Review: A Summer Of Smoke And Sin by T.J. Nichols

a-summer-of-smoke-and-sin
IDK, no one is credited on the copyright page of my ARC

I would rate this 3.75 stars.

This is an historical urban fantasy romance set in an alternative London in 1907. Three years ago Jericho left the Army in disgrace, was disowned by his family, and has done what he needs to survive his possession by the demon Eulalia. He owns a gentleman’s club, the Jericho Rose, and comes under investigation when a young noble named Doxley dies there. Nathaniel is sent to investigate Doxley’s death and stumbles onto evidence in a snuff pornography case. His father is unhappy about him being a policeman on the Nobility Task Force as he wants him to join the Church. In this London, men can marry but premarital sex between men is still illegal. Women are struggling to wed other women along with the right to vote. The first half of the book is told through Jericho’s eyes, whilst the last half is told through Nathaniel’s.

The crux of the book is Eulalia. It may not stay like this since mine is an uncorrected proof, but in the middle, for a page or two, is Eulalia’s point of view. I found it wholly unnecessary because it doesn’t do what I think it was supposed to do. This is the most important character in the book and she just doesn’t work for me. She stays in Jericho for three years, but never tells him the truth. Jericho tries to only take the souls of those who are corrupt or evil in some way, but that is Jericho’s decision. Eulalia reminds him that good souls taste better. He tries to keep her satiated so she doesn’t take control. When she is in control, he has no memory of what she does with his body. When she kills Doxley, it was for no other reason than she was hungry and she could; he was not evil. Yet later we are supposed to believe the demon wants to help Nathaniel catch the killer he is looking for because she wants justice. Eulalia swears she won’t kill Jericho once inside Nathaniel, yet later she says she cannot help what happens when he begs her not to kill Nathaniel. Yes, she is supposedly a demon, so one can assume she lies…yet we aren’t ever given that impression either. Then there is the Big Reveal where Nathaniel is privy to information Jericho never had, yet somehow Jericho all of the sudden knows even though they have been ordered kept apart and are not able to speak to each other. I feel like she could have been an amazing, complex character that instead was used as a plot twist–that would be a major spoiler so I won’t say, but I didn’t like it.

I did like Nathaniel’s interfering sister. I liked the symmetry of how the plot points got resolved for everyone else involved, except the case. Nathaniel’s boss doesn’t seem too worried that there was never any proof of who committed the crimes. Nathaniel’s feelings of being trapped, his frustration of life not being fair, his chopping at the bridle of his father’s control over his life–these were well written so that I felt them. There were times I wanted to wring his stubborn, fool neck. While there are some steamy moments, I wanted more for these two; I felt their longing, but not their love. Historical romance is not usually my favorite, so I wish I could dismiss my concerns for that reason, but this has some plot holes that wouldn’t work no matter the time period. I usually like this author’s work, so I am disappointed I didn’t connect with this one.

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Review: Alpha Home by Sue Brown, J.T.’s Bar 3

AlphaHome
Cover design by Garrett Leigh, Black Jazz Design

I would rate this 3 stars.

Si and Howie became a couple in book one, but that was a side story so their romance was never explored. It’s mentioned in book two that they’ve had some issues and now we get to see what they are. Unlike Mitch, Si doesn’t leave the team so Howie is having to deal with weeks of separation at a time without knowing where Si is or if he’s okay. He doesn’t want to move to North Carolina, he’s happy in Wyoming. But again, there is no communication here. His mother is also a problem; his family doesn’t approve of his being gay and she’s here from Ohio. At one point, it’s only his aunt and cousins left alive, but then he is supposedly from a big family. He seems to not care what anyone thinks except his mom. In fact, he still dates when his mom is alive, just keeps it out of her face, but I have to assume his aunt or cousins are telling her anyway? Why couldn’t he have just done that with Si instead of other men? There is some repetition about how Howie is kind and gentle, not a warrior, but I was frustrated with him not standing up for himself. This plot frustrates me as much as what happened between Jake and Mitch, but two years later, Si and Howie finally get their second chance.

Si is a volatile character, not that he would ever be violent with Howie, but he seems to need calming influences. His friends tend to “manage” him. The dynamic of Mitch and Jake as team leaders, follows into their personal lives as well. I didn’t understand the inclusion of Mark, who is ex-agency and now a physical therapist that just happens to be in this small town in Wyoming. When someone has it out for Howie, the team tries to figure out who, and whether someone is trying to kill him or just scare him. Clearly, something needed to happen to set up the next book so that it makes sense for these men to keep doing military type scenarios when they are supposed to be civilians. There also needs to be some sort of connection to the bar, or it wouldn’t make sense to be part of the J.T.’s Bar series. Everything is sorted, but I still am not too attached to most of the characters except Mitch, and by extension Jake.

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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: Alpha Barman by Sue Brown, J.T.’s Bar 1

AlphaBarman
Cover design by Garrett Leigh, Black Jazz Design

I would rate this 3 stars

After J.T.’s sister Sharon is murdered, he resigns from a covert ops organization. Riley, his best friend since grade school and Sharon’s husband, goes to prison while JT just leaves his whole life behind, including his boyfriend Mitch and starts going by the name Jake. With the loss of Riley and Jake, the whole team crumbles as even two years later half the team thinks Riley is guilty, and half think he’s innocent. When Riley escapes from prison and makes his way to the bar, is he there to kill Jake, or something else?

Most of the characters are all veterans and ex or current law enforcement except for Howie, the bar’s co-owner. Jake seems a little clumsy for an elite ex-soldier. His abandoning his boyfriend without a word is a source of conflict for me. The one thing Jake and Mitch do right is sex, the talking not so much; even at the end of this I am not convinced they can have a mature adult conversation about their feelings. The other team members (Del, Si, and Ruiz) just seem to take this all in their stride and forgive Jake for disappearing, or at least there isn’t anything that shows differently. There is also a side insta-lust romance with Howie and Si. The foreshadowing is a little clumsy all heading towards a confrontation with the bad guy with a suprise plot twist coming out of nowhere. As a short novella, this is just a bunch of fun–nothing too detailed or angsty, with some mildly spicy sex scenes.

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**This series was originally published by Dreamspinner Press and has been self-published by the author. It is now exclusive to Amazon. She does sometimes sell through Payhip first, so signup for her newsletter.

 

 

Review: Thirteen by Tia Fielding, Love By Numbers 3

TiaFieldingThirteen
Cover Art © 2020 Garrett Leigh http://www.blackjazzdesign.com

I would rate this 3.5 stars.

As the third book in the series, while you could skip the first one, I feel like you would need to read book two before this one. They function like a duology, being concurrent in the time line, layering in information that wasn’t focused on during Padraig’s and Emil’s POV. This book focuses on what happens from Mark’s and Francis’s POV. As a nurse, Francis is a caring person and aches that Mark that has no support system, but he has to go back to New Jersey to deal with the fallout from his job and make decisions about his own future. He’s certainly not going to out Mark. Seeing Francis’s remembrances of Marcus helps give some of the depth I wanted in the second book.

This shows Mark’s job with welfare checks, keeping an eye on the campgrounds, domestic violence, and helping at a fire for crowd control. Mark didn’t want to study criminal justice, but it was one of the only subjects his parents would pay for, so I am left wondering if he ever wanted to be a cop or even likes his job. Getting Mark’s POV was as awful as I thought it would be with his internalized homophobia. With Francis in the picture, he finally has a reason to try and work out his issues and starts talking informally to Evy, the town shrink. Of course the moment he starts doing the work to shake off his parent’s influence, the more support he has if he can allow himself to ask for it. It’s difficult to take a previously unliked character and make him sympathetic.

Francis has been in Acker before prior to Marcus’s death, so he knows the townspeople. While that’s convenient, by book three I should know and be more emotionally engaged with all the side characters than I was. Instead of building on that, eight new people get added to the mix, two of whom even knew Marcus and Padraig in N.J., but are still not as fleshed out as they could be. Charles and Henrietta are an older couple with health issues that live outside of town and need live-in help, creating a perfect job for Francis when he moves to the area. Thankfully, they are a welcome addition, adding some heartwarming moments.

Francis reads Mark in a way no one else has and takes charge. The loves scenes here are steamy, more frequent and more explicit than the previous books. With all of Mark’s issues, this level of trust and sexual openness is not realistic so soon. I’m of several minds about the light D/s explored here…it works in book three, but there wasn’t enough forshadowing so it looks like it wasn’t plotted out beforehand. This plotline allows Mark to not have to be in charge of his pleasure, which could be a copout for someone with toxic masculinity. I have to say if Francis didn’t make him give verbal consent the whole way, it wouldn’t have worked for me at all. When Mark inadvertently triggers Francis, we don’t get to see Francis work it out from his POV. I think this was to keep things low angst for the reader; it wasn’t good enough for me. Knowing what happened and seeing a character’s psychology are two different things. However, I was happy with the resolution of Mark’s relationship with his parents. This is a happily ever after for all the friends and while I should have “all the feels,” the same distance that keeps out the lows (angst), also keeps out the highs (joy).

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**This book was previously released by Dreamspinner Press and has been republished by the author. It is currently exclusive to Amazon.

Review: Four By Tia Fielding, Love By Numbers 2

Tia Fielding Four
Cover by © 2019 Garrett Leigh http://www.blackjazzdesign.com/

I would rate this 3.5 stars

Although this is book two in the series there are (thankfully) brief recaps. You could read this on its own just fine, but it would have more emotional impact if read them in order. This one focuses on “Doc” Padraig Donovan the town veterinarian. He’s introduced in book one when helping Makai with a pregnant stray cat but other than knowing he’s a widower, and gay, there hasn’t been much character development. At the end of book one, Kaos, Makai’s genderqueer friend from prison, has arranged to come visit. He spent two years inside with Makai before he was released from prison after serving his four years. His life on the outside with an abusive boyfriend has been traumatic.

Since Marcus’s death, Padraig has buried himself in work. After seeing Makai and Emil get together, he starts tentatively moving forward with his life by using the space where his husband’s clinic used to be and getting in touch with mutual friends again like Marcus’s best friend Francis. They all went to college together and when Francis comes for a visit, it’s clear he will feature prominently in the next book. With Makai’s and Emil’s house being too small, Kaos moves in with Padraig while Francis’s character works as a buffer to allow a slow burn as both Padraig and Kaos work out their issues as individuals and as the couple they are becoming. Kaos’s issues revolve around his PTSD and exploring their gender identity in a safe environment whilst Padraig is having to deal with his grief and guilt, being honest rather than nostalgic about his marriage, and exploring his attraction to someone more feminine.

These books are about people with real issues that work at dealing with them in a mature way and actually communicate with each other, support each other, and treat other with respect. While they discuss their trauma, in order to understand each other, they aren’t bonding over their traumas. They bond spending time together. Their age gap doesn’t come into play except in relation to their experiences within the gay community. Everything is going so well but, triggers are triggering, so there are things to work out. There is more time spent with Kaos than Padraig, but I was grateful as seeing Padraig’s POV in dealing with hurt or abused animals would have been difficult for me. This book is focused more on the little things, the joys and annoyances of daily living, than the first book, but also has more steamy love scenes.

Although Padraig moved back to the area because of his family, neither his sister Mairead (or Mary) nor his dad are fleshed out. All the locals pop up, but there isn’t much done to expand them as characters. Sherriff Kalle is more sympathetic, more willing support Kaos since he already did his time. Kaos’s boss Christa at the tattoo shop and one of his clients are thrown into the story, but are not fully realized. Athena, as Padraig’s employee studying to be a vet tech is also underutilized. Having been established as homophobic in book one, the sheriff’s deputy Mark has a turnaround here that didn’t ring true without any foundation for how it happened–I expected more here, especially since it’s obviously a setup for him being paired off with Francis in the next book. There were some missed opportunities for more depth here but, I want to see Mark’s POV so I’ll read the next one.

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** This book was previously published by Dreamspinner Press and has now been self-published. It is currently exclusive to Amazon.

Review: Ten by Tia Fielding, Love By Numbers 1

TiaFieldingTen
Cover Art © 2019 Garrett Leigh

I would rate this 4 stars.

After ten years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Makai heads to Acker, Wisconsin to start his life over. There he meets Emil, still suffering his own PTSD from his ten day ordeal at the hands of drug traffickers. The hurt/comfort trope is high with this one as they stumble into a relationship while Emil’s father Kalle, the Sheriff, tries to keep them apart. We get to see both sides of law enforcement here, from Makai’s conviction for being brown, to an honest small town sheriff trying to protect his son from heartbreak and conquer his own prejudice (about excons, not because Makai’s a POC), and deputies Erin and Jason, who show Makai kindness. Unfortunately another deputy, Mark, is concerned with everyone’s sexuality and gender instead seeing them as people.

Watching Makai emotionally and mentally navigate being out of prison is sad. I am not usually a fan of so much inner musing, but with Makai fresh from prison and living alone in a sparsely populated area, it is appropriate to the story. Emil has trouble being around people too, so his POV is also self contained. Yet, when the dialogue happens it is real and pertinent, it helps paint a picture of their lives. Here the slow burn is entirely necessary; there is no other way for these men to interact. The bravery, the honesty they share is astonishing but in their excitement to have found someone who understands, they get too close too quick. As with all mental health issues, it’s a few steps forward, a few steps back. The sex is a natural extension of their relationship, but not eroticized for the reader. They are building a life together and that is just one small part of it as they struggle to be healthy.

The vet Doc, Emil’s shrink Evy, Emil’s mom Nora, the grocery store owner Mr. Miller, Joy/Joie and their mom Lotte–this is loaded with caring characters that feel real because they are described and their interactions with each other feel real. Joy/Joie is a wonderful 5 year old age appropriate character exploring their gender. It’s heartwarming to see the effort some of the town members take to welcome Makai, encouraging his integration–yes, some are bigots and homophobes, that’s just life. The small town feel is well written and surprisingly diverse. The whole town is invested in Emil because they had to share in his tragedy, so they want share in his happiness also. I do think Makai has to go above and beyond to prove to everyone, especially the sheriff, he is a “good guy” even though we was exonerated of the crime he committed and was unjustly convicted. This makes me wonder what kind of reception Kaos, Makai’s friend from prison, will get when he arrives for book two. Over all this is a well done, low angst for the subject matter, solid romance.

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**This book was previously published by Dreamspinner Press and has now been self-published by the author. I have an older edition of this book and it is exclusive to Amazon at this time.

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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Review: IM by Rick R. Reed

ReedIM
Cover Art by Natasha Snow Copyright © 2020

I would rate this 3.25 stars.

The title of the book IM (Instant Message) refers to how the killer meets his victims online. There is plenty to terrify anyone who thinks meeting up with a stranger to get off is a good idea. The men do it for a variety of relatable reasons: to alleviate loneliness; maybe they aren’t out and want the anonymity; or they like the thrill of it–the surprise of who will come to the door. I didn’t see a date (except for flashbacks), but I think this takes place during the late 90’s in Chicago. The whole book is told as a series of little vignettes, slices of life, with each chapter from the different points of view of the people affected. Many of them are told from the men right before they are murdered with sick and gruesome details emerging later as a detective from the Chicago PD, investigates. Ed loses his job, likely due to homophobia in the department, but he can’t let this case go and continues on his own, trying to find the killer who has taken to toying with him.

The author builds the tension slowly with creepy noises, creaky floorboards, whistling and howling winds, and the thoughts of paranoia the characters experience. The writing style is piecemeal as the reader struggles to figure out what happened to the killer to “make him this way,” but really it’s probably a little bit of nature and a little bit of nurture. Be aware there are necrophilia elements, murder, rape, child abuse, drugs, AIDS, and dismemberment. I’m glad that the point of views are short so as not to become too attached to the people who die, and the style which is also removed, like an outside observer allows a distance. That is also a criticism because nothing feels too immediate and I think the book suffers for it with a lack of emotional investment on my part. The writing style also makes the book drag on so it feels much longer than a regular narrative.

Ed repeatedly puts himself in danger, (unarmed!), due to his curiosity. Even his boyfriend Peter is at his wit’s end with it and I am on his side. The book references all the famous serial killers with a nod to how they ultimately got caught, but they all went out with a whimper, not a bang. It was pretty anticlimactic. Here, the final confrontation and wrapping up of loose ends is strange and OTT (over the top). Then there is the fact that the story relies on a small, slight man described as elfin without much strength who outsmarts and physically outmaneuvers an ex-policeman that is in good shape and has 50+ pounds on him. This didn’t work as a romance (Ed and Peter), but was slightly more successful as a suspense/thriller.

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Review: Fight For This by Suki Fleet, For This 1

FightForThis

 

I would rate this 3.5 stars

Grey, has a crush on his friend and co-worker named Si. Good thing Si has a crush on Grey right back. But the school they both work at, run by Headmaster Greene, is full of secrets–secrets that could harm or save everyone there. At first the POV switches between Grey and Si, the main couple here, but also grows to include Jaime’s POV. They meet Jaime in a nightclub and their fates seem tied together. The cast is further rounded out by Jaime’s twin sister Harry, a student at the school Robyn, and another of the teachers Tabitha with her cat that is not a cat Luna. This is a good introduction to a range of supernatural beings, or Folk, and some of their powers.

The main romance relies heavily on the weeks prior to the book, that the reader is not privy to, in order for their relationship to work. The lust is already there but this still feels like insta-love. The love scenes have that bonded fated mate feel. Then there is a manufactured crisis to keep them apart, which goes nowhere. This book seemed fairly straightforward at first, but as the mythos is built, it gets more complicated leaving questions without answers. Everything is foreshadowed with where this story will go and the story made sense, but many things are not explained. I think the parts of the plot that are meant to be saved for the next book could have been handed more deftly, made more intriguing. As it is, it just seems like the world-building is lacking.

The other driving force of the story is the secrecy that Greene encouraged. The Veil between the worlds is failing. It’s the Veil that was created to allow Folk to hide amongst humans as long as they were careful about using their powers. Greene has been collecting faculty, staff, and students who are Folk, often some who don’t know it, and created the school for them. It is assumed for them to be safer when the Veil falls, but his is a complicated character, good and bad in turns. It is only when all the secrecy falls away, that the characters can work together to strengthen the Veil before it’s too late. This is a temporary fix, so a more permanent solution will need to found for the future to help those trapped protecting the Folk.

Since the younger characters Robyn, Harry, and Jaime will likely play a larger role in the rest of the series, this is more like a YA book about a school for Folk, like a paranormal urban fantasy version of the school in XMen. The world-building only shows what the reader needs for each scene, so it’s easy to read. I just need more than that if I am going to be kept mentally engaged. I didn’t feel attached to the characters; I feel like I know things about them, rather than that I know them, so my emotional investment was low even though it was entertaining. Overall this is a stress free read for when you want to relax with an interesting premise and cute characters.

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