Book Review: Ornamental (Irons & Works #8) by E.M. Lindsey

Read my reviews of the previous books in the Irons & Works series: | book cover of Ornamental (Irons & Works #8) by E.M. Lindsey

We return to the Irons & Works tattoo shop for another visit to this excellent universe. You’d think we’d be running out of characters, but Lindsey effortlessly weaves together the “next generation” working full-time at the shop and the old guard who have gone down to part-time but remain close members of this lovely extended family. Luke got his start here but moved away from Fairfield to escape the lingering hold of his toxic childhood. He’s back now and slowly settling into his rightful place. He’d like an eventual happily ever after but is convinced that he’s not long-term material, even with his bisexuality doubling the potential pool.

In contrast, Raf arrives in Fairfield metaphorically kicking and screaming. His not-quite-perfect life took a drastic turn for the worse, and he’s not sure whether his newly exacerbated neurological disorder is the cause or a result. Luckily, he has a biological family to turn to, even if he’s not quite sure of the reception he’ll get. But Tony, estranged younger brother and owner of Irons & Works, immediately kicks into high gear to help Raf get settled here and work to get a better custody agreement for his daughter. Along the way, and free of his marriage, Raf quietly examines his desires and accepts his bisexuality. One of the things I loved about this character, in addition to him being older, is that Raf doesn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on “bi angst.” After all, he’s got enough more pressing issues to deal with already.

Luke and Raf become friends mostly through proximity, and a significant portion of this book cover their slow burn into friendship. Raf worries that the physical effects of his disorder will chase everyone away, but Luke never blinks, even at the worst. The friendship that blooms is a lovely example of positive masculinity, and the comfort between them acts as the precursor to a possible relationship. Luke crushes hard, more obviously, which is picked up by all around him except for Raf, who buries his attraction more deeply until it bursts out in the most dramatic way possible.

Thus, the slow burn continues as they muddle through a surprise first kiss. Right afterward, we reach the lack of competent communication portion of the plot. It made me smile even while rolling my eyes at these two bisexual disasters (and I say that in the nicest way possible). Since this is a romance, the happily ever after is expected but also completely satisfying. Coming home is the theme of this book, and I thoroughly enjoyed the journey as these characters find it at Irons & Works and with each other.

Final note: I always trust this author to do the appropriate research into every important facet of their characters. A basic primer on Tourette Syndrome is included in the front matter. Still, throughout the text, Lindsey does a great job of including subtle education about TS without Raf ever having to do more work than the scene requires.

Disclaimer: I received an electronic review copy of this book from the author.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) stars. Cross-posted to Amazon and Goodreads.

Book Review: Bellamy (Sons of the Fallen #5) by Jaclyn Osborn | book cover of Bellamy (Sons of the Fallen #5) by Jaclyn Osborn

The fated mate connection between Bellamy (avatar of Lust) and Phoenix (demon and all-around snarky dude) has been teased for a few books. Though we have only seen their interactions from other perspectives until now, their eventual clash was less inevitable and more like watching a train wreck in progress. I have a soft spot for the enemies-to-lovers trope, and this story doubled down on that concept in pretty much every way possible. After all, Bellamy and Phoenix are not merely on opposite sides of this war. They both fill significant positions in their respective hierarchies, and how they deal with their connection could tip the entire balance of the conflict that embroils them.

The angst is real in this book, through every stage of the evolving relationship. I thought I cried during the dark moment in Castor’s book? I ran through so many more tissues for this one. Even when I wanted to smack both men, I understood the constraints that prevented them from being one of the easier love matches, such as Galen and Gray managed.

However, for the first time, we see a more nuanced view of the “bad guys” from Phoenix’s position as one of his leader’s closest advisors. Osborn does an excellent job of portraying Phoenix as a singularly selfish character. He’s not an antihero; he is an unapologetic villain whose loyalties happen to change. No dramatic shift in his characterization occurs between the earlier books and this one so that Osborn could pull off a dramatic romance. His evolution follows naturally from what we’ve seen before.

Osborn again also avoids a potentially “saggy middle” book now that we’re on the descending side of the overall story arc. Multiple layers of the plot come together here, with secrets revealed and major events that move along the overall, nonstop pace. A plot twist I never saw coming shocked me, and it sets up the potential for even more conflict in the final two books. If book 4 upped the scope of this war, this book leads the readers inexorably toward the dark moment. The brothers experience a major loss that feels appropriate to the potential symbolism of the relationship between Bellamy and Phoenix.

This series is the sort I would binge-read if I hadn’t caught up to the publishing schedule! Two single brothers are left of the Sons of the Fallen, and I have a decent idea of Raiden’s love interest in book 6. I’m less clear on Alistair’s fate, but if my prediction comes true, the potential fallout will leave Bellamy and Phoenix looking like childhood sweethearts.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) stars. Cross-posted to Amazon and Goodreads.

Book Review: Spirited Situation (Ghostly Guardians #1) by Louisa Masters | book cover of Spirited Situation (Ghostly Guardians #1) by Louisa Masters

This book popped close to the top of the list when I began to intentionally search out urban fantasy stories emphasizing queer characters instead of queer paranormal romances. A difference between the two exists, even when one of the central characters in this book has a paranormal ability. The romance between Josh and Ewan is very much secondary to the actual conflict in this novel, even when, for the first time in his life, Josh’s ability to see ghosts is an asset instead of a liability. I expected to spend a lot of time in this book with him interpreting for the local ghosts, but I was delighted by the twist that everyone on the estate can communicate with them (for which Masters gives a valid fantasy reason). The humans and spirits of Mannix Estate receive equal emphasis as characters, and Masters balances the description of all of them well without overloading the reader.

The relationship between Josh and Ewan does develop over the full length of the book, but the necessary conflict for this plot arc is encountered and resolved early. This story structure is a significant cue that the novel is urban fantasy rather than paranormal romance, despite fantasy and romance as central to both. It also allows the more life-threatening conflict of the book to take precedence late without any “will he/won’t he?” drama stealing the spotlight. Masters emphasizes how communication is a major theme of the book by having a lack of communication between Josh and Ewan create the conflict, an authorial choice I found amusing since everyone else (read: the ghosts) can communicate just fine (and possibly too much).

I’ll admit that the book’s first half dragged a bit for me. Once the minor conflict between Josh and Ewan is over, and they decide to be “friends” (ha, like that’s going to last), Josh meeting everyone and settling into his new home takes up a lot of pages. Masters also falls into a version of the “cell phones in a horror story” trap because I desperately wanted to shove a Bluetooth headset at Josh to resolve the issues with him talking to thin air. Everything changes when we hit the 50 percent mark, and the resident ghosts acknowledge that they were waiting for Josh to get comfortable before they hit him with the estate’s dark secret. Then, we’re swept up in an engaging old-school mystery vibe. Everyone pitches in to deal with immediate concerns, handle amusing research issues, and then confront the villain. In contrast, the last half of the book enthralled me, and Masters balances the external plot with Josh and Ewan’s deepening connection well.

While a major issue for the estate is solved in this book, opportunities are left open for further conflict and focus on additional characters. I look forward to the next installment of this series, and I’m definitely curious about whether we ever learn about or meet the mysterious estate owners—and possibly a certain online contact.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) stars. Cross-posted to Amazon and Goodreads.

Book Review: Not Allowed (Not Ready for Love #1) by Kate Hawthorne | book cover of Not Allowed (Not Ready for Love #1) by Kate Hawthorne

Hawthorne is one of those authors who can take typical genre tropes and always put her unique spin on them. In this case, she upends the dad’s best friend/age-gap romance premise by featuring two characters who are both too self-aware and incredibly dumb about everything they’re getting themselves into.

As a mature adult in his 30s, Grant easily squashes his initial attraction to his best friend’s 18-year-old kid. However, Wyatt has GOALS for spending this summer at his dad’s place before heading off to college in 8 weeks. Wyatt’s pursual of Grant comes off as adorable and oblivious, depending on the scene’s point-of-view character. In contrast, Grant should be nominated for sainthood for his initial patience with Wyatt.

Unfortunately, or luckily, depending on how you view things, Grant is no saint. He does his best to turn the tables on Wyatt and regain some control of the situation (and chemistry) between them. Still, he’s also self-aware to know that he’s many levels of idiot by allowing the affair. As a result, the story blends the perfect levels of awkwardness and heartbreaking at the same time, especially as the summer comes to a close and the men understand the hole they’ve dug together.

Though this novel is on the shorter side, Wyatt and Grant are still developed as solid individual characters, along with the secondary characters of Wyatt’s dad Adam and even a bit of his boss Cooper. Wyatt’s practiced indifference toward his father evokes perfect divorced kid vibes (especially for this divorced kid). Grant and Adam’s relationship with kink are not specifically delved into here, but although Grant tries to skirt around the issue with Wyatt, innate elements still crop up in their interactions. The way Wyatt accidentally learns about his dad’s lifestyle is yet another delightful blend of hilarious and awkward, especially regarding the research Wyatt attempts afterward.

Finally, the notion of a satisfying cliffhanger should be contradictory. I will admit to some strong words with the author when I started the epilogue, but I completely agreed with the direction Hawthorne appears to be taking this trilogy by the time I finished it. The cliffhanger is much more of a mood than a surprise break in the action, so please don’t let that stop you from reading this fantastic novel immediately.

Disclaimer: I received an electronic review copy of this novel from the author.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) stars. Cross-posted to Amazon and Goodreads.

Book Review: Magi Accounts Series by Michele Notaro

This post includes reviews of the currently available books in the Magi Accounts series:

  • Our Hearts That Tie Us (#0.5)
  • The Scars That Bind Us (#1)
  • A Kiss to Revive Me (#1.5)

Our Hearts That Tie Us (Magi Accounts #0.5) | book cover of Our Hearts That Tie Us (Magi Accounts #0.5) by Michele Notaro

This novella is available as a free download via Prolific Works as part of the Your Book Boyfriend’s Boyfriend M/M Romance Group Giveaway 2022.

Since I read this novella after reading the first full-length book, I can’t speak to how well the world-building details hold up if this is your first experience with this series. That being said, I still absolutely adore this world and Notaro’s particular twist on fusing urban fantasy elements with real-world issues. The allegories aren’t necessarily subtle, but since they are still relevant, maybe they shouldn’t be. Rylen and Benton fill different roles and have slightly different backgrounds than Madeo and Cosmo, so although similarities with the next book exist, they exist on a smaller scale here.

Overall, Benton is a little too perfect to be real, so I understand much of Rylen’s tentative acceptance of his affections. Rylen’s experiences and warnings from other mages don’t make trust easy. Their happily ever after is achieved through character development on Rylen’s part, with the dark moment focusing completely on an external threat. This novella probably isn’t necessary reading for context for the full series, but it was worth spending the time to read it.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) stars. Cross-posted to Goodreads.

The Scars That Bind Us (Magi Accounts #1) | book cover of The Scars That Bind Us (Magi Accounts #1) by Michele Notaro

Most books that feature romance in a contemporary world that includes magic or supernatural creatures are billed as paranormal romance. However, though a romantic relationship slowly evolves between two of the characters here, this book belongs firmly in the urban fantasy category (perhaps with romance tacked on at the end). This label is appropriate because the story’s focus is very much on the main character and his place in the world. That narrative frames the relationship he develops and, while sweet and sexy, is secondary to the main plot.

Madeo (Mads) and his magical partner Jude are at the true center of this book. As magi, they are at the bottom of the cultural/social pile in the country where they live (a sadly all-to-recognizable future United States). The way this pair was raised has traumatized them more than they perhaps let on in the text, but the signs are recognizable in how each man reacts to the people and events they experience. Mads, in particular, would not be able to get away with even how comparably little he acts out about his circumstances if he were not so powerful and therefore necessary to the country he unwillingly serves. However, we get to see the chilling alternative in what happens to another mage in the story’s first act.

Notaro does an excellent job of balancing world-building with story progression, especially at the beginning of the book. She also uses the roles magi and shifters play in this book’s society to comment on existing social issues, but while they are obvious, I never felt like I was being preached to. Instead, I enjoyed how Mads’ perception of another culture changes throughout the book. This trope has previously been used in fiction to show a person in a position of power recognizing the potential and goodness in someone of lower status. I appreciated how Notaro flips the script and makes the original conflict completely believable.

The romance between Mads and Cosmo is slow-burn and very much a sub-element of the book used to enhance the theme rather than the story’s focus. Though the entire book is from Mads’ point of view, Notaro fleshes out multiple secondary characters but doesn’t let them fall too far into the stereotypes she has created for her world. I look forward to reading more of this series, as much to enjoy how Mads and Cosmo continue to grow closer as to follow along with the greater found family element and the epic dangers they face together.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) stars. Cross-posted to Amazon and Goodreads.

A Kiss to Revive Me (Magi Accounts #1.5) | book cover of A Kiss to Revive Me (Magi Accounts #1.5) by Michele Notaro

I’m not sure whether this secondary novella is intended to be read as part of the full series, so I read it while taking both perspectives into account. Either way, I enjoyed getting a full story from Cosmo’s point of view, and I appreciate that the only territory Notaro retreads is the first time he encounters Madeo. The rest of the interactions between all characters happen after the first book’s events, while Cosmo and Madeo are still settling into a relationship despite the external barriers they face.

The external plot is a bit of a repeat of a secondary storyline from book 1, in which Madeo and his dyad Jude are determined to save a young mage from the abusive life in which they were raised. The significant difference here is that Cosmo is aware of their main goal and insists on helping (along with his pride). Along the way, Cosmo gets a huge wake-up call regarding the reality of living as a mage. I understand Madeo’s reluctance to share the past he’d rather keep locked away, especially when every new revelation of the dark underbelly of their society affects Cosmo like a punch to the gut.

Cosmo might be used to being a secondary member of their society as a shifter, but the gap between shifters and humans is minuscule compared to the chasm that further separates the mages. In this novella, he begins to learn how to deal with Madeo’s life on multiple levels. I think he’s getting there when it comes to Madeo’s life as a mage, and Notaro teases more of a further conflict as Cosmo realizes how close Madeo and Jude are bound with magic and what that might mean for a true romantic bond with him.

Even if this novella was not intended to be necessary reading for the full Magi Accounts series, I highly recommend that readers not miss it. I already look forward to seeing how elements of this story continue to thread throughout the next book and beyond.

Rating: 4.5 (out of 5) stars. Cross-posted to Amazon and Goodreads.

StokerCon 2022 Schedule [redacted]

Yesterday, I was super excited to tell you all about my upcoming trip to Denver for StokerCon!

What you didn’t know, if you don’t follow me on social media, is that the spouse and I both finally caught COVID last week. We’re both vaccinated and boosted, but since the spouse is military, it was literally only a matter of time. I had bad cold/sinus symptoms for a few days and now feel totally fine. But since I literally work in the infectious diseases field, you better bet that I took a rapid test this morning to do my due diligence.

What you may not know is that even when you recover from COVID symptoms, you can still be infectious for days afterward. The test only had to sit for about 30 seconds before it laughed in my face.

So, the good news is that I feel fine.

The bad news is that I will miss everyone’s lovely faces in Denver. (Cranky Hanna is cranky.)

Now, please cross your fingers for me that I am not still infectious when Balticon rolls around in 2.5 weeks.

StokerCon 2022 Schedule | promo banner for StokerCon 2022

Due to a series of fortuitous events, I will be attending StokerCon 2022 in Denver, Colorado, this week, from Thursday May 12 to Sunday May 15!

However, for the first time in years, I am not attending a convention as a programming participant. (sad trombone noises)

But JL! You are not a horror writer!

I am not, but don’t tell that to the number of horror plot bunnies that I have tucked away in a folder. My publisher primarily focuses on horror, and I have never discriminated against genre for any of my writer friends. Honestly, horror writers are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.

I had airline money to use that was expiring literally this weekend, a friend needed a roommate, and I was able to snag a free registration (I didn’t ask questions). Attending Farpoint earlier this year was nice, but I am in desperate need of a con where I will be around my tribe, which includes plenty of people who are part of my extended grad school network, those who are involved with my publisher, and many who are both. Over the past 2 years, it has become clear that regular conventions are a huge part of what drives my writing, because being with my people energizes me in a way that pure online communication doesn’t.

But all of this doesn’t mean you won’t know where to find me! For most of the convention, you can probably find me in the dealers room holding down the fort at the Raw Dog Screaming Press table. I will have a handful of copies of all the currently available Steel Empires novels, but honestly, I have a blast selling books by my entire cohort. So, if you check us out, I’m definitely more interested in helping you find a book you’ll love, even if it’s not mine.

I look forward to seeing old friends and new this weekend, along with cheering on those I know on the ballot for Bram Stoker Awards. As always, ping me here or on social media if you’re interested in meeting up for a meal, drink (alcoholic or non), or just a chat!

(I promise to ask whether you’ve seen The Old Guard only once.)

Book Review: Oh So Oscar (Forever Love #3) by Charlie Novak

Read my reviews of the previous books in the Forever Love series: | book cover of Oh So Oscar (Forever Love #3) by Charlie Novak

This book gives the final son of the sprawling combined family that has threaded its way into every corner of Novak’s shared book universe his happily ever after. So far, Oscar’s travel-writer lifestyle (and London home base) means that he has been the most mysterious brother. But the obvious affection his family carries for him means that I knew I’d be more than happy to spend a few hundred pages with him. A misunderstanding puts Oscar on a crash course with Ilias in a fun story that crosses multiple continents and leans into the fake relationship and “only one bed” tropes, supported by the inherent conflict in a grumpy/sunshine match. Luckily, Oscar and Ilias are incredibly self-aware of the ridiculousness of their situation. The circumstances of their professions allow them to embrace the farce and make the best of it.

Their adventure in growing closer at a resort in Hawaii is only the story’s first half. No getting to the end of spending a week together and living happily ever for these two. Part of this is because Oscar and Ilias are both responsible adults with lives to consider. Part is because both carry a bit of baggage over past relationships (romantic and familial), and finally, a bit because Oscar is demisexual. However, plenty of travel adventures remain in store for these two in the remainder of the story, continuing the forced proximity theme that makes it at least a bit easier for the characters to find the chance to open up to each other.

This novel is not necessarily darker than the previous two installments of this trilogy, but it does dig into deeper emotions. The final conflict is a bit more stressful, but Novak balances it wonderfully with excellent (and relevant) appearances by side characters we’ve already grown to love and one of the hottest physical arcs I’ve read recently, especially for fans of the slow burn. Novak also touches on real-world issues that correspond with our heroes’ professions, such as the impact of tourism and sustainable travel. Oscar and Ilias are aware of their roles in this issue and share their thoughts in a manner that never feels preachy.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who has already been following Novak’s adventures in this world. It’s probably not the best place to start, series-wise, but that’s okay; I also highly recommend pretty much anything written by this author. I look forward to joining her for further adventures (and I have the feeling this isn’t the last we’ve seen off the Baker-Moore clan).

Disclaimer: I received an electronic review copy of this novel from the author.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) stars. Cross-posted to Amazon and Goodreads.

LEGO Build Report: The White House

Ships and buildings are my thing when it comes to LEGO, but by buildings, I tend to mean sets that are part of the Creator Expert category rather than famous architectural buildings. However, far from me to turn down a free LEGO set! My father-in-law found a brand new set for me at a yard sale — box open, but pieces still in their individual bags! I had a lot to do during the spouse’s March work weekend, but I still managed to find the time to try something new and add to the collection. My entertainment for this relatively short build was an audiobook.

The White House (21006) — 560 pieces

The box was a bit battered and, unfortunately, reeked of cigarette smoke. Everything else about this set was pristine, including the instruction booklet. This one featured awesome pictures and details about the history and renovations of the White House. As usual, this set started with the base.

The sides of the building came next, in the form of completely black and white pillars of the tiniest bricks available. One step literally included over 100 bricks.

Next, I added more architectural details and started on the roof and landscaping.

And finally, I finished the roof detail and additional landscaping. Below is the completed set from two angles.

Between building this set and when this post will go live, the spouse and I spent over an hour at a local LEGO store with friends, where we created personalized minifigures! Below is a sneak peek, and you can find the full results of my photoshoot on Instagram.

Bach and Hanna in their natural habitat (a coffee shop).

April Wrap-Up & May Goals

Awesome things I did this past month:

  • Doubled my word count from March.
  • Read a ton of ARCs (advance reader copies) by some of my favorite authors.
  • Got together with my best friends.
Squad, assemble!

All in all, a pretty successful 30 days! I don’t expect to double my word count again for May, but I’ll be happy if I sneak in an additional 5k words. I’m excited about Steel Legacy again. Not that I wasn’t excited before, but it was more of a nebulous excitement wrapped up in an inaccessible fence of stress and overwhelm. The combination of an extra bit of help and summer fast approaching has been a huge boost on the writing front.

Another huge boost will be my return to the convention scene. Not to discount the convention I attended in February, but that isn’t a con where I have too many good friends versus writing acquaintances. One thing I definitely noticed during the past two years is how much I rely on the boost that seeing my writing tribe in person gives me. Here’s where you can find me in the next 2 months:

Drop me a line if I’ll see you at any of the above, either by responding to this post or through any of the social media links at the top of the page!

April Wrap-Up

  • My goal was 10k words added to Steel Legacy! I managed just shy of that (my final writing day plans were averted by a combination of sick spouse and recovering from an epic previous day of yard work).
  • The day trip for a get-together with all the besties and our families was amazing! Yes, we are nerds who wear matching T-shirts (see above).

May Goals

  1. Tentative goal of 15k more words to Steel Legacy, with the caveat that I won’t be disappointed if I only manage 10k. I never expected getting back on the horse to be an instantaneous thing, but the end of the book is definitely in sight.
  2. Two conventions! StokerCon, where you can likely find me managing the Raw Dog Screaming Press table in the dealer’s room, and Balticon, where I’ll be wandering my old stomping grounds of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor between panels and workshops.

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Happy 13th birthday to my twins, Lucy and Nicki!