Saturday, September 14, 2013

Things That Go Bump in the Night

Stroud, Jonathan.  The Screaming Staircase: Lockwood & Co. Book One.  Disney Book Group.  September 2013.

I picked up this book, I confess, because I loved Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy, and I was hoping for something in a similar vein.  And there are certain similarities.  The story is set in an alternate England, one in which the supernatural is normal, or at least expected.  The main characters are young, adolescents with exceptional and preternatural gifts.  And the adults whose lives intersect with those of Stroud’s young heroes are often antagonistic; certainly they are not helpful or supportive.  Indeed, the book’s narrator, Lucy Carlyle, her boss, Anthony Lockwood, and colleague George Cubbins must battle not only the ghostly Visitors who infest London and Britain, but against an adult world which tries to control how and when they can use their gifts.   

But it is the differences between this new series and Bartimaeus which are perhaps most compelling.  Missing is the wonderful snark that Bartimaeus himself provides the reader with his footnoted commentaries.  That trilogy, for all its action and moments of horror, is funny.  And it is/was that humor that made me such a fan of Stroud’s previous work.  The Screaming Staircase does have flashes of that wonderful humor, often in Lucy’s thoughts about her boss and George's commentary on life in general, but overall, it is definitely more horror than comedy.

And that is no way a criticism.  Indeed, I was reminded more of Rick Yancy’s Monstrumologist series (which I also love) than Stroud’s earlier works, though I must confess there is much less bloodshed here.  From the Lucy and Lockwood’s first encounter with an angry Visitor to the group’s terrifying night in one of England’s most haunted residences, this book is legitimately, absolutely must keep reading horrifying in the best sense of the word.  The adult reader knows, logically anyway, that if a book is marketed as first in a series, the heroes must survive to see the story through.  But, J. K. Rowling showed us that not all the heroes must or do survive, that main characters can be sacrificed for the greater good.  Stroud keeps the pages turning, through twists and tangles until the dramatic climax is reached.  And, like Rowling, he both gives the reader a sense of both resolution and anticipation, closing the chapter of this particular episode while also setting up a continuing story arc to tease the reader with the next possible adventure.

Interesting, likable, and multidimensional characters with potential for continuing growth combined with a deft touch at world-building makes this first in a series novel a definite winner for both teen and adult readers.  And while the male/male/female friendship triad has become a common one in young adult fiction in recent years, Stroud's characters do not fall easily into that kind of trusting dynamic.  Instead, their relationship(s) are ones in which everyone has secrets and bonds are slow to form, even as they face ghosts and death together.  Competition, ego, disparate personalities, and those secrets conspire against Lockwood & Co, but slowly they do begin to realize they are stronger together than they are as individuals.  The Screaming Staircase offers a hint of the kind of power team this oddball group could become;  I find myself already impatiently waiting for whatever adventures will next befall Lockwood & Company.

ARC received through NetGalley.  

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Cowboys and Secrets, Oh My!

Chase, L. C.  Pickup Men.  Riptide Publishing.  July 2013.

Brokeback Mountain with a happier ending?  Well, not quite.  Tripp Colby and Marty Fairgrave may be gay cowboys, but that is where the similarities stop.

The child of successful dude ranchers set to take over his family’s ranch someday, Marty Fairgrave is the sowing some wild oats on the rodeo circuit, experiencing some action and excitement before he settles down someday.  His job as a rodeo pickup man is to help capture the bulls and broncos after a cowboy rides.  Marty is well-known on the circuit, the “gay pickup man” in a sometimes hostile macho environment.

Tripp Colby is rodeo royalty, a three-time PBR champion with the rodeo world at his fingertips.  He’s also a man with a secret that threatens to destroy him.  But the burden he carries isn't merely his after-hours, under-the-covers relationship with Marty Fairgrave, but something much darker. 

Against his own ideas and beliefs, Marty has been Tripp’s secret for a long time, accepting Tripp’s unwillingness to come out despite hoping that someday Tripp will publicly stand at his side.  But when Marty throws himself between a Brahma bull and Tripp and Tripp stands aside, Marty’s forced to realize that sometimes love isn’t enough.  He deserves more than shadows, and he’s willing to walk away from Tripp to find someone willing to stand with him in the light. 

For all his accomplishments in the rodeo ring, Tripp Colby knows the truth about himself.  He’s a coward, afraid of publicly acknowledging not only Marty but the truth about himself.  Even if he wants to come out, scars on his spirit from a bitter past keep him hidden in the dark.  But when he is forced to face the real possibility of losing Marty, not only to his own fears but to another man, can Tripp dig deep to find the courage to face not only his secrets but his past?

The road to happily ever after is rarely smooth.  But this journey is filled with interesting characters, and unlike some novelists, Chase does not allow her supporting cast to be mere cardboard figures.  Kent and Bridge, Marty’s partners in crime, Eric, the hot new paramedic on the circuit, and Scott, Tripp’s competition and the embodiment of the macho cowboy world, are all given development and depth.  They are active parts of the story, not merely props in Marty and Tripp’s play.  Nor are Marty and Tripp the cowboys one might expect in an Eastwood spaghetti Western, but unique individual with their own demons, their own follies, and their own love.

In addition to her wonderful characters, who are so easy to fall in love with, Chase uses Marty and Tripp’s story to make important points about the dangers of conversion therapy, the damage effects of lying – to yourself and to others, and the healing power of forgiveness and love.  Pickup Men is sweet, provocative, hot, and uplifting.  And, it’s the first in series set in the rodeo world.  I admit, I can’t wait for the next installment to see Chase’s cowboys continue their story.

ARC received through NetGalley.

Monday, September 2, 2013

A Return to Reviewing

First, an apology.  Health and work issues have kept me away from reviewing for the last few months.  But, I'm back with new reviews to share and several books in the to-be-read pile!  The first book for this rejuvenation....College Boys by Daisy Harris.

Harris, Daisy.  College Boys.  Siren Publishing, May 2012.

Daisy Harris, I think it is safe to say, gets it – gets what the readers of this sort of erotic male romance are looking for when they pick up a book.  Her characters are sweet and endearing.  Soccer jock Chris Fisher, trying to find the space to deal with his mother’s recent death and his own transition from small-town boy to college student, has moved away from the dorm space he’s been sharing with several teammates to a small single room on the other side of campus.  No one warns him, though, that the ways in his new living space are thin, so thin that he can hear his new neighbor’s every move and word.  Enter Peter Cohen, the new neighbor in question.  Openly gay, Peter is an active member of campus gay life, including membership on the Queer Student Council.  He’s out and he’s definitely not willing to hide or deny who he is, not even for the hunky soccer player next door.

It would be easy for this story to devolve into tropes and stereotypes, but Harris keeps it fresh and interesting (and nicely steamy).  Chris’s struggles to deal with not only his own growing feelings for Peter but with what those feelings mean for his life outside their joined dorm spaces avoid melodrama and capture well the self-reflection and self-doubt that are so a part of figuring out your place in the world as a young adult.  Peter too must consider his own values and ideas, about what it means to be yourself and how to be supportive when a friend is trying to find his way through a maze of morals and preconceptions toward personal discovery.  Along the way, both Chris and Peter figure out new things about not only their growing relationship but about themselves.  And, perhaps most appealing in this novel is that the sex isn’t perfect.  It’s awkward at times, the guys are unsure and a bit insecure, and they don’t jump immediately into intercourse in their first intimate encounter.  Instead, Harris builds heat and tension, letting the sexuality evolve as the characters grow closer naturally.

Delicious steamy and with a rich authenticity of character and voice, College Boys is a great downtime read.  And, as College Boys is only a part of Harris’s Holsum College series, I have to say I greatly look forward to reading more.

Reading copy received from NetGalley.