Best of 2015 list.
For my end of the year list I usually try to include the most memorable books for me, so if I cannot remember the book without looking through my reviews it does not make the list.
1. Astrid Amara “Song of the navigator’
I was in love with this book since the moment I bought it and inhaled it. I enjoyed this writer’s work before but as I said in my review her artistic choices do not always work for me and I have not had much luck with betrayal/slavery stories where betrayed guy forgives the one who did the betrayal. More often than not I do not find them convincing. Not so here – Cruz and Tover stayed with me long after I read the book and I still remember them vividly.
2. M. Keedwell “Dark economy”
And to think that but for my friend’s recommendation I could have missed this one. I have not read too many memorable historical romances in the last year and considering that historicals are one of my favorite subgenres, I consider this to be an unfortunate occasion. This is a historical mystery and some reviewers found that romance was secondary storyline, but to me there was so much unresolved tension between protagonists that I was extremely happy with the romance in this book. We have excellent antagonistic chemistry between the men which is based on real conflict. Cadell is a medical student who is robbing graves because he genuinely wants to become a better surgeon and to help people and he does not have enough bodies to practice on and Blaine knows that robbing graves is still illegal and he wants to catch Cadell because he is sure that Cadell is guilty. The main storyline of the book is Cadell investigating a murder because he becomes suspicious about what happened to one of the men whose body he was going to dissect and he decides to go and get justice for the deceased. I enjoyed this one a lot. Review Here
3. Charmed and Dangerous anthology.
I thought this was a very strong offering – I think I enjoyed six or seven stories in this anthology, but the reason it made my list was mostly because of once again Astrid Amara and Ginn Hale. Here is what I said in my review about their stories.
Ginn Hale – Swift and the Black Dog
When Jack Swift killed a tyrant and won the revolution he became a national hero. But someone in the new government prefers dead heroes to living, swearing, cynical wizards. Caught between bullets, revenge and desire, Jack had better be swift indeed.
From my review:
I think for me this story was the darkest and the best in the anthology. It is no secret that I love Ginn Hale’s work, but for me past performance is no guarantee of the future success even with my favorite writers, so I definitely did not approach this story as a guaranteed win. This novella explored the themes of what consequences winning the revolution can often be for its participants and for the society.
Astrid Amara – The Trouble With Hexes
P.I. Tim Keller has a problem. And the only person who can solve it is his ex-boyfriend, Vincent, whose job as a hexbreaker was the reason they broke up. It’s hard admitting he was wrong, especially when coughing up organs. But there’s a missing person to find, a hexmaker to hunt down, and a romance to repair before Tim breathes his last.
This was one of the most romantic stories in the anthology for me. Although it is a standalone novella, this story made me feel as if I had known Tim and Vincent for a long time. In a world where characters in m/m books often forget that they have jobs and professional responsibilities, it was so refreshing to read about two men who, despite being deeply in love with each other, broke up because Tim could not handle the demands Vincent’s job put on him and his health. Of course I could see why Vincent, who is essentially a magical healer, would not stop helping sick and often dying people to get rid of hexes, but I also get how Tim just could not deal with what Vincent’s job demanded from him. There is nothing better to make you believe in the realities of magical healing than to see the consequences of a deadly hex on yourself. When Tim comes to see Vincent again, he is very ill and if they do not act fast he might die pretty soon. I could feel the love and regret between these two. And neither of them wanted to get his heart broken again, but love was still there and of course it ends well. I anticipate rereading this story more than once.
Full review of the anthology could be found here.
4. Joanna Chambers “Unnatural”
I thought this book was lovely. As the blurb states, this story is about Captain Ian Sinclair, who briefly appeared in “Enlightened” as Murdo’s friend.
I loved this book despite the fact that for most of the story not really much happened in the present storyline, but the author made me care about these guys so very much that I just was so eager to figure out what is stopping them from being together and how they could overcome it.
5. Magic Shifts (Kate Daniels #8) – Ilona Andrews.
At the end of the previous book in what I can probably call my favorite urban fantasy series the writers send the main characters Kate and Curran in the new direction. Curran resigned from the position of Beast Lord of Atlanta and they went to live quiet suburban life. If anybody can imagine Kate and Curran’ life ever being quiet that is ?. I think of this book as relative quiet before the push to the last confrontation with the series Big Bad (if he is still the Big Bad, because I am honestly not sure anymore).
6. “Affiliations, Aliens and Other Profitable Pursuits” by Lyn Gala.
I reviewed the first two books here and I loved the conclusion as well, however I hope that this is the last book in the series. I loved it, I just do not feel there is much left to explore in the characters and the plot – in fact plot wise not much really happens in this one already.
Review to come.
Dan Lewinski would follow his subject Connor Katz to the ends of the earth. It’s what he’s paid to do. Apparently this also includes following his subject Connor Katz as they plummet to earth, because their plane is going down. And Dan likes living so that’s a problem.
It’s also a problem because he knows there’s a secret behind Connor Katz’s past, a reason the man’s sister is paying beaucoup bucks to have him followed, a reason Connor appears so quiet on the outside, yet seems lit like a fire from within. Dan needs to know Connor’s secret.
But if they survive the crash, how on earth can Dan get to know the mysteries of a man he’s been in love with from afar without admitting he’s a private eye who’s watched his every move?
Dear Astrid Amara, every time I hear that you are about to release a new story, well, let’s just say I want for that story to fall in my lap that very second. Unfortunately this one ended up being a mixed bag for me. I was prepared for the guys to experience a fast attraction because the story was a novella, and I knew that you would do your very best to make that believable for me. I was prepared for the fact that the story would feature just the beginning of a relationship because you had mentioned that you were writing this story in two parts. Apparently we will meet Dan and Connor again in your yearly Hanukkah offering. And I am usually okay with a well written story which shows only the beginning of the relationship even if there is no sequel. I did not have a problem with any of this.
However, I had some problems with the story structure, and more importantly I hate the “oh, let me fail to say something, which makes the other guy misinterpret what I did say based on that incomplete information” plot device. You decided to use it and that’s your artistic choice, but boy did it not work for me.
But let’s start from the beginning. Actually, the beginning started not to work for me right after the first couple of paragraphs. Dan and Connor are on a plane which is going down pretty fast and it is obvious it will crash. I thank the higher powers that I do not know what a person who knows they are likely to die in the next few moments may be thinking, but I cannot buy that in those few moments they would decide to tell us the whole setup for the story. Why Dan Lewinski the PI decided to accept the assignment of shadowing Connor Katz, making sure he was not exhibiting a “pattern of unhealthy behavior,” (paraphrase) and let Connor’s estranged sister know if there were any problems. I get that the writer needed to provide this information to the reader, and because the story is about surviving the crash, giving the back story later may have felt like an even worse info-dump. However, the way it was done just did not work for me, because it made the urgency of those last moments disappear. It started well:
Rhino horn in the eye.
Dan Lewinski had fantasies of his preferred method of death. If forced to shed this mortal coil, he wanted to exuviate in fanfare and aplomb.
Dying in a fiery inferno falling from ten thousand feet had some panache, granted. It was way cooler than, say, embolism or choking on a pretzel.
But dying in a plane crash took a lot of time. Time when a man like Dan would think things like I didn’t pay that utility bill, and I never made amends with my father, and Wait, I am thirty years old and still single. I don’t actually want to die right this moment”
Apparently getting ready to die in a plane crash took *so much* time that Dan has time to share all of this and more with the readers:
“He’d never officially met Connor, of course. A year ago, Dan and his business partner, Frankie Fisher, had been hired by Connor’s estranged older sister to keep tabs on Connor and alert her if he engaged in any suspicious or dangerous behavior.
Clarity as to what constituted suspicious was never provided by Sheila Cole-Bergman. She remained downright sketchy about the whole assignment.”
Once the back story was completed, the narrative became very engaging, I rooted for Connor and Dan when they were trying to find a way to survive the Alaskan wilderness and I did not have to stretch my disbelief too far when some help for them came along the way.
I found both guys to be very likeable and sympathetic. I liked how the story tried to help me deal with their fast attraction in ways other than just evoking “dangerous circumstances – heightened feelings and awareness of each other”.
What I did not like was the way the conflict in this story was presented. Basically Dan is worried that when Connor learns that Dan had been watching his every move for a while, Connor would not want anything to do with him. Dan knows he has to tell the truth and fast.
“If he was ever to be Connor’s friend, Dan had to stop lying. But how could he contemplate such a revelation now, when there was only the two of them against the miserable wilderness and their lives were in great peril? Surely lies would be all right until they were in danger.”
Alas, he decides not to. Why? I was not sure. The excuse of being in shock and not thinking clearly after the crash worked for a while. After all, they were hurt after the accident and I could forgive Dan for not thinking very clearly.
The best (by which I mean the worst) example of miscommunication came after Connor knew that Dan was hired to watch him. Connor was worried that the people he had been running from for years had hired him. The secret which was mentioned in the blurb really did mean that Connor’s physical safety was a huge issue even at that point in his life. Then, when Connor asks Dan, *point blank* who hired him, Dan basically says he cannot answer because he needs to protect his client. At this point I was doing all the head-desk movements. Of course Connor misinterprets Dan’s answer and believes that the people who are a threat to him hired Dan, and of course that causes Connor to separate himself from Dan and put himself in even more danger. Picture a very irritated Sirius at that point in the story, which comes close to the end.
Still, I liked the guys so much, and I loved Dan’s begging for forgiveness. It was very sweet.
Because the characters were so sympathetic, I cannot grade it lower than C.
Worst Possible Birthday: Being sold into slavery by none other than your lover.
Tover Duke’s rare ability to move anything instantly across light-years of space makes him a powerful, valuable asset to the Harmony Corporation, and a rock star among the people of the colonies. His life is luxurious. Safe. Routine.
He has his pick of casual hookups passing through Dadelus-Kaku Station. His one brush with danger of any kind—the only bright spot in his otherwise boring life—is Cruz Arcadio, a dark-haired, hard-bodied engineer whose physical prowess hints he’s something much more.
When a terrorist abducts Tover, hurling him into a world of torture, exploitation and betrayal, it’s with shattering disbelief that he realizes his kidnapper is none other than Cruz. As Tover struggles to find the courage to escape his bondage, he begins to understand the only way to free his body, his mind—and his heart—is to trust the one man who showed him that everything about his once-perfect life was a lie.
Warning: This story contains descriptions of extreme violence and assault. It also contains graphic sexual depictions. It also has a lot of birds. And pirate movies from the future. And romance.
Dear Astrid Amara,
I think you are a great writer, but your artistic choices do not always work for me. So when I saw the book being available for preorder on Amazon I was excited, but also worried – *very worried*. The blurb gives the main reason for my worrying. If one romantic lead in the book does something terrible to another character and the writer tries to justify it to me as “the reasons are good and noble and they will save mankind, so the other character should just learn the reasons and suck it up,” then I, to quote my fellow reviewer Kaetrin, tend to “get stabby”. I can get very stabby and bloodthirsty on behalf of the wronged character. The blurb describes a set-up which sounds suspiciously close to what usually invokes a strong negative reaction from me.
Of course I preordered the book anyway, because I love your writing. And then Ami at Booklikes gave your book a glowing review and after interrogating her about some spoilers I decided that I need to read them all and now. When I saw that the paperback was already available, I had no patience to wait till May 26 and bought it too. This review is based on the paperback copy.
Tover is a navigator; he moves people and cargo across time and space. His skills are so rare and so valuable that we are lead to believe there are only 3000 navigators across the whole Universe. Later we learn that there are only *forty two* navigators in the whole universe who are as sensitive to the vibrations that help them do their work as Tover is. He has luxury accommodations, a good salary, and everything is the best available, all from his employer, the “Harmony” corporation. As the blurb tells you, his life is a safe routine until his casual lover Cruz Arcadio kidnaps him one day and sells him to the pirates.
As much as I do not want to tell you spoilers, I have to share that Tover is physically abused at the hands of the pirates – chapters two through four are hard to read. There are graphic descriptions of physical violence, although there is no sexual violence, not at all. I also have to share that Cruz had reasons and he saves Tover from the pirates a month later, taking him to his home planet to recuperate.
I was so pleased with how the whole situation was handled. I was so happy that I did not have to look at the page and wonder why the guy who was betrayed so horribly by his lover suddenly forgot all that and everything is good because they are having amazing sex. Tover is angry, he is allowed to be angry and he is allowed to express his rage, as often as he wants to. In fact I was kind of amused that Tover did exactly what I imagined doing to Cruz after I have read the blurb.
“Rage roared through Tover. He grabbed the holoscreen between his legs and hurled it at Cruz’s head . It missed. Cruz said nothing.
Tover reached up and grabbed the first thing he found on the shelf above the bed, a basket, and flung it at him. Cruz ducked but the basket clipped him on the side of the head. Cruz frowned but he didn’t get up.
Fury and heartbreak coalesced into something irrational, and Tover started grabbing everything he could reach and hurled things at Cruz’s face. Cruz sat there, expressionless, dodging junk that crashed against the wall, against his chest and arms, the noise filling the darkening house.
Tover’s heart raced. An entire life had been born, aged and died since Tover was last alone with Cruz, and as Tover tossed items at Cruz’s head, the culmination of over a month of murderous rage filled him.
Tover picked up a gray-colored vase full of dried flowers and pulled his arm back to toss it. Cruz instantly animated, leaping out of his chair with his hand out, eyes wide.
“No! Don’t break that, my mother will kill me!”
It was also really important to me that Cruz did not leave Tover at the pirates’ hands to be abused. Yes, it was his fault, but because navigators are so valuable and precious he did not think that they would do anything to Tover except make him work as a navigator. But I really liked how Cruz, while wanting to explain his reasons to Tover, did not try to justify anything that happened to his lover and fully accepted the blame.
“Fuck you.” Tover shook his head. “Why help me now, after everything?”
Cruz did not answer for a long time, and when he did, he spoke quietly, his eyes a little glassy. “Because you are a rare, beautiful flower. And I crushed you under my boot”.
Now while I thought this was well said, be rest assured that Tover is no damsel in distress and he bears the hard circumstances which life threw at him with as much dignity and strength as he can master. Certainly he leads a privileged life because his talents are so rare, and he has to learn and change his perceptions about a lot of things, but he shows the ability to critically look at those things, even if they are not easy for him to accept right away. The worst blow to him was Cruz’ betrayal, because of course both men grew more than casually attached to each other during the beginning of their affair, before Cruz kidnapped him. I really liked the guy and wanted the very best for him. I liked Cruz too, I certainly did not expect being able to forgive him – and not because I thought his reasons were not good and noble. If I did not think his remorse was genuine, I could care less about his reasons – the history of the country I was born in taught me all too well where the revolutionaries with the best intentions usually end up on human rights; therefore, I only buy “saving the world” reasons when one tries to not drag people in the “happy future” against their wills. Cruz certainly tried hard not to do that and I appreciated that, because of course his world needed saving (reasons!) and I was glad that Tover learned to see that too.
These two were just so good together, I cherished every interaction between them – angry, happy, not so happy, them learning more about each other. I liked them and I ended up so happy and satisfied at the end.
The world building was wonderful – no information dumping at the beginning, everything was seen through the action, things were constantly happening and through that the reader learns more and more about the world. There were dark things happening but there was also this:
“Towards the bottom of the valley, Tover found hundreds of nests. Although they were predominantly on rocky outcroppings, several birds had theirs on the sloping ground, which suggested to Tover that they had few natural predators.
The birds watched as he approached but didn’t take flight, so he moved slowly and sat down on nearby rock, going very still. He paused a few feet from the nearest nest. He could see the birds up close now, and they were tremendous. They clearly got their name from their ridiculous beaks. Long and curved down at the peak, the beaks were a shocking pink in color. A knobby, yellowish protrusion between the eyes took up almost the same length as the beak. The birds’ feathers were bright, ruby red.”
Tover loved birds. How can you not like a character who can watch birds for hours?
There are some wonderful female characters in this book too, which I always like. In fact I liked everything about this book – a lot.
Captain Elliott Parrish of Her Majesty’s 17th Lancers cavalry division finds most details about his assignment in the Crimean peninsula insufferable. Rampant cholera, missing supplies, and inept planning start the British war effort against the Russian Czar’s expansion into Turkish territory on poor footing. What should have been a swift and decisive summer victory soon drags into a harrowing winter campaign, and Elliott must rally disheartened men through sickness, battle, and starvation. But when he is assigned the additional task of spying on a fellow officer, the inscrutable Cornet Ilyas Kovakin, he finds himself disconcerted and fascinated by both the work and the man. Rumors surround Ilyas Kovakin, the half-Russian officer who reports to none in his division. People say they’ve seen snakes slithering into his tent at night, that he has another face visible only in certain light, and a penchant for violent acts carried out in darkness, alone. But the truth that Elliot soon discovers is much more dangerous then mere superstition. For Ilyas, his return to Crimea is colored with the horrors of his past. Once a mercenary, he has made a terrible mistake and inherited horrifying powers that he can barely control. He feels his hold over his humanity slipping away daily, and fears that salvation may already lay beyond him when the cheerful Captain Parrish catches his attention. Among men who hate him and superiors who covet his brutal power, Ilyas finds the young captain’s charming company almost irresistible. But Ilyas knows that the closer he is drawn to Elliot the more he will endanger them both.
Dear Astrid Amara,
Sirius: You are one of the few m/m writers whose books I will buy based on your name on the cover alone, but when I heard that the topic of your next book would be the Crimean War, I could not wait to get my hands on the ARC. I studied the Crimean war in high school, or I guess I should say I studied the Russian side of it for the most part, and I suppose because the war took place in the 19th century, Soviet historians felt it was okay to criticize the tsar as well, not just his adversaries. Basically the recollection I had from high school was that this war left its mark in history as one of the most incompetent wars ever – on all sides. The fictional book about the Crimean War which I remember the most was Leo Tolstoy’s “The Sebastopol Sketches”.
I thought your historical research was superb and the war scenes came alive on the pages – I do not mean just the battles scenes. I mean soldiers and officers dying from diseases, not just on the battlefield, and high commanders of English army being so mind bogglingly stupid and incompetent that I should have been surprised, but I really was not. If your story was purely a Crimean war historical, I would have easily given it an A. I appreciated the note at the end explaining what parts of the settings you took some small liberties with and I especially appreciated the bibliography, which I am going to peruse to see if I can find some of these books.
Kaetrin: I knew little about the Crimean War prior to reading the book but was keen to read a story in a different setting and to learn more about it. I had the sense that the detail about the war and the conditions of the winter of 1854 were accurate. I did end up looking some things up because I was confused by some of the descriptions of decisions made/not made by the officers in charge. I could understand why Elliott might not have known the answers to some of the questions he had – I’m talking here, for example, about Elliott’s complaints to superior officers about why the Lancers weren’t used to harry the retreating enemy (which was their main strength) but instead were held back in some of the early battle scenes. When I looked it up, the prevailing view seems to be that Lord Cardigan had no battle experience and therefore was a poor strategist. And it was those little finishing off bits which were missing in the book for me. I felt like I’d been told most of the story but that it hadn’t been quite completed and I found it frustrating.
Sometimes I looked things up because I felt I was missing something. Other times I looked things up because my interest was piqued. For example, I ended up doing some reading about the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade. The description of the battle itself was very good and it made me want to orient myself to its wider context.
I found myself outraged that Lord Cardigan ordered the men under him not to wear their cloaks because it made them look ‘effeminate’ but then he went off to his warm yacht with his personal chef and all the comforts of home. The men he was leading (poorly) were starving and freezing and they weren’t even allowed to light a fire. The deprivations these men endured and their absolute loyalty to their sworn duty really spoke to me. And this adherence to duty was never more clear when they were ordered to charge the enemy’s guns when they were surrounded on three sides by heavy artillery. It was, literally, a suicide mission. So many died because of stupid decisions.
Sirius: Actually I knew little about anybody’s side of things other than Russian in that war, you know? My main recollection was that there was just so much incompetence from everybody. And even such an apparently famous event as the Charge of Light Brigade was a complete blank for me – it may have been briefly mentioned in my text books, but if it was, I did not remember it at all and also ended up looking it up. As I mentioned above, I am really going to try to read some of the books listed at the end of this novel, but what intrigued me was that Elliott was inspired by William Morris of the Light Brigade. I ended up getting a book, “Pocket Hercules,” by M.J. Trow – which I thought was pretty much a biography of William Morris, and which covered his participation in Crimean War. I am not sure anything was missing for me in the novel in terms of the depiction of Lord Cardigan or Lord Raglan. The author says at the end in the author’s note that she took some liberties with their personalities, but the decisions that they made and that are shown in the book were enough for me to call them all kinds of bad strategists and other things in my mind. M.J. Trow states that Cardigan was involved in many scandals, and in this book his constant quarrels with another commander when he should have been concentrated on the welfare of his soldiers and officers and on actual war were quite damning for me.
Kaetrin: I knew a little bit about the Charge of the Light Brigade and a very little about the Crimea because a long time ago I read a historical romance by Emma Drummond which covered that period. Of course, the Crimea has been in the news more recently as well.
Sirius: The book is not just a historical though, it has a very significant paranormal storyline and a romantic storyline – all three are connected of course, but the paranormal aspect of the story is the one I had some issues with.
As the blurb tells you, when we meet Elliott Parrish and Ilyas Kovakin, they are going to Crimea as part of the British troops, and these troops are not in the best shape. The blurb describes very well the rumors that are going around about Ilyas’ strange behavior and his abilities. Elliott is instantly intrigued by Ilyas and because he wants to determine whether Ilyas is a Russian spy or not, he takes it upon himself to spy on him, and at some point his spying is even sanctioned by his superiors.
I was intrigued by both Ilyas and Elliott and could not wait to see where the story would take me. Alas for some reason the narrative decides to take this intrigue away from me *very* early in the story. Basically the reason for Ilyas’ strange behavior and his abilities is revealed extremely early. Despite the early reveal I am going to put it under spoiler cut just to be on the safe side.
The following is from the second chapter in the story, 4% on my Kindle:
Kaetrin: Oh, that’s interesting Sirius because I had almost the opposite reaction to you. For various reasons I found this book hard to get into. I felt disoriented for a lot of the story and just when I was beginning to understand and feel “at home”, the narrative would shift – days, weeks, sometimes months ahead, and the disorientation began all over again. In relation to the paranormal aspects of the story, it was nearly halfway into the book before the full context of it is given and that was too late for me. That was important information which I wanted. Instead I was floundering a lot of the time.
Sirius: So what was revealed early in the story, what I describe in the spoiler cut, was not enough for you to feel that suspense of the paranormal storyline was lost?
Kaetrin: No – I felt there wasn’t enough information given to me early on. I was confused and groping for context until about halfway into the story.
Sirius: Of course I was not completely bored with the book. I thought it was very well done, especially how Elliott’s obsession with Ilyas in a way mirrored (only metaphorically – obviously Elliott did not wish anything evil upon him) what was happening with Ilyas.
He loved a good mystery, and the cornet was exceeding all of his expectations. Kovakin looked impatient as he waited. He didn’t pace; he remained immobile, despite the dampness of this evening.
Elliott glanced over to see how Henry fared, and noticed his friend lying on the wet forest ground, resting his head on his arm, his eyes closed.
“You all right?” Elliott whispered.
Henry cracked an eye. “Taking a nap. Wake me when he commits treason.”
Kaetrin: I did find myself bored. When I think back to individual sections of the story, I can point to parts that I enjoyed but it didn’t feel cohesive to me. It felt choppy and disjointed. I actually took two tries to read it. Both times, the story just didn’t grab hold of me. The second time, I powered through because I had promised Sirius I’d review it with her, but otherwise I think I’d have given up. Not because it’s bad – it’s not. I just found myself confused and frustrated at lot of the time and when I wasn’t, I was waiting for some action. Much of the battle descriptions are very dry – in the manner of a report rather than a story (if that makes sense). A lot of the time, Elliott wasn’t directly involved, so I didn’t feel the immediacy of the action or that there was anything at stake (in terms of the personal story of Elliott and Ilyas). And, as I said above, these battle descriptions/decisions often had an element which felt incomplete to me.
In some ways, I felt the paranormal aspects were tacked on because most often the story with Ilyas and his brothers were quite separate from the rest of the narrative. However, in other places I thought they were seamlessly integrated into the story. For example, the great storm (which actually happened) was given a paranormal origin. That’s contrary, I know, but that’s how I felt.
Sirius: For me it was completely believable that at the time of war and death they would think first about war and second about their mutual attraction, so it made sense to me that in the first half of the book they may have thought a lot about each other but did not interact much except when forced to by their duties (whatever they both understood their duties to be). I also liked how when their relationship received some further developments, it just happened. Again, it just made sense to me because of the war.
Kaetrin: I liked the slow build of the romance but I think I missed the part where they talked and became friends and it developed into more. To me, it seemed more like a physical attraction and a shared quest (to vanquish the paranormal villains). The first time they were intimate it felt like convenience because they were both gay rather than a serious “I choose you because I like you”. By the end, I did think they had a lasting bond but I would have liked more of that shown, instead of told, in the main story.
Sirius: When the paranormal aspect actually became more action-oriented, I really liked it – now it did not matter to me that I knew what Illyas was fighting against, now I was just cheering for him and hoping he would win. Of course I liked that he had Elliott on his side as somebody who would want to help him and who clearly grew to love him. And I was very pleased with the happy ending for both of them.
Kaetrin: Yes, I felt the way in which the men get their HEA, given the time period, made sense. Although, I will say that I’d have thought Elliott would have grieved some things more than he did *she says mysteriously*.
Sirius: As an aside, the blurb states that Ilyas is half-Russian, and there are also several secondary Russian characters appearing in the book, so you will see a few Russian expressions used. I thought it was done almost perfectly – Russian expressions are used sparingly, they are translated right away, very well and very correctly. I do not know how fluent the writer is in Russian, but she clearly has a working knowledge of the language. But there was a certain choice (and it is clearly a choice, not a mistake, because every other use of the language was so awesome) which frustrated me so very much as someone for whom Russian is a first language. Every time I have read “Ilyas” I cringed. I do not understand the need to add the “S” to his first name, I really do not. Is it to show that he is only half-Russian? But even his horse is correctly called “Valentin” NOT Valentine, thank you author. His half-brother calls him “Illyushka” at some point in the book, which is one of the derivative names from Illya. I respect that the writer chooses whatever works best for the story, but this choice did not work for me at all.
Kaetrin: As a non-Russian speaker, I didn’t pick any issues with the names. I agree the Russian expressions were used well.
There were some little niggles I picked up in the book, like here:
In the gloom, he spotted few members of his regiment, and no commanding officer. He couldn’t spot Lord Cardigan anywhere.
where I felt the wording was a little… awkward – although I may have only noticed such things because I wasn’t as engaged as I wanted to be.
Also, I didn’t believe Elliott would have referred to Ilyas as having a “sweet ass” – British people don’t say “ass”, they say “arse”.
I know they are very different books, but, for me, The Devil Lancer didn’t have the same engaging charm as Carol of the Bellskis did and the writing style felt very different (much drier). I liked learning more about the Crimean War and I wanted to like this book more than I did. There were parts of the story where I felt connected and engaged (I really liked Elliott’s relationship with his friend Henry, for example) but then there would be a “dry spell” where I lost interest again. It just didn’t grab me, so for the grade, I’m going with a C.
Sirius & Kaetrin
The last few years I’ve done these year end lists, I’ve come up short of 10. I’ve realized either I’m not reading the right books for me, I’m too picky a reader or I’m totally out of touch with what’s popular right now. So when my list kept growing all year long, I began to think – “OMG, I just might make the max this year!”
Well, not only did I make the max, I exceeded it – whoopee! In ecstatic acknowledgement of that I’ve decided to go over the limit of 10. Yes, yes I will. In order by grade and not much else –
Back Across the River Styx by Karalynn Lee – This one is so good I read it twice just to be sure that I wasn’t hallucinating about how good it is. When I finished it the second time, I was still as enchanted with it. Since I have more books on hand – print and ebooks – than I will probably ever be able to finish, the fact that I spent time rereading says a lot to me. Greek mythology is perfectly blended with romance. The story arc is complete and satisfactory. The use of historical fact is imaginative and ingenious. I’m running out of adjectives for how good this novella is.
The Story Guy by Mary Ann Rivers – This one came in for its fair share of criticism but it drew me in from the start and didn’t let go. It’s beautifully written, emotionally engaging and about people who seemed real to me rather than hangers on which to drape an improbable plot. It made me smile as well as cry. It’s also made 2 other DA reviewers’ end of the year lists. ‘Nuff said.
Starting from Scratch by Stacy Gail – I usually hate amnesia plots, am tired of small town stories and kitsch so for this one to be one of my favorites for 2013 amazed me. Yes, it’s a little heavy on explanations of military life but these go to show what came between the hero and heroine and how much they have to overcome for their HEA. This also backs up the angst, giving it depth instead of leaving it to feel like a shallow check off list of faux emotions to me. I also enjoyed the relationship between the heroine and her best friend from childhood. I’ll be looking for his story.
Geek with the Cat Tattoo by Theresa Weir – A cat as a narrator? Absolutely and it’s not a shifter story either. The second in this series of three cat siblings finding their forever owner or helping their forever owner find a HEA I loved this one even more than the first from last year. The hero’s shyness and the heroine’s self doubts are perfectly captured. Sam the cat is a wonderful matchmaker and if this one doesn’t make you want to donate to an animal shelter, you have a heart of stone.
Love Irresistibly by Julie James – This is a wonderful relationship story between two well drawn, believable characters who have full lives, friends, believable backstories and can speak lawyer to each other. The conflicts are centered on them rather than an external villain and I felt that I got a multilayered view of them as people and why I should care about them and about them falling in love.
The Bridge by Rebecca Rogers Maher – I think this is probably the most unusual blurb for a book to be offered to Dear Author this year. Two people determined to end it all who try and give the other a reason to live is not a storyline I come across every day. Could this possibly be anything other than a downer to read? Indeed yes, it could be. It’s also an illuminating trip through what two people think makes the best of New York City. The story doesn’t pull punches and never sinks to “feel good” attempts to diminish the real pain the characters have endured and still feel. The ending is hopeful and HFN but I appreciate the fact that it’s real and honest.
Sweet and Sour by Astrid Amara – I read a lot of holiday themed novellas this year as well as more lgbt stories and this one is good enough to make the “best of” cut. It’s as much the ending of an old relationship as the beginning of a new one which takes a bit of finesse, IMO. It’s also a Hanukkah story and while I can understand that this isn’t considered a major Jewish holiday, it’s still nice to get a holiday story other than one about Christmas.
The Tilted World by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fenelly – Can an artiste of illegal whiskey and a revenue agent determined to uncover her identity and shut her down find their chance at love in rural Mississippi in 1927? Read this book and you will believe in their slow, gentle romance even as the raging, flooded Mississippi River threatens the town with total destruction. It’s not only a love story but a trip back in time I enjoyed making.
Rhythm and Bluegrass by Molly Harper – This is the second book in the series and I enjoyed it just as much as the first. It’s funny and yet a view of the struggle that many small and not-so-small US towns are faced with in an effort to modernize and survive in today’s global economy. I liked that the conflicts are real, the people are adult about how they deal with them and the hero and heroine have time to let their attraction sizzle a bit before jumping into bed. Nothing felt phony or made up – despite the town name.
Longbourn by Jo Baker – What, me read a book set in the world of Jane Austen? At the beginning of the year I would have laughed to think I would but here it is in my top reads of the year. The view of life from below stairs at Longbourn is what drew me in but the descriptions and depictions of the servants as they go about their lives while the major events of “Pride and Prejudice” go on above stairs is what kept me reading. The story, though, isn’t all about how the servants view the Bennett sisters finding love. Instead there is a romance for one of their own that seemed realistic to me. I not only want to believe in their HEA, I do believe it.
Knowing the Score by Kat Latham – This one tackled me like a rugby player – in a good way. And by the time I finished it I knew a lot more about the sport than I had. It’s funny, has great dialog and uses UK/US slang brilliantly. The hero should be bottled and sold by the gross. He wins his heroine by being nice to her as well as admiring her work ethic instead of being a prick. The heroine’s virginity might put off readers but it’s made to seem reasonable for her given her past. By the end of the story, I felt that both of them had totally opened themselves to the other and were all set for their HEA.
The Passion of the Purple Plumeria by Lauren Willig – I rejoiced to see this book about an older heroine and older hero finding their HEA. I love that the heroine is shown as competent and intelligent. Also that her hero sees and admires this in her. The modern day parts of the story worked just as well for me which hasn’t always been the case in this series. It’s still going strong and I’m still anticipating the next one, which says volumes.
Carolina Girl by Virginia Kantra – Books about small town life often put me off by making the small town into a paean of wonderful. That’s not the case here as both the heroine and hero return to the small Carolina coastal town they couldn’t wait to leave. It’s also has a great family relationship arc that is being carried through the whole series. Though I think readers could start with this one if they wish. Both the hero and heroine mature, make concessions and help each other each with their individual goals as well as their relationship one.
Her Hesitant Heart by Carla Kelly – I love me a Carla Kelly historical and if it’s a western, that’s the cherry on top. This book might seem like just so much same-old, using standard Kelly tropes, with standard Kelly wry humor to tell the story of two deserving people triumphing over those who want to shame them and/or put them down for acting like honorable adults instead of asshats but, damn it, that’s what I love about her books.
Must Like Kids by Jackie Braun – This isn’t the usual saccharine, baby filled Harlequin offering. I know that sounds like a backhanded compliment but overabundance of secret babies and surprise pregnancies of this publisher leaves it wide open for such statements. Given the number of embarrassing tweets, live mic fuckups and other ways public people have dug themselves into holes this year, the set-up is inspired. I enjoyed watching a heroine who is good at her job and a hero willing to gracefully accept her expertise. The children of the story are realistic instead of being plot moppets. The relationship is allowed time to develop and the characterization remains consistent. Too bad about the cover.
Miles thought he and Itai would make a great team, despite the infidelities haunting their past. After all, Itai is smoking hot, they’re both driven entrepreneurs, and they love each other. What else did a person need? Well, a lot more, apparently, because not only are they no longer passionate, they don’t even share the same passions. Like people, affections change, but Miles wonders if a relationship this broken is truly worth repairing.
Itai’s business launch with his ex-boyfriend isn’t helping. And Miles himself has a new business to grow over a busy few weeks where Thanksgiving and Hanukkah collide to form either the best holiday season ever, or a kosher caterer’s worst nightmare. But help comes in the unexpected, ruggedly handsome form of Detective Dominic Delbene, a pickle aficionado with his own ghosts, who stakes out the deli to capture a dangerous drug dealer.
As Hanukkah’s eight days and Miles and Itai’s relationship comes to an end, Miles discovers that Nic is not only good with pickling; he’s good at everything.
Dear Ms. Amara,
At this time of the year we’re inundated with holiday stories but for the most part, those stories are about Christmas. When I see a submission for Hanukkah, I perk up and take notice. Since this is a 40,552 word count novella, I figured I had nothing to lose by giving it a shot. I’m glad I did.
Miles runs a kosher vegetarian deli, Itai is a computer wonk while Nic is a cop. Little details of their jobs and careers – much more so in the case of Miles – are a major part of the story. I love this since I believe if you’re going to give a character an interesting job, make it count and be part of the whole. There’s enough description about the scrumptious sounding food Miles serves up to have made me hungry almost the whole time I was reading this! But it’s not just the finished products here – we see Miles prepping, planning, buying, experimenting, catering … in other words doing what a working deli owner would do.
Since the story is mainly told from Miles’s POV and he know – and cares – little about computers, it makes sense that the details there would be sketchy but I appreciate the fact that Itai isn’t just a cardboard cutout computer guy. His job also plays into the story as does Nic’s background. As the reason for him to be at the deli, we need to know what’s brought Nic into Miles’s orbit and as a draw between him and Miles, his childhood working in a deli is also important. Nic’s appreciation of Miles’s food is another nice touch. Miles cooking is his passion so for someone to notice, appreciate it and care about food means a lot to him. The fact that Nic knows his way around a commercial kitchen is the cherry on Miles’s cake – and damn sexy at the same time.
I also like that these men are real. Sometimes they’re happy, sometimes they’re sad, a few times one will be pouty or feeling slightly pissy and mad at the world. But they act appropriately for the situation and act realistically.
Since it’s a novella and tells the breakup of one relationship at the same time as the beginning of another, there’s a lot to pack into the word count. I find the telling believable since there have been rumblings in the old relationship and Miles and Nic have so much in common at the start of theirs. I liked the little details that highlighted how Miles and Itai have been and are drifting apart. There’s no sudden, volcanic break but rather a slow breakdown. Meanwhile, Nic knows how to flirt and be sexy around a guy he’s interested in and it’s like watching a parched plant soak up water to see Miles respond. Nic notices how Miles likes his coffee!
For readers who want it, there’s sex. Hot and raunchy sex, slow and by rote sex – another show of how the old relationship is fizzling – and then there’s the “wanton, senseless, graphic intercourse” that Miles and Nic both want but that Miles is too honorable to engage in before officially breaking up with Itai. Miles is a stand up guy and I don’t mean that in only a sexual manner. That tells me a lot about this character and makes me pull for the two of them. They’re both keepers.
The ending might be a little dramatic but is balanced by how Miles helps breakup the crime take down going on. And then we get the full-on, dirty sex that Miles has been craving. His Hanukkah gift to Nic is fantastic as is his way of announcing it. The final resolution of the deli tells me that these two are made for each other – after all, how many people would find the smell of vinegar to be a turn on? B+