Review: Christmas Kitsch by Amy Lane

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Rating: 5 stars out of 5

Christmas Kitsch coverOn the outside Rusty Baker might look like just another stereotypical football player, just one of many in his high school that looked as though they were popped out of a mold for tall, big, blond rich boys.  But on the inside Rusty is different, a difference that remains hidden until Oliver Campbell, small, dark and out Oliver Campbell, enrolls in his high school and sits next to Rusty in class. When one of the more brutish football players starts in on Oliver in class, Rusty is there to cut him off, making his protection of Oliver clear to all.  A close friendship is started, one Rusty doesn’t understand.  Because Rusty suffers from poor self esteem and thinks he is stupid. Rusty can’t understand why the cute and highly intelligent Oliver would want to be his friend.  Then the day before Rusty is to leave for Berkeley, Oliver kisses him and everything changes for them both.

The hardest thing Rusty ever had to do was leave Oliver behind going to a community college while Rusty left town for a school he knew he wasn’t ready for and couldn’t survive in.  Rusty is under a mountain of stress over everything, from grades to his sexuality and the pressure almost does him in. When Rusty returns home for Thanksgiving, it all explodes when his parents catch him kissing Oliver in the driveway and they kick him out, homeless at the holidays.

While Oliver and his dad may not have material wealth, they are rich in acceptance and love.  And with their support and Oliver’s love, Rusty just might make it through not only the holidays but the rest of his life.

In Rusty Baker Amy Lane has created one of the most luminous, heartbreaking characters I have ever read.  Ten pages into the story I started weeping over this glorious man child who has been made to feel stupid and inadequate for all his years, promptly forgetting that Rusty exists only in the pages of Christmas Kitsch and the fertile imagination of Amy Lane.  Told from Rusty’s point of view, his thoughts and feelings (as well as the manner in which Rusty voices his views that shows just how deep his lack of self esteem is) engage the reader so throughly that you forget about everything around you except for Rusty and his halting path through life.

Trust me when I say that just when you think that Rusty can’t break your heart anymore, then he says something  that seems innocuous on the surface but is so shattering in the truth that it reveals that you find yourself breaking down yet again, grabbing for that second box of tissues while realizing that you are only on page 60 or so of a 256 page story.  Rusty Baker is so incandescent in his innocence and beauty that I almost expected the pages to glow.  He is textured, and glorious and unforgettable in every way.

But Rusty can’t make it alone, either in life or in the story.  So the author has created a group of characters every bit as remarkable and amazing as Rusty himself, starting with Oliver Campbell.  Oliver really is Rusty’s polar opposite from quick intelligence to his physical exterior.  Oliver’s mixed race parentage is evident not only in his name but in his small stature, dark eyes and skin. Equally rich is the latin culture which overlays everything at home from his family’s food to their family rituals.  Oliver is highly intelligent, generous of spirit and out about his sexuality.  This is our and Rusty’s first introduction to Oliver:

Oliver showed up in early September of my senior year, slender, brown on brown on brown. Dark brown hair cut with long bangs around his narrow face, dark brown eyes with thick, thick lashes, and light brown skin. He slouched quietly in the back of Mr. Rochester’s English Literature class and eyed the rest of us with sort of a gentle amusement.

It’s that “gentle amusement” that draws Rusty in as well as Oliver’s acceptance of him no matter what  Rusty might say or the way he struggles with everything in his life.  Oliver is there to quietly shore Rusty up, giving him a look at families who love and support each other with a generosity Rusty has never had in his life.  There is a quiet glow to Oliver that is never outshown by Rusty, they complement each other perfectly. I love Oliver and Oliver’s amazing dad, Arturo, both so alive that I absolutely believed in them as a family.  And that goes for Estrella, Rusty’s housekeeper and surrogate mom, as well as Nicole, Rusty’s young sister just as starved for love and family as Rusty is.  Nicole’s fragility is slowly revealed to Rusty and the reader as she becomes more of a presence in Rusty’s life.  I know that sounds odd but when you read the story you realize just how compartmentalized Rusty’s family is and the impact of that structure upon the children.

OK, I realize I am doing it again, treating these characters as real people.   Amy Lane is a superb storyteller.  She creates worlds, situations and yes, characters that seem as real as any you might meet outside your door.  They are flawed, they bleed as well as breathe.  And when they hurt, you will hurt and bleed along with them.  And that’s because somewhere those characters crossed the line from paper personas to people we love and care for as though they are family.  I have the empty tissues boxes to prove it.

What characters seemed removed, incomplete and insubstantial?  Well, that would be Rusty’s mother and father.  And with  good reason, because they feel that way to Rusty.  His parents are cold, detached from family warmth and familial love, driven by their own ambition and control.  By the author creating characters so coldly ephemeral and disengaged from their children, it helps to establish Rusty’s viewpoint as ours and it helps to understand his upbringing as well as Nicole’s.

There is laughter to be found among the pages to go with the river of tears you will shed for this amazing boy crying out for love and understanding.  And the reader will celebrate the happiness that Rusty (and Oliver) find together after all the obstacles have been surmounted.  I found myself, exhausted, red faced and snotty, surrounded happily by empty boxes of tissues at 3am and promptly wanted to do it all over again.

If I had a minuscule quibble with this story, it would be with the title.  I would have loved it if the title would have been free of holiday references.  Why?  Because I am afraid that at any other time of the year readers unfamiliar with either Amy Lane or this story might relegate it to the Christmas story genre instead of “the must read at any time of year’ category it so deserves.  But that is a wispy sort of quibble, lacking any substance and disappearing as we speak.

I loved, loved Christmas Kitsch.  It is heartwarming as well as heartrending. It is as joyous as it is poignant! And I will read it again and again because that’s what I  do with comfort reads with characters who are real to me and dear to my heart.  I am sure you will feel the same, so grab it up and start reading.  Have that tissue box handy, you will need it.  And as a extra bonus you will be helping LGBT youth in need as well.  This is a Highly Recommended, Best of 2013 or any year.  Don’t pass it by!

Cover art by LC Chase is soft and lovely.

Special Note:

20% of all proceeds from this title are donated to the Ali Forney Center in New York, whose mission “is to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning (LGBTQ) youth from the harm of homelessness, and to support them in becoming safe and independent as they move from adolescence to adulthood.” To learn more about this charity or to donate directly, please visithttp://www.aliforneycenter.org

Book Details:

256 pages
Expected publication: December 9th 2013 by Riptide Publishing (first published December 7th 2013)
ISBN13 9781626490864
edition language English
Riptide Publishing’s Home for the Holiday Series

Review: When Dachshunds Ruled the Serengeti by Michael Murphy

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Rating: 3.75 stars out of 5

When Wiener Dogs Rule coverIt is the first day of Jose’s collegiate life and he’s terrified.  The older of nine children, Jose Lopez is the son of migrant workers, born in California and familiar only with the states his family worked through and the transitory life that comes with being part of a large migrant farm workers.  Jose has dreamed of escaping the drudgery and poverty of his parents and being able to provide a path to a better life for his brothers and sisters.  Brown University is his ticket to a education and better life but brown skinned Jose feels as out of place among the white upper echelon as a burrito at a black tie dinner.  Then his roommate arrives, and the comparison between them enlarges the cultural divide already apparent.

Phillip comes from a wealthy New York family and is entering Brown just as his father and his father’s father before him.  A child of privilege, Phillip can’t begin to understand the true depth of how Jose’s upbringing and background have affected him.  All Phillip sees is an attractive boy, shy, and welcoming.  True, their first meeting is awkward as Phillip’s mother mistakes Jose for a porter for Phillip’s bags but Jose is used to people’s perceptions of him as the help instead of a possible equal.

Soon the boys discover common ground between them, and Phillip helps Jose with all things new to him , including tv, electronics and cultural passages of youth.  Slowly a friendship builds and then turns into love despite the many differences between them.  But obstacles made of their divergent backgrounds rise up when Jose’s siblings are left to his care when his parents are stuck in Mexico with visa issues.  Can Jose and Phillip overcome the barriers raised by a clash of cultures or will the cultural divide keep them forever apart?

Many things got me excited about this book.  One, the title.  When Dachshunds Ruled the Serengeti.  So serendipitous and  playful, then you add in that adorable cover by Paul Richmond, and I would have said that it was a slam dunk.  I fully expected a light hearted tale of two cultures colliding in college and living HEA.  And I sort of got that, minus the light hearted aspect as that is completely lacking. And that’s a shame because  given the title and cover art there is such a disconnect between the reader’s expectations and the actual story that I am not sure the story itself recovers the good will the reader starts out with.

Paul Richmond’s cover comes from one of the more delightful sections of this story. Lacking the chance to attend school, the migrant farmers children are left to the adults around them for education.  Another worker had appointed herself teacher and was trying to get across a lesson on geography and Africa.  When the children were unable to grasp what a wildebeest was, Jose invented a story using a local farm dog migrating on the Serengeti.  The charm and whimsy of the section of the book only serves to highlight what went wrong with the rest of the story.  As I read about Jose and the children, I was completely drawn into the story.  I felt I was sitting beside the youngest, so enthralled in the vision of thousands of dachshunds roaming the Serengeti, charmed by the characters, the setting, and so aware of the joy that even poverty and deprivation can’t keep down.  It’s amazing and so beautifully written.

In fact, Jose is the best and most realistic thing about this story.  Michael Murphy really gets into the head of Jose and the disparity between his background and the privileged young men and women he finds himself among.  Jose is really the most likable of the two main characters.  Murphy does a good job in giving both young men realistic and well rounded personalities.  We truly understand just how frightening a new world Brown University represents and how ill prepared Jose is to enter it.  He lacks not only the material belongings necessary but the cultural  markers that all the other students take for granted.  The author seems to understand how lonely it must be not to see another person of the same color and history reflected back at him.  Over and over, we see through Jose’s eyes how society looks at the fastest growing population in the US, hispanics of Mexican, South American, and Puerto Rican backgrounds.  Here is Jose looking at the precious few belongings on his bed on his first day in the dorm:

His entire life José had always been on the move with his parents and his many, many brothers and sisters. His family moved constantly, not to evade something, but to find something. His family moved with the crop cycles. They were migrant workers who might be in South Carolina one day picking peaches only to leave to move to Florida to plant strawberries. From there they might go farther south in Dade County to plant tomatoes. Then they might move back north by a few hours to weed some other field of some other crop before heading to Texas to pick pecans or Arizona to pick oranges.

In the course of a single year, the family van could clock an untold number of miles in the constant move from one location to another. The number was untold simply because the odometer in the old van they used had broken many years ago, so no one had any idea how many miles they had actually covered. Living on the move was their life, so none of them gave it much thought. It was all José and his siblings had ever known.

And then he meets Phillip and his family for the first time, and cultural reality sets in:

When he glanced toward the doorway in response to the knock, José saw a blond guy about his age, taller than him, who looked tentatively into the room.

“Is this 201?” he asked hesitantly.

“Sure is,” José answered with a smile.

The guy smiled back. “Home sweet home,” he said as he gave the place an appraising look. José, as a student of people, of humanity, watched the play of emotions on the guy’s face. It didn’t take an expert to know that the guy did not like what he was seeing. His brow was furrowed, and his face took on the appearance of displeasure.

“Kind of small,” the guy said. “And old. My dad warned me that the dorms here were like tenements, but I thought he was joking. I guess he wasn’t.”

“I set my bag over here,” José said, gesturing to his left, “but if you want that side, that’s fine with me. I’m not particular.”

“No. That’s no problem. I’m just trying to figure where I’m supposed to put everything.” Before they could continue their conversation, José saw an older version of his roommate come into view outside the door. “You found it!” he said. “I guess,” the guy responded to the man José assumed was his father. For a man of his age, the guy was in pretty good shape. He didn’t have that middle-aged spread in his center that happened to so many men. He had a full head of hair. He was attractive. And he was dressed in clothes that cost more than José’s dad had paid for the van they lived out of most of the year. Beside the man stopped a smiling woman, also well dressed in what were obviously expensive clothes, even if they were casual in appearance. “Our baby’s new home,” she said with a smile.

“Mom,” the guy said, obviously embarrassed at being called her “baby.”

“Oh, good,” the woman said, “you’ve found the porter to help us move things.” The woman seemed to assume that someone who appeared Mexican and was dressed poorly was obviously not a student but was only there to lift and carry for others. The guy standing beside José looked sharply at his mother and then turned back to José. “I’m Phillip,” he said, introducing himself and sticking out his hand in the universal greeting.

“José,” he said with a smile, “your new roomie.”

And that is just the beginning of the embarrassments and offending statements that lie in wait for Jose on the college campus.  I think Michael Murphy is a great job with Jose and his experiences on the campus so alien to his upbringing and background.  Then there is Phillip and family.

Sigh.  I think that Phillip is where most of the problems with this story originate.  I found him to be a self centered, culturally isolated young man.  And in some instances, I am sure that there are plenty of real Phillips out there.  He is quick to accept Jose, quick to come to his aid, and just as quick to judge and remove himself from Jose when cultural issues rise up between them.  Yes, they are both extremely young but somehow, the manner in which Murphy has created Phillip leaves him lacking in ways that would connect the reader to his character.  We understand Jose and his actions absolutely.  We also understand Phillip’s given his wealthy, insulated background but the author never really makes the reader sympathize with Phillip in the same way we do Jose.

When the rest of Jose’s siblings arrive on scene, then the best and the worst of this story reveal themselves.  Jose and his interactions with his brothers and sisters are not only believable, but they capture all of the charm and love this story has to give.  It makes Phillip’s mother an endearing character and does the same thing for his father.  We experience the close bond that only siblings who have spent their entire lives in one room, one car, depending only upon each other can have.  This is where the storytelling comes in, as well as the power of familial love.  It is also where the reader will start to pull away from Phillip.  The rest of the book unfortunately removes Jose almost completely from the story to its detriment.   And once they reconnect, it is almost too late to recapture the feelings brought about by the first section of the story.

The author adds a character called Steven in the second half of the book who furthers the separation between reader and Phillip.  I just don’t understand the necessity of his inclusion.  If you take the strange turn of events in the second half, the addition of an unnecessary character, and an abrupt ending, you can see why the reader will walk away from this book, rueing the lost promise of When Dachsunds Ruled the Serengeti while remembering with fondness Jose and his siblings,  thinking of thousands of dachshunds migrating through Africa.  Really it is Jose and family that raise this story up towards a 4 star rating and Phillip that pulls it down.  But oh that cover, and that title…….

Cover art by Paul Richmond.  Entrancing and whimsical.  I loved it.  One of my favorite’s of his to be sure.

Book Details:

ebook, 226 pages
Published May 24th 2013 by Dreamspinner Press
ISBN 1623805821 (ISBN13: 9781623805821)
edition languageEnglish
urlhttp://www.dreamspinnerpress.com/store/product_info.php?products_id=3819

Review: Infected Undertow (Infected #7) by Andrea Speed

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Rating: 5 stars out of 5

Infected Undertow cover

In a world where a werecat virus has changed society, Roan McKichan, a born infected and ex-cop, works as a private detective trying to solve crimes involving other infecteds.

While Roan McKichan remains comatose in the hospital, his status is grievously affecting all those around him.  Dylan, his husband, remains at his side, waiting for him to wake up.  Holden, prostitute and sidekick (as much as he would hate the word) is trying to handle a tentative relationship with one of Roan’s hockey player friends, and not handling it well.  Fiona, friend and secretary, is trying to figure out if her life is with Tank, the hockey player traded to a new city or with her old life here.  The new head of the Church of the Divine Transformation is causing problems for infecteds and noninfecteds alike, including a connection to an illegal fighting ring.  All is in turmoil as Roan finally wakes up.

When Roan awakes, it is to a reality in which his virus has mutated once more.  The lion/virus has strengthened and Roan must fight against his belief that he is turning into a monster while holding on to what is left of his humanity as well as relationship with Dylan.  And as Roan struggles to deal with his new reality, new cases arrive needing his help.  It will take all of Roan’s emotional strength to adapt and continue on with his life, no matter how much the undertow threatens to pull him under.

Undertow is an astonishing addition to an outstanding series.  Really it is hard to know where to start with the acclamations.  In Roan McKichan, Andrea Speed has created one of  the most haunting and extraordinary superheroes in recent fiction.  A virus has swept the nation that forces people to regularly change into different species of big cat, a torturous transformation and one that shortens the infected persons life.  No one is sure of its origin in this world. All the reader knows is that one day it just appeared.  Unlike those who acquired the virus through unsafe sexual acts, dirty needles or blood transfer (just as the AIDS virus) Roan was born with it, a virus child.  The author has created Roan as a being set aside from both populations, giving him a unique status with an ever changing physicality to go along with a separate entity that shares his body.  And with each book, we watch as the virus mutates and changes Roan along with it.  Roan’s struggles to adjust to the changes in his body and the increasingly strong virus are Herculean, both for the character and the reader.  Roan’s transformation reaches into the most primal of questions about identity, self, and what it means to be human.  It asks what is more fundamental?  The inside you or your physical exterior? Or in Roan’s case, is who you are dependent upon what species you are, a question becoming more central to Roan emotional makeup by the day.  Roan was a remarkable character in the beginning, intelligent, wry, and so adaptable that he survived an abusive beginning as well as the loss of Paris, a man he continues to mourn even as he found another.  Roan has so many layers and facets to this personality that detailing them would take a book of its own at this rate, Andrea Speed’s Guide to Roan McKichan.

And Roan is surrounded by a cadre of characters almost his equal in complexity.  I have to admit that Holden is my favorite.  Holden is a lethal combination of charm, brains, survivability as well as a flimsy, flexible morality that makes him a perfect companion for Roan in his endeavors to help those who come to him in need.  But Fiona, Gray, Scott, Seb, and all the rest stand on the platform with them.  I often forget that these people and their situations aren’t real, so involved do I feel in their current situations and futures.  Really, its just a parade of people so indelible that they will leave their marks in your heart and memory long after this story and quite possibly the series is finished.

And the world in which Roan lives is equally astounding. Andrea Speed has created a universe so densely layered and elastic, that each book can continue to build on the foundations laid out at the beginning, and still expand, growing ever more complex along with the virus and Roan. We are hearing hints of concentration camps or bills in Congress meant to incarcerate infecteds to protect the public, specific overtones of WWII with the Japanese Internment camps in California and the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.  At first it was mere whispers in the beginning books but the possibility has been increasing through each addition to the series as the public backlash grows against the infected population and Roan’s solidification as something so new, so extraordinary that those closest to him are having a hard time wrapping their brains around it. Of course, Holden is already aware of the ramifications to society and enjoying the heck out of it.  Undertow breaks out of the others books parameters as we really start to see the possibilities ahead for Roan and for all the infected populations.  It’s chilling, it’s exciting and it’s tantalizing in the hints laid out throughout the narrative.  I mean, there are parts here I kept rereading, not only for the power of the moment but also for the implications for the future.

Undertow has several threads running through it, just as the other books.  There are several mysteries to solve, including a woman haunted by the unsolved death of her mother, and a sordid fight ring to stop that uses infected as combatants.  As always the Church of the Divine Transformation is at the heart of at least one of Roan’s problems, an organization that never fails to live down to its reputation.  Several characters are undergoing transformative events in their lives to mirror on a lesser scale the major ones affecting Roan, which is perfection given that Roan is the central focus in each of their lives.

Normally I like to add in a few quotes to give a feel for the author and characters involved but the Infected series almost defies me to do that.  Taken out of context removes some of their power and put into context, the quotes contain far too many spoilers.  The narrative is powerful, angst filled, humorous, wry and concise, even to the names of the chapters like Subterranean Homesick Alien, Tiny Violin, Pretty Nettles,and St. Matthew Returns To The Womb.  Just trust me on this, quotes aren’t needed for something this great.

Unlike Lesser Evils (Infected #6), this is a complete story, with no cliffhangers (as such) to worry about.  That’s on the surface, of course.  Because the underlying issues remain, lying just ahead like fissures in the ice, or an undertow in the ocean current, waiting to pull the unwary down.  That’s what makes Roan and this series so exciting, so compelling and ultimately so addictive.  I finish one and then keep thinking about all the possibilities that lie ahead for Roan, Holden and everyone involved, including humanity.  This series is at book 7 and gathering speed and strength. Where Andrea Speed will take Roan and us, I have no idea but I can’t wait for the next part of the journey to continue.

If you are new to Roan and the series, go back and start at the beginning.  These books must be read as part of a series in order to understand the characters and the events that occur.  Trust me when I  say there are NO stand alone books here.  Here they are in the order they were written and must be read:

Prey (Infected, #1)

Bloodlines (Infected, #2)

Life After Death (Infected, #3)

Freefall (Infected, #4)

Shift (Infected, #5)

Lesser Evils (Infected, #6)

Undertow (Infected #7)

Andrea Speed has also created an Infected Undertow soundtrack that can be found here.  There are over 28 tracks that you do not want to miss out on, including Wolf Like Me by TV on the Radio and so much more.

Cover art by Anne Cain.  This cover is outrageously splendid, one of the best of the year as far as I am concerned (and considering how good all the covers are for this series, that is saying something).  Visit Andrea Speed’s website and download the covers for your computer.

Book Details:

ebook, 344 pages
Published June 14th 2013 by Dreamspinner Press
ISBN139781623805661
edition languageEnglish
urlhttp://www.dreamspinnerpress.com/store/product_info.php?products_id=3913
seriesInfected #7

Review: In Search of a Story by Andrew Grey

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Rating: 3.25 stars

In Search of a story coverReporter Brad Torrence is worried about his job. Brad hasn’t been able to write the stories he knows is inside of him, and he is stuck proofreading and fact checking other  reporters stories.  When his boss tells him that the stories he submitted are boring and to try and find one in the classified ads, Brad can’t believe it.  But disobeying the boss means being out of a job, and Brad does as he was instructed.  Brad is frustrated and ready to give up when a ad jumps out and captures his attention. For Sale: Nursery Items, Never Used.  Thinking that a story of loss and regret would be a perfect subject for his next deadline, Brad contacts the person behind the ad and finds more than he had expected.

Anesthesiologist Cory Wolfe is still grieving over the loss of his best friend and the child he was to adopt.  When reporter Brad Torrence contacts him about the ad he placed, Cory agrees to an interview, thinking it might help him obtain the closure he needs.  During the interview, Cory finds the process of sharing his story emotionally liberating and healing while Brad gets something he can personally relate to in Cory’s story.  After the interview is finished, both men find themselves attracted to and wanting to see each other again.

Cory and Brad find themselves in a relationship that is growing stronger by the day but another mystery finds its way onto Brad’s desk.  Soon Brad is pursuing leads that threaten their new relationship and imperil their lives.   What will Brad do in search of a story?

I love Andrew Grey’s work and look forward to each new story he writes.  The last few books published, especially The Good Fight series, has been outstanding.  I only wish I could say the same about In Search of a Story, but that is not the case.

In Search of a Story has a interesting premise, one that drew me in immediately.  Who doesn’t look through the classified ads and find tantalizing bits of human history offered up in just a few lines.  So I couldn’t wait to see where Grey took this plot and what spin he put on the narrative.  And as far as the outline of the plot goes, the author did a good job.  I thought the idea of a grief stricken almost parent mourning the loss of a child compelling. So too the idea that a connection between the reporter and the person who filled the classified ad is made.  There was so much promise here, so much ground that could have been covered and turned into an amazing story.  But two things kept that from happening. And unfortunately, they are the two main characters.

For some strange reason, neither Brad nor Cory are especially compelling.  These characters came across as oddly flat from the very beginning. While “listening” to Cory tell his story, I was never really engaged in the personal tragedy that was being revealed, there was a distance from the characters and their history almost immediately.  Brad too felt one dimensional, too cub reporter in search of a story that I have seen before.  Much is made of his background with his mother but again the author has problems making that a part of the much larger picture of grief over the loss of a child after highlighting it in the narrative.  From scene to scene, I kept hoping to find a spark that would let me feel part of their story and romance, but it never came about.

There is a secondary mystery here for Brad to solve.  It serves to introduce a measure of suspense and danger into a story that really needs it.  But again, this interesting segment was not given the attention or resolution that it was due and the outcome of this investigation ended up frustrating me with its incomplete story, rather than buttressing up the original plot as I am sure the author intended.

In the end, the story just has an off feel to it.  It leaves the reader wondering more what went wrong, than happy over the characters and their relationship.  If you are new to Andrew Grey as an author, there are so many great books of his out there to start with, so give this a pass.  If Andrew Grey is an automatic must read, then take this as a note of caution and make up your own mind.  Either way, I will be looking forward to his next book as always, because given how prolific Mr. Grey is, even he must have an off day at times.  Consider this one of his.

Cover Art by Brooke Albrecht.  I think the cover is ok, but nothing on the dramatic side.  However, it is in line with the story inside the covers.

Book Details:

ebook, 200 pages
Published May 31st 2013 by Dreamspinner Press
ISBN 1623806143 (ISBN13: 9781623806149)
urlhttp://www.dreamspinnerpress.com/store/product_info.php?products_id=3825

From Mourning To Joy Once More, Animal Adoptions and the Week Ahead in Reviews

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You always hear that things have a way of changing overnight, but few experience it.  It didn’t quite happen like that here but it was close.  In my instance, things changed exactly one week to the day that I felt my heart shatter.  On June 4, 2013, my companion of 18 years, Winston died.  Exactly one week to the day, on June 11, another Winston came into my life, through circumstances so unusual, so connected, that I knew it was meant to be.   I have written that story, The Tale of Two Winstons – A Terrier Comes Home, to chart the beginning of our journey together.  Before that I had written of my first, indomitable Winston, my love of 18 years in My Winston.  But there was one fact I had left out.  You see, exactly one week before I found Winston, I had another dog, Snowflake, a rescue American Eskimo.

Snowflake was with me for two years, gorgeous and unfortunately so emotionally scarred by her previous family that only I could handle her.  I never got the entire  story but from her hatred of children and families in general, apparently she had been used as a target and punching bag by the people who owned her before me (and was rescued from).   One day we were out in the pasture, running and checking around for a loose horseshoe, when bikers sped by and Snowflake gave chase down the fence line.  Normally, that would have been fine as she couldn’t get through the wire and post fence, but sometime during the night a car had sideswiped the fence and taken down just enough to leave a Snowflake sized hole.  I am sure you all can imagine what happened next as Snowflake darted out onto that winding country  road.  Even as we raced to the vet, I knew my Snowflake was gone.

One week to the day, on that same spot, a shivering, heavily matted, rail thin Winston was found and went home with me carrying him in my arms, the same way Snowflake left that same spot.  Now 18 years later, exactly one week apart, my beloved Winston was gone and another Winston had arrived.  And each time, I knew it was meant to be.  How could it not?  I am not sure I believe in Fate but all these connections?  All these events strung together in order for one magical moment to happen?  How do I not believe in that?  Many people have said that Winston sent the other Winston to me, and I think I can agree there.  During that week of almost overwhelming grief and loss, I swear I could hear the thunk Winston made as he jumped down off the bed to investigate something in the house during the night.  Several times that occurred during that week, but since Winston arrived, not a sound.  This Winston likes to bury his food bowl (on tile no less) just like my old Winston did.  Perhaps one has taught the other his tricks without me knowing.  Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

My family now includes two rescued dogs, Winston and Kirby whose face adorns the banner of this blog.  They aren’t my first rescues and most certainly won’t be my last.  There are so many dogs (and cats) that need homes in shelters around the country.  And there are so many shelters in need of support, both monetary and in donations of supplies.  I know it is Father’s Day today but perhaps if your Dad is someone who has everything possible and you don’t know what to give him, maybe make a donation to your local animal rescue organization or humane society in his name as a gift.  I know it would be welcome.  I found my Winston by donating food to the shelter.  Who knows if a four pawed love awaits you there as well?  The larger groups, ASPCA, and the Humane Society of the United States, rescue animals from devastating events such as hurricanes and earthquakes and more.  They need your help too.

So here are some links to get you thinking about rescues and the organizations who need your help to continue their mission to save animals in need:

ASPCA

Humane Society of the United States

Montgomery County Humane Society

Days End Farm Horse Rescue – located locally in MD but travel all over the US to rescue large animals. Truly an amazing organization.

I am sure there are so many local rescue organizations around you that need your assistance.  They are only a tapped computer key away. Check them out as well.  Here are a few pictures of Winston and Kirby playing, they have turned into the best of friends.  Look below the pictures for the week ahead in reviews.  Happy Father’s Day!

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The week ahead in Reviews:

Monday, June 17:               Flawless by Cat Grant

Tuesday, June 18:              Fennel and Forgiveness by Ari McKay

Wed., June 19:                    In Search of a Story by Andrew Grey

Thursday, June 20:           Infected: Undertow by Andrea Speed

Friday, June 21:                 The Heir Apparent by Tere Michaels

Saturday, June 22:             Stonewall by Martin Duberman

Review: The Jouster’s Lance by A.J. Marcus

Standard

Rating: 2.75 stars

The Jouster's LanceDale O’Toole makes his living as Diederik, the Demon Knight of Denmark, the dark jouster at Renaissance festivals across the country.  When a jouster is injured and the Colorado fair needs a replacement, Dale figures it is a chance to see another part of the country while earning a living, and promptly heads north.  Dale loves the gypsy lifestyle, jousting, and his horses.  But being constantly on the move leaves little time for romance or a long term relationship and Dale is lonely.

Austin Renfro works in a pirate gift shop at the Colorado ren fair, along with his best friend, Jasmine.  His home life is a wreck with a boyfriend who is constantly drunk or stoned and always abusive.  When Austin spots the gorgeous jouster, he sees his perfect man but their first meeting is nothing but embarrassing as Austin trips and falls into Dale’s horse.   But a renaissance fair is a small village and the two men are constantly running into each other and an attraction builds between them.

But problems abound at the Colorado faire.  A gay hating knight is making problems, and the rumors are rampant that someone is out to harm the jousters.  With so much stacking against them, can Dale and Austin’s build a relationship that lasts past the end of the faire?

I was really looking forward to this story for a number of reasons, the first being the author.  My first introduction to A.J. Marcus was through Animal Magnetism and his story On An Eagle’s Wing.  I found that story to be well researched and equally well written.  The second reason would be the subject matter.  I love jousting and Maryland’s Renaissance Festival is a great one to attend for jousting, and all things of similar in nature.  But The Jouster’s Lance disappointed me at almost every level.

There are so many issues here it is hard to know where to start.  But perhaps lets go first with the characterizations.  It’s hard to put a finger is just what the issue is with them.  They just don’t click, either as real people or imagined ones. Maybe it is the dialog that pops out of their mouths.  Whatever  it is, it makes it almost impossible to connect with them.  Dale starts off fine at the beginning of the story while he is still in Texas but once he has arrived in Colorado, his character just degenerates into a shadow of his former self.  And Austin is just a mess from the beginning.  The only people I enjoyed in the story were Jasmine Porter, Austin’s best friend and the Lady Catherine, a performer on the circuit.  Both women are the best things about this book, and neither is a main character.  Maybe this will give you an idea.  Here is Austin on his abusive boyfriend:

The first few messages from Rick were the basic “where are you” type. Then they got more demanding. Austin stood there listening to them while waiting in line for a steak on a stake with fries. He knew he should call his boyfriend back, but right then he didn’t want to deal with the drama. Rick had obviously forgotten he was working this weekend, but that was Rick’s pattern: anything he didn’t want to remember, he didn’t. It was one of several reasons that Austin had been hoping he would just go away with as little drama as possible. From the tone of the last two messages, there was going to be drama aplenty when he got home. He could hope Rick was passed-out drunk when he got home and stayed that way until Monday morning, so he could deal with the whole thing Monday evening when he got home from the print shop he worked at during the week.

By the end of that paragraph, my eyes are glazing over and there are pages and pages of this. But this is the least of the book’s problems.  I don’t know whether it is intentional or not, but there are so many plot threads in play here and only one of them is resolved by the end of the book.  All the others are left hanging to the reader’s frustration.  Are these red herrings? Or were they just forgotten along the way? Or will they be addressed in future stories?  Hard to say but these multiple plot threads that just trail off give the story a disjointed feel that never goes away.  It’s like going through a haunted house at Halloween time,  You keep expecting something to jump out at you during the tour, and if nothing does, you feel cheated. Plus as the realization sets in that nothing spooky is going to take place, you start to notice just how tacky the tour is, with cheap effects and bad paint jobs. That is exactly how you will feel by the end of The Jouster’s Lance.  When the plot fails to congeal, everything else starts to pop out at you, from the poor layout to the sad structure.

And it’s not just dropped story threads, but the characterizations as well.  A man nicknamed Chipmunk is featured heavily in the story and Dale makes a big issue of calling him Chip because Dale thinks the nickname is demeaning (no reason for that is given either).  I waited for some expansion on that topic or other pertinent information on Chipmunk to appear later in the story. But it never did.  Marcus creates situations where loads of questions swirl around this character but again, they go nowhere.  This happens constantly throughout the story, with characters, with so called ominous events, with the subject matter, with all sorts of things.  I couldn’t figure out if Marcus needs a storyboard or if this is intentional, but either way it doesn’t work.

While I cannot speak to the authenticity of the insiders knowledge of the workings of a Renaissance festival, I can speak to the issues involving the horses.  While the general care is correct, when a fire occurs and Dale leads a horse into the fire, I was astonished to say the least. And by the actions that follow.  It is unrealistic and head shaking unbelievable.  Dale, just coming off major shoulder surgery, lifts a man his own weight onto a horse (spooky and frightened a few paragraphs earlier) as the fire rages around them.  Sigh.  Uh, no.  Trust me, that wouldn’t happen, not the lifting, not the horse standing still, nothing.  And the ending of the book will just garner tons of eye rolls.

I can’t figure out if this book needs a ruthless editor to trim away all the extraneous plot threads and condense it into a sharp little story or if it needed to be expanded to incorporate all the missing elements back into the narrative to give us a satisfying novel.  Either would have been preferable to the final product as it is here.

Based on  A.J. Marcus’ short story in the Animal Magnetism anthology, I will seek out other stories by him.  But give The Jouster’s Lance a pass, not even jousting aficionados will enjoy this one.

Cover Art by Brooke Albrecht.  I actually love the cover.  The model looks exactly like the whip artist I saw at the Maryland Renaissance Festival last year, and the jousting graphic is marvelous.  Wish the book lived up to the cover.

Book Details:

ebook, 212 pages
Published May 3rd 2013 by Dreamspinner Press
ISBN 1623804779 (ISBN13: 9781623804770)
edition languageEnglish
url http://www.dreamspinnerpress.com

Review: Closet Capers Anthology

Standard

Rating: 4.25 stars

Closet Capers coverCloset Capers contains a series of stories revolving around mysteries or capers if you will.  From a riverboat gambler trying to find out who is trying to ruin his good name to a thief who continues to steal cans of coke from a office refrigerator and everything in between, this anthology mixes the romance with a little detective work to uncover new and different paths to love.

Closet Capers stories are:

Kitsch Me by Mari Donne
Leveling Up by Jude Dunn
Philip Collyer vs. the Cola Thief by Amy Rae Durreson
A Kiss in the Dark by Eli Easton
Calberg’s House Specialty Blend by Skylar Jaye
Small Change by Danni Keane
Lawrence Frightengale Investigates by Aidee Ladnier & Debussy Ladnier
The Whole Kit and Kaboodle by Ari McKay
Le Beau Soleil by Christopher Hawthorne Moss
Joie de Vivre by Pinkie Rae Parker
Made Good Under Pressure by Maja Rose
Tempest for a Teacup by Andrea Speed

I love the idea of mixing romance and detective work, how better to sleuth out the mysteries of the heart?  The stories contained within this anthology  run the gamut from a 1800’s riverboat gambler to a lovely story about a cable tv horror host and a missing Cadillac.  A number of these authors are unfamiliar to me, like Aidee Ladnier and Debussy Ladnier of the wonderful “Lawrence Frightengale Investigates”.  For me, buying an anthology means getting a quick introduction to authors I might not have found any other way and for that alone, it is always worth buying the book.  And of course, there are authors involved that I love, like Andrea Speed and her “Tempest for a Teacup”.  I loved that story, it was one of my favorites of the group.

Closet Capers gets off to a strong start, wobbles a little in the middle and finishes with the best of the stories included.  Here are my teacup reviews in the order they are placed in the book:

1. A Kiss in the Dark by Eli Easton

4 stars.  An anonymous kiss during a blackout at a office Christmas party disrupts Lester Lane’s life as he tries to figure out just who the great kisser is and why the person won’t come forward to admit it.  A cute story with adorable characters make it easy to overlook the fact that the reader can spot the drive-by kisser from the beginning.  Totally enjoyable and one of the longer stories.

2. Calberg’s House Specialty Blend by Skylar Jaye

3.75 stars. Lawyer Jonathan Mayer needs his coffee in order to function, specifically he needs Calberg’s Houe Specialtiy Blend.  But one morning Jonathan arrives to find that Calberg’s coffee shop is closed and his desperately needed morning cup of the Speciality Blend vanished with the store.  What follows is Jonathan trying to find out what happened to his beloved coffee shop and finding love with its former owner.  This story had great characters but could have used a little extra length to fill out the story resolution.

3. The Whole Kit and Kaboodle by Ari McKay

5 stars.  Dr. Grey Harris, history professor at Hartwell University has a mystery on his hands and it comes in the form of the new librarian, Henry Adams.  Grey knows that Henry is gay and the way the shy librarian gazes at him when Henry doesn’t think Grey is looking tells Grey that the librarian is attracted to him.  So why won’t the man go on a date?   The answer to that question is not only surprising but over the top charming as well.  Ari McKay has combined great characters with a intriguing mystery that ends up being one of the best stories in the anthology.  I am still smiling over the ending that is completely satisfying in every way.

4. Le Beau Soleil by Christopher Hawthorne Moss

4.25 stars.  It is 1855, New Orleans, and riverboat gambler François “Frankie” Deramus is hearing the first of the rumors that not only threaten his livelihood but his great love, the riverboat he owns and operates.  A gambler is only as good as his reputation and up until now, Frankie’s has been flawless.  But recently, some of the top gamblers have been refusing to play with him, referring to whispers of tricks and cheating.  Frankie has to find the culprit and quick before he is ruined.  Enter Michael Murphy, former soldier and now  private investigator.  Its up to Frankie and Michael to find and confront the person intent on ruining Frankie before the riverboat sails from New Orleans.  Time is running out but the attraction between the two men is running high.  Nothing like lust and mystery in New Orleans.  Moss does a terrific job in capturing the flavor of the times with the setting and secondary characters in the story.  I really enjoyed the tone and quality of the writing.  My only quibble would be the ending and the length, otherwise, great job.

5. Leveling Up by Jude Dunn

4.25 stars.   Game designer Adam Chandler is running late for his anniversary with Ben Randal, his partner and love.  Ben has arranged dinner for them at a restaurant and hotel downtown but when Adam arrives, he is mistaken for a man named Chandlis and the mistaken identity pulls Adam into a mystery he never expected, a mystery that also asks where is his lover?  Dunn delivers a sharp little story, full of likable characters and a neat little twist to keep us and Adam guessing.  Throughly entertaining little read.

6.  Kitsch Me by Mari Donne

3.25 stars.  Brian is obsessed with all things Hawaiian, including the hula dancer objects found at a store called Cunning Collectables.  But with his salary and the little money that his lover brings in, Brian and Craig are barely making ends meet at their barren little apartment.  Brian is curious about all the weird things that Cunning Collectables offers for sale, things like Lord Shiva in a tortilla or a tree trunk with a knot that looks like a Star of David.  A little investigating brings a most unexpected answer, and the trip of a lifetime.  Donne has a neat story buried somewhere inside Kitsch Me.  Unfortunately, somewhere towards the end, it just turns so unrealistic that you can run whole semis through the holes in the plot.  Up until then, it is a nice little story with interesting characters.

7. Made Good Under Pressure by Maja Rose

2 stars.  Awkward narrative ruins this story about Billy in New York City, 1926.  Written in a manner certain to bring to mind David Attenborough narrating a nature film, this peculiar style of writing makes this story almost unreadable.  Here is an example:

Billy’s just a glorified errand boy at the moment anyway, so after the day spins to a close.

Everything is pretty much, Billy cocks his head, Billy rolls his eyes, Billy thought that, Billy, Billy, Billy, and before you know it, the reader is so disconnected from Billy and his story that it almost becomes a DNF.  Unfortunately, one of the longer stories (or at least it felt that way), skip quickly over this one and head to the next.

8.  Tempest for a Teacup by Andrea Speed

4.5 stars.  One look at the young man asking for help, and private investigator Jake Falconer wanted to say no before even knowing what the case was.  Sarcastic, morally flexible Jake still ends up taking the case of the missing Morkie, much to his chagrin and his cop boyfriend’s delight.  Tempest for a Teacup is one of the shortest stories in the anthology but it is still long on laughter and full of memorable characters that will leave you laughing in appreciation even after the tale is finished and the doggynapper uncovered.  One of my favorite, I mean really a Morkie called Princess? That’s perfect.

9. Small Change by Danni Keane

4.75 stars.  Dom is the site attendant for Little Lexington, a model village of endless charm and timeless beauty.  Dom makes sure that all the people, houses, streets, everything is kept in perfect order, adding new elements as needed.  The little village and its perfect unchanging order give something to Dom he has never had anywhere else, stability and an unchanging future.  So when someone starts tampering  with the little figures he has so painstakingly created, Dom is determined to find out who is upsetting his village and Dom’s life.  So sweet and a little sad, Small Change brings a different feel to the anthology, giving the collection a touch of pathos and depth that has been lacking up until now.  As the story slowly unfolds you learn more about Dom and his need for the stability of Little Lexington, meet the person who has brought change to Dom and the village and get a delightful ending too.  One of the strongest stories of the collection and a new author for me as well.

10. Lawrence Frightengale Investigates by Aidee & Debussy Ladnier

5 stars. Lawrence Frightengale, aka Larry French, and his lover cabaret singer Myrna Boy (also known as Nicholas Benson when out of drag) are getting ready to ride in the annual Out & About Parade in the classic black Cadillac El Dorado convertible. That car had once been owned by the original host of Channel 11’s Terror Time, Harry Ghoulini, the morbid magician.  Now Lawrence Frightengale is the host of the resurrected show and for the first time, he will be riding, along with his lover and cohost, in the historic Cadillac convertible.  But when the car is stolen, the tv host and his cohorts must find the black convertible before the parade starts or lose their jobs in the process.  Who would want to steal the El Dorado? Who is after Lawrence Frightengale?  The answers must be found quickly as the parade is soon to start.

Wow, this story is such a delight in every aspect.  I grew up with Count Gore DeVol here in the DC area but I am sure that everyone will fondly remember a corny dramatic horror show host somewhere in their past.  The authors Ladnier are careful to treat the horror show host with affection and in loving tribute to their shows.  These are fully realized characters, the setting authentic and the mysteries, yes two, nicely planned and resolved.  The main characters are endearingly quixotic and yet oh so relatable that the reader will be left wanting more of their exploits or at least their cable show.  Love this story and the authors.

11. Joie de Vivre by Pinkie Rae Parker

4.25 stars.   Jules, a chef, has inherited his Aunt Mathilde’s country home, a place he remembers fondly as his escape from his battling parents and a person to whom he was always accepted as who he was.  During the years Jules spent training to be a chef and opening his own restaurant, he had not been to visit as often as he wanted and now returns to the only real home he has known to settle her estate.  Aunt Mathilde’s house is in dire need of repair but clearly someone has been there after her death.  Her cat is missing and so is her box of recipes, so important to Jules as Mathilde taught him to appreciate great food and cooking.   Who has been in the house? And where are the cherished recipes?  The answer lies in Jule’s past and a motorcycle he hears in the night.

Again, another lovely story, full of the ambience of the French countryside and the love of great food.  Vivid descriptions bring Aunt Mathilde’s crumbling french country home to life, from the decrepit plumbing to the disaster they call a roof.  Jules is well drawn, the mystery man less so.  I wish that Parker had fleshed out all of her characters, not just Jules and the ending felt a little more realistic than the one that occurred in the story.  Still, the charms and ambience of Joie de Vivre outweigh the few issues I saw and carry the story into the must read realm it deserves.

12. Philip Collyer vs. the Cola Thief by Amy Rae Durreson

Rating 5 stars

The collection ends on a strong note with a story by Amy Rae Durreson.  Philip Collyer vs. the Cola Thief takes a everyday office occurrence, that of an office communal refrigerator and stolen food and elevates it with humor and and a touch of realism in this tale of one man’s obsession to identify the person stealing his cola from the office refrigerator.  The reader gets it when Phil’s frustration mounts when not only does his precious cola, the one thing he anticipates daily, is taken and not only taken once, but taken every single day.  The culprit is unknown but leaves post-it notes to taunt Phil with their absence.   While the culprit is easy to spot, his motives are not and when revealed are very surprising to all.  Phil gets over his frustrations and issues with the thief a little  too easy for me but still the resolution is nicely done and will make everyone very happy.

If you love a sense of mystery, if the detective in you wants romance as well as something to solve, pick up this anthology and sit back and enjoy.  There is something for everyone inside.

Cover by Paul Richmond is quite delectable, or should that be detectible, and perfect for the stories within.

Book details:

ebook, 282 pages
Published April 22nd 2013 by Dreamspinner Press
ISBN
162380650X (ISBN13: 9781623806507)
edition language
English
url http://www.dreamspinnerpress.com
If you want to see what some of the authors thought, head over to Joyfully Jay where I am a guest reviewer.  Lucky for everyone, we will be seeing more of Lawrence Frightengale and crew in a full length story.

Review: Bad Attitude (Bad in Baltimore #3) by K.A. Mitchell

Standard

Rating: 4.25 stars out of 5

Bad AttitudeWhen Baltimore police rescue diver Jamie Donnigan gets a call about a jumper off the Key Bridge he doesn’t realize that his carefully controlled life is about to change dramatically.  What he thinks will be a routine call turns into something much more important as the man they are supposed to rescue is none other than Gavin Montgomery, the openly gay middle son of the most powerful family around Baltimore.

Gavin Montgomery and his friend Beach were on their way home from a party when Beach decides he is going to swim to Fort Carroll and the best way to start his swim is to jump off the Frances Scott Key Bridge.  When Gavin tries and fails to keep his friend from jumping, he falls in after him.

While in the water, a SOS alerts Jamie to the location of the man he is searching for, and to his amazement he finds Gavin hanging onto an unconscious Beach, both in need of medical assistance.  As the whole rescue operation turns into a media frenzy, Jamie finds himself at the center of attention and a guest of honor at a dinner given by Gavin’s father.   There the attraction between Jamie and Gavin boils over and a sex only relationship is formed.

But keeping things casual starts to become a problem the more they get to know each other.  Gavin and Jamie are more alike than they would like to admit, but when failure to communicate and poor assumptions are in play, will both men let down their guard enough to let love have a chance to flourish?

Bad Attitude is the third book in the Bad in Baltimore series and the first one I have read in the group.  I don’t know how I missed the first two books as I usually gobble up everything that K.A. Mitchell writes, but after reading Bad Attitude I am certainly going to get the first two and start the series from the beginning. I enjoyed this book so much that I must see how and with whom Bad in Baltimore started.

One of the things I can always count on in a K.A. Mitchell story are characters that, while pretty, are full of attitude, extremely confidant, and a tad walled off emotionally from those around them.  I love these type of characters and Mitchell’s are some of my favorites.  They are snarky, competent, and oh so interesting in every aspect.  Any way you look at it, these men are challenging, and so is their path to love.

Snarky and challenging are certainly words that can be used to describe Jamie Donnigan, the police rescue diver who is one of the two main characters here.  I loved Jamie.  He covers his vulnerabilities with tats and a smug attitude that shields him from the injustices and routine daily disappointments that life as a police officer dishes up.  The words that flow out of his mouth match the attitude that his demeanor projects.  This is how Jamie tells Gavin, he will be attending the party Gavin’s father invited him to as a guest of honor:

“Yes, but she— I’ll return the favor and be direct. I was sent to assure you of the family’s sincere wish that you feel comfortable bringing a guest if you desire and to help you with any concerns you might have.”

Jamie met that unnervingly steady stare without blinking. “In other, direct words, you all think that because I’m just a county cop from Dundalk with a high school education, I don’t know how to act at one of your fancy parties? The kind you and your buddy need Liquid X to get through?”

Montgomery took his hands out of his pockets and spread them, palms up. “We all have our crosses to bear.”

Jamie popped the door with his key fob. “I may not come with kennel club papers from the breeder, but I think I can manage to keep from pissing on the rug. I’ve been to a party before.”

“Whatever you say, Officer.” Montgomery turned, and Jamie saw the gleaming Bentley blocking in the bomb squad truck.

You can feel the arrogance and snark oozing out of Jamie in that scene. But Gavin Montgomery is more than a match for Jamie. Just from the interaction above, you can feel the charged atmosphere as the two personalities clash and their sexual heat flares up.  Gavin’s attitude is smoother and certainly comes with a glossy finish but in every way it is as bold, cold and sure as Jamie’s.  Mitchell supplies us with Gavin’s back story in little supplements along the way, from Gavin’s interpersonal relationships with siblings, father and stepmother to his commitments to a few friends and surprising interests.  Both men are masters of the lowered expectation while still carrying within them the ability to be disappointed and hurt in the unsurprising actions of others.

The push/pull of their attraction to each other, their denial of their  feelings and, a remarkable disconnect when it comes to communication makes this book feel realistic and at times, a little frustrating.  Realistic because for these men to suddenly capitulate to each other in any manner other than sexual would be out of character but that certainly doesn’t keep it from being frustrating for the reader (and the couple) at certain points in the story. Bad Attitude is sometimes like watching two pieces of granite mate, lots of grinding, loud noises as the boulders smack together, looking for the perfect position and control.

Baltimore, Maryland and its surrounding locales act as a main character in the book and I assume the series as well.  “Balmer” is rich in its ethnically diverse blue collar neighborhoods, old rowhouse neighborhoods, historic buildings and parks. Throughout the story, Jamie and Gavin wander through the scenic upper echelon areas of Fells Point and Federal Hill to the beautifully restored Inner Harbor and beyond, giving the reader an intimate look at one of the Mid Atlantic’s liveliest and interesting cities.   I don’t know if the author has ever lived there but it certainly has the feel of someone not only familiar with the area but who holds it in wry affection, foibles and all.  How else would Mitchell know to have Jamie give directions to his friends house like this:

Jamie listened to Quinn give directions to the lost teacher with the weird name.

“Then don’t get back on 83.” Quinn’s voice held an above-average amount of irritation.

“Where is he?” Jamie asked.

Quinn moved the phone away from his mouth but didn’t cover it. “Towson. He got confused in the construction and ended up going the wrong way on the Beltway.”

“Put him on North Charles—” Jamie held out a hand. “Here, give me it.”

“Be my control freak of a guest.”Quinn handed off the phone, ignoring Jamie flipping him off.

Once Jamie figured out where the guy was, he got him onto 139, only one other turn to get him to Quinn’s. He handed back the phone. “It’ll take him longer, but at least he’ll get here. Hey, kid, we gonna eat or what?”

The other authentic element here is the water search and rescue units that abound in this area.  From Baltimore to Washington, DC, all the local police squads have their own form of water search and rescue divisions.  Whether you are talking about the Patapsco  or the Potomac rivers,or  the Chesapeake Bay, Mitchell plunges you into their cold and treacherous waters along with Jamie with her vivid descriptions:

Geist followed him toward the nearest bridge pylon, moving his hand light across the water. The shoring around the base was made up of head-sized rocks. Not easy to crawl up on, but if Jamie’s life was on the line, he’d have managed to haul ass up onto them.

There was nothing on the east side, south or west. Their hand lights fell short of the next pylon and shoring. Holding his light just below the surface, Geist stared at Jamie in question. Between the thrum of the boats and the chopper sending waves smacking against the shoring, they couldn’t have made themselves heard even without their regulators in the way. Jamie lifted his hands in a shrug and put his head back in the water, intending to sweep around the north side before following Geist back to their search pattern.

The waters around Baltimore were always full of sound. Stone and metal shifting and grinding, bass-deep or treble-whining motors, those were all familiar background to the bubbles moving past his ears. But there was something… rhythmic that didn’t sound like it came from a motor, a tapping that took on a pattern recognizable anywhere in the world. A pattern only a person could make. Three quick, three slow, three quick. SOS. Jamie let a little air out of his vest, sinking under the surface to get a better listen. Water carried sound, but it made direction hard to pick up. Geist swung his light over Jamie as he surfaced.

Jamie flashed his own light, then tapped his ears and indicated the pylons on either side of them. Geist pointed and they separated to search. Jamie put his head down and swam at speed, panning his light over the north side before making for the next pillar of cement supporting the bridge.

The rocks of the shoring were a dark, uneven lump against the black of sky and the shining black of the water. But as Jamie drew within twenty yards, he was sure that among the rocks, something was moving. Something not a cormorant or a heron, unless they had decided to wear a watch because one was reflecting his light from a hand and wrist that clung to a rock.

He’d found him.

The absolutely captures the caution, the excitement and, of course, the dangers of the divers search.  Remarkable details conveying knowledge and a concise narrative that allows the story to move along smoothly yet still gain momentum.  Just lovely.

My only issue here is that I felt the ending was a little to abrupt when you consider all the reader, as well as the couple, went through to get to it.  I would have loved a little more resolution or perhaps an epilogue (not something you normally find in a Mitchell story).  For those of you familiar with the other books, those couples can be found here in Bad Attitude as well.  While Bad Attitude was clearly written as part of a series, it also works as a stand alone story.  I highly recommend it for all the reasons mentioned above and for the combustible, sweat inducing sex scenes as well.  Trust me, those are smoking hot.

Here are the books in the order they were written:

Bad Company (Bad in Baltimore #1)

Bad Boyfriend (Bad in Baltimore #2)

Bad Attitude  (Bad in Baltimore #3)

Cover art by Angela Waters.  I like the cover but where is my ginger haired cop?

Book Details:

ebook
Published April 23rd 2013 by Samhain Publishing, Ltd.
edition language
English
original title
Bad Attitude

Review: Fire Horse by Mickie B. Ashling

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Rating: 3.75 stars

Fire Horse coverWith a British mother and a hard as the ground Texas father, Preston Hawks finds himself at 10 years old scrambling to find some middle ground between his parents and a place to fit in, something that is not happening for him in Texas.  Then Pres meets fifteen-year-old Konrad Schnell at the San Antonio Polo Club.  Instantly smitten with both Konrad and the sport of polo,  Pres finds himself spending every moment possible in the company of the older boy, learning how to play and idolizing Konrad.  As the years progress, Pres’ hero worship turns into friendship and then into love.  But being gay during the 70’s is perilous to their health, especially so in Texas.  So the boys love for each other stays hidden, much to Pres’ consternation until they part when Pres is sent off to boarding school in England.

With Konrad playing professional polo and Pres in school, their relationship faces many obstacles, including the formidable presence of Preston’s father, a man who enforces his rules with his fists.  Swearing to love each other forever, only Konrad seems aware that they face a tough road to be together, as Pres blindly pleads for them to be out together as a couple.  Their divergent views start to drive a wedge between them and when a traumatic event occurs it threatens to separate them for good.

Pres knows he is a Fire Horse, born in the year 1966, and that he is either going to be incredibly unlucky or lucky in love.  And even though it may take him years, Pres knows his passion and strength will see him through to the goal that has always been his destination, a happily ever after.

Fire Horse is an extremely well written book by Mickie B. Ashling that engenders strong emotions from the very beginning.  This is a book you are either going to love or hate depending upon your reaction to the main character, the narrator of his story and your tolerance for the game of polo.  I am divided over this book, but not in the way you might predict.

I love the sections on polo horses and the game of polo itself.  I am a fan of the sport, luckily living in an area where polo is huge and games readily available to watch.  Happily for me, Mickie B. Ashling did a wonderful job of researching the game and her descriptions of the riveting play, the athleticism of man and horse, are close to perfection.  Here is an example:

Konrad treated his ponies like precious children. Later, I’d come to find out why. A polo player was only as good as his mount. The deep connection between rider and steed was never as apparent as it was in this fast and dangerous sport. They became extensions of each other, and a subtle press of knee or inadvertent pull on reins could mean the difference between making a goal and flubbing the entire match. The horses had to be as fearless as their riders, galloping headlong toward goal posts, while all around them players pushed and shoved them out of the way, screaming invectives, and doing everything in their power to prevent the opposing team from reaching the other side. Without the element of trust between horse and rider, there was no hope of excelling on the field.

“The only way you can connect with your pony is through respect.”

“What do you mean?”

“Love them with all your heart but always be their master.”

“I’m not sure I understand you, Kon.”

“Feed them when they’re hungry, soothe them when they hurt, make sure they’re always warm and dry at night, but when you’re out on the playing field, whip them if necessary. By feeling your strength and positive energy, they’ll respond with equal enthusiasm. If you show fear or weakness, they’ll get skittish and back off.”

“Do I have to do anything special to show them I’m master?”

“Love them above anything else.”

And most do feel that way and treat their ponies accordingly, as a partner. Which is a good thing for the horses considering the expense of a skilled animal and the price of a stable full of them, I find them to be treated far better than the typical racing Thoroughbred.  Ashling captures the partnership and the special bond between rider and animal that starts from the first moment they lay eyes on each other:

Konrad whistled suddenly and we stopped. “Now, that is a beauty,” he said, walking toward a frisky young mare that pranced as he approached. She was dark gray with a snowy white mane and tail. Her oval eyes sparkled with intelligence, and she bobbed her head as Kon got closer, acknowledging his presence with a flick of her tail and a flutter of long lashes.

“She’s flirting with him,” I said, astounded.

“Es una coqueta, a teaser,” Miguel said.

“She’s a sweetheart,” Kon said, stroking her gently. “What’s her name?”

“Dulce,” Miguel said. “It means ‘sweet’.”

And so the dance between man and animal starts, and Ashling gets it exactly right.  Unfortunately, I wish I could say I felt the same about Preston “Flea” Fawkes. our narrator and the main character.

As I said before, you are either going to love Preston or dislike him intensely.  I ended up somewhere in the middle, finding myself mostly exasperated with his actions, tired by his self centeredness, and most ready to deliver, ala Cher in Moonstruck, the “snap out of it” slap across that  well taken care of face.  It doesn’t help that he is the narrator of his story.  It might have given us a different perspective, and some distance from his constant musings if,  for instance, let’s say the narrator had been Ned Temple, his best friend from Pres’ days at Eton.  I felt that I needed to see him as others did because listening to his viewpoint for the entire book made me wonder why everyone else put up with him.  Instead of a brooding, handsome bisexual extrovert, I found myself categorizing him as a self involved, overly impulsive, thoughtless boy who grew into a self centered, hedonistic albeit gorgeous polo player.  From a gay boy to a man who beds everything in his path indiscriminately, I never saw him as a bisexual man because of his bed partners, perhaps because he doesn’t seem to like women.  His two marriages and subsequent children both came from drunken binges and impulsive encounters.  In fact, other than Ned and Konrad, no one really seems to like Pres at all.  So why is the reader supposed to feel any different?

When the book opens up, it is 2011 and Preston Fawkes is forty-five years old and living in the United Kingdom.  He has had a traumatic spill from his polo pony and is laying in a hospital bed.  In Chapter 6, we move from the present to 1976 in San Antonio, Texas and meet 10 year old Preston just as his life is about to change forever.  He enters the San Antonio Polo Club and finds the two passions that will haunt him the rest of his life, Konrad and polo. Both man and sport are intimately intwined in Preston’s mind and heart.  Here is their meeting where Pres is speaking of Konrad:

The kids had dubbed him Big Foot because his size-fifteen riding boots had to be custom made by a specialty shop in Dallas. He was graceless on the ground but fluid and masterful on horseback. I’d met him the day he spied me losing my balance on the wooden practice pony and then tumbling headlong onto the dirt-packed floor. The sound of his throaty laugh had reverberated in the barn, and my first reaction had been to retaliate, but his size was so intimidating I didn’t think I stood a chance. Amazingly, Konrad stopped laughing as soon as he saw my flushed face and clenched fists. What he did instead was stick his big hands under my armpits and lift me back up on the pony as if I were weightless.

Who wouldn’t fall in love with someone like that?  I got that totally. I just wish that was the Pres that continued through the story. I liked the characters of Konrad and Ned, among the few others we get to know.  Ashling’s characterizations are fully complete human beings, they have their faults, their positive aspects of their personalities and just like the people around you, you either will connect with them or wish them speedily on their way.  I think, however, that it is how you view Preston that will tell how you feel about this story of his life.

The plot of Fire Horse extends through a 35 year time period from the present back to 1976 which is a rather large timeframe.  I am not sure that Ashling did the 70’s justice, but she did pull in the beginnings of AIDS as a mystery disease and the homophobic atmosphere of the times. I liked that aspect of the story but I am just not sure that two teenage boys would have taken that first rumblings of a gay disease as serious and used condoms.  True, that was due to Konrad, a much more serious young man, still I had my misgivings.

There are some other sections of the story that had me puzzled as well.  While I can’t name specifics without giving away plot spoilers, I found some glaring holes in the plot, especially late in the story that pulled me up in disbelief.  That combined with  the dramatic “aha” moment that occurs when the book is almost 90 percent complete, then a denouement that is less than satisfying, well, let’s just say that I expected more of a payout after 33 chapters and didn’t feel that I got it.

The title refers to the Chinese Astrological Guide.  Pres was born in the year of the Fire Horse, 1966, and uses the Chinese Astrological description as a reference throughout his life.  Here is one horoscope defining the Fire Horse:

THE FIRE HORSE 1906 AND 1966

The Fire Horse is animated and sociable. He has a wild side that leads him to a life on the edge. Fire Horses are generally either incredibly lucky or ridiculously unlucky. They love the excitement of action and the change it brings. The Fire element makes them passionate about their feelings and they always take a stand in a situation. Fire Horses are never on the fence about anything and have definitive opinions about the world. Their tempers can be overbearing

As someone born under the sign of the Horse, I can understand being fascinated to a degree by the spot on characteristics ( I won’t mention which specific Horse symbol I was born under), and enjoyed the fact that Mickie B. Ashling used the characteristics of the Chinese horoscope when creating Preston.  I did not know that the Chinese had subcategories to each animal used.  There are the Metal Horse (1930 and 1990) , the Water Horse (1942 and 2002), the Wood Horse (1954 and 2014), the Fire Horse (1906 and 1966), and the Earth Horse (1918 and 1978).   I love it when a book sends me off to research new topics.  Fire Horse did that for me and perhaps, if you aren’t familiar with polo, it will do that for you too.  Look for some links for the Chinese Horoscope and Polo infomration at the end.

I really did like parts of this book, and parts of the character of Preston as well.  I will leave you with one of my favorite passages from Fire Horse.  It concerns polo, of course:

I was too young to handle the horses, but I watched the grooms with great interest. The animals were switched after each chukker to give them a chance to rest. Some ponies dealt with the grueling pace better than others, but the upshot was that a player was only as good as his mount. I finally understood what Kon meant when he’d rhapsodized about their worth. The difference between a seasoned pony and one that was still learning the ropes was obvious, even to my untrained eyes. The older animals only showed signs of fatigue when the riders dismounted. The babies had a look of sheer terror in their eyes. They had to be rubbed and talked down from their hyperactive state in time for the next round. Each chukker was seven minutes long, with only a three-minute break in between. A polo match usually lasted an hour and a half and was divided into six chukkers with a five-minute halftime. There was hardly a chance for the horses to recoup. Having three or four ponies made absolute sense when one considered the wear and tear on the animals’ nerves, let alone their bodies.

The wooden mallets were swung with forceful strokes on either side of them, and it wasn’t out of the norm to miss a swing and hit a pony inadvertently. They had to deal with that possibility, along with the constant need to keep up their speed as competitive riders urged them on unmercifully. It was no wonder the ponies were skittish and temperamental in the beginning. I was a wreck myself, filled with anxiety about my lack of skill, but blooming with hope for a future as a professional polo player. I was captivated by the sport and the men who played it.

I remain captivated by this sport, the man and the horses that play it.  I remain captivated by aspects of Fire Horse as well.  I really wavered between a 4 star and 3.75 star rating but ultimately it was Pres that drove the rating downward for me. Pick this book up and decide for yourself.

Cover art by Anne Cain. This cover is just spectacular.  Absolutely one of the Best Covers of 2013.  I would love to own the original.

Book Details:

ebook, 256 pages
Published April 12th 2013 by Dreamspinner Press
ISBN
1623805783 (ISBN13: 9781623805784)
edition language
English

Links: Chinese Fire Horse Horoscope, also Chinese Horoscopes, the Horse

Polo Links:  Maryland Polo Club, and The Polo Center, the link for all things polo in Maryland,  Or find the nearest Polo match near you and watch a game, truly a remarkable game.

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.