Review Repost: Strength of the Pack (The Tameness of the Wolf #1) by Kendall McKenna

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Rating: 5 stars out of 5

Strength of the PackAt a time when tales of the Human Dominant and his True Alpha Shifter have been consigned to myth, along comes human Marine Lt. Lucas Young.  As he readies his command of mixed human and shifters for their deployment to Afghanistan,  he is assigned True Alpha pack leader Sargent Noah Hammond to his platoon. From the beginning, Lucas and Noah circle around each other, Noah pressing for dominance and control while Lucas is equally determined that his authority and rank be recognized and respected by the True Alpha. Small skirmishes and exercises bring human and shifter together in an ever strengthening bond as Lucas learns to dominate Noah and understand the ways of the Pack.

Once their platoon has landed in Afghanistan, they find themselves under fire, and the wartime stresses find their bond deepening and getting stronger with each trial and success. Soon the pair are mirroring the legendary bonding of Dominant and True Alpha from ancient lore. But the bonding is incomplete and when one is wounded, can misunderstandings and military regulations be overcome in time to save them both?

It has been a while since a new shifter book blew me away.  Strength of the Pack has done that job and then some.  McKenna gives us an alternative world where shifters and humans have been together for millennia and throughout much of history.  But through human rewriting, their place in our history has been purposely obscured. Now, because of some unmentioned war or occurrence, shifters are now partnering with humans in all aspects of life, including the military.  McKenna gives us just enough back history to whip up a thirst for more while still making her current setting feel realistic and well thought out.  Little by little, McKenna delivers glimpses of this magical back history, reinterpreting such legends as Joan of Arc and Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

McKenna’s world building is a wonder with no element left to chance.  We are given pack hierarchy, which is folded  into Army and Marine structure in such a way as to feel utterly real and authentic in every detail.  She has a way of describing army life as lived while deployed that I wondered if she was a Reservist or active in the military.  From their packs to their guns, to the dust and heat of the land they are bivouacked on, it felt as though you were there with them, close to the insurgents and ambushes.  It just rang true, right down to how the Pack reacts after skirmishing with the enemy.

And that brings me to another aspect of this book that I loved, the natural history of the wolf.  Unlike other shifter stories, here the wolf shifters act like wolves, including their rank and status within the pack and how it regulates their behavior to one another.  While I enjoy seeing different authors take on shifters, as a park naturalist I love seeing an author who gets the science right, especially where natural history is concerned. Kudos to McKenna for that lovely take on wolf shifters and shifter society.  She also opens up for an explosion of options in the books to come.  I can’t say more without giving away some of the plot but oh my, what possibilities could be in store for us in the books ahead.

Kendall McKenna’s characters are worthy of such marvelous world building too.  I loved the reserved nature of Lt. Lucas Young.  He is brilliant, concerned about regulations and the safety of those under his command.  There are so many levels to this man and they are slowly peeled away as he  realizes that he is not prepared to handle the presence of either a True Alpha or shifters in his platoon.  The decisions he makes (and we are inside his mind as he makes them) paint a portrait of a man, honest to his true nature with the capacity to grow with the challenges before him. Lucas is matched up with the indomitable True Alpha, Noah Hammond, a nordic warrior shifter.  This is not a cardboard hero but again a being adjusting to a bond thought unheard of and having his own problems with it.  McKenna has made Hammond vulnerable, at least to Lucas, a necessary facet of his personality if we are to believe their bond to be true.  This will be one of my favorite new pairs of the year.  The needs of the wolf for taste, touch, smell and markings deliver sensual scene after sensual scene as Lucas and Noah adapt to each other and their needs.

This book is 336 pages long and felt like 90.  I got to the end and wailed because I wanted much, much more.  I have so many questions for McKenna.  Has the government been working to find this combination again?  When did the shifters come forward again?  And what happens to Tim Madison?  Consider my feet stamped in frustration.  Lucky for all of us, this is just the beginning.  I hope the series is a long one.  But either way, long or short, I can’t wait for the next installment in The Tameness of the Wolf.  Go get your copy and let’s start this journey together.  I can’t wait to see where it takes us.

Stunning cover art by  Jared Rackler

Review: Storm Season by Nessa L. Warin

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Rating: 2. 5 stars

Storm Season coverStorm season is coming and ranch owner Jasper Borland and the rest of the townspeople of Brightam’s Ford are preparing their farms, shops and homes for the months during the wet season when they will be inside, safe from the destructive weather of the season.  With rain that can strip off a man’s skin and hail that demolishes buildings, most people even have safe rooms that they can escape to if necessary.

During one of the precursor storms that lead into the wet season, Jasper finds a young man, Tobias Thatcher, wounded and scrounging for shelter near his barn.  Tobias is amazed to see Jasper talk to him and when he touches Jasper’s lips, Tobias’ thoughts fill Jasper’s mind.  Tobias is a telepath from a race of telepaths.  He has never seen someone talk before.  Jasper takes in Tobias to give him shelter and bind his wounds.  Much later Jasper learns that Tobias’ sister has been kidnapped and he is trying to find her.  When the same people come for Tobias, Jasper agrees to help Tobias in his quest to recover his sister.  But the dark forces find them first, and both men must flee Jasper’s home to avoid capture.  With the storms coming and every move they make being watched, can Jasper and Tobias find his sister before its too late for all of them?

Well, let’s just make this short, shall we?  Nothing about this book works.  I  usually try to find some redeeming feature or positive aspect of the story to report on but really there’s nothing here to grab onto.  Starting with her world building, nothing makes any sense.  We are given very little information about the planet they are on or the civilizations scattered across the continent.  Apparently, the majority of the time (11 months or less depending upon the paragraph), the climate is mild, but  for one (or several months again, all facts here are very “fluid”), the climate turns killer and all flee inside, locking themselves away until the season is over.  Apparently the weather is worse towards the coast so many move inland (towards the river/sea?), a wild territory I think.  Goods are moved by ships which is just darn confusing because where do all those huge ships go during storm season?  Apparently, they have cars, trucks and trains but on a very “non tech” level.  Again, what?  Its as though the author can’t decide if this is Little House on the Prairie time or space colonists without a clue.  Phones, letters but the technology they would accompany those things are missing.   Just bits and pieces cobbled together that never come close to any cohesive history.

The characters are much the same although I have to admit I have not had a character that I could classify as dumb as a box of rocks before.  That would be Jasper.  Where to start?  Jasper never questions anything.   A person shows up who is a telepath, a heretofore unknown creature, who can project his thoughts and feelings onto him and what is Jasper’s response.  Nothing, just invites him in without question.  No really, Jasper doesn’t ask him any questions.  No “hey man I can hear your thoughts, that’s cool,” no freaking out, nada.  Then the man’s dog shows up who is over the top smart.  Questions? Nope.  Crazy man with green and black facial tats,  Matrix like overcoats, and jewels embedded in their hands, they have guns, things that scream bad men. Questions? Nope. So of course, he opens the door.  Jasper has one layer and its total absence of any interesting features let alone common sense makes him one dull boy.

Tobias comes close to Jasper.  Yes, he is a telepath, just not a smart one.  It’s a case of  dumb and dumber go to an alternative universe or whatever.  Tobias has one conversation over and over.  Condensed it amounts to :  “Someone is coming.  They are here.  Run.”  Repeat often.  He also sets off town riots (cue the pitchforks and torches), and  is adamant that they have to find his sister.  When he gets hurt , Tobias still says he will set out to find her (although he can’t walk), so you assume she has just been recently kidnapped, correct?  Uh, no, that event occurred over a year prior but he is just now in a panic?  And don’t get me started on characters that are given large roles than disappear forever or the fact that these people write letters, have phones, cars and such but no one knows of the group of telepaths that live over the rise and visa versa? Big things don’t add up, little things don’t add up.  Nothing makes any sense and after a while, you stop trying or caring about any of it.

And then there are the unintentional howlers you find throughout the story.  The book is just past the halfway point and it looks like the boys are going to have sex, (their attraction to one another comes out of nowhere).  Now at one point, Tobias pushed his feelings onto Jasper who wasn’t happy about it.  Now as they head to bed, this conversation occurs:

 Tobias: “It’s too hard to stop, too hard to keep it from happening, and if I lose that concentration, I don’t know that I’ll get it back. I know I won’t get it back if I have to try again and again and again”

Jasper: “huff. “I need to know that you’re not going to make me feel things.”

Wait, what? Isn’t that the perfect time to “feel things”?  *head desk*

Plus the cliched scenes are endless.  Kryee, Tobias’ dog is hunting him and here is the passage:

“What is it, girl?” Jasper asked, crouching to scratch behind the dog’s ears. He was allowed to for only a moment before she barked again and repeated her earlier antics. Carla sauntered up, her hands stuffed into her jacket. “I think she wants you to follow her.” It was a brilliant idea.

Thata girl, scifi Lassie, we get it.  Timmy’s in the well. Now disappear from the narrative.

I could continue quoting but really, what’s the point?  I could pick any passage in the story and you would be able to see the lack of originality, problems with continuity, shallow characterizations and poor dialog that abounds in Storm Season.  This is the first book I have read from Nessa L. Warin so I have no idea if this is typical of her writing or something out of the norm for her.  I sincerely hope it is the latter.  At any rate, I read this so you didn’t have to.  Give it the pass it deserves.

Cover: Two generic guys in generic winter wear.  Problems with this book are everywhere, including the cover.

Three Evergreen 2012 Dreamspinner Holiday Short Stories by SA Garcia, Laylah Hunter and Charlie Cochet

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The Colors of Pastor Saul by SA Garcia

Rating: 4 stars

Pastor Saul Thompson operates a food kitchen for the lost souls and people fleeing from the wars his country is engaged in.  But thee is more to Saul then meets the eye as Saul can see Death or the Black Mantle coming for the people he serves.  Sometimes, Saul can make the Black Mantle retreat by his actions and sometimes even his intervention is not enough to save those who congregate under his roof from despair and death.  And each time, his “sight” or actions bring down a blackness upon himself that is becoming ever more frequent.  Then a man called Pink Cap comes into his sanctuary and everything changes for Pastor Saul, including the belief that miracles can still happen.

This is an unusual little story for the Holiday season and Advent calendar.  It takes place in an alternative universe in a wartorn country whose citizens are diseased, dying or just healthy enough to be conscripted into the army.  Pastor Saul is the last line of survival for people living on the edges, so very close to death and despair, something his government for whatever reason does not appreciate.  Pastor Saul would include himself among those classified as marginal but a true oddity, he sees colors around all the individuals, and as death and sickness close in, those colors turn dark just before the Black Mantle arrives to feed off the person before they die. This gift or curse is something he has kept to himself. The author’s vivid descriptions of Saul’s universe and chilling portraits of its inhabitants paint a picture of a dismal world populated by defeated and dying citizens with Saul acting like the boy with his finger in the dyke holding back the waters of destruction.  Then an amazing thing happens when a man called Pink Cap enters Saul’s life and their relationship allows both men to start to thrive once more.   True to Garcia’s world building, there is no HEA but even the slight glow of hope for these men are like the embers of a fire sparking back to life.   I would recommend this story, just not as a holiday read.

Safe Harbor by Laylah Hunter

Rating: 3.5 stars

When Blake’s father died  seven years ago, Blake was reeling in grief compounded by confusion over his sexuality.  His solution was to run away to the sea.  Now his ship has returned to port, and waiting on the dock for him is his best friend,  Tom.  Tom is the person who caused Blake to question his sexuality and make him realize that he was gay.  Now  Tom makes it clear that Tom forgives Blake for running away as long as Blake agrees to stay with Tom and his grandmother for Christmas.  And from all indications, Tom has realized other things about Blake as well. Can it be that Blake has finally found a safe harbor for good and get the happy ending he has wanted with Tom?  At Christmas time everything is possible.

At 30 pages, this is a short, sweet story of young love and coming out of the closet.  Hunter has a nice feel for her characters and settings although more of a back story would have been nice.  We just have three people here,  Blake, Tom and his grandmother, a most tolerant and exceptional woman.  it seems that during those seven years of missing Blake, Tom realized that he is gay and that Blake was gay too. This is a gentle tale of young love with appealing characters.  A very nice, quick holiday read.

Mending Noel by Charlie Cochet

Rating: 2.75 stars

Elf Tim works for the Abominable Administrative Department at North Pole City and is majorly unhappy.  His Elf Boss, Noel, is harassing him and making his life miserable.  Other elves have transferred out of the department, but Tim seems stuck.  Stuck in a bad  job,  and with a bad boss out to get him.  Other elves, those hardbitten and mean work as the Frost King’s toy soldiers, those brave and smart end up as Rein Dears, flying the planes to deliver the toys.  But  Tim was’t even considered good enough to cut it as a Ribbon Curler in the Gift Packaging Plant, even after graduating from Claus College.

But when Tim stumbles into a plot by the Rat King  to destroy the Christmas spirit, he will have to work with Noel and Jack Frost with his helper Rudy to safe the day and even find some Christmas spirit of his own.

As you can tell, Charlie Cochet has turned a collection of traditional Christmas legends upside down and inside out, creating a North Pole City where Rein Dears are the glamourous flyboys with slutty sugarplum fairies to attend to their every need instead of reindeer pulling a sleigh. The North Pole is no longer a charming snowcovered gingerbread town but a Christmas City full of bureaucrats, homophobes, and thugs to go with the elves who have positions that range from Kringle’s Construction Firm worker to an elf who delivers coal for the furnaces (and dumps it on top of Tim).  I think this story contains some very clever tweaks on Santa Claus and the North Pole, and it is equally clear that Cochet enjoyed herself writing this story.  I just wish I had had as much fun reading it as she did developing her concept.

I didn’t.  Perhaps I love my traditional Christmas too much to enjoy such hard hearted concepts as Christmas sugar plum  fairies as whores, or a place where the work is such drudgery that the workers are as bogged down in Bah Humbug and  despair as anyone found in the blighted areas of any big city.   Yes, there is a happy ending but it is the stuff I had to wade through to get there that almost made me put this down before I finished.  Really?  There has to be homophobia even at the North Pole?  There are certainly enough sluts, and thugs and jerks of all types everywhere else in the world.  For me, they don’t need to be at the North Pole at Christmas, and I don’t want them in my holiday reading.  Sorry, but I would skip this one.

Mending Noel cover

Safe Harbor