• Reviews

    Review: To Summon Nightmares

    5/5 stars. Buy at: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Less Than Three Press (Ebook) (Print)

    To Summon Nightmares by J.K. Pendragon was pretty much everything I wanted to read when I started it a few days ago and then it just kept right on being everything I wanted at all times. I came home and rambled about it excitedly to my wife every evening (and, sometimes, texted her on my lunch break too). 

    It’s a paranormal story: Two boys, Jacky and Niall, are lovers. Still teenagers, they struggle with how to deal with Jacky’s abusive father and ultimately decide the best option is to summon a demon. Needless to say, the situation gets more than out of hand. Some years and a point of view shift later, we meet Cohen Brandwein, a popular author and internet vlog celebrity, who is moving to his aunt’s old house in a countryside town to try to get away from the stress of the media’s negative reaction to his coming out as trans. Little does he realize that he’s walking right into the middle of a horrifying set of serial murders, nor that the prime suspect is a hunky, self-admitted witch named Niall…

    I loved both Niall and Cohen. Niall’s bravery and determination to do the right thing while agonizing over his sense of responsibility and lingering love is very tangible, but he’s kept from being a tortured love interest by both his sort of strange sense of being slightly off after everything that happened and also his blushing excitability (I was completely charmed by his being one of Cohen’s fans and trying to play off how starstruck he was). And Cohen was a delight as a point of view character. He was the perfect mix of reasonable but not gullible, clever and understandably dubious, risk-taking but with clear limits. He came to life in so many little ways—his decision to walk into town to get gas for his new car, and ending up sweaty and wheezing and Regretting yet still committed to this mission because dammit he started it was just. I feel you, dude, I feel you. It was a delight to get to read about him navigating through a mix of dealing with his family, his new neighbours, a new crush and, you know, horrible murders. And he and Niall were really sweet together.

    Add to that a deeply enjoyable plot with a complex entanglement of risks and sacrifices all woven together with a really strong narrative voice, and Pendragon sold me not only on this but on picking up everything else of theirs. The only thing I found an odd choice (and even then, didn’t dislike, and it certainly doesn’t impact my rating) was having a complete point of view switch. I found myself wanting to get back into Niall’s head more, having already been there once, to get the full picture from both sides. That said, I still loved everything we got.

    It’s been a few years since Pendragon wrote this, but I sincerely hope they do a sequel someday, because I will read it in a heartbeat. I want to see how Niall adjusts to his own [spoiler], and, of course, how Cohen reacts to [much bigger spoiler]. Because damn, that ending!

  • Reviews

    Review: Letters for Lucardo

    5/5 stars. Buy at: Iron Circus Comics (ebook) | Iron Circus Comics (Print) | Amazon

    Letters for Lucardo by Otava Heikkilä is a graphic novel and the first of four books. The protagonist, Ed Fiedler, is a normal human, 61 years old and a scribe by trade with rather unusual employers—the Night Court, ageless royals with a taste for blood (so, yes, absolutely vampires). He has the even more unusual distinction of being courted by the handsome, eternally-33 year old Lucardo. As both grow ever closer, they have to deal with a variety of culture shocks—a human among the inhuman, a man just this side of elderly with the eternally youthful, and a tangle of mortality with and against immortality.

    I loved the art and concept for this book when it first went up on kickstarter and jumped on the chance to contribute, and was so glad I did. I absolutely wish I had been able to buy in paperback, not just digital, but shipping to Canada is always a buzzkill. If there’s an omnibus of all 4 parts later? I’ll take the plunge for sure, because count me in as a new fan. (ETA May 2019: Thank goodness for conventions, I own this in paperback now).

    I found this work absolutely charming. It’s sweet and hot in equal measures, with a thread of potential tragedy running throughout, and a great sense of when to build drama and when to undercut it. Which is to say, it does one of my favorite things when characters are annoyed with each other, which is to get them distracted by how much they like (and are attracted to) each other.

    I enjoyed that Ed’s age wasn’t treated as a barrier to sexuality in any way, either to Lucardo or to the artist. Ed comments that age wasn’t kind to his body, but Lucardo really does not give a damn. It’s drawn likewise—he’s no silver fox, and Heikkilä doesn’t shy away from the physical features that often come with aging, from sagging chins to thin ankles and everything else in between. But it’s drawn with respect and affection and acknowledgement that he’s still sexual, both to himself and others, rather than being treated as off-limits or grotesque as older bodies so often are in media. Likewise, his desire for romance, intimacy, and a lot of really enthusiastic sex isn’t either ignored or treated as abnormal. (This should probably not be so rare as to be praiseworthy, but it is. And it is so deliberately and easily handled as completely normal here!) Likewise, Heikkilä is great at character design; there’s a wide variety of characters with distinct and varied appearances (and a very multi-ethnic cast as well).

    Oh, one note—this is not a book to read in public, at work, or around kids! There are a lot of graphic sex scenes and the heat index is quite high in it.

    Despite the thread of potential tragedy, it doesn’t feel like it will end up a sad story. This volume covers the setup to that developing tragedy, sure, but mostly seems to illustrate the political background and players for the story to develop further in the later volumes. It’s cute, it’s funny, it’s sad, it’s visually delightful—and also, it’s a really good length, at 142 pages absolutely packed with content.

    I for one can’t wait to see volume 2 announced on Kickstarter!

  • Reviews

    Review: Hexbreaker

    5/5 stars. Buy at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

    I picked up Hexbreaker (Hexworld #1) by Jordan L. Hawk as part of a goal to read through the other Rainbow Awards winners, and I literally couldn’t put it down once I started. Irishman Tom Halloran is a New York copper with a dark secret; Cicero, a cat shifter, is a flamboyant Italian  bohemian working as a familiar with the NY Metropolitan Witch Police. Normally, the two police forces don’t work together, since one handles regular crimes and the other crimes of hexation, but when a hex causes problems that leave both of them missing a friend, the two decide to team up and take on a case that nobody else is interested in.

    Friends, this is a turn-of-the-19th-century historical buddy cop police procedural soulbonding gay paranormal romance. If you aren’t at least intrigued by that description alone, I don’t know what to tell you.

    The mystery is very solidly written, where the twists and turns of the plot all make sense, but you still need to read through all the pieces to see it really come together. The characters are even more so; everything they do at every turn makes sense for their characterization, motivations, hopes, and fears—even the things you really wish they wouldn’t do all come from that solid base of knowing why they do it anyway. Tom’s situation is absolutely believable and his genuine good nature shines through in everything he says and does, and Cicero’s sharp-edged abrasive affection likewise. They both come from very different social spheres, and seeing how they try to adjust to make that work rings very true to me.

    Beyond that, the historical setting itself is an absolute delight (and I need to check out the reference book recommendations Hawk makes in the afterword). From tenement houses to tunnel gangs, from bohemian parlors to seedy dance halls, from anarchist publications to Oscar Wilde, you feel like you’re there—if it’s a there that includes professional hexmakers, spell forensic experts, and an entire group of people who change into animals and soulbond to witches, of course. Hawk blends this in seamlessly by capturing the spirit of the time through little details, such as playing off the boom in commercialism by using product slogans as keywords to set spells.

    Ultimately, this story is fun. Hawk has a real talent for knowing exactly when to throw in some relief from the more intense scenes, and if I were to list every moment that made me grin, I would probably end up spoiling half the scenes, so I won’t—I can only encourage you to check this out to discover them yourself. It’s also got a very high heat quotient, my goodness. The sex is steamy, erotic, detailed, and absolutely avoids the pitfalls that you sometimes see where it becomes about the acts rather than the characters.

    Hexbreaker winning best Gay Paranormal Romance in the 2016 Rainbow Awards might have been why I picked it up, but I’m going to purchase the next few books in the series immediately.

  • Reviews

    Review: Long Macchiatos and Monsters

    4.5/5 stars. Buy at: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Less Than Three Press

    I think I probably picked up Long Macchiatos and Monsters by Alison Evans during one of the sales; when I was flipping through my kindle on Thursday to look for something to read, I saw the title and couldn’t remember anything about it, but hey, I’m always in the mood for monsters, so why not? Spoilers: There aren’t any monsters in this novelette, but it didn’t matter that it ran counter to what I thought I was in the mood for, because the charming feel of the writing drew me in almost immediately.

    Jalen loves B-grade sci-fi movies, and does not share this trait with any of their friends. They’re sitting in their favorite coffee shop trying to side if they should go alone to the theatre to catch a double feature of really bad films when in walks the handsome (and he knows it) P. They catch each other’s eye, and the story follows a series of experiences they share over the next three months.

    It’s a shortish piece, falling somewhere in length between a short story and a novella, and written in first person present tense. It was an unusual choice, but it worked for me because the story itself is very immediate and in the moment; it’s essentially a series of vignettes that trace the start of a relationship through the point of view of one of the participants.

    Both characters are different in the ways they’re similar. They both like monster movies, but Jalen likes the sincerity of them, and P enjoys being horrified by them. They both aren’t their assigned gender; Jalen is nonbinary and P is binary trans. They both like coffee, but Jalen likes lattes and P likes macchiatos (and both think the other’s drink is gross). They’re both amputees—Jalen lost several fingers as a child, and P has a prosthetic leg… and they share many other similar differences as well.  This may sound like a list of traits, but the story uses it as a motif to spin development between the two characters, the places where they relate and where they don’t, the things they want to learn about each other, the places where similarities immediately spike both understanding and anxiety. All these traits are ways for the two to play off each other, find the rough spots and the smooth ones, without the storytelling of it ever being made overt or hamfisted. There’s very much a theme about understanding identity by building a picture out of small things— without giving the details away, I feel like scene with the strawberry ice cream ties it all together perfectly.

    Likewise, the story is about public and private spaces. Location is very important in it, and a lot of the individual scenes play off the mood and setting built in different places. Jalen’s messy apartment they share with their sister, P’s tidy and empty “display home”, and how these places change when it’s just the two of them versus when family comes over. The movie theatre if you’re intending to watch a movie, and the movie theatre if you’re intending not to be watching. A coffee shop you go to alone and one you go to with someone. Again, since this is both about the characters’ understanding of their own identity (“Do you ever wonder if you’re wrong?” “I’m never wrong.” “I wonder all the time.”) and about how identity is understood outside oneself, the constant redefining of spaces in the story is a beautifully played motif.

    I found Jalen a really engaging pov character. Their sense of anxiety and frequent second-guessing is balanced by a deliberate willingness to take chances, and their mental voice is philosophical without being pretentious and has a good sense of wit to it. (Speaking of which, the line where Jalen acknowledges that P is acting super pretentious, and is both amused and horrified by how attracted they were to that really set the tone of the story to me). Conversely, P is a bit of an enigma due to Jalen being the pov. There are a lot of scenes where Jalen doesn’t know the specifics of what’s happening with him even if they get the general idea, and while as a reader this was occasionally frustrating—I wanted to know more about P too!—it fit the story’s theme of trying to learn. Some of the points still feel like a loose thread, but I’m torn on if that bothers me or not, given the shape of what Evans is doing here.

    The biggest critical note I have is that the flow of the scenes was occasionally difficult to follow, and some of the shorter segments had a different tone to them than the ones around it, so I found myself rereading certain pages to make sure I understood what the switch was doing there and where/when the characters were now. In general, though, I found it a really nicely written short piece, a three month slice of two characters’ lives and how they intersected, and I felt that although I’d have liked to see more, what fit in the story worked well with the time period Evans defined.

  • Reviews

    Review: The Bone Key

    5/5 stars. Buy at: Amazon | Barnes & Noble

    The Bone Key by Sarah Monette is a collection of interconnected short stories which begin the adventures of Kyle Murchison Booth, the overall ‘verse of which is The Necromantic Mysteries of Kyle Murchison Booth. It consists of the first ten stories; of the remaining five, four are not in any collection but can be found available online (The Replacement, White Charles, The Yellow Dressing Gown, To Die For Moonlight) while the fifth can be found in her short story collection, Somewhere Beneath Those Waves. While this review is only for the Bone Key, I want to help make it easy for the rest to be found because I enjoyed this collection greatly.

    I nabbed the Bone Key off my shelf because I was very much in the mood for something vaguely lovecraftian, and I found that this collection scratched that itch nicely. Written as a tribute to Lovecraft and M.R. James, the stories aim to capture that unsettling air of creeping horror, but add to the mix a sense of consistent, ongoing character.

    The titular Kyle Murchison Booth is a socially awkward, uncomfortable man, a rare book archivist with the Samuel Mathers Parrington museum (and I can only assume that Monette wanted us to recall that Samuel Mathers) who dislikes conversation, physical contact, and having any expectations placed on him whatsoever, while he likes, mostly, books and being left largely alone. The first story begins with a queer take on a story like Lovecraft’s The Statement of Randolf Carter, where the timid protagonist is dragged along by the stronger willpower of his more charismatic friend. By making Booth gay and the one-sided tension between the two characters homoromantic, Monette launches into a strong start at establishing a character-first take on the discomfiting terror of the genre.

    Booth as a character has a lot of appeal to me—he’s neurotic and anxious and can barely get a full sentence out, but these things aren’t done for the sake of an exaggerated persona but are instead the product of a man who was emotionally abused and bullied through most of his life, and for whom every conversation is a potential trap. His mental voice is rich and full of intelligent metaphors; he just chokes on the words on the way out. I find him quite charming.

    Another reviewer on goodreads noted that while none of the individual stories were 5/5, the collection as a whole was, and I have to agree. Now, I’d rate most of the individual stories quite highly, but the real charm of the collection is seeing Booth grow, his terrifying experiences snowball, and his acquaintances return with the past between them still important. Ratcliffe’s offer to go to coffee with Booth “in celebration of the fact that we are no longer fourteen” absolutely sticks with me as so much of the underlying significance of these stories—that the people in them have a life beyond those horrible moments (assuming, at least, that they survive). And then, as a collection, this satisfied the desire for my wanting all kinds of paranormal creeps. Ghosts, vengeful and otherwise; strange eldritch horrors in the woods; incubi; the horror in the walls… Something for everyone, and deeply satisfying.

    I look forward to when Monette writes the next Booth story and I assure you I’ll do my best to be one of its first readers.

    Related Reviews: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison