident in his sexuality and whom Jason finds more attractive than he cares to admit. The short story was a look back at an experience in Jason’s past with a boy from high school, Robbie. The story is incorporated into the new version of Blue Notes, and helps to explain Jason’s attraction to Jules. Will the boy from Jason’s past make an appearance in a future Blue Notes Series book? Very possibly. A number of readers have asked for that story, and I love the character of Robbie Jenson from Cleveland. In addition to adding more of Jason’s background, the story has been completely re-edited with the help of my fabulous editor at Dreamspinner, whom I began working with when the second Blue Notes Series book, The Melody Thief, was written.

The new Blue Notes is now available at Dreamspinner Press. For readers who purchased the original at Dreamspinner, you will get the new version automatically on your bookshelf! Haven’t started the series yet? Blue Notes Series books can be read in any order, but if you’re one of those readers who likes to read in publication order, the original Blue Notes is a great place to start!

I’ll leave you with a short excerpt from Blue Notes, when Jason and Jules first meet. Don’t forget to comment on this post to be entered to win a free ebook copy of the book!

–Shira

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Blue Notes (a Blue Notes story):BlueNotes[2ndEd]LG

Blurb: Blame it on jet lag. Jason Greene thought he had everything: a dream job as a partner in a large Philadelphia law firm, a beautiful fiancée, and more money than he could ever hope to spend. Then he finds his future wife in bed with another man, and he’s forced to rethink his life and his choices. On a moment’s notice, he runs away to Paris, hoping to make peace with his life. But Jason’s leave of absence becomes a true journey of the heart when he meets Jules, a struggling jazz violinist with his own cross to bear. In the City of Love, it doesn’t take them long to fall into bed, but as they’re both about to learn, they can’t run from the past. Sooner or later, they’ll have to face the music.

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JULES GLANCED over at Henri and their pianist, David. David grinned and nodded as he caressed the keys of the upright piano, his touch so delicate that Jules could hear him breathe with each phrase. David complained that the instrument was out of tune and a “piece of shit,” but the sound he managed to coax from it was astonishingly sweet. Henri’s mellow brush strokes over the surface of the snare drum joined the soft piano, much like the sound of the rain on the city streets—understated yet insistent. Sexy.

Jules gripped the neck of his violin and tucked the instrument under his chin. There was a rough patch of skin there, a result of years of playing, that looked much like the mark of an overzealous lover. He drew his bow above the strings and allowed it to hover there for an instant before lightly catching the D string. The sound of the violin flickered like a candle flame blown by an unseen breeze, then grew and melded with the muted piano, sultry and inviting. Jules closed his eyes, letting the sound wash over him, responding to the slow harmonic progression on the piano, both instruments weaving the ghostly melody.

IN A dim alcove only a dozen or so feet from the musicians, Jason sat nursing his drink, transported by the sound of the violin. It wasn’t jazz in its purest form—it was more of a hybrid, combining the traditional jazz rhythms of the fifties with a modern yet classical approach. But whatever you might call the music, he found it transcendent. Between pieces, Jason glanced around the room to discover the group’s name but found no mention of it anywhere.

The set ended and the club erupted in applause. The musicians nodded, their manner casual, aloof, even a bit embarrassed. The violinist met Jason’s eyes and, for a brief instant, lingered there. Jason’s face heated. Breaking their eye contact to look down at his empty glass, he told himself that the heat in his cheeks was from the alcohol and the lack of sleep. He motioned to the lone waiter for a refill. When he turned back toward the stage, he found himself sitting face-to-face with the violinist.

“May I join you?” the violinist asked, a coy grin on his delicate lips. Jason figured that he might be nineteen, tops. As his companion brushed a stray lock of shoulder-length black hair from his eyes, Jason realized that he had one brown eye and one green. He was a waif of a kid, his face uniquely French, from the slightly pronounced nose to the sharper edge of his jaw. Even seated as he was, Jason could see that the kid’s body swam in a large pair of jeans that hung low on his hips, exposing blue plaid boxers. On top, he wore a body-hugging black T-shirt with the word “Quoi?” splashed across the front in bright red.

“Be my guest,” Jason replied in French, still unsure of what to think about the kid. “Seems as though you’ve already invited yourself.”

“You’re French-Canadian?” the newcomer inquired, grin widening.

“American.” Jason noted the rough edges of the uneven tattoo on the kid’s right forearm. Homemade, no doubt.

“Really? Your French is excellent.”

“And your music’s good,” Jason countered playfully. “What’s your trio called?”

“Dunno. We haven’t named it yet—we don’t play that much. Wouldn’t have played tonight except the group Maurice booked canceled and he couldn’t find a replacement. My roommate’s the dishwasher here.” He gestured at the drummer, who was watching them with interest from the edge of the small stage. “So, do you live in Paris?” he added after a moment’s pause.

“Visiting.”

The waiter deposited two drinks on the table and winked at the violinist.

“My name’s Jules. Jules Bardon.”

“Jason Greene.”

“Enchanté.” Jules took Jason’s hand across the table. The gesture was far too friendly. Flirtatious. Jason pulled his hand away and raised an eyebrow. Jules appeared unfazed. “Here on business?”

“No.”

“Pleasure, then?”

“No.”

Jules laughed—a soft, almost girlish laugh. “Do I make you uncomfortable?” He fixed his gaze on Jason.

“No,” lied Jason, finding Jules’s gaze a bit too intense.

“I could make this a pleasure visit for you.” Jules absentmindedly traced a long finger across his own lips.

“I don’t bat for that team.” Jason borrowed the American expression wholesale as his French failed him at last. It was not the first time he’d spoken the words, although it was the first time he’d spoken them in French. They were also not entirely true; it was simply that the right opportunity had never presented itself.

Jules looked at him for a moment, clearly uncomprehending, then laughed again.

“What’s so funny?” Jason demanded, noting a hint of licorice on the air as his companion replaced his drink on the table.

“Oh,” Jules said, “I understand.” He laughed again. “Sorry. I’ve just never heard it put that way before. At first I thought you were asking me about baseball.” He took a swig of his drink and shrugged. “Too bad. You looked like you could use a good—”

“Jules!”

“I have to go.” Jules sighed and appeared disappointed. “Time for the next set. It was nice to meet you, Jason.” He tripped over the name, and it came out sounding something like “Jah-sohn.” Jason chuckled in spite of himself, reminded of the various ways in which his name had been mangled by French speakers through the years.

Jules sucked down the rest of his drink in one swallow and stood up. “If you change your mind…,” he began, but the drummer grabbed him by the arm and dragged him back toward the stage.

Not likely, kid. Jason chuckled again. He had enough shit to deal with.

******

Buy Blue Notes at Dreamspinner Press: