Review of Wish List by J.J. Cassidy

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Rating: 4.5 stars

Wish List coverBerg Pedersen is newly out of the army and standing on the steps belonging to a man he has been seeing secretly for sometime.  Berg is shocked and disheartened when the man’s wife opens the door, he had no idea that the guy was married and had a child.  Beaten down, Berg has no where to go and its Christmas Eve.  Then a man asks him if he is ok and if he would like to come in out of the cold and get warm.

Officer DJ Delaney is off duty for the next two days.  He has a kitchen full of food and a tree waiting to be decorated.  DJ was supposed to be decorating the house with his boyfriend, but the boyfriend dumped him last week saying he just couldn’t date a cop anymore.  So now DJ is looking to spend the holidays alone.  Until he spies the cold, wet, soldier standing in the snow next to his neighbor’s house. DJ knows his neighbor is a closeted jerk so he can guess the rest and takes the man in to change his clothes and get warmed up.

As Berg gets warm and changes into dry clothes, DJ sees before him the very thing he has always wanted in a man, and the perfect Christmas gift for himself.  His only problem will be getting Berg to believe in a Christmas miracle that landed him in the very place he was always meant to be.

I don’t know what it is about this story and the characters, but I just loved it and them.  It has quite a few elements that  always make me crazy, like instant love and a plot I have read before but somehow with these men it doesn’t matter.  Berg Pedersen and DJ Delaney absolutely fell into my heart from their first appearance.  Former soldier Berg, standing there devastated in the snow, clothes and duffle bag getting soaked by the rain. It was such a compelling image, a man absolutely vulnerable and alone on Christmas Eve.  And then a stranger picks him up and makes him feel welcome and at home.  *sniff*  It will get to me every time.

But it is more than that.  I loved J.J. Cassidy’s characters.  DJ who knows what he wants and sees it in Berg even as he recognizes how illogical and unrealistic that might be.  Berg is especially vulnerable, something unexpected in a man who looks like him and has just left 15  years in the Army behind.  Berg is also a survivor of the foster system as a child and you combine foster child with gay, and I can see the neglect and pain that Cassidy has imbued Berg with spilling out the longer he stays with DJ.  In a short story,69 pages in length,  Cassidy gives us two men to love and root for.  I especially would love to see a followup story as I continue to think about both of them days after I finished their story.  Wish List would be on my wish list for anyone looking for that heartwarming holiday story.

Review of Snowbound to Nowhere by Andrew Grey

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Rating: 4.5 stars

Snowbound to Nowhere coverWhen Martin suggested that Chris Fellows spend the holiday with him up at his cabin on the lake, Chris only hesitated for a moment.  Chris knew his friend had little family and looked to his closest friends to supply the support and comfort a family would have, so yes was the only possible answer, even for the cold allergic Chris.  So Chris packed his bags and left warm Phoenix for the wilds of Wisconsin and tons of snow.  But Chris wasn’t prepared for a death in Martin’s small family and a funeral to keep Martin away and Chris all alone in a unfamiliar cabin.  And then the power goes out, a situation Chris is definitely not prepared for.

Enter Horace Anderson.  Horace lives by himself in a house his father built and was checking on his neighbors when he found Chris panicking about being by himself without power.  Horace is huge, gentle and very shy but soon he has wood stacked for Chris to use in the fireplace, and lanterns lit for the coming night.  Hesitant conversations provide the men with the knowledge that in some ways they are very much alike.  Both are living alone, their parents having died years ago and both are gay.  The last fact was determined when Chris placed a kiss on Horace’s mouth, only to see the big man run away like a frightened deer.  Torn between hurt and exasperation, Chris is delighted when Horace returns the next day.  Then the following day. and the one after that too.  Soon the men are spending all their time together, closed off from the rest of the world by the lack of power and tons of snow.  But as their emotions deepen, Chris worries that his feelings are the result of being snowbound instead of something real. What will happen when the power comes back on and they are no longer snowbound?  Will Chris accept the clear path to love once the snow is gone?

Snowbound to Nowhere is that lovely story of love found that Andrew Grey does so well.  He sets up disparate characters and lets the situation and the setting they find themselves in lure out their hidden feelings and hopes.   And we get to watch the slow, lovely build to a relationship built on love.  Grey always gives us such wonderful characters and that continues here.  I have to admit however that Horace Anderson holds a special place in my heart.  Raised by his father in the “middle of nowhere”, he had little interaction with the people who lived in the town around them, as he and his father kept to themselves.  His father had strict notions about sexuality, including severely chastising a teenage boy caught masterbating.  When his father died, he was left alone, and made a living being a town “fixer”.  A lonely life that has left him a bit of a man child, so vulnerable and appealing that it is easy to see why Chris falls for him.  But for all that Horace is also supremely well qualified to deal with the power outage and shows Chris just how lovely it can be to live life unplugged.

Chris Fellows just cracked me up.  But even as I laughed at how unprepared that Arizona man was for winter emergencies and the cold, Chris made me adore him as Chris has more layers to him personality wise than the coats and blankets piled up around him.  True, he panicked and his calls to Martin were quite funny but he also hunkered down and started to make the best of things.  And Chris’ gentle acceptance of Horace, his appreciation of the skills Horace accumulated and the way Horace has lived made me love Chris even more.  I think Andrew Grey was very smart to make Chris second guess his feelings about Horace and the time they spent together.  That is exactly the reaction anyone would have and being that realistic just adds to the pleasure and joy of the ending.

Snowbound to Nowhere is a sweet, joyful story of love found where you least expect it.  Perfect holiday reading.  It made my day as well as one of my holiday favorites this season.

Cover: Paul Richmond does a terrific job of conveying a snowbound cabin welcoming two lovers home.  Just heartwarming.

Review of Lessons Learned, Wishes Earned by Cassandra Gold

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Rating: 4 stars

Lessons Learned Wishes EarnedLachlan Douglas is bone aching tired after spending yet another day as Santa’s Elf.  It’s not just that it’s his small size that makes him the perfect man for the job,  it’s his position within the store too.  But when he has to play Elf to the rich store owner’s son’s Santa, well that’s even worse. Lachlan’s last boyfriend was wealthy and took advantage of him so having to work with another spoiled rich boy is just not something Lachlan wants to do.

Haven Wellesley is not a rich man’s spoiled son.  He has worked his way up the ranks, working at every level no matter what the job calls for.  And this Christmas, he is going to play Santa for a very special set of people and needs an Elf’s help to hand out presents.  That’s when Lachlan realizes that maybe Haven isn’t like the other man, and that together they will find the true meaning of Christmas.

This is a perfect Christmas story, all about not judging others and the true meaning of Christmas.  Cassandra Gold gives us two lovely men in need of each other, especially Lachlan who has lost the Christmas spirit along the  way.  His former boyfriend has skewed his self image and made him very judgmental of others like him.  Even while helping out a friend and taking over his Elf duties, Lachlan does it grudgingly.  But his views are shaken when Haven asks him to accompany him on one last stop to hand out toys.  It’s a very special place and gives the men a chance to connect outside of work.  A night of giving to others turns out to be just what each other wanted for Christmas, a chance at love.

Review of Peace in the Valley by Jana Denardo

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Rating: 4.5 stars

DSP Evergreen Cover for 2012John and Anthony have a tough time making time for each other, especially at this time of the year.  Not only do both men work in emergency services, John as a EMT and Anthony as a nurse, but they also are members of the local Search and Rescue outfit.  But their roles in Search and Rescue make them one unique couple with John as the S&R handler for his “dog” Sir Barksalot who just happens to be Anthony, a wolf shifter. The holidays always bring crazy demands on their time, from people lost on the slopes to a full ER.  But they have been lovers for a long time and know how special it is to make time for each other in their special valley.

I loved this short story written for Dreamspinner’s Evergreen Advent Month.  Jana Denardo captures beautifully the portrait of a couple who have been together long enough that they mesh in that special way only committed partners do.  That one partner happens to be a wolf shifter and Native American adds spice to the relationship but never takes the focus off the love John and Anthony have for each other.  There are some very cute scenes in which  John interacts with his rescue “dog” during training and Anthony’s comments about his love for liver treats.  We also get to see them as an established couple at Christmastime with John’s large Italian family who clearly see Anthony as they would any of their children’s spouses, a very nice touch.

Peace in the Valley gives us tender moments in the lives of John and Anthony, the drama of a rescue and some hot sex too, all nicely wrapped up in 39 pages.  Another don’t miss for the holiday season.  Lovely.

Review of Inspiration by Henrietta Clark

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Rating: 5 stars

Inspiration-MEDNolan’s mother is having open heart surgery and it is scheduled to happen over the holidays which means Nolan is going to Chicago for Christmas and leaving his lover, Benji, behind in Scotland working on his novel.  Definitely not an ideal situation for anyone but what is Nolan to do? Benji hates Chicago, swears Scotland is his muse and the next  part of his book is due to the editors. Benji knows he’s being a “wanker” and doesn’t want  Nolan to go but realizes that this year Nolan will spend the holidays in the States and Benji will spend them alone.

But before leaving, Nolan prepares an advent calendar to get Benji through the long 3 months without him, and maybe help Nolan get through it too  in a very unique way.  As Benji starts to find each advent surprise Nolan has left him, he starts to learn more about himself and the man he let leave for the States alone to face his mother’s traumatic surgery by himself.  Benji may just learn that his source of inspiration resides not in a place, but in a person he loves more than he realizes.

Run, run right now and go get this book.  I have no idea who Henrietta Clark is but I now adore her and will be looking for anything else she writes.  Her characters grump and grumble, are selfish, and charming and so totally real that they  scampered off the page and into my heart from the first paragraph of this wonderful story.  Benji is a grumpy, large old (albeit goodlooking) codger who lives in Scotland, the heart of his muse he thinks.  Benji is very much set in his ways, his thought processes following the habits laid down by his body.  It is remarkable that he let  Nolan in past his defenses to begin with but Nolan’s assault on Mount Benji was thorough and well planned.  I only wish that Henrietta Clark had given us a little more of Nolan’s determined courtship of Benji, it must have been a hoot.  But could I imagine it from the small glimpses she gave us?  Why yes I could and I loved what I saw.

Nolan is a shear delight.  Totally American, he is slight where Benji is large, humorous and outgoing where Benji withdraws like a hermit crab into his shell.  Nolan sees the best about everyone and every situation, and he is exactly what Benji needs and wants, even if the man doesn’t realize it at first.  And little by little, as each advent gift shows Benji just how well Nolan knows his irascible lover, Benji also discovers that Nolan has been his real muse all along and spending the holidays without his love is becoming increasingly unbearable.  Yes, I have seen this plot before, but with her rich descriptions and wonderful characterizations, including Nolan’s mother, Clark makes this storyline sing again and just in time to deliver that much needed holiday cheer and joy that I look for in a story at this time of year.  I am sure Santa will be adding Henrietta Clark to his “nice” list for giving us such a wonderful story.

Review of Eight Days by Cardeno C

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Rating: 5 stars

Eight Days (Evergreen)Maccabe Fried and Josh Segal have virtually grownup together, curtesy of their parents who are the closest of friends.  They have spent their vacations together, celebrated the Jewish holidays together and even attended the same schools.  And through the ages, one thing never changed, they were always the best of friends even though they had nothing in common.  Maccabe was obsessed over baseball, sure in his knowledge of himself that one day he would play in the major leagues and become one of the best players ever.  Josh, on the other hand, had absolutely no interest in sports.  Josh loved his legos, and books, and the snow globes that Maccabe bought him every year for Hanukkah.  But somewhere as both boys aged into their teenage years, things changed.  Maccabe started noticing Josh in a way he usually noticed girls to his total amazement.  And Josh? Well, it turned out that Josh had always had a crush on Maccabe.

A revelation turns into a stolen kiss which morphs into a hidden love affair that lasts several years.  Hidden because Maccabe is still obsessed over having a career in baseball, and everything else comes second, including Josh.  As Maccabe climbs from college baseball and into the minor league, things remain the same, not even their parents know they are a couple. And Josh decides he is tired of hiding their relationship. One night Josh explodes, yelling at Maccabe that either Maccabe tells everyone that he is gay and they are a couple or it is over.  Maccabe hesitates, Josh is devastated and runs away before Maccabe can stop him.

But Fate is not through with either of them, and it is the season of Miracles.  And it all starts one night at Hannukkah.

Eight Days is that most wondrous of holiday stories that combines laughter and angst in equal measure and the final product is a story I will return to year after year.  While not Jewish, I have always enjoyed the few Jewish stories of Hannukkuh that appeared at this time of year, usually the Bellski series from Astrid Amara.  But Cardeno C has given us a classic tale of two families and their sons, Josh and Maccabe, and the traditions that bind us together.  I will let you know right off the bat, that my daughter knew a Maccabe all through elementary and middle school.  Baseball obsessed, he devoted all his time to the sport and went on to play minor league ball and I can see him in Maccabe so clearly.  Cardeno  C understands adolescence and teenagers.  The author grasps that what can come across as self absorbed is sometimes just a focus so strong that it can obliterate everything else on the outskirts, even people who love you.  When you are that young and that centered on one thing, you can come across as a bit dense, and self centered just as Maccabe does, but that is the beauty of his character.  He is absolutely realistic in every way.  I felt I knew him intimately because he was a realistic kid.   The same with Josh.  Young, more orientated inward towards puzzles,school and chess. Just take a quick mental trip back to a class of yours and you will find that a “Josh” pops into your head almost immediately.  C Cardeno gets every facet of their lives perfectly, right down to their very distinct voices she creates for each of them. Perfect characterizations in perfectly realized situations, how I adore this story.

And how I loved the adult Maccabe, so self assured that he almost comes across as arrogant, Maccabe has matured into the man he was meant to be and the one Josh needs so badly.  Sigh.  And finally we get the ending they both deserve and the one we have been waiting for.  I love Eight Days and am putting on my Advent list of stories I reread every holiday season.

Available at Dreamspinner Press, Amazon and All Romance.