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REVIEW:  Bone Rider by J. Fally

REVIEW: Bone Rider by J. Fally

Dear J. Fally:

This book is Example A for why I try never to make unilateral statements about what I will and won’t read. It is written in a highly cinematic style, it has an over the top storyline, it seems to be not just m/m but also m/m/m, one of the apparent romantic leads is a gangster, and it’s from a press that is notorious for releasing books that are in dire need of developmental editing. I saw rave reviews and was sure the book was Not For Me. But when I asked Sirius for her recommendations of the best m/m books of 2013, this was one of her first suggestions. I downloaded the sample and was absolutely hooked by the voice. I kept reading, worried that it would fall apart in the second half. It didn’t. I kept reading, worried about how it would work its way to an HFN. It did. By the time I reached the last page, I knew I’d found one of my best books of the year. Bone Rider by J. Fally

Bone Rider opens with a bang. The reader is immediately inside the head of System Six, a sentient armor being created by an alien civilization. System Six is not happy with the alien-human he’s been required to bond with, and out of fear that he’ll be removed and destroyed, he causes the ship they’re traveling on to crash land in the southwest US, where the survivors are immediately engaged in a firefight with the US military. System Six survives but has to find another host, and his first opportunity turns out to be Riley Cooper, a 30-something bartender on the run from a bad breakup. Riley just found out that the man of his dreams, Misha, is a Russian gangster, and if that isn’t bad enough, Misha isn’t just any gangster, he’s a hit man. And he’s not only an effective one, he doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to change careers.

There are three main story arcs in Bone Rider (the title refers to the bonding process between sentient armor and its host). The first is the relationship between System Six, who adopts the name McLane in a very funny sequence, and Riley. This arc progresses from involuntary bonding through suspicious getting-to-know-you to understanding, friendship, and something more. The second arc focuses on Misha’s attempt to track down Riley and try and reconcile with him; this involves sending another Russian mobster to find Riley, with the many complications that ensue once Misha decides to go to Riley instead of trying to get Kolya-the-mobster to drag Riley back to him. And the third is the US Military’s efforts to make sense of the alien landing and track down the one that survived.

It takes a while for these story lines to converge; for the first half of the book we see them separately and from multiple POVs. This means that readers have to be willing to read a lot of POVs without necessarily knowing exactly what is going on. Readers also have to be interested in reading a novel that is not just about a romantic relationship. Morever it’s a novel that spends a lot of time in the POVs of military characters.

The romance is complicated by the fact that while Riley is pretty clearly a romantic lead, we don’t know for certain who his ultimate partner is going to be. Is it Misha? Riley is definitely not going back to a relationship with a mob assassin, but he’s also still very much in love with him. Is it McLane? Riley and McLane’s relationship trajectory has a lot of the characteristics of a romance-genre arc, but it’s hard to believe Riley can move on from Misha that fast. Plus, McLane is not a separate entity. He can’t exist for long without a host, and a romance between a human and the sentient armor that lives inside him seems kind of hard to write a satisfying happy ending about. I had no idea what was going to happen next through most of the book. And I did not care. I was so swept up by the voice and the way the story was unfolding (and did I mention the voice?) that I was more than willing to go wherever the author had decided to take me.

It didn’t sound like a girl and it had definitely looked male in his dream, but Riley figured that didn’t mean much when it came to alien armor systems. The thing was probably asexual or transsexual or whatever. Or it could change its sex. Or it was going to lay eggs into Riley’s belly like some kind of spider so its young could devour him from the inside out and— A ripple of movement under his skin made him break out in goose bumps. Stop it, his passenger demanded, sounding thoroughly disgusted. That’s revolting! I’ll be checking you and me for eggs now, thanks. “Sorry,” Riley muttered, chagrined. So maybe he wasn’t entirely convinced of the alien’s good intentions. Could you blame him? It was an alien.

I am not a fan of books that read like screenplays, and yet I kept turning the pages, eagerly reading to see where this crazy plot was going to go. When a new character appeared (and it happens practically every chapter for a while), I just accepted him or her and figured that I would find out eventually why s/he was talking to me. And I did. Every time. When the story lines finally converge, it’s in a spectacular action sequence that is extremely well done. And these events occur only a little more than halfway through the book. At that point the Misha-Riley and McLane-Riley narratives stay together, while the military storyline eventually separates out again. I don’t want to say more for fear of spoilers, but while the second half wasn’t quite as gripping to me as the first, there wasn’t as much of a letdown as there can be in books of this type.

The romance between Riley and Misha (both the broken one and the one that Misha fights to resume once they are together again) is really, really good. I bought it completely despite the fact that I Do Not Like assassin heroes unless they are campy or fantasy characters in a fantasy setting. This is a fantasy setting, but Misha felt real. I think the reason his character worked for me was that the author never tried to make me like him and never minimized who he was. But she completely convinced me how much Misha loved Riley; he accepted the depths of his love even when he didn’t really understand it.

Riley had no reason to put his faith in a man who’d sneaked into his affections using lies and deception, and then had kept on lying until he’d gotten caught. A man who murdered people for a living. For someone with Riley’s background, this wasn’t a gray area. Misha was a liar and a killer. A very bad guy working for a very powerful crime syndicate and Riley had barged into the wrong room at the wrong time and become a witness. No, Misha couldn’t blame him for running. He understood why Riley had taken on overwhelming odds with an empty gun rather than call Misha. And yet, stupidly, it still hurt. Misha sighed and rubbed his face with both hands. He was a mess: tired, gritty, and headachy; hollowed-out with worry and apprehension. The movies always made love look so easy, differences and misunderstandings a minor glitch brushed off after a short, dramatic interlude that set the course for happily ever after. What a crock of shit.

And Riley conveyed the same attitude about his love for Misha. This is one of those can’t-live-without-each-other stories, which is about the only way I can swallow a character like Misha’s. Riley deserves better, but Riley isn’t going to be happy with better. I wasn’t sure how they would reconcile the assassin part, but they managed. It’s not entirely believable, but the fact that I’m saying that about a book that involves alien landings and sentient armor tells you how thoroughly I was invested in these characters. Riley is Everyday Guy as Hero, which is a difficult character to make really interesting, especially when everyone around him is so unusual, but the author manages it. He’s realistically aware of the type of person he is emotionally and he doesn’t lie to himself about his weaknesses. When he’s invaded by System Six, he deals with it, and watching them get to know each other is one of the major pleasures of the book.

System Six/McLane is a hoot. He is the quintessential stranger in a strange land, and he’s trying to adapt to the new circumstances he has found himself in. He slowly comes to grips with the fact that although he is designed as both protection and a killing machine, he can’t just go around killing everyone who endangers Riley, because Riley doesn’t like killing people directly or indirectly. When he adjusts, he’s so pleased with himself:

Forward and up—hello there, nausea!—and Riley didn’t know what was happening, but he hoped like hell McClane wasn’t about to slaughter an innocent bystander. Or throw up on them. They came to an abrupt stop then, perfectly balanced and ready to move. No upchucking was happening, and neither did there seem to be blood. Note how I’m not killing him, McClane declared proudly. Riley might’ve been more appreciative had he had any idea what was going on.

The military characters are a bit stock but we come to appreciate their perspectives. The scientist in charge of examining the alien remains is minority and female, and the author portrays her background without making her all about her race. The (male) general who leads the mission to capture McLane is someone to admire and respect, even when he screws up and jumps to conclusions. They’re quieter characters than our three heroes, but they grew on me, and I was pleased that the entire military wasn’t sacrificed in order for our heroes to get to their HEA. The Russian gangsters and the survivalists (yes, there are survivalists) are also well portrayed even when their roles are fairly brief. The book doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, which is no big surprise, but the three female characters are strong, competent, and interesting.

Oh yeah, the sex scenes. I almost forgot. There are several of them, and they run the gamut from not-sexy (on purpose) to hilarious to arousing. I frequently skip sex scenes, but I read all of these. They’re integral to the plot and they illuminate the characters, so if you skip them you miss important material. And they’re well written. I didn’t really buy the HEA, but I don’t see any other way the book could have ended, so I can’t really complain. Similarly, the big shootout scenes are not really believable, but they’re very well done and they are standard alien-movie fare.

If I listed all the components of this novel, they would sound familiar: alien landings, body invasions, Russian mobsters, military on the rampage, road romance, explosions and massive fight scenes. You’ve seen them all before. But you haven’t seen them in this combination, or told in this voice. We often say what we’ll believe depends on the execution, and that cliché has never been more apropos than in Bone Rider. I can’t wait to see what J. Fally does next. Grade: A-

~ Sunita

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REVIEW:  Geek with the Cat Tattoo by Theresa Weir

REVIEW: Geek with the Cat Tattoo by Theresa Weir

 

Shy music geek Emerson Foshay breaks into a cold sweat and is rendered speechless whenever Lola Brown, the girl of his dreams, steps into his guitar shop, but once a stray cat named Sam follows him home everything changes and Emerson becomes the coolest guy in town.

Setting: Minneapolis, Minnesota

Cast of main characters: Emerson Foshay, shy music geek

Lola Brown, Melody’s (Girl With the Cat Tattoo) sister

Sam the cat, Max’s (Girl With the Cat Tattoo) brother

Dear Ms. Weir,

Ever since Sunita – and a lot of other people – and I fell in love with Max the Cat, we’ve been waiting for the follow stories of his lost brother and sister. During Max’s run through the DABWAHA competition, I silently cheered the novella on and sighed about the fact that we probably wouldn’t get the next one until 2014. Then! imagine my happy face when a friend emailed me that “Geek with the Cat Tattoo” was coming out sooner, now in fact. My whoop made my own kitties give me the side-eyed, “back away from mom slowly because she’s obviously off her rocker” look. Yes, I talk to my cats and firmly believe they understand every word. I must ask, though, why Sam isn’t on this cover?

Geek with the cat tattooPoor Sam hasn’t had an easy time of it. On his third owner as the story opens, Sam knows the gig is up and that he’s about to be homeless again. But better tossed out the front door then driven out to the country and dumped with a bunch of feral, wild cats. Things look up – just slightly – when he comes across a drunken young man. It’s then that Sam decides that instead of letting a new owner claim him, he’s going to claim a new owner. Sam might deny his nurturing ways but something in the man brings them out and a tentative meow along with a gentle nudge causes the man to pick up Sam and take him home.

In a romance novel this would be considered the cute meet. I know all about romance novels thanks to Second Owner, who was addicted to them and read more than one a day. I learned a lot about romance from her. I miss Second Owner.

“Hello,” my new friend says, with wonder and surprise in his voice. He reeks of beer. I mean reeks like it’s coming out of his skin. But I can feel the kindness emanating from him too. This man/boy has a good heart. A smart cat knows these things.

He reaches for me. My initial reaction is to dodge his hand, but I force myself to accept his touch because he needs to feel the comfort I can bring him. I might be an opportunist interested in food and a warm bed, but I can also comfort a human. A lot of people might not believe that about cats, but it’s true. We aren’t just selfish jerks interested in nothing but our own well-being. If that’s how I rolled I would have been happy with First Owner and Third Owner.

Emerson might live in a semi-dump but Sam feels he’s got potential. Their first day together also shows Sam that Emerson needs some matchmaking help when a lovely young woman arrives in the instrument repair shop where Emerson works. As usual when the woman he loves appears, Emerson falls to pieces and it’s only with Sam working from the shadows with his mind suggestions that smooths things along.

The two begin a tentative relationship which is more friendship at first since Lola still isn’t sure about Emerson, a man she thought hated her because of what she thought was his rudeness at the store. It isn’t that he’s rude – just shy and painfully socially awkward. Given to introversion myself, I could immediately identify with Emerson. Although I can’t recall ever just walking away from anyone, going into new social environments can be a challenge for me too.

But somehow with Sam at his side, Emerson becomes the more smooth talking, social person he’s always longed to be. Emerson can’t explain it and certainly doesn’t want to tell anyone for fear they’d think he’s off his meds but Sam seems to calm Emerson and give him social courage. Sam knows that Emerson can’t rely totally on him and doesn’t want to risk losing who he thinks might be his forever owner by mind-messing with Emerson too much so some awkward moments lead to setbacks in the romance a time or two.

Lola has her own issues with confidence in her music and fear of getting involved with another loser boyfriend after her last one grifted her so there are times when she is understandably less than thrilled with the way Emerson acts. However their first time together all night is beautifully yet succinctly described when Lola tells her sister Melody of the way Emerson took exquisite care of her and cried.

“He cried.”
That got Melody’s attention. “What?”
“He cried.”
“Maybe he was just…I dunno, exhaling and inhaling in a trembly kind of way. Guys do that during orgasm.”
“I don’t think that’s what was going on.”
Silence from the other end.
“Mel?” Without waiting for a response, Lola continued: “I think that’s when it happened. I think that’s when my heart started to hurt. I think that’s when I began to wonder…if I love him.”
“You hardly know him.”
Lola nodded in agreement even though her sister couldn’t see her. And the nod was more of an affirmation of her identical response—as in how could this happen with someone she hardly knew. “I just think…. Well….” She touched a finger to her lip and dropped her voice even more, and now she felt like crying. “I just think he’s very special.”

I think he’s special too as he’s making something just for Lola. Something to help her realize how wonderful a violinist she is and given what his apprenticeship mentor tells Emerson about the PITA it is to make a violin … yeah, he’s very special. The sweet courtship he works out as a way to “speak” to Lola without getting tongue tied is wonderful too.

Just when everything is looking up, disaster strikes. Now comes your famous leavening of the sweet with the angst. Something Awful is done by Evil Third Owner and Sam ends up in danger. I was along for the heart stopping wild ride Lola and Emerson take to save him and I wept when they thought All Was Lost. If readers are pet lovers, they will too. The reunion scene had me crying even more.

Emerson lunged forward and fumbled with the latch, finally releasing the door, metal clanging.

The cat jumped from the cage to his shoulder.

“It’s Sam!” Emerson said with joy in his voice as he reached up to pet him.
Lola put a trembling hand to her mouth and let out a choked sob, then she began to laugh.

Emerson coaxed Sam off his shoulder so he could hold him to his chest and pet him. The cat meowed and purred. With Sam between them, Emerson and Lola put their foreheads together.

Okay at this point I thought everything was done, everything was fine. But you pulled a swift one on us and ratcheted up some more angst. “WHAT?!” I thought. The novella is almost over. How will she fix this? Ah, there was a way and it worked to show Lola how much she means to Emerson and that he’s worth a little fixing-uping from time to time.

I finished the story with a contented, happy sigh. Emerson has the woman he’s longed for from afar, Lola has found a special man who cherishes her and gives her confidence and Sam, well he’s found Fourth Owner – aka forever owner. Oh and his brother Max too in a very catlike way.

Although the cool customer is my long-lost brother, this kind of thing has to be taken slow, even with family.

Max saunters toward me, jumps on the couch in one graceful motion that I can only envy, and plops down on the opposite end and does that half-closed eyes thing that makes a cat look like he’s smiling.

I do it back.

Life is good.

A- (because no cute Sam cover)

~Jayne

P.S. – I had already intended to make a donation to my local no-kill animal shelter as a Christmas gift to another pet loving relative but after reading this novella, it’s gonna be bigger.

 

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