O Come All Ye Kinky, edited by Sarah Frantz

Why I read it:  I picked this one up from NetGalley but Sarah Frantz had already whet my appetite with her Twitter stories of editing hijinks well before then.
Tree Topper by Jane Davitt – B-  Stan and Martin have been together for a while but things have started to pall.  Martin is an inexperienced Dom and thinks that is the reason Stan is pulling away. Things come to a head (pardon the pun) at Christmas when the men finally have a frank discussion and make a new plan.  Essentially, the conflict was a big misunderstanding which is one of my least favourite tropes in romance.  However, in a shorter format, that trope does tend to work a little better for me (less time for me to gnash my teeth) and while I find it frustrating, it seemed believable. When Martin took control (which fortunately was quite early on in the short story) and they began to talk and sort things out, the story became a lot more fun for me.  But I’d keep Martin away from the duct tape myself.  🙂
‘Twas the Night by Ava March – B    Set in 1820, Percy, a barrister’s clerk goes to visit Michael.  Percy loves to submit and Michael gently challenges him to ask for what he wants.  The story is sweet and sexy.  I really liked how Michael got Percy to open up (pardon the pun) about what he wanted and how that led to both men being more forthcoming about their feelings.
Fireworks by Katie Porter- B-  Rachel and Emma have been meeting regularly for two years but New Year’s Eve will be their last night together – Rachel is moving to Tokyo for a 2 year assignment and continuing their long distance relationship is not practical.  Emma wants more but Rachel has refused.  Rachel believes she is not long term relationship material; that eventually everyone will leave her, so she does the leaving first.   I’ve not read very much f/f but I found this story to be sexy and enjoyable (albeit that the tongue biting was a bit ouchy for me) – which, given that I’m a hero-centric reader and there was nary a hero in sight in this story, says something.  I did think that Rachel’s motivation for being so relationship averse was a bit underdeveloped and she did make a quick turnaround in the circumstances, but I think both of those things are probably more about the length of the format.  What I did like especially, was the way it was shown that the pain in their sex play was a quite different pain to the emotional pain Emma was experiencing at the imminent death of their relationship – I’ve probably not worded that well, because it sounds so obvious reading it back, but I can’t come up with a better explanation I’m afraid.
Candy Caning by LA Witt – B  Nate and Stephen have been together for a few years but Christmas is a time of tension because of Nate’s mother’s passive-aggressive viciousness.  Stephen has lost his Christmas joy and Nate holds himself responsible – if he didn’t have to deal with Nate’s mother (“you can do better, Nathan”) Christmas wouldn’t be so stressful.   Stephen is perhaps less bothered than Nate thinks but has picked up on Nate’s own misgivings and devises a clever kinky plan involving a very large candy cane (three feet long and thick as a cock) to take his mind off his problems.  I thought the story did a good job of depicting the compromises we often have to make at Christmas – put up with someone whose company you don’t enjoy/who is actively hurtful and miss out on seeing other family or don’t see them at all? – and the sex was certainly very hot.  The family issues aren’t ones that could be solved short of Nate’s mother disappearing off the face of the earth so the solution they reach isn’t perfect.  But then, what is?
Submissive Angel by Joey W. Hill – A-  I think this was the best of the stories in the anthology.  Robert is a big burly former soldier, now the proprietor of a vintage toy shop.  Six months earlier he had found Ange in the alley by his shop, the victim of an assault. Robert takes Ange to the hospital, offers him a place to stay and a job in the shop.  Ange is sweet and shy, with an affinity for the vintage toys Robert loves and an almost magical knack for communicating with children and patrons of the store. For a little while I wondered if the story was going to take a paranormal turn (because of something Ange says early on about elves) but that wasn’t ever really developed.   The story is deeply erotic and moving, with Ange’s quiet strength and submission reawakening Robert to life and love.  (Robert had been grieving the death of his parents).   I did have a little trouble picturing a big muscly guy wearing suspenders and a bow tie in a vintage toy shop but other than that, the word pictures conveyed in the story were lyrical and lovely.   There was an atmosphere to the story which made it not so much arousing as erotic and somehow… sacred I guess is the word that comes to mind.  After I finished the story, I realised there were some things left undeveloped (a casualty of the short format I think) but during the reading, it was just beautiful.
Open Return by Elyan Smith – B-  Zach (formerly Hannah) returns home to confront ghosts from his past, and to see if anything can be salvaged from his relationship with Laura and Seth.  The trio grew up together (I gather Laura was a kind of foster sister) and Laura and Seth both dominated (then) Hannah and Hannah loved it.  However, Zach was dealing with issues involving his gender/identity and found it necessary to leave Illinois and he took off to Australia.   I’m not sure exactly how Zach funded his transition from female to male (this wasn’t addressed in the story) – to be fair, there wasn’t really room for it, but I kind of felt a little behind, because most of the journey from Hannah to Zach was glossed over and what there was was only in flashback.  It wasn’t something really discussed with Seth and Laura.  However, there was much hotness between the trio and I found the sex scenes to be pretty hot (if a little drool-y) and I had no disconnect between Zach’s male identity and his vagina. I don’t know if I was expecting there to be but I noticed I didn’t have that reaction so I thought I’d mention it. It was only my second trans* romance so I’m hardly an aficionado of the genre but this one worked much better for me in terms of the romantic aspects and I felt the gender and sexual identities of the players were well defined, regardless of what body parts were/were not present.  I wonder if a longer format would have been better though because it seemed there was too much to cover in this story – the ending seemed a little abrupt and while there was an HFN, there was much left unresolved I felt.
Ring Out the Old and In the New by Alexa Snow – B+/A-  Two months prior to the start of this story, Evan was mugged on the (London) Tube and suffered a severe facial laceration.  He’s understandably traumatised and he’s extremely sensitive about his scar.  He was an artist’s model prior to the assault and his physical appearance is something he based much of his self worth on.  On the one hand, I thought that maybe Evan’s extreme sensitivity to his scar was more about the trauma because he didn’t come across as particularly vain and on the other, I’d probably be pretty upset about a significant facial scar so what do I know.   Russell, Evan’s long time partner and Dom, has been treading carefully around Evan since the attack, but in this story, Russell tries a different approach – directing Evan to tell him things and thus allowing Evan some relief in submission.  I thought this was beautifully portrayed actually.  This story came a close second (pardon the pun) to being my favourite in the anthology.  Again, it had an atmosphere of gentle melancholia, great love and sensuality which really got to me.
His Very Last Chance by Kim Dare – B  Kingsley overheard his sub, Drew talking on Christmas Eve and found out that Drew doesn’t think he’s romantic or particularly in touch with his feelings.  Kingsley plans a special New Year’s Eve to show Drew just how romantic he can be.  Drew however, thinks that he has to prove himself to Kingsley on this night (that the last chance of the title is his) and is terrified that he’s going to blow it.  Drew’s realisation during the story of his own deep feelings for Kingsley was a bit of a surprise – I kind of thought he would have known that already and it’s the big misunderstanding again which I generally don’t love.  However, what was very clever and sexy about the story was the way Kingsley made traditionally romantic (and sappy) things into kinky sex toys.   Although I will say rose thorns and penises ought never meet IMO!
Overall: Apart from all having BDSM aspects, the other thing all these stories have in common is that all of the couples are established.  I think short stories work better when the couples start off together and it certainly worked here.  All of the stories were enjoyable, a couple of them exceptional in my opinion and they were certainly all very kinky.

Grade: B

April Reads

on Paper/eBook
Frat Boy and Toppy by Anne Tenino – B- Brad Feller is a college student on a fraternity and athletic scholarship who, at the beginning of the book, realises there’s no hiding from himself anymore – he’s gay.  Sebastian is a TA for one of Brad’s history classes and after Brad buys a paper online to get his attention, they start a relationship.  I found the second half of the book much more enjoyable than the first.  I was really struggling to get through the first half, but persisted because Sarah at DA liked it so much.  I didn’t really get the humour in the first part of the book and I did not like the phrase “the nail in the coffin” which Brad’s dad used when he was giving an example of why he thought Brad was gay – that seemed very negative to me.   Some of the phrasing confused me and I had to read over it a few times to work out what was being said and that threw me out of the story at times.  It’s a fairly gentle story with not a lot of conflict – Brad’s coming out is fairly easy from what I could see in the book and any struggle he may have had with being gay had been resolved before the book started.
However, thes scenes when Brad came out to his friend Kyle and later, to the frat itself, were very funny and the sex was definitely hot.  It’s a short book – only 165 pages but it retailed at $6.99 which I thought was pretty pricey.  Between that and the title, I don’t think I would have picked it up at all if not for Sarah’s recommendation. It was one of those rare books where her tastes and mine didn’t quite mesh – go figure.    Am I sorry?  Well, no.  But, I wish I’d managed to buy it on special somewhere.
Marathon Cowboys by Sarah Black First off, I really like this cover. Did I like the book though?  Well, I did. But.

It was one of those books where the more I thought about it, the more things I came up with that bothered me.  The men said “I love you” too fast for me to really believe. There was a bit at the end where it took me a few pages to work out what had actually happened.  I might be a bit dense but it wasn’t obvious to me WHAT had actually happened. I thought it was a stunt at first.  The resolution (or lack of) that part of the storyline was a problem too but there wasn’t time to develop the storyline (it took a sharp right turn) or to resolve it properly.
I was uncomfortable (to say the least) with what Jessie did as regards his painting and his betrayal of Lorenzo (I’m sorry, I just can’t call him Mary – Lorenzo’s last name is Maryboy-  or zo-zo – Jesse’s “sex” name for him) by his art.  I was uncomfortable that even though he knew Lorenzo would be upset he said up front he wouldn’t change anything and then he still expected not only forgiveness but happy families too.  After I came out of the book, I thought about how Jesse needed to go to San Francisco from time to time to get the vibe and take in the art scene and how he also needed to go to Marathon to get away.  I’m not sure that where Lorenzo fits in to this was dealt with.  I don’t know that I believed that Lorenzo would be able/happy/comfortable fitting in to the San Francisco scene where I gather things were pretty frenetic.  I wondered whether he’d forever feel an outsider.
I had more sympathy for Lorenzo overall – the story is told from his 1st person POV so I got to know him much better than I did Jesse but I don’t know that I trusted that Lorenzo would be happy with Jesse forever and ever.  He just seemed too flighty to me.  The book was just over 120 pages long so it was pretty short and I’m not sure I was sold on the HEA.  That said, I did enjoy the book while I was reading it.  I liked Lorenzo and I liked the way he thought and spoke.  I enjoyed the parts of the book about his comic strip and the thought process he took to get it up and running.  I liked “The Original” too.   Jesse, I’m not so sure about.   I found this very difficult to grade.  I’m going with a C.

According to Luke (The Gospel of Love #1) by Jackie Barbosa  – B-  Sexy short story about serial monogamist Luke, who finds unexpected love with a close friend.  It moved too fast for me fromt he getting together to the falling in love to the turn around to marriage (but then again, it is a short story).  Certainly entertaining and easy to read.  There aren’t many books told entirely from the male POV and while some of it seemed to me to be more what a woman would want to hear rather than what a man might actually say, a lot of it felt pretty authentic.
At 76 pages, I think $4.99 is too pricey, but I picked it up in the St. Patrick’s day sale at ARe and got a 50% rebate so it’s all good.

Nine Tenths of the Law by LA Witt – C+ Mostly enjoyable story about two guys who were unknowingly dating the same man – one for 6 months, the other for 4 years.  As they work through the betrayal they connect with one another, but the ex (Jake) tries to come between them and jealousy and lack of trust is a continuing problem.  Nathan in particular finds it hard to trust Zach and while that formed the conflict in the story, it did get old.  While I suppose that was the point (the story is told from Zach’s POV), it meant that the end kind of fizzled for me and I’m not sure I bought into Nathan’s about face – what?  he just decides and it’s all better? Some of the sex scenes seemed a bit on the repetitive side but overall, it was an enjoyable enough story.

Sweet Addiction by Maya Banks – see my full review here.

SomebodytoLoveSomebody to Love by Kristan Higgins – B – see my full review here

IsolationIsolation by AB Gayle – C/C-  I reviewed this one for ARRA. I’ll post a link when the review goes live.

Learning from Isaac by Dev Bentham – B/B+  Nathan Kohn is a college professor.  Isaac Wolf is one of his students and 17 years his junior.  It is of course, forbidden for Nathan to have a relationship with a student but it is clear that there is mutual interest and attraction.  Isaac is due to graduate in a few months so they plan to wait to do anything about it.  After Isaac came out to his family, he was disowned and he is now weighed down by student loans and tuition fees. In order to try to get out from under this mountain of debt, he works at a gay club in the back room.  He and Nathan have an encounter there when a friend of Nathan’s takes him out to “buy him a boy”.   In the Chicago area it seems that Isaac is easily recognised and even when he quits being a rent boy, he is constantly recognised and propositioned.  The main conflict between the two men is Isaac’s sex worker past. Nathan doesn’t have a moral conflict with it, but he dislikes being confronted with it all the time.  He starts to feel that Isaac has been with almost every gay man in the Chicago area.  I liked how this was eventually resolved – with Nathan taking responsibility for his own jealousy and their practical solution made sense. I also liked how not a lot was made of the age difference between the two.  At one point Isaac says that it’s Nathan’s hang up, not his and I think Nathan realised that he would only push Isaac away if he kept on worrying at the issue.
While I was reading the story, I was engaged and enjoyed the characters and the writing but after finishing I realised there were a couple of things missing for me.  Early on in the book Isaac comes to class bruised and battered.  It isn’t made clear but I inferred he’d been beaten by a client.  Nothing was made of this in the book at all and I would have liked that explored.    The other main thing which I felt was lacking was that I didn’t see on the page the reasons that Nathan and Isaac felt so deeply for each other.  Part of this might be because it was told from Nathan’s first person POV I guess and maybe because it’s not a super long story at 99 pages.   I saw the attraction and mutual lust but not how that changed into a desire for an long term exclusive relationship.  It just kind of happened without me seeing how it had.    It’s why I’ve dithered on the grade a bit.  It was a B+ when I was reading, but a B when I thought about it later.
There has been discussion around the place recently about the portrayal of female characters in m/m romance and how they are often cardboard, eeeevil and/or absent altogether.    This is one book where that is definitely not the case.  Nathan’s flower child mother is a positive force in his life and students Jane and Sue are also positively portrayed.  The “villains” in this book are all men.
I liked this one better than Moving in Rhythm and I’m looking forward to reading more from this author.
 Bared to You (Crossfire #1) by Sylvia Day – B+  See my full review here.

Two Tickets to Paradise Anthology (Dreamspinner Press).  Full review to come. (I’m only halfway through!).

Dark Citadel by Cherise Sinclair – C.  I read this after it was recommended on the “If you Like Fifty…” thread on Dear Author.  I hadn’t read this author before and a commenter said the reader “learned” about BDSM along with the main female character so I thought I’d check it out.  First $6.99 for 146 pages?  Really?
Kari goes to the Shadowlands BDSM club for some beginner’s classes with the man she’s been (briefly) dating.  After she doesn’t like his form of “dominance”, she is offered by the boss to continue the lesson with one of the Masters there – Master Dan.  The story takes place over the course of the three beginner’s classes.
It was okay but very heavy on the erotic part of erotic romance.  I can’t really say why I didn’t connect with it super well.  I’ve read very erotic books before and enjoyed them.  But this one was okay but didn’t set my romance loving heart on fire.  As a primer on BDSM, I’m not sure it answered many questions for me, but I did appreciate the “safe, sane and consensual” message of the book.

on Audio
Born to Darkness by Suzanne Brockmann, narrated by Patrick Lawlor and Melanie Ewbank – C  See my full review here.
Ladies Man by Suzanne Brockmann, narrated by Kathe Mazur – B- This was one of Suzanne Brockmann’s earlier category books which was reissued a few years back.  Kathe Mazur does a good job narrating and I appreciated her slight New York accent for Sam and how she brought out his easygoing charm with her narration.    It’s a younger man/older woman story with limo sex!
Oracle’s Moon by Thea Harrison, narrated by Sophie Eastlake – B-  I reviewed this one for AAR.  You can find it in this column.
The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie by Jennifer Ashley,  narrated by Angela Dawe – B  Angela Dawe does a great job of the narration of this book.  Her Scottish burr for the Mackenzie brothers was very good and I liked the gruffness she instilled in their voices.  I did think her English accent for Beth slipped once in a while towards American, but that didn’t bother me too much.  I actually found myself enjoying the story more in this format than I did in print.  As much as the book was raved over when it was released, I couldn’t find the same enthusiasm myself.  I liked, but did not love it.  On audio however, I found myself connecting more with Ian and Beth than I had before.  For those who haven’t read the book, Lord Ian Mackenzie has some sort of Autism Spectrum Disorder (probably Aspberger’s) but of course, in Queen Victoria’s time there was no name for it.  He is regarded as “mad”.  His father had him locked in an asylum when he was little more than a boy and upon the old Duke’s death, his eldest brother Hart, immediately removed him.  When Ian meets Beth Ackerley, a beautiful widow who has recently inherited some money from a old woman to whom she had been companion, Ian is instantly smitten.   Ian is not like other heroes. He speaks very bluntly.  He doesn’t understand many social cues or  facial expressions and he doesn’t lie or prevaricate.   Beth is the perfect foil for him and I liked how she accepted him, happily and for himself very early on in the piece, never thinking of him as “less”.  Even his brothers, who love him dearly, do this.  At the end of the book Ian comments that everyone has their own madness – perhaps it is just that his is more obvious than others – and so, through Beth, Ian is able to accept himself also.
First Grave on the Right by Darynda Jones, narrated by Lorelie King –  B Charley Davidson is a grim reaper – she sees ghosts and helps them cross to “the other side”.  She’s also a Private Investigator who assists her uncle, police detective Bob Davidson in solving various crimes – usually the ghost can tell her who the killer was.  She is snarky, sarcastic, tough and feisty .  There is a fine line between what is funny to me and what is annoying and Charley skipped over it and back throughout the listen.  In the end, I liked it, but I could hope that the snark will be scaled back a little in future books.   The romance aspect of the story is more along the urban fantasy line than a PNR – there is no HEA/HFN, but more of a hopeful nod.  The love interest is Reyes (pronounced Ray-Us) a gorgeous supernatural being in human form – and it is not until the very end of the book that we find out who he actually is – so I won’t spoil it here.   There is also a bounty hunter called Garrett Swopes who could potentially form part of a love triangle, but it didn’t happen in this book. I’m not really sure what he’s doing in the book to be honest.
Lorelie King is an excellent narrator.  I have listened to her narrating Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series and it was a little challenging to remember that Charley and Mercy are very different characters.  There are some similarities but Charley is way more over the top than Mercy ever could be.  Lorelie King has the ability to do male voices (a variety of them) very convincingly and she has more than one female character voice too.  I think I would have enjoyed this book less in print and I plan to continue the series in audio.  I’m pretty sure that this is the author’s debut so I’m expecting her writing to only improve with time.
Stories I Only Tell My Friends by Rob Lowe, narrated by Rob Lowe – B Enjoyable listening from the sexy-voiced Rob Lowe.  I would have liked a lot more detail about The West Wing, but, otherwise, a fascinating glimpse into Hollywood and the 80’s movies I grew up with.

Out of Focus by LA Witt

Why I read it:  This book had been recommended to me by a number of reviewers I trust so I decided to dig it out of my TBR pile.
What it’s about: Photographers Dante and Ryan (aka Angel) have been happily together for about 12 years.  They are both Dominants and Angel never bottoms ever, and so they take on a third, submissive partner, from time to time.  They meet horse rancher Jordan, brother of the bride at a wedding they are photographing and there is instant lust between all three.  There follows some sweet and sexy manoeuvring to establish that there is interest and that Jordan is interested in exploring submission.  Things get complicated when they all fall in love with each other and it looks like at least one them is destined to be hurt.
What worked for me and what didn’t: The story is told in the alternating 1st person point of view of all three main characters, mainly changing from chapter to chapter, but later in the book, within a scene as well.   I was often confused about whose head I was in and it took me a while to work it out each time the chapter/scene changed.  This was complicated by the similarity of Dante and Angel.  They’re both Doms and both photographers and there wasn’t much else to differentiate their characters for me.   I had to keep reminding myself who was who.  It was easier to differentiate Jordan – he’s a submissive for one and if there was a scene on the horse ranch it was most often (but not  always) from his POV so that helped.  I did like that I got all three main characters points of view but the alternating 1st person was confusing.

The beginning of the story is about setting up Dante and Angel’s relationship with Jordan and this was done very well.  In fact, by the middle of the book, I was wondering what was keeping Dante and Angel together.  I mean, I could see they not only were together but happily so but I wasn’t seeing the how/why of it.  About the time this was beginning to really bother me there were some scenes which showed Dante and Angel alone together and reflecting on how they met and who they were to one another.  I think, in hindsight, that the author did this deliberately to add to the tension of the book, and it worked.
The sex was very hot and very plentiful but the best parts of the book for me, were when each realised they had fallen in love with the other and that what was supposed to be an intimate but not emotional relationship had morphed into something else.  Angel was worried that Dante would leave him to be with Jordan, there were things he couldn’t  do for Dante that Jordan could and did and it seemed that Dante’s other needs were met by Jordan too.  
The fact was, Jordan was everything I couldn’t be for Dante, and slowly but surely, if I read the two of them right, he was becoming what I had always been.
Jordan was worried that he’d forever be the interloper, the “expendable one” who would be “first drop” if something went wrong.  Of course, by then they had all fallen in love with each other so breaking it off was going to hurt no matter what, but the idea of a true menage relationship with the three as equal partners was full of complications and each was dubious about how it could and would work.  In fact, the author did such a great job of alerting me to the possible pitfalls, I didn’t entirely buy the HEA.  I would have liked to have seen some practical examples of the problems being successfully resolved instead of an epilogue which told me that “it had been hard, but it was worth it”.  Once again, I could see that it did work but I didn’t see the how, except this time, I wasn’t shown it later.
What else?  I did like the way the characters talked about their relationship, especially at the beginning, setting safe words, advising hard limits and working up their own set of rules.  It added to the sense of reality of the book, because I’m sure that in real life people have to sort these things out by conversation rather than the osmosis which occurs often in fiction.    
There was a secondary storyline involving Eli, Jordan’s mooching ex-boyfriend and his lack of ability to finally kick him out.   It took up quite a bit of room in the story and the conversations between Eli and Jordan were largely the same.  I didn’t really get why it was featured so strongly.  It certainly wasn’t as interesting to me as the developing relationship between Dante, Jordan and Angel.
Favourite Quote:  

Angel had been there.  He hadn’t been cropped out of the image.  I’d shifted my attention to Jordan, to Angel, to Jordan, to Angel.  Neither pushed the other completely out of the picture; each simply rendered the other… out of focus.

Grade:  B

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