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JOINT REVIEW:  Unjustified Claims (Hidden Wolves, Book 3) by Kaje Harper

JOINT REVIEW: Unjustified Claims (Hidden Wolves, Book 3) by Kaje...

KH_Unjustified_Claims

 Brandt Davis loved being part of his werewolf pack, until they found his stash of gay porn. He escaped their anger, running in wolf-form into the wilderness, but he can’t live that way forever. And he can’t hide in fur like a coward when an injured man needs his help.

Ethan Sjulstad knows life is making him crazy when a solo hike into the Boundary Waters seems reasonable. Then a bad fall leaves him injured and facing death. Delirious, he hallucinates being rescued by a big grey wolf and a naked woodland godling. For a man who has always loved fantasy, it’s worth surviving just to find out what the hell is going on.

Review:

Sirius:
Dear Kaje Harper, I have been waiting for the next book in your “Hidden Wolves” series pretty much since I finished the previous book. And I wanted to review this book together with my former co-reviewer and good friend Raine for the sake of old times because we reviewed the first two books in the series together at Reviews by Jessewave. Hi Raine and welcome to DA!

For the readers who have not read these books yet, this is Book Three, and even though the main romance in this one is between completely new characters who had no previous relationships with wolves in Aaron’s pack, I do *not* recommend starting with this book. You will not miss much plot-wise, but you will miss the evolution of the werewolves’ society, which has been explained over the course of all three books.

For those who are not interested in looking at the reviews of the first two books, I want to briefly mention that in Kaje Harper’s world werewolves live in total secrecy, their society is harsh and brutal and secrecy is necessary. If you meet a human who somehow learned of werewolves’ existence, you kill him or you bring it to your Alpha’s attention and they will take care of it. Also, these awesome werewolves used to routinely kill their kids if they were found to be gay. This is despite the fact that in this world there are no female werewolves – the werewolf boy is born as a result of the mating between a male werewolf and a human mother. There are not that many births happening in the first place.

If you read the first two books you know that this intolerance is what started all the changes – some werewolves decided that they do not want to kill their gay packmates anymore. There was also a charismatic new Alpha who showed up, after which a certain pack split into two with that Alpha, named Aaron, taking charge of the second pack. That second pack is now known for being accepting of gays, as much as it is possible in this world. Aaron was also pretty sure that the secrecy was going to end soon and so all the werewolves need to at least try to prepare and work together to have some kind of the plan.

Raine:
The first book in the series was outstanding for me, with gorgeous main characters for the romance, very dramatic, believably vicious external threats and wonderfully imagined paranormal characters in a real world situation. I still ration my rereads. The next one was a bit up and down. I had problems with the next starring couple and some of the plot, but I still loved this wolf universe and the author’s easy flowing style, which has a lovely integrity of emotion behind it. However I have not reread it, which is the gold standard for me.

What do you think about the title of this book? Are the unjustified claims Ethan’s guilt over his brother and the more general pack claims against homosexuality?

Sirius:
I do agree with your interpretation of the title, but I think we can argue that what Brandt’s former pack actually wanted from him at the end can be called “unjustified” as well, same as what some town residents demanded from Ethan.

Overall I was very pleased to meet Brandt and Ethan. I ended up thinking of both men as complex and interesting characters. Brandt is running from his werewolf pack because he was outed for having gay porn on his computer and in the forest he finds Ethan, who has been injured, and eventually decides that he has to help him.

Of course nothing in this unexpected rescue operation is easy and Ethan is not always making things easier either:

“Brandt glared at him intently. Ethan returned Brandt’s stare equally hard, despite the fatigue that was making it difficult to see, and the sinking feeling that crazy was a legitimate question. “I can’t get airlifted out. Can’t”
“Why the fuck not?”
“Trust me.”
“Not unless you will come up with something really amazing for a reason.”
“Amazing?”
“Like, the airlift guy hates you and will push you out of the chopper. Or your head explodes above a hundred feet of elevation. Amazing”

But eventually Ethan is in the hospital and Brandt ends up staying with him for a while, because he needs a place to stay and a job, and Ethan as a motel owner gives him one.

I really liked the building romance between these two guys for many reasons. I liked the characters, I liked that it had such a delicious slow burn feel and I thought the balance of external and internal issues that kept popping up and then getting resolved was done really well.

Their insecurities made complete sense to me. Brandt identifies as bisexual and of course when he had to hide his sexuality or to be killed for it for a long time, he would be insecure when he met a guy he liked. At first he would not even tell Ethan that he was bisexual. I really liked that in this story we do not have a very prolonged angsting by Ethan – is he straight, is he gay? Is he bisexual? Oh he *must* be straight. No, Ethan calls Brandt on his denials and omissions pretty soon and we do not have the real issue become an artificial conflict, or mini conflict.

Brandt also likes a little kink (He likes to wear lingerie) and he is even more insecure about that and constant reassurance from Ethan was very sweet and made sense to me. Ethan was not repeating it gazillion times, but he did repeat it and I thought it was done just the right amount.

Ethan’s issues were connected to his past and I thought it was extremely well done, because I could understand why Ethan would blame himself for something like that even though I knew it was not his fault at all.

Raine:
I found Ethan slightly less successful overall as a character. Just to contradict myself, while I disliked his passivity in accepting guilt for his brother’s actions, I really hated the method he used in his proactive stance on finding out about his guest’s mysteries. It left me feeling so anxious. However, I liked the real life scale of his acceptance of the limitations of his composing ambitions. The quirkiness of his fantasy daydreams added another piece to the puzzle. I thought his competence with tech and computers reinforced the inevitability of the change coming to the hidden wolves. The possible strategy the author lays out is similar to the one used in Patricia Briggs’ wolf books and always struck me as being particularly inspired.

There were a couple of little things about Ethan and Brandt as they start to interact sexually which felt a bit off to me, mainly why Brandt needed to be told that having dried come stuck to his pubes would be uncomfortable…… I also found Brandt’s coitus interruptus nocturnal woodland running trips made me sigh a lot.

However, in the main, Brandt is another success for the author in nicely drawn werewolves. His inner voice was very appealing, a mix of self-doubt and awareness combined with an interesting physicality expressed both as a wolf and with his sexual kinks. By the way, when he is outed by his porn, not just gay porn but gay porn with a lingerie kink, this was an interesting side issue because it gave us a chance to look at how Brandt’s traditional pack reacted to shades of grey in their black and white rules of sexuality. I got a nice warm glow from Brandt’s very protective stance over Ethan and his property. The scene with Mara, full of forthright home truths, was also satisfying,

“You can’t just walk into town and tell people who’ve live here all their lives what the hell they should do.”
“Well if you all haven’t figured out yet how to be decent human beings, maybe you need some telling.”

The slow build to their relationship ended up balancing on the edge of irritation for me, but this might have been because I was anxiously waiting for Aaron’s pack to come into the story somehow. I loved catching up with these guys, especially Paul and Simon, and how their pack is developing. Aaron felt much more at ease with being top wolf and there were no more exhausting vacillations about his role. He had all the strength I am unashamedly addicted to in Alpha werewolves.

Sirius:
Until the book hits about the halfway mark we do not even meet Aaron and his pack – Brandt and Ethan’s story unfolds without their appearance. Did I think the connection was a little artificial? Yes, I did, but because they do live in the same werewolf society and because that society is not that big I could buy the reason for their appearance at Ethan’s motel well enough. At least I did not have to work hard to suspend disbelief that much.

I loved meeting Aaron and Zach, Simon and Paul and other guys again. Especially Simon and Paul; I loved their banter and it provided some rare humorous moments for the book.

“There’s good running here. Lots of fat rabbits.”
Simon grinned and put his hands over Paul’s ears. “You didn’t hear that, babe”.
Paul pulled his hands down, but held his wrists. “I thought it was one of your goals to teach me that wolves aren’t Rin Tin Tin, or Lassie. Nature, red in tooth and claw, and all that.”
Simon’s smile became soft, looking at the human who was his mate. “You’d have to be pretty dumb if you were still figuring that out. But you like rabbits.”
“Also rabbit stew.”
“What! A traitor to pet bunnies in your care.”
“Watch out. I’ll actually become a vegan and there’ll be no more bacon in your house.”
“No, no. I take it back. Eat all the pet bunnies you like.”

Now when Aaron’s pack and Aaron himself learned Brandt’s story of course it made sense that they would not shy away from Brandt and would try to help him with his troubles in one way or another. Also, in the second half of the book the theme of “when will the werewolves come out to the humans” picks up the pace a little bit and there are some interesting developments at the end of the story.

I keep thinking about whether the mix of the two storylines was done well – Bran and Ethan and Aaron and his pack – and I would have to say that I think it was done well enough. Granted, there was no urgent need for them to meet initially, but if the writer needed that meeting, I do not see how it could have been done any better. I was a bit disappointed though because I thought Aaron escaped too easily out of possibly taking a stand on a certain moral issue. I was *extremely* disappointed how he handled a similar issue in the second book, but at least one could make strong arguments for him not having much of a choice. And in this book the issue came up again, and we are having a “saved by the bell” moment? I wanted him to put his money where his mouth was and shield an innocent human, instead of a convenient plot event doing it for him.

I loved that Mark’s wife Megan was shown to be such a strong mate and someone who did not hesitate to ask inconvenient questions and insist on something when she thought it was right. One of the issues I had with this society from the book one is how horribly misogynistic it was. It all fit with the violence, killing gay kids and humans who learned about them, and I understand that the idea was that even such a society could slowly change. I do not hold it against the book, but because the writing is so good, I was so furious every time I thought about the world where these wolves could kill the kids and not even tell their unbonded wives why they killed their sons. That is why I really like that Megan does not back down if she feels she is right, even if Aaron keeps telling her that “pack is not a democracy” and I really liked other female characters in this book. Mara was not always likeable, but she was complex and interesting and she seemed able to learn at least somewhat from her mistakes.
My grade is B.

Raine:
Overall I liked this third book, lots of good storytelling detail and character development, and if the juxtaposition of new guys and old guys was a bit wobbly in the plot department it was no big deal for me either. My biggest problem was the use of the deus ex machina to get Aaron & Co. out of a very deep hole. I don’t think it is cute to acknowledge a cliché and then still use it. So I was disappointed with the anticlimactic finish to this part of the long-term plot arc. The romantic conclusions for the new couples and the old, in contrast, were well up to scratch and finished things off for this book very neatly.
Grade: B-

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JOINT REVIEW:  Secrets of Neverwood by G.B.Lindsey, Diana Copland, and Libby Drew

JOINT REVIEW: Secrets of Neverwood by G.B.Lindsey, Diana Copland, and...

7F94C81E-CF23-4C0B-B6EA-1C5317EDBBAEImg100Three foster brothers are called home to Neverwood, the stately Pacific Northwest mansion of their youth. They have nothing in common but a promise to Audrey, the woman they all called mother—that upon her death, they would restore the house and preserve it as a home for troubled boys.

But going home is never easy.

Cal struggles to recover from past heartbreak, while Danny fears his mistakes are too big to overcome. Devon believes he may never break down the barriers that separate him from honest emotion.

On the path to brotherhood, they discover the old mansion holds more than dusty furniture and secret passageways. Audrey’s spirit still walks its halls, intent on guiding “her boys” toward true love, and an old mystery stirs up a new danger—one that could cost the men far more than just the house.

Dear authors,

Sunita and I were both intrigued with the plot and the trilogy-in-a-volume format, so we decided to do a joint review.

Sirius: I am not sure what to call this book. I skimmed the Aamazon reviews and some reviewers called it a series. I guess it can be called a series, because it contains three novellas, and each telling thes a story of a different foster brother falling in love with other guys playing supporting roles, but it also has an overarching theme of three brothers trying to save Neverwood and turn it into a foster home again.

After coming home, Cal, Danny, and Devon become involved in saving the house that their foster mother left them, because due to economic and other issues other parties may try to get the house. The guys have to learn about each other, and they first become friends and eventually become as close as true brothers would. I am tempted to call this book a single story told in three chapters, but of course the decision will ultimately be up to the reader. I do not think anybody will be confused if they choose to read the stories separately because each writer lets you know about what is happening with Neverwood and the conditions that are common across all three. I do however think that it makes more sense to read all of them together.

Sunita: I agree. I read them back-to-back and I think the reader would lose aspects of the overall story arc if she started out of order. If someone really wants to read only one author, each romance is self-contained, but the larger Neverwood story spans all three installments.

One Door Closes by G.B. Lindsey

Sirius: This installment features Cal as the main character and is basically the story of how he reconnects with his childhood love Will. It was a confusing story for me – not because confusing events happen (although I wondered about something that happened in his past), but because the writing is a little tense. I guess it makes sense, because three main characters of the book are tense and confused around each other, they are all pretty much strangers to each other at this point and uncertainty makes sense. What did not make sense to me was my inability to connect to Cal emotionally as strongly as I connected to other guys. I think the writing style was partially a reason for that. This story actually confused me and I had to break my rule and go read some Amazon reviews. I thought the reviewer who claimed that the reader has to read some things between the lines in this novella was spot on. I think my issue was that I did not expect that I had to work hard to figure Cal out and I am still not sure if I did. I liked him, do not get me wrong, I just did not love him.

Some part of him still stretched between the house, listening for footsteps he could not account for, the whine of the wind through the corridors. But that was all gone. Something fundamental had shifted, the house again the home he recognized. Instead of soothing however the change only ticked at his composure anew, quickening the place of his hands and his breathing.

I think I also just was not convinced by Cal’s love story – or I should say the rekindling of old teenage flame with Will. I am wary of the guys reuniting many years after childhood as a rule – I need to be convinced that what they had was so special that nobody else came close and in this story, in Cal’s circumstances I just was not sure if I was convinced.

As a first chapter of the saga, I think it worked well enough – the same villain in all three stories wants the house for himself. Actually I think I liked what villain did in this story the most. I mean I did not LIKE what he did, I just found his motivations to be the most understandable. While I liked the other two parts more overall, the villain’s actions and motivations became a bit too much and over the top for me. But maybe I should not complain about over the top given that the ghost of Audrey plays such a significant part in all three stories.

Sunita: I mostly agree with you. I didn’t have that much trouble connecting to Cal, but I found the romance too rooted in the past and I didn’t get a sense of what connected them to each other in the present. I also found Cal’s issues a little hard to believe, not that he couldn’t feel that way, but that he would have such a sense of shame about something that is fairly commonplace now. I felt as if his feelings were as much about creating a conflict for the storyline as they were organic to his character. Maybe that’s just because I have a different take on his problem, but it made it harder for me to buy the angst and the ramifications of the big revelation. I also felt as if I were being lectured to about LGBT teen issues, not in a bad way, but in a pedantic way. It’s important, but it sat oddly with the lust-and-then-love aspect of the book.

I also agree that the villain was the most convincing in terms of his motivations in this story. We got the sense that there was more going on, that his interest in the house wasn’t just financial, but the financial part dominated in a way that seemed plausible. I also liked the treatment of Audrey in this installment the best. She became increasingly intrusive in the next two stories and it didn’t work for me.

If you like virgin heroes and separated lovers, you’ll like this story more than I did, I think. But there was a lot of tension between Will and Cal and I wanted them to just talk a little more. And putting two really long, detailed sex scenes at the end of the story didn’t make up for the absence of communication for me. Also, there was a lot of detail about the house and its renovations. Some readers enjoy this kind of detail, but it was more than I wanted to read. Overall, though, this installment provides a good setup for the overarching stories and the context.

The Growing Season by Diana Copland

Sirius: This story features the youngest brother, Danny and of course continues the story of saving Neverwood. Danny’s issues were also connected to his past, but they were much easier to understand (not much of mental work needed here and I was happy about it). I thought the angst made sense and worked well enough, but pretty much almost nothing happened. It was a quiet, gentle character study and love story. Falling in love seemed to happen fast, but I liked how careful Sam was with Danny and they worked for me more or less.

Sunita: I thought there was a fair amount going on. There was Danny’s history and adjustment to his new life, Sam and Danny getting to know each other, Sam’s family issues and how they intruded into the Neverwood situation, and the ongoing story of the teen group that we were introduced to in the first section. I liked both Sam and Danny and I felt as if I had a better sense of them as individuals than I had of Will and Cal. There were some nice scenes between them before they were fully a couple, which I appreciated it, and Copland does a good job of mixing angst, sorrow, and physical attraction.

If the previous installment was about the inside of the house, this one is about the grounds. Danny and Sam are working on the garden and yard renovations, and that takes up a fair amount of space. By this installment I was starting to feel as if I were in a Nora Roberts trilogy about fixing up a house or an inn or something. The ghost factor also ratchets up in this story, as Audrey plays a bigger role both in terms of her interactions with the flesh and blood characters and in terms of her plot importance.

I do want to note that there is a fairly explicit sexual assault scene (it’s a flashback) that may be difficult for some readers. There are also loving, warm sex scenes between Danny and Sam, although again, the level of anatomical detail is pretty high.

The Lost Year by Libby Drew

Sirius: This story was probably my favorite in the anthology. It deals with the oldest brother, Devon and it actually makes him deal with his issues (he thinks he has a problem feeling real emotions) by doing something. Devon ends up trying to help someone who is practically a stranger to find his son, who run away from home. This situation echoes with Devon because of his past and because of his work (he is a photographer who made documentaries about runaway kids and accidentally this runaway boy ended up in one of his pictures, where the father saw him and then contacted Devon).

Devon is just such a good guy, and his struggle with himself is real and touching because he is convinced that he was always putting a barrier between himself and emotions, trying not to feel after what he experienced as a child. It was nice to see how his barriers crumbled when he met Nicholas and I did not even mind them falling for each other pretty fast as well – this was actually very convincing to me. Attraction was fast, yes, but no declarations of forever love right away.

As I said before, I thought villain got a bit weird in this story, but I was still glad to see a very happy ending.

Sunita: I didn’t like this one as much as you did, mostly because I didn’t really understand Devon’s transformation and his instantaneous attraction to Nicholas. Devon was so opaque and mysterious in the first two books that I wanted more on-page evidence of the change. I also had trouble with the insta-lust between him and Nicholas while they were searching for Nicholas’s runaway son. I know it’s a common trope in romantic suspense that the main characters are physically drawn together when they’re in danger, but here the juxtaposition of searching the bad parts of Seattle and interrogating runaways with hot-and-heavy physical scenes didn’t work for me. I also felt that I was being told they were falling in love rather than being shown it, perhaps because the runaway storyline and the addition of a third character took up so much page time, and then on top of that there was the Neverwood story arc to complete. I think it was also that I didn’t really warm to Nicholas that much; I appreciated that he was devoted to looking for his son, but I felt as if the mother got pretty short shrift and I didn’t understand where she had been for the “lost year.”

Like you, I found the villain over the top in this installment. We had a sense from the middle story that he had personal motives, and they really come to fruition here, but he went from one type of villainy to another without much explanation. And the expansion of Audrey’s role didn’t work for me. I had one idea of her from the first story, then she amped up her ghostly intrusions in the next, but here she was basically a puppeteer, and that is too much for me.

Overall, I enjoyed these stories. The overarching story was intriguing, and the interactions between the brothers and their partners was fun to follow across the installments. I could have done with less exposition on house renovations and teen issues, but that’s a personal preference and not about the quality of the work. I think that readers who like ensemble stories and connected romances are likely to enjoy them too. Overall grade for the trilogy: B-/C+

Sirius:  I think I completely agree with you about the overall grade. B-/C+

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