Review of Peace in the Valley by Jana Denardo

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Rating: 4.5 stars

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

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

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

Review of Mine by Mary Calmes

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Rating: 4.75 stars

Trevan Bean and Landry Carter have a relationship that not many understand but that words for them completely.  From the first time Trev saw Landry two years ago at a party, they have been inseparable.  Before Trev Bean came into his life, Landry Carter was a troubled young man.  He was repudiated by his family for being gay and tumbled into a mess of low self esteem, depression and endless anonymous sexual acts.  Then one night, everything changed, Trevan Bean saw him, picked him off his knees, took him to Trev’s home and told Landry he belonged to Trev alone and no one else. From that moment on, Landry began his recovery from pathetic mess to functioning happy  human being, at least most of the time.  As long as he followed his routine, and knows that Trev is always there, he can run his jewelry store and create the gorgeous things he is becoming known for and be content knowing he is loved.

Trevan Bean, half Cuban half African American, is a complicated man.  He comes from a loving family who have depended on him since his father died.  To help out his family, he became a money runner for a gambling mob, a job he has to this day. And while Trev has never carried a gun or had to hurt someone,  Trev knows it is an illegal job, full of dangerous people and accepts the risks he has to take to make money.  Trev plans on buying a restaurant someday and he and Landry have been saving to buy their own house in the not so near future.

So far, he and Landry have been balancing all the complications in their lives and it has been working fine.  Until Landry’s youngest brother shows up out of nowhere and wants Landry to come home to see his ailing mother.  And Landry starts to unravel. Then one of Trev’s runner associates ends up in a hospital, beaten by a rival mobster and Trev’s  job is thrown into chaos by a gang war.  Not only is his safety threatened, but so is the wellbeing of everyone he loves, including Landry.  Their carefully maintained balancing act is demolished, their lives in jeopardy and it will take everything they have and more to make sure they come out of this mess with their relationship intact and their love stronger than ever.

I just loved this book and think it is one of Mary Calmes strongest stories yet.  The characters she has created are two of the most complicated and damaged people she has ever produced.  One, Trev Bean, is an interracial mobster with his own slippery morality, a strong code of loyalty and an unwavering love for Landry Carter.  He is aware that Landry has some serious emotional problems that can cause Landry anxiety, manic behavior, and even result in self destructive acts.  But Trev also knows he is the key to Landry’s stability, and whether he is an enabler or not, Trev will do what he thinks is right to keep Landry safe and happy. Trev is under no illusions about his own morality or mental issues as well.  He accepts it all as it comes with a forthright manner and calm demeanor.  Just an amazing protagonist, compelling in every way.

Landry is also as damaged and riveting a persona as Trev, the yin to Trev’s yang.  He is the flickering flame to the earthen rock that is Trev. His instability, his is a luminescence which will burn too brightly unless contained by Trev and a strict routine,  His emotional problems are never given a diagnosis but OCD is mentioned briefly.  He is just as likely to flair with anger as he is with passion and you can see as a reader how badly Landry has needed someone like Trev in his life to bring him  the balance and limitations he has always needed so badly.  For some, these two men represent an unhealthy relationship, something even Trev recognizes.  But what they have together also works for them, and they will fight to keep each other and their relationship intact.  Convoluted, messy, passionate, occasionally crazied and absolutely committed, what an amazing relationship to bring to life in this story.  And Mary Calmes does bring it vividly to life in every possible way.  These characters cry, threaten, have hot, passionate sex, and tender moments and we are there with them through every event, every step forward, and all threats to their happiness.  I loved both men from the start, and by the end of the book, hated to let either of them go.

And there are other fascinating characters within Mine that I wanted much more of, the most visible and intriguing of them is Conrad, a hit man’s hit man, an enforcer so dangerous that just his name means protection.  Conrad doesn’t have many he counts as friends but Trev is one of them. The man remains an enigma even as his very presence adds weight to the events that occur within the story.  From what I understand, this is a stand alone story so we cannot expect to see these characters again.  And that is a shame for these are such interesting, gripping people  and we have become so invested in their lives and happiness that wanting to know more about them and their future is a given by the end of the book.

I only wish we had a little more exposition at the end, a little more resolution to the dramatic events they had just gone through.  But perhaps that’s just being greedy and not wanting the story to end.  If you like unusual main characters, if you like your protagonists with a twist as well as love, pick this book up and be prepared to not put it down until you are finished.  It is that good!

Cover:  Reese Dante’s beautiful torso with the all important L tat is gorgeous.  My only complaint and to be honest I am not sure  how it could have been done, is to have made that skin color more in line with the racial makeup of Trev’s caramel or dark bronze coloring as he calls it. At any rate it is gorgeous and sexy and so very hot.

Review: Chase The Stars (Lang Downs #2) by Ariel Tachna

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Rating: 5 stars

Chris Simms and his brother just happened to be in the wrong place and at the wrong time and now Chris was getting the beating of his life  by a gang of homophobic thugs.  His brother, Seth, runs off to find help and the jackaroos who return to intervene and take him to the hospital end up changing their lives forever.  One of the men to stop his attackers happens to be Macklin Armstrong who along with his partner Caine Neiheisal, offer Chris a job  and both brothers a place to live on Lang Downs, their sheep station. Chris realizes how badly he needs this place for himself to heal and for his brother’s safety but it is so hard for Chris to trust other people, especially with his history.

Jackaroo Jesse Harris is gay and quietly so as he has seen more than his share of homophobia on other sheep stations he has worked for.  Having a station manager and a station owner  who are not only gay but partners is taking some getting used to, so is not having to hide his sexuality as Jesse has always done before.  Then injured Chris Simms arrives at the station with his brother and Jesse’s offer to help Chris adjust to station life turns into mutual attraction between the two men and then so much more.  But Chris’ emotional state is in turmoil.  He feels guilty for not pulling his own weight on the station because of his injuries and ignorance. And so is being there for his brother as Seth adjusts to a life so different in every  respect from the one they were used to.  Can he and Seth make a home on Lang Downs and be happy?  And what about Jesse?  Most jackaroos are nomadic by nature, roaming from one sheep station job to another from season to season.  Would Jesse be able to make a commitment to Chris, a family, and life lived permanently at Lang Downs?  Impermanence is all Jesse has known but when he falls in love with Chris, he realizes in a panic that returning that love means a fundamental change in his life.  Now only if he can find the courage to accept that.

Chase The Stars is the sequel to Inherit The Sky, the first Lang Downs novel and I certainly hope this is not the last visit to the men and the Lang Down sheep station I have come to love.  Once more we are pulled into the world of wide open spaces of New South Wales and quiet reserved men who make their living off the land.  Caine Neiheisel and his partner, Macklin Armstrong are featured here just as much as Chris Simms and Jesse Harris to my utter joy.  Caine and Macklin have had six months to adjust to their new love and partnership.  Lang Downs too is having  its own  adjustments to make to having an openly gay owner and manager.  As Caine and Macklin work to create a successful and accepting work place, they also are still discovering new things about themselves as they  learn to trust each other and lean completely upon the other man fpr their emotional support. Work schedules are tight on Lang Downs where they are shorthanded as not all the seasonal jackaroos will accept working with gay men and Macklin is still keeping secrets from Caine about his history to Caine’s frustration.  Nothing ever comes quickly and there is work to be  done, even on relationships, if all are to succeed.

Into this evolving mixture of men and relationships, Tachna adds the Simms brothers, Chris and Seth who are woefully in need of sanctuary, a home and support.  At Lang Downs, they find all that and more as Caine and Macklin provide a needed portrait of two gay men who love each other and successfully work together.  Chris and his brother Seth were tossed out of their home by their stepfather after their mother died  and Chris was having a hard time just getting them food and shelter on a day to day basis.  With Caine and Macklin making them feel at home, Chris can finally get past a state of stress and starts to think about a future for them both.  Chris Simms and his brother, Seth are wonderful characters and work perfectly within the established framework Ariel Tachna has created.  We have already gotten a real understanding of the flow and pace of life on a sheep station, we anticipate the seasonal duties the jackaroos have before them as much as they do, and we sympathize with Chris and Seth’s feelings as outsiders when they first arrive at Lang Downs.  But then the station’s strangeness starts to wear off as Chris and Seth find their way into the rhythm of life at Lang Downs. Seth settles down as he starts the School of the Air with the other children and finds an outlet for his mechanical nature in helping to work on the engines, the people around him making him feel like family.  But it is Chris who we empathize with the most.  He is the one beaten for his sexuality, he is the one who has shouldered all the responsibility for his brother and we breathe a sigh of relief and joy as Chris learns to trust in his situation and the men around him.  Chris’ vulnerability and sensitive nature engages our affections from the beginning and we root for him to succeed and find happiness just as Caine and Macklin have.

The character of Jesse Harris brings a wonderful contrast to Chris Simms and Macklin Armstrong.  Jesse Harris is more typical of the seasonal jackaroos who work the sheep stations, never settling at one place for long.  These men have learned to be self sufficient and hard, reserved and used to isolation.  Still Jesse’s homosexuality sets him apart from the others and the high standards that Macklin and Caine set are not only new but bring the potential for more into a future Jesse had never thought of for himself.  Watching Jesse change and adapt to new thoughts and feelings is like watching the parched ground soak up the rain after a steady shower, the cracks fill up and finally disappear as the ground repairs itself.  We thrill to watch that evolution happen within Jesse as well.

And that’s really how this book and Inherit The Sky feel to me.  They are as much about a life lived as close to nature and as in tune with the seasons as one can be.  Changes in emotions and thoughts are measured as incrementally as changes in the land around them.  The wind blows a little  colder, the rains and sleet pour down upon men and sheep equally.  And life is slow until the threat of dingos appears and then the rush to face the threats is quick and fierce as the storms themselves. There is the calm enjoyment of the beauty of the outback and the clear night skies contrasted with the life and death nature of the floods in the rainy season.  This is a novel that spreads out before you in as elemental and  earthy manner as the land itself.  We are made to see an Australian night sky ablaze with stars, and feel the cold seep into bones of the men checking the fence line and what a gift that turns out to be.  It is a treasure when an author can meld you seamlessly into their world, make you a part of  their  characters lives so completely that you hurt and laugh when they do.  Ariel Tachna did that with Inherit The Sky and does it again here with Chase The Stars.

Easing back into the world of Lang Downs was like revisiting with old friends and meeting new ones as well.  I love watching the changes in the lives of the characters I have come to love, whether the permutations inch forward or flow fast like a stream.  I hope that Ariel Tachna  brings us back here again, to see what changes time has brought and to whom Lang Downs has given sanctuary and home.  Until then, I will be picking these two books up again and again to read and remember.

Cover by Anne Cain is lovely and perfect for the book and the story within.

Review of Love in La Terraza by Ethan Day

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Rating: 3.85 stars

Cain Elliot is desperate beyond measure and about to give up all hope.  His grandmother entrusted La Terreza, her 1920’s Spanish courtyard apartment complex to him after her death.  La Terraza is special in so many ways, its beautiful  architecture, its magical  courtyard and of course, the unique group of characters that have come to live there over the years, including himself.  And now he is about to let them all down.  La Terraza needs a multitude of repairs to meet code and Cain doesn’t have the money.  He has been to bank after bank to no avail and he is close to bankruptcy.

To make matters worse, there is a real estate developer who is hounding Cain to sell, its tactics almost feeling like harassment in intensity. Feeling like an absolute failure after his last meeting at the bank, Cain heads over to Sully’s Tavern to meet up with his group of friends.  Also at the bar is Henry Abrams. Henry came to town to accept a position in the architectural firm Hamilton-Bach, so he is new, lonely and out looking around town.  He finds Cain and is immediately in lust but after their conversation and a night spent together, Henry finds that they have so much in common.  Cain and Henry really like each other, and Cain’s vulnerability brings out the need to protect him in Henry.Henry also falls in love with La Terraza, it’s magic and architectural beauty capturing his attention and admiration as much as its owner.   In a short amount of time, Cain and Henry finds themselves on the road to a real  relationship, the first for each of them in a long time.  And then Henry and Cain realize his new firm is the one working with the developer to acquire La Terraza.

Henry is horrified to find they want to tear it down, and Cain worries about Henry’s ties to a firm whose methods he thinks is disreputable. As the stress and tensions mount up, their new found relationship starts to fall apart.  Then the plumbing starts to fail at La Terraza and Cain has no money left to fix it.  Henry wants Cain to find happiness with him but at what cost? Cain must overcome doubt and his past. Henry must decide if what he wants is what Cain needs. In the middle of it all is  La Terraza’s future.

I have been a fan of Ethan Day’s since Sno Ho made its debut.  Ethan Day has such a winning way with his characterizations, snappy dialog and portrayals of love relationships from disastrous to dynamic that I eagerly await each new story from him.  Love in La Terraza is no exception.  It has all the earmarks of Day’s earlier lighthearted stories while still capturing some of the darker elements of his latter works.  Cain Elliot is absolultely a Ethan Day creation.  I could tell that immediately.  From his snarky voice, easy tolerance of quirky personas that surround him, and the “oh so happy to hop in bed with you, gorgeous” attitude that he presents Henry with the first night they meet, he is everything I love about  Ethan Day’s writing.  I adore Cain.  He is lovable, vulnerable, loyal and insecure about his abilities.  Henry is his wonderful counterpart.  Solid, ambitious, hardworking to a fault,  still he yearns for something more to his life and recognizes it in Cain.  It’s their hesitant fumble towards a relationship and mutual understanding that is the heart of this story.  Hearfelt, realistic, and full of missteps that occurs in most beginning relationships, it will speak to every person reading this story.

Also true to a Ethan Day novel are the wonderful oddballs that live in La Terraza and make up a core family group for Cain.  There’s the Scalia brothers, Vito and Tony,a pair of elderly men who play Frank Sinatra tunes, blasting them out into the courtyard, Mrs. Ruth Robinson, a grey panther married many times over and still going out on dates nightly, Eddie,  blind and a teacher at the school for the Blind and his boyfriend Matt, musicians Pixie and Thrash.  Thrash speaks as though he’s from England  but is actually from the Midwest, both are in a band, and Nic and Stu, her husband, a recently married couple playing at being hippies and close friends of Cain’s.  Each a splendid portrait of eccentric individuality. These people will absolutely engage your affections. They did mine.  I wanted to get to know all of them so much better.  In fact I wanted to move right into La Terraza and make myself at home with all of them.

La Terraza herself is that grand dame of Spanish buildings the shout out romance at  every cobblestone and ooze amore from it’s stuccoed walls.  I  wanted to be strolling through the courtyard myself, so vividly did Ethan Day describe her.  La Terraza is a character in her own right, sumptuous, a true classic beauty.  I wonder if  La Terraza exists outside of Ethan Day’s imagination, I hope so.  But either a figment  or reality, La Terraza lives on these pages.

There is so much to like here that I find it hard to bring up the quibbles I had with it. And that would be the secondary plot surrounding the group of  firms trying to take La Terraza away from Cain, no matter the legalities.  I won’t go into more details but I felt at times I was in another novel with this storyline.  It just did not seem to fit in with the romance between Cain and Henry because the way Day built up the relationship between the two men was so well done that the second section seemed almost clumsy in comparison.   I knew without a doubt before I even got halfway through the story what was going on with the building, who was doing it and who was the ultimate “bad guy” at the top of the evil chain.  In these economic times, it is easy to believe that Cain is having money flow issues to go with rehabbing an older structure without bringing in a melodrama that seeks to drown out everything with it’s exaggerated accompanying score.  Without the melodrama, this is a solid 4  star story.  Unfortunately, with the cloak and dagger stuff thrown in, it takes away from a wonderful romance and pulls it all back into a “nice story” category.

Ethan Day fans won’t want to pass this one up because it is an Ethan Day story.  For those of you new to the author, seek out his other books before you read this one.  Try Sno Ho for a wonderfully comedic bent on romance or At Piper’s Point, a more serious contemporary romance that gets it all right from beginning to end.  There are so many wonderful Ethan Day books out there.  I am just not sure this is one of them.

Cover art by Adrian Nicholas. The two men are lovely but the building standing in for La Terraza is a misstep.

A New Addition to the Garden, the Week Ahead in Reviews and the Sazerac, an American classic cocktail

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So, here we are again.  It’s a rainy Sunday in Maryland, perfect day for reading and snoozing with the pooches.  I was out earlier in the week, gallivanting around and made a quick stop into one of our local nurseries to check out their perennial sale (50 percent off woo hoo!) and what did I behold? A zen froggy waiting for someone to take him home.  Really how could I pass him up?  Here’s are 2  pictures.   He is now perched in all his zen-like concentration behind the fish pond to Kirby’s everlasting confusion.  I watch Kirby looking at him every time he goes out and can just see the slow wheel turning in our third smartest dog’s mind.  Like “hmmmm, didn’t see that before, wonder if it is edible” “will he play with me?”.  Cracks me up everytime.  So I believe our zen froggy deserves a name.  Any suggestions?

 

Now on to the Week in Reviews.  There were just some lovely books this week. Lashings of Sauce was a standout based on just the shear number of great authors who contributed to this anthology. We run the gamut from contemporary romance to supernatural lovers this week:

Monday:                           (Un)Masked by Anyta Sunday & Andrew Q.Gordon

Tuesday:                           Shelton’s Homecoming by Dianne Hartsock

Wednesday:                    Wick by Megan Derr

Thursday:                         Lashings of Sauce-a British Anthology

Friday:                               Weekends by Edward Kendrick

Saturday:                           The Cool Part of His Pillow by Rodney Ross

Cocktail of the Week: The Sazerac

The Sazerac, created in New Orleans in the 1800’s, an American Classic Cocktail

Ingredients:

1 1/2 teaspoons (1/4 ounce) club soda
1 sugar cube (preferably rough-cut and unbleached*) or 1/2 teaspoon raw sugar, such as turbinado or Demerara
4 to 5 dashes Peychaud Bitters
5 tablespoons (2 1/2 ounces) VSOP Cognac
1 tablespoon (1/2 ounce) absinthe
1 cup ice
1 lemon
Directions:

In chilled cocktail shaker or pint glass, pour club soda over sugar cube. Using muddler or back of large spoon, gently crush sugar cube. Swirl glass until sugar dissolves, 20 to 30 seconds, then add bitters and Cognac and set aside.
Pour absinthe into chilled double old-fashioned glass or stemless wineglass. Holding glass horizontally, roll between your thumb and forefinger so absinthe completely coats the interior, then discard excess.
Add ice to cocktail and stir until well chilled, about 20 seconds. Strain cocktail into chilled glass rinsed with absinthe. Using channel knife, cut thin 4-inch strip of peel from lemon directly over glass, then place peel in glass and serve.