Friday, December 31, 2021

HOT MALL SANTA, Xmas silliness & steamy fun; & A COP FOR CHRISTMAS, less steam but as much silliness & fun


A COP FOR CHRISTMAS
JAMIE FESSENDEN

Self-published (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$2.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Mason Collier isn’t big on authority figures. When Office Steve Coleman pulls him over and gives him a speeding ticket, he doesn’t react well. He’s even less happy when he discovers the cop lives next door to his parents’ house.

No matter where they turn this holiday season, Steve and Mason keep running into each other, and whenever they talk for more than a minute, they piss each other off. But from wayward dogs to Christmas tree hunts to maple syrup festivals, it proves impossible to avoid each other in the small town.

If Mason can see the good man behind the badge, he might just get a cop for Christmas.

THIS WAS A GIFTIE FROM DEARLY BELOVÈD RONI!

My Review: Pretty much straight-people safe! Moderate steam!


One thing to know about this story is the whole reason these guys work as a couple from the jump is they're the only kind of guys the other thinks about. They're just primed, ready to go, when they meet. Being attracted to someone's essential presentation of self is a good quick-start to instaluuuv.
“I’m all for getting some sleep—I’m wiped. But I wouldn’t object to a little cuddling.”

Steve’s eyebrows twitched. And something much, much lower on his body twitched too. “Um… sure. We could do that.”

“Did I shock you? Collier men aren’t known for being subtle.”

Steve laughed. “Well, Coleman men kind of need to be hit over the head.”

“Consider yourself hit over the head, then.”

I love the calm way Steve the cop makes his sexual versatility obvious. I love Mason's equally calm clarity that he's bottoming being so matter-of-fact.
“I told you,” Steve said, fishing {a condom} out and examining it. “Jackie is a woman of the world. And, no, I don’t mean she sleeps around. I mean her life would make a great novel, she’s probably the smartest person I know, and this isn’t the first time she’s had guests who might need condoms and lube. Is this for my dick or yours?”

“Yours.”

Cute. Sweet. So cheerfully positive!
“We forgot to put a snowman at the end of the driveway, so I volunteered to stand here until morning.”

“Wiseass. Are you going back inside or do you want a ride somewhere?”

That was kind of a dumb question. Where the hell would he be going on foot in a snowstorm? But Mason couldn’t resist saying, “I’ll go wherever you’re going.”

See? Sweet! Two w-bombs lowered the score a half-point, and another half-point died when Author Fessenden made two not-snarky not-unkind mentions of Thomas Kinkade Painter of Light™. But on balance, it does what it says it will do on the box so here you go: small-town sweetness and one (1) full sex scene.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


HOT MALL SANTA
A.J. TRUMAN

Self-published (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$2.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: You better watch out. You better not cry. Hot Mall Santa is coming to town!

Instead of round and jolly, this year’s mall Santa is chiseled and smoldering. The second he strolls into Oakville Mall wearing sunglasses, stubble, and his Santa hat cocked to the side, Santa gets all the tongues wagging—especially Tom Webster’s. A lowly retail associate at The Décor Store, Tom spends his time chasing a promotion and boss that are both out of reach. His fantasies about being a ho-ho-ho for Santa soon cross into reality after an unexpected night together. While the rest of the town obsesses over Hot Mall Santa, Tom gets to know the sweet, nerdy history buff under the suit and six-pack abs. But to win Santa’s heart, he must fight off the lusty moms, adoring fans, and his own fear of rejection.

Hot Mall Santa is a fun and sexy novella at 32,000 words filled with nutty Christmas shoppers, a grown man wearing reindeer antlers, and too many holiday puns.

THIS WAS A YULE GIFT FROM DEAR, SWEET RONI. THANK YOU!

My Review
: Cute'n'steamy...the line forms out the mall doors to get some lap time with Hot Mall Santa!
“He was like the living embodiment of sex. His beard was pulled down, and he had these amazing cheeks and jaw. It’s like whatever the cheek and jaw equivalent is to an ass you can bounce a quarter off of.”

You're getting just what it says on the package: hot guy does crummy job & looks great doing it.
“It’s weird when all people do is compliment something about you that you had no part in. It’s not like being praised for something I’ve done or made. Just something I am. Like a zoo animal.”

Poor guy...he's not even taken at face value, just value of face. What makes it Xmas fun us that job is being Santa. What a cute Horny Hallmark this would be! And the pleasure of Tom waking up to being used by his boss...Randall being such a mensch...it's got the Holiday formula down.
He grabbed at Randall’s faux fur-trimmed lapels and pulled him closer, shoving his tongue into his pretty, Hot Mall Santa mouth. His hands traveled across his chest and tumbled down his washboard ads. Tom had thought that washboard abs were something that only existed in cologne ads.

There's no time like the present to get your good luck handled. And handle him Tom does! The charm of sex scenes with plenty of detail will likely be lost on the straighter folk. You're not likely to get the "ordinary-guy-bags-the-buff-bod" now are you? Haw! There was an entire film about that, the woman was tubby and the guy thought she was gorgeous and people lapped it up...so don't prim your lips and start carryin' on about objectifyin' and such-like quite so fast.

What makes this story fun to read is the way the author decided to make the pretty-boy hung like a stallion and good with it into a nerd. It's like discovering Henry Cavill plays video games and TTRPGs and the like. He's proof that Randall isn't a complete fantasy object. This was harmless fun, spiced with hot sex and sweet lovingkindness.
They got out of the car. A light dusting of snow began to fall from the sky. It was nothing a Midwesterner couldn’t handle. Tom doubted it would even stick to the roads. Randall treated it as the most beautiful precipitation he’d ever seen. It was probably his first white Christmas. He held his hands out to touch it, lifted his head, laughed as it dotted his cheeks. Who knew that beneath the raging sex appeal, there would be a layer of dorkiness, and that it could be nothing short of adorable?

You're getting exactly what it says on the package, so is that what you want? It was what I wanted and it went down a treat.

DECEMBER 2021 HOLIGAY ROMANTIC READS!


HIS HOLIDAY CRUSH
CARI Z.

Entangled: Brazen (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$3.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Workaholic attorney Max Robertson is one meeting away from making partner at a big NYC firm when his best friend calls and guilts him into coming back home for Christmas. But there’s a reason he hasn’t been back to Edgewood for a decade—too many bad memories. The plan was to go for just one night, until a wild deer and a snow bank wrecked everything.

Former Army Sergeant Dominic “Nicky” Bell is the new guy on the Edgewood police force, so of course he drew the short straw and is stuck working the night shift. But his evening gets turned upside-down when he gets called out to a wreck in the snow—and it’s his one and only high school crush, looking even sexier than he did back then.

When they both end up stranded together at Dominic’s house, sparks start to fly and Max isn’t sure what to do. But everyone deserves a present this holiday season, right?

ANOTHER ELF-GIFT! LUCKY OLD ME.

My Review
: Six foul w-bombs. Six. Fie on this, this plague this dreadful and cornball and unnatural act! Real, actual ball-having testosterone-producing males do not w-i-n-k at...anyone, really, except the very, very young.

Still. The story. I am not against a good, solid iteration of an evergreen plot. Here we have one of those stories that's been Hallmarked and Lifetimed until we know it by heart, and that is why we consume them. It is comforting. It feels *right* to go all misty and dewy when reading about young men who are just figuring it all out, fighting battles that were passed down to them or were inflicted from without by force majeure. They are really, honestly like that, after all. And the young men here are good souls trapped into confining boxes by histories and expectations they didn't agree to accept.

When Dominic sees Maxfield for the first time in many a year, he is right back to his teenaged crush on his big brother's bestie. Said bestie is clueless...the decade between fourteen and twenty-four is a lot longer than almost any other...and just flirts with the hot young cop helping him out of the snowbank his BMW slid into as he's on the way back to the hometown he fled.

When the hijinks do eventually ensue, it's not a moment too soon. Like almost halfway through the book before they get down to business. Now...that's not a *bad* thing, there's the whole "best friend's little brother has plutonium in his underpants" issue, but good lawsy me! One thing I'll give the author, she didn't exactly stint once the ice was broken. (And this is one of those NO STRAIGHT PEOPLE reads.) She even deals with the issue of PDAs several times, in several different situations; that was refreshing to me. All too often it seems as though there's a simple, blanket response to the issue, it's okay or it's not. I've never known anyone with that blanket an approach to that complex issue. It's refreshing to read something where it's multi-layered.
Being out was a big deal for me. I’d never ask a guy to come out, but I wouldn’t go into the closet to be with someone. Not that I was thinking about the future. At all.

What also feels good to say is that the way the author breaks the OMG-conflict-therefore-run-away issue both men have came in such a realistic way. Just...flat-out blurting it. "I'm sorry, I fucked up, I really really want us to work on problems and there I went and did the wrong thing, and..."
Before I could say another word, Max reached out, grabbed my jacket, and pulled me into a kiss. It was a cold, awkward kiss—our noses were freezing, his lips were chapped, and my mouth must have tasted like too-sugary frosting. But damn. It was still the best kiss I’d ever had. I wrapped my arms around him and pulled him closer, warming him as best I could, welcoming him against my body. He could stay there forever, as far as I was concerned.

I think there's nothing more real than the response of "shut up and kiss me" when someone's just given you their entire heart on a platter, yours to hurt or heal. This is a category romance. We know the choice before we get there. That's why we came on this ride! But so often the response to the resolution of the scariest thing you can do is...not very realistic. Sappy, soppy words, or a long, loving look...nope. Men are action-oriented. Feeling something? Do something about it!

So, yes, I ended up happy with the read. I'll definitely read another one from Author Cari Z. I'm sure she's got other good stuff to say, and her grasp of the actual workings of men sexing up other men is superior to many. That she made the effort to give them both serious thoughts about the what, the how, and the why of each act was a big point in the story's favor.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


CABIN FEVER
BRIGHAM VAUGHN

Two Peninsulas Press (non-affiliate Amazon link)
99¢ Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: It may be cold outside, but inside, the temperature is rising.

When grad student Kevin Taggert goes home with his best friend for Thanksgiving, the last thing he expects is to drool over the guy’s dad.

Forty-eight-year-old Drew Freeman would love a relationship, but he never expected to find it with his son’s best friend.

When a last-minute change of plans leaves Drew and Kevin alone in a cabin the week before Christmas, the heat between them is too much to deny.

Although they promise it’ll only last the week, every day that passes brings them closer together. When Christmas Day arrives—along with Drew’s son—can they salvage the relationship and the holiday?

THIS WAS A GIFT! THANK YOU, SWEET ELF.

My Review
: An age-gap romance about a divorced dad falling for his son's best friend is an automatic "yes" from me. We all like seeing our lives on the page, don't we. And goodness knows the existence of romantic stories with older men as objects of desire are most agreeable to my over-60 self.
Kevin smoothed his hand over Drew’s stomach. He didn’t have a six-pack or anything but his abs were solid and firm under his hand. Perfect.

What makes this story a success is its refusal to play into either the trope of the hot-young-stud seducing the older guy or vice versa; the connection the men feel is more like what I experience with my own Young Gentleman Caller. Talking and laughing and enjoying time spent together is so much more important than sex because there's just so much more of it.
Kevin lay back in Drew’s arms with a contented sigh. Had he ever had moments like this before? With anyone? Sure, the setting didn’t hurt. A warm, cozy cabin with a crackling fire and glowing Christmas tree had a hell of a lot better ambience than the dorm rooms or shitty student apartments where he and his ex had spent most of their time.

Given the sex scenes aren't extended, and they are pretty clearly signaled therefore easy to skip, I'd give a guarded mmmaaaybe to straight people. The men are fond of each other and quite willing to kiss but if THAT bothers you what on Earth are you doing around me anyway?!
“I wouldn’t have dreamed then that I’d be marrying a man and that my parents would welcome him with open arms.” {said Drew}

“A hot younger man at that,” Kimberly {his ex-wife} teased. “Well done, you.”

Well done indeed. Satisfying read for the fluffy season.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


KISS ME AT KWANZAA
L.L. BUCKNOR

Beaten Track Publishing (non-affiliate Amazon link)
99¢ Kindle edition, available now

Rating: squeaks to a four-star rating of five by the hairs on its...nose

The Publisher Says: Coworkers and cubicle mates, Ishmael "Ish" Cutter and Adan Flores might come from different backgrounds but they have a good number of things in common. The biggest one? They each have a secret crush on the other. This holiday season they are both single for the first time in thirteen months. No boyfriends or clingy ex issues - maybe it's time for Adan to make his move? He formulates the perfect plan and invites Ish over for his family's Kwanzaa feast...but will he have the courage to make the first move or will this holiday season be one to forget?

I RECEIVED THIS AS A GIFT FROM MY FRIEND RONI! *SMOOCH*

My Review
: What can you do when you're work-cubicle mate is so hot you want to mate with him every time you see him? Say yes when he invites you home for Kwanzaa, of course. He's not from your kind of family...who had no issue with you being gay, of course, but complete freakout city when you showed up with a nose piercing, and the tattoo sleeve...!
“So that means you’re free on the twenty-sixth?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Would you like to come over? Meet my family? Celebrate the first day of Kwanzaa with us?”

Ish’s stomach dropped at the question. Wasn’t it a big step to meet the family?

But Adan's family barely notices except his little sister who wants you to Notice Her and his littlest sister who, when you admitted to liking unicorns, invited you to her next (sixth!) birthday (mostly so you'd bring cake). Oh, and his hawt Marine older brother who, um, is hawt...is it hot in here...?

It's an exuberant and messy and vibrant way to spend a half-hour and a buck. Not steamy but very endearing. BUT THERE IS A PROBLEM: Four w-bombs in under 2,500 words.

Twenty-four-year-old men do not w-bomb each other.

But there's a lot to be said for exuberant, loud, silly fun. If you're in line somewhere you'd rather not be, download this story for a lousy buck and grin your way through the wait.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


GUESS WHO'S COMING TO KARAMU
CY BLANCA

Dreamspinner Press (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$1.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A Story from the Warmest Wishes: Dreamspinner Press 2018 Advent Calendar

Grant Cary, a twenty-eight-year-old grad student, has let his Kwanzaa shopping go to the very last minute. In his rush to get home, he quite literally bumps into Will Sheritan, a fortysomething software developer, in the elevator. But luck favors (or curses) the adventurous, because their elevator shuts down due to a blackout. Grant and Will learn about each other’s pasts and find more than just a casual interest.

Will has never celebrated Kwanzaa, and he’s reluctant to enter into a relationship, but exploring a new tradition—with a new friend—might brighten his lonely holiday. And if Will accepts Grant’s invitation to join his family for the Karamu feast, Grant might get his Imani gift early.

I GOT THIS DELIGHT FOR YULE FROM MY FRIEND RONI. *SMOOCH*

My Review
: Cute low-steam teaser...straight-people safe. Be sure to bring your sense of humor.
Add to that one of the sexiest men I’ve ever seen—who’s probably as straight as the straightest arrow ever conceived—just so happens to be the sole occupant of this malfunctioning upright coffin. Ladies and gentlemen, the greatest day of my twenty-eight years of life. Hold your applause. There’s bound to be more in store for y’all.

Whatever you're expecting, white people, put it down. Just go for the ride with Will Sheritan & Grant Cary. Trapped in an elevator on Christmas Eve, these men get awkward, flustered, sad, mad, and together in a half hour.
Not to sound too stalkerish, but his {hands} are some of the softest I’ve ever felt. Seriously? What kind of moisturizer does this guy use?

“Grant,” I say. Will sort of scrunches his brow. There’s something on his mind. I’m pretty sure I know what it is before he even says anything.

“You have a last name to go with the first?” Here we go. Well, may as well get this over with. I let out a harsh sigh, then say, “Cary. Grant Cary.”

“There now. That wasn’t so hard, right?” Really, that’s it? No sense in pushing the matter.

Better for being funny as heck. Best for being unwilling to overexplain, to clue you in...you get no info dumps here. What you do get is a happy story about sad people making each other feel better than they felt before they met. An act of Kuumba, an act of Imani, a start not a stop.
“How does anyone expect to get respect if they don’t intend to give it themselves?”

“I know, right?” I say. (Let’s just ignore the fact that the pitch in my voice went from a respectable tenor to animated chipmunk.)

Say it louder, for them still in the back.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

BRIARLEY, M/M Beauty & the Beast retelling, & HOW TO CATCH A VET, small-town M/M series romance


HOW TO CATCH A VET
ANA ASHLEY

Self-published
$4.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: The first thing I learned at Vet school was to always expect the unexpected.

Well, I sure never saw Santiago Torres or his adorable Great Dane coming.

Santi is everything I’m not. Tall, confident, overbearing, and if I’m to believe his advances, he’s also very experienced in...well, you know what.

I always play safe, but it’s time to ditch the v-card. We couldn’t be more different, but that doesn’t matter because this is just a one time thing.

I’m not going to want more, right?
I’m not going to fall for him, right?

How to Catch a Vet is the sixth book in the Chester Falls series and features an opposites attract story between a virgin and a player, a Great Dane with a tendency to rescue- read kidnap- other people’s pets, and a small town like no other.

I RECEIVED THIS AS A YULE GIFT. THANKS, ANONYMOUS ELF!

My Review
: Author Ana Ashley was brand new to me, but this entry is in a series of connected gay romances that wasn’t at all new...it’s the sixth in an all-from-one-town trope of small-world-building interconnected stories. In this case it’s called “Chester Falls, Connecticut.”

An Army veteran and a small-town veterinarian from the same little town get tangled up...literally...in a meet-cute that got my smiles. Hot guy falls for ordinary one works, too. The fact that it’s in an interconnected series detracted a little bit from my enjoyment because I didn’t get the in-jokes; the way they’re presented I couldn’t miss them being in-jokes. I definitely think the author relies on them being familiar more than is entirely wise.

It's worth mentioning that Santi's got a very real medical condition. It's very interesting to see it used in this way. He's going blind due to Retinitis pigmentosa, a very odd and specific irreversible sentence to a long disabled life for this vigorous, active studly man. It's a very surprising and, to me at least, humanizing choice. The perfect Godly Studly Hottie is changing into a somewhat more dependent, instead of dependable, man. It's a guarantee that he will be making big, big changes in everything about his life. I love the fact that he knows this; he sees (!) that he needs to make changes now instead of being forced to later; and he elects to offer his heart, for the first time in his life, to a regular, good, decent man. I do think it was a good choice. I don't think it was as impactful for me, this reader, because I'm starting the series at book six.

I do mildly recommend the read though with the reservation that there are eight (8) w-bombs and none of them were in any way needed to make any kind or sort of point about the characters doing it or having it done at them.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


BRIARLEY
ASTER GLENN GRAY

Self-published
$2.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: An m/m World War II-era retelling of Beauty and the Beast.

During a chance summer shower, an English country parson takes refuge in a country house. The house seems deserted, yet the table is laid with a sumptuous banquet such as the parson has not seen since before war rationing.

Unnerved by the uncanny house, he flees, but stops to pluck a single perfect rose from the garden for his daughter - only for the master of the house to appear, breathing fire with rage. Literally.

At first, the parson can't stand this dragon-man. But slowly, he begins to feel the injustice of the curse that holds the dragon captive. What can break this vengeful curse?

I KINDLE-BORROWED THIS BOOK FROM MY FRIEND TEAL. THANK YOU!

My Review
: One thing no one tells you about being an adult is that there are no unmixed emotions.

None.

The world is so much harder to navigate without Certainty as your guide, either that you...or your leaders...are Right, Correct, Blessed By Gawd; or that you are damned, doomed!, hopeless and irredeemable! because that is also freedom from the murk and misery of figuring it out step by step, bit by bit, holding as much of a candle as you possess to illuminate annihilating blackness.

What They also fail to mention is: that blackness, the awful weight of it, the airless suffocating relentless gravity? That is the presence and substance of Them, the expectations and blames and angers and recriminations...black is the presence of all colors, weight is the sensation of gravity from so much mass, like a black hole.

White is what you see when there is nothing there. When you scrub off, slip out from under, refuse to pick up their shitty, rotten-souled, stinking cruelty, you lose their weight and your eyes clear the darkness...but unrelieved white is blinding no less than pure black.

So learn this, grasp it, hold it up in front of yourself like a sword: There is no purity in the real, honest world. There are no unmixed emotions. And that is how you learn to navigate and identify the places you are safe. They have your mix of black and white, they match the colors you've chosen and blended, the ones that give your eyes the right shine and your heart the right lift. Drop the purity filters, learn how to see in as many shades between black and white as you can find.

When you will dare anything, anything at all, for someone else, to save them and create the world they want, you are closer to that clarity than at any other time.

You'll never be so brave, so sure, so certain of your actions, as when you rise to serve the ones you love. Nothing, literally no thing, can stop that purity...except nasty old Reality. And that's why we need stories like this one.

Why, I suppose, we need all stories...they provide endings when dank, dismal Reality insists on hauling up the fucking Sun again to glare at you and highlight your crow's feet and shine blindingly on your bald patch.

But sometimes, in the gray place your shadow makes, comes that voice: "did you make the coffee?"

So do it again, Hero.

Monday, December 27, 2021

THE UNTOLD STORY, eighth Invisible Library YA adventure story...unqualified hit of a read


THE UNTOLD STORY
GENEVIEVE COGMAN
(The Invisible Library #8)
Ace Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$16.00 trade paper, available 28 December 2021

Rating: 4.5* of five, because 92%

The Publisher Says: In this thrilling historical fantasy, time-traveling Librarian spy Irene will need to delve deep into a tangled web of loyalty and power to keep her friends safe.

Irene is trying to learn the truth about Alberich-and the possibility that he's her father. But when the Library orders her to kill him, and then Alberich himself offers to sign a truce, she has to discover why he originally betrayed the Library.

With her allies endangered and her strongest loyalties under threat, she'll have to trace his past across multiple worlds and into the depths of mythology and folklore, to find the truth at the heart of the Library, and why the Library was first created.

The Invisible Library reviewThe Masked City reviewThe Burning Page reviewThe Lost Plot reviewThe Mortal Word reviewThe Secret Chapter reviewThe Dark Archive review

I RECEIVED MY DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

My Review
: The entire purpose of a long-running series is to entice the reader back to its (hopefully) inexhaustible wells of Story. That the story in question is about the origin of stories and storytelling, about how Storytelling is the balance point between Order and Chaos, makes it all the more impossible to resist following. (And it isn’t like I’m famous for my ability to resist storytelling in almost any of its forms.)

There is something that happens, at 92% into the story, that made me put down my Kindle for a full weekend. I simply couldn’t process it, and I didn’t want to process it; I was shocked, hurt, appalled, and enraged. Obviously I picked up my Kindle again, but it was a close-fought battle between going on and simply causing all sorts of havoc and ruin to collapse onto a certain wicked Authoress. She knows Authorial Privilege…I know voodoo.

It’s a sign of how deeply invested I am in Irene, in Kai, even in Vale and Catherine, that I was able to stop percolating my fury through the ground-up outrage and betrayal.

I’m a little bit shell-shocked even yet.

I’ll stay within the bounds of propriety, though, and not discuss it in spoilery detail. Let’s say that, at this point in an ongoing series, things need to shake up and people need to bring their analytical A-game to bear on the underpinnings of the tale. Some very obvious issues have never been so much as gestured at in the first seven books, like “who exactly founded the Library, where’s the Language from, and what the Devil is up with this treaty idea anyway?!” This book is both gesture and resolution.

And this book is the point where everything, I mean everything, changes for the Scooby-group: Vale, Catherine, Kai, and Irene are never going to be the same within or without. Their entire gestalt is altered and, in my never-remotely humble opinion, for the better. They go through more testing fires in this installment than in previous ones, only this time it’s not the faintly repetitive “we’ll climb that hill when we come to it” task-oriented slog that it can feel as though they are by now. I mean…I’ve been here for seven books, I’m reading book eight, I know what to expect…and I still want to know what happens. So Author Cogman does what a smart Dungeon Master does and explains why we’ve gone round the houses this many times and uses that pent-up energy to propel the series onto a different orbitt around the same story.

There are things that I question about the Language still, so I’m primed to pick up book nine. There are ways the Big Burning Questions got answered in this book that leave me wondering what exactly it was that I saw…and that’s exactly what I want in a series read! So hasten to the bookery of your choice and pre-order this latest adventure from the Multiverse’s coolest Librarian-cum-Ninja-via-Bond private story hoard…I mean collection!...and let Irene “Winters” and Kai the Dragon Prince and their brood ring in 2022 with you.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Happy Yuletide wishes, everyone!


My fondest Yuletide greetings for 2021! Welcome, all who come here. I'm wishing for us all to have a brighter, happier 2022, starting with the Solstice on 21 December.

I'll quote HolidaysCalendar.com for this potted history of Yuletide:
Yule is a pagan holiday that goes back thousands of years and was celebrated by the Germanic peoples of Germany and Scandinavia. No one really knows how old this holiday is because it was {not} written about until about the 4th century. The word Yule is the modern version of the Old English words of ġēol or ġēohol. The time before the Yule Festival was known as ǣrra ġēola and the time after was called æftera ġēola. It’s believed that Yuletide was celebrated for a period of about 12-days.

The main component of any Yule celebration was the Yule log {the bûche de noël above, f/ex, for us centrally heated moderns}. This tree would be cut down on the Winter solstice and fed into the fireplace-and this was done without chopping it into pieces! No, the top of the tree would be fed into the fireplace and over the course of the next 2 months, more and more would be pushed in as the winter progressed. This would become the basis of the Yule log or Christmas block as it is known today. Another tradition of Yule was bringing in various plants to “guard” their life essence. This was a form of sympathetic magic in which practitioners believed they could harness this life force for themselves. Some of the plants that were brought into the home included evergreen boughs, holly, ivy, birch boughs, and mistletoe. Sonargöltr was another aspect of ancient Yule customs. It featured a wild boar that was sacrificed and eaten. It is the basis of many of the Christmas feasts practiced today, except instead of a wild boar, a ham is served today.

In Norse tradition, the god Odin would wander the earth during Yuletide and visit people’s homes. He was described in some of these myths as being an old man with a long white beard. This would be the same depiction that Father Christmas would acquire during the 15th century. Father Christmas would then become known by a variety of other names including Saint Nicholas, St. Nick, Santa Claus, and Kris Kringle.

For Viking children, sugar and hay would be left out for Odin’s 8-legged horse Sleipnir, and for Christian children, cookies would be left out for Santa Claus.

Mistletoe was used by Germanic peoples during Yuletide, just like it is used by Christians for Christmas. For the Germanic peoples of northern Europe, mistletoe was believed to have possessed supernatural qualities and could be used to heal people. The Celtic people also believed that mistletoe had mystical qualities. They believed that it could ward off evil spirits. Nowadays, mistletoe is something that people kiss under.

One of the main things that Christmas borrowed from Yuletide is the placement and decoration of evergreen trees. Ancient Vikings used to decorate evergreen trees with carvings, food, and ornaments just like we decorate our Christmas trees. Another use for trees in Yuletide celebrations was the Yule Log. The Yule Log was a giant log that was meant to burn in the hearth for 12-days-the length of the festival.

Whatever you celebrate, however you decorate...or don't!...may this season of darkening skies give your roots a rest for a bigger, better, brighter 2022.

With that, this 1,003rd post is my final regular post of December. I'll see everyone back here on Monday the 27th to begin 2022 just a shade early!

Thursday, December 16, 2021

THE SANTA SUIT, sweet Holiday second-chance story


THE SANTA SUIT
MARY KAY ANDREWS

St. Martin's Press non-affiliate Amazon link)
$10.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: From Mary Kay Andrews, the New York Times bestselling author of Hello, Summer, comes a novella celebrating the magic of Christmas and second chances in The Santa Suit.

When newly-divorced Ivy Perkins buys an old farmhouse sight unseen, she is definitely looking for a change in her life. The Four Roses, as the farmhouse is called, is a labor of love—but Ivy didn't bargain on just how much labor. The previous family left so much furniture and so much junk, that it's a full-time job sorting through all of it.

At the top of a closet, Ivy finds an old Santa suit—beautifully made and decades old. In the pocket of a suit she finds a note written in a childish hand: it's from a little girl who has one Christmas wish, and that is for her father to return home from the war. This discovery sets Ivy off on a mission. Who wrote the note? Did the man ever come home? What mysteries did the Rose family hold?

Ivy's quest brings her into the community, at a time when all she wanted to do was be left alone and nurse her wounds. But the magic of Christmas makes miracles happen, and Ivy just might find more than she ever thought possible: a welcoming town, a family reunited, a mystery solved, and a second chance at love.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

My Review
: Author Andrews is an established force in romantic-fiction publishing, with thirty-ish successes on her credits. You know, therefore, that you're not going to feel duped or cheated when you read her work. There is no realistic chance you're getting some hyped-up yet unsatisfying work, something you'd look at with frustration as you wondered how to get back those three hours.

What's on offer here is a sweet, unsteamy romantic story about a house, its secrets, and a town full of the kind of people you wouldn't look at twice unless you Believe, like Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. After all, who's to say who's who? The fact that everyone, literally everyone, comes out of this short read with exactly what they need and what the want, well...it's a category romance with a Christmas theme and its title is The Santa Suit. You're getting what you signed up for!

I was drenched in Satan's piss three times (that is, the w-bomb was dropped on my unwilling reader's head) but with a twist: the w-bomber was in all three cases a woman doing that at another woman! So that had the virtue of novelty. It did not make it more pleasant.

There are the expected numbers of miracles, aka coincidences, in the course of the film, I mean novella! There are people doing the right thing grudgingly. but doing it; there are a lot of reminders that this isn't the Big City and everyone knows everyone else. That, mes vieux, is again what you signed up for. And you're going to get your HEA with a heaping tablespoon of sentimentality, too. I can't help myself...I lapped it up, I gurgled with disgust when w-bombed and I squirmed a wee tiny bit when gender politics made me uncomfortable (the Bechdel Test score here is not zero...it's negative). But I lapped it up.

One big reason is that Author Andrews is a seriously experienced wordsmith. I can't quote you any special lines, they're all perfectly adequate and none are lumpenly out of place; they aren't memorable. I didn't go in expecting them to be, so another check in the met-expectations box. I wasn't planning to write a whole review, only a Burgoine, but the presence of the dog Punkin and the four hens (a-calling!, in this case) and the overwhelming presence of Shiny Brite and C9 decorations...well...I was weak.

I love the verve and gusto of people who decorate their fool heads off for the Solstice Holiday, call it Yule or Saturnalia or Christmas. It's a dark, long night and we need the blessèd relief of bright colors and shiny surfaces. In our reads, too. Enjoy this one. Happy Holiday!

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

WINTER COUNTS, Native American #OwnVoices thriller


WINTER COUNTS
DAVID HESKA WANBLI WEIDEN

Ecco
$16.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

NOW $1.99 ON KINDLE! (non-affiliate Amazon link)

WINNER OF THE BEST FIRST NOVEL ANTHONY AWARD FOR 2021! Virtual Bouchercon award ceremonies linked to at the above.

WINNER OF THE BEST INDIGENOUS WRITER at the 2021 High Plains Book Awards.

On The Guardian’s Best Thrillers of 2021 list

The Publisher Says: A groundbreaking thriller about a vigilante on a Native American reservation who embarks on a dangerous mission to track down the source of a heroin influx.

Virgil Wounded Horse is the local enforcer on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. When justice is denied by the American legal system or the tribal council, Virgil is hired to deliver his own punishment, the kind that’s hard to forget. But when heroin makes its way into the reservation and finds Virgil’s nephew, his vigilantism suddenly becomes personal. He enlists the help of his ex-girlfriend and sets out to learn where the drugs are coming from, and how to make them stop.

They follow a lead to Denver and find that drug cartels are rapidly expanding and forming new and terrifying alliances. And back on the reservation, a new tribal council initiative raises uncomfortable questions about money and power. As Virgil starts to link the pieces together, he must face his own demons and reclaim his Native identity. He realizes that being a Native American in the twenty-first century comes at an incredible cost.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

My Review
: This is a Brulé Lakota Winter Count:
This cultural tradition, extremely briefly summarized in a Wikipedia article, organizes this novel’s ideas. Virgil Wounded Horse, our aptly and prophetically named vigilante-cum-enforcer hero in this thriller, touches on this fascinating piece of (half) his ancestry’s sense of time and place often enough to make the title of the book emerge organically in the reader’s mind. Virgil muses at one point, “Winter counts were the calendar system used by the Lakota, but they weren't like modern ones. I'd loved the little pictures in the calendars, each image showing the most significant event from the past year.” He muses again, at a later point, “Winter counts. This was the winter of my sorrow, one I had tried to elude but which had come for me with a terrible cruelty.” I think both are ideas of how he, his world, and his sense of self, are in motion at all times. It makes his entire life spent in action make sense…he’s not a Lakota insider, like ex-girlfriend Marie Short Bear, whose ancestry is flawlessly pureblood and perfectly in tune with the power structure within the Rosebud Reservation. He’s not an insider in the white world, either, being a mixed-race outcast from its racist system. It’s been a blessing in that any curse can be turned into an advantage if you’re looking for a way to do it. He’s got a place enforcing justice outside white and Native American legal systems, as required.

What this means is that the character is perfect for a thriller that needs telling to get people to care about the problems heaped on Outsiders, Othered people, by all systems of government. The tribal justice system (arguably distorted by its necessary accommodation to white codes) as much as any other. Virgil is outside, and that is the perfect place to be when the upper echelon needs something done that won’t “look good.” The value of face, of taking things at face value, is something white people with our media obsession have raised to virtual apotheosis; it’s far from untrue of other cultures, however. Marie Little Bear’s tribal leadership position means he can’t directly do the effective thing against the drug cartels hooking Native kids on heroin, with the well-known tragic consequences.

Had the plague not touched Virgil’s nephew, hard, he wouldn’t have agreed to take on the violent and greedy and frankly evil people. But when it’s family, things look different, don’t they. What happens on the reservation has its roots in the not-distant city of Denver. Marie and Virgil set out to confront the ills of their corner of the world by going outside that corner, by bearding the lion in his den, and they are not surprisingly at some disadvantages there. It is as revealing to consider their troubles and issues within the white world of Denver as to examine the world of the reservation in promotion, tolerance, and perpetuation of toxic social maladjustment.

I’m impressed by the way this thriller uses its author’s straddled worlds…he’s Lakota and teaches Native American Studies at the Metropolitan State College of Denver, so clearly he’s quite adept at code-switching…as a full and integrated world for Virgil Wounded Horse. We’re not expected to see Virgil as a man out of place in two worlds, we’re expected to see a man discovering his place in his own world. It is a fine distinction, but an important one. Virgil is an outsider in each of those large, obvious social constructs. He is making his own world, one in which he is the norm, as in the end that is what we all must do to “fit in.” Where the world doesn’t have a place for you, make one.

That is the gift of this read to the reader. Join Virgil Wounded Horse in his thrilling world.
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
This post is the 1,000th on my blog! I’ve written many thousands of book reviews over the years of many truly enjoyable books. I’m very happy that, after eight and a half years, I’ve reached this milestone blog post with a review of a book I’m happy to recommend that you read as a Booksgiving treat to yourself.

Monday, December 13, 2021

THE GENTLE ART OF FORTUNE HUNTING, exciting and artful while showing sharp teeth


THE GENTLE ART OF FORTUNE HUNTING
K.J. CHARLES

KJC Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$3.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Robin Loxleigh and his sister Marianne are the hit of the Season, so attractive and delightful that nobody looks behind their pretty faces.

Until Robin sets his sights on Sir John Hartlebury’s heiress niece. The notoriously graceless baronet isn’t impressed by good looks, or fooled by false charm. He’s sure Robin is a liar—a fortune hunter, a card sharp, and a heartless, greedy fraud—and he’ll protect his niece, whatever it takes.

Then, just when Hart thinks he has Robin at his mercy, things take a sharp left turn. And as the grumpy baronet and the glib fortune hunter start to understand each other, they also find themselves starting to care—more than either of them thought possible.

But Robin's cheated and lied and let people down for money. Can a professional rogue earn an honest happy ever after?

THIS WAS A LOVELY SURPRISE GIFT FROM MY YOUNG GENTLEMAN CALLER. THANK YOU, MY LOVE.

My Review
: It requires a particular kind of innocence and faith to be a gambler. I have never had that innocence and I don't think the gods like it when one uses words like "faith" in connection to cynical, bitter people like me. So the fact that a significant portion of this tale takes place in gambling hells and among those who see some...merit? value?...in the damnfoolishness of gambling chafed on my nerve. I was, of course, perfectly prepared for the fortune hunting. After all, it's in the title. And I myownself have never had any negative judgment of fortune hunters who live up to their bargain. (I also see no problem with porn models and other sex workers getting paid to do things I did for free back when there was interest in having me do them. To me, it means they're better at business than I was, not immoral or broken or bad.)

An entirely different conversation, one far more impassioned and full of moral thunderation, would be had if we were to discuss the system that makes these options not only viable but desirable and even, on sadly frequent occasions, necessary. That is not where we are in this particular Regency romance.

It does, however, come very close to being the conversation that Robin and Hart end up having, in several different forms, several different times. What makes the read worth its frustrations (I am impatient in the face of self-righteousness and annoyed by selfish, self-serving blinders on powerful people) is the fact that Author Charles writes the scenes of conflict between privileged and petitioner without for a moment forgetting that each is, in the final analysis, correct; only their viewpoints need to be altered, their idées fixes challenged at the source. And it's no surprise to me that Author Charles knows the essential truth of change: to work, it has to be to not merely from. Which requires a huge jolt of Want. A clinging tendril of need can't help but speed up the fall of the old and the triumph of the new.

Does anyone know a better way to add powerful want and many tendrils of need than to use sex? I don't. And with Hart's Position and his Code, well...them changes were a-gonna smother before moving anything a millimeter. Robin's wantonness, his unfeigned joy in the glorious work of sensual pleasure, means he is in a unique and effective position (!) to effect badly needed, salubrious changes in the essentially caring heart within Hart.
“Sorry? You want to kiss me?”

Hart was still looking away, but Robin could see his ears redden. “You need not, if it is not to your taste.”

“Jesus wept. Of course it is to my taste. I thought it would be spikes and a dildo.” Hart made a spluttering noise.

There it is. Reduced to its essence, there is the book: Are we having the same conversation about the same subject? Do we trust each other enough to find out? And in the end, are there words for what we need...from Life, from each other?

Finding one whose ability to offer that which one actually needs and still isn't overmatched by their own needs...that is a dim, receding dream for many, if not most, people throughout history. It makes the offer of Happily Ever After one of the romance genre's sweetest siren songs. Add onto that dismal truth the way the world has (and still does) treat gay men...the need for a dose of unreality in the form of seeing others, imperfect others more like we actually are, succeed in its attainment is ever urgent. This story's achievement of the HEA is quite dramatic, very theatrical, and damn near begs to be committed to film. I'm not at all sure the sex scenes would make it onto the screen...hell, I'm quite sure they would not because the sex...it's really not suitable for straight people. I can say that, while I get it and would never demand that straight people open their minds a bit more as a group, some of the more willing to challenge their boundaries would do very well to make this book a toe-dipper into thinking without judgment about gay sex. There is absolutely no coercion, no forcing, no shortage of imaginative and playful coupling in the story. I think many IRL couples could do worse than emulate Hart and Robin's ways and means.

Why I'm rating this four stars, instead of the five it sounds like I'm awarding, is easily explained: These men are damned abrasive. The effort of reading while screaming in the first third of the story told against the thrill of the ball. It's not like everyone needs to be likeable or that all the traffic lights need to turn green immediately...the struggle to connect was effective, and it felt as though this HEA was earned.

The problem was the relentlessly self-righteous Hart and the revoltingly self-serving Robin. It was sold to me as "this is how these men are." It wasn't ever UNsold. It was a lot to ask me to simply...jettison...all that, even with the later pillow talk that blew the cobwebs away. Had it been more evenly apportioned throughout the book, say to other characters as well not simply the men in their safe cocoon sharing, I might've been less brought up short at the ball scene's events. I might've been more willing to invest in that sharing. As it was, I was already too set in my response of them being damaged to shift easily into feeling them to be as wounded, hurt as they each actually were.

It is not a fatal flaw. It was a case of seeing the road to the highest peak go on after I got off the ride. And yet, make no mistake, I'd go on the ride again! This read was a pleasure and a badly needed one for me. Author Charles makes her stories fizz and snap and sparkle. Come join the fun with this one.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

RECKLESS, first Exley & Dyer gay transvestite pirate romp


RECKLESS
JESS WHITECROFT
(Exley & Dyer #1)
Self-published (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$3.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: When pirate Henry Dyer’s ship captures the French frigate Sans Souci, nobody seems to know why Captain Buckler has been chasing such a neglected and unprepossessing prize ship. The puzzle only gets more perplexing when they take the ship and find an English girl in leg irons.

It’s an old and popular love story—the pirate and the virgin who steals his heart away, only this time the pirate is the virgin and the girl isn’t a girl at all. She is James ‘Jem’ Exley, thief, molly, occasional actor and full time transvestite. Jettisoned to the New World in order to spare his aristocratic family any further disgrace, Jem is glamorous, flamboyant and fascinating.

At only nineteen, Henry is determined to prove himself a man one way or the other, and is astonished to find that nothing makes him feel like more of a man than his increasingly reckless passion for Jem. As their love leads them into trouble, the mysterious circumstances of Jem’s capture lead Henry deeper into a mystery that not only upends his whole world, but sees them running for their lives across the Caribbean.

Stolen jewels, scheming Captains and devious drag artists–Black Sails meets Blackadder in this steamy eighteenth century romp from the author of These Violent Delights and Going Sasquatch.

THIS WAS A GIVEAWAY ON AMAZON. THANK YOU.

My Review
: Among the many possible variants of “surprised by love” that exist, this one is a less-than-ordinary choice to use. Henry Dyer, pirate, is not the usual hero; Jem Exley, “damsel” in very deep distress, is not the usual heroine. I’m not sure that a pirate in eighteenth-century Caribbean waters would’ve known the word “transvestite” but it’s clearly a concept any moderately immoral character would’ve encountered long ago, so I’ll go with its being used in this context without crabbing too much. The response to it in the flesh was as reasoned and reasonable as I’d’ve expected it to be.

But the molly herself? That backstory! What a way to make a character fly off the page and into my heart! The stakes couldn’t possibly be higher than “being myself would cost me my life but there is no one else I could be so, so be it.” There’s a huge softness in my readerly heart for characters who take agency and act with decision to make their Otherness into a way of being in the world that wants them to fail.

While making myself comfortable in this world, I was often thinking, “what is it here that Author Whitecroft is trying to tell me in the choices?” Usually that means I’m insufficiently wrapped in the story; here, I was reasonably sure I was being led somewhere but not sure enough of where to simply sit back and enjoy the ride. But, as the story unfolds, there is simply nothing for it but to…simply sit back and enjoy the ride. I was all up in this story from chapter two forwards. The action, my dears, simply does not let up. Whee!

The reason that elicits a "Whee!" from my ever-darkening heat-pump (can't rightly call it a heart anymore) is that I am all about quests, mysteries, puzzles in my fiction. I am also an avid follower of Ma'at, I like order. Just not the order most of y'all like...conformity ≠ order. Sameness is not safety. Look at the burgeoning problems presented by monoculture: Cavendish bananas, the ones in your grocery store, are going extinct because they're clones, identical plants, and they've been targeted by a rot that is unfixable. The precise same thing happened to the Gros Michel bananas of my childhood. (BTW the reason artificial banana flavor tastes like it does is that they were aiming for the more powerful taste of the Gros Michel variant.)

Bananas? What the hell...oh right, sameness. Anyway, this book demonstrates a strong affinity for Ma'at in her "spirit in which justice was applied rather than the detailed legalistic exposition of rules" sense. The spirit of Justice demands that Jem get his Henry into bed, into the strange and ever-shifting constellation of acts and demands and solutions that make up a transvestite prostitute thief's life in a time where the mere determination that those things constitute an identity not a pathology was inconceivable. Since this story represents a modern take on the topic, they *do* end up constituting an identity. And do you know what? I am just fine with that. As a gay man of a certain age, whose own family contains other gay men even older than I, it's not in the least inconceivable (and I do know what that word means) that people very like Henry and Jem existed and throve despite their absence of trace evidence in the historical record.

The resolution of this story's plot leaves me disposed to seek out the sequel in hopes that the author's wells have not run dry regarding the Life Piratical of Jem and Henry.

Friday, December 10, 2021

SATAN CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN...seriously, you need more?, and MR. FROSTY PANTS, lovely Holiday gay romances


SATAN CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN
CATHERINE LIEVENS

Self-published (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$3.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five, because whatthehell it's the Holidays

The Publisher Says: Dear Satan Claus…

That’s how the letter Satan received starts. The little girl who wrote it asking for her father to be happy again meant it for someone else, and while that’s obvious, Satan doesn’t care. Santa will never find out, as long as Satan’s nosy assistant, Jasper, doesn’t tell him. Satan isn’t sure why he decides to watch Zoe and her dad, except that he’s bored and lonely. He surprises himself when he moves into the house next to theirs and introduces himself as Sam—because he couldn’t exactly give Riley his real name, could he?

Riley has been divorced for years, and he doesn’t have time for a relationship. He has trust issues and no will to get over them, not when his daughter is the center of his life. Then a new neighbor moves in, and he’s adorably awkward and sexy. Riley tries to keep Sam at arm’s length, but he can’t help but fall in love with him, and he’s pretty sure Sam is falling for him, too.

Then Sam confesses his real name is Satan, and that he’s the king of Hell.

THIS WAS A KINDLE FREEBIE ONE DAY. I SCOOPED IT UP THEN.

My Review
: Frothy, fun silliness about a kid’s bad spelling...Satan Claus! Heh...leading to the mother of all meet-cutes. Riley’s daughter Zoe wishes for her daddy to smile more and be happy in her Santa letter, delivered to Satan since it was misaddressed. Bored by being the King of Hell, Satan decides to give Zoe her gifts. How to make divorced, gay dad with abandonment and trust issues Riley smile more? Lie to him, ghost him, and make his daughter like the ghoster! Simple, no?

Of course it’s a category Holiday romance, we know there’s HEA at the end. What it entails is no less than a family rapprochement between Satan and one of his brothers (Archangel Gabriel, no less), as well as a new romantic start between Riley, nice guy, and Satan, King of Hell. I must admit I thought the way Riley handled the presence of the King of Hell in his house was...subdued. I myownself would've freaked right out to learn 1) Satan's real and b) his hawtness (see what I did there?) was simping for me.

Gravity-free froth, high-concept silliness, and a pleasant but insubstantial afternoon’s entertainment. There are ZERO winks! Not one! It can be done, M/M romance writers...there is no need to lard the stupid things into your work.

I can see this giving especially religious types a terrible case of collywobbles because it does not take the Devil at all seriously. "There is REAL EVIL in the world! Don't be so flippant!" Yes, we all agree there is real evil...many of us, though, don't think it has horns and red skin. Still, for something set in a religious tradition I don't follow, it was a fun way to spend some screen time.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


MR. FROSTY PANTS
LETA BLAKE
(Home for the Holidays #1)
Self-published (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$5.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five, not *quite* up to a full four

The Publisher Says: Can true love warm his frozen heart?

When Casey Stevens went away to college four years ago, he ghosted on his straight best friend, Joel Vreeland. He hoped time and distance would lessen the unrequited affection he felt, but all it did was make him miss Joel more. Home for the holidays, Casey hopes they might find a way to be friends again. But Joel’s frosty reception reminds Casey of just how hard he had to fight to be Joel’s friend in the first place. It’s going to take a Christmas miracle to get past that cool façade again.

Joel isn’t as straight as Casey believes, and his years of pining for Casey have left him hurting and alone, caring for his abusive father and struggling to get by. Unable to trust anyone except his rescue dog—and with no reason to believe Casey is interested in him for more than a holiday fling—Joel’s icy heart might shatter before it can thaw.

Can Casey and Joel’s love overcome mistrust, parental rejection, class differences, and four long years apart?

Mr. Frosty Pants is a stand-alone, Christmas gay romance by Leta Blake featuring a virgin hero, childhood friends-to-lovers, second chance romance, and romantically steamy scenes.

I RECEIVED THIS FROM MY GOODREADS SECRET SANTA FOR YULE! THANK YOU, KIND ELF.

My Review
: Five revolting w-bombs dropped. Why, I wonder, did the m/m romance writing community decide this was somehow okay?

A charmingly typical Holiday-themed Second Chance romance set in Knoxville, Tennessee. The Hallmark Movie Channel plot works exactly as you want, need, and expect. There is explicit sex so it’s not suitable for crossover straight reading, though it’s interesting that the grouchy character is the bottom! I was rooting for the couple to succeed because the family healing that had to come from it was for them both.

I found that I was more engrossed in Joel's struggles than in Casey's...I felt so bad for Joel for going back to the bad places with his "father" to see if he could get at least a crumb. That's terrible, and moving, and so very deeply sad to me. Joel's entire life was a search for connection, and Casey (after forcing him to accept Casey's affection) just ghosts the lad?! But honestly it was very believable, so I can't say more than "how sad and how real."

Worth the time and the effort to read, made of the Right Stuff, and presented with polished and pleasurable style.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

CHINA COURT, deeply satisfying read by a "snoozer biddy" extraordinaire

jacket of my mother's 1961 Viking Press edition
CHINA COURT
RUMER GODDEN

Open Road Media (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$1.99 sale price! Go get one!

Rating: 3.875* of five

The Publisher Says (flap copy of my mother's 1961 Viking Press edition): In this intricately plotted novel of a Cornish country house and the five generations who have peopled it, the story of American-reared Tracy Quin's homecoming is intertwined with the stories of her ancestors. Tracy comes home to visit her grandmother on the day after old Mrs. Quin dies, and becomes involved in the question of what will happen to China Court, the house she loves, which is hopelessly outdated and requires a great deal of repair—repair for which there is no money.

The old stories rise one by one as Tracy's unfolds—the story of lonely, brilliant Eliza; of Jared and Lady Patrick's fragile, bitter marriage; of Borowis and John Henry and old Mrs. Quin herself, when she was beautiful young Ripsie and an outsider to the family. As the lives of those who loved China Court are unfolded, the question of what will happen to the house becomes even more pressing, and soon only Tracy and Mrs. Quin's young tenant Peter St. Omer stand in the way of its destruction.

Serialized in the Ladies' Home Journal in 1960.

My Review: When I was a youngster, my mother had a lot of books from the 1930s to the 1960s on her shelves. I was allowed to roam freely among them, because she said that if I was old enough to want to read something, I should be able to do so.

As one can imagine, the large majority of a mother's bookshelf wasn't all that appealing to a young boy...Taylor Caldwell, Mary Lasswell, Anya Seton, Kathleen Winsor, and Rumer Godden were all well-represented. I called them, collectively, "snoozer biddies." Lots of long-face about loves lost, and noble sacrifices in the name of love, and mothers Doing Their All for Their Children, and blah blah blah blah.

Forty years later, I picked up China Court at the prompting of memory and the LT connection cloud bringing Rumer Godden's name back up to me. I half-remember some plot points, I do remember thinking that the rest of the snoozer biddies shoulda talked to this lady, she knew her onions comes to writin', and this was a good story.

It's a really good story! I think family sagas always appealed to me, and that's why this book snuck past the general opprobrium of youthful disdain heaped on the other books.

Not everyone in this book is likable, in fact most of them are pretty skeevy...motivated by greed, lust, vengeful meanness, thence to do some extraordinarily good things, and some cruel ones too. It reminded me then, and does also now, of my own family.

China Court is a house. It's not some Stately Manor, it's a big, old-fashioned family house. In the early 1960s, big places like this were in a serious period of desuetude in England. This book chronicles the house and the family's intertwined fates at this now-very-distant moment of crisis. It's structured in echo of the Book of Hours that Mrs. Quin, the last nineteenth-century native to live in the house, treasured and apparently read often. A Book of Hours, for the non-Catholic, divides the day into periods of prayer. Most of us have heard the terms "Lauds" and "Prime" (in the non-Amazon sense) and so forth, but these are just words...the idea of them, their purpose, is to give a reverential and spiritual cast to a person's every day and every act.

Speaking as a practicing anti-Christian, I think this is one of the best, most missed, ideas that modernity has rendered obsolete. I think, if this system of spiritual organization were to be reintroduced, the number of people who *actually* understood the religion they profess would rise exponentially, and I am just optimist enough to hope that there would be a corresponding reduction in the amount of loathsome hate-speech emanating from them.

As a narrative force in this novel, I think it's excellent and inspired. I think Rumer Godden deserves the attention of today's readers for her technical talent, her spiritual message, and her ahead-of-the-curve ideas. I recommend this to you.

ALL I WANT, as frothy and fun and sweet as a venti toasted white chocolate mocha


ALL I WANT
STELLA STARLING

Self-published (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$4.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five, caveat: straight people are strongly cautioned

The Publisher Says: “All I want for Christmas is someone to love.”

Shy retail clerk Elliott Gaffney’s Christmas wish isn’t something Santa can grant him, but that doesn’t stop it from being his favorite time of year. Especially since he gets to work at Chicago’s prestigious Ashby’s department store in “the North Pole,” doing his part to make the magic of Christmas come alive for others.

All Bennett “Ash” Ashby wants for Christmas is to forget about it. Unfortunately, his father is forcing him to pay penance for the media frenzy caused by his latest public sex scandal. The Ashby heir, working as a lowly department store Santa? Only the fact that no one will know it’s really him can save Ash the embarrassment of being stuck in a fat suit instead of partying with his friends.

But when Elliott catches Ash’s eye, Christmas starts to look a whole lot brighter. And even though Elliott would never have the guts to say yes if he knew who Ash really was, falling for “Ben,” the new Santa, is another story all together…

I RECEIVED THIS HOLIDAY THEMED ROMANCE AS A FREEBIE ON AMAZON.

My Review
: There are far, far, far too many w-bombs (over a dozen!) in this book. A few of them at the beginning are not what they initially seem to be, but the fact is that they don’t stop coming.

Speaking of coming…there’s more of that than I expected in a silly frothing Holiday-season treat like this book. It was an agreeable surprise that I got as much as I did, since it suited my mood that day perfectly. What was also comforting and comfortable was the plot’s absence of fanciness. There wasn’t anything grafted on or poked through to make it more Writerly. It’s a straightforward workplace grump-and-sunshine romp with the usual status and wealth gap.

“Ben” aka Ash the company’s big-boss’s son is forced among the hoi polloi for Xmas…into duty as the flagship store’s Santa! Tell me that’s for a single second believable…but Elliott, the humorously cast nutcracker positioned next to Santa, is there to whisper in “Ben”’s ear the requisite clues on how to handle the kiddies. Which he instantly turns into winning charm and sweetness!

Okay. So you see the Disbelief-alaya you’re going to be required to climb. Summiting K2 in tuxedo slippers without external oxygen would be easier for many, including me in another mood.

Also stretching one’s credulity muscles: Ash is being punished for being caught by the paparazzi in a car having sex with a fellow company director. (No word on that poor bastard’s fate. Can’t’ve been pretty.) Ash’s Page-Six priors are all with socially acceptable men…models, celebs, the like…and Ash’s father, while disapproving of his latest and one must acknowledge supremely stupid escapade, is barely even implied to be upset that it’s with a man. Just that man. And that he got caught. (Even when Ash's earlier struggles to be his queer self are touched on, they aren't foregrounded.)

For Elliott, whose gayness also isn’t remotely disapproved of by his gay and RGBFF colleagues at the store, “Ben” is the “pinch me I must be dreaming” guy, the one whose Look you intercept and turn around to see who he’s looking at…and it’s YOU!...and the bells ring and the birds sing! *wistful sigh* memories do have power.

For Ash, Elliott’s sincere and bone-deep love of the magical way the Holidays make happiness so much easier to find and to share is intoxicating. A sincere pleasure is a rare thing in the world of the very privileged. Everything is much less simple when you’re rich. Every apple has a worm; every horse is Trojan. It’s all very easy…there’s always someone whose job it is to do the labor…but you pay (and pay and pay) for it with the complete and total absence of simplicity. This is why Marie Kondo’s nonsense is so very appealing to wealthy people.

The end product of these two very different men coming (!) together is a somewhat unsustainable HEA. We're in a romance world, but still a HFN would've worked fine...and left room for Reality. These are people from radically different backgrounds, and while opposites attract, similarities endure. You're given many chances to see bits of Ash's growing up process (eg, the Grinch call from his dad, his rescue of the dog and subsequent ability to overcome his collywobbles at dealing with poochie's ticks) and similar opportunities to see Elliott coming to terms with his quite normal fears about someone as handsome as Ash falling for him. But really? What my brain says is, "not a damn chance, they're from different worlds, they'll run out of common ground in seconds flat." The gift Stella Starling has is for making my sentimental "I always cry at weddings" side ruthlessly club that bastard into submission and take over the endocrine system, flooding me with oxytocin. I want to bond, so I want Ash and Elliott to bond, and therefore the...um...not-sturdy framework (too harsh to call it "flimsy" but...) of this relationship Is. Just. FINE.

That issue firmly dealt with (ignore the muffled screams coming from my closet-locked logic centers), we can touch on (!) the sex scenes: Hot enough, not too many or too few, and VERY MUCH NOT HETERO SAFE. No! Down! The mechanics of deflowering a man aren't skimped or dwelt on; and, for a wonder, the top's the PoV character! That's not ordinary, and Stella Starling did a good job of it...sadly, not the usual case. All three of the sex scenes have a certain...lovingkindness...to them, so they're not icky but they're likely to be uncomfortably detailed for those whose tastes don't run towards men with men.

At all events, this is a novel, not a novella; this is a story, not a set-up delivered with pretty wrapping paper; and this won't weigh you down as you're sipping your venti toasted white chocolate mocha, pondering how to survive the weirdness of a second Plague Yule. Smiles and fun all the way, please, Bibliosanta!

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

THE BLACK FLAMINGO, YA coming-of-age novel in verse that I read. For real.


THE BLACK FLAMINGO
DEAN ATTA

Balzer & Bray (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$1.99 Kindle edition, available now through 18 April 2022!

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Stonewall Book Award Winner * A Time Magazine Best YA Book Of All Time

A fierce coming-of-age verse novel about identity and the power of drag, from acclaimed poet and performer Dean Atta. Perfect for fans of Elizabeth Acevedo, Jason Reynolds, and Kacen Callender.


Michael is a mixed-race gay teen growing up in London. All his life, he’s navigated what it means to be Greek-Cypriot and Jamaican—but never quite feeling Greek or Black enough.

As he gets older, Michael’s coming out is only the start of learning who he is and where he fits in. When he discovers the Drag Society, he finally finds where he belongs—and the Black Flamingo is born.

Told with raw honesty, insight, and lyricism, this debut explores the layers of identity that make us who we are—and allow us to shine.

I USED MY YULE GIFTCARD TO BUY THIS ON SALE. LOVE YOU, SWEETIENUBBINS. (But seriously, no more.)

My Review: Y’all. Get down on your poetry-lovin’ knees and say “Hallelujah” cuz your anti-Homeric un-Shelleyed non-Ginsbergly poetry Grinch just read a five zillion page YA coming-of-age book of it.

In full. No skippity-hoppity-next-please.

I shall accept your plaudits in the comments below. Books suffice as tribute. Please consult my Elfster list for recommendations.

What I didn’t do was much enjoy myself. The story’s fine, read it a million times, but that’s hardly the point with a coming-of-age tale in the hands of one from the vaults, as Frank N. Furter once said. I’m perfectly happy, then, as I am not the one being addressed, to step into observer mode and make my judgments on what the Author’s story sets out to do without the distracting sense of seeing myself and my struggles in his words.

First, of course, we have that perennial whine, “why poetry? just come out and say it!” For me to read the whole book, there needs to be something I can hang my hat on, some protuberant part that absolutely can not be expressed without Author Atta committing poetry before my affronted eyes. (This is also how I feel about comic books…I mean graphic novels!...as regular readers have heard and heard and heard me say.)

The Black Flamingo, in all its tremulous adolescent fumbling for Identity in a world that strongly prefers safe, restrictive labels, goes over that bar with room to spare. Lovely Mikey and his first…the bloke he loses his virginity and his innocence to…that simply could not have worked in prose. It would’ve made the entire exercise into a late 1950s kitchen-sink drama, something only slightly more authentic than EastEnders. The way Michael comes out to his mother…the way his grandfather and he communicate with the television story about the black flamingo…all of those moments are not adequately renderable in simple (or even fancy and complicated) prose.

Of course the story ends on a high note. It has to; those are the coming-of-age/YA rules for gay fiction nowadays. And, may I just say from my standpoint as someone who never had anything remotely like this book to read as a teenager, y’all GO! Write it, read it, talk about it, make it spread far and make it spread wide, get these words in front of as many who might maybe kinda sorta almost be confused or wondering or just plain curious.

This is the world the men who died of AIDS while I held their hands wanted to bring to life. I’m so far beyond happy that I’ve lived to see it, to know it flourishes, and to say “thank all those useless gods it’s here at last.” Now…you lot need to make sure it lasts. Nothing is free, if you’re not out there pushing and shouting and making noise then it’s all under the radar and the threats to women’s and Black peoples’ and all the other folks They don’t like will be the small end of the wedge.

Your turn will come.

If you can’t do anything publicly, do it privately…make calls to legislators (don’t know what to say? https://5calls.org/ has you covered) to let them know you’re a constituent, you pay attention to them and their votes, and you will vote them out. If you live in a scary place, send money through the big organizations like ActBlue. They don’t give anyone anything personal about you, just your money to people who maybe aren’t exactly perfect but they are a lot better than Them.

And that’s it. That’s the review, that’s the speech, that is all I know how to say to break someone, anyone, free from paralysis and inaction.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

THE MALACIA TAPESTRY, a late 1976 Club review


THE MALACIA TAPESTRY
BRIAN ALDISS

Open Road Media (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$7.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In a grand medieval city where all change has been outlawed, a roguish young actor tempts fate and dinosaurs, all in the name of love

By law, nothing can change in Malacia—a teeming, eternal city of dukes, players, wizards, merchants, beggars, ape-men, lizard-boys, and courtesans—but that is of no great consequence to Perian de Chirolo. An out-of-work actor and unabashed rogue, he is well satisfied with his lot as long as there’s coin, eager young women to bed, and the occasional adventure. Perhaps it is this thrill-seeking spirit—or simply the lure of noble beauty—that makes Perian imprudently agree to take part in a mad inventor’s illegal experiments, since such foolishness will never be tolerated in Malacia. But Perian’s rash actions will only lead him on to further indiscretions, winning him first fame and then notoriety, causing him to be hunted, hounded, martyred, and trapped in a fight to the death with a razor-toothed Ancestral Beast on the outskirts of the city. And perhaps most frightening of all, Perian de Chirolo will find himself in love.

Grand Master Brian W. Aldiss, one of science fiction’s most able and ingenious creative artists, performs a truly astonishing feat of alternate-world building, immersing the reader in an unforgettable Medieval fantasy realm rich in color, incident, invention, and peril—and of course, giant lizards. Welcome to Malacia.

I USED SWEETIENUBBINS' YULE GIFT CARD ON A SALE FOR THIS LOVELY TREAT. THANK YOU.

My Review
: A hangover from The 1976 Club, I had this tee’d up on my Kindle to give myself a bit of backup in case I really hated my chosen title, WOMAN ON THE EDGE OF TIME, and needed to abandon ship. I didn’t like that read too terribly much, but it wasn’t so awful I had to Pearl-Rule it. This book, as a back-up choice, would’ve fared about the same.

I don’t hate it; I’m as drawn to the fantasy of a medieval Balkan city trapped in Time by powerful forces that aren’t christian in the way of our world as I ever was. The existence of Ottomans (a very real branch of the Turkic peoples of Central Asia) doesn’t necessarily mean they’re Muslim…and I didn’t specifically notice but am pretty sure we’re not really made privy to their religious beliefs. (If no christians, then no Muslims.)

I’d forgotten a lot of my skills at navigating heteronormativity. Forty-five years on, living in a world where even the slow-moving laws of the land now recognize my right to marry anyone I choose to, I’d completely forgotten how it feels to have to insert myself into straight stories without recourse to my real home. There are oodles of SF/fantasy stories with men who love men in them now. I don’t *have* to come to the straight-people’s table to get a scrap grudgingly thrown!

And that was worth three stars to me. I’m clear now about how very, very much my world has changed. The flipside of that is I’m also clear on how awful it is for bigots and small-souled withholders to live in this more accepting and generous world…why they’re fighting so hard to close the floodgates that were opened very much against their wishes and desires. It is, after all, Author Aldiss’s primary thesis. The great and the good of Malacia have, in concert with the rest of this not-our-Earth, stopped Progress since they can’t stop Time. My half-formed hypothesis is that (fictional) Malacia and its Byzantium and Duchy of Tuscady and so on are in exact parallel with 1976…just on a different Earth in a Multiverse. Not being a Copenhagenist about matters quantum, I’m pretty sure that’s Reality.

If you need any further evidence for my hypothesis, there’s the continuing existence of dinosaurs aka “ancestral animals” and the presence of actual half-human, half-goat satyrs. But tech is stalled in the sixteenth-ish century, and has been for quite a long time if the internal chat is to be credited:
”Perian thinks the story banal, Papa, Armida said, “flashing me a glance I could not interpret. “He says it might as well have been written a million years ago.”

“An interesting remark. Surely one’s interest in the play is precisely that it might have been written a million years ago. Some things are eternal and must be eternally re-expressed. Those desperate straits of love…appeal to us because they apply as much today as yesterday.”

It is absolutely no surprise at all, having read that…peroration…to learn that Author Aldiss describes the speaker, a nobleman of Malacia, as speaking with “...words {of} a dry quality, as if his mouth had developed a prejudice against saliva.” Oh myyyy, as Takei would say.

The tale’s a solidly crafted one. It is, I confess, a bit of the read’s pleasure that it rides the rails already laid down by generations of tale-tellers gone before. What I enjoyed was the worldly setting, the worldbuilding that Author Aldiss chose. His zahnoscope, that not-quite-daguerreotype means of photography…do pardon, mercurization...described in it outlines so the reader can see in their own eye the end results. The careful and wordy descriptions of clothing…after all, a first-person story told by an actor would dwell on surfaces and details!...the same with the ceremonies, the hurly-burly of Malacian life, the small and immediate circle of roving player Perian de Chirolo’s eyesight. It also establishes reasons for Author Aldiss to make snide remarks like the director of the story being told in the new photographic process “moving us about like chairs” and Armida, his love-light, being snappish with his faithless self so he observes, “We bit our tongues—being unable to bite each other’s…”. That’s the fourth star right there.

Then the lumpen-ness endemic to Aldiss's expository writing obtrudes.
”Beware of all things fair, my son, whether a girl or a friend. What looks to be fair may be foul under the surface. The Devil needs his traps. You should regard also you own behaviour, lest it seem fair to you but is really an excuse for foulness.” And so on.

That last is Perian making it plain Author Aldiss knows he’s moralizing and in a tiresome way…a suitable ironic distancing from the fact that he means it. How can I say that with such certainty? Because this is merely the first iteration of the same “shiny surfaces do not cover great depths” message. The second, more beefily stodgy, is the plot of the play that Perian and his Armida are part of in this new mercurization zahnoscope technology: It is literally, beat for beat, the plot of the book we’re reading. You’d have to be insentient not to Get It.

Therein the lack of that fifth star. While I agree with the reviews of the time that this is a good entertaining story, I don’t think…and didn’t then, because of my lack of memory of anything except the broadest strokes of it…that this is a Great Work, a Classic of the Field.

Good read, though.