Confessions…and my favorite writer…

Okay, here is a deep confession. I have read portions of or all of a dozen books and have nothing to review today. I am a Kindle Unlimited subscriber. I had maxed out my borrows with about half of those being weeks or months old.

So, I decided to do a big clear out. I went through all of them this week. About half of them were good but did not capture my attention within the first couple of chapters. As for the others, they are series and I am only on two or three. I should have completed at least one of those to review next week.

Instead, I thought I would share with you today my favorite writer. The woman that inspired me to write, especially romance. The woman I consider the Grand Dame of the genre…Bertrice Small.

Bertrice did not just inspire my passion for writing though. She taught me about life, about what it means to be a woman, a feminist, and a success. That might sound a bit exaggerated, but it is not.

Skye O’Malley was the first of her books that I read. I was thirteen (I think) when I stole it off my Gran-Gran’s bookshelf, just as I had been doing with my step-father’s Penthouses. I had been reading for barely three years due to my dyslexia. In that time, I had gone from Curious George to Little House to Grace Livingstone Hill to now this.

The book that changed my life…

Skye was barely older than I was when her story began. Her beloved father who was pretty much a pirate has sold her in marriage at fifteen to a monster, a man who rapes, beats, and steals her dowry for his sister with whom he is having an incestuous affair. I laugh as I think about all the Amazon rules that this trade publishing romance from the late 1970s/early 19080s broke.

Over the course of two books of her own and another four about her family, the reader watches her grow from that deviant but broken woman-child to a beautiful but disillusion young woman to a sassy, happy, and mature wife and mother to a distinguished family matriarch, and finally to old woman with one more battle to fight for her family. It is a remarkable life and story that spans seven decades of history from Elizabeth I to James I. Its settings too vary from Ireland, England, Algiers, a small fictional duchy that bordered France and Italy, Ottoman Turkey, and France. Skye married six times, four of whom she loved. She had a handful of other lovers. She was enslaved, raped, and abused on several occasions as women of the times often were. She was betrayed by her friend and Queen. And she sought and got revenge for that betrayal against the most powerful monarch of the day.

That book and series alone would have been a stellar achievement. But Skye O’Malley and her descendants are far from the only strong women fashioned by the pen and mind of Bertrice Small. The Kadin was her first bestseller. It too tells the story of a young Scottish lass kidnapped, sold into slavery, and married too young who triumphs in the end.

There are so many others too. My list of favorites seems endless: Rosamund, Betrayed, Blaze Wyndham, Love Wild and Fair, A Memory of Love, To Love Again, Love Remember Me, and I am sure I am missing some. Some of them were so dark that it pained me to read. Others filled with hope.

What made and still makes Bertrice Small books the standard against which I measure this genre, others, and especially my own writing? The same things that I have been highlighting in this series.

1) Characters – Her heroines especially are some of the most inspiring and vivid portrayals that I have ever read. You almost believe that these are real people. And Skye’s final husband, her soulmate and best friend, Adam de Marisco is a hero unlike most others, a man before his time who valued Skye’s mind and untameable spirit over her beauty, who sought to free and enable her rather than capture or tame her. These are people that I have spent over three decades loving and relearning in the pages of books.

2) Pacing – Bertrice manages to keep the reader engaged through books that exceed one-hundred-twenty-thousand words on average. She does this primarily through…

3) Point of View – She is mistress (other than Jane Austen….perhaps more so even) of the Deep Third Person. It is the magic wand that she uses with which to paint characters and worlds so vivid that you feel as if you can walk right into them as if you are the characters themselves.

4) Theme – As always, this is the one that sets any book, series, or author apart for me. No matter how the writing unless there is some deeper meaning it never ranks higher than four stars. With Bertrice’s works there are two central themes:

  1. Fate – Throughout all of her works, as in real life, shit happens. Shit over which the heroines have no control. This is especially true given that these are historical romances, written about times in which women had little to no control over their lives. Her heroines were forced to marry men they did not love, bear children they may not have wanted, sew tapestries when they would rather be fighting battles, bury husbands and children, and through it all, perhaps hardest, shut the *f* up about the injustices they suffered. Life was incredibly hard…as it is for all of us. Mistress or maid…even men had far less control of their destinies than they believed. Certainly, more than we believe we have or do we?
  2. Nobodies’ victim – All of that may sound incredibly depressing, horrifying in fact. Feminist might be up in arms about many of the historically accurate eventualities in these stories. Except for one thing – these women were nobodies’ victims. No matter what life or Fate threw at them, these were women who took lemons and turned them into lemonade. Not to say they did not struggle, have their downs, or get depressed. They did. But they all got back up. Made the best of their situation. And reaped the benefits of that determination. It is a life lesson that I have turned to over and over and over again. Until finally like Skye, I have found my true hero and soulmate, a life partner that respects and worships me. A man I can laugh and love with. And, yes, I credit Skye and Bertrice with some of that…with instilling in that young teen the vision that no matter what happens, you are strong enough to get through it. Pretty amazing…for books which were dismissed as bodice rippers.

Oh, and there is one more thing about Small’s books…they taught me a surprising amount of history. It was only recently that I have discovered just how much research and how accurately Bertrice portrayed it. Fiction books have become my favorite way of exploring the subject.

The only negative for me with these books was the amount of time Bertrice spent describing locations, clothes, and even the food. These things mean nothing to me when compared with the depth of thoughts and feelings of the characters. Granted some of this might be due to my autism. One key characteristic of MY autism (everyone’s is different) is that my visual memory sucks. Even with my daughter and partner when I close my eyes, I cannot see their faces in my mind. So, there is no way I can imagine all those long descriptions of clothes and foods that I am not familiar with. No problem, I usually just skip those. Although to be fair, I saw the term frumenty so many times that last Christmas I looked up the recipe and tried to make it. Don’t!

Bertrice Small wrote books that were as Jane Austen’s was dismissed as ‘mere romantic drivel.’ Feminist derided her and others of the era. What they all failed to recognize was the strength and power of these characters, these women, who never gave up, who owned their shit, and refused to allow even kings and queens to break their indomitable spirit. That is what makes these books timeless…and why Bertrice Small is not just my favorite writer, but who I want to be when I grow up.

The Quasar Lineage series…

Guilty pleasures. We all have them. That secret passion that we know may seem silly. But gives us pleasure anyway. One of mine is…alien romance. I am most definitely a conspiracy theorist and believer that we are not alone in this universe. While The X-Files was a bit too spooky for my taste (horror is among my least favorite genres), I adore Star Trek, Independence Day, ET, and especially Men in Black. So, it is no surprise that I combine two passions.

The Quasar Lineage series by Pearl Tate is the latest to join a long line of favorites in this genre. This one follows the trope of alien abduction rather than the battering women as breeders option. It capitalizes on many of the common stereotypes associated with aliens such as bright lights that draw you up and little grey men with big heads that talk into your brain. As well as hunky seven-foot humanoid men who recognize their mates immediately and are utterly devoted to them even to the point of dying for them.

If that sounds cheesy or disparaging, it is not meant to. I love this genre for escapism. When my mind and life are overflowing, I scour Amazon (usually Kindle Unlimited since like most genres this one can be hit or miss). As much as I believe in the power of the pen, or the laptop these days, to change this world, I also recognize its capacity to entertain and destress us. What is truly special is when those functions combine. As they do in Pearl Tate’s The Quasar Lineage series.

There are eight books in this series which for my personal preference is about the point I lose interest in a series. I am not one of those types that hang on baited breathe for book 30. I like closure. But that is a personal preference.

What for me sets these books apart and makes them review worthy is the maturity and diversity of human struggles among the heroines. While this is another of that New Adult genre I got roped into before realizing it, for the much greater part I did not find myself frustrated with the lack of maturity of the female characters.

These are young women who have faced traumas such as rape, grief, and Cystic Fibrosis. These life events have instilled in them common sense, pragmatism, and open minds and hearts. With the exception of Shelly in book five, Callim’s Challenge, these heroines face their fate with logic and resolve, coming to terms quickly and with finality to this new reality. They do not whine, regret, or fight their destinies.

Oh, and the heroes too are facing a new reality in this situation. Theirs is a dying race, another old trope revitalized here. In this case, the mating bonds which once bound them died a thousand ‘years’ ago. The classic testosterone-driven urges to procreate and protect have been replaced with a society ruled by women and the alien equivalent of little blue pills. In other words, in this world men are as devalued as women have been in this one.

Suddenly, with the emergence of human females past the protective layer of our atmosphere, those mating urges as indicated by elaborate, living markings (think Maui from Mauna’s tattoos but more vibrant). Along with this comes real-live erections. Look Ma no drugs. And they grow too, not just their penis, but their whole body. Like puberty.

So, this whole thing is as new to them as hurling through space at the speed of light and seven-foot, hot, tattooed men you can’t seem to resist is for the girls. The beauty comes in the equality that both sexes negotiate together. Finding common ground and creating new systems that work for them. That whole concept is summed up magnificently by the hero in Book One Bren’s Blessing:

Why question what is? Why wonder why what is to be, will be? … questioning is counter productive to the entire process. Instead of calming our thoughts and bodies, questioning the visions will only bring stress to your system. Accept and adapt to what you see. Feel, relax, and accept.

Not bad advice, even in mere human relationships.

1) Characters – Obviously, this is a great strength to this series. Eight books prove to be ideal for developing the diversity of experience, both human and alien, without reconstituting old ones. Like I said, these girls are strong, smart, and sassy. They are no damsels in distress waiting to be saved. Neither are they whining little &%$#es that drive me crazzy. The guys too are damaged, as much in need of the warmth and nurture their mates proved, and not ashamed to admit it. Do I have a favorite? Susan from Matthias’s Miracle, as for heroes Callim’s Challenge holds some real shockers. The only problem with the characters comes from…

2) Pacing – These books are rapid-paced. I am not a particularly fast reader but I can finish them in about a day each. On one hand that is great as the story draws you into the next one. But on the other hand, it at times leaves you wanting more. Some of the characters and situations could have perhaps used a bit more development in order to draw out the full depth of the experience. I think this is especially true of Devlin’s Darling with Jenny’s complex medical condition and Devlin’s damaging past. Nonetheless, this is not enough to detract from the series.

3) Point of View – These stories are told from the alternating first-person viewpoint. Again this is a key strength, in my opinion, allowing the reader deep into the mind and struggles of both major characters.

4) Theme – You and me against the world or in this case, history, culture, and the whole frickin’ universe. The determined and romantic hero plus the equally strong and devoted heroine battling an outside force together is my favorite trope. Not just in romance novels but in real life too. There are enough challenges out there in the world or this case universe. We do not need more strife with the people we love. These stories depict that scenario beautifully. Matthias sums it up perfectly:

They want what so many of us crave, a special someone to belong to and be with. Love in its purest form…

Isn’t that what we all want? Human or alien… That is what this genre is best at delivering. As long as we realize that we don’t have to be skinny, perfect, twenty-somethings and he does not need to be a seven-foot hunky alien that can feel our emotions and is called to us across the whole universe. That special someone is out there. Perhaps right here on Earth.

The Dalton Siblings series

When I began this book review blog, I intended to review books in the order in which I read them. So far, I had been doing just that. Not today. This one is queue jumping, a quaint British saying, several others. But I am so excited about this series; I cannot wait.

What series? Katie Mettner’s Dalton Siblings.

Why am I so excited about this series? This series, this author, these stories exemplify the best that the romance genre is. They transcend the genre to do what great fiction is meant to do: cause us to question the society in which we live and ourselves.

First of all, Inherited Love, Book 1, has the first non-perfect, non-buff hero I have read. While the last decade has seen a rise in romances featuring curvy heroines, the heroes remained male model types. Whether it was a seven-foot-tall alien whose whole planet worshipped ‘fat chicks’ or a mere human with a fetish for curvy girls, the body-positive movement has been decidedly skewed towards women.

Not so with Dr. Foster Kern. The conversations that Foster and the heroine Cinn have around the issue of his weight are poignant and liberating as the following excerpts illustrate:

Foster: “I’m no Calvin Klein model. I’m more like the Pillsbury Doughboy.”

Cinn: “I don’t care about what the scale says because the scale doesn’t measure the most important thing.” I laid my hand on his chest and he put his hand over mine. “When you hold me, I feel safe and loved. No scale can ever measure your heart.”

Foster: “Not even my mother was able to see past those numbers on the scale. You’re the first person ever to actually verbalize that they accept me and my body, Cinn.”

Cinn: “I’m sorry, babe. I don’t understand how people can’t accept others. Maybe it’s my unique situation, but all I see when I meet someone is their heart, nothing else registers. If I see an ugly heart, I keep my distance, but if I catch a glimpse of a loving one, I hang on tight.”

If that type of honesty was not refreshing enough, even her cover features a realistic photo of a hero who I would describe more as slightly pudgy than Pillsbury Doughboy, but it is clear that this hero is atypical.

In addition to ground-breaking body-positivity, all three of the stories Inherited Love, Inherited Light, and Inherited Life features main characters who are struggling with medical issues such as Crohn’s disease and feeding tubes, transverse myelitis and wheelchairs, and even common ailments such as psoriasis which can cause surprisingly severe health problems.

Mettner handles each of these complex and life-altering conditions realistically and compassionately. The characters speak with brutal honesty about their struggles and fears. The issue of sexual intercourse with surgically implanted feeding tubes in the way, paralysis that can impede sensitivity, and the hunky cop who lost all his girlfriends the moment his shirt came off – nothing is taboo or TMI, including pillows, sex toys, and special padding.

“It’s not easy, but it is worth it when you find the person who completes you. There will be times when you’re absolutely petrified of losing her to the disease. It’s the rest of the time, the loving, the life-fulfilling moments that make you forget about everything else.” (ER doctor, Inherited Light)

If all that is not enough to set these books apart from a saturated field, the forthright, honest, and vulnerable way that the characters relate to one another stands in stark contrast to the tired and over-used trope of angst and mind-games that is the most common brand of conflict in the genre. Instead, Mettner focuses upon external conflicts, mysteries that need to be solved, allowing the couple to bond, grow, and face situations together. It is a refreshing break from the usual will-she-won’t-she, does-he-doesn’t-he trope.

“Have you made love to the man you’re supposed to be with yet? Has the man you trust to love you through everything brought you to orgasm? If the answer is no to those two questions, then you don’t know what’s going to happen when we come together for the first time.” (Noah, Inherited Life)

The added bonus is the touching and bittersweet manner in which Mettner exposes the intricacies of family. As the series title says, these are siblings, two sisters and a brother. Their parents are minor characters throughout all three books. The series opens with the reading of their eccentric grandmother’s will.

But this family is far from perfect. The grandmother hated their mother and went years without speaking to them, just because she was Latina. As for sibling rivalry, there is plenty of that as well as an abundance of favoritism and scapegoating the black sheep.

“There would be good times, and there would be bad, but our family would be with us through it all. To think this all started with a woman who in her death, imparted more wisdom to us than she ever did in life. I thought back to the reading of her will.

‘Take what I’ve given you and build on it. Make a life for yourselves and remember in my own strange way, I did love you.’” (Tabitha, Inherited Life)

Okay to the schematics:

1) Characters – This is the greatest strength of these books. From the dead grandmother who had PTSD due to her days as a sharpshooter in the Army. Yes, you got that one right. A woman sharpshooter in Korea and Vietnam. To the self-proclaimed Pillsbury Doughboy. To the black sheep stripper daughter who ends up in trouble with the law and in love with the cop. These characters are dynamic, realistic, and empathetic. Honestly, after Tabitha as the bad girl in the first two books, I was skeptical about how Mettner might redeem her in Inherited Life; nonetheless she did just that.

2) Pacing – Is appropriate for the stories. The intrigue elements in each keep the reader entranced.

3) Point of View – These stories are told in the first person by the Dalton siblings. I tend to miss the insights into the thoughts and feelings of other characters with this viewpoint. Though to be fair, the straightforward way that these couples communicate their thoughts and feelings means that this is not as troublesome as I have found it in other books. Nonetheless, I would have loved a bit more personal insight into Forest, Catalina, and Noah.

4) Theme – This is it, the selling point. I have never as closely identified with any other writer in terms of how they present the truth of love and romance as I do with Mettner. These books break the mold – proclaiming that love is for everyone. The chunky guy. The disabled. The broken. The frightened. All we have to do is take a chance, be open, honest, and vulnerable with another human being.

And while Mettner neither fades to black or is as raunchy as my books, she gets it. She understands the very nature of sex itself.

“The first time I made love with you, our souls connected in a way no outside force could ever change.” (Lorenzo, Inherited Light)

The Dalton Siblings series is why I choose to utilize this blog space as a book review – to lift up other writers who are trail-blazing, avant-garde, and revolutionary. Especially indie romance ones.

Romance has historically been a running joke in the writing community, but the truth is that Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters were romance writers. It is a billion-dollar industry. And for good or bad it holds immense potential to influence how girls and women view relationships.

I grew up with traditional Harlequin’s. The hero was the strong, silent, brooding, and emotionally unavailable type. Only the love of the heroine and some crisis could save him. Then suddenly, he became everything she ever hoped. The truth is not even the love of a good woman can transform a bad boy into a good man. That is something he must want and work towards for himself.

As I ponder this series, I wonder how different my own life and loves might have been if the standard by which I measured love was not based upon mere physical appearance nor secrets. But instead, as Lorenzo Dalton says…

“I wanted a relationship based on mutual goals and love. I didn’t think I was asking too much, but I’ve learned the hard way I was. There’s a reason I’ve been celibate for years. I haven’t missed the entanglements that simple sex inflicts on my life.”

If PanKwake was ‘a reader girl’ as I was, these are the books I would want her to read. Not fade to black, wholesome books that negate the power of sex or graphic ones which fail to capture the true beauty of those moments when two bodies and souls unite. These books accurately portray the depths of that love, true romance, and real life.

And, that folks, is why they queue jumped to the front of the line.





Her Wild Coast Haven

Warning: Today’s review is of a steamier, spicer brand of an erotic romance than the others I have reviewed. It contains not only stronger language but is the focus of alternative lifestyles, this one specifically polyandry. If such things offend you, please do not read any further.

For the rest of you, have I piqued your interest, yet? Today’s review is Dakota Davies’ Her Wild Coast Haven.

This is the story of a teacher, running from her past, seeing safety and a fresh start in the anonymity of a small Alaskan town. It is also the story of two best friends who know exactly what they want, whether that be a camp for troubled youth or the innocent, yet sexy, schoolmarm they both want. And they aren’t afraid to take risks, to go for their dreams, and work hard for them. In other words, real heroes worth writing about, loving, and holding out for.

Jumping right in, as usual:

1) Characters – That is the primary draw for me with this book. Cody and Jared are impressive, not for their looks, muscles, or the size of their… But for their minds and hearts. Friends who grew up in a rough neighborhood, lost their way, and got caught up in bad things in their teens and twenties. Then found the strength and determination to get out and turn their lives around. Now, they are close to having it all, except someone special to share it with. Enter Tasha.

These characters are rich, complex, and profound. I especially identified with way Tasha was torn between her attraction to both Cody and Jared, her initial confusion when released that she could have her cake and eat it too, and her struggles to reconcile how right this unusual relationship felt with society’s judgemental attitudes.

I can feel their scorning looks and hear the gossip twittering from person to person like a game of telephone. Part of me wants not to care – what I’m feeling with Jared and Cody is something special, something pure and real. To hell with what people think. But I realize I do care. My peaceful life could get very difficult. I can’t possibly turn back now, though, not after what’s happened between us. Not after how they made me feel. Together.

That’s real, genuine. The feelings that assail anyone choosing an alternative lifestyle. Weighing the pros and cons of being who you are and facing the stigma of it.

As for Cody and Jared, these are men. Not immature bad boys. And they respect women, especially this special woman in their lives. Whether it is, “Nothing’s off limits to us, darlin’,” or “Is this too much for you, baby?,” or “Just say the word if you need us to stop.” They understand consent. And they always put her needs before their own. What more could a romance reader possibly want in a hero? Or a woman in a man?

2) Pacing – This is a short read. It only took me a day to finish it. On the one hand, I do enjoy books like that. Quick, straight to the point, and satisfying. On the other hand, that sometimes means that important details are left out, that things move too quickly, and at its worst, the story seems contrived. This one does not. Nonetheless, there are a few moments when I would have enjoyed a bit more detail or backstory. Overall though, it does not detract from the story.

3) Point of View – This one is told from an alternating first-person viewpoint. So, unlike last week’s Four Horsemen series, you get insight into the thoughts and feelings of the heroes as well as the heroines. This is a significant positive in this book.

4) Theme – This one is just as crucial, if not more so, to what makes this book truly special to me. The romance genre is full of bad boys who need saving by a good woman. It is as tired and destructive a trope as the damsel in distress one. Love, real love, is partnership. It is about saving one another…and owning your own shit.

That has been one of the primary reasons for my personal writer’s block for the past three years. When you find that type of love, it changes how you view the unrealistic and destructive tropes of this genre. One of the criticisms of this genre has always been that those damsels in distress and changing bad boys themes have given women, in particular, unrealistic expectations of relationships. I have felt that sting with several of my stories.

But that is not always the case. Some of the strongest women I have ever admired have been Bertrice Small’s heroines like Skye O’Malley, Janet Leslie, and Blaze Wyndham, among too many others to name. These were women, who despite the times and societies in which they lived, refused to be victims. They found ways to control their lives and destinies. To be strong and to love men who respected and valued that strength.

Her Wild Coast Haven is not to be confused as one of those damsels in distress stories. This is a young woman, keyword being ‘young,’ who grows, makes her own decisions, and owns her shit. Yes, Jared and Cody are protective of her, but not in a demeaning, ‘she can’t look after herself,’ ‘little woman’ way. But instead in a partnership, where each utilizes individual strengths to build the whole.

Of course, as the author of Nothing Done In Love, I sincerely appreciate the alternative lifestyles theme of this book. It is through literature that society has always been transformed. Writers who lead the way, compel people to examine their prejudices and assumptions. I am encouraged that so many poly stories are becoming popular, it portends a future where every relationship will be a personal choice just as mine and my partner’s was an active decision to be monogamous, rather than a societal default. That is where the real value of erotica lies…in challenging us all to examine our hearts and minds.

This story does that well. It casts an as yet unusual choice in a realistic and positive light without being either kawaii or condescending. What does bother me is that this author feels the need to write under the pseudonym of Dakota Davies. While that may seem hypocritical since I too publish my spicier stories under a different pen name, what bothers me is that this author feels the need to remain anonymous. I make no bones about the fact that Tara Neale and Raquel Graffen are just brands of me.

Though I finally caved to Amazon’s and ultimately society’s need to fit things into neat little boxes, I long for the day that other writers and I do not face the stigma of writing erotic romance or erotica.

So, Dakota, if you ever read this, I hope one day we don’t feel the need to hide behind pen names. That we, as writers, and people like our characters, have the freedom to live our lives as we see fit without shame or condemnation. Whether that be gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender, polyamorous, or anything else…as long as it is consensual between mature people, it ain’t no one’s business but our own.

Because like my character Joy Danvers, I believe…

Nothing Done In Love…can ever be wrong.

And I am delighted to see that theme reflected in the work of other authors such as Dakota Davies’ Her Wild Coast Haven.


The Four Horsemen

The Four Horsemen series by Laura Thalassa is perhaps one of the most original storylines I have encountered in a long time.

You know those almost daily emails that you get from Amazon, trying to hook you into another book? That is how I first discovered Pestilence, the first book in the series. I almost never click on any of the links in those emails. But I simply had to this time. I was just too intrigued. The four horsemen from the Book of Revelations? As a romance hero?

Confession time: I was brought up in the church. I am a former preacher’s wife. And I hate Revelations. All that doom and gloom, disease, famine, war, and death! I could never reconcile that with a loving and forgiving Jesus.

But I was curious about the premise of this book. I clicked the link and read the blurb. I noticed that it was available on Unlimited. So, I downloaded it. I was expecting either a really cheesy sci-fi romance or some preachy Christian thing like Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness. I got neither.

What I discovered was a well-developed story with deep, rich characters, and salient commentary on our society. I devoured it in the space of a couple of days. And looked forward to the next in the series, War. Which I also loved…mostly.

So, let’s break these down too:

1) Characters – This one is a mixed bag for me, perhaps my biggest disappointment with the series. Don’t get me wrong, Thalassa is excellent at developing realistic characters. Perhaps a bit too much so. I liked Pestilence. I loved War. It is her heroines that I cannot stand.

This, though, is a feature of the genre. These are Young Adult or New Adult stories. It is a genre that as a mature woman I find frustrating and do not generally read. But as I said, I was hooked with the plot premise.

Sara, the heroine, in Pestilence was not so bad. While young, a bit confused by all that was happening, she dealt with it admirably for the most part. Miriam, the heroine in War, I wanted to strangle. She was herself a soldier in this ongoing apocalypse, why then did she have such trouble identifying with War? With accepting her role as his wife? Especially, in light of War’s openness to her, speaking of which…

One reason that I loved War so much is that he epitomizes my ideal romance hero: a man, who from the beginning recognizes what he wants, does not futilely fight that Fate, and does not have some macho hangup about sharing his emotions with his partner. Which is perhaps another reason, I could not identify with Miriam’s whiny, immature, and destructive attitudes – which I should add are completely realistic for someone her age with little to no experience in relationships.

One of the biggest flaws with readers and reviewers who are also writers is that we too often focus upon what we would have done differently. I am guilty, especially with this one. Don’t get me wrong; I love this series. But I can’t help but think…how can any YOUNG woman manage such a complex, ancient being as a horseman of the apocalypse?

Yes, I recognize the popularity of YA/NA…and the complete dearth of its opposite – quality romance for a mature audience. But my writer’s mind can’t help but wonder…how might a mature woman, one who knew her own power as a lover, friend, and partner, have handled things differently?

Okay, off my high horse…I did mention…I LOVE this series, right?

2) Pacing – This is a true strength of these books. Though they are long, that is a feature of the complexity of the storyline. Trust me, a reader never gets bored. Given that the time span of the books covers weeks and months, the pace and length are completely appropriate.

3) Point of View – These stories are told from the first-person viewpoint of the heroine only. This limits the readers access to knowledge to only those things which Sara or Miriam feel, see, or hear. For me, given my affinity for the heroes over the heroines, this compounds my frustrations.

4) Theme – The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as romance heroes? How could you not be hooked? But as I said, rather be cheesy or preachy, these books are insightful commentaries upon our society and the problems we face, especially environmental ones. I can totally get into a god that sends disease, war, famine, and death upon mankind not in retribution for not worshipping him, but instead for damaging his other creatures and the beautiful planet we were given. That is my kind of god…goddess.

“Why did you have to ruin the world?” the horseman retorts. “I didn’t.”

“You did. Just as I don’t have to touch each man to kill him, nor do you have to personally light the world on fire to be the reason it burns.” Pestilence

“Humankind has been so dead-set on stopping the horsement that we’ve overlooked one simple truth: maybe it’s not the horsemen that need to be stopped. Maybe it’s us. Not our lives – though War would insist differently – but our actions.” Miriam, War.

These are just two of the many quotes that do what great literature is meant: challenge us to examine ourselves. That is what sets these books apart, what elevates them from YA/NA or even romance genre. What keeps me reading even when I want to strangle Miriam.

Of course, nothing illustrates my 3 Rules of Love and Life:

1) Life sucks.
2) Love is the only thing that makes it worth living.
3) Great sex is the best way to show that love.

More than this series. To even imagine that the Four Horsemen of Revelations could be swayed and turned from their divine purpose by the healing love of a woman is a strikingly profound commentary with which I deeply identify.

“You have managed what no one else has: you have awoken my heart.” Pestilence

“He’s only caught glimpses of our goodness, and yet that’s all it’s taken for his deeds to weigh on him. Because that’s what compassion does – it brings out your best nature.” Sara, Pestilence.

But it is War’s words which inspire me the most:

“Wife, I have not been living until this moment.”

“You are painfully human. your bones want to break, your skin wants to bleed, your heart wants to stop. And for the first time ever, I am desperate for none of those things to happen. I have never known true fear until now.”

Which is why I struggled so profoundly with Miriam’s immaturity, her vacillating attitude to War, and her deeply hurtful words when War admits to her that he would rather cut off his arm than hurt her.

“Then cut it off,” I snap back at him, feeling the poison of my emotions in my veins. “And while you’re at it, make it your sword arm.” I know I am being cruel. Right now I relish it. It feels good to wound the horsemen when nothing and no one else can.”

Yes, I know I keep coming back to that. I do love the premise of these books. I adore them in fact. Laura Thalassa’s skills at writing complex and realistic characters are astounding. The depth of purpose and insights in the commentary upon humanity and our failings sets these books apart. As I said, it is even in character for a twenty-year-old girl who has never been in a relationship to act like that and say something so destructive. But it still makes me cringe.

Yes, I am looking forward to the next two books. I am a bit trepidatious about Death though. If I loved War, Death’s two cameo roles in these books already have me entranced. Which makes me scream…it takes a mature woman, who has faced life and death, knows her power, and destiny to be a partner to him. My fingers are crossed that I will not be as disappointed with that ending as I was with Daenerys’s in Game of Thrones.

Please remember with this one…every reviewer is prejudiced. It is not my job to judge the work of another writer. My purpose is writing these reviews is to give readers information on some wonderful books that they might not have known about otherwise. All of these books have some quality that sets them apart from the vast majority. All of them are great books in one way or another. Just that nothing is perfect. Especially not mine…or my humble opinions here.

Saving Jason

Today’s #bookreview takes me away from my typical read of #romance, sweet or otherwise. Saving Jason by Kate Anslinger could be classified as literary, women’s, or war fiction. But whatever meaningless category you put it into, above all it is that rarest of treasures a book that delves so deeply into human nature and life that merely reading it changes you.

Saving Jason is not so much about a US Marine scarred by war and struggling to keep afloat against the tide of PTSD. It is the story of the women who love him. The ex-wife who has moved on with her life to find happiness with another man but remains caught in a web of failure because she could never truly save the man who is now more friend and brother. The girlfriend consumed with insecurity and jealousy who can only tread water in the depths of her soul mates depression and PTSD. When a tragic ‘accident’ brings these two women together, they must learn to put all that aside for Jason and one another, and the future.

Having been that ex-wife, I can empathize with exactly how challenging that task can be. While I have never faced the dilemma of spending days and weeks in a cramped ICU waiting room with my ex’s new partner, my admittedly less stressful encounters with my exes’ new girlfriends have been tense at best…and occasionally even disastrous. Anslinger builds that tension to a crescendo in this story of a different kind of love. In men, we would call this Bromance, but I am not sure there is a female equivalent of that.

In terms of the elements of this story:

1) Characters – This story focuses upon Samantha (Sam), the ex, and Abby, the new girlfriend. Both of these women are realistic, richly developed, and deep characters. While it is possible that readers may find themselves identifying more closely with one or the other women (I am partial to Sam’s maturity over Abby’s petulance), you can connect viscerally with both.

But as a reader, I would have liked to see more development of secondary characters. In particular, Sam’s new husband. This paragon of virtue, who is understanding and supportive when his wife rushes off to spend days and weeks away from him and their life together for the sake of her ex-husband, comes off almost as a stick figure, lacking depth and color. I wanted to get to know him better, but the snippets we have of him were not sufficient to fill-in those gaps for me.

Even Jason does not feel as vibrant or alive as perhaps he could or should. The brief glimpses we get of him, mostly through the flashbacks of these women somehow misses the mark just a bit. Mind you (spoiler alert), perhaps given the ending of this story that is not a bad thing.

2) Pacing – This story can drag a bit at times, but that may be part of its appeal. That dragging recreates the experience of long days and weeks, suspended in limbo as you sit by the bedside of someone you care for. The use of flashbacks to fill in their backstories gives a richness to that pace. So, in the end, I was not disappointed with the slower pace of this story.

3) Point of View – Anslinger utilizes a split first-person narrative between Sam and Abby. By using these points of view, the author allows the reader to connect with both women, to understand the struggles that each faces in a difficult time. I cannot imagine this story working nearly as well with another perspective; even a third-person omniscient narrator would not have allowed the reader to click with these women on such a visceral level.

4) Theme – But once again, the characteristic which sets this book apart from others is its strong central theme: not only of Jason’s struggles with PTSD, but of its far-reaching impacts upon the people who care for him, the nature of women’s friendships, and my favorite, its subtle commentary on society and modernity.

I have highlighted several sections of text, primarily Jason’s, which touched me deeply. Such as the time that he and Abby observed a child with Down’s Syndrome in the park. Being a bit immature, Abby’s first reaction was pity, but Jason’s were profound:

That kid is probably happier than most kids. He’s probably happier than you and me. Think about it – he’s free from worrying about what other’s thinks about him. We just assume he’s the one with the problem, but maybe it’s us. We’re the one’s who live day to day consumed with what others think of us, trying to fit into this mold that society decides for us. He doesn’t know he’s ‘different’ from everyone else. Maybe the joke’s on us; maybe he thinks we’re the ones who are weird because we sit here and stew in our own misery, judging others because we are insecure with ourselves.”

As the mother of an #ActuallyAutistic daughter, I can relate profoundly to that statement. It is one of the greatest gifts my child has brought into my life, and through the process of accepting and understanding her, I have come to more profound meaning and self-actualization in my own.

Jason’s final words on that subject summarize it perfectly:

“We are a narrow-minded bunch of humans. And selfish to think we are normal. There is no normal.”

But, surprisingly, it was Abby’s insight into Jason’s character that caused me to pause and consider my own foibles, that offered me that most unique moment of literary greatness, to stare into the mirror of self-revelation.

“Jason’s stubbornness was so strong, I sometimes thought it got in the way of him accomplishing big things. If only he could’ve just gone with the flow sometimes. While he was simply trying to express himself and his rights, that stubbornness blocked him in like he was in a cold jail cell.”

Those words forced me to face my demons as only a great book can.

Saving Jason is not a light read. It should perhaps even come with a trigger warning for those facing PTSD, other mental health challenges, and especially those who love them.

Nonetheless, this is a book that is well worth the time and tears that you will shed to get to the end.



Autism Goes To School…

Today, we begin with my very first #bookreview on this site. And what better place to start than a book that combines two of my greatest passions: romance novels and autism/neurodivergence.

Autism Goes to School is written by ‘expert’ Dr. Sharon Mitchell, mainly based upon her career as a teacher, counselor, and psychologist.

When talking about neurodivergence, I always put that word in quotations. I don’t believe that all the degrees in this world can make you an expert on something that you have no first-hand experience of. That would be like an entitled white person telling a black one about racism. Or mansplaining menopause to me (which trust me doctors do). The only experts on autism are the #ActuallyAutistic. Even then, autism is highly variable from person to person. So, the only expert on my autism is me.

Yes, both my youngest daughter and I are autistic. She is formally diagnosed by those ‘experts.’ Which was a battle in itself, and why I use those quotations. The truth is that there remains way too many myths, even or especially among the ‘experts.’ “Autism is a boy thing.” “She can look me in the eye; she can’t be autistic.” If I sound cynical, I am. I have been on this road for over a decade, which is why I have not and do not intend to waste time or money seeking my own diagnosis.

Having said all that, if there were an ‘expert’ that I trust, it would be Sharon. We have followed one another on Twitter for years; occasionally, even engaging in respectful debates or direct messaging. But somehow or the other, the fact that she also was a romance novelist escaped me. Until a few weeks ago, when I saw an advert for Autism Goes to School on her Twitter feed. I clicked it and downloaded the book. Over the next couple of days, I devoured it, fell in love, and my respect for Dr. Mitchell grew.

Autism Goes to School is a ‘sweet’ romance, meaning the sex scenes are only alluded to. Honestly, that is not generally my style. While I started off reading Grace Livingstone Hill and Barbara Cartland at twelve, I quickly outgrew them for their racier cousins by Joanna Lindsey and Bertrice Small. But this book captured me from the beginning.

It is the story of Ben, whose ex-girlfriend suddenly dumps their autistic five-year-old son, Kyle, on him. He has never been a parent. He knows nothing about autism, other than the brief and often inaccurate information on some ‘expert’ website. Now, he has to find his son a school. That is where their luck begins to change.

Madson Elementary is the school that every autistic child and family deserve. It is a place where acceptance and understanding simply happen. And Melanie Nicols is that teacher which Kyle and Ben can rely upon. She goes above and beyond the call of duty to help this father understand and accept his son. Along the way, they find love and happiness.

Now, let’s break down the elements of this story, which are strengths, weaknesses, and why:

1) Characters – Both Melanie and Ben as the main characters are well-developed and realistic. Their actions and reactions are in keeping with their backstories. The secondary characters, especially Kyle, are interesting and colorful. But they could use more development.

2) Pacing – This book is fast-paced, occurring over about a school year or nine-months, which means that there are huge gaps in time between scenes. Nonetheless, Sharon gives you enough information and context to follow along easily with the character and plot development.

3) Point of View – This story is told from multiple and alternating third person points of view, primarily Ben’s and Melanie’s. This is probably the best method to match the story. Unlike some books using this style, it is not difficult to recognize whose point view and when they switch.

4) Theme – This is what sets this book apart for me and makes it five-star worthy. Autism Goes to School is THE book that I would recommend first to any parent or loved one whose child may be or is autistic. Sharon compassionately and realistically portrays both the challenges and the positives of living an abundant, colorful life on the spectrum. With words such as:

“Autism is not a dirty word. It’s a different way of viewing the world. There are challenges involved in autism, for sure. But, there are also strengths.”

This book offers hope and encouragement as well as practical ideas for meeting those challenges. It does that without being some heavy how-to manual, but rather a light and thoroughly enjoyable read.

Of course, no book is perfect. Besides wanting more development of supporting characters like Ben and Melanie’s families and Madson’s principal, the other flaw with this book was editing. There were several minor and significant typos, grammar, and awkward sentences, such as:

He swung his hip over the top and tried perching on the too tall stool, without either foot hitting the ground, the hopped off.

But not even those, could dampen my enthusiasm for a romance novel that presented autism in such a compassionate and accepting light. I highly recommend Autism Goes to School as both a resource on neurodivergence and a light, sweet romance read. If you or anyone you know is facing the challenges of life on our beautiful rainbow spectrum of neurodiversity, this is THE book to begin your journey with.

Next week, we’ll explore another of life’s challenges with a Marine suffering from PTSD when I review another five-star book, Saving Jason, by Kate Anslinger. I know absolutely nothing about that. Ha-ha-ha.

What to do with this site?

Since this blog is a blank slate, tabula rasa, I have been toying with how best to utilize it. What can I bring to the table that will interest readers and serve the #WritingCommunity?

It did not take me long to answer that one…


For small press and self-published authors getting reviews is almost better than getting paid. Amazon and other outlets heavily weight the rankings based upon reviews. Not just the number of stars but the number of reviews garnered. I know for me this has been and remains a problem. So, I want to help others out.

Having said that, my reluctance was two-fold…

  1. As a fellow writer, it can be hard to give books lower reviews, even 3*’s. You know how much of themselves the authors have invested in those books, how much they are counting on good reviews, and even how fragile our egos can be sometimes.
  2. The one thing I don’t want to do is get into the trading business: you review me and I’ll review you. I know loads of writers do and I am not judging them but that is just not for me.

So, I won’t be accepting manuscripts or ARC’s. These are all books I have either bought or that are on Kindle Unlimited. What is more, I am only reviewing the ones that I believe are 4 or 5 stars worthy.

What can readers and authors expect from my reviews?

A tiny bit of background and/or summary of the book, of course. But as a writer, I tend to focus on other elements of a strong story, such as:

  1. Character development – I love strong and unusual people, in my life and in my books. I know that a book is truly good when a character becomes alive to the reader.
  2. Pacing – Some stories move fast, others move slowly. Both have their place. The question is…is the pace appropriate for the story? Does it move slowly enough to allow for that character development without dragging?
  3. Point of view – Whether it is 1st person, 3rd, deep, or free indirect discourse, whether it is from one person’s POV or several characters, does it fit?
  4. Theme – This is a big one for me. Yes, reading (and in my case writing) is an escape. It can be pleasurable and fun. But the books that I love the most are the ones that teach us something…about the world, about people, and most importantly about ourselves. That, for me, is what sets a good book apart from a great one.

Those are the things that I will be focusing upon on this blog. These will be the books that stand out of the crowd for me. The ones that deserve more attention than the simple reviews I give on Amazon, Goodreads, and BookBub. The one thing you can count upon…I won’t be judging books by their covers. (But more on that theme later this week from my dark-side Raquel Graffen.)

What kind of books, you ask?

Any and all. While I will primarily focus upon fiction ones, there may be the occasional non-fiction thrown in for variety. Of course, I have a passion for romance. So, there will be lots of those. But I promise myself and you that I will attempt to read other genres too: classics, sci-fi, fantasy, and mystery.

Next week, I’ll kick off with a book whose theme is critical to me: Dr. Sharon Mitchell’s Autism Goes to School.

Until then, folks, goddess bless and Happy Reading…

Why I Support Kindle Unlimited…

I am dyslexic. I was ten years old before I learned to read. It took that long for my brain to click with letters and words. In fact, I never got the sounds thing. I did not learn to read phonetically. I learned sight words. That can be a problem to this day when I come across new words that I have no idea how to pronounce.

I am also autistic. School was torture for me. I had only a couple of friends. I never got the complexities of unwritten, often contradictory, and most definitely unfair rules that govern much of human relations. To my brain, be honest. Be yourself. And people should appreciate that and like you. Except it never works that way. Even now. Well, the right people do and will. But school was definitely not like that.

So, from the moment I learned to read, the library was heaven to me. I looked forward to my weekly visit. I can clearly remember squatting down in the aisle as I thumbed through Curious George books that I had read several times already. Trying to pick which one I would add to my growing stack of treasures.

Books were my escape. They were my best friends. Through them, I could go anywhere. Do anything. Be anyone.

And the library was the center of that. Of my universe. I always checked out the maximum number of books allowed. I read them and re-read them until I could once again escape to my heaven on earth.

When I say library, I mean our school one. The one for my city was across town. Nanny did not drive. So, I can count on one hand the number of times we made it there. And those books were usually returned late, something I hate doing.

I graduated from Curious George, Nurse Nancy, and Dr. Suess (actually, I still have not graduated from him) to Laura Ingalls Wilder, Louisa May Alcott, and biographies of women like Clara Barton, Betsy Ross, and Dolly Madison. Then I moved on to Epidemiology: Medical Detectives and Grace Livingstone Hill. Eventually finding my place with Skye O’Malley and other strong heroines of those cheesy romance novels of the 70s and 80s, the ones with Fabio on every cover.

The thing was, growing up poor in the South, books were a luxury we could not afford. Only through the library could access my passion.

It has been years since I had a library card. Even then, it was so I could borrow books primarily for my daughter.

Today, I have another option…

Kindle Unlimited.

I have read hundreds of books on Unlimited. As someone who can read a book in a day or two (usually) depending on circumstances and who hates trying new things, Unlimited gives me the freedom to simply try books out. Just as the library once did. I can read a few chapters and give up. Guilt-free.

Fair enough, I love Kindle Unlimited as a reader. But how do I feel about it as a writer? Do I think it is fair?

In some ways, it is more fair than that library. Once a library bought a book, it could be read hundreds or even thousands of times without ever paying the author additional royalties. With Kindle Unlimited, I am at least paid something for every page that someone reads.

Ad 3.jpgIs that fair market value? Maybe not, but as the saying goes better something than nothing. Of course, for me, getting my books read, my message out there, is more important than the money at this point in my life and career. So, Kindle Unlimited is ideal from that point of view. That is why all my books are enrolled in Kindle Unlimited for at least the first year.

So, if you are tempted to give a Tara Neale (or Raquel Graffen) book a peak and have Kindle Unlimited, then please do. Guilt-free. This is one writer who wholeheartedly supports the idea of borrowing books.

What is an Unlimited book you would recommend to me?


Does sex matter?

Yesterday I finished a truly great book. (Not giving you the title or author yet as I will review it later.) The characters were alive. The author used words, fifty-cent ones, that actually forced me to use the dictionary junction on my Kindle. That impressed me. She caught the very essence of the South in which I grew up: the good and the bad. Best of all…I adored the fact that her hero was no flawed bad-boy. He was a real man…and a Marine. (We all know how I feel about those.) With the exception of a few awkward sentences, the book should have been a solid five stars.

EXCEPT…there was no sex. 

Fair enough…Tara Neale is after all the ‘sweet’ version of my writing. So, I should not be complaining about a ‘sweet’ romance. Many readers prefer those. To some of those, even my ‘sweet’ will be scandalous.

In fact, the first romances I ever read were by Christian writer Grace Livingstone Hill. The hottest those ever got was usually a kiss on the forehead…AFTER the hero proposed and the heroine accepted. Maybe that is where I get my passion for forehead kisses?

Even though I soon graduated to Harlequins, Joanna Lindsey, and Bertrice Small, I can and still do appreciate those storylines. This book will most definitely pull four stars and it might yet get that five.

What surprised me the most was what I found in the author bio. I had thought as I read it that perhaps, she avoided the sex scenes for religious reasons. But the thing was, she kept raising the sexual tensions with long kisses, feeling one another up, even erections, and wet panties. All to fade to black on a couple of times they do make love.  Then I read this…

The muscle I most admire in a man is between his ears, so I don’t write titillating sex scenes because you already know where the body parts go and you don’t need an anatomy lesson from me. As I recall bedroom events, it was fifteen minutes and he turned over and went to sleep. I got up, changed diapers or washed dishes or ironed my clothes for work the next day.

 NO! Not!

For me, sex is one of the most powerful human acts on this earth.

It can wound you so deeply that you just want to die, perhaps even kill something inside of you…

But it can also heal…even Fisher King wounds…

It is communion …with one another…with god, or the goddess, or just life itself…

Yes, it can be procreative, but it can also be creative, comforting, transformative even.

It is anything BUT body parts in slots, fifteen minutes, or an anatomy lesson.

And while I forever fail in my Grail Quest to communicate the true beauty, depth of meaning, and purpose of that act, I will continue to try nonetheless. Just as a photograph or painting can never truly capture a sunset, no matter how proficient the artist, words can never imprison the power of two bodies and souls uniting in love (or if you are Raquel Graffen more)…if only for fifteen minutes (average is less, but dang girls…who you been with?).

This book and those comments have me deeply re-thinking, clarifying, and re-defining the decision to use different pen names. No, I am not going back on that decision. Just clarifying it as I said…to you and perhaps more importantly to me.

I still stand by my Three Truths

  1. Life sux

  2. Love is the only thing that makes it worth living

  3. Great sex is the best way to show that.

The key differences…the defining characteristics…then between Tara Neale and Raquel Graffen is the form that sex takes. While I will always believe as I wrote in Nothing Done in Love

NDIL Quote

It truly is not. Be that homosexual, bi-sexual, transgender, polyamory, or BDSM…or some kinky combination of the above. If it is truly done in love, then it will hold that same power. But that is for Raquel Graffen to feebly attempt to convey.

For Tara Neale, it is the wonder of moments stolen in life’s chaos…in the arms of just one truly special man. One hero. One slightly flawed heroine who needs his strength, support, and love while offering him her compassion, acceptance, and love in return…with open arms, legs, and sometimes mouth.

In other words…’normal’ sex. Though there is never anything plain normal about it…

What are your thoughts? Does sex or the lack thereof matter to you? In books, here.