Review: Where You Hurt the Most by Anne Brooke

Where You Hurt the Most demonstrates perfectly the harmony that emotional impact and intimate detail can have in well-done erotica. Brooke’s story is only about fifty pages long, yet she manages to pack a larger punch in few words than many authors I’ve read of late who have failed to make me resonate with their characters after reading an entire series’ worth of interactions.
Brooke’s story can be seen as a modern-day Beauty and the Beast tale, and as in most of the best adaptations, the “Beast” isn’t the only one who needs saving in this story. Adrian is a man seemingly content with his lot in life. He loves his career as an escort, as it allows him to indulge in his favorite activities: sex, connecting with other people, and appreciating the simpler pleasures in life.

Where You Hurt the Most by Anne Brooke

Adrian easily could have come across as shallow, but instead his innate sensitivity and sympathy lift him above the superficial definition that his career could otherwise brand him with. We don’t learn much about Adrian’s past, yet his first-person narration is an honest-enough reflection of his nature that we don’t need to know more than the spare details we’re provided with. In contrast, while we are given a good picture of the traumas and losses that Dan has endured, leading to the disfigurement that now hinders his confidence and happiness, his emotions are a bit harder to read. We see him only through Adrian’s eyes, and since the story is so short, our glimpse isn’t a particularly comprehensive one. Yet in only a few encounters, Brooke made me believe in the relationship that grows between her two characters, even if neither of them can quite account for its cause. This is the type of writing I love, simple and sparse yet used to tenderly convey a connection of spirit that defies logic or explanation.

Because the story is so brief, I hesitate to say more lest I ruin the revelations that lay within. I’ll definitely be checking out more of Brooke’s writing in the future.

 

Review: Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron

We readers do what we do because sometimes, we are lucky enough to stumble upon a book that speaks to us, and the experience might be painful and disconcerting, but it’s beautiful nonetheless. It’s us, reflected back to ourselves, laid bare for the world to see, to judge, to criticize.

Cameron’s book moved me. It’s not a happy book. It’s not a book about a profoundly sad person, either, though James’s own admissions would have us think so from time to time. It is, however, a book about apathy, the raw kind that can only be experienced in that awful stage between adolescence and adulthood.

For many, Someday will be a frustrating book. Many will dislike it. It’s been compared to a modern-day The Catcher in the Rye. Many will dislike it even more for this reason. Yet James was so familiar to me, bore such an imprint of my own teenage self, that I could forgive the book its deliberate decision to sustain its vague mien until the very end. Thinking back on my teenage self isn’t a particularly pleasant experience; the fact that I know well which aspects of my character haven’t really changed that much in the intervening years makes such reflection

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron

even more uncomfortable. While I didn’t warm to James from the first page, it didn’t take me long to discover myself in him. Granted, he represents a hyperbolic sense of how I used to be as a teenager- unlike James, I did attempt to socialize, however awkwardly at time- yet his particular brand of aggrandized discontent was strikingly familiar to me.

It’s easy to look back on our former selves and laugh at the arrogant folly of our thoughts and actions, but it wasn’t too long ago that I lived those tumultuous teenage years when everything up seems down and all of the answers everyone is furiously asking you for seem forever outside your grasp. James recognizes the seeming futility that we all despair of during the transition from high school to what lies beyond; the difference between James and the rest of the teenage population is that his glass-half-empty demeanor means that those around him are quite aware of his despair. I believe that, sometimes, it’s difficult for glass-half-full people to grasp how we on the other side can dare to be so unbearable at times. Struggling through James’s narrative, traveling back and forth between the months as he haltingly tells of his foibles, his episodes of panic, the alternating inanity and beauty that can be found in life, I felt that Cameron came as close to explaining the harsh insistence of negativity as anyone can.

Perhaps it’s because I relate to James, because I understand that negativity does not mean depression, that I found him to be such a sympathetic narrator. Despite his repeated assertions that he is unhappy, I don’t believe it’s the type of unhappiness that many people will assume it to be, a type of black or white dichotomy of feeling. Sometimes, at that age, it feels as if there’s no option but to be unhappy; the paths are all set out for you, and there’s really no question of enjoying yourself as you go along, but happiness can exist alongside the unhappiness. All this is an incredibly long-winded and probably inarticulate attempt to explain that I connected with James and his story as many probably will not. I was not and am not an unhappy person, and I don’t feel that James truly is either; whether Cameron meant for him to be is another matter, and one I’m not really concerned with.

There are few books that could make me ramble at such length with such insubstantial result, so I’ll stop myself there. If you enjoy heady characters who like to toy with language and examine their own lives at length, this book  might be for you.

Book Beginnings on Fridays

Book Beginnings on Fridays is a meme hosted at Rose City Reader designed to feature the book you are reading right now by sharing the first few lines of the story.

I didn’t manage to get my post up on time, but better late than never. This Friday I read Good Bones by Kim Fielding.

“Dylan knew right after lunch that today he’d be cutting it close.”

Good Bones by Kim Fielding

Fielding has a nice way with words and managed to convey a great story in less than two-hundred pages. I would have liked to see a bit more character development, but overall it was a great novella.

Here’s the summary, taken from Goodreads:

Skinny, quiet hipster Dylan Warner was the kind of guy other men barely glanced at until an evening’s indiscretion with a handsome stranger turned him into a werewolf. Now, despite a slightly hairy handicap, he just wants to live an ordinary—if lonely—life as an architect. He tries to keep his wild impulses in check, but after one too many close calls, Dylan gives up his urban life and moves to the country, where he will be less likely to harm someone else. His new home is a dilapidated but promising house that comes with a former Christmas tree farm and a solitary neighbor: sexy, rustic Chris Nock.

Dylan hires Chris to help him renovate the farmhouse and quickly discovers his assumptions about his neighbor are inaccurate—and that he’d very much like Chris to become a permanent fixture in his life as well as his home. Between proving himself to his boss, coping with the seductive lure of his dangerous ex-lover, and his limited romantic experience, Dylan finds it hard enough to express himself—how can he bring up his monthly urge to howl at the moon?

Review: His Heart’s Obsession by Alex Beecroft

A few pages into His Heart’s Obsession, I had steeled myself for an erotic story filled with mutual lust and not much else. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that Beecroft’s novella actually was not the mindless erotica that I had anticipated, but rather a heartwarming love story that packed a surprising punch for its mere eighty pages.
One thing that impressed me right off the bat was Beecroft’s abililty to provide enough atmosphere to enhance her worldbuilding while not detracting from the growing relationship between Robert and Hal, which, for a story this short, needed to take

His Heart’s Obsession by Alex Beecroft

center stage. Yet the descriptions she does provide of life at sea and in the Jamaican colonies is just enough to add flavor to her tale and set it apart from countless other historical romances.

Robert and Hal weren’t quite as fleshed-out as I would have liked them to be, but it’s understandable given the tiny page count. Even so, both men defied my expectations; while their relationship reached the expected destination, the journey was atypical. There was no instant infatuation here, nor, indeed, did one party’s feelings shift overnight simply as a result of a love revelation. It was refreshing to witness two participants in a courtship actually think through the basis for their feelings (or lack thereof) and the ramifications of their actions rather than diving headfirst, acting on passion alone. While William was a wasted opportunity for a secondary character, serving mainly as a foil for the leads, Isobel offered just enough interest to make me hope that Beecroft gives her her own novella in the future.

Unfortunately, my enjoyment of the story was marred somewhat by Beecroft’s overly flowery language. Nearly every page featured metaphors and, of more concern, confusing sentences that got caught up in their own descriptive device. Beecroft’s story could have benefitted from another round of editing, but in all, it provided me with an hour of light entertainment and an unexpectedly original romance.

Review: Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills

I’m fascinated by issues of gender and sexuality; in this day and age, where gender identity is such a fluid thing, I can’t help but be a tad disappointed that more authors haven’t taken the initiative to address the topic. Particularly for young adult audiences, a large portion of whom are at a juncture in their lives where exploration of these issues in fiction could serve as a guidepost for questions regarding their own identities, the relative lack of LGTB fiction in mainstream markets is unfortunate. So when I first read the synopsis for Cronn-Mill’s Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, I knew I had to get my hands on it as quickly as possible.

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children explores an issue that I have rarely come across in young adult fiction: the transition of a trangender young adult from female to male. Most of the books I’ve read dealing with transgender have strayed from this particular angle, instead opting to uncover the problems faced during the male-to-female transition. For this alone, I applaud Cronn-Mills, who managed to address some pivotal, hard-hitting emotional issues with dignity and subtlety. Rather than retread the tired and expected avenues of angst and confusion, Cronn-Mills instead delivers her story through the voice of a remarkably well-adjusted and eminently likeable narrator. Even while reading stories from the most gifted of writers in the young adult genre, I rarely am able to dissociate myself completely from the experience of reading a book. No matter how honest and genuine a narrator’s voice might be, I am usually nevertheless aware of the fact that the character is a work of fiction, a figment of the author’s imaginings. The ability to make your writing transcend the confines of the page is the hallmark of a great author, and in this I must give credit where it is due. Gabe easily could have come across as rather pretentious, (self-conscious chapter headings paramount in creating the possibility), yet Cronn-Mills conveys Gabe’s voice so simply and unaffectedly that I never doubted his authenticity. He is sympathetic when the situation calls for it (which is throughout most of the story) and witty in a way that you could expect from an actual high-schooler (rather than a thirty-something author channeling her own voice through her youthful character). Gabe is one of the few young adult narrators I’ve come across who I would be glad to call my friend, and so it was difficult to accept the fact that Cronn-Mills again took the road less traveled in the progression of Gabe’s story, because while it might have served as a realistic conclusion (in the sense that it isn’t really a conclusion at all), I would have liked to see Gabe get a little extra payoff at the end.

Unlike so many young adult books nowadays, the secondary characters in Beautiful Music for Ugly Children were wonderfully three-dimensional and, shockingly, didn’t broadcast their intentions, so I was as on the fence as Gabe most of the time. Some characters who likely would have played the villain in another story remained delightfully ambiguous, whereas others never achieved the self-actualization that would have allowed for a more complete resolution. We are left hanging because the characters don’t have all their issues together by the end, and it’s messy, but it’s also much more indicative of real life than the gift-wrapped happy endings that fiction so often delivers.
Ultimately, Beautiful Music for Ugly Children is a true coming-of-age tale in that the story doesn’t reside in the conclusion to Gabe’s high school career or even in the start to his future, but rather in the journey he is forced to take along the path to adulthood. It’s heartwearming without being saccharine, and will likely be an important book for many young readers who are lucky enough to stumble upon it. I eagerly await the next story Cronn-Mills chooses to tell, and hope that she continues to push the bounds of young adult fiction into areas that dearly need to be explored.

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme created over at The Broke and the Bookish that allows us to list our top ten answers to a different question each week.

This week’s theme is: Top Ten Books Written In The Past 10 Years That I Hope People Are Still Reading In 30 Years

1. The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
Stiefvater’s lilting prose and honest characterizations mark her work as a cut above the typical young adult fare. This story of a seaside community whose residents participate in annual water horse races is a beautiful yet disturbing take on an original folk tale.
2. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Gruen’s tale of a young veterinarian who joins the circus by luck of circumstance is simple yet moving, and though the characters don’t break any new ground, her lush descriptions of circus life will make you yearn to leave behind the ordinary trappings of your own life.
3. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Honestly, anything published under Gaiman’s name should be required reading thirty years from now, but since my favorite adult novel of his, Neverwhere, was published more than ten years ago, I’ll stick with this lovely children’s story for purposes of this list. Gaiman’s work in eminently readable by adults and children alike.
4. The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta
Another author whose entire catalogue should be required reading, it was difficult to choose just one Marchetta. The story of Tom Mackee and his broken family is my favorite of her books. It’s painful, difficult to read at times, but always gently, brutally truthful.
5. I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak
I still haven’t read The Book Thief, but I don’t need to in order to know the strength of Zusak’s writing. Ed Kennedy is one of the most relatable everyman narrators I’ve had the pleasure of reading. His story is at once funny and inspiring.
6. The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen
Allen’s writing is cotton candy rather than a main course, but that doesn’t lessen its blissful impact. She has a real way with words; you’ll want to visit every quirky town she describes and indulge in each delectable dish the characters create. Fiction needs some levity and pure fairy tale happiness.
7. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Years after first reading this book, I still haven’t healed the massive hole it punched in my heart. It takes a bit of work to get into the swing of the narrative, but once you are immersed in it, it’s difficult not to get wrapped up in the grand arc of Claire and Henry’s story.
8. Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan
Levithan’s image of a high school life where gay is the norm might seem somewhat conspicuous in its improbability, but once that tableau is accepted as a magical realist backdrop, the tale that unfolds is heartwarming and totally familiar. And Infinite Darlene just might be one of the secondary characters most deserving of her own novel.
9. The Fault In Our Stars by John Green
It’s not my personal favorite of his, but I believe it’s nonetheless Green’s best work to date. His impossibly witty, pop-culture laden dialogues are unlikely to be exchanged between real teenagers, but it doesn’t matter, because Green understand the human experience in a way that transcends age.
10. The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner
This one might be cheating a bit since the first two were published more than ten years ago, but since it’s still ongoing I’m going to include it. I’ve yet to come across another author who has utilized such a wide range of literary techniques to consistently fool readers while simultaneously staying completely true to her own style and to her characters. Gen is one of my favorite literary characters ever, and his story is deserving of a spot on everyone’s reading list.

Author + Character Interview: Lynn Flewelling, with Seregil and Thero

I’m so pleased to have with me today Lynn Flewelling, author of the acclaimed Nightrunner series. It seems that Lynn has brought some friends along with her as well. Lynn, Seregil, Thero, welcome.

LYNN: Thanks Shortlatte, delighted to be here. Aren’t we, boys?

SEREGIL: Of course!

THERO: Will this take long? I’m really very busy . . .

It shouldn’t take too long, Thero, I promise. Lynn, you’ve been writing the Nightrunner books for a long time now. How has your experience writing the series changed over the years?

LYNN: As far as the writing goes? In the early, early days, before I was published, I was writing strictly for myself, and a few friends. Once I had an agent, a publisher, and eventually readers, there was a lot of outside expectation. I had deadlines to meet, and a lot of feedback, not always good. It’s a challenge to keep telling the stories I want to tell, and not always be looking over my shoulder, wondering what others will think. That’s not to say I don’t care about my readers’ opinions; it’s just that if I start trying to guess what will please, rather than writing what I am inspired to write, then it will all soon fall apart.

As for the series itself, though, it’s just been more and more fun exploring the boundaries of the places and people I’ve created. Because of the episodic nature of the series, I’ve been able to go lots of different directions. I’ve gone places I didn’t even know existed when I first started writing Luck in the Shadows and met people I could never have anticipated unless I wrote the next book. Time passes, and it’s been a real delight watching/making my characters grow and develop. And I really think they all have. Thero here is a great example. I really didn’t plan for him to be anything more than a secondary character—

THERO: Wait— What?

LYNN: Sorry, Thero, but it’s true. I just wanted to show that someone had taken Seregil’s place as Nysander’s apprentice. You took an instant dislike to each other as I went along, and that was fun, but that also seemed to light a spark in my imagination. I realized that I really liked you for your foibles as well as your amazing talents, and that it was a potent mix for character development.  And then there’s Alec.

SEREGIL: What about Alec? We’re the stars, the co-stars. How could you have Seregil without his Alec?

LYNN: I couldn’t, of course, but I had a hard time getting Alec clear in my mind at first. He was to be the Watson to Seregil’s Sherlock, but for well into the first few chapters of the first draft I just couldn’t get him fleshed out. He didn’t even have a name. I was writing one day and my cat jumped up in my lap. The cat’s name was Alec and I decided to use that as a place marker until I came up with something better.

THERO: You named Alec after your cat?

SEREGIL: Yes, but that cat was named after Sir Alec Guinness, so it’s really quite classy. So you can stop snickering now.

LYNN: How did you know that?

SEREGIL: Really now, are you of all people surprised that I know something I’m not supposed to?

LYNN: Anyway, characters have a way of suddenly blooming, the more I work with them. I think I was having trouble with Alec because I knew he was so important, both to Seregil, eventually—

SEREGIL: From the first time I saw him, actually.

LYNN: I suppose so. And for the story. But I have to admit, Alec gave me more trouble than any other character. Once I had him and the others in place, however, things just meshed together, inspiring more and more story.

Casket of Souls by Lynn Flewelling

What are some of the challenges of writing a long-running series?

LYNN: Keeping things fresh and different, for one. Because I chose to make the series a series of discreet adventures, I couldn’t just write the same thing over and over again. Ten books of them foiling plots in Rhíminee wouldn’t have worked. Because they are spies and detectives by nature, I had to find new mysteries for them to solve, and for that I had to take them to different environments to find new challenges.  I had to keep myself interested, too.

Have any of the characters surprised you along the way?

LYNN: Oh, most of the major ones, anyway. Alec and Beka Cavish grew up fast, and Thero matured into a real three dimensional character. Seregil has secret sorrows and old wounds that make him vulnerable at times in ways that perhaps your common garden variety “hero” isn’t supposed to be. But I never intended for him to be common garden variety, ever.

Oh, I don’t think any of us readers would consider him common. What is the first fantasy novel that you remember reading, what was the last one you read, and what is your favorite?

LYNN: The first one I remember was The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron. The one I’m reading, several pre published novels of friends and they are excellent.  My favorite fantasy novel ever? That’s a tough choice, as I’ve read so many good ones over the years. Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Illustrated Man are probably top of the list, along with Tolkien and William Kotzwinkle’s Fata Morgana.

Seregil, it’s wonderful to have you with us today, though we’re sorry to see that Alec isn’t with you. What’s the last thing you said to Alec before heading out the door this morning?

SEREGIL:  “Be careful. That could blow your hand off.”

Oh…my. Ah, Thero, delightful to see you as well. So tell us, what was it like inhabiting Seregil’s body?

THERO: When Nysander made us switch bodies? Bilairy’s Balls, do we have to go there?

SEREGIL: Oh admit it. You loved it.  All that taut muscle and smooth skin and big—

THERO: You do know I can turn you into a brick, don’t you?

SEREGIL: Heh!

What do you think of that, Seregil?

SEREGIL: He saved my life that night, and others, at considerable risk to his own. I’ll always be grateful for that, especially since he didn’t like me back then. But I do think that he got the better end of the deal in that trade. I hate to think what he got up to with my body while I was gone.

THERO: Uh, brick?

Thero, how accurate would you say Seregil’s otter persona is?

THERO: Surprisingly accurate, really. Otters are by nature playful and love their families. They also defend themselves and those they care about with a vicious bite if threatened. And they both like fish, lobsters, and the like.

Thero, any pastimes that Lynn isn’t privy to?

THERO: Well, I paint a bit, just for my own amusement, and dabble in manuscript illumination. I’m also writing a treatise on the preparation of beetle carapaces for use in the transmutations of certain metals—

SEREGIL: (yawn) And he’s writing love poetry.

THERO: You— You!

SEREGIL:  It’s rather good, too.

THERO: Oh. You really think so?

SEREGIL: I do, really. It’s very good.

THERO: You might have asked, though.

SEREGIL: Sorry. Old habits.

Seregil, what’s your favorite disguise that you’ve adopted?

SEREGIL:  Well, as you probably know, I carry off female disguise rather well. It’s wonderful how your average villain underestimates women. Off the top of my head, I’d have to say playing Lady Gwethelyn has been the most fun. I mean, when I can fool a randy hound like Captain Rhal, I know I’m doing well.

One more question, Seregil. Any thoughts on who would play you in the stage version of your life? What about Alec?

Glimpses by Lynn Flewelling

SEREGIL: I get asked that a lot. I’ve been around long enough that there have been a succession of actors who’ve aged out. I think Daniel Day Lewis was the first, back in the “My Left Foot” period when he was young and had long hair. Michael Praed was in there, too, at some point. More recently Johnny Depp. He has a great deal of depth and has played a huge spectrum of roles. He’s not getting any younger though.  Benedict Cumberbatch, of Sherlock  fame, would be another good choice.

As for Alec, that’s a tough one. Years ago there was a Finnish Olympic ski jumper who looked right, but overall I can’t seem to find anyone who’s just right, although the version of him on the cover of Lynn’s book of short stories, Glimpses, isn’t a bad likeness.

On that, I’d have to agree. Back to you, Lynn. What is one character that you’ve read and wished you had created yourself?

LYNN: Sherlock Holmes, of course!

You’ve been somewhat of a pioneer in your genre. What direction would you like to see fantasy fiction take in the future?

LYNN: I’d like to see more strong, believable female heroes.

What’s your favorite part of the writing process?

LYNN: Editing and revision are my absolute favorite parts. There’s no such thing as a perfect first draft and for me, the rewrites are where much of the magic happens. I come up with all sorts of new ideas and action, even new characters in rewrites. First draft can be a bit of a chore; revising is play!

Do you listen to music while you write? What might be a few songs on the Nightrunner soundtrack?

LYNN: I listen to music constantly while I work. It can set the mood, or just block out the world. I wrote Stalking Darkness  to Enya’s  Shepherd Moons  and Watermark albums. I wrote Casket of Souls to Apocalyptica turned up loud, and the soundtrack to Tim Burton’s Alice.  For the Nightrunner finale book I’m writing now, currently titled Shards of Time, it’s mostly classical and New Age so far, but that may change as I go. I need something really spooky.

Seregil’s friend, Micum Cavish’s theme song would be Sting’s “It’s Probably Me.”  Seregil’s song for Alec might be Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man.”  Thero’s song might be Enya’s “Cursum Perficio.”

You’ve always held open the possibility for further Nightrunner books. Any chance that you’ll be revisiting the characters from the Tamír Triad again in the future?

LYNN: The honest answer is that I’m not sure, but probably not anytime soon.

What do you find most fulfilling about being an author, and in writing Casket of Souls in particular?

LYNN: On a personal level, the process of crafting something new that no one has ever seen before is very fulfilling. But I’ve also gotten some remarkable, often touching reader responses. A number of young LGBT people have found Seregil and Alec to be heroes they can really identify with, and some have used the books to come out to family and friends.  One person said my books kept him from committing suicide at a dark time in his life. It doesn’t get much better than that.

SEREGIL:  If I might just add, Casket of Souls is one of my favorite adventures, and has a gorgeous cover. (And no, that’s not me on it.) You can read the first chapter for free here! http://www.sff.net/people/Lynn.Flewelling/excerpts/casket.souls.exc.html

And you can read the whole book on May 29!

Lynn, Seregil, Thero, it’s been lovely having you all here. I know I’ll be first in line come May 29 to see what adventures you have in store for us.

Check out the rest of the Nightrunner series using the links below, and be sure to buy your copy of Casket of Souls on May 29!

Luck in the Shadows: Amazon| Goodreads

Stalking Darkness: Amazon| Goodreads

Traitor’s Moon: Amazon| Goodreads

Shadows Return: Amazon| Goodreads

The White Road: Amazon| Goodreads

Glimpses: A Collection of Nightrunner Short Stories: Amazon| Goodreads

Casket of Souls: Amazon| Goodreads

Review: Lover Reborn by J.R. Ward

Verily, I do believe this was a letdown.

Before I get started on one of the several ensuing rants, let me preface this review by stating that the Black Dagger Brotherhood series remains one of my favorite of the genre. I still anticipate the next book as soon as I’ve finished the last, and I run out to the bookstore to buy it as soon as I can. Considering the fact that my taste for paranormal fiction in general has been waning of late, it’s a testament to the strength of the characters Ward creates that my loyalty to her books remains steadfast. Truly, had this been a book by any other author, I might have been persuaded to rate it more highly, but knowing what the Warden is capable of, I couldn’t ignore the fact that Lover Reborn just didn’t capture me the way most of the previous books have.

Lover Reborn by J.R. Ward

While a large portion of Ward’s fan base was disappointed with her last effort, Lover Unleashed, I actually enjoyed Payne’s story far more than I thought I would. Setting aside grievances such as the fact that we hadn’t gotten to know the protagonists that well in previous books and the ever-annoying instalove, Ward managed to convince me of Payne and Manny’s feelings.

Unfortunately, where reading early negative reviews made my ultimate reaction to Lover Unleashed a pleasant surprise, I fear the inverse affected my reading experience for Lover Reborn. A glowing rating on Goodreads and reviews praising the book as Ward getting back to form had my anticipations pretty darn high going into this one, but I should have known better. For one thing, while I’m sure I’m in the minority with this opinion, I’ve never really warmed up to Tohr. Despite having known the Brother since the very beginning, I’ve never gotten a grasp on his personality as I have the other Brothers, and that which I did see I never clicked with. Even before losing his Shellan early in the series, his persona seemed somewhat bland in comparison to the other dynamic characters residing at the Brotherhood mansion; after Wellsie died, his absence from the next several books and ghostly presence in the last few did little to further endear me to him, despite feeling sorry for the trials he’s been forced to endure.

Lover Reborn did little to change my opinion of Tohr, and rather effectively sealed the deal that the most I will feel toward his character is ambivalence. This is generous, considering the fact that I could go so far as to say he struck me as a petulant, selfish scoundrel throughout many parts of the book, and I don’t think he did nearly enough to deserve having those epithets erased from his character description. While I can only guess at the pain and misery attendant with losing a mate and a child, Tohr’s interactions with John throughout previous books and No’One in this book left much to be desired from the once compassionate Brother who served as a pillar of strength for those he loved. The way he treats No’One in particular is inexcusable; I don’t care whether it was his idea to start with, because the manner in which he proceeded to deal with her was callous and shallow and made me yearn for the days when Ward’s main romance had my stomach twisted in knots from happiness rather than disgust.

That being said, I shake my head at Ward’s insistence that this was the right time to allow Tohr’s story to progress and, necessarily, to have him move on from Wellsie’s death. Though the series is going onto double digits now, looking back over the chronology of the series, most of the events have taken place over the course of two to three years, by my calculations. This is set against the backdrop of a series of characters who have already lived for centuries, which leads me to wonder how it could be that all of these characters who have searched for their mates for so very long could all be fortunate enough to have found them in such a short window of time. Fifteen months is no time at all in the real world to expect someone to have moved on from a grief so great, so it makes no sense to me for Tohr’s brothers to pressure him to do the same in a timeframe that, for them, should be no more than the blink of an eye. Crafting a convenient (and heretofore unheard of) plot device like the In Between didn’t help me to swallow this hefty pill, and conditioning Tohr’s relationship with No’One on helping him to save Wellsie left a bitter taste in my mouth.

While I can see how, in another time and place, allowing a past love to inspire a new one could be a beautiful tribute, Lover Reborn didn’t capture that sentiment. Had Ward allowed Tohr’s grieving process to play out in the sidelines of another novel, then his gradual acclimation to a life without Wellsie could have been a lovely sort of second love story, one with a bittersweet ending that would open the door to potential love in the future. Yet he wasn’t ready for this, and neither was I as the reader. I assume that we were supposed to get swept up in Tohr unknowingly falling in love with No’One in the midst of ardent self-denial, but that denial was too effective in my case, because I never saw anything beyond lust on Tohr’s part, making the ultimate love declaration too abrupt and hollow to save the five-hundred pages that had gone before.

What makes this lost potential more disappointing is the fact that I actually didn’t mind No’One. Granted, this isn’t a ringing endorsement of her character, but based on Ward’s past depictions of members of the Chosen and Glymera, I was expecting yet another weak-willed, subservient woman whose sole purpose was to please any male within twenty feet of the vicinity. While No’One did occasionally lapse in into the “verily” and “mayhaps” mould, she was by far the most headstrong of all such female characters we’ve been introduced to. I had little trouble believing that her martyr-like tendencies developed not out of the anachronistic trappings of her caste, but rather from a self-imposed punishment for the pains in her past. I warmed to her enough to respect her decisions, yet for someone whose convictions have led her to forsake her family, her friends, her name, her very existence, I could not understand how she so easily allowed Tohr to strip her of the trappings that she’s clung to for centuries. Ward lets us inside her head, but never to analyze her own emotions, an odd choice considering the fact that she was a protagonist.

That being said, what saved this book for me were the side stories, which probably didn’t comprise more than a sixth of the overall book, yet that shined far more brightly than the main storyline. First, might I say, thank the Scribe Virgin for Xhex. She’s long been my favorite female character in the series (and one of my favorites overall), and I’m so glad Ward hasn’t sacrificed her character development for the sake of allowing the overarching plot to progress in whatever fashion Ward is deadset upon. That’s not to say that I particularly enjoyed watching Xhex and John’s relationship strained so soon after mating, but it was believable and completely in keeping with their characters. Even in the midst of a marital crisis, their scenes were ten times as passionate as any of Tohr and No’One’s encounters, which does much to recommend what has turned out to be one of my top relationships in the series. I would have liked to witness first-hand Xhex and No’One forge the tentative bonds of a mother-daughter relationship rather than being relegated to gleaming knowledge from the sidelines, but I’m glad Ward went there nonetheless as Xhex has long needed some validation, no matter how self-sufficient she claims to be.

I’m still not sure I’m all behind the Band of Brothers storyline (though it’s a marked improvement from the Lesser chapters that proliferated in earlier novels), yet I’m warming to Throe and am open to the possibility of saying the same for Xcor. I don’t particularly like him much yet, and the fact that both of them seem fixated on Layla does little to convince me of either character’s worth or sanity, yet I can see Ward developing these three relationships in an interesting way in future novels. At least it gives her a few more characters to play with, since she seems to be running out at the moment. One big exception to that is Lassiter, whom I’ve never felt strongly about in the past, but I’m happy to say has secured a firm place in my heart after the events of this book. I’m glad to hear he has his own story in the works, though I hope it takes place in the Black Dagger world as opposed to the Fallen Angel series.

Of course, the main reason I read this book wound up occupying perhaps twenty pages in total, yet they were definitely worth it. In unison, all Qhuay lovers rejoice, because their time has indeed come, and while I am quite frankly furious with some of the choices Ward made in this novel that will have enormous ramifications in their story, I’m willing to forgive her at the moment because nothing can eclipse my joy over the fact that the next full novel will finally see these two friends fight for the relationship that has been a long time coming. Qhuinn’s character development was lovely to watch in this book, as he’s finally grown into the man he was always meant to be. My only tears came during one very important scene regarding his character, and the significance it has for the future is so very much deserved. While it’s still painful to watch Blay and Saxton together, I do hope that Ward has something special for Sax waiting in the wings, because honestly, that man is a saint not only to put up with what he has, but to voluntarily become the instrument that will allow this couple to grasp their future together.

I could wax poetic about my unhealthily high expectations for the next book, or about my fears that Ward won’t be able to overcome some of the awful decisions she’s made regarding their relationship so far, or about how much I wish Layla had remained a pretty little scribble of an idea on a margin of a page of Ward’s notebook rather than a presence that will likely pollute close to a third of the upcoming novel. For now, I’ll simply say that for fans of the Brothers, this book is a necessary step, if not the backslide that was Lover Enshrined, yet it doesn’t approach Ward’s best work. Still, it’s better than most of its peers, and portends great things for the future of the series.

Review: Burn by T.J. Klune

T.J. Klune is an ambitious author. His debut novel attempts great heights in its 350+ pages, though it doesn’t soar as high as he might have hoped.

I’ve become somewhat critical of urban fantasy as of late. With so many new authors attempting the genre, it seems nigh impossible to find a premise that hasn’t been done before. I wish Klune had pushed further in the UF direction, because there is so much material here that screams ingenuity and innovation. His worldbuilding is good, but it could have been so much better. It’s a rarity for me to yearn for more plot over character development, yet in Burn‘s case, I wanted more explanation, more action.

Burn by T.J. Klune

The prologue is a sucker punch, throwing you straight into Klune’s world and instantly engendering sympathy for the young narrator caught up in a force much larger than himself. I liked Felix from the start, though he tried my patience a few times as the novel progressed. Klune succeeded in the extraordinary feat of securing my loyalty for his narrator not once, but twice, first as a child, then as an adult. I was surprised to see so much time passed before the first chapter even began, yet despite this abrupt skip forward in years Klune excelled in crafting Felix’s voice to reflect the aftermath of what we witness in the prologue. Such events couldn’t pass without jading Felix, and Klune shows us just how Felix’s traumatic past has affected him right off the bat. Felix displayed a nice blend of witty and whiny, and while some readers might be put off by his personality, I found it effective and endearing.

Unfortunately, while the prologue was a great set-up to the story, it also foreshadowed one of the book’s greatest flaws. Whereas most prologues offer a mere taste of what is to come, Burn‘s prologue takes up a considerable amount of page time. I forgave this quirk initially, yet as I worked my way through the book it became abundantly clear that Klune needed a good editor. Burn would have benefitted from losing about a hundred pages, with so many passages retreading the same revelations and emotions that I almost gave up around the 200 page mark. Fortunately, things picked up again, and while many readers disliked the extended flashback section in the middle, ultimately it wound up being one of my favorite stretches of narration. Once I got into the rhythm of continual flashback-present day transitions, I got thoroughly caught up in the story of Seven’s past, so much so that I considered the interruption in romantic development a successful stylistic choice rather than an unnecessary delay. Still, while the overall concept of the section was good, the transitions left much to be desired mechanically.

My second main complaint was the development of the romantic relationship between Felix and Seven. Oddly enough, Klune actually sold me on their connection when they first meet. Despite the incongruous circumstances and their youth, I was willing to overlook one of my most hated tropes, the fated love, because I actually believed that these two people should be together. Unfortunately, once they met up again as adults, Klune lost me for a long time, as the pair’s virtual instalove became monotonous and swamped the plot development for nearly the entire middle portion of the novel. Burn exemplifies the notion that, while a little goes a long way, constant physical affection actually disinclines the reader to feel emotion alongside the characters. Snogging and snarling every other sentence doesn’t go far toward justifying an otherwise unexplored emotional connection. Thankfully, by the end of the novel, I felt that Klune had sufficiently shown the basis for Felix and Seven’s relationship, but this element remained tenuous for too long.

Apart from these main gripes, there were smaller issues sprinkled throughout. The writing was rather sloppy and awkward at points, and the Latin names were too cheesy for my taste. Far too much of the story felt repetitious, and overall the story needed some serious editing to streamline the writing. I also wasn’t a fan of Klune’s hyperbolic verb choices, with Seven alternately barking, stomping, snarling, sneering, and demanding something on every other page. He came across as rather petulant at times.

Despite its flaws, Burn ultimately delivers on its premise. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but suffice it to say that when Klune hides the ball, he buries it under ten feet of cement, builds a highrise on top, and sends you a map to another country. It’s rare that an author fools me so completely, so I take my hat off for a job well done. I hope that Klune casts a more critical eye on his writing for the next installment, but regardless I’ll be there to see where Felix’s story takes him next.

Review: Nightrunner series (Luck in the Shadows, Stalking Darkness, and Traitor’s Moon) by Lynn Flewelling

This review covers the first three books in the Nightrunner series. For those who haven’t yet read these books, be warned that there are spoilers ahead.

Luck in the Shadows by Lynn Flewelling

Every year I seem to stumble upon a series that seemed innocuous enough on the shelf, and I take that series home, unwittingly committing myself to a week in which all my waking thoughts will be consumed by this new world and its characters. Last year, I was lucky enough to happen upon this phenomenon twice, first with Karen Marie Moning’s Fever series, then with Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels Trilogy. I flew through these books at a feverish pace, desperate to find out what would happen to the characters that I’d grown to love yet unwilling to let them go when I’d finally turned the last page. They haunted me for months afterward, and every few months I still flip through to revisit favorite chapters. They are the books that I compare all others against, not in terms of quality per se, but in terms of emotional investment they set the bar.

It took approximately a page and a half for me to realize that the Nightrunner series would be my new series obsession.

Lynn Flewelling achieves that rare feat of balancing complexity of worldbuilding with character development, yet she accomplishes the latter in a most intriguing way. Alec and Seregil have skyrocketed to the top of my list of all-time favorite characters, yet even after three books there is still so much we don’t know about these two, and it’s not for lack of description or purposeful concealment. Well, the latter does contribute, particularly in the first two books, for Seregil portrays one of my favorite character conventions: the spy, the thief, the rogue, perpetually situated on the outskirts while secretly immersed within the intrigue, he gives away little about himself out of necessity and reluctance. Alec, though he suffers from ignorance of his own ancestry, is likewise hesitant to share more of himself early on, though that hesitance is borne largely of confusion and self-denial. We learn more of both characters as the series progresses, yet it is a slow chipping away rather than a large revelation, as each character has good reason to be cautious of giving away too

Stalking Darkness by Lynn Flewelling

much of himself. Perhaps it is the scarcity of true insight into either character that makes their connection in the first book, Luck in the Shadows, so compelling, for despite how little either knows the other, their friendship forged on a spur-of-the-moment impulse never feels artificial or unfounded. It’s obvious that Alec and Seregil should be as close as they are, though neither character nor the reader discover the why of it until much later on.

The Nightrunner books are a sort of epic/high fantasy hybrid, yet what struck me most about the worldbuilding was the fact that, particularly early on in the series, the fantasy elements take a backseat to the Nightrunner hijinks. Make no mistake, magic is an integral and essential element of the story, and it provides an ever-present backdrop for the events that unfold, yet I never felt overwhelmed by a landscape that seemed otherworldly as with so many books of this genre. Flewelling has stated that she doesn’t want her characters to have an easy-out just because of the presence of magic, and this philosophy really shines in her worldbuilding. The focus of the first few books is really on Alec and Seregil’s escapades, honing the skills of an occupation that takes much practice and a little luck, yet is no more improbable in a world devoid of magic than in one inhabited by wizards, necromancers, and dragons. True to her word, Flewelling never lets her characters become complacent with the ease of magical ability, and in fact our two leads possess very little in the way of magical skill. Their trials, successes, and failures are a testament to the abilities they have earned rather than the serendipity of the world in which they live. Likewise, even wizards as powerful as Nysander and Thero are far from invincible; their talents are similarly won of hard work and practice, and they don’t possess endless reservoirs of power. They must choose when and how to use what they have, with real consequences for overworking themselves and, more personally, for merely possessing their magical blood.

Though not all the characters in this series are strictly human, Flewelling again chose the road less traveled in creating the different races and cultures. While there definitely exist cultural differences, which become painfully apparent in the third book, Traitor’s Moon, the biological consequences of being born with magical or ‘faie blood bear only one great distinction in that their members are long-lived. Yet, they possess no cliched physical

Traitor’s Moon by Lynn Flewelling

features or healing powers to set them apart from humans (and land them squarely in the camp of overused fantasy tropes). While they have physiological distinctions as would any member of a distinct race, they look, act, and are as fragile as any other. Our main characters come near to death more times than faithful readers would like, and they have only their own wits and talents to aid them most times (along with a little well-placed magic, but then without it it wouldn’t be a fantasy at all).

As wonderfully intricate and adventurous as the plot arcs are, what really makes the story for me are the characters, and what wonderfully drawn, complex characters they are. The progression from unlikely allies to friends to partners to lovers occurs so naturally, and greater still, it occurs between two equals, no matter their respective ages or experience. They might make the occasional misstep, but they never fail to respect each other, and they both learn to consult with each other before acting unilaterally (though perhaps Alec is a bit more astute in that regard than Seregil). While each character grows, neither outgrows his own humanity. There are no perfect characters here, and growth occurs in the true sense of the word, not continually striving toward something better, but rather learning from mistakes and adapting. Alec’s confidence and assertiveness come into fruition, yet he still relies on Seregil for guidance, rues his own careless errors, and struggles to shed the Northern reserve bred into him even after accepting his ultimate deviance from his cultural norm. Seregil, for all his flourish and bravado, isn’t above making serious miscalculations and dwelling self-consciously on past blunders. I found the gradual shift in his personality entirely consistent and appropriate with the events that he endures, and though he is more reserved and solemn in Traitor’s Moon, I never lost sense of his humor and lust for life.

Flewelling’s secondary characters are equally complex and have the potential for much growth in future books. I’m particularly interested to see how Thero, Beka, and Klia fare in upcoming installments, as I felt that Flewelling has thus far laid the groundwork yet none has quite reached their full potential.

Overall, I can’t recommend the Nightrunner series enough and am eagerly awaiting my receipt of the next few books. I’ve found a lifetime keeper, and I couldn’t be happier.