Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson

Shylock is my name

Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson

Published by: Hogarth on February 9, 2016
Rating: 3 stars (★★★☆☆)

As the name suggests, this is a modern author’s take on retelling <i>The Merchant of Venice</i> for a contemporary audience. I often enjoy Shakespeare adaptations that are done well, so of course I figured I’d check this one out. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as impressed with this one as I’d hoped. Jacobson’s take on the story is confusing, incredibly complex, and difficult to wade through. I’m not sure if he intended it as more of an intellectual take than a literary one, but it came across to me as highly inaccessible in the writing style and overall storytelling.

That said, it is a creative take in comparing the original tale to how a similar situation might play out in the modern world. For the concept alone, I do have to give the author some credit. And that’s why this pulls three stars from me when I probably would have been inclined to rate it lower based on my overall enjoyment and reading of the book.

[Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher via BloggingForBooks in exchange for an honest review.]

Last Train to Istanbul by Ayşe Kulin

Last Train to Istanbul

Last Train to Istanbul by Ayşe Kulin

Published by: AmazonCrossing on October 8, 2013 (translation)
Rating: 4 stars (★★★★☆)

Selva is the daughter of a traditional Turkish man who disowned her when she decided to marry Rafael Alfandari, son of a prominent physician–and a Jew. As much as it pained her to lose the connection to her family, Selva had to follow her heart. And to get out of the shadow of disapproval from both sets of parents, Selva and Rafael relocated to France where they had a son and made a life for themselves. But things changed quickly when the Nazis invaded France and began seeking out and rounding up Jews. While Turkey, being neutral in the conflict, has been able to keep some of their Jewish citizens from being taken, they worry that they may not be able to protect them in the face of continuing extreme approaches by Nazi officials. In an effort to keep their citizens safe, Turkish officials arrange for a train to bring a single car of Turkish citizens home. But for people like Selva, whose community includes friends who are not Turkish but are clearly in danger, there’s a compulsion to take a risk to protect them. And it’s a risk that could lead to consequences for everyone…

This is a wonderfully-written and well-researched piece of writing that I am so glad I took the time to read. While this period of humanity’s history is challenging to approach and read about, I think it’s incredibly important that we don’t simply ignore it. And thankfully this story provides the contrast between those who acted with very little regard for others and those who are willing to risk themselves in service of doing what’s right. You’ll quickly become connected to these characters. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll enjoy an excellent story that embodies the better aspects of our nature.

2016 in Review: #8 & #7

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Another year come and gone–and some fantastic reading adventures along with it! As I typically do in January, I want to take some time to review some of my favorite reads of 2016. In week two of this series, we move up to the next two books on my top ten.

Note: These are the best books I read in 2016, not necessarily published in 2016.

#8 Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

Red Queen

A promising start to a dystopian YA series with more of a fantasy bent, I found myself enjoying this title despite the whole “compromised-by-romance-with-a-boy” trope. The worldbuilding was fascinating to me and the story itself is engaging and interesting. There are some fun twists to be seen as the story unfolds. (I just wish the sequel had turned out to be better than it was…)

Read my review from February 21 for more on this title.

#7 Reclaiming Hope by Shell Taylor

Reclaiming Hope

I don’t know what else to say about this book that I didn’t say in my review, but it’s one that still sticks with me a while after reading it. It tells a story that you definitely don’t see much in popular entertainment or mainstream books, but it’s a story that needs to be told. I’m hoping for the potential to see more of these characters or similar stories from this author.

Read my review from January 8 for more on this title.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Series: Untitled Series, Book 1
Published by: Del Rey Books on January 10, 2017
Rating: 5 stars (★★★★★)

Vasilisa (Vasya) lives with her family in the Russian wilderness, where the winters are hard and long but they work together to make it through. And one of the hallmarks of those winter nights is the gathering of the children around the oven to hear tell of fairy tales and legends from their history. They are stories that are being quickly left behind with the spread of Christianity throughout their lands. But Vasya knows there’s some truth to them. She can see the household spirits–the subject of several of the nightly stories. Vasya also knows that as people stop paying mind to these spirits, they become weak and lose their hold over the families land and the ability to keep them protected from more malevolent beings. And there is a danger lurking just beyond the trees waiting for the right opportunity to leap out from the shadows.

I struggle with where to begin with this story because I want to avoid spoilers as much as I can. I even feel like my synopsis above might be too much if it wasn’t for the fact that most of this information can be gleaned from the publisher’s blurb. But I will say this is an excellent fantasy title, referencing mythology of Russia with a strong emphasis on family dynamics. The characters are well written, especially Vasya who faces a number of challenges and moments of growth throughout the book. And the narration easily brings this world to life on the page.

This is the first book in what the author plans to be a trilogy–I certainly look forward to the next installment.

Private Truths by C.B. Lewis

Private Truths

Private Truths by C.B. Lewis

Published by: Dreamspinner Press on December 2, 2016
Rating: 4 stars (★★★★☆)

After struggling with addiction after returning from Army service, Jack McCall turned his life around and now devotes his time to a charity that assists homeless veterans in London. He’s devoted to the charity and the cause, and he works hard to do the best he can. Which is why he goes so far as to approach Edward Marsden, Viscount Routhsley, about supporting the charity. Edward is known for his philanthropy but he’s equally well-known for his philandering. As Jack gets to know Edward, however, he quickly learns that Edward’s public image couldn’t be further from who the man really is. The two have many things in common–and something Jack did not expect at all. As they grow closer, they struggle to keep their relationship a secret. Jack worries that if it got out, it might cast some doubt on what he did to secure the donation for his charity. And Edward doesn’t want his sexuality to overshadow the work he does for several important causes. But secrets can only be kept for so long, especially by those who are very much in the public eye. Eventually, they will have to make a decision and be willing to accept the consequences of whichever choice they make.

Perception is what defines reality. It can be easy for us, in the abstract, to say that people should follow their hearts when it comes to love. That’s the romanticized view anyway. Don’t let love pass you by. But for people whose actions and relationships will be scrutinized and picked apart first by the media and then by the general public, it’s not as easy as just thinking about what you want. The masses love a scandal. And we also love to fill in the missing details of any story with the juiciest possible explanations. So for people like a viscount or the poster-child for an important charity, actions and choices can have an impact. And the appearance of impropriety is just as good–in terms of public currency–as actual impropriety. This is an excellent look at what it means to find love in the face of celebrity and balancing the public good with personal choices. If only we could all just live our lives…

Man & Monster by Michael Jensen

Man & Monster

Man & Monster by Michael Jensen

Series: The Savage Land, Book 2
Published by: Buddha Kitty Books on January 4, 2017 (re-release)
Rating: 4 stars (★★★★☆)

Cole Seavey knew it might not be the best idea to venture west on his own. But he needed to get away from his life back east and he figured he might see if he could catch up with his brother out on the frontier. But a run-in with a cougar as he tried to save a young child in the middle of the woods left him in the path of a much more dangerous and mysterious creature. And it also left him on the run without any of his supplies. He’s saved by a Delaware Indian name Pakim and he quickly finds himself pulled into the politics and drama of the local community. But the creature he encountered in the woods isn’t going away, and more people are going missing or reporting sightings of something strange in the forest. When it finally makes a move that could bring them all down, Cole and Pakim realize they might be parted–just when they’ve started to connect on a deeper level. Is this just Cole’s luck? Or is there a chance they will both make it out alive?

This is a very well-written historical m/m romance, which is a genre I absolutely think we need more of in the world. We know that there were certainly LGBT people during these eras in history, but because they had to keep their lives hidden most of their stories are lost to us. I love the idea of thinking about what life may have been like and filling in those gaps with good stories just like this one.

This is the second book in a series, but there is no need to have read the first book to dive into this one–it can live as a stand-alone novel. I’ve not read the first book, and I had no problems understanding what was going on or following the story.

[Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.]

Off Base by Annabeth Albert

Off Base

Off Base by Annabeth Albert

Series: Out of Uniform, Book 1
Published by: Carina Press on January 9, 2017
Rating: 4 stars (★★★★☆)

Having just completed his SEAL training, Zack Nelson is looking for some space of his own. Which is why he jumps at his senior chief’s offer to live in one of his rental properties in exchange for completing the renovations. Not only will he save money, but this will get him away from the team in the evening and give him some peace and quiet. But when a friend of a friend gets a job in San Diego and needs a place to stay, Zack reluctantly agrees to let him move in. Pike Reynolds is a nice enough guy, but Zack has a few problems with him. For one, Pike is very open about being gay. Two, Zack may have tried to kiss Pike one night when he was drunk. And three, Zack hasn’t really been able to stop thinking about Pike ever since. But Zack isn’t gay; he can’t be. His SEAL team and his family would never have it. And now that they will be sharing a living space, seeing each other every day–will Zack be able to keep his desire in check? And if he can’t, is he ready to deal with everything that would come along with that?

This is the start of a new series that flows right out of Albert’s #gaymers series, all of which I’ve previously read and reviewed. You don’t need to have read #gaymers to understand what’s happening here. (Though I would highly recommend it because it’s great! And if you have read it, you’ll recognize Ryan and Josiah from Connection Error.)

This is another one of those books that I think reminds us that everyone has their own narrative when it comes to their upbringing, their identity, and the way they present themselves to the world. Although we have an arsenal of labels that we love to assign to others, identity is personal and it is up to the individual to truly own that part of themselves. And it can be easy to assume everyone is coming from the same place we are, and that’s something that is so rarely true. When it comes to love and relationships, one shouldn’t sacrifice who they are for the other person, but it’s important to listen, to be understanding, and to be open to where the other person is coming from. If we place unreasonable expectations on each other (or on ourselves) then we’re more likely to find unhappiness and resentment rather than the love and bliss that we seek.

Pike and Zack live through this firsthand. But thankfully, they both know there’s a chance that they’ll each come around before too long. Or at least they can hope…

[Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Reclaiming Hope by Shell Taylor

Reclaiming Hope

Reclaiming Hope by Shell Taylor

Series: Home for Hope, Book 3
Published by: Dreamspinner Press on October 14, 2016
Rating: 4 stars (★★★★☆)

Kollin Haverty’s best friend, Riley Meadows, disappeared four years ago without so much as a word or phone call since. So when he shows up in town unexpectedly, Kollin isn’t sure if he should be angry or happy. Riley’s explanation for his absence doesn’t quite ring true for Kollin, but he decides to do his best to be supportive. And as Riley seems to have nearly completed his female-to-male transition while he was away, Kollin hopes that the time was good and helpful for him. The two reconnect and get closer, and they soon find that their feelings might go a bit beyond friendship. But that will only work if they can be honest with each other and it’s clear Riley is still keeping secrets. As they navigate the realities of pursuing a relationship Riley needs to figure out if he can tell Kollin the truth and Kollin needs to determine if he can be supportive of Riley no matter what–even if it means he might get hurt in the process.

This is the third book in a series, but it can certainly be read as a stand-alone story. I’ve not yet read either of the previous books, and I felt like I had no problem at all following and understanding the story. And it happens to be a very well-written and thought-provoking story at that. While I haven’t personally been in the position, I imagine that transitioning from a friendship to a romantic relationship would bring with it some unique challenges. Even though you already clearly care about the person as a friend, there is a subtle difference when you decide to open up that romantic part of yourself. There are risks involved. And there are new expectations. What might seem like it should be easy actually is anything but, which services to only complicate things even more. And that’s what we see play out here between Kollin and Riley.

I also have to take a moment to reference the inclusion of a trans character in this story. I’ll admit that I haven’t read many trans love stories–though I’ve no specific aversion to doing so. I feel like the author does a fine job of representing the character, telling his story, and being honest about the realities of what he faces in life and in the relationship.

Dare to Love Forever by Jake C. Wallace

Dare to Love Forever

Dare to Love Forever by Jake C. Wallace

Series: New Vampire Justice, Book 1
Published by: Dreamspinner Press on September 26, 2016 (2nd edition)
Rating: 3 stars (★★★☆☆)

Connor Locke is a rare vampire, a Tabula Rasa. When he bites someone, he has the ability to completely wipe their memories. Because he can work this power on both humans and other vampires, he’s considered dangerous by some and useful by others. But it means he needs to be careful what he does, where he goes, and who he trusts. So when he’s caught stealing blood to survive, he’s understandably suspicious of Lincoln Samuels, the New Vampire Justice Commander who saves Connor’s life, heals his wounds, and offers to help him. But as other forces prepare to move in on Connor and use him for their own purposes, he finds Lincoln might just be the one person he can count on. And together, they might just be able to change the world.

I’ve found that I’m reading more vampire stories than I think I have in the past. It’s not really a conscious thing; they’re just the ones that are popping up on my reading list at the right time lately. But I’m also finding that I’m enjoying the stories that I’m reading more than I think I did in the past. And that’s largely because I’m picking up books that are about more than the fact that a vampire is involved. There’s more going on in the story. Yes, one (or more) of the main characters is a vampire, but the story doesn’t revolve around that chapter after chapter after chapter. And an action romance like this one is a shining example of how to tell such a story without resorting to tropes to get through it…

2016 in Review: #10 & #9

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Another year come and gone–and some fantastic reading adventures along with it! As I typically do in January, I want to take some time to review some of my favorite reads of 2016.

Note: These are the best books I read in 2016, not necessarily published in 2016.

#10 Kings Rising by C.S. Pacat

Kings Rising

This long-anticipated conclusion to the Captive Prince series did not disappoint! I was pulled right back into the world of the story–right from the cliffhanger ending of the previous book that left many readers chomping at the bit to get their hands on this. I’m also pleased to see the author’s rise to success in taking this from a free story posted in installments on LiveJournal back in the day to an international publishing contract. It just goes to show that you just need the right person to notice your talent to get your break.

Read my review from August 11 for more on this title.

#9 Phase Shift by Jenn Burke & Kelly Jensen

Phase Shift

And here’s another final chapter in a great series. I didn’t know what I was getting into when I picked up Chaos Station back in early 2015, but I quickly became attached to these characters and their world. Over the course of the five books, the authors delivered some amazing consistency and quality writing that really bring this world to life. I don’t always go for space travel stories, but there was no question for me from the first book that I’d be following this one to the end.

Read my review from May 2 for more on this title.