Review: When All the World Sleeps by Lisa Henry and J.A. Rock

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Rating: 5 stars out of 5

WhenAllTheWorldSleeps_500x750_0Daniel Whitlock is back in his hometown of Logan, South Carolina, after serving time in prison for killing a man. The man Daniel killed was another local boy, Kenny Cooper, someone who savagely beat Daniel because he was gay.   The problem is that Daniel doesn’t remember burning down Kenny’s house with Kenny in it.  Daniel is a sleepwalker and has been since he was a child but no one believed him when Daniel told everyone that he had been asleep when he burned Kenny’s house to the ground. Convicted with time served, now Daniel has returned home to a town that hates him and a family that won’t speak to him.  Isolated in a cabin in the woods, Daniel chains himself to the bed each night in hopes that he can sleep.  Sometimes it works, mostly it doesn’t.

When Daniel is found causing trouble at the local bar, its up to Logan cop Joe Belman to break up the fight and take Daniel home.  Like everyone else in town Bel has never believed Daniel’s defense of sleepwalking.  But now faced with the reality of a Daniel who doesn’t remember the fight at the bar, Bel’s attitude towards Daniel starts to change. When Kenny’s friends retaliate against Daniel, Bel agrees to watch over him, to keep Daniel safe by any means…including tying him up and handcuffs.

Watching over Daniel, dominating him to protect him, brings out a side of Bel he never knew existed.  And as he slips into a relationship with Daniel, one that deepens by the day, Bel finds himself looking at his hometown and its citizens in a new and harsh light.  It’s not only the town that won’t leave Daniel alone but his own fears and demons too.  Only with Bel does he find any measure of peace…now if only he can let himself believes he deserves it and that Bel will stick with him no matter what.

Not many books these days leave me speechless, let alone exceed any expectations I might have had from the blurb given.  But When All the World Sleeps is that treasure of a book that leapt over my perceptions and conjectures into a triumph of storytelling.

Truthfully, it’s the characters first that surprised me. I was unprepared for damaged Daniel Whitlock and his somnambulism.  And how deeply this character would affect me.  His pain and anguish over the past, and not just Kenny, is so profoundly real that I could swear I saw Daniel’s blood and tears wash over the Kindle’s screen as certain scenes unfolded.  He is steeped in guilt and confusion.  By returning to Logan, all the memories and problems that Daniel carries with him just intensifies for him and the reader on an almost hourly basis.  There is little mercy to be found in this small town with its almost biblical memory and cemented social judgements, whether it be against gays or convicts or those that happen to live outside the town’s proscribed idea of normal.  And oh the danger if someone just happens to be all of those.  That is a marked man, whether it be open taunts or concealed hatred.

Joe Belman, or Bel as he is called is another remarkable character in a sea of them.  Bel is someone we watch grow emotionally throughout the story.  He starts off as just another typical Logan citizen, holding much the same viewpoints and values as all the other close-knit family members and small town denizens.  Logan is so central to who Bel thinks he is that it would never occur to Bel to live anywhere else, so strongly does Bel identify with the town and his family and friends. But all that starts to change when Daniel reappears in Bel’s life.  There is a fundamental change that has to happen before Bel can see Daniel as someone other than a liar and killer, and that change happens slowly and with great realism.  Henry and Rock achieve something remarkable here with Bel.  His changeover in attitude and feelings towards Daniel feels so authentic in his doubt, stubborness, and finally acceptance that the authors pull the readers along with Bel’s introspection and emotional discoveries about himself and Daniel.  It’s intimate, it’s a ground swell of emotion that never stops breaking and its breathtaking in its accomplishment in making me, and all the readers so vested in these characters and their delicate relationship that any swerve off the path for them is as painful for us as it is devastating for them.  Bel is that singular voice in the night, the one that stands out in the sea of small town secrets and listening to him soon becomes as addictive as it is necessary.

Lisa Henry and J.A. Rock certainly understand the small Southern town mentality, one I am familiar with myself.  There is a delicate emotional balance that is necessary to achieve for appreciating and comprehending the complexities of life lived within its confines.   My father escaped it as early as possible, his brother never did.  The pull of a small hometown can sometimes be so strong in its depth of history (familial and otherwise), of its deep cultural and societal roots that establish themselves within a person never to  relinquish their hold, that some people never leave its jurisdiction, whether that be physical or emotional.  Henry and Rock get that and have made it come alive here within the pages of When All the World Sleeps.  The good, the bad, the indifference to the sufferings of those the town cannot abide or understand…its all there, laid out for the reader who has no idea of the charms and pitfalls that exist in such an atmosphere and makes it accessible.

When there is a bdsm content in a story, especially where it is a major element in a main character’s emotional makeup, I always wonder how its treatment will let me relate to the story and the character(s) involved.  Again, Henry and Rock take a multitude of difficult subject matters and by combining them, make us understand the demons that haunt Daniel and the methods chosen to help him deal with them.  Its another outstanding accomplishment that such methods seem utterly reasonable and necessary for both men, including Bel who is new to the whole idea of domination and submission.  Bel does his homework on the subject, researching and having open discussions, well as open as is possible with Daniel, on the toys and tools to be used to make Daniel feels safe enough to sleep. There is a natural progression from ignorance to total participation as a dominant and partner from Bel.  As there is an answering growth and recovery from Daniel at the end of the story.

With all the hatred that floats throughout this story, the self hatred, the hostility and animosity from the town, the pain and rejection that seems to be a matter of course for  several of the inhabitants here, there are also scenes of incredible tenderness and raw sexuality.  There is a moment with body markers so memorable in its tenderness and awkward eroticism that I didn’t know how to respond… then it gets to the end and I what my response should be…cheering for the bravery that is both Daniel and Bel, celebrating their almost impossible union and the milestones they have reached.  Hard not to reach for a tissue after that.

But the authors are not through with us or Bel and Daniel.  They are carefully constructing their plot, laying out the foundation and then the rest of the plot building blocks with the same attention to detail they did with the facts about sleepwalking and therapy.  Daniel is a superb artist, drawing both day and night and remembering only by seeing the results on paper when he awakes. The chills brought forth from the drawings ups the level of rising anxiety as events start to rush towards a climax.  And while the events speed towards a resolution, the plot never feels rushed or incomplete.  This is a narrative that leaves nothing to chance or is weighed down by extraneous or inconsequential elements.  The book is 405 pages long yet it never felt that way to me.

This story is so complete that I don’t feel a need for a sequel.  It ends as it should.  I think this is one of the finest books of 2014.

Cover Art by Amber Shah.  Again this will be on my Best Covers list.  The tones and the atmosphere achieved here are perfect for the story and characters within.

Sales Links:   Riptide Publishing       All Romance (ARe)        Amazon   Buy it here

Book Details:

405 pages
Published March 24th 2014 by Riptide Publishing (first published March 22nd 2014)
ISBN 1626490791 (ISBN13: 9781626490796)
edition languageEnglish
review posted back in 2014

Review: Song of the Spring Moon Waning by E.E. Ottoman

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Rating: 4.75 stars out of 5

Song of the Spring Moon Waning coverStudent Wen Yu is studying for the Emperor’s exams when a note is slipped under his door asking him to return the song thrush given into his care while the owner was sick. The only problem is that Wen Yu was never given a song thrush.  Although Wen Yu tries to put the mystery of the note aside to continue studying for his exams, he is unprepared when a second note arrives containing the same message.

Perplexed and intrigued, Wen Yu finds studying impossible and starts to look for the mysterious Liu Yi, the author of the note.  The trail of clues leads Wen Yu to the emperor’s castle and the beautiful imperial eunich Liu Yi.    Liu Yi is suffering from a mysterious ailment and believes that the ancient poems in his possession will contain information that will end his affliction. But the poems are in an unknown language. To get that information Liu Yi hopes that Wen Yu can translate the manuscript for him.  Soon Wen Yu finds himself obsessed by the collection of mysterious moon poems and his need to help Liu Yi.  The more time he spends with the beautiful Liu Yi and the poems the less time he has for studying, forcing Wen Yu to question what matters most in his life, obligation or love?

From title to storyline, Song of the Spring Moon Waning has all the lightness and delicacy of a Chinese brush painting set to words.  I am hard pressed to express just how easily the reader slips into this mesmerizing world, one that is ancient in feel and lyrical in tone.  Like most traditional Chinese poetry, Ottoman’s story deals in vivid expressions and juxtaposition of nature and the world around them.  The author captures the grim realities of a student studying for the Emperor’s exam, hoping for a better life for himself and his family versus the splendor of the imperial palace and those that reside there.    The mundane, realistic lives of the merchants and city dwellers  is contrasted with the magic of talking turtles and song thrushes with messages to impart to those in need as well as those who are needed.    Even the language of the story seems to flow with the rhythm and images found within ancient Chinese poems themselves.  And what may seem to be simple and straightforward is actually quite complex in design and message.  From characters to plot, Ottoman’s story has so many layers to it, and yet it never feels heavy or unwieldy.

With each new twist of plot or vivid description, the author infuses the tale with such enchantment  and age that it acquires a feeling of timeless storytelling. You can almost hear the parchment rustle or the faint whisper of an ink brush across the silk of the painting as the tale unfolds on the pages before you. The love poems between a dragon and a jade rabbit act as an impetus for a mortal love between student and imperial eunich.  But that mortal love may also hold a much longed for solution to the immortal lovers separation, thereby completing a cycle of romance and love.  Additionally, there are secrets that lie just below the surface for those involved in this timeless pattern, no matter if that facade is unworldly or earthly. One more intriguing aspect to this surprising story.

So much about Song of the Spring Moon Waning resonated with me,  including that amazing cover.  Having always loved ancient China, from its history to its artwork,  the manner in which Ottoman drew on and then seamlessly folded into the story elements  gathered from Chinese lore and culture made me further appreciate this author’s creativity and style.  This goes for components that might have inspired as well as those Ottoman imaginatively created.  The Chinese Moon Goddess and the rabbit, the dragons and the pearls, all are recognizably Chinese elements that people might be familiar with.  Taoist shamans of ancient China, the Wu, were said to communicate with animals, so the inclusion of the talking animals of the story, the turtle and the birds, felt both inspired by ancient lore while feeling imaginatively fresh.  And I could picture the Dragon of the Jade Mountain conversing with the Jade Rabbit, Great Physician of the Moon Palace, just by looking at a picture of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain,JadeDragonMountain12 so important to artists and Taoists alike.  Even the rhythm of ancient Chinese poets is hinted at by the flowing narrative with its delicate touch and references to  early Chinese culture, whether it be clothes or  food offerings.

Then at its heart is the love that springs forth between Wen Yu and Liu Yi.  At first glance it appears to be a gentle love story, but appearances are deceiving. Just under the surface lies a relationship of complexities and secrets where nothing and no one is as they seem.  The one person who seems so straightforward in background turns out to be the one with the most to hide and perhaps lose.  And Liu Yi who has already lost so much when his parents sold him to the palace as a eunuch, also appears to be a character that has it all, at least in material terms. What a complex character.  He is the one who has not only come to terms with his past and physically altered condition but Liu Yi is also the one who has gained the most materially but is not afraid to lose it all.  What is the truth of gender? Is it physical or what lies inside? And does love comes with requirements or boundaries?  Is the love between a dragon and jade rabbit any less than that of mortals? This aspect of the story may be the most amazing of them all.

Only the end of the story felt less complete as quite a few main plot threads were left unresolved. Just as the characters set out on a quest the story ends.  I found this abrupt ending startling considering the thoroughness and attention to detail Ottoman brought to the book as a whole. But upon contacting the author, I found out that Song of the Spring Moon Waning is the first in a series, so the unresolved plot points made sense as they lead into the sequel, one I can’t wait to read.  Do I wish it had continued past that point?  Absolutely, but I am not sure that I would have been happy at any break in this throughly addicting story.  It’s just that good.

Song of the Spring Moon Waning has so much to offer.  It’s enchanting, the love stories haunting, and the plot both imaginative and layered.  Ottoman has delivered a story that surprised me with its twists while captivating me with its atmosphere and lyrical narrative.  Consider this story one of ScatteredThoughts Best Novels of 2014.

Cover artist Aisha Akeju has done an amazing job.  This cover is gorgeous and perfect for the story within.  Again, one of ScatteredThoughtsandRogueWords Best Covers of 2014.

Book Details:

ebook, 32,000 words
Published January 15th 2014 by Less Than Three Press LLC
ISBN13 9781620043004
edition language English
You can follow E.E. Ottoman on:

Review: Lying with Scorpions (Memory of Scorpions #2) by Aleksandr Voinov

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Rating: 5 stars out of 5

If you lie with scorpions, you’d better have a taste for poison.

Lying with Scorpions coverNow that Adrastes, ex leader of the Scorpions and Kendras’s lover, has assumed the throne of Dalman along with his sister Queen, Kendras is finding himself increasingly out of his depths. He feels uncertain not only his own leadership of the Scorpions but of Adrastes the King. Kendras was brought up to fight, his enemy clear.  Now he is smothered in political games of treachery, poison and succession.  Even his past is shaken when old memories are stirred up of his childhood and parents.

Adrastes has a new role for the Scorpions, one which means leaving their centuries old rules and traditions behind to become a fighting army for the king.  Once Kendras would have followed Adrastes blindly but now he starts to have questions.  And with the arrival of the formidable Commander Graukar, General of the West, Kendras becomes even more unsettled.  Graukar is the opposite of everything that Adrastes seems to becoming.  Graukar is forthright, a formidable fighter, a person  unlike any Kendras has known before.  Now the future seems uncertain. What is the truth and what is false?  Can Kendras, the Officer and lover, still trust the man he risked everything to find and save?  Or is there more going on around Kendras that even he can imagine.

What a brutal and brilliant saga this is turning out to be.  In the first story of the series,Scorpion (Memory of Scorpions, #1), we are introduced to Kendras, member of the Scorpions, an elite fighting force that has been decimated by the constant warfare between the rival cities.  Kendras’ world has been a very straightforward place up until recently.  He had a mission, to find and rescue his Officer, the leader of the Scorpions who also happens to be his lover.  No person or obstacles kept Kendras from accomplishing his task.   His life is the Scorpions, a group of men who have become a family steeped in the traditions of this mercenary unit.  But by the end of that story, Adrastes, the Officer Kendras rescued turns out to be someone unexpected, a King. And upon assuming the throne, the title and responsibilities of the leadership of the Scorpions passes to Kendras.  Suddenly his life is overwhelmingly complicated and his loyalties stretched to include not just his close-knit band of fighters but a king and his political agenda.

One of the elements I appreciated with this story is the manner in which Voinov deepens his characterizations to compete with the equally evolving complexity of his plot.  With each new political intrigue or added plot layer the author unfolds a revelation about a character to ensure that all the elements remain in balance. Central to the story is the growth that Kendras must experience in order to cope with his ever changing (and precarious) position in almost every aspect of his life.   The author paints a very clear portrait of a man out of his depths, a “rank in file” soldier promoted to Officer, a position he reluctantly assumes.  His lover went from Officer of a small fighting corp to ruler of two city kingdoms and possibly more. Kendras used to be certain where he belonged and his role in the Scorpions, now everything around him feels like smoke and mirrors, leaving Kendras desperate to adjust.  The story is again told from Kendras’ point of view, and that provides the reader with a front seat to his confusion and increasing doubts about Adrastes, his role in the King’s life and indeed, the very future of the Scorpions themselves.

Voinov has a gift of creating characters that exude a  great vitality, a certain brutal realism that is perfect for the world they inhabit. This ability to believe in Kendras, Adrastes, Widow, and all the others makes it relatively easy to slide into their lives and the conflicts that arise around them.  Kendras is the core of the story and its through his eyes that we watch his world undergo fundamental changes that start to force him to question the very tenets of his life.   The introduction of new important characters is one aspect of the change in direction for both storyline and character growth.   It is also one of the most disconcerting elements of Voinov’s series.  Much like Game of Thrones, this is a savagely violent and ruthless world where conflict and death is the norm and lives are short lived.  It contains merciless killers, barbarous priests, and sadistic, conniving rulers.  Deceit and treachery are not only commonplace but almost necessary for survival.  Need I say that to get too fond of anyone in the series is probably a mistake?  Because everyone in this series seems expendable, perhaps even Kendras himself.

The author starts expanding his universe with this story.  New lands and seas are added, and the Jaishani themselves make a remarkable and stunning entrance into the story and Kendras’ life.  Richer in texture and more deeply layered, Lying with Scorpions is full of surprises and twists.  Like shards of glass, small bits of information are laid out for Kendras and the reader to ponder, wondering where they will fall and who they will cut the deepest.  Foreshadowing of the future or a deception designed to obscure instead of instruct?  A mask, a mosaic and even a legend, all have the ability to bring forth both shivers of dread as well as anticipation.  Just more of Voinov’s master storytelling at work.

Prepare to undergo as many changes as Kendras in your feelings towards all the characters here.  Some you thought trustworthy prove otherwise, and some show sides of themselves that will surprise you with their resourcefulness as well as their loyalties.  I loved the character of Lord/Lady Amrash as well as that of Runner.  Not surprisingly, I fear for their future in the next story, A Taste of Poison (Memory of Scorpions #3) coming soon.

I quickly became addicted to this series with Scorpion, and this story only saw that addiction deepen.  I am fascinated by the author’s ability to get under the reader’s skin with his  believable characters, imaginative plot and ever widening world building.  If you are a lover of warriors, of ancient kingdoms, of lust and loyalty and so much more, then this intense magnificent saga is for you.  Lying with Scorpions ends with a bit of a cliffhanger so I am desperately waiting for the next story to arrive.  I don’t expect any quick or neat resolutions nor do I want them.  It’s not Voinov’s style nor would it work for this character and series.  I will be content to let the anticipation build.

If you are new to the series, start with the first book, Scorpions (Memory of Scorpions #1).  There are two versions.  Make sure you  have the recently revised and redited one to start with.  The cover is the quickest indication you have the correct one.  Then more on to Lying with Scorpions.  It will take your breath away.  One of ScatteredThoughtsandRogueWords Best of 2014.

Cover by Reese Dante.  At first I thought the subject of the cover was Kendras and the lack of blue eyes confused me. But the author informs me that the person on the cover is Adrastes,  who is half-caste,  being the son from a sacred marriage between the Jaishani Besh and Ashangul who is white.  He was chosen for the cover because the story is mostly about his rise to power.  He has brown eyes per the description in the first story in the series.

Books in the series in the order they should be read to fully understand the characters and complex plot are:

Scorpion (Memory of Scorpions #1)
Lying with Scorpions (Memory of Scorpions #2)
A Taste of Poison (Memory of Scorpions #3) coming soon

Book Details:

ebook, 317 pages
Published January 20th 2014 by Riptide Publishing (first published January 18th 2014)
ISBN139781626491106
edition languageEnglish
urlhttp://www.riptidepublishing.com/titles/lying-with-scorpions
series: Memory of Scorpions