Read my review of a previous book in the Model Love series, Couture Crush by Charlie Novak
Davison’s entry into this shared-world series is another sweet, low-angst story. Pretty much everything about this tale of an aspiring model falling for his best friend’s brother was predictable, and I say that as both a pro and con to the book. Jae appealed to me right away with his passion and dedication in the face of an unsupportive family, which is a common reality for most people attempting a career in a creative field. I was equally hooked by how Xander was the perfect foil for Jae in multiple ways, such as a slightly older person living their dream, which gave their romance a delicious opposites-attract vibe.
Xander is a good bro by welcoming Jae into his home (as inconvenient as it is for his secret second profession) and an even better friend when he plays sexy fairy godfather in his efforts to give Jae the best chance possible during his open calls at modeling agencies. They quickly establish a friendship as adult equals, and the romance that builds on that foundation occurs at light speed. However, the steamy bits occur at a bit more of a slow burn, which does an excellent job of maintaining the tension between the two men.
I was a bit bummed that the minor bit of external conflict did specifically involve their connection with best friend/little brother Dillon. Not because I wanted these sweet guys to have a more difficult time, but because I wanted more of a surprise from the ending when I already knew so much of what to expect from the story. Some of the sappier bits between Xander and Jae also went on for about 20 percent too long, but only to the point that I found it more amusing than annoying.
Overall, this book is exactly what it says on the tin, but the dynamic characters and lovely writing make taking the time to appreciate this book worth it.
Disclaimer: I received a digital review copy of this book from the author.
Sorry for the delay with this post — the spouse and I got home very late Sunday night, and the day job is trying to eat me alive this week. But I had an amazing time at FanX Salt Lake Comic Convention 2022, and I’m happy to share some memories with you.
We left Baltimore bright and early Thursday morning, with a layover in Denver on the way to Salt Lake City. Our stop was long enough for a nice sit-down brunch, and I decided it’s okay to drink alcohol at 8:30 in the morning when it’s in an airport, and you’ve already been awake for over 6 hours. We arrived safely at our destination, collected our bags, and took the nifty train from the airport to downtown SLC.
Did you know there are more than half a dozen Marriott hotels in downtown Salt Lake City? I thought I picked the correct one next to the Salt Palace Convention Center, but the route and hotel itself didn’t look familiar, and they had no record of our reservation. I was more embarrassed than irritated, and let Erik direct us to the next hotel. It wasn’t the right one, either! But the third time was the charm, and we were already exhausted and over 10k steps in before the convention even started.
Luckily, checking into FanX and dropping my books off with my lovely host, local independent bookstore The Printed Garden, was much easier. Even better, I didn’t have anything on programming that day. We wandered a bit of the dealer’s room, enjoyed a panel on Our Flag Means Death, and had dinner with some new friends. Back at the (correct) hotel, we watched the first episode of Andor and passed out early.
After a good night’s sleep, it was time to get our shopping on! We made it through about half the main hall and did our bit to support the geek economy. One of my favorite things about FanX is the food trucks that set up outside the convention center, where we grabbed pizza for lunch. Then it was time for my first book signing with The Printed Garden, where I had as much fun chatting with the other authors as I did the people who stopped by to see my books.
Erik was kind enough to fetch me coffee, and we spent some time people-watching before another panel we were interested in. I had to keep my energy up because I still had to give my talk later in the evening! For a Friday night, the room was pleasantly full for my nerdy interactive presentation on alternate history storytelling. My usual moderator was already booked, but a local fan was kind enough to volunteer to run around with the microphone for me. The crowd-sourced ideas from FanX were “What if Queen Elizabeth died during World War Two?” and “What if our solar system had binary suns?” If you missed out, feel free to download my presentation here.
We grabbed food truck ramen and took it back to the hotel, for another episode of Andor and then some sleep.
The final morning of the con, we wandered the bit of the dealer’s hall we hadn’t visited yet. It would probably have gone a lot faster if I didn’t get distracted by conversations with cool artists, but that’s the point of conventions! We had lunch at a brew pub with a good friend of mine from grad school, C.R. Langille (who also happens to be Air Force, like the spouse). My second book signing that afternoon was also successful.
My only two panels for the year were both Saturday evening (the last hours of the con), but I was pleased by how well attended they were! The spouse abandoned me to go to a comedy show with a local friend, which is why no pictures. First up was a delightful and ridiculous conversation and audience Q&A about writing fanfiction. It went a little off the rails at one point, but overall, I had fun talking about one of my passions with people who also value it.
During the hour break between the panels, I leveled up as an author! The lovely woman who volunteered to help out during my presentation brought me bread made by her daughter. I was surprised, amused, and touched.
FanX ended on a high note with a fun discussion about what life must be like for normal people who live in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We talked about urban versus rural perspectives, insurance issues, and theories about future films and television shows. I also make some snarky jokes about religion and living in Baltimore, and have no regrets.
No Andor that night, because we were both totally done by the time we met back up at the hotel.
Luckily, our direct flight back to Baltimore didn’t leave until the afternoon. We met up with local friends for a delicious brunch and then took the train back to the airport. All went well until we hit the ground back home, and then it took over an hour for everything from our plane to get to baggage claim!
I definitely dragged a bit at work on Monday, but the homemade churro bread for breakfast was DELICIOUS.
We already have the dates for next year’s FanX Salt Lake Comic Convention. Minor problem: We also need to go to a wedding in North Carolina that Saturday night. We’re definitely considering coming out for at least the first two days of the event, because it’s always one of the highlights of our year.
A convention volunteer was also passing out FanX 2020 (The Con That Never Was) pins to the exhibitors during one of my book signing slots. Some of that is for the spouse, who especially loves The Expanse, Dune, and all things Hufflepuff. But I couldn’t resist adding to my TARDIS and Sabine Wren collections, and the t-shirt and necklace were obviously made for me!
Yes. I’ll be attending Capclave 2022 this upcoming weekend, hosted by the Washington Science Fiction Association! As this convention is local (or at least more local than Utah), I will be commuting from home, not staying at the host hotel. (Also, I think my cats would riot.) But since this is another convention that I have not been able to attend in person for 3 years, I’m really looking forward to seeing old friends and making new ones.
Capclave 2022 September 30 – October 2, 2022 Rockville Hilton & Executive Meeting Center Rockville, MD
8:30 PM: Too Soon? Writing and Reading About Pandemics (panel, Eisenhower Room) After nearly three years of living with a global pandemic, some are craving stories that reflect our daily reality. Others aren’t ready to relive the difficulties of suffering through a pandemic. Panelists discuss the pros and cons of writing and reading about pandemics in 2022. -> With Adam R. Shannon, Mary G. Thompson, Adeena, Mignogna, and Jennifer R. Povey (I’m moderating!)
2:30 PM: Spotlight on Alternate History (panel, Eisenhower Room) Alternative histories are more popular than ever. Why do historical what-ifs continue to fascinate us, and what makes a powerful (and plausible!) story? -> With T.C. Weber (moderator), Carolyn Ives Gilman, Bjorn Hasseler, and Jack Campbell
4:00 PM: Mixed-Genre Stories (panel, Jackson Room) Sometimes, the story you want to write doesn’t fit into traditional genre patterns. Sometimes it fits into ALL the traditional genre patterns. What are the virtues and pitfalls of genre-bending such as finding your audience, marketing through genre-specific channels, generating industry acclaim, finding your niche, and more? Panelists discuss the stories that defy standard shelving paradigms. -> With A.T. Greenblatt, Brian Hugenbruch, and Charles Gannon (I’m moderating!)
My first visit to this new, multi-author series happens to be with one of my favorite authors, so I knew I was in for a treat. Novak brings her lovely writing style and well-crafted characters to a series about professional male models (and the men who love them) with a frank look at both the upsides and downsides to the life of a professional model (difficult working conditions, but sometimes you get free clothes). Luckily, the photo shoot that opens this book is on the better end of the spectrum, and as a bonus, model Beau reconnects with childhood best friend Cash, who works as a professional makeup artist.
The immediate attraction Beau and Cash experience is layered nicely with the pure joy they feel at finding someone they had drifted away from, due to age and distance. The time apart and connecting as adults means Novak doesn’t bother with any angst about the changing nature of their friendship. This book is pretty low-angst all around, but it’s not all fluff with no substance. Instead of a dark moment, I enjoyed the individual journeys these characters embark on as part of finding love so early in their careers. Beau and Cash don’t sacrifice any of their goals or dreams, but they do recognize the obstacles they face and make mature decisions about what to prioritize.
Novak’s nod to inclusivity in fashion and modeling is fun and joyful without ever verging into “preachy” territory. As usual, she also includes vibrant secondary characters who enhance the world Beau and Cash exist in. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with these sweet (and sexy) men and even experienced some happy tears at the very end of this book, which was the perfect beginning to their happily ever after.
Disclaimer: I received a digital review copy of this book from the author.
We’re now eight books into this epic, interconnected romance series, and Cara Dee consistently delivers with each new installment. This book does technically work as a stand-alone, but I highly recommend that readers also check out Out of the Ashes (The Game #5) to best appreciate Franklin’s full journey as an individual character and in relation to others in his new community, especially Kingsley, Tate, and Noa.
All Franklin wanted when he joined this community was to stretch his wings and explore certain freedoms for the first time in his life. However, subs don’t often get what they want, and his grand plan is disrupted when an old friend returns to town. I enjoyed the relationship arc between Franklin and Jack on multiple levels in this book, especially because I already knew Franklin is adorable, and I was pleased to discover his perfect match in Jack. Once again, Dee leans into the overall theme of this series without hitting readers over the head with it. In this case, how Franklin and Jack discover new truths about their personal desires as they begin to intertwine as a pair was a thoughtful and sexy journey by turns.
It’s not necessarily possible to separate the kinks from the relationships in this series because for these characters, it is as much a part of their core identities as it is a way to spice up physical interactions. I’ve appreciated all aspects of the lifestyle that I’ve learned about through Dee’s writing, but for the first time, I think I’ve come closest here to understanding the attraction of particular kinks that hold zero personal interest for me. This is a huge credit to Dee as a writer and in how she develops her characters. (Side note for context here: Jack is the nephew of Franklin’s ex-wife, and though the families are close, Franklin had no hand in raising Jack as a child.) For example, both characters lean into the semi-taboo nature of their changing relationship by using titles (“Uncle,” “son” as a general term of affection, etc.) to trigger a humiliation kink. This, along with the way the characters play with jealousy, isn’t sexy to me, but it’s sexy to them, which in turn ends up making it sexy again.
The Game Series: Come for the amazing characters and well-deserved happily ever afters; stay for the intellectual examination of kink, identity, and interpersonal dynamics.
I write that mostly as a joke, because all of my thoughts in the previous paragraph occurred after I finished reading the book. While I was in the midst of it, I was invested solely in these men and their journey together (literally, I binge-read this ARC the moment I got it). I would have loved to see Jack’s perspective for some of that journey, but because Dee is writing this series in a circular sort of fashion regarding her characters, I know I can look forward to a follow-up novel with all the Jack I could want.
If you’re already a fan of this series, one thing you can count on in this book is the lovely sensation of Franklin making friends and spending time with characters you already know and love. New readers can go back to the beginning or pick and choose who’d they’d like to focus on next, but I guarantee you’ll find something to love in each unique story.
Disclaimer: I received a digital review copy of this book from the author.
Read my review of the first book in the Sin Bin: West Coast series, Breakaway
Lindsey treats us to a few of my favorite tropes in the latest installment of their hockey romance series. Poly romance arcs are a particular favorite because it’s like getting multiple story arcs for the price of one, and as usual, Lindsey upends every expectation by creating a unique dynamic between three well-developed characters. Plus, all the “idiots in love” goodness I could want from any story.
Marko and Luka already have a history long before this book starts, and while the physical aspect of their relationship is solid, the emotional bit is in flux. Luka doesn’t want more, he wants certainty, which I found perfectly in character for this cinnamon roll. Marko wants nothing more than to give Luka anything he desires, but Lindsey portrays his neurodivergence beautifully as Luka’s hesitancy clashes with Marko’s occasional difficulty with interpreting emotion. I’d have been enthralled by a book entirely about their evolving relationship, but Lindsey heightens every element of the story by dropping Nolan into the mix. He’s the emotional equivalent of a feral cat, and bonus points to Lindsey for such an excellent portrayal of an aromantic character, which is entirely different from asexual. (All three of these men are very sexual, and each spicy scene, no matter who is involved, is off-the-charts hot.)
Most poly romances focus on building equal relationships between the featured characters, but I appreciated that Lindsey doesn’t follow pattern here. Instead, they remind readers that poly doesn’t have to be 100 percent equal on all sides—it just has to be right for each individual involved. Marko, Luka, and Nolan all place different values on physical and emotional intimacy, and the importance of this book’s happily ever after lies with each character’s happiness, not an external measure of “equality.” The dark moment in this book is really only from the reader’s perspective. For the characters, it feels more like life as usual during the sort of emotional flux that comes into play when making any leap of faith.
This story works as a stand-alone, but I enjoyed the active presence of previous series heroes Ravi and Adrien as they support their best friends in excellent counters to toxic masculinity. I also loved the subtle references to other works by the author, who has created a fun, fictional representation of Denver and the surrounding communities. This book is not to be missed by anyone looking for a twist on the standard poly romance arc, especially those who also appreciate unique characters.
Disclaimer: I received a digital review copy of this book from the author.
I’m finally returning to Salt Lake City this year! Spouse and I are flying in Thursday morning and leaving Sunday morning, so we’ll be around for all 3 days of the convention. I have a few panels and book signing slots, and most importantly, I’ll be back with my interactive alternate history presentation.
A huge thanks, once again, to The Printed Garden for hosting my books. Copies of all six installments of the Steel Empires series will be available for purchase at Booth 2471.
3:30 PM: Book Signing (The Printed Garden Booth 2471)
7:00 PM: Alternate History: Creating Stories by Changing the Past (presentation, Room 251D) Join author and editor J.L. Gribble for an interactive presentation on alternate history storytelling. This workshop is geared toward both readers and writers in all genres who are curious about what goes into creating an alternate history or looking for inspiration on how to develop their own stories and worlds.
2:00 PM: Book Signing (The Printed Garden, Booth 2471)
5:00 PM: Writing Great Fanfiction (panel, Room 255C) If you’re a real fan of one or more published or scripted storylines out there, you’ve undoubtedly spent time making up stories in your head about some of your favorite characters. Sometimes its a brand new adventure of your own design. Sometimes you just modify a franchised story to make it “better.” Out of such mental musings are born terrific pieces of fanfiction. It’s time to take your fandom to the next level and start writing your own fan-based stories! Join us as we delve into the craft of writing fanfiction: why you should write it, what types of fanfiction there are, and what to do with your story once it’s written. Writing fanfiction can inspire, instruct, and ignite your imagination, whether you are a beginning writer, a professional author, or somewhere in between. –> With Cheree Alsop, Shannen Camp, Julie Frost, Jodi. L. Milder, Christopher J. Thompson, and David J. West
7:00 PM: From the Battle of New York to the Blip: The Strange Lives of the Citizens of the MCU (panel, Room 255C) In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we have seen all sorts of enemies threaten the safety of the citizens of the MCU, from nazis, to robots and aliens constantly invading major cities — or outright lifting them up in the air and then dropping them to the ground. But the MCU has slowly but surely been making its citizens accustomed to a different kind of threat beyond supervillains with colorful costumes and mighty powers. Instead, the Marvel universe has been alarmingly increasing its kaiju population. From frost giants, obelisks, leviathans, and colossal humanoids like Surtur (a Celestial literally rising from the middle of the Indian Ocean), and now “Moon Knight” carrying on the franchise’s proud tradition of kaiju fights with two actual gods punching each other in the middle of Cairo. What must life be like for the average humans in this world? How many events can take place before they shrug of a world ending threat with a shrug and call it a Tuesday? –> With Marlee Haywood Black, Robert Neal, Tracy Mangum, and Troy Mangum
Bauer is one of those authors whose stunning use of language elevates the work from general storytelling to a genuine art form. I’d probably have loved this book all on its own based on the excellent characterization and intricate plotline, but luckily, I got to read this amazing bit of literature instead. The action starts at what looks like the moment right before the climax, so I expected the flashback that occurred soon after the early reveal of the dark moment. However, it wasn’t just a teasing prologue to get us hooked. This book is more like two stories in one as we follow dual storylines that are each worthy of a dedicated book.
I kind of expected the angst, but what I didn’t anticipate was the two separate types of angst we get during each separate narrative. The past, which includes point-of-view scenes from both Reese and Brennan, features many bright moments of these characters meeting before the inevitable conflict when their roles in the world tear them apart. This narrative is more political, as Brennan and Reese both have public roles to play and understand how a reveal of their relationship might affect those roles. The events of the present that weave through the flashbacks are purely suspense, all from Reese’s perspective, while he has no idea whether Brennan is even dead or alive for most of the book. The themes of service and sacrifice tie both of these arcs together, and Bauer teaches a master class here on both pacing and how and when to reveal specific details that affect both timelines.
Bauer also treads a fine line between making Brennan and Reese a little too perfect. Instead, these men are three-dimensional characters who lean toward aspirational of what I’d love to see in a real-world American president and the man in charge of protecting him. The connection that develops between them is less about the physical and more about emotional and mental intimacy as they cultivate a tentative friendship into a genuine romance. I appreciated that their main political roadblock is not that Brennan is gay, but that he hid his orientation. In the same vein, I also loved that Bauer skips over any boring “bi panic” on Reese’s part and focuses on how sometimes the important part is just finding your person.
I laughed, I swooned, and I cried, but most importantly, I couldn’t put this book down. This novel works as a stand-alone story, but Bauer doesn’t skimp on developing a handful of secondary characters—and there is one in particular that I’d love to see more of in the future. If a sequel is written, Bauer left plenty of fascinating routes open for an equally compelling romantic suspense story. Until then, this one shouldn’t be missed.
This post includes reviews of the books in the Diviner’s Game series:
Bishop to Knight One (#1)
Knight to Castle Two (#2)
Queen to King Three (#3)
Bishop to Knight One (Diviner’s Game #1)
When I tried to read an earlier edition of this book, I didn’t get very far. A few months later, I read other books by this author and fell in love with her creativity and writing style. So, when I found out she had released a revised version of this book, I knew I had to give it a second chance. Though it does have some lingering editorial issues, none of the elements that bugged me the first time around remained. I ended up binge-reading this entire trilogy in a single weekend, and I loved every moment of it.
Cody solidly roots her worldbuilding for this universe in a few basic tenets that still result in a lot of seeming bureaucracy. However, what makes it all so complicated is also what makes it so intriguing and fun. Deejay and Matt are good men to their core, but it’s important to note that they are not human men. The non-human world is particularly violent, despite the guidelines that seem to define the violence rather than mitigate it, and Deejay and Matt are very much part of that world. But their moments of magical and physical violence always stem from protecting their family, especially the children they have claimed as their own. This shared connection is what leads to their developing relationship, which is both sweet and spicy in appropriate turns.
The external storyline that envelops them as their relationship evolves is also deliciously twisty. These two heroes are protagonists in their own lives, obviously, but I started to get the impression that they’re not exactly the heroes of the overall story. Cody introduces plenty of other characters along the way, and I found myself equally drawn to them and invested in their potential relationships. Overall, the story ends the way the opening book in a trilogy should: with a solid moment of connection for the main characters and plenty of opportunities for further storytelling. (I can’t make any predictions here because I wrote this after finishing the full trilogy, but I will acknowledge that the next book did not go in the direction I expected.)
I mentioned at the end of my review of the previous book in this trilogy that I originally had a few ideas of where this series might go. I did not expect it to go back to the very beginning of the story! The events of this book interact and overlap closely with those in Bishop to Knight One, which is always a neat trick. Technically, we already know how this story ends—but Loki and Gage play very different roles, revealing multiple layers to this trilogy’s over-arcing plot. Along the way, we also learn more about the characters of Loki and Gage and how what the other Houston non-humans assume about their Headsman could not be farther from the truth.
It is possible for morally gray characters in a complicated relationship to also be absolutely adorable, and Loki and Gage manage this in spades. Their romance arc does not follow the expected genre beats for multiple reasons, but I found myself completely invested in their story and character development. So many authors employ the “fated mates” trope as an excuse for insta-love, but Cody leans into her amazing world-building to create a unique take on the concept. What would be viewed as an obsessive and unhealthy codependent connection in a contemporary romance can’t be judged by the same rules here, because Loki and Gage aren’t human. When they’re not being adorable, this pair is also incredibly hot, even when Cody once again bucks genre expectations by blurring the definitions of sex.
I’m learning that this is not a series about good guys. It’s even better, in that it’s a story about well-developed characters doing good things in a world with some vastly different ideas about good versus evil. Cody may be writing paranormal romance, but her creativity and storytelling ability officially make her one of my favorite overall urban fantasy authors.
Once again, we return to the beginning of the story for the final installment of this trilogy. This time, the focus is on Robbie and Chanda, along with their developing relationship. We finally get some answers about both men, including Robbie’s true identity and the role Chanda has played in this entire game. It turns out these are the characters who have been most relevant all along, and their romance arc feels more like a bonus treat to accompany the compelling external plot.
For all the danger and intrigue so far, it turns out this has been all a game—and Chanda is the protagonist of the entire scheme. That being said, Cody has excelled at making every point of view character the hero of their own story, with the freedom to make choices and mistakes, despite the later revelation that the Diviners are tugging on certain strings. This book features plenty of amazing plot twists considering we technically already know what always happens next, and I was blown away by Cody’s ability to craft such a layered and intricate story.
It’s hard to pick a favorite of the three romances in this trilogy because each was as different as the featured characters. Once again, Cody upends everything I thought I knew about Robbie. Even his true personality is a bundle of delightful surprises, and I was impressed by how his anxiety is a defining aspect of his character but did not define his character. Chanda’s love for Robbie also does not fix him; instead, Chanda makes Robbie feel safe enough to express his true strength, giving him the space to act instead of constantly react.
This book wraps up the majority of the plotlines established in this trilogy but leaves plenty of larger questions unanswered. Cody’s talent with secondary characters also means I’m already excited to read more about them and extend my stay in this fantastic urban fantasy world.
Read my review of an earlier book set in the same world, Impact
This book is not officially part of the series, per the author, and it works very well as a stand-alone. But, both main characters here are featured in Impact, and the overall friendship connections involved in the larger cast of characters are more interesting and carry a bit more weight if you have read the previous book. Hawthorne understands the weight that all relationships, whether platonic or romantic, can carry for women, and I appreciated that she continues the evolution of Harper and Bailey’s friendship here.
This book is also the full story of a surprise reveal that occurred at the very end of Impact, explaining how characters independent of the previous heroines meet and develop their own relationship. It’s the sort of meet-cute that only seems possible in fiction, but Harper and Bree also feel like people who just happen to exist in a fictional universe instead of down the street from me in the real world. Whereas Impact goes the more obvious route of an experienced dominant character helping a submissive explore these tendencies, Play flips this script on multiple levels. I had so much fun following along as Harper takes the first steps as both a baby Domme and a baby gay as she indulges in elements of herself that she never really allowed herself to imagine before meeting Bree. That being said, I was equally fascinated by how Bree embraces her journey of self-discovery regarding her own submission and how she wants to explore it in her relationships.
Yep, that’s relationships plural. On the main level of this book, it is an entirely monogamous F/F romance story. However, Hawthorne’s characterization and storytelling ability deftly balance this “active” element of the book with the knowledge that both main characters are bisexual and that one of them firmly identifies as polyamorous. Thus, Harper and Bree’s arc toward happily ever after includes discussions of polyamory, including with people of other genders, but does not feature on-page practice. All of this is integral to the character development that is at the heart of this story. Instead of an unnecessarily angst-ridden dark moment, this book highlights the satisfaction of two separate people growing as individuals, together. Along the way, we also a few delightful “idiots in love” moments, along with the sheer adorability that is mutual girl crushes developing into a deeper emotional connection.
Disclaimer: I received a digital review copy of this book from the author.