Starcrossed (Magic in Manhattan #2)

Title: Starcrossed (Magic in Manhattan #2)
Author: Allie Therin
Publisher: Carina Press
Release Date: May 18, 2020
Genre(s): Historical, Paranormal Mystery
Page Count: 85K
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Read book blurb here

Starcrossed is the second book in the "Magic in Manhattan" series, and you definitely need to read the first book - Spellbound - as this is not a stand-alone. I read and reviewed Spellbound in June of 2019 and struggled at first to recall all the plot points as I began this book.

Starcrossed returns us to NYC in the Roaring Twenties, circa 1925, with Arthur (Ace), Rory, Jade and Zhang trying to track down Baron Zeppler's operatives and the magical relics.  As the story begins, Rory and Arthur are in the countryside at Harry Kenzie's estate, where Rory unwittingly unleashes the power of the Tempest Ring with terrifying results. Later, Ace reluctantly agrees to escort a titled British guest to the wedding of the Governor's son in order to help his brother John advance his political career ... and the guest is Ace's ex, Wesley Collins, the Viscount Fine.

There are a series of murders throughout and a terrifying paranormal villain with ties to Ace's WWI past, and the author does an excellent job of detailing these deaths in a very viseral bone-chilling manner. But in between the first part of the book and the "edge of your seat" ending, the middle drags a bit, as Rory and Ace ponder the nature of their relationship (which remains non-explicit as in the first book), Lord Fine intrudes, and Rory gets jealous, again and again and again.

Now, I realize others may not feel the same, but I ended up setting the book down quite a few times because it just didn't hold my interest. However, the author really pulls it together at the end, and we are left with a cliffhanger of sorts that really piqued my interest, and I will definitely read the third book in the series, Wonderstruck (no release date set.)  4 stars.

I received an ARC from Carina Press, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Russ Morgan, PI

Title: Russ Morgan, PI
Author: Lloyd A. Meeker
Publisher: NineStar Press
Release Date: March 23, 2020
Genre(s): Contemporary Murder / Mystery
Page Count: 68K words
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Read book blurb here

"Russ Morgan, PI" is comprised of two earlier works - "Enigma" (2013) and "Blood and Dirt" (2015)  now published in one volume by NineStar Press.

"Engima" is a novella (about 60 pages) introducing Rhys (Russ) Morgan, a 50-year-old former alcoholic private investigator, who reads auras. Russ is tasked with uncovering who is blackmailing televangelist Howard Robinson's son James, who about 15 years earlier had been miraculously cured of the "sin" of homosexuality via a conversion (read torture) camp.

We get a resolution to the situation, but it is secondary to the nuanced development of Russ' character and past.  Russ is trying to overcome the wreckage alcohol brought about in his life:
In my case, I'd driven away a smart, gentle, loving partner by hiding in a bottle  and hadn't seen much of love since I crawled out. Maybe I never would. But I wanted another chance at it now. I may have been fifty, flawed, and a little psychic, but I was as real as I'd ever been in my life. Some nights I wanted another chance at love so bad the longing was a metallic tang along my tongue.
In "Blood and Dirt" (roughly 190 pages), Russ is hired by Evan Landry to learn who trashed his sister's (legal) marijuana grow on their Colorado family ranch. Russ is thrown into the middle of an extremely dysfunctional family feud that turns deadly.  Meeker does a great job of keeping us involved in the mystery, yet again the best thing about the story is Russ' character growth.

In the throes of a new relationship with Colin - who is 26 to his 50 - Russ has to confront his own ageism (As Colin tells him: "Maybe there's nothing you can do about what other people think, but you've gotta take care of your own shit. [...] You've got to, because you're the only one who can.") as well as realizing while he lost the love of his life, maybe there is more than one right man for him, and maybe that is Colin.

I'm so glad I discovered Meeker and feverently hope he continues to share Russ Morgan and his cases with us.  Darn it, I want to see Colin and Russ' relationship grow and deepen, and I  hope that Deputy Sheriff Heath Baker pops up now and then (and that he finds his own love).  4.5 stars and a Recommended Read!

I received an ARC from NineStar Press, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Blue Umbrella Sky

Title: Blue Umbrella Sky
Author: Rick R. Reed
Publisher: NineStar Press (Reissue)
Release Date: March 23, 2020
Genre(s): Contemporary Romance, Hurt/Comfort/Healing
Page Count: 191
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

Read book blurb here

Congratulations to Rick R. Reed!  Blue Umbrella Sky is a Finalist for a Lambda Literary Award in the Gay Romance category.

First off, "Blue Umbrella Sky" is a beautifully written story of loss, grief, addiction, failure, redemption and recovery. What it isn't is a garden variety M/M romance full of steamy, sweaty sex against any number of surfaces. So, perhaps adjust your expectations ... and get ready for an absolutely wonderful book.

If you've read Reed's "Big Love" (and you definitely should - it is exceptional), Milt is Dane Bernard's friend and fellow teacher in Summitville, Ohio, and after the death of his beloved husband Corky, Milt decides to move away and settle in a Palm Springs, CA trailer park. Caring for Corky and watching his gentle bear of a husband disappear bit by bit to the ravages of Alzheimer's disease has left Milt depressed and convinced he will never love again.

Enter Billy Blue, a recovering alcoholic living in the same trailer park who has watched Milt from afar and is harboring a crush on the lonely attractive widower. A flash flood brings the two men together and they begin a friendship based on long hikes and shared meals. The pace of the story is slow, but necessary as we get a series of flashbacks and learn of Billy's dreams of being a singer, his fierce battle with alcoholism and his recovery via the community he finds at AA. We also see Milt caring for Corky while hoping that deep down inside the man he loves is still there and realizes the extent of his care and devotion.

I love how Reed uses Ruby, the frightened rescue dog Milt saves at the start of the book, as a metaphor for both men. "But, God, she was a scared thing. I'd lift my hand to pet her and she'd cower, tail between her legs, terrified eyes looking at me, just begging. It broke my heart." Just as Ruby changes due to Milt's love, Milt's loneliness and self-isolation changes in the kindness Billy exudes. And as for Billy:
Billy himself had been an abused animal, and the abuser had been the worst kind of enemy - himself.
Reed's writing is eloquent as he slowly unfolds this tale of two men who emerge from their respective losses to find one another, to truly see one another. 5 stars and a Recommended Read for "Blue Umbrella Sky."
Yeah. I know this is something, what we have here. I know it is not in my head so much, but in my heart. My head tells me all the things Dane would say. But my heart knows. The heart always knows what it wants, what it needs. [...] Who it needs. What matters.

I received an ARC from NineStar Press, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Burn Zone (Hotshots #1)

Title: Burn Zone (Hotshots #1)
Author: Annabeth Albert
Publisher: Carina Press
Release Date: April 27, 2020
Genre(s): Contemporary M/M Romance
Page Count:
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Read book blurb here

Annabeth Albert's Frozen Hearts was a great series (my average rating was 4.5 for the three books) so I am looking forward to  diving into Albert's new Hotshots series, which centers around wildfire fighters in Central Oregon.

Veteran smoke jumper Lincoln Reid is still mourning the death of his best friend and fellow smoke jumper Wyatt Hartman, so when Wyatt's younger brother Jacob shows up among the new recruits, Linc has a million reasons why Jacob shouldn't pursue his dream of becoming a smoke jumper.

Top of that list is Linc's sizzling attraction to Jacob, and Jacob's long-term crush on Linc.  The plot is very predictable in that Linc, who is still closeted at work, fights that attraction but the two men finally decide to give into their desires and hopefully get it out of their systems. "A sexual exorcism or something. Anything was better than all this pointless wanting and not having."  The sex scenes are plentiful and very steamy, and pretty much proof that Linc and Jacob belong together.

But Linc is stubborn in his belief that he cannot come out, cannot be with Jacob, will lose the love and support of the Hartmans, his surrogate family, and will lose the respect of his fellow smoke jumpers.  And when I say "stubborn," I mean STUBBORN as it not listening to reason, being completely closed off to any possibility of the relationship being accepted, just not gonna happen.  Linc's continued and insistent attitude personally drove me crazy, but I realize that other readers may not feel the same.

Despite a formulatic plot, and Linc's excessively dogged determination to not listen to reason, Albert does a good job in plumbing the nuances of Linc and Jacob's relationship and giving us well-fleshed out characters.  3. 5 stars for "Burn Zone" and I'm looking forward to reading "High Heat" coming out in July, 2020.

I received an ARC from Carina Press, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Murder at Pirate's Cove (Secrets and Scrabble #1)

Title: Murder at Pirate's Cove (Secrets and Scrabble #1)
Author: Josh Lanyon
Publisher: JustJoshin Publications
Release Date: February 29, 2020
Genre(s): Cozy M/M Mystery
Page Count: 206
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Read book blurb here

Charming. That's the word that keeps popping to mind in reading this first book in Josh Lanyon's new cozy mystery series. We meet Ellery Page, brought to a small seaside town due to an unexpected inheritance he received from his great-great-great aunt Eudora. He's now the opener of a dilipated house and bookstore, the Crow's Nest, in Pirate's Cove, Rhode Island.

When a body is found in the Crow's Nest, Ellery is understandably horrified to learn he is Police Chief Jack Carson's prime suspect.  This is a cozy mystery - so by definition there is no gore and no sex - but Lanyon gives us a wonderfully tantalizing character in Police Chief Jack Carson:
 "a ruggedly handsome six foot, one hundred and ninety-plus pounds of gainfully employed eligible male ... [Ellery] had been pretty sure Carson had a secret that would deeply disappoint the ladies of Pirate's Cove." 
We are introduced to the community and its residents on the way to solving the crimes, along with some well-crafted red herrings, and I did not figure out the murderer until near the end, so it definitely held my interest.  Ellery is an interesting character and I relish learning more about him and also really like how Lanyon teases the possibility of a romance between Jack Carson and Ellery.

I am definitely looking forward to reading the next book in the series, Secret at Skull House, due at the end of March.  4.5 stars.

I received an ARC from the author, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Stranger in the House

Title: Stranger in the House
Author: Josh Lanyon
Publisher: JustJoshin Publishing
Release Date: February 18, 2020
Genre(s): Mystery / Suspense
Page Count: 114
Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Read book blurb here

American schoolteacher Miles Tuesday is stunned to learn he has inherited a huge mansion in Montreal from his mother's close friend Madame Martel. Miles also can't figure out why he received this $9M inheritance rather than Madame's two sons, Oliver and Linley. As a young boy, Miles had a terrible crush on Linley, and was devastated to have Linley destroy his dreams of becoming a painter, telling Miles he just didn't see that spark in his paintings.

I've been on a bit of a Josh Lanyon kick lately, but this novella did not work for me personally. At around 110 pages, too much is devoted to creating the situation and the setting IMHO. Miles can't figure out why he inherited, and honestly, even at the end of the novella, we readers are equally unsure. The mysterious / vaguely paranormal elements are tossed around as window dressing and the mystery is lightly-fleshed out and quickly solved in a matter of pages.

I would have liked more in-depth character development of Miles and Linley and because we don't really know these characters, their romance feels .... shallow? Again, this is only my opinion and Your Mileage May Vary. 3 stars for "Stranger in the House."

The Ball Boy

Title: The Ball Boy
Author: Lucas Guard
Publisher: NineStar Press
Release Date: March 2, 2020
Genre(s): New Adult M/M Romance
Page Count: 70
Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5

Read book blurb here

Where to start? Well, there is a lot to unpack from "The Ball Boy" suitcase - in fact, it's packed full and popping at the seams. There's baseball, coming out, a death in the family, two car accidents, issues involving prescription drug abuse and alcohol abuse, trans, in the closet, drag queen, foot fetish, humiliation, homophobic slurs ... all in seventy (70) pages. Whew.

Gage Garfield - a young man dealing with the death of his father, his own subsequent injury from the accident and prescription drug and alcohol abuse, who works at a gay bar as a drag queen called Kymer Rouge - meets closeted baseball player / martial arts champion Cabel Cordova when he shows up at his front door, Gage's father having signed up the family to be a host family for the minor league ballplayer.

Cabel is gorgeous and well-endowed, as in "I didn't get a glimpse of his meat, but as he walked, it smacked loudly between his thighs." And Gage refers to his own "cobra" as it "started to rise from its basket ..." or "he slurped my cobra into his mouth ..." Personally, I found this metaphor somewhat ... strange.

Because there is just so much going on here, nothing really gets fully developed, with many scenes jammed into the novella that are unrelated to the main plot (strange foot fetish scene, I'm looking at you ....) and everything is resolved far too suddenly.

Personally, this novella did not work for me but your results may vary. 2.5 stars.

I received an ARC from the publisher, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.