The Hound at The Gate, by Darby Karchut (2015)

The Hound at The Gate

Once again, author Darby Karchut shows off her amazing knack for building on each installment of a series, making each book better than the last.

In the Adventures of Finn MacCullen series, Ms. Karchut hasn’t struck a bad note yet, but the third book—“The Hound at The Gate”—surpasses even its two predecessors.

The first two novels mainly focus on the relationship between apprentice Finn “Don’t Call Me Finnegan” MacCullen and his Knight, Gideon Lir. We watch as Finn struggles to learn all the skills required to make him a full-blown knight in the ancient Tuatha De Danaan realm.

The first novel—“Finn Finnegan”—shows Finn’s early training, and the dangers that surround this world so new to Finn. The second novel—“Gideon’s Spear”—shows Finn come into his own, gaining confidence and skill, and showing the traits that will make him a brave warrior in his own right.

In the third installment, “The Hound at The Gate,” Ms. Karchut shifts gears a bit. Rather than focusing solely on Gideon and Finn, she gives us a glimpse into the entire Tuatha De Danaan world.

The location is The Festival, a gathering of Tuatha De Danaan from all over. It’s a sort of ancient warrior Woodstock, with feasts, music, and challenges, a chance for Knights and Apprentices to renew old friendships, and—especially for Gideon and Finn—some old rivalries.

Also attending The Festival—crashing the gates is more like it—are the Amandan, fierce goblin-like creatures whose favorite food happens to be Tuatha De Danaan.

Things turn ugly early, as certain people question Finn’s right to attend The Festival, since he comes from a Knight father and a mortal mother. This internecine tension crackles throughout “The Hound at The Gate,” as if the Amandan weren’t enemy enough.

Repeatedly, Finn finds himself locked in combat for his life and that of his friends.

And those were the good times.

On one night of The Festival, the unthinkable happens. A massive army of Amandan force the Tuatha De Danaan to retreat. Things look hopeless. Only incredible bravery by a handful of Knights stands between being vanquished or living to see another morning.

As the battle winds down, Finn becomes embroiled in yet another quarrel regarding his status, this time due to his uniqueness, not his difference. At stake is his future as a trainee, and the chance that he could be forever separated from his beloved mentor, Gideon.

I can’t stress enough how much of a page-turner “The Hound at The Gate” is. I’ve learned better than to start one of Ms. Karchut’s novels before bedtime, since I know I’ll read all night, and never get any sleep.

As interesting as the lives of the Tuatha De Danaan are in the first two novels, “The Hound at The Gate” gives us a broader glimpse into this mythical world. We see the alliances and rivalries within the group. We learn about the hierarchy and ruling body, and we see all of these things disappear when the Amandan mount a full-scale attack. Knights and apprentices work together, regardless of position or personal feelings. There’s a job to do, and each is prepared to defend the group to his or her dying breath.

I say “his or her” advisedly, because one of the highlights in this novel is the introduction of a feisty female Knight named Kel, and her equally feisty apprentice. Needless to say, these two women leave Gideon and Finn utterly flummoxed, even as they more than prove themselves equals to the men in the group.

Ms. Karchut does a wonderful job providing rich description, setting a visual stage against which the battle will be fought. Then she lets fly with the action.

“The Hound at The Gate” is my favorite thus far of the “Adventures of Finn MacCullen” series, primarily because of the expanded view it gives of the warrior group. While the action is plentiful and powerful, I like the quieter moments as well. Here, we see the people behind the flashing daggers and swinging axes. We can see our own groups mirrored in the Tuatha De Danaan, with all of humankind’s foibles, strengths, and weaknesses.

We also see how all of Gideon’s training has rubbed off on Finn. Not just on the battlefield, but in other areas as well.

Like the rest of The Adventures of Finn MacCullen series, “The Hound at The Gate” is classified as a “middle-grade” book. Also like the rest of the series, “The Hound at The Gate” serves as an excellent read for adults, too.

My only complaint is that Ms. Karchut is making us wait till 2016 for the next installment. That’s a long time to wait for such an exciting series.

Most Highly Recommended

(nb: I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher)

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Suicide Watch, by Kelley York (2012)

Suicide Watch is a website, where people contemplating suicide gather and discuss their pain, their hopelessness, and their plans to end their lives.

Kelley York’s novel, “Suicide Watch,” is one hell of a read.

The book’s narrator, Vincent, has been cast out his entire life. His parents gave him up when he was two-and-a-half years old, and every foster family since then let him go as well. He finally lands with an elderly woman named Maggie, who is completely different. She makes it clear that Vincent’s stay with her will be permanent, and she lives up to her end of the bargain. She cares for Vincent like a son, helps him change to a school that better suits his needs, and serves as a one woman cheering squad.

She dies during Vincent’s high school graduation.

Her estate isn’t much, but it leaves Vincent enough money to live on for a year or so, if he’s careful. His sense of grief and abandonment, of hollowness, is so acute, that he’s driven to think about suicide. He once saw a girl jump to her death from a bridge, and Vincent remembers the peaceful look on her face before she let go of the railing.

A Google search turns up a link to Suicide Watch. Vincent is puzzled, but intrigued enough to sign up. Soon, he finds himself chatting with a girl screen-named Casper, who’s dying of cancer and wants to go out on her own terms. He also meets a boy who goes by the name RoxWell. Roxwell communicates entirely through song lyrics.

The cyber-world of Suicide Watch becomes real when Casper invites herself to meet Vincent for a gallery exhibition. Vincent is still defensive and terrified of people, but he manages to bond somewhat with the vivacious Casper.

On Casper’s next trip down, she brings RoxWell, a sullen eighteen-year-old. The three engage in an uncomfortable evening.

As time progresses, the three become close friends, and Vincent and RoxWell agree to help Casper when she decides to end her life.

The three friends prop-up one another as they face their individual hells, through sadness and loss, through hope, love, and triumph.

The key to “Suicide Watch” is Vincent, through whose eyes we see everything. We’re privy to his thoughts and inner pain, and we can see just how hard it is for him to trust his new friendships. He’s so used to being abandoned and made to feel worthless, that it’s damned near impossible to believe that people really like him just as he is.

I’ve suffered from depression for years, and I found myself highlighting passage after passage from Vincent’s narrative. “Oh, that’s true. That’s dead-on.” That sort of thing. Vincent is drawn that realistically.

Kelley York does a wonderful job in keeping the story under control. It’s not like Vincent meets his new friends, then suddenly begins dancing joyful tarantellas. His distrust of people–individually and in general–is too deep-seated for him to change that abruptly.

Change is gradual, and often painful. Ms. York recognizes this, and she avoids innumerable pitfalls and easy shortcuts she could have used.

In the afterword, she says that this book was the hardest book she’s written, that she gets attached to her characters and finds it heartbreaking when they suffer.

It’s obvious that she means what she says. Life has dealt Vincent a cruel hand. Ms. York doesn’t shy away from his pain. She guides him through it as best she can, hoping–and leaving us to hope–that Vincent finds some sort of recompense in the end.

Most Highly Recommended

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Beckon Me (Beckoners #1), by Cindy Thomas (2015)

College sophomores Karina and Rainey are enjoying a night on the town. They close down an art museum, which was featuring a photography exhibit. An excellent photographer herself, Karina especially was enchanted with the beautiful images.

On the walk back to the garage where they’d parked, the two stumble upon a couple obviously engaged in a very public intimate activity. What happens next reveals that the activity wasn’t consensual, and it gets Karina and Rainey both shot. Karina survives; Rainey doesn’t.

When Karina returns to college for fall term, she sees her friend everywhere, and every time, Rainey looks a little worse for the wear. Soon, Karina discovers she’s not the only one who can see Rainey–as well as other disembodied spirits–and that she might be destined to become a Beckoner, a being whose purpose it is to help souls cross-over to their ultimate destinations.

Karina’s decision isn’t entirely her own. She meets Eli, an impossibly handsome fellow student, and Gabby, who becomes Karina’s new best friend. Now, Karina has to decide whether to embrace her role as a Beckoner, or to remain human. It’s her choice. If she becomes a Beckoner, she’ll be able to help her friend move on to the next realm. She could also encounter terrifying, evil entities called Ceptors, who could damn both Rainey AND Karina to eternal misery.

Cindy Thomas’s novel “Beckon Me (Beckoner #1)” does an excellent job setting up the mythology for what should prove to be an interesting series. Karina is a perfect heroine. Beyond accepting that she’s seeing her dead best friend for real, she’s even more skeptical when she finds out about Beckoners, much less that she may be one. When Eli also sees Rainey’s ghost one day, Karina can’t deny it any longer.

Damnation or not, she has to help her friend–Karina owes her that much.

There are sparks between Karina and Eli, though Karina finds him arrogant enough not to succumb to his advances. Instead, they work together to prepare for her new role, and for all the dangers she will be facing.

I like the triangle between Eli, Gabby, and Karina. Karina is utterly clueless in the beginning why Eli and Gabby don’t seem to like each other. As the relationships gel, we can see their respective roles in Karina’s life.

“Beckon Me” is alternately funny and fascinating, especially as Karina tries to balance her need for Eli’s training, with her lust to hone more than her Beckoner skills.

As prepared as Karina becomes, she’s just not ready when she faces her first challenge, and the stakes are even higher than she imagined.

Cindy Thomas has written a compelling novel. It’s one of those where I kept saying, “All right, just one more chapter.” Then, ten chapters later, I’m still reading. That’s the sign of an entertaining book, and that’s what Ms. Thomas has created here.

Highly Recommended

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Give War a Chance, by P.J. O’Rourke (2003; orig. published 1992)

“Give War a Chance: Eyewitness Accounts of Mankind’s Struggle Against Tyranny, Injustice, and Alcohol-Free Beer” is a collection of P.J. O’Rourke’s various writings from the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. If you grew up during the Reagan Years, you’ll probably remember many of the stories in this collection from when they were current events–especially various foreign affairs stories (Iran-Contra, e.g.).

O’Rourke also takes jabs at famous books from the era (Lee Iacocca’s autobiography, and a book penned by former President and First Lady, Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter). To me, one of the funniest parts of the book is the party games he’s invented to play using the Carters’ book. It’s…well, you’d just have to read it.

The book’s biggest section concerns the events leading up to The Persian Gulf War, as well as the war itself. The war–if you recall–was the first one really televised live. O’Rourke gives behind the scenes details of how the press coverage really worked, as well as some horrifying situations he encountered during his time there.

To us–more than a quarter-century after most of these stories were originally published–“Give War a Chance” is most-valuable as an eyewitness historical perspective. O’Rourke’s adventures have led him through more than enough dangerous situations.

The real value to fans of the author is his rich, funny prose. It takes a special skill to inject humor into war coverage, for example, but P.J. O’Rourke manages to do just that. He balances his oft-irreverent style with in-depth reporting, without being overly frivolous.

The age and length of these stories would normally earn three stars from me. But I’m giving it four, just because P.J. O’Rourke is so damn funny.

Recommended (Mainly for P.J. O’Rourke fans, and those with interest in that time period’s big stories.)

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Songs Unfinished, by Holly Stratimore (2015)

(nb: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley)

In many ways, love is like music. It can soar with passion and verve, or it can ring dissonant and harsh. In most relationships, we experience both of these, and endless progressions in between.

Thus, music is the perfect backdrop for budding lovers Shawn Davies and Jaymi Del Harmon. Shawn is a survivor, a former hustler whose L.A. music career was going nowhere. She packed up, and worked her way back to her New England home town. She spent many days playing for whatever people would throw in her guitar case; she spent many nights in her car.

When she got back home, her father refused to see her. He had never forgiven her for coming out as a lesbian back in her teens. When everything seemed lost, she heard the band Passion Play on a local radio station. Shawn had been friends with Passion Play’s guitarist and songwriter, Jaymi Del Harmon, and Jaymi agreed to take Shawn in, just till she got her life together.

That period of time kept stretching, as the two women grew closer and closer, till something had to give. At risk? Their burgeoning music careers, close friendship, and blossoming love. The question remained whether the two women’s bond could endure new temptations–as well as ghosts from the past–and make their song a joyous melody, or would the entire relationship crumble like the clash of cymbals.

Author Holly Stratimore does a wonderful job melding music and romance into a parallel narrative. As the characters’ lives ebb and flow, so does their music. They suffer from writer’s block, and their relationship hits snags. It’s deftly handled.

I liked the two protagonists, too. Shawn comes off as tough but vulnerable, while Jaymi seems to have it all together, though there’s a giant hole inside her. They complement one another beautifully.

I also liked the supporting characters, especially Passion Play’s super-brash lead singer, Nikki. Beneath the growl and arrogance, we find an unexpected soft side. It was a nice twist.

Ms. Stratimore throws in enough curveballs so that the story never gets stale, and she brews up plenty of steamy scenes to keep up the sizzle.

“Songs Unfinished” works as a romance. However, there’s plenty more to the story. It’s obvious the author has a deep knowledge of both music and relationships, and she blends them together into a beautiful chord of a novel.

Highly Recommended

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The You Know Who Girls: Freshman Year, by Annameekee Hesik (2012)

You know who
The last place Abbey Brooks wanted to be that day was at the mall with her fashionista BFF, Kate, but she couldn’t have imagined what would happen next.

She orders fries and a small lemonade from Hot Dog on A Stick, and finds herself entranced by the beautiful girl behind the counter. A few days later, when she and her mom take Abbey’s father’s guitar in for a tune-up, imagine her shock when that same girl works there, too.

The girl’s name is Keeta, and soon she’s all that Abbey can think about.

Abbey and Kate are starting their freshman year at Gila High, and Kate makes Abbey pinky-swear to avoid going out for basketball, and to stay away from “the you know who girls,” who are apparently legion on the basketball team.

This is one pinky-swear Abbey ends up breaking. She ends up being the JV center, and soon finds herself becoming one of “the you know who girls” herself.

And falling ass-over-tea kettle in love as she does so.

This is the first in “The You Know Who Girls” series, and I loved this book. It moved as quick and sure as a well-executed fast-break play, and Abbey is a charming and funny, yet vulnerable, narrator.

Yes, the person who so ensorcels Abbey is another girl, but author Annameekee Hesik also shows straight relationships as they ebb and flow, glow and explode. The same is true for you know who girls, except most have the extra pressure of trying to hide that they’re lesbians.

When I was in high school, I fell ass-over-tea kettle myself for a girl who happened to be three years younger than I was. I loved her to pieces, but I couldn’t let my friends know, because she was so much younger. If they’d found out, I would have been in for some razzing, but nothing serious. After all, she was a girl, and I was a boy.

The stakes are higher for the you know who girls. There are people who are filled with hate, sometimes to the point of cruelty or violence, just because of sexual preference. Add that risk into the pressure cooker-like atmosphere of high school, and things could get ugly fast.

Ms. Hesik does an excellent job easing Abbey into this world, and showing the joys and pitfalls she can expect, and not just from her relationship with Keeta, her lovely Hot Dog on A Stick girl. Keeta’s a senior, and Abbey’s a freshman, so there’s that. They’re gay, which of course complicates things more. But what I like is that they still have to deal with the basics: they’re teenagers in love, and they still have to go to classes every day.

Abbey and Keeta may be lesbian, but they also have basic teenager lives to lead. It’s sweet that they can lean on each other for support, despite the bitterness of having to hide their affections.

At day’s end, Abbey still needs her mom, her BFF, and–most of all–seriously good grades to get by. It’s almost like lesbians have lives just like straight kids.

It turns out that–good heavens–they do. If everybody could accept this, the world would be that much better a place.

This book’s a winner.

Very Highly Recommended

(nb: I received a review copy of the second installment in the series–“Driving Lessons”–and rated it 4/5. Though it’s not 100% necessary–Ms. Hesik does a good job presenting backstory in that one–I highly recommend reading “The You Know Who Girls: Freshman Year” first. I purchased this book on my own after reading “Driving Lessons.”)

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Driving Lessons: The You Know Who Girls Soph Year, by Annameekee Hesik (2014)

driving lessons

Abbey Brooks is ready for her sophomore year. She’s determined to get her driver’s license, come out to her mom,, live through basketball season, and get–and keep–a girlfriend.

With Abbey Brooks, though, nothing is ever as easy as it sounds.

I love Abbey as a narrator. She’s funny and effervescent, not to mention self-effacing at times. Mostly, she’s honest when dealing with her feelings, and her ever-changing world of friends.

“Driving Lessons” is the second book in the “You Know Who Girls” series, which centers on a group of high school lesbians. The first novel in the series is “The You Know Who Girls: Freshman Year,” where we meet all these characters for the first time, including Abbey’s first girlfriend.

I haven’t read the first book (yet), so I missed much of the background on some of these well-drawn characters. However, author Annameekee Hesik has framed “Driving Lessons” so that even a newcomer to the series can follow along. If there is background information necessary to further the plot, she seamlessly weaves it into this narrative. It’s a difficult thing to do in series fiction, and Ms. Hesik pulls it off with great aplomb. I never felt lost from not having read book one; I did, however, go and buy book one, just because I’m curious about Abby and her Freshman Year adventures.

Although I think anyone would enjoy this novel, one of the most valuable things “Driving Lessons” does is acknowledge that high school is difficult enough without the added pressure of being lesbian. “Driving Lessons” helps show that such readers are not the only ones in that situation, and that it is possible to find friends–even parents–who will love and support you no matter what.

Also, in the Acknowledgements section at the end, Ms. Hesik provides numerous resources where LGBTQ teens can turn for advice or other help. Not everyone’s parents are as cool as some parents in the book, and these websites and phone numbers are there to help.

Abbey Brooks may not be the smoothest kid in school, but she has a huge heart, and that makes her adventures–and this book–well worth reading.

(nb: I received an advance review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley)

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Maxine Wore Black, by Nora Olsen (2014)

“Maxine Wore Black” is basically two stories mashed into one. Mostly, it works.

The first–and primary–story is an updating of Daphne du Maurier’s classic, “Rebecca.” In the acknowledgements, author Nora Olsen calls “Maxine Wore Black” an homage to “Rebecca,” and it does this admirably.

The other story follows the struggles of a transgender girl named Jaylen. She has to deal with things I’d never even have thought of: regular hormone pills, laser hair removal, even getting a valid photo i.d. so she could prove her new identity to the world.

The stories mesh one night at the Queer Prom, where wallflower Jaylen spots the beautiful Maxine from across the dance floor. They exchange numbers, but Jaylen deletes Maxine’s from her phone–she figures Maxine is way too high class for her.

Maxine doesn’t quite see it that way. Although she has a girlfriend–Becky (get it? Rebecca?)–who goes to Princeton, Maxine still contacts Jaylen.

One night, Becky dies, banging her head and drowning in the waters off Fire Island. Maxine is devastated, and Jaylen is there to pick up the pieces, as the two fall in love. The questions start to arise, though: just how devastated was Maxine? Was Becky’s tragic death a suicide or an accident, or maybe something more heinous? And just how far would Maxine go to control Jaylen’s life completely?

“Maxine Wore Black” is a good book, with some great parts. The mysterious death plot was beautifully handled–Nora Olsen has serious storytelling skills, and she draws Maxine as a truly insane witch. Jaylen is an interesting narrative voice. We know she’s not educated–she repeatedly mentions she doesn’t even have her GED yet–but she seems to have some intelligence. She quickly realizes that Maxine is controlling and manipulating every facet of her life, from showing up at her jobs to going through her phone messages.

Like many abusive partners, though, Maxine can go from vicious to loving in a finger snap. That’s why Jaylen stays with her, even though we, as readers, just know this isn’t going to end well.

The second, underlying story–Jaylen’s transgender obstacles–doesn’t always mesh with the mystery surrounding Becky’s death. At times, it feels like the transgender part is just forced into the story randomly. This is a shame, for there aren’t a lot of books that handle transgender issues well. “Maxine Wore Black” doesn’t downplay the issues–Ms. Olsen deals with them in an honest, caring manner, in my opinion. The problem is that this particular mystery might not be the place to raise the transgender subject, or maybe it could have been handled more smoothly. I honestly don’t know. It just felt like the novel’s flow kept getting interrupted, which is a shame.

Maxine is a truly terrifying figure, and her scenes just crackle with insane electricity. “Maxine Wore Black” is worth the read just for her. There are many other positives to be said for this novel. Sometimes, they just don’t quite fit together well.

Recommended

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Season’s Meetings, by Amy Dunne (2014)

(nb: I received a review copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley)

Catherine is a type AAAAAAAAAAA (read that, extremely type A), and she hates Christmas. When her boss suddenly demands Catherine’s underlings turn in reports just before Christmas or lose their jobs, Cat takes it upon herself to do all the reports herself. This means she misses out on her flight to Scotland, where she was to spend Christmas with her best friend and her partner.

The weather forecast is dire, and the only option left for Cat to get from London to Scotland is riding with her best friend’s cousin, Holly. There are instant sparks between the two, as they drive through the rapidly declining weather. Things get so dire, that they make a pact: if they survive the blizzard, they’ll make it a Christmas to remember.

Before long, the two are finding just how physically compatible they are, and how much joy they bring to one another’s lives. They’re falling in love. There’s just one problem…an old promise that could ruin everything.

Amy Dunne’s “Season’s Meetings” is a fun, easy read, perfect for this hectic time of year. I loved vivacious Holly from the very beginning, and it was wonderful to see how she gradually draws Catherine out from her self-protective shell (she’d been hurt before). Add in a special Cairn Terrier named Kimmie, and you have a perfect little family…except for that promise.

There’s nothing in “Season’s Meetings” that should surprise anyone. But it’s Christmas. There’s nothing wrong with a little steamy sex and some joyful tears to make the holidaze (sic) a little more bearable.

Recommended

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Treasure, by Rebekah Weatherspoon (2014)

treasure

(nb: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley)

“Treasure” is a fun book to read, a concentrated lesbian romance between a shy college freshman and a stripper from her sister’s bachelorette party. The two connect immediately, initially when one of the revelers pays for eighteen-year-old Alexis to enjoy a private-room dance with the stripper of her choice. She chose the girl known as Treasure.

Treasure’s real name is Trisha, and when the two turn out to have the same Computer Science class at the local university, they find themselves drawn to each other. Friendship comes first, followed by an unabashed physical relationship. Throw in a little family drama on both sides, some difficult past issues, and you have the makings of a short, sweet ride of a novel.

I’ve read some other of Rebekah Weatherspoon’s work–I gave a five-star review to her novel “At Her Feet”–but this one was a purely fun read. I loved how Ms. Weatherspoon seemed to be having a ball writing this story of two scared, scarred young women meshing perfectly.

The romance was portrayed sweetly, and the sex was steamy without going over the top (much was hinted at, if not described into graphic detail).

Best of all, this is an easy novella to knock out during a lazy afternoon or evening. I loved both Trisha and Alexis, and how their mutual yearning for love and friendship enabled them to span their different backgrounds.

This book is not for everyone (if you have a problem with lesbian relationships, you should’ve stopped reading this review a few paragraphs ago and moved on) but for fans of well-written LGBT romance–hell, or romance in general–“Treasure” is…a treasure. (Sorry, but I had to do that)

Highly Recommended

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