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Book Review: Rarer Than Rubies

Rarer Than Rubies

EM Lynley

When Trent Copeland runs into Reed Acton at a Bangkok airport, he thinks the handsome American is too good to be true. Why would someone like Reed be interested in a quiet, introverted gay-romance writer? After all, even an obvious tourist like Trent can see that there is more to Reed’s constant unexplained appearances in his path than meets the eye.

Reed Acton has one mission and one mission only—he needs to get the map that was accidentally slipped into Trent’s bag and keep the mobsters who want the priceless artifact from taking deadly revenge. Trent Copeland is a delicious and damned near irresistible diversion, but Reed can’t afford distractions right now, especially if he wants to keep Trent safe.

From Bangkok’s seediest back alleys to the sacred north, the two men will fight to stay one step ahead of the bad guys and learn that the only treasure worth finding is… each other.

I found this to be a very enjoyable read.  It was a mix of gay erotic romance and globe-trotting adventure — and as I’m a fan of adventure and thrillers that span the world, this was a nice treat.  I found the plot and writing to be nicely complex — not as overly complex as these thriller/adventure books can sometimes be, but also not flat-out straight-forward.  The mix of elements and plot style made for an entertaining read.

There were times where I felt the prose could have been tightened and cleaned a bit, but the pacing and story kept me going along.  As well, I’m not usually one for details in writing, but Rarer Than Rubies could have benefitted from some more descriptive passages about Thailand and the streets of Bangkok.

Both Trent and Reed were well-crafted viewpoint characters.  Trent starts as a naive romance writer who is in many ways the stereotypical gay guy (multiple types of body wash, fancy clothes, etc), but he grows and develops nicely through the story.  That amount of character growth he undergoes could easily have come off as forced, as it is considerable, but Lynley carries it off ably.  I have to say that I was quite hesitant when I saw that Trent is a romance writer — in the few books I’ve read where the author writes a character with a career the author personally has, I find it comes off as a bit lame.  (I disliked the author main character in Stephen King’s The Dark Half, the minister main character in Prophet by Christian fiction author Frank E Peretti, or the semi-autobiographical Lost Boys by Orson Scott Card.)  So, I did get off to a weak start with Trent as a character, but quickly warmed up to him, as Lynley crafted Trent well. Reed is an interesting character as we are never too sure if he is a good guy or a bad guy — but Lynley gets the reader to care about him before we find out his true motivations, so when we find out he’s good, it’s a nice payoff for the trust the reader invested.

Rarer Than Rubies is one of those rarer romance books that manages to deftly meld two genres — romance and, in this case, adventure — into a satisfying whole.  It was definitely worth the read and I will be picking up its sequel, Italian Ice, soon.

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Book Review: How to Write a Dirty Story

How to Write a Dirty Story: Reading, Writing, and Publishing Erotica

Susie Bright

I found this book to be an enjoyable read, but the title felt a little misleading.

As far as a writing book goes, this one has a lot going for it.  Number one is that it’s easy to read.  A lot of those writing books are dry and clunky; it’s hard to write about writing effectively.  However, Bright does just that.  I whizzed through this book pretty quickly.  The second main strength of this book is its empowering nature.  The key message repeatedly emphasized is that absolutely anyone can write a dirty story and they should feel proud about doing so.  You don’t have to be a sexual god or goddess — you could even be a virgin — there are no qualifications that need to be met.  Moreover, it’s not just that anyone can write it, but anyone who can write it should take pride in their work.  Erotica and sex writing is often seen as dirty, terrible literature, or a blight on the book industry.  But erotic fiction continues to sell and can sometimes feature stellar writing (such as in the lesbian anthology I read recently).

Where this book stumbles is in its practical advice.  Bright seems to give little in the way of how to construct a story, how to write the erotic scenes effectively, or how to pursue the publishing process.  Instead, a lot of time is devoted to exploring how her career developed.  This was certainly an interesting read (and I’m glad I picked the book up), but the lack of effectiveness of these sections means that this reads less like a book on how to write a dirty story and more like… I don’t know… a companion book.  Someone wanting to write a dirty story should pick up this title to learn more about the industry and its development, but they should also pick up a good book on writing tools to help them put together an effective story.

But, like I said, for its weaknesses, it is still an enjoyable read.  Bright’s casual style of writing almost feels like she is relating this information over a cup of coffee in her kitchen.  Her openness and honesty make this, and subsequently the erotica industry, open and accessible.

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Book Review: Plan B

Plan B

SJD Peterson

Danny Marshal has always lived his life out loud, but his androgynous appearance is only a small part of who he is. One night at a frat party, Danny meets Lance Lenard, football jock and apparent straight guy. Lance is shocked when he’s immediately attracted to Danny’s feminine side. Danny is happy to be the subject of Lance’s first man-on-man experiment—until Lance begins to struggle with the fact that despite his appearance, Danny is indeed a man.

Lance’s whole life has been focused on his goal of playing in the NFL, and he knows those dreams will be smashed if anyone finds out about his little secret. Although Lance has grown to crave Danny’s touch, he’s not willing to give Danny what he’s grown to crave: a boyfriend who’s proud to love him for every flamboyant and snarky cell in his body.

Life sends Danny and Lance in different directions, each of them focused on his respective Plan A. But the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

I have two words for this novel: smoking hot.

I have to admit that the cover blurb didn’t quite catch me, but on the recommendation of a friend, I gave this book a try.  Boiled down to its premise, it’s pretty basic: an out and proud young twink falls for a supposedly straight jock.  But, as I’ve often found, the best of novels can come from the simplest of premises.  The key is how it’s carried out.  And SJD Peterson carries it out extremely well.

The budding relationship between Danny and Lance is a joy to read — they are lifelike and their dialogue is realistic.  The sexual tension (and the romance bubbling beneath) is evident on every page.  As it grows and grows, and eventually reaches a head, the dramatic and difficult decisions Danny must make evoked very real emotional responses from me — something that doesn’t happen too often with a book.

The narrative is told in first person through Danny’s perspective and I think this is the one weak point of the book (but it’s only a minor weakness) — because we’ve got Danny telling us everything, he tends to get a little over-analytical at points.  It could really be down to personal taste, though, as I have a strong dislike of first person narrative.  All that being said, if the same over-analytical discussion were to happen in third person, it would likely be a lot more annoying to me — so the first person choice was really the saving grace for me.

The cover blurb also seems to imply there is a lot of the dual lives of Lance — gay lover and straight jock — but it really didn’t come up much in the book.  I think the tension would have been increased nicely with a bit more of that going on.  I found that the dual lives often came up in Danny’s thoughts — so it was told to the reader rather than shown.  I kept expecting them to be seen in public and Lance totally dissing Danny — but I don’t recall that happening.

However, back to the positives.  The only thing that was more enjoyable than the dialogue and budding romance was the sex.  Of the gay erotica romance and gay erotica I’ve read over the past year, I’ve often felt that some of the sex scenes were a bit off… like something wasn’t quite ringing true. This is definitely one of Peterson’s strongest points — she writes smoking hot sex scenes that are very deep in emotion and sensation.  They build up nicely, too, in the individual scenes and over the course of the novel.

Plan B was an emotional roller coaster — for the characters and for the reader.  The joy of their relationship brought a smile to my face, the sex made my heart beat fast, and the rough scenes had me worried over how the characters would work it out in the end… and when things take a very bad turn and the next chapter jumps ahead three years, I distinctly remember saying “three years later??? What???”  I didn’t want to make that time jump, I wanted to see how things would develop.  (In hindsight, the time jump was a very effective move, as it made the ending so much stronger.)

Plan B by SJD Peterson is definitely one of my top gay erotic romance reads — enjoyable from cover to cover.  It was steamy, turbulent, and enjoyable.

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Book Review: Star Trek: Typhon Pact: Brinkmanship

Star Trek: Typhon Pact: Brinkmanship

Una McCormack

The Venette Convention has always remained independent, but it is about to become the flashpoint for a tense military standoff between the two power blocs now dominating interstellar space—the United Federation of Planets and the recently formed Typhon Pact. The Venetan government turns to the Typhon Pact’s Tzenkethi Coalition for protection in the new order, and has agreed to allow three of their supply bases for Tzenkethi use. But these bases—if militarized—would put Tzenkethi weapons unacceptably close to Federation, Cardassian, and Ferengi space. While Captain Ezri Dax and the crew of theU.S.S. Aventine are sent to investigate exactly what is happening at one of the Venette bases, Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the U.S.S. Enterprise are assigned to a diplomatic mission sent to the Venette homeworld in order to broker a mutually acceptable resolution. But the Cardassian delegates don’t seem particularly keen on using diplomacy to resolve the situation, which soon spirals out of control toward all-out war. . . .

The entire Typhon Pact saga, which has gone on for several books now, has been a series of ups and downs for me.  It’s a time of tension and unease in the Star Trek universe — old ties are broken, new ones are formed, and everyone is perpetually on the brink of war — all the while recovering from the massive Borg onslaught.  I found the first few books so-so, the next few were pretty good, and that was followed by a superb duology (Plagues of Night and Raise the Dawn).  And then there was this one… which I found to be pretty good, but a bit disappointing.

I found McCormack’s dialogue to be out of character, not ringing quite true to the characters we know and love… and the characterization was a bit off. I felt the characters, hardened Starfleet personnel, were super-over-reactive to everything… like everyone was shouting at each other and speaking without thinking.  Characters who have served in crisis situations for years came across as, well, a bunch of first year cadets.

Awkward characterization aside, I did find the story quite interesting — a cold war type of plot — is the enemy actually preparing to attack?  Are they just trying to intimidate the Federation?  The answer is never really known, but creates a nice tension throughout.

McCormack’s greatest strength, and the true saving grace of this novel, is her world building of alien civilizations.  She did it previously with the Cardassians in The Never-Ending Sacrifice — she took an alien civilization I’ve never cared to know too deeply, and she immersed the reader so deeply into it that I couldn’t stop turning the pages.

She did it again in this book with the Tzenkethi — an alien civilization I really know nothing about and have had immense difficulty even getting into.  Half of the narrative of this story followed a Cardassian intelligence agent under cover as a Tzenkethi, allowing the reader to immerse themselves in the Tzenkethi civilization.  McCormack pulled together a very alien society and made it tangible, something I’ve found many authors can’t quite pull off.  This is truly one of McCormack’s gifts as a storyteller.

As well, in this novel, with her worldbuilding of the Tzenkethi and, to a lesser extent, the Venette, McCormack has managed to create very alien civilizations.  Too often in Star Trek — and, really, all science fiction — the alien civilization is the same as human civilization, just with funky clothes or body modifications.  The Tzenkethi and the Venette are both very alien to us, but at the same time it really isn’t gimmicky — McCormack carries it off with the seriousness and faithfulness of an author who loves the world she writes in.

So, I found this book to be a bit of a mixed bag — it was a quick read, which was a nice break given the very long books I’ve been reading lately — the characterization was a bit off, though, but the worldbuilding was superb.

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Book Review: Oblivion

[Hmm… I thought I posted this a while ago, but I just found it in my drafts — sorry if it’s a duplicate post!]

Oblivion

Anthony Horowitz

Having escaped from Hong Kong, the Five Gatekeepers – Matt, Pedro, Scott, Jamie and Scarlett – are scattered in a hostile and dangerous world. As they struggle to re-group and plan their next move, the malevolent King of the Old Ones gathers his forces in Oblivion: a desolate landscape where the last survivors of humanity must fight the ultimate battle.

I found this book to be enjoyable, but my experience suffered for the fact that there was a gap of about four years between this volume, the fifth in the Gatekeepers series, and the previous one, Necropolis.  I had remembered the vague outline of it — the Old Ones are somehow related to the Nazca Lines in South America, the five Gatekeepers have special powers, and… that was about all I remembered.  Well, I also remember Necropolis ending with a “Holy crap!”  I kept checking the Amazon and Chapters websites for news of the next book.  Eventually, my interest waned as I expected never to see the fifth and final volume — and by the time it came around, I think my interest was still waning.  I read it as soon as I got it in the mail, but I don’t know if the waning interest affected my enjoyment of it.

In recent years, Horowitz also wrapped up his Alex Rider series.  That was a phenomenal series — the beginning was a bit slow, but the meat of the series was incredible… though the final book lacked the punch of the series’s high points.  It was good to see a satisfying end to the series, but it lacked the punch of some of the other titles.

Oblivion was the same.  It provided a satisfying resolution, but it still lacked that punch.

The strength of Oblivion, though, is that the reader can pick it up without reading (or remembering) the previous four books — each element, character, and complication is reintroduced in such a way that the reader immediately picks things up, but it won’t be a tedious section for the devoted fan.

The basic premise has to do with the doorways — the Gatekeepers can traverse through any of 25 doorways scattered around the world.  They act like wormholes — step in one door and step out across the planet.  At the end of Necropolis, they fled through a door in a hurry.  Because they didn’t plan their journey through the door, they ended up scattered around the world — Jamie in England, Scott and Pedro in Italy, Scarlet in Egypt, and Matt in South America.  Horowitz does a good job of following these characters.  Since they are in vastly different places and situations, it’s easy to keep them straight — and by following each character for several chapters, you get to know the characters without jumping around a lot.  That being said, Horowitz does head-hop a lot within a scene, sometimes switching in mid-sentence.  It’s a style choice he made, but I personally don’t care for it.  It can be a bit tough keeping track of who’s thinking what, and all that.

Anyway, when they fled through the doors and ended up scattered, the Old Ones intercepted somehow — the Gatekeepers (and two companions with them) found themselves ten years in the future, where Earth is almost a post-apocalyptical wasteland — and the doors are suddenly non-functional.  So, five children need to get to Oblivion (which is on Antarctica) without the use of the doors, and in a world where almost no one flies or drives.  The challenges and obstacles they face are a captivating read.

There are a lot of interesting themes in this book — trust, betrayal, self-sacrifice.  The self-sacrifice one is particularly well done, and carried out by more than one character and sometimes in surprising ways.  As well, while it is clear that the almost-post-apocalyptic world has largely to do with the Old Ones sending Earth on a downward spiral, it’s clear (and even alluded to once) that this same devastation could have happened without the Old Ones — if humanity suddenly stopped caring about each other and the planet — we are not far from this devastation.  It was an interesting reflection.

There are several very meaningful and moving scenes in this book.  The best one, the once that made me feel all tingly with sadness, was when Jamie ended up in England by himself.  He’s Scott’s twin brother and, in many ways, is the least independent of the Gatekeepers.  So when he ends up in a post-apocalyptic English town where he knows no one and is stuck there because the door doesn’t work, the reader finds him one evening at the door, pushing it open, walking through, and then repeating the action.  That, and the conversation after, is a heartbreaker.  Horowitz is particularly good at scenes like this.

Horowitz tends to do best when he’s working with a small numbers of characters in close-quartered action — like in the Alex Rider series.  I find he loses some of his strength and tension when he stretches himself too thin, like in this book, which has an abundance of characters doing things.  In the end, it felt a bit like a surface treatment of the story.  However, at 590 pages, to go to a good depth might make the book a little too daunting.

So, overall, it’s a bit of a mixed bag — good story, good characters, easy to follow, but lacking in some depth.

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Book Review: The Power of Appreciative Inquiry

The Power of Appreciative Inquiry: A Practical Guide to Positive Change

Diana Whitney and Amanda Trosten-Bloom

The Power of Appreciative Inquiry describes a wildly popular approach to organizational change that dramatically improves performance by encouraging people to study, discuss, learn from, and build on what’s working, rather than simply trying to fix what’s not. Whitney and Trosten-Bloom use examples from many different types of organizations to illustrate Appreciative Inquiry (AI) in action. A how-to book but not a manual, The Power of Appreciative Inquiry describes the newest ideas and practices in the field of Appreciative Inquiry since its inception in 1985. In updating the second edition, the authors conducted an appreciative inquiry with first edition readers, focusing especially on users in markets and universities.  At the urging of these readers, the authors have included a new chapter on the community applications of Appreciative Inquiry, as well as a host of new examples and other enhancements.

I admit this isn’t the usual kind of book I review on here or even attempt to read.  I’m in the midst of writing my proposal for my thesis project for my masters degree and I had thought I’d be using Appreciative Inquiry as my research method.  Well, things changed and I’m not doing Appreciative Inquiry, but I read the book anyway.

This was an interesting exploration into Appreciative Inquiry.  I’d tried Googleing it to very little success; it’s really not easily described on the internet.  That’s the power of this book — Appreciative Inquiry becomes very clear.  Every step is detailed with numerous examples and each chapter ends with a story from how Hunter Douglas used Appreciative Inquiry to completely re-energize and revitalize their business.

It starts with a basic premise… approach organizational “problems” with a positive perspective.  Rather than saying, “Our business is failing, how do we fix it?”, we should instead be saying, “We’re struggling with some areas, but succeeding in other areas.  What are our successes?  What do we do well?”  By starting from that positive perspective and then including everyone in the process, from the janitor to the CEO, everyone in the organization is thinking positive thoughts and begins to feel a sense of pride and ownership over their organization.  From this comes the drive to be a better organization.

But that’s only the first step.  Later steps include thinking about how we want the organization to be perceived, how we want to be remembered.  And then we need to think of how we build from our current strengths and successes into our dream organization.

This is an empowering approach to structural change within an organization.  After all, the most powerful changes are the ones that are wholeheartedly supported by everyone within the organization and not simply imposed upon an organization by some managerial person from high above.  Appreciative Inquiry actively encourages positive change for a better organization, happier staff and customers/clients, and a renewed sense of purpose.

The Power of Appreciative Inquiry is a very clear guide that includes description and examples of every step — and every step is completely malleable and flexible to fit organizations from the smallest family-run business to non-profit community organizations, to multinational corporation with dozens of diverse business interests.

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Book Review: Make Mine to Go

Make Mine To Go

Dilo Keith

Justin can usually satisfy Toby’s diverse erotic desires, but when Toby craves something only another man can provide, will this test the limits of Justin’s love?

One key to the success of Justin and Toby’s marriage is plenty of sexual variety, sometimes with other men they meet at the local BDSM club. While Toby assumes the submissive role in their power exchanges, it’s more often Justin who generously caters to Toby’s erotic appetites. Toby’s interest in flirting with a salesman should be trivial in comparison to his other desires. Instead, it sends both men down uncomfortable paths.

Toby manages to assure Justin that it was harmless fun, or so it seems at first. More troubling than Justin being unconvinced is that Toby doesn’t entirely believe his own story. When Toby finally figures out he wants something only another man can give him, he knows it won’t be easy to tell Justin. More importantly, is realizing a fantasy– even an exceptionally compelling one — worth the risk?

This was a fun novella to read.  Justin and Toby enjoy having sex with others, but there’s something lacking in their sexual relationship when its just the two of them.  As this couple discusses this very sensitive topic, things begin to spiral downward — there’s an uncertainty between them, perhaps the trust is waning, and they begin to tread lightly around each other.  Deep down inside they know that they love each other, but the lack of sexual fire makes them worried.

A tentative deal is reached — the acceptance of extra-marital sex (individually, not as a couple like they’ve always done it) sets them on a path that could either bring them closer together or drive them further apart.  They won’t know which is the true outcome until they just go ahead and try it.

I found the relationship between Justin and Toby to be an interesting and realistic one.  How many couples feel the sexual fire burn down until there are just embers, and they wonder what to do about it?  These couples know they love each other, but there just isn’t that same lust anymore.  What can be done?  This novella approaches that topic with care and compassion, while taking time to throw in scorching sex and a splash of fun.

The conversations sound real — as Justin and Toby venture into uncomfortable discussions, their reactions sound genuine.  The reader can feel the love they have for each other, as well as the worry that this lust issue could become a real problem.

Keith not only writes dialogue and relationships effectively, but also the sex.  For a gay erotic romance, the sex in Make Mine To Go is quite realistic and graphic, verging into erotica style writing (there is a difference, though slight, between sex in erotic romance and erotica).  This fusion of elements of erotica and elements of erotic romance make for a tantalizing whole, one that both “excites” the reader and engages the heart.

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