Review: The Infinite Onion By Alice Archer

theInfiniteOnion
Cover design: Tracy Kopsachilis Art & Design Front cover book photograph copyright © iStock.com/ranplett Front cover circles illustration copyright © iStock.com/Svetlana Kachurovskaia Lanpochka

 

I would rate this 4.5 stars.

Grant is so unhappy being a worker drone in Seattle, he burns his whole life down six months after his divorce. His defenses are so high, the only one he seems to lower them for is his nephew Kai. When he ends up camping rough on Vashon Island to try and figure out his life, he meets an artist named Oliver who challenges him. Sparks fly as Oliver likes irritating Grant with a strange arrangement meant to get him back on his feet. Oliver has demons of his own and stripping Grant bare exposes his own defense mechanisms. Both of them will need to battle their own and each other’s walls if they are to have a chance at living happily ever after.

Grant ignores unpleasant realities. Yet, he has a big heart for those who accept him as he is instead of trying to change him. The tweens (his nephew Kai and his friends Jill, Clover, Penelope, and Abelino) are there as the catalysts to show who he is behind his anger, fear, and desperation to find himself for himself, instead of always bending to fit the will of others. Some might say, where are their parents? But, I grew up on an island and ran wild for hours, all day and night in the summer and no one knew where I was or who I was with, so this made me think of my own adventures. How wonderful they have someone to treat them like the individual people they are. One of Grant’s lessons is that sometimes order and boundaries are needed, that their are times they are appropriate and should be respected; another is that if the rules he lives by don’t serve him, it’s time to make up new rules.

Oliver flouts the idea that you can’t help people who don’t want to be helped. I’m glad Oliver had a come to Jesus moment about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but it didn’t make him more likeable for me at that moment. With his artistic nature, his fantasies often overcome or overwrite his reality…but people who are lonely or traumatized often live in their head. His circle (Talia, Clementine, Freddy) is only people who will respect his boundaries and not expect more from him. Freddie, Oliver’s friend with benefits for seventeen years, is a deceptively complex look into Oliver’s world as he has ordered it. I liked Oliver the most when his art therapy ends up saving him from his avoidance techniques.

Being creatives, this is a wild ride with characters that explore the absurdity of their inner worlds. Memories, nostalgia, how the past shapes our reality, and thus the present, is what is battled here. This is what it looks like when people take a self inventory. So many stories focus on violence or sexual abuse as the only thing that wounds people; you will not find that here. Having said that, I was not enamored with the stalking for love trope. In the end, these two wounded men fit like puzzle pieces–their strengths and weaknesses merging to create a stronger whole. My mind was a swirl of grief and enchantment, painted with vivid art and inner imagery. The ending left me touched, breathless, and happy knowing in all the world Grant and Oliver found the one special person who gets them, crazy and all.

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Review: Gabriel’s Storm By Sue Brown

GabrielsStorm
Cover Art © 2020 Brooke Albrecht http://brookealbrechtstudio.com

 

I would rate this 4 stars.

Gabriel has become a recluse, grieving the loss of his wife Jenny and his son Michael. The only one keeping him alive is his brother-in-law and neighbor Toby and Toby’s husband Damien. But Toby has been enabling Gabriel as helping him staves off his own grief. When Gabriel’s obsession with searching the sea finds an injured man in a boat, his life is jumpstarted in ways he never saw coming. With the man who becomes Sam having amnesia due to a head injury and emotional trauma, are his nightmares of someone trying to murder him true? As Sam and Gabriel become close during the forced proximity, they may be building castles in the sand that have an expiration date when real life floods in to their intimate bubble.

An alternating POV between Sam and Gabriel is used to good effect; I got to know and like both characters well. Gabriel has changed nothing in the house since his family died, he’s made no effort to move forward in his grieving process. Having someone in his home who doesn’t know anything about him or his family makes him confront what he has been avoiding, his home has become a shrine to them down to the mug that was his wife’s favorite. Sam has terrifying nightmares and flashbacks of people trying to murder him; little facts and bits of his life come back to him over a few days. Gabriel is his savior and safety in his world gone mad. The attraction is there, but the timing isn’t right, until it is. Both of them are experiencing fear, loss, and grief that helps them grow together. Toby, as the local doctor, grabs at the chance to support Gabriel by playing instigator and matchmaker. A well written category romance, this could have gone into great territory if the emergency that pulled the community together was a chance to really explore the others living there, but they are mostly just names with enough care from Gabriel’s POV to tug at the heartstrings without the work of making them more three dimensional. I did love the English seaside as a character that while beautiful, adds complex moods, both good and bad, to the tale.

Of course, there is that pesky attempted murder thing to deal with. By the time Sam is recognized from a news report for a missing person, the story is already emotionally satisfying. Is five days long enough to fall in love? I vote yes for a HFN, a promise to try to confront how to blend their radically different lives together after senseless loss. Much of this is down to good, believable dialogue. The angst is broken up by moments of genuine care for others and humor. For me, this was a lovely way to spend three hours.

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Review: Shades Of Henry By Amy Lane, A Flophouse Story 1

ShadesOfHenry-1
Cover Art © 2020 L.C. Chase http://www.lcchase.com

 

I would rate this 3.75 stars.

Do yourself a favor and don’t read this unless you have read the following series by Amy Lane first: Johnnies, Racing For The Sun, and Fish Out of Water. You could read this first, or out of order, and enjoy the romance between the main characters Henry and Lance, but the main events of the novel come at you sideways via the fifth book in the Fish Out of Water series; you would have to keep track of two different names for a plethora of characters from the Johnnies series, since each has their real name and their porn star name. The true emotional payoff will come for the faithful fans who will enjoy all the series being woven together and already know all the side characters in this.

Henry is finally at rock bottom when he goes to visit his brother Davy (aka Dex), a former porn model, in Sacramento with his husband Carlos (Kane). After nine years in the Army he flounders with what to do now that he has been discharged. His brother sets him up at a flophouse used by a stable of young guys who work for Johnnies. His tragic story is layered into the book as he tries to avoid thinking or talking about it unless he has to. He acts as a “den mother” for Cotton, Randy, Zeppelin, Fisher, Billy, and Curtis along with Lance. As a resident finishing his internship at the hospital, Lance still does the occasional porn scene to pay off his student loans. As the oldest in the house, and the same age as Henry, it’s inevitable they are drawn together. Right when I started to get everyone straight, and Lance and Henry are forming a bond, there’s a murder, which drags the P.I. Jackson Rivers and lawyer Ellery Cramer, among others, from the Fish Out Of Water series into it.

Maybe the absolute worst time for a relationship, might be the best time. As Henry navigates his abusive relationship from the past eleven years or so, he doesn’t even know how broken he is. This makes his journey from internalized homophobic abuse victim to over the top hero at the end, without any counseling, a bit unbelievable for me. Lance is the stable presence here, not because he doesn’t have issues of his own, but because he knows what they are and seeks treatment both for himself and to inspire the other Johnnies in the house. To me, Lance is the real hero. Then, there is what I wanted to happen versus what I could realistically expect to happen based on the story so far; having something be emotionally satisfying doesn’t make it a realistic conclusion. What saves this for me are the genuine moments of intimacy and connection Amy Lane is known for invoking in her writing. I will probably read everything again, catch up on the few books I missed, and read this last.

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Review: Without A Trace by RJ Scott, Lancaster Falls Trilogy 2

withoutatrace
Cover design by Meredith Russell

 

I would rate this 4 stars.

This is the second book in a trilogy that shares a story arc, thus should be read in order. As such, it’s difficult to review without spoilers. The first book builds a relationship between Chris, a famous horror writer, and a local police Captain, Sawyer. They start to share their lives together whilst navigating strange graffiti, a domestic violence case, and the gruesome discovery of several human remains. Sawyer’s best friend Drew comes back to town after his missing brother Casey is identified as one of the bodies. But ten years in the military has changed him; Drew is no longer that teenaged boy that left. Rumor blamed Drew for Casey’s disappearance, but frankly, everyone’s a suspect, except Drew. Logan, a cop introduced in the first book as ex-military, has made Lancaster Falls his home after he was discharged from the Army. This story focuses on his part in working on the strange graffiti, Casey’s last days before his disappearance, and trying to help a veteran with PTSD, Adam Gray. As a landowner near where the bodies were found, and related by marriage to one of the two dynastic families in town, Adam is one part of this small town puzzle.

Being inside Drew’s and Logan’s POV makes this book completely different in tone to the first book. Drew, tortured by whatifs and PTSD, is determined to find out what happened to Casey. As he goes around town asking questions, he’s like a kid hitting a bee hive with his stick, stirring up trouble to see what pops out. Logan is a more steady presence; as the outsider who moved there, he is unburdened with a lifetime of memories of the deceased. As Drew starts to pull him off balance, all Logan’s cases start to dovetail together. Drew is at turns seductive and bratty, vulnerable and angry, which creates a sort of enemies to lovers vibe. The attraction between them didn’t seem as natural at the beginning, but that may be because Drew is desperately grabbing at anything to hold back grief and memories. He’s confused about his past, future, and present all at the same time…which is why I think their romance is less stable than I would like.

The pacing also feels like marching relentlessly towards a conclusion. At the end of this you will know who, but not all the whos, and why, but not all the whys. I don’t know why I did this to myself because I hate cliffhangers. The first book was excellent, but it focused more on character development and the romance; this book, I think the romance suffered a little as the actual case was ratcheted up to the forefront. Of the three best friends, Sawyer and Drew have been paired off leaving Josh for book three. So far, I feel like I know some of the secondary characters better than Josh. The FBI will come to investigate the remains found in book one, so expect new characters for book three, although the reader should know all the essential players on the board at this point. While some of the resolution for this relied on someone cracking under pressure, there has been plenty of foreshadowing for where this is going to go, so I have very high hopes for the next book.

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Review: Running To Him by P.D. Singer, Men Of Monument 1

runningtohim
Copyright © P.D. Singer 2020

 

I would rate this 4.5 stars.

At 22, Tim is still being controlled by his mother, Lorraine, a HR specialist at a pharmaceutical company, where she is desperate to get him a job. Carson, who also works there, is on Lorraine’s bad side and it becomes increasingly clear it’s because he’s gay. Lorraine’s hatred, and need to control, spurs Carson into getting to know Tim a little better–and Tim certainly doesn’t mind. As attraction turns to love and friendship, Carson is increasingly the port in the storm that Tim needs to break free from the increasing danger he doesn’t even understand he is in.

As a young adult trying to flee the nest, Tim is completely age appropriate teetering between childish dreams and naivety, with startling moments of insight and strength. Carson has had no choice but to be a realist after learning his own harsh lessons about failed family relationships. Since the POV switches between the two of them, it’s sad to read enough to extrapolate Carson’s experiences and witness the loss of Tim’s innocence. Happily, Carson’s support and care allows Tim the time to catch up to reality. The genius of this book is Carson’s realization that when he tells Tim what to do, things don’t go well, but when he lets Tim make his own decisions, mistakes and all, that’s actually the way to be a good friend and partner, rather than be another controlling parental figure–especially with their inequities and age gap. I believe what Carson believes wholeheartedly, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

Carson’s friend, a chemist named Wes, is a chaos-agent I wish was more rounded out. Ditto the coworker Angie, although she does indeed prove herself to be a “wonderful, wonderful human being.” The star here is Carson’s old math teacher Mrs. Hedstrom, who happens to be Tim’s neighbor. Tim’s brother Paul and his wife Miyoko round out the cast. I guess Paul didn’t want to poison the well with Tim about Lorraine; maybe he didn’t think Tim would believe him. Obviously Carson’s relationship with his neighbor John is close since Carson shows trust in him, but it wasn’t explored at all.

What at first seemed funny and annoying, soon turned scary, filling me with tension and anxiety. Sexual tension builds throughout the book as Tim navigates many firsts. This is all leading to the inevitable conclusion, mostly where I wanted it to go. I’m sorry for this spoiler, but my concern, after reading the whole book, is that actions have consequences; it was disheartening to see violent behavior not prosecuted. Still, watching Tim grow through this journey was as amazing as watching Carson release his tight hold on the past. I was rooting for them! I’m glad the epilogue reminded us all that friends are the family we choose. Well written, engaging, with likeable and relatable characters, this was more than I expected from the blurb.

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Review: Executive Decision by Alice Archer

Executive Decision
Cover design: Tracy Kopsachilis Art & Design Cover image of man in blue suit: freepik.diller / Freepik NOTERIQUE font: Hareesh Seela Cover image of man and moon: iStock/ApryIRED

I would rate this 4 stars.

With a cleverly built science fiction spin, what appears to be a blue collar/white collar meet cute becomes much more when Pierre is vulnerable and Dar switches the power dynamics to make this intriguing story soar. The writing style is different and quirky, always the way to my heart. Kudos to the author for making me care about these two people in such a truncated amount of time. Rather than focusing on sex, this focuses on a heartfelt connection of equals. If the connection is based on truth, people being who they really are without artifice, I believe that can happen in a short amount of time. I enjoyed this short story about people who are a good match, lucky in their timing, and save each other.

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Review: The Rivalry by Beth Bolden

Rivalry
Book Cover © 2019 AngstyG Book Cover & Media Design

I would rate this 4.25 stars.

Although there is a previous book (The Rainbow Clause), I can say with absolute confidence this can be read as a standalone, since I had no idea. This is the story of Heath and Sam, NFL quarterbacks on different teams at different points in their careers, who end up on the same team after a holiday fling that left them both wanting more. Moving from opposites attract to frenemies to love, as they navigate both their personal and professional issues, the book also changes from erotic romance to something more interesting and nuanced as the psychology of the characters is touched upon. I would describe it more as tension-filled rather than full of angst, since past trauma isn’t dwelt upon just addressed so that the leads can have a believable HEA.

That tension is stretched taunt at several points–the longing, that breathless feeling, the fear of discovery–all of which are palpable. I like how the author also breaks the tension, with some fun at Heath’s expense. Heath is endearing in his awkwardness; knowing his thoughts is crucial to liking him. Sam is actually the more emotionally mature of the two in some ways, even though he is younger. As much as Heath watches football film to find tells for rival plays, Sam studies Heath for his tells, finding ways to break down the walls Heath has spent a lifetime fortifying. Heath is the mind of the book, while Sam is supposed to be the heart; but Sam, while nice and fun, only becomes more three dimensional to me when he starts to play football. Their miscommunications are very realistic, as is their using past experiences to “fill in the blanks” and decide what the other is thinking. I really liked that Heath allowed himself to explore his sexuality and realize his need to see a mental health professional.

This may only be me, but for the first five chapters it was difficult for me to keep Frankie and Felicity straight when the POV flipped between Heath and Sam–maybe because they weren’t real to me yet as they hadn’t been introduced as characters. I still wish the best friends of the main characters hadn’t had similar names. I also found that even though the book changes POV between Sam and Heath, the book seems more skewed towards Heath, explaining him to create empathy for him and show his character development. Sam’s bits tend to be more geared to how his personal development helps his career development. So, it felt a bit uneven. Also, I know we sometimes want that big gesture, but here I felt it detracted from the team and their achievement–not a way to win over your teammates. Overall, I enjoyed this immensely. With interesting lead characters, heartfelt emotions, steamy sex scenes, and a good supporting cast of friends, this was an entertaining read with the right amount of football for fans and non fans alike.

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Review: Virgin Flyer by Lucy Lennox

virginflyer
Cover Art: Steamy Designs Cover Photo: RafaGCatala

I would rate this 4.5 stars.

At first glace this seems like a love triangle with Teo in love with his childhood friend of twenty years Chris, and his growing feelings for a one night stand turned friend, Jack. But Chris, who is bisexual, acts heterosexual for his parents, and while happy to have sex with Teo if they keep it on the down low, is not ready to come out and settle down in his twenties. When Teo loses his virginity to Jack, he starts to realize childhood dreams are just that. Teo is ready settle down and he is a forever type of guy. As Chris does everything in his power to manipulate his friend in order to keep him close and under his power, Teo is finally learning that there is a difference between love and being in love. Jack learns that maybe his happiness with traveling and playing the field is just what he tells himself to avoid being hurt or hurting others. What Jack wants is Teo, but being in love with someone who is in love with someone else is not on his agenda.

Switching POV between Teo and Jack is utilized to great effect, allowing me to enjoy seeing them fall in love from both sides. This led with the erotic, but subtly pulled me into a romance; the sex scenes are hot, hot, hot…yet surprisingly sweet. This features an age gap and a fake boyfriend trope with forced proximity. Their conversations flow naturally. I laughed and got choked up; I got so attached to everyone. They are adorable together, and as their passion grows into friendship, I was rooting for them. As their friendship changes, it’s not that they don’t communicate, it’s that they don’t check-in with each other when their feelings start to change, leading to misunderstandings. Learning about Teo’s relationship with Chris through his fleeting thoughts about past events makes me want to smack him, but it’s his current treatment of Teo that makes me want to punch him out. I also realized he is navigating the difference between his vision of his future and holding on possessively to the person actually most important to him, like a safety net. Kudos to the author for giving me an understanding of Chris without his POV, humanizing him through Teo’s eyes.

All the side characters here are very effectively integrated into the story: family, co-workers, patients, clients, etc. Jack is a pilot and Teo is a nurse while Chris works in the family’s medical business. If I had a quibble, it would be that while Jack’s family is shown, Teo’s family is not. However, the secret to Jack is his family whereas Teo’s character is best seen through his caregiving for everyone he knows, especially parts of Chris’s family he has known all his life. It’s nice to see people handle things maturely without a lot of drama: people who grow through their experiences, work out their differences, and support each other. The author foreshadows the story well, so I knew exactly where this was going, but I never felt like it was formulaic even with the expected grand gesture. It’s great to have a romance story actually touch me emotionally without me feeling manipulated, without the focus on some sort of emotional trauma or being high angst. I have to say this is an excellent romance that I throughly enjoyed.

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Review: Alpha Chef by Sue Brown, J.T.’s Bar 2

AlphaChef
Cover Design by Garrett Leigh

I would rate this 3.25 stars.

Mitch’s brother Greg shows up out of the blue to J.T.’s Bar. He’s on the run from someone trying to kill him, having been in witness protection for fourteen years. When his marshall Riordan tracks him down and takes him away to safety, the attraction they have been battling for the last few years boils over with the forced proximity. The numerous sex scenes are steamy and more detailed in this one, so it works better as an erotic romance than a suspense/thriller. It is on the insta-love side because although Riordan may know almost everything about Greg, Greg knows next to nothing about Riordan and it’s his POV.

Unfortunately the character descriptions are still not very detailed, so there is nothing more about the covert ops team members, nor about the sheriffs or marshalls either. There are a few plot twists as they try to catch the bad guys, including the mole in WITSEC. When the danger is over Mitch’s and Greg’s parents show up, so the last third is family drama. This is actually my favorite part as Mitch and Greg bury their past and start fresh with Greg working as a cook at the bar. Greg also has to figure out how to move forward with Riordan. I felt more attached to Mitch and I really liked Greg and Riordan as characters.

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Review: Taji From Beyond The Rings by R. Cooper

TajiCover
Cover Art by Lyn Forester

I would rate this 4.75 stars.

Taji is a human linguist who was supposed to be on a small moon, mostly isolated, to compile information on its language, culture, and inhabitants for the Interplanetary Trade Coalition (IPTC) databases. After the deaths of two members of a diplomatic team on the planet below named Mirsa, he is conscripted to assist Ambassador Tsomyal since he is the only person in nearby space even remotely qualified to help decipher nuances of communication in Asha, the language used throughout most of the Sha Empire. Shavians value control and stoicism except in precise culturally acceptable situations. Although humanoid, they seem to have a vast amount of nonverbal communication with their cat like ears. As a native Anglisky speaker with no training in diplomacy and a translator device with inferior software translations, he is thrown into the deep end of a foreign alien culture in political turmoil. Nicknamed Mouth by the IPTC security team, he will find out how accurate that description is as he tries to stay alive.

The IPTC sending a diplomatic team to encourage trade is just an experiment to save the cost of war. They are on the outskirts of space, with a steep learning curve for survival by their wits alone. The author successfully conveys a sense of peril as there is no one close enough to rescue them in time should anything go wrong–even a misunderstanding about the meaning of a word can upend their mission. Here several words cause trouble: shehzha, honor, and gender pronouns. The entire book hinges on Taji’s communication minefield. This does what the best scifi does, examines our own society through the lenses of alien society with social commentary on: oligarchy, figureheads, finding the balance between tradition and change, stagnation vs. innovation, rule by fear, class warfare, devaluation of skilled labor and the arts, an uneducated populace, xenophobia, and the dangers of not treating all peoples equally and equitably.

I love all the genders and skin colors represented. Taji, with a bad leg and misaligned prosthetic that hurts him, is surrounded by aliens that are larger, stronger, and not used to dealing with making accommodation for such an injury. Many IPTC like Trenne, join them to get away from societies with restrictive rules. Although Trenne is from Mirsa, he is not considered Shavian, since he is descended from conquered peoples, thus he is discriminated against due to his skin markings. This is used to good effect as how people treat them both, reflects on them. All the characters here are interesting as shown through Taji’s viewpoint whilst trying to help navigate the circumstances. The reader knows and understands them as Taji does, so as his opinion changes, so did mine. The political intrigue makes it difficult to tell friend from foe. The love story between Taji and Sargent Major Trenne is moving, explicit, and erotic. Because Taji is caring and kind, he is the heart of the book; since Trenne holds his heart, he also holds mine. Be aware that the sex also has a biological component–a chemical reaction that causes “heat” so although everything between Taji and Trenne is consensual, this could be abused like sexual slavery since it causes addiction like a drug.

This book is like the author mixed up a few of my favorite ingredients (the Claiming series by Lyn Gala, The Prince He Loved by Michael Barnette, the Breeds series by Lora Leigh, Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula le Guin) to make me a cake. Really, really good cake, but I missed the nuts. In other words, I didn’t rate it higher because the world-building was mostly political, less physical. The book didn’t paint pictures in my mind as much as I would have liked. All of it takes place in the capital or the home territory of the emperor’s family. I know there are different districts of the capital like the Gardens, or the Fires, but I don’t have a real sense of them. It’s alright, because I know some people are allergic to nuts. Althought this is a slightly darker book than I am used to by this particular author, it will be loved and read again, as I usually do with her stories. I really loved it.

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