[out of office]

Book reviews are on hiatus for a week, and my next monthly wrap-up & goals post will be a few days later than usual. Because I’m going on vacation!

The spouse and I are hitting the high seas, accompanied by our Atlanta friends. Funny story: close to 15 years of friendship, and we’ve never actually taken a vacation together! We’re either hanging out at each other’s houses or sharing a vacation rental with a bunch of other friends. They’ve never taken a cruise before, so we’re excited to have a great time with them.

I’ve got lots of books queued up on the Kindle, we’re visiting three beaches, and maybe I’ll even catch up on some sleep.

I’ll be back in June, and you know what that means!

Book Review: Heaven’s River (Bobiverse #4) by Dennis E. Taylor

Read my reviews of the previous books in the Bobiverse series:

We Are Legion (We Are Bob) (#1) | For We Are Many (#2) | All These Worlds (#3)

The previous three books in this series work as a complete trilogy, but life doesn’t stop when the curtain closes. The versions of Bob that we’re most familiar with are still dealing with the long-term effects of events in the previous books, up to and including experiencing various levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (though that’s never explicitly stated or explored). The Bobiverse and the rest of the sentient species in the galaxy may have destroyed one threat, but there’s lots of galaxy left to explore.

This story takes a lot of what I liked earlier in the series and (mostly) centers it on one focus: a new species, a fascinating bit of technology, and the mystery of a missing Bob. All of these facets are intertwined, and we follow the original Bob and a few of his oldest clones as they pull together a plan to investigate this alien society. Taylor once again did his research to create this story, but unfortunately, he really wants to show all of that to the reader. Many of the discovery and analysis discussions made some scenes drag on, despite the fascinating subject matter. Full disclosure, if I had been reading this story traditionally, rather than listening to the audiobook off and on during a road trip with my spouse, I likely would not have made it to the ending. Similarly, the climactic escape in the latter section of the book featured plenty of moments that were interesting in isolation but together felt vaguely never-ending (much like the road trip). Some of the narrative distance Taylor affects with his characters also removed some of the suspense. However, the final reveals did make a lot of the previous information worth it, as Taylor neatly converges multiple threads that tie things off without feeling a little too perfect.

Another element that adds to the length of the book in both positive and negative ways is the additional worldbuilding Taylor features as a natural result of the concepts set up by this series. Bob’s initial cohort of clones has resulted in a vast community of multiple generations of Bobs, and the issue of “replicative drift” leads to fascinating character differences. These personality differences, combined with the large amount of power inherent to their status, bring new meaning to the concept of “internal conflict.” Alas, for all the complaints about personality change in the various Bob factions, I still found every Bob incarnation still reminded me a lot of the basic tech bro white guy. Brigid was often a welcome foil, and though Taylor teased the existence of a “Bobbi,” I do wish he had felt more confident in leaning into the character concept by bringing them forward to create even more diversity (and resulting conflict).

Overall, this was a solid follow-up to the initial trilogy. Based on that experience, I’ll admit that I knew what I was getting into such that none of the criticisms I mentioned above were necessarily a surprise. I certainly don’t regret the hours spent listening. Though this series is limited by certain elements that I commonly dislike in the science-fiction genre, I still found the full Bobiverse, and this book in particular, to be solid, enjoyable entertainment.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) stars
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Book Review: Song (Appalachian Cryptids #1) by Jae Dixon

I joke that I write book reviews because I have to do something with these multiple degrees in literary criticism, but sometimes that means I want to come at book reviews from two completely different angles. This interesting debut novel is one of those instances. On one hand, this is a fun, sexy queer monster romance featuring a less frequently portrayed cryptid that has as much potential as the typical shifter or vampire hero. On the other, I appreciated that Dixon included “colonization” as one of the content warnings at the front of this novel. Though I can’t be sure I’m interpreting that warning in the way it was intended, I have definite opinions on how it influenced the scope of this story and its characters.

Before anyone thinks I’m trashing this book, there is certainly plenty I enjoyed. (After all, the reason I give so few low ratings is that I simply don’t finish books that I don’t enjoy, and I binge-read this one in a day.) True rural fantasy is a different beast from urban fantasy tropes that just happen to be set elsewhere than in a big city, and Dixon absolutely hits the mark here. I especially loved the “Gothic horror but make it Ohio” vibe, taking a location that is all too familiar to me and evoking a drastically different mood and quality to the setting. Dixon translates the relatively modern myth of the “Mothman” into an ancient being who imprints on a typical grad student. Ezra imprints on Gray right back, and while none of their relationship follows the traditional arc of a romance story, the interactions between them make for a compelling and exciting fantasy story. Though there is an unpredictable journey between Ezra and Gray getting their happily ever after, it is solidly entwined with a darker fantasy mystery that is steeped with the Appalachian mythology of the setting.

Alas, the “Appalachia” bit is where the book got the most concern from me. I do understand that the nominal culture referred to as such is very Euro-centric in how certain aspects and traditions were imported (colonized). However, the author missed an opportunity when every indication was that all the magic of the area was originally from Europe. No reference is made to either an intentional blending or antagonistic relationship with indigenous power. As much as I loved Gray’s particular mix of modern and old-fashioned, they are still very much a representation of the Anglo-Saxon aspects of “traditional” Appalachia. And for a cryptid that is so functionally American, and not even a century old, as the Mothman, it was much harder to accept this colonization of the legend when so much possibility exists for a mix of sources.

With all of those caveats and criticism, I still finished the book. I still enjoyed the characters and story of this solid debut publication. I even look forward to reading the promised next installment thanks to the excellent use of secondary characters and teases of future potential. But I also encourage potential readers to go into this series with the understanding that sometimes a content warning isn’t about what is included in a story, but instead an indication of a complete and jarring absence.

Rating: 3.5 (out of 5) stars
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Book Review: Conduit Crisis (Ghostly Guardians #3) by Louisa Masters

Read my reviews of the previous books in the Ghostly Guardians series:

Spirited Situation (#1) | Vortex Conundrum (#2)

Though each book in this series features a brand-new romantic connection, the overarching plot means that this is not a series of stand-alone novels set in the same world. For this installment, the external plot we’ve been following since the beginning immediately shifts into high gear, with prior revelations about Skye’s paranormal abilities as the inciting incident. Luckily, he has the found family of hotel staff (and its ghostly residents) to support and protect him. Daniel, especially, wants only the best for Skye, but that’s just because they’re best friends, right?

Honestly, I kind of loved how much Daniel was fooling himself regarding his feelings about men in general and Skye in particular. In this “bi-awakening” story, however, there is no angst on Daniel’s part regarding this revelation, only a sweet and sexy relationship that shifts from friends to lovers. All the angst in this book involves Skye’s family drama. I’ll reassure hesitant readers that this drama also has nothing to do with Skye’s sexual orientation, but it made my heart hurt for him nonetheless. Having Daniel so firmly in his corner, even if the way it starts out is a misunderstanding of epic and slightly hilarious proportions, once again serves Skye well here.

My sheer delight over the new relationship in this story nicely balanced the subtle terror of the accompanying paranormal plot. Masters deepens the world-building where necessary and leaves us not with a cliffhanger, but instead a creepy setup for what promises to be a truly epic finale.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) stars
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Book Review: Paladin (Jericho’s Boys #1) by Onley James

I count myself among the readers who were thrilled when James announced she would be returning to the world of her Necessary Evils series with a spin-off featuring the “murder muppets” introduced in Moonstruck. Jericho is now a Mulvaney by marriage, which means the band of strays in their early 20s had to come along for the ride. The distinction between these two series is that none of these guys are psychopaths, like the original Mulvaney brothers. However, James doesn’t shy away from the connecting concept of doing bad in the service of the greater good, letting us know what we’re in for right away in Chapter 1. How Arsen first encounters Ever is one of the most horrifying “meet-cutes” possible, but it does an excellent job of portraying Arsen’s character as morally gray but inherently good.

Where this series does appear to be similar to Necessary Evils is regarding the fairly nontraditional “romance” arcs that the characters follow. But where some books do try to portray trauma bonding as romance, James never attempts to shoehorn her characters into a more traditional mindset. Arsen and Ever definitely experience mutual trauma bonding, both acute and chronic, and the fact that it develops into believable love is more of a credit to James’ writing and character ability rather than any sort of representation of reality. But we’re not here for realism, we’re here for delightful escapism, and I’m more than happy to follow these characters on their journey together, even when it addresses genuine issues of trauma response and recovery but doesn’t delve too heavily into the angst.

A reader’s mileage may vary if they are coming to this series new. There are a ton of characters to track, from all of the muppets to the Mulvaneys (and Mulvaneys by marriage, of which there is also some overlap). No complaints here, since I adored still being part of this world. The external plot surrounding Ever’s origin story escalates in an unexpected manner, bringing the full weight of this ensemble cast into play.

And on a final, biased note, this gamer already loves the title conceit for this series. This novel features a decent portrayal of gaming, including streaming gameplay to Discord. I already look forward to my next visit to this world, which is as fantastical in its own right as the MMORPG Arsen plays.

Disclaimer: I received a digital review copy of this book from the author.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) stars
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Book Review: Pretty Wreck (Pretty Broken #3) by J.R. Gray

Read my reviews of previous books in the Pretty Broken series:

Pretty Obsessed (#1) | Pretty Toxic (#2)

This book features the, to this point, least-known member of the band to readers. Gray sets us up to immediately care about Alister as much as the others, however, since this book opens with him close to rock bottom. My need to give him a hug warred with my desire to see band manager Alexander (and Alister’s nominal “boyfriend”) get his due. With Alister’s perspective, so many of the issues plaguing Pretty Broken came into focus as less about the band members and more about how intentionally broken outside forces have manipulated them into becoming.

At the same time, events conspire to bring Alister back in contact with Kingsley, a musician with whom he has enough baggage to make up an entire luggage train. We don’t spend much time on that past beyond glimpses of memory, and part of me would have loved to see more of their shared backstory. But though we don’t get much, Gray manages to still make the major conflict of this book as much about their shared past as their trying to move beyond it in a way that is best for both men.

Even as Alister and Kingsley reconnect, Alexander is still an inextricable part of the picture in his position as manager. The members of Pretty Broken finally communicating and working together as a unit, even if against a common foe, is as satisfying as the romance arc. Though this book doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, it’s clear that the saga of this band is far from over. Gray has teased us with the dynamic between Caspian and Iris from book 1, and though they’ve regained a certain amount of control, Alexander has made it clear that he’s not leaving without a fight.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) stars
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Book Review: Liar’s Gambit (The Elite) by Kelly Fox

Fox writes her morally gray characters so well that I wasn’t surprised to learn she’d been invited to take part in this multi-author series. This novella was easy to read in a single sitting, featuring plenty of the author’s patented “murder swoon.” On the surface, Wilhelm and Nigel are stereotypical hitman types, even if they prioritize taking out the worse of society. The way they initially partner up, connected by their respective handlers, is one of the best “meet cutes” ever. Then, their fantastic charisma and chemistry make the rest of this short work a whirlwind of a fun ride.

Wilhelm doesn’t share all the pertinent information about their mission with Nigel, and I looked forward to finding out what the twist would be. The way the story unfolds is a delight, featuring Fox’s excellent characterization for both our heroes and a relevant side character, despite the shorter length of the text. Outside of the external plot, this story also packs plenty of hot sex but even sweeter accidental romance. And though this book stands alone, observant readers will note subtle references that tie it into the larger shared universe of Fox’s other book series.

As Fox requests in her author note at the beginning of the novella, I won’t be spoiling this story’s epic twist. It’s a clever bit of puzzle that I had a blast figuring out, even beyond the main events of the external plot. For any fans of Fox’s writing who are wondering whether they should give this novella a shot, I promise that the answer is a resounding YES.

Disclaimer: I received a digital review copy of this book from the author.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) stars
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Book Review: Relentless (Room For Love #6) by Kate Hawthorne

Read my reviews of previous books in the Room For Love series:

Reckless (#1) | Heartless (#2) | Faultless (#3) | Fearless (#4) | Limitless (#5) | A Very Messy Motel Brothers Wedding (#5.5)

I was incredibly honored to be one of the few people to read this book before its surprise release. What makes it even more special is that this pairing was my favorite from the “original” series. Levi and James (from Heartless) are not a couple that will appeal to everyone, but they are one of my favorites by this author. I was certainly not mad to get more story about them. So many romance stories end with the happily ever after, but life doesn’t stop there, and I’m always intrigued by what happens after the curtains close.

In this instance, James and Levi are (mostly) solid in their relationship. However, the rest of the world isn’t stagnant, and though the book might center on this primary pairing, it’s also a bit about all of the Motel brothers and even the greater town of Cherry Creek—especially since changes are coming for all of them. James and Levi both have more power than they expect regarding both of these situations, but it’s up to them to take those steps. Throw in their vastly nontraditional version of love, add a dash of power exchange, and this book is a recipe for drama.

As much as I love the fascinating dynamic between James and Levi, I also enjoyed this further glimpse into the unexpectedly soft relationship between Levi and his almost-brother-in-law Cameron. It reminds me greatly of the interactions between my spouse and my much-younger sister and shows that Hawthorne has a fantastic grasp of interpersonal relationships beyond the romantic.

The way these characters love isn’t for everyone, but the love itself definitely is. I was thrilled by this return to Cherry Creek, and I already know that I’ll be returning to this story in the future.

Disclaimer: I received a digital review copy of this book from the author.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) stars
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Book Review: This Will Hurt I by Cara Dee

One of the review notes I left to myself while reading this book is “Yep, this will hurt.” From page 1, I was hooked on Jake, especially with how Dee brings him to life so well as a former servicemember. In fact, Dee’s usual excellent character work means that I didn’t even mind Jake as a parent (when the single-dad trope is not one of my go-tos). Jake is well crafted as a full character, and I found myself as invested in his possibility-filled future as in the mysteries of his past. This might be a romance (or at least the first half of one), but Jake’s character development is equally compelling as he processes suppressed memories and considers how these revelations affect how he relates to the world.

Or at least to certain people in that world. And though this book is all from Jake’s perspective, I was also totally invested in Roe. “But they were roommates…” is a common enough romance trope that it could have been used as a shortcut to what develops between these men, but that would have been too much of an easy way out. Instead, Dee uses a snippets-through-time bit of storytelling to fully flesh out the whole friendship that evolves between Jake and Roe (and does it so well that I never feel like I’m missing something from the gaps in between). I also appreciated the way Dee highlights the unfortunate minefield that litters interactions in modern male friendships as Jake’s character development directly affects multiple aspects of his relationship with Roe.

But this story isn’t just about Jake and Roe. Two characters can’t exist in a vacuum. Life moves on, and sometimes life even repeats itself. No spoilers here, but certain events make this the worst possible time for Jake and Roe to think changes to their friendship might be achievable. I know some readers will complain, but I didn’t mind that this was only the first half of the story. It could even have been the end of the story; however, this is a romance, not a tragedy. The ending is not a traditional cliffhanger but a good place for a natural break in the story. It just happens to be at a moment when all feels insurmountable. And it definitely hurts.

Disclaimer: I received a digital review copy of this book from the author.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) stars
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Book Review: Deal With the Devil (Reckless Damned #3) by Lark Taylor

Read my reviews of previous books in the Reckless Damned series:

Devil’s Mark (#1) | Devil May Care (#2)

This series could have gotten a bit stale if the next brother in line had connected with another “normal” human. However, River is far from normal, nor is he even human. Mori’s tragic past is why these demons are on earth in the first place, and he more than deserved someone to match him in every way. As a powerful witch, River is more than up to the task. Unfortunately, his family has a past with Mori’s brothers that makes their connection pretty much the opposite of a meet-cute, even before the fated mate element is introduced.

Speaking of fated mates, this is a trope that too many authors use to take the easy way out of building a legitimate relationship between characters. Here, Taylor does a fantastic job of making a distinction between “love” and “being in love” that presents both the tangible connection between Mori and River and all the emotional pain a reader could want in an intense romance in progress.

This book continues the external plot that ties this series together by giving a few of the answers that we’ve been waiting for while still leaving plenty for us to discover in the grand finale. At this point, we have a decent idea of the “what” that this demon family and their allies are up against. However, we only know a little bit of the “why,” and I’m just as interested in learning the full story as I am for the final relationship arc that is nicely teased at the end of this book.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) stars
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