Review: Home Team by Jameson Dash

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Review: 4 stars out of 5

Home Team coverAaron Buckley has made hockey his primary focus for most of his life from the moment he first hit the ice to his fifteen years in the NHL.  Hockey was Aaron’s everything.  He gave up family, friends, a social life and most importantly, he gave up the only man he has ever loved…Zach.  Aaron knew that he wanted to play pro hockey and had to stay in the closet if he wanted to make it in the NHL.  Zach wouldn’t be his secret and walked away from Aaron rather than hide who he was.

Now one of the league’s older players Aaron knows he’s at the end of his career.  A huge screwup costs Aaron his spot on his team in LA.  They send him down to the minors in Manchester, NH, back to where he started all those years ago.  Home in Manchester, now on a team full of young rookies hoping to make it big, Aaron has time to think and reconnect with his past.  His sister makes her home and business there as does the man he left behind.

When Zach, now a sports reporter, shows up to cover his first game home, it is clear that Aaron and Zach can have a second chance at love.  But once again, Aaron must choose between hockey and love.  What will his answer be this second time around?

Home Team is a book that will grow on you.  The more you think about the characters, especially Aaron Buckley, the more they will grow on you.  I started out thinking that Aaron was pretty stunted emotionally.  It is his voice driving the narrative of this story.  But the author’s subtle maneuvering of Aaron’s character and viewpoint will have the reader changing their mind as the story continues.

Aaron is at the end of a long career in the NHL, he is steadily losing ground to the younger players and it’s a year since he scored a goal.  His is a voice weary, testy, and resigned.  I really commend Jameson Dash for making Aaron such an irascible, somewhat unlikeable personality at the beginning of the story.  At times Aaron’s voice seems flat, removed, and irritable.  Then Aaron makes his costly error in judgement and his voice flattens out even further until it almost flatlines like his career.

Once Dash brings Rosie, Aaron’s sister and Zach into the story and Aaron’s life, things start to change in Aaron’s outlook although the movement of emotions in Aaron is almost glacial.   I was puzzled over my inability to connect to this character because I love hockey players. But quite frankly, Aaron’s comes across as a jerk for the first part of this story, especially his attitude towards the “mistake” that cost him his spot in the major league.  But the more I thought about it, the better Jameson Dash’s characterization got.  This was a man who has shut down emotionally.  Aaron is beyond tired, and stressed to his limits.  He has lost his spot on his team, he lost his only friend who remains with that team, he lost his home and most likely his career.  And probably, most importantly of all, he is in denial,  Aaron doesn’t want to recognize that his career is over and that because of his own choices, he has left himself with nothing waiting for him.

The author’s characterization of Aaron is so good, so human that it took me a while to realize what he was trying to accomplish with keying us so intimately into the thoughts of a man like Aaron because it seems so counterproductive to our connecting with him.   But again, only at the beginning.  Then little by little as reality of his situation creeps into Aaron’s mindset, that along with the arrival of Rosie and Zach, propels Aaron and the reader out of his “funk” and into the warmth of possibilities and a redemptive love.

This is a spare form of narrative that works perfectly for the character and his story.  Its as free of embellishment as Aaron himself.  And the more I thought about this character and his growth throughout Home Team, the more Aaron and his story grew on me.   I have not read other stories by Jameson Dash, this was the first.  But if this story is a good indication of this author’s style and talent, then I can’t wait to see what they write next.  Consider this book and author highly recommended.

Here is an excerpt as Aaron lands back home in Manchester, NH:

He finds his hat and sunglasses in his backpack, but there isn’t much of a crowd in the airport. Nobody is looking for him. Wives greet their husbands in rumpled suits, a group of teenage boys tangle in a massive hug, and Aaron spots what looks like a college basketball team, home after a disappointing tournament. Aaron wants to give the girls a high five and tell them to keep being awesome. But he’s not feeling very awesome himself. Instead, he keeps his head down out of habit and heads for the baggage carousel.

It’s different traveling alone than with the team. He’s still wearing a shirt and tie; the jacket was folded and shoved into his backpack before the flight took off from LA. He’s representing his team, even if his team doesn’t want him.

But he has to pick up his own equipment. Once Aaron gets the mammoth hockey bag and his suitcase onto a cart, stick bag balanced on top and his own backpack over both shoulders, he looks around for a chauffeur holding up his name. There’s no one waiting for him. There’s no one looking for him.

Cover art by LC Chase is just ok.   It doesn’t pertain to this story, it could be any story about a hockey player.  It’s just too generic.

Book Details:

ebook, 82 pages
Published September 25th 2013 by Dreamspinner Press
ISBN 1627981594 (ISBN13: 9781627981590)
edition language English

Review: Breaking the Devil by Bailey Bradford

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Rating: 2 stars out of 5

Breaking the Devil civerTwelve years ago, Mack Wilson made the mistake of his life, giving his love and virginity to his best friend Justin who then threw his love back at him telling Mack he was just a youthful experiment before leaving town for good.  Justin’s hateful message left Mack a broken man unable to get past that experience and Justin.  Now Justin has returned wanting to pick up where he left off, in Mack’s bed.  And despite Mack’s pain and fury, he lets him.  But the past is still haunts Mack and Justin has many obstacles to overcome before he can reclaim the man he walked away from.

Will pride and pain stand in the way of true love or  together can Mack and Justin break the devil of a past to have the love they always dreamed of.

Normally when I finish a Bailey Bradford story (either in the Southwestern Shifters or Leopard’s Spots series), I allude to the shortness of the book as one of its faults.  Here at 127 pages, I can actually declare that Breaking the Devil is far too long.  But let’s get to the positive element of Breaking the Devil.  That would be the storyline.  I love a “lovers reunited” story as well as the next person.  I can’t wait normally to see what each author brings to such a common plot line.  Bailey Bradford has the ability to create interesting universes or flesh out cliched ones, unfortunately neither of that happens here.  But at least she started out with one guaranteed to catch ones interest.  Too bad it stayed at that level, an idea.

First the plot and the title, Breaking the Devil, which refers to a stallion Mack has been given to break.  Right away things go off course as Mack states

Inside the corral stood the meanest, foulest stallion he’d ever seen—and also the most magnificent. A huge horse, too, his size matching his nasty disposition. Mack wondered half the time why he’d ever bothered buying the damn critter. The other half of the time he admitted it was because he didn’t like anything that was easy, not in most cases, at least. While he didn’t want a horse that was going to stomp him to death, he did like a challenge.

In that paragraph, Mack has bought this stallion.  Now a mere two paragraphs later, see if you can spot the error:

“Enough already,” he scolded himself. It was a certainty that Justin hadn’t wasted years—years—dwelling on what might have been. Normally Mack didn’t think on it so heavily himself, but that angry red horse just stirred up memories. He really shouldn’t have agreed to tame the damn critter.

Yep, quickly it has changed from Mack owning the horse to Mack taming the horse for someone else and that is at the beginning of the story.  Plus Mack starts to “gentle” the horse, not break him, a huge training difference (except to an author who hasn’t done the homework).  This is one of the mildest of errors located in Breaking the Devil.  Because shortly thereafter this scene, Justin reappears and for the next 100 or so pages, they do nothing but hump like bunnies, tons of by the book sex scenes that actually lack the heat of Bradford’s other stories.

The reader is told that Justin’s leaving broke Mack (his word) but instead of exposition we get tons of sex scenes.  What happened to the storyline?  Why did Justin leave and what happened to all the anger and pain Mack storied up over 12 years?  Seemingly unimportant because we have to wait until almost the end and then get just the thinest explanation possible.  I don’t know about you but I like a story with my story.

Then there are the thin characterizations. Both characters come complete with over the top emoting and dialog more suited to Telemundo’s telenovelas. The men glare and “squeal like girls” , (again Mack’s description), ready their fists and sneer, voices hit “like daggers to the heart”, and they swoon and are consumed by love. Now keep in mind, Justin is a hardened vet, with several tours of duty behind him and Mack is 30 years old rancher and you can see the issues. Mack and Justin, and particularly Mack seem more like a conglomerate of personality traits than an actual character. Even the dialog put into Mack’s mouth is as disconnected as the aspects of his personality. He will call someone an “idjit”, then “bub” , then a countrified saying like “He asked me what was wrong when he found me in the barn, sobbing like a baby denied the tit, you know.” pops out , then Mack returns briefly to sounding like a 30 year old. Mack is a seasoned rancher but can’t stand the sight of his own blood, a real problem when just the daily chores brings more cuts than you can imagine. This might seem like a funny trait to give a character but if you are well acquainted with the chores of a ranch hand, then you know it makes no sense. Justin too never comes across in any realistic way as a Marine.

A character called Craig, a soldier with Justin, returns with Justin to help run his ranch.  We are told Craig, a fellow Marine, is dangerous, a murderer for his country (Justin’s words), etc,  and the reader starts to have expectations that Craig will figure greatly into the storyline.  Instead after considerable buildup and attention to Craig’s explosive persona, the character disappears completely.  I thought this a real misstep as Craig was far more interesting than either Justin or Mack, although more thug than Marine.

The ending finished it off for me.  I have ridden  horses all my life and owned three.  At the end of the story, Justin and Mack decide that Diablo (the stallion now has a name) will remained unbroken, that they

 “…kind of like the evil bastard like this, all angry and righteous and untamed. He’s beautiful, like raw power set free on this earth, and I know it sounds silly probably, but I just would hate to see his spirit lessened from this brilliant, fiery sun to a dim glow.

*head desk*

And  all I could think was really? How was the horse to get groomed? Or the vet to give him the necessary shots or float his teeth when the horse can’t be touched?  And basically they didn’t “break the devil” after all.  So much for the title and so much for any type of research. All dumped in favor of an unrealistic ending to a mess of a book, more a collection of cliches than actual realized plot.  Give this book a pass even if you like Bailey Bradford’s stories because there isn’t one here.

Cover art by Posh Gosh is lovely but just as over the top as the storyline.

Book Details:

Breaking the Devil

ISBN # 978-1-78184-315-4

©Copyright Bailey Bradford 2013

Cover Art by Posh Gosh ©Copyright April 2013

Edited by Eleanor Boyall Total-E-Bound Publishing

Previously published by Loose id in 2009 at 66 pages. Skip that version too.

Review: Bullheaded by Catt Ford

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Rating: 4.25 stars out of 5

Bullheaded coverBull rider Cody Grainger and bullfighter Johnny Arrow have been in love for two years and traveling together on the circuit for less.  The relationship is one that Cody’s parents approve of and the rodeo world has little knowledge of.  A time of change is coming for both men, something neither of them want to acknowledge. For Cody Grainger, the future means retirement.  Cody is at the top of the ratings and hopes to win the first back to back World Champion Bull Rider titles, but his body feels every inch his thirty years plus the wear and tear of riding bulls is making it harder for his body to take the abuse doled out by the bulls. Cody doesn’t just want to win, he needs to win and he refuses to see that his time as a bull rider is coming to an end.

Johnny Arrow is much younger than Cody and just starting out in his career as  a bullfighter.  His chosen profession means as much to him as bullriding does to Cody but Johnny just can’t seem to get that idea into Cody’s head.  Frustration and unhappiness grows between the men and when the lack of communication is combined with the stress of the chase  of the world title, their relationship breaks apart and Johnny leaves to pursue his profession on the summer circuit.  With Johnny gone and Cody in denial about the cause of their breakup, Cody’s career takes a downward spiral he is unable to break.  Both men soon realize they need to be together, but pride is a tough obstacle to get through.  So is Cody’s outlook on Johnny and his career.  Can both men compromise enough to let their love pull them through or will pride and denial cost them the love of their lives?

Catt Ford knows the world of bull riding from every exciting aspect, from the athleticism of the bulls themselves to the bullfighters who risk life and limb to protect the bull riders after their rides are done.  Ford’s familiarity and her vivid descriptions of the sport make this book for me.  I love the rodeo and Ford captures all the details from the danger of the chute to the politics and marketing strategy of the stock contractors and folds them effortlessly into her story.  The author even gives the reader an introductory Bullriding 101 that works in its brevity and simplicity and helps the reader unfamiliar with the subject to better understand the terms and specifics of the sport.  I normally am not a fan of this book dictionary idea but it works beautifully here and adds to the readers enjoyment instead of befuddlement.

Catt Ford’s descriptions really bring you into the world of bullriding.  Instead of feeling like you are watching the events happen from a distance, say on cable, she makes you feel the events are happening around you, as though you are sitting in the stands, the dust of the arena in the air and the sounds of clanging gates and the explosive grunts of the bulls ringing in your ears.  This is how the book opens, with Cody on the back of a bull and the chute gate getting ready to open:

IT ALWAYS started this way. He could feel his heart speed up, the insistent pounding in his chest, the steel rail cold under his hand, the restless beast throbbing between his legs, the tightness of the wrap around his hand. He gave the nod.

When the gate opened, the bull exploded out of the chute, bucking and twisting high in the air. Time slowed down for him as the rush of adrenaline shot through his body. It made him feel weightless yet powerful. Energized but floating on air. This was going to be a good ride. He was in the zone, shifting his body expertly, just enough to counter each move the bull threw at him, finding the perfect center of balance. The bull’s rage shivered up his spine, but it didn’t make a dent in his determination to win. He could almost hear the ticking as each hundredth of a second counted down.

His timing was perfect. He was so concentrated on his ride he couldn’t hear the roar of the crowd or the buzzer when it came. His internal clock told him once again he was the victor in the ageless contest between man and beast.

And it gets better from there.  You feel the pain from old and new injuries adding up, the young riders pushing to get ahead and the love of bull riding that doesn’t diminish even while the body is telling the rider it is time to quit.  Marvelous, realistic, glorious and sometimes quite sad.

It is Catt Ford’s characters and storyline that I had some issues with.  Johnny Arrow is clearly my favorite of the main characters.  He is young, ambitious and supporting a family on the reservation. Yet he is also inexperienced when it comes to men and insecure enough about his relationship with Cody not to speak up for his own needs.  Johnny’s growth as a professional bullfighter and more importantly as his own person is charted throughout the story.  It is well done and absolutely necessary to maintain his realism as a character.  He experiments with sexual encounters with a diverse sampling of gay men helps define who he is although some readers will have problems with this aspect of the book.  Both Johnny and Cody have sex with others but the reader needs to keep in mind that the couple is broken up and therefore not cheating on each other.  It is a realistic facet of their lives and helps with each characters growth.

And while Johnny is my favorite character, Cody is my least.  It probably doesn’t help that we see only a little of their relationship before the argument that breaks them up.  The Bullheaded of the title clearly speaks to Cody’s mental state as well as profession.  He rides roughshod over Johnny and pretty much everyone else throughout most of the book and doesn’t experience nearly the amount of growth Johnny does or that Cody needs to.  In fact, they are separated for almost too much of the story and for me, it doesn’t really begin to gel until they meet back up again and try to work things out.   For far too much of the story, Cody is just that much of an unlikeable person.  He  is understandable in his desperation to stay on top and we get the stress he is under from all sides to retire and while we can relate to him we don’t necessarily like him.  And that hurts the story from my perspective.

It took me a while to commit to the relationship between Cody and Johnny.  What pulled me through until I connected with them was Catt Ford’s immersion of the reader into her love of the bull riding universe.  I will let Cody speak for himself:

The physical and mental challenge to stay aboard and the ecstasy of conquest rushed through him, electrifying his body. It felt like more excitement than his body could contain, as if he might explode with the insane joy of it any moment.

Catt Ford gets bull riding and makes the reader understand why.  For that reason alone, you should pick up this book and let the bulls and their riders come alive before you.  It is an amazing journey and one you will enjoy.

Cover art by Catt Ford.  Unusual cover gets your attention immediately and works for the story within.

Book Details:

ebook, 340 pages
Published April 15th 2013 by Dreamspinner Press
ISBN
1623806267 (ISBN13: 9781623806262)
edition language
English

Attack of the Planked Salmon and the Week Ahead in Reviews

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This year we have had a real, honest to God or Goddess spring.  The weather has been seasonally cool, with light  winds and rain as appropriate.  No snow (sorry, Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan), no heatwave, just spring and we are not sure how to deal with this phenomenon.  How quickly we have forgotten that it is not safe to plant annuals before the first week of May.  And board shorts and flip flops won’t be needed really until the end of May or June.  But one thing is always constant. And that is that spring and summer always herald is the advent of  the grill season.

We started grilleing a week or two ago just as the weather started turning lovely and the ponds and small spring in the backyard called to us to come out and sit a while.  And up until yesterday, all of our grilled dinners were delicious and uneventful.  Then we decided that planked Salmon would be just the thing for Saturday’s dinner.  Off we went to Harris Teeters to buy our fresh salmon and asparagus, then home to soak the planks and get everything ready.  I had gotten another flat of red double begonias for the bed in the front yard (needed some extra pop of color), and the cedar planks were in the sink, soaking away.  We had the glaze mixed and ready to go.  When the time came, the salmon and asparagus cooked beautifully and perfectly on their planks and the meal was wonderful.  We sat outside, with our wine, salmon and Bogle Sauvignon Blanc, and dogs of course  and basked in the serenity of the gardens and afternoon sun.  Then my own special hell hit me with a ferocity that would make the Hulk blink.

You see I keep forgetting that salmon hates me or that my insides hate such a rich and fatty fish.  I can eat it about once a year but no more and I already had my one salmon meal earlier in March.  Oh the idiosyncrasies of my aging mind , yeay, that’s what I keep telling myself it is but really, I just wanted that darn salmon.  It started ominously just a  few hours later.  A slight twinge and a “oh no, maybe it will pass” thought.  But I knew I was not to be so lucky and by early evening, I was commode hugging, Bluto frat boy sick.   I mean I haven’t been that nauseous since my college days of Old Frothingslosh and cemetery running.  Don’t ask.

By 10:30pm I was actively praying to the gods of Bacchus or anyone else that would listen, to let me just die in my bed before I had to race back to the bathroom, hoping desperately to make it there in time for some more porcelain worshiping.   Willow was hiding under the bed, watching with great fascination, Kirby was racing with me, thinking it was a game and Winston of course was sleeping off his bits of salmon.  Oh to be a dog, eat some grass and go on about one’s business.  And finally it passed, leaving me a wreck in the bed, and thinking “never again”.  Sigh.

So that was the great salmon attack.  But for those of you lucky enough to eat salmon with a nonchalance I admire, I have included the recipe at the end of the post.  Try it out and let me know what you think.  We used honey and it was delicious but the maple syrup would be great too.

So here is the week ahead in book reviews:

Monday, May 6:                      Fire Horse by Mickie B. Ashling

Tuesday, May 7:                      Leaving Home by T.A. Chase

Wed., May 8:                           Shy by John Inman

Thursday, May 9:                   The Hellfire Legacy by Missouri Dalton

Friday, May 10:                      His Heart To Reap by Erin Lane

Saturday, May 11:                   City Mouse by Amy Lane and Aleksandr Voinov

So there you have it.  It looks to be a great week.  Now if I can just stay away from those oysters……

Here is the Planked Salmon Recipe from Epicurious.com:

yield: Makes 6 servings
active time: 30 min
total time: 2 1/2 hr
Ingredients:

2 tablespoons grainy mustard
2 tablespoons mild honey or pure maple syrup
1 teaspoon minced rosemary
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
1 (2-pounds) salmon fillet with skin (1 1/2 inches thick)

Equipment: a cedar grilling plank (about 15 by 6 inches)

Cooking:

Soak cedar grilling plank in water to cover 2 hours, keeping it immersed.
Prepare grill for direct-heat cooking over medium-hot charcoal (medium-high heat for gas); see Grilling Procedure . Open vents on bottom and lid of charcoal grill.
Stir together mustard, honey, rosemary, zest, and 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Spread mixture on flesh side of salmon and let stand at room temperature 15 minutes.
Put salmon on plank, skin side down (if salmon is too wide for plank, fold in thinner side to fit). Grill, covered with lid, until salmon is just cooked through and edges are browned, 13 to 15 minutes. Let salmon stand on plank 5 minutes before serving.

Review: It Takes Practice by Willa Okati

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Rating: 3 stars

It Takes Practice coverSeven years ago, as Nathan Rey was getting ready for his graduation from medical school, he asked his long term boyfriend for a promise.  Nathan wanted Fitz, over the top, charismatic love of his life, to be there in the audience as he received his diploma and Fitz promised.  But Fitz broke that promise and Nathan’s heart too by disappearing completely from Nathan’s life without a word or message to explain what happened.

Now it’s Dr. Nathan Rey and Nathan has a successful practice but not much else.  He remains haunted by the memory of the man who left him alone, unable to move forward into new relationships other than those of friendship.  When Nathan’s part-time nurse elopes, he needs a replacement immediately and turns to a temp agency for help.  When the agency sends a replacement, Nathan is ill prepared for the person standing before him in scrubs ready to go to work.  It’s Fitz, his lover from the past who now seems prepared to step back into Nathan’s life in every way, if only Nathan will let him.   Will Nathan be able to let go of their  past and accept the only man he has ever loved back into his life or will his pride make him refuse his second chance at love?

I am not really a fan of short stories and It Takes Practice is a perfect example why.  I am a huge fan of Willa Okati’s stories.  Her characters are always multidimensional, complete with flaws and idiosyncrasies. Okati takes the time to build up their back stories so that when the characters come together, the reader has a very good idea of who these men are and what brought them to this point in their lives.  It all makes sense, so much so that the reader buys completely into whatever story Willa Okati is trying to tell.  It doesn’t matter the age or the professions or history.  We get it and we understand why the men fall for each other.  And for me, none of that applies here.

At 59 pages, It Takes Practice comes across more as flash fiction or odds and ends of a much larger story than a work that should stand on its own.  We get the merest glimpse of Nathan and Fitz’s former lives of seven years ago, nothing to tell us about any chaos in their lives, either arguments or behavior that would make sense of his disappearance.  Certainly nothing that backs up his explanation when he reappears.  We definitely required more of their back history before jumping forward into the present.

Once we arrived at the present, again we only get a day or so in the lives of the characters.  We see briefly what  Nathan’s life has become and then, presto, Fitz is back.  We watch them interact for another day, they resolve their differences and then the epilogue.  And the epilogue?  It occurs the day after the reunion sex takes place.   Not much of an epilogue really in the sense of bringing closure, more of a couple of add on paragraphs.  The whole story just feels so unfinished, as though it was cobbled together from pages written for an incomplete book.  I can’t quite fathom that this came from the same author who gave us And Call Us In The Morning or Open Cover Before Striking, two books with astonishingly original characters and plots.  And again I believe the problems I found in this story can be traced back to the short length,  Had this book been longer in length, I think that all my issues with it would have disappeared.

So if you are a fan of lovers reunited or Willa Okati’s stories, then this is a quick read and you might want to pick this up.  But if you have never read Willa Okati’s work before, please don’t start here.  Start with two of the books I mentioned above or look through her impressive library of titles, I know you will find something to love as I did when I first found her.

Cover art by Posh Gosh, lovely man but the only thing that makes this relevant is the necklace around his neck.

Book Details:

ebook, 59 pages
Published March 25th 2013 by Total E-Bound
ISBN139781781842874
edition languageEnglish
urlhttp://www.total-e-bound.com/product.asp?strParents=&CAT_ID=&P_ID=2078

Review: Metal Heart by Meredith Shayne

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Rating: 4.25 stars

Metal Heart coverIt is 1990 and a local band called King Phoenix is looking for a lead guitarist to round out the band.  When 20 year old Scott King shows up to audition, his music and song writing abilities mesh perfectly with the songs and sounds King Phoenix embodies and they welcome him into the group.  Scott also bonds closely with their lead singer, Ash Walker.  As the rock band evolves from anonymity to fame, Scott and Ash form first a close friendship which turns into a intense, sexual and romantic relationship that lasts for four years. But unlike his other band members, Scott starts to experience stage fright the bigger the venues they play.  His coping mechanisms coupled with some bad friends, start Scott on a downward spiral that Ash and the band are first unaware of, then unable to stop.  Pressure mounts until the stresses and rumors of Ash leaving the band, cause Scott to implode, ODing on drugs and alcohol.  While Scott lies in a coma in the hospital, the band leaves to go on tour without him.  There will be no further communication between the band and Scott until 16 years later.

2011, Berry, Australia.  Scott King has worked hard since coming out of rehab to become a successful music producer with his own studio.  He’s healthy having been clean for 16 years.  Scott likes his quiet life, he lives with his twin sister and his niece, he has friends and ex lovers, and is mostly content.  His past is safely secured in a box tucked away in a closet in his bedroom, a box that never gets opened lest the past bring out all the old demons he has fought for so long.

Then he gets a phone call from the past, his old band manager, who wants Scott to play at a benefit gig for King Phoenix’s old sound man who is dying of cancer.  The benefit is to raise money for his wife and child and Scott is needed to reunite the band.  Prodded by his sister and fond memories of their sound man, Scott agrees against his better judgement. But seeing Ash, who wants to take up where they left off,  starts to shatter Scott’s self control as does the stage fright that starts to come back.  Can Scott handle the stress of seeing the only man he has ever loved under the same conditions that once broke him? Or will this reunion cost Scott everything he has worked so hard to build, including his sobriety.

I love a good rocker book and Metal Heart is terrific.  It is my first introduction to Meredith Shayne and I will eagerly check out the rest of her library. Metal Heart has so much to recommend it, including a gritty look at the effect of drugs and alcohol on someone vulnerable enough to let them take over his life.  Actually, I think this element of the novel is perhaps the best part of the story, elevating it even over the lovers reunited.

Shayne starts off by giving us the character of Scott King, a naive 20 year old gay musician.  A friend and later band manager drags him to audition for a scruffy local band called King Phoenix.  Scott is someone who loses himself in his music, from the compositions he writes to the lead guitar he plays.  Shayne gives him a vulnerability that shows the reader how open emotionally Scott can be to all things, including love in the form of Ash Walker.  I love this character and we watch him grow and struggle over a 16 year period.  For Scott, the best part of his life is the early  years with Ash, before the band caught on and became famous.  Young, impressionable, artistic and happy, those are his defining years.  But the stresses of playing to large crowds, as well as hiding their romance and sexuality from all around them, places such a strain on Scott that the cracks start to appear and fissure, and we feel helpless as we watch it happen.  The author then goes on to demonstrates how readily available drugs and alcohol allowed musicians and others to cope with the demands of touring and the pressures of fame.  The scenes where associates introduce Scott to drugs rings true as does the resulting addiction that others are helpless to derail.

This leads us into discussions of therapy and rehabilitation as well as the fact that once you are an addict, you are always an addict. Shayne is careful to give us an authentic portrayal of someone in the throes of an addiction to someone living the life of a recovered addict.  The temptations to succumb to the pressure to use again are always present and Scott is that addict personified.   Really, this is just a remarkable characterization.

The character of Ash Walker is one that, while he didn’t quite work his magic on me, will be a favorite of most readers.  A little older, Ash is less vulnerable and more savvy than Scott, even at the beginning.  And while we never doubt the love he holds for Scott, he comes across as the most secure and  ambitious of the two.  He wants fame, and is at ease with the pressures that come with it, unlike Scott.  And while there is more to his story than is revealed at the beginning, I still found myself disconnected from this character, especially after he continues to pressure Scott to resume playing while acknowledging that Scott is showing the symptoms of cracking under the stress.  I did find it realistic that the band members would be so self involved not to understand what was happening to Scott in the 90’s but for them to consider his actions that of a “jerk” when he is clearly trying to protect himself and his self control in 2011, well I found that to be less feasible, more objectionable than anything else.

This also applies to the “aha” moment of the story which I won’t divulge here.  But one thing that is repeatedly brought up is the fact that Scott “disappeared” and that in 16 years Scott never tried to contact the band members.  They all knew he was in rehab and a little research would have shown that those in rehabilitation are not to have contact with those that helped enable them.  Plus Scott King became a successful music producer, and they couldn’t find him until 16 years later? Again, that just doesn’t seem all that realistic.  But those qualms aside, this author delivers a vibrant, enthusiastic portrait of young rockers, love and the price of fame to life in Metal Heart, and then leaves us with the promise that sometimes love is enough, even after 16 years apart.  For me, this is still a HFN, instead of HEA and there seems to be plenty of room for another book to see where they take the relationship next as not all obstacles have been cleared away.  Either way, this story will please fans of rock n roll stories and bad boys with music to burn as well as those of romantic lovers reunited at long last.  All fans will be left satisfied at the end of Metal Heart.  Pick it up and happy reading!

Cover art by Anne Cain.  Love, love this cover.  From the graphics to the color choices and fonts, just perfect.

Review: His Best Man by Treva Harte

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Rating: 3.25 stars

His Best Man coverChristian Ramsey finds himself divorced and the sole caregiver of his two girls after 11 years of marriage when his wife walks out the door.  The first thing he realizes is that he has no idea of who his children really are or what to do next.   During his marriage, Chris was the income earner, and his wife did everything else, including parent his children.  Now that it is all on his shoulders, Chris feels incapable of handling the situation and he is not sure he even likes his children.  Chris is adrift in his own life and knows it.

Enter Bill Dowe, former best friend, former best man at Chris’ wedding, and former lover of closeted, deep in denial Chris.  Bill is now the principal at a local middle school and an incident between one of his school’s students and Chris’ oldest daughter brings the men back together again for the first time in 11 years.   During their meeting at the school over the girls altercation, Chris asks Bill for help with his daughter and really his life.  Bill is still bitter over Chris’ marriage and his denial about his sexuality but still he finds himself plunging once more into Chris life and his problems. When affection and attraction grow once more between Bill and Chris, will Chris take the chance he denied himself the first time around or will history repeat itself.

I think Treva Harte knows people and it shows when it comes to the characters she has created for this  book.  They are real people, full of flaws that we all recognize.  They behave badly, run from problems when they should have faced them and make really bad personal decisions.  They also redeem themselves, show an ability to grow emotionally and adjust to stressful situations.  And they accept changes in relationships better than expected, surprising when one there parents.  If you discerned that I was talking about the children here, Chris’ daughters, Pen and Annie Ramsey, then you are correct.  In my opinion, Pen and Annie make this book.  Harte writes tweenagers with a clarity that is astonishing.   And trust me, these girls are heartbreaking in that way that only that age can be.  Here is eleven year old Antigone “Annie” Ramsey in Bill’s office at school, after hitting another student:

“She wasn’t small for a kid her age, but she looked…well, oddly delicate. Like she was too skinny for that body, too fragile for her size. Like maybe she hadn’t been eating right for a while.

I’d heard of kids her age on diets, but—damn…I hoped she wasn’t. The world could screw with a kid’s head way too early. Did she think she needed to be skinny, or was something going on that made her not eat right? Bulimia, anemia, depression…

“I’m here because Miss Dumberson out there made me.”

I tried not to snort at the nickname. Sometimes I wasn’t much older than my students. Antigone sniffled again and peeked up at me through her eyelashes, probably deciding what kind of bullshit I’d believe. “It wasn’t my fault.”

Pen, her sister is a bundle of realistic complexities herself.  Both girls are afraid and uncertain for themselves and their families future .And they react as you expect them to with their mother abandoning them to a emotionally reserved father they only saw after he came home from work.  This is desperation with a capital D. And Treva Harte rolls it out there for the reader to see with all the authenticity and gritty realism of a documentary on dysfunctional families.  I love these girls and connected with them on an emotional level from the first.  And that is my problem with this book.  These are not the main characters. With regard to the main characters, I don’t like either Chris or Bill very much, although Bill comes out much better than Chris does.

When the focus of the story is a dysfunctional, emotionally distant man who dislikes his children (mostly because he has absented himself from their lives and doesn’t know them), who runs from confrontation and problems of a personal nature, how do you engage the reader enough for them to make a connection to the character?  For me it was one instance after another where Chris handles the situation or his children badly and then waits for Bill to bail him out.   Who  ends up understanding and taking care of the kids?  Chris? Uh, no, that would be Bill.  And while I could understand Bill far easier than Chris, he enabled Chris in his behavior and we are meant to approve of that.

Then there is the characterization of Chris’ wife which is very much in the one sided “evil witch” tradition that I despair of when reading m/m stories. Self centered to the point of abandoning her children for a man with more money and status, even a believable backstory is lacking.  I could see it if  she felt that 11  years in a marriage to a gay man left her unfulfilled, especially if that man was Chris but other than a sentence or two, where is her concern for the girls? I know that there are shallow women out there just like Stephanie, I just wish I didn’t  see as many of them as I do in the stories these days.  A more even handed approach would seem not only more sympathetic but more realistic.

In the end, I felt for the children, could have cared less what happened to Chris and wished that Bill would grab the kids and run like hell.  Not the way one is supposed to feel when reading a contemporary m/m romance.  And there is also a bdsm element in play here between Bill and Chris.  I could sympathize with Bill taking a strap to Chris, but trust me when I say sexuality didn’t  enter into my wishful thinking.  Again, probably not what the author had in mind.

But oh those sisters!  They deserve a story of their own, where they ride to each others rescue after thwapping a couple of villains (or maybe their parents) over the head.  Trust me, these girls are more than capable.  I loved them and had the focus been on them, you would have seen an entirely different rating.  It is almost worth it to say to read this book for these two characters alone.  Almost.  So if Treva Harte is a “go to” author for you, you will want to pick up this story.  Otherwise, I would wait and see what she comes up with next.

Cover:  Cover Artist: Kalen O’Donnell.  I am not a fan of red covers, including this one.  They are hard to look at and this is especially garish.

Review: Brothers In Arms (The Recon Diaries #1) by Kendall McKenna

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Rating: 4.5 stars

Brothers In ARms coverMarine Staff Sergeant Jonah Carver is a legend among the soldiers stationed in  Afghanistan and for good reason.  Jonah Carver is the Marine ideals personified, his past missions now part of Corp mystique. So Jonah is the natural choice when a high security mission arrives in Diyala Firm base, Diyala Province, Iraq.  A high level personage needs Bravo company for transportation and protection against the insurgents.  When that person is targeted and killed, a new mission is planned to hunt down the assassins and uncover the agents behind the  plot against the American military.

And that brings Jonah’s past back with the arrival of Kellan Reynolds in the task force created to investigate the assassination.  Kellan Reynolds is Jonah’s former Captain in Afghanistan.  They had one night of hot, unbelievable sex before Kellan left the Marines to become an advisor to the President and Jonah returned to his troop. Now the same attraction and sexual tension is back as though it never left.  But the joint mission requires their full attention and the resumption of their relationship takes a back seat to the investigation.

When Kellan is kidnapped by the insurgents, their mission is thrown into disarray.  Jonah and his company must risk everything to get Kellan back, not only for the mission but for their future together as well.

After reading Strength of the Pack, I had to go out and see what else Kendall McKenna had written.  The book I found, Brothers In Arms,  did not disappoint the high expectations left by Strength of the Pack.  Shorter in length, this book contains the same memorable characters and vivid descriptions of the locales that I marveled at in the previous book.  Really, this author has so many strengths I don’t know where to start.

Characterizations.  Absolute perfection.  McKenna creates these wonderful Marines, gritty, human, vulnerable and brave.  She gives them dialog to speak so believable that I swear I could hear them in my dreams and puts them through events so authentic, so real that I expected to see them appear on the nightly news.  How’s that for great writing.  These men reek of sweat, and dust, and the smell of gun oil.  They are tired, the heat is sweltering, and the enemy is everywhere.  I truly felt as though I was in the middle of the platoon in Diyala Province.

The romance is equally suited to the men involved.  Don’t expect any flowers, that ain’t happening.  But the emotions, however internalized, are as real as the men involved.  I really appreciated that.  I loved that non verbal communication thing that happened between them.  They knew each other so well that at some point, speech became unnecessary until they had the luxury of time to spend with each other, and then the sex is incendiary.

Narrative and exposition are as amazing and detailed as her characterizations.  I felt as though I was embedded in the company and knew these men as intimately as their Sergeant did.  It was both a pleasure and pain to meet and understand these men and women because McKenna made their situations as authentic as their real life counterparts.  I will say no more.

Why not 5 stars?  Primarily due to the story length.  I wish it and the resolution had been longer, I certainly wanted more.  If you are looking for just romance or erotica, this might not be the book for you.  But if you are looking for meticulous writing, beautifully articulated characters and as real a setting as any I have read recently, then please get this book and be prepared to meet a couple you won’t soon forget.  Lucky for us a sequel is on its way.  I can’ t wait, Neither should you.

Cover Art by Jared Rackler. Just as superb as the story contained within.  Loved it.

Kendall McKenna. Brothers in Arms. MLR Press LLC.

Review of Dead Cow Pants (Torquere Sip) by Julia Talbot

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Rating: 4 stars

Shay has returned a changed wolf to the pack he left for the big city.  Shay is now painfully thin, and way too quiet for his best friend, Darius, who remembers his friend the way he used to be.  Darius thinks a pair of leather pants will do wonders for Shay’s confidence but Shay may just be the only werewolf in history to hate the smell of leather!  Shay believes leather smells like dead cows and refuses to wear any dead cow pants. But Dar has more than missed his friend and figures helping him rediscover his self confidence might just lead to something both have  wanted all their lives. Now if he can just get him to put on those pants!

How can you not love a short story about a werewolf who eschews wearing animals products?  Julia Talbot gives us an adorable story about two best friends reuniting and the unspoken love that has been there all along.  My only quibble with this story is that Talbot delivers such wonderful characterizations and then puts them in a plot that just begs for more backstory.  What happened to Shay after he left the pack?  Why is he so thin? What was going on with Shay to make him leave the pack to begin with?  The story left me with so many questions because I became invested in these characters from the start and loved what little I knew of them.  At any rate, terrific short story full of two intriguing questions and one author’s twist on the werewolf genre.  Great job.