Five Stars: Into the Blue by Pene Henson

Into the Blue (eBook package)

A while I promised a review of Pene Henson’s Into the Blue, which has received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly as well as excellent reviews from Romantic Times and USA Today — so well deserved!

Into the Blue is the moving story of long time best friends Tai and Ollie, who grew up surfing the North Shore of Oahu together. This book is Henson’s debut novel; it’s beautifully written and aches with the complexities of the protagonists’ stories. Their history and friendship is handled with great skill. There is never a moment when the forward progress of the story is bogged down by exposition that fills us in on the past. Instead we are treated into an inside view of their found family (their roommates Hannah and Sunny, and Ollie’s little brother Jamie) through the story, within it. It is immediately clear that Ollie and Tai have a very special friendship. Our perception of how special becomes more clear as we get to know Ollie, who is by turns prickly and unsure, who has a hard time with other people but who is quietly magnetic and lovable, even when it’s hidden from everyone but those who know him best. He’s foiled beautifully against Tai, who is magnetic as well but also magnanimous and outgoing. Together they make sense; when their relationship takes a turn from friendship to lovers, there is something between them that intrinsically works, even when we can clearly see them testing and blundering through situations of their own making.

I mentioned the beautiful writing; the landscape that Henson places her characters in is so vibrant. There’s such attention to detail. I felt transported – this book is a wonderful getaway. The sense of pause, that in between, that moment in their relationship where they can be something other than the friends they always have feels like a treasure and privilege to witness.

While Tai was a joy to read, Ollie was, for me, a revelation. I love his complexity and reticence. I love how he’s portrayed, like the world doesn’t always fit him, or like he’s not sure how his edges fit into the world. This is the second book this year I’ve read with a demisexual character and Henson handles his truth and story very carefully and thoughtfully. She also handles Tai’s progression through their relationship deftly – we get a good sense of how Tai packed the potential for feelings away when he and Ollie were younger after Ollie’s mother passed away, how and why he chooses to go along with the change in their relationship, but also how his fear of falling for Ollie and harming their found family complicates everything once they are brought back to their regular lives. None of these are over explained or overwrought. Instead they feel natural, and like the mistakes young men make when they’re figuring out what they want in life and how to get it.  Henson’s trust in the reader and in her characters makes falling in love with them as they fall for each other feel utterly natural and earned.

Five stars—if I could, twenty stars – for this stunning debut. Five as well for the beautiful cover, which makes me want to run away to the nearest beach to re-read this book yet again.

For a chance to win a 25$ gift card from Interlude Press, check this postthis post out on the author’s blog about her virtual book tour!

Coming in October of 2016, Idlewild

IDLEWILD COVER

In a last ditch effort to bring the downtown Detroit gastro pub he started with his late husband back to life, Asher Schenck fires everyone and hires a completely new staff. Among them is Tyler Heyward, a 23-year-old recent college graduate in need of funds to pay for med school. As their relationship shifts from business to friendship, Tyler falls for Asher and finds himself caught between the things he thought he wanted and the things he hasn’t allowed himself to dream about. Working together, they get to know each other’s dreams.

Idlewild is a story about love and healing set in the backdrop of Detroit’s revival.

I am so excited to share this amazing cover C.B. Messner designed, and my story with you guys. I am so constantly floored by the quality of the book covers Interlude Press gives my books, and once again, standing ovation. This one captures the book so beautifully.

 

Andrew and Milo Exposed

The things you didn’t know! Today I thought it might be fun to give y’all some little insight tidbits into my main characters from What it Takes that you wouldn’t get in the book. When I did my twitter takeover on Interlude’s twitter account a bit ago, I had a couple of readers ask me what it was like to fit twenty years of story into one book. In a word, hard! It really meant judicious storytelling and knowing a whole bunch of stuff that I didn’t have room to write in. There was some fun character stuff — sketches and the like — that I did before the book came out and for my VBT I thought I’d share.

First though, to set the scene, can we look at some pictures of these boys first? I love to use Pintrest to find inspiration, even if I have a pretty clear idea of what the characters look like.

Milo was a little hard to pin down — I have a few pictures that have elements of who he is, but this one is a great one, what I imagine he’d look like at twenty. Make his hair a darker and more auburn red and his eyes a little more slate blue and bam!

face:

As for Andrew…I’d never heard of Alex Pettyfur until I started trolling around for Andrew inspiration but OH YES COME TO MAMA. This man. Perfection for Andrew:

Loove Thi Pic Alex Pettyfer | Photo | corny | Fans Share Images:

So what’s the skinny on the character secrets?

Well for starters,  Milo hates to have people sing Happy Birthday to him. He never got that really at home and it always made him feel too seen elsewhere. He also has really deeply hidden and over the top dream wedding fantasies. Not even Andrew knows about that when they’re kids. Milo also always wanted a Malamute puppy. He wasn’t allowed to have pets as a kid, but when he was ten her read a book about large dogs and fell in love with a picture of one. His list of reasons as an adult for why it would make sense to get one include that they’re good family dogs and laid back, but secretly it’s because they “talk” back when you talk to them. He’s seen videos on YouTube and it’s adorable.

As for Andrew, he secretly writes weird, awful dystopian novels that even he doesn’t like. In the back of his mind it’s because they remind him of Milo. Partly that’s because he doesn’t understand the genre and he thinks that’s something Milo might like based on the kids of books he does like to read. As we see in What it Takes, their reading (and video game) tastes do not really line up. Also, Andrew once harbored a really intense, brief crush on Demi Lovato. He’s still not sure why, considering that he’s pretty much always known he was gay. Maybe it was the blue hair phase, or knowing all of the stuff she’s overcome. She just generally seems kind of badass. Plus, even as a gay man he can admit she’s got a great body.

~*~

Both Hush andWhat it Takes are available for purchase now at:  Interlude Press Web Store
AmazonAll RomanceBarnes & NobleBook Depository, Apple iBookstore, Smashwords, and Independent Bookstores

Banner Time

Let’s talk visual inspiration for What it Takes; in pictures and an excerpt.

(Say it like you’d say Hammer Time and then sing that song to yourself for a moment. Go on, it’ll feel great!)

~*~

        “The wind is up, but the beach is deserted. This has always been a quieter one, thanks to a longer walk through the dunes. There are sandbars far into the water at high tide and the sand is mostly exposed at low tide. A line of pebbles sweeps in an arc above the waterline, and below it is a second arc of seaweed. The tide is mostly out. The dunes wear their usual blend of pretty purple and white flowers and sharp grasses. 

       Milo sits a few feet above the rock line and pulls on his sweater. The sun is blinding off the water, but he wants to be blinded, wants to be forced out of his headspace. It’s so quiet, save for the agitated water. 

       Legs crossed, Milo pulls himself up straight. He closes his eyes and ignores the swirling colors behind his eyelids. He counts a slow breath in, three beats, then exhales for three. Takes a three-beat pause before breathing in. He imagines his breath as a triangle and projects that shape from his body. He lets his senses take in the beach, the quiet, the water, the grit of the sand whipped up by the waves. Tension seeps out of him when he exhales. He lets it go. Nothing is taken from him, nothing is forced. He can count these breaths as he wants. He suspends himself in the pauses: pictures a white canvas, bleeding jumbled.images of worry and anxiety, reds and blacks and angry oranges slowly dripping off, as if washed away by rain. 

       When he opens his eyes again, he’s calmer. That buzzing, anxious feeling is gone. The seaweed has been swallowed by the sea. Tide’s coming in. Milo watches it. The water begins to run in a slow progressing rivulet in a channel between the rocks. As the water creeps ever closer, it rises over uneven sandbars until it meets in the middle of that small channel, eventually overflowing and overrunning the strip of sand in the middle. Before it’s gone, Milo walks into the cold water. The rocks are rough under the soles of his feet. They’re thin-skinned against the sand; when he was a kid they’d been callused and used to beach and forest.
        He searches out bigger, colorful rocks and tosses them up the beach. He finds a perfect half shell with pinks blending into white in the center. In the middle is a bright blue fleck of sand. He picks that up too.
        By the path into the dunes and back toward his car is a wrecked piece of driftwood, hollow and pale from sun-bleaching. He arranges the rocks on top, makes a pattern of colors with the
shell on the end, a frangible beautiful thing, and then takes a picture. His mom will like that. The memory of making art of beach flotsam with Andrew haunts him.” p 145, What it Takes

~*~

Last night I had awesome fun taking over the Interlude Press twitter and website, answering great questions about Hush, What it Takes and my secret third book.

I’ll be rounding some of that up for y’all later, but I wanted to share this banner I made for social media (other than this website, which was made by actual professionals, so it looks more professional).

An anonymous reader asked: I want to visit the setting of your book – it sounds so serene and beautiful. Is it a place you’ve always just imagined or is there an actual place that inspired it?

My quick twitter answer was that the scenery and natural settings were inspired my visit to Wellfleet for a poetry retreat a few years ago. I’ve wanted to use the inspiration I got from that visit for a while. Wellfleet didn’t work, logistically, for this novel, but I wanted to use what I saw and experienced — so I invented the town of Santuit.

While this is an invented town, the pictures in this banner are my own, taken from my trip. I have to admit that the log with stones was something I stumbled upon, I didn’t actually make that art the way that Milo did. That shell with the beautiful blue piece of sand is something I found as well. Unfortunately I didn’t take pictures of the forest they play in, but I assure you I did treck in there and see a lovely isolated pond; I did get to feel the hush of the trees and birds and the stillness of places people weren’t in.

So for those of you who were curious about visuals, inspiration and place, here is some of the magic I experienced and built Milo’s healing around.

 

 

Secret Forts

As we near the release of What it Takes, I’ve been sharing tiny snippets on Twitter — I’m tagging #WhatitTakes, and posting one a day. Head on over, I’m @judesierra.

As well, I’ve been sharing some excerpts here! I wanted to share a pivotal moment in Milo and Andrew’s childhood: when they build their fort in the woods. This is a spot that becomes very important to them as they grow up. So much happens there; I always like to imagine that the walls of this tiny haven they build for themselves hold secrets even I’m not privy to.

~*~

They’re in the woods one day in July when they come into a small clearing. Milo has been keeping complaints about the humidity and bugs to himself. He wants to hang out with Andrew and if this is the best he can get, he’ll take it. Andrew comes alive when they’re out here, which is awesome. God knows Milo could use some happiness too.

“You good?” Andrew asks. He looks around the clearing, then sits carefully on what’s left of a fallen tree. Milo kicks at a tuft of grass.

“I’m fine.”

“Milo,” Andrew says in that voice he gets, the one that’s knowing and superior.

“I’m fine. Looking forward to school. Less time at home, you know? It’s close but not close enough, and it’s making me crazy.”

Andrew looks at him for a long moment, then away. His eyes explore the fringe of woods, and the scraggly wildflowers in the sunlight. “We should build something out here.”

“Huh?” Milo gives up and stands next to him. A line of sweat slides down his temple, and he wipes it away.

“Like a fort?” Andrew shoots him a shy and hopeful look. Milo resists the urge to point out that they aren’t kids anymore and that they’re too old for that kind of play, because he doesn’t want to hurt Andrew’s feelings. “I know it’s lame. But come on, it’ll be fun!”

“How will we do that? We need wood and supplies and, like, to know how to build stuff.”

“We’ll figure it out.” Andrew’s face brightens; Milo is terrible at resisting this sort of persuasion. “And then we’ll have a place no one knows about. It’ll be our thing.” Andrew looks away then and shrugs. “That sounded wrong. I didn’t mean—”

“No! No, that’s cool.” The thought of a secret place is appealing. If they do this, it’ll be somewhere Milo can go when everyone is busy and he can’t go to their houses. Plus, the thought of planning something to build is exciting. “So we’ll need a plan.”

“Blah,” Andrew complains. He starts circling the clearing.

“How do you plan to accomplish this without— ”

“A plan? I’m kidding. Come on, let’s find a spot. We can go home and make the best plan and it’ll be like a little wet dream for you.”

Milo blushes and laughs and only looks away for a second before looking for an ideal spot.

#

The fort takes longer to build than Andrew anticipated. The wood was expensive, and they had to figure out how to pay for it, and also, come on, they aren’t master builders yet. Despite all of Milo’s drawn plans—the first drafts roughly scratched into dirt, then, as they sat on the beach, into shifting sands that proved to be a terrible sketch pad, and finally on paper—the process was a whole lot of trial and error.

“It’s not all that big,” Milo says when they’re finally, for the first time, seated inside their little creation.

“It’s fine.” Andrew is unpacking a cooler of snacks and pop he brought for the occasion.

Milo inspect their handiwork. “There’s a huge gap over here.”

“Oh my god, Mr. Perfection, enjoy the moment.” Andrew kicks him in the ankle.

“No wait, there’s an exposed nail; let me find the hammer—”

“Milo,” Andrew says in his most stern voice, which isn’t that stern at all when it cracks. He clears his throat. “Shut up, sit down and drink your Coke. We can fix that later.”

Milo sighs and sits down. Andrew can tell he’s working very hard not to examine the fort for more flaws.

“We’ll be here again, you know,” Andrew says.  “We have time to fix things up if we want. For now, it’s mostly done; it’s awesome. We’re awesome.”

“Yeah. True.” Milo smiles; his hair is a shaggy mess and his face is spotted with pimples that have come and gone as they’ve started to hit puberty. His shirt is dirty, they’re both sweating and it’s sweltering in the fort—even though it’s in the shade, the heat of their bodies in the confined space is driving the temperature up to uncomfortable. Milo is right—it is small, and being so close to Milo makes a completely different heat suffuse his body. It’s confusing and new and unwelcome, and, if he doesn’t distract himself immediately, will be very obvious.

Andrew distracts himself by looking over their creation. The wooden floor is rough enough to need more sanding. The walls are made of mismatched wooden boards—some bought and some scavenged—that don’t fit together perfectly, especially around the small window and door. One day, when it’s not about a billion degrees, Andrew wants to paint the walls inside. Milo looks up to examine the roof while they finish lunch, and Andrew contemplates whether making some sort of sign outside the fort would be too childish.

It’s far from perfect, but still, for that moment, Andrew can’t imagine that he’s ever been happier.

~*~

What it Takes is currently available for pre-order and will be out Jan. 14th.

Enter to win a copy of What it Takes in the Goodreads giveaway!

Perhaps a New Start

Happy New Year to all of you lovely readers! I hope this year brings you many things — good health, good friends, love and great books! To start the year off, I thought I’d offer you an excerpt and a little insight into one of my main characters: Milo.

In 14 days, What it Takes will be hitting the shelves (so to speak), and I wanted to share a little bit about the book with you guys. A theme in What it Takes seems very apropos for this day: new beginnings, fresh starts, and goodbyes.

Personally, I don’t make New Years resolutions. I stopped years ago after I had a particularly bad period in my life and realized that making a promise on one day that I was bound to forget or let go of wasn’t as effective in changing my life and going in the direction I *needed* to go for healing and peace. So I made myself a promise that *every day* could be a new one. I forget this all the time, but when I remember, this is a time when I can take a breath and remind myself that this moment is a new start. I generally focus this energy on a desire to be a kinder person and to do my best at achieving my goals.

Milo and I share many things. We come from similar family pasts, and many of his struggles are things I went through. As well, a lot of the way he shaped his healing as an adult was inspired by my own journey in letting go of particular demons and healing. Perhaps my journey took longer and had a lot more painful steps, but I tried hard to give Milo genuine healing and coping skills.

One of the hardest things we have to do in life to heal or to grow past a painful past is to allow ourselves to let go and to move forward. Sometimes this means saying goodbye: to a person, to a place, to a dream, to a resentment. Doesn’t have to be all, but the message is the same.

Milo’s father’s death is a big turning point for him. It’s a place in his life where he can chose to go in many directions. Where the biggest source of his trauma is no longer physically present. In the following scene, we see the beginning of that conversation between Milo and Andrew, in which they talk about the opportunity this moment presents Milo and what that could mean for his future. Which goodbyes might be good for him, and what things might not be able to let go of.

~*~

Light filters between the ill-fitted boards cobbling their fort together; it filters through the trees from afar, registering as a small twinkle until he comes close enough to see clearly. There’s a blanket over the open square that was the lookout window. Milo can’t help but think that nothing has changed, yet nothing is the same because he’s not the same boy who built this sanctuary and walked through the framed door into a world of make-believe Andrew could always craft so easily and vividly.

Milo clears his throat before stepping in. Andrew is sitting with his legs curled in the far corner, huddled into a fleece blanket. A lantern casts light and shadows around the small room. It’s small enough that there’s not enough room to sit without bumping knees or feet.

Andrew’s sleepy-eyed and mussed; he looks small under the blanket that envelops him.

“How long have you been here?” Milo asks, keeping his voice low.

“I don’t know,” Andrew whispers back. His lips tremble in the cold. Milo moves to get closer, but Andrew gestures him back. Milo settles back with a sigh.

“It’s not that I don’t—” Andrew tips up a shoulder, and his face is rueful. “I thought we should talk.”

Milo wraps himself in his own blanket, covers the lantern and knocks it over. Once he’s untangled and righted it, he’s temporarily blinded by the direct glare. He blinks; when he looks around he notices how much darker the walls are than he remembers.

“Hey,” he says softly, nudging Andrew’s knee. “You painted.”

Andrew looks up, and Milo can see him swallowing. “Yeah, I did.”

“When?”

“When I came home for the long weekend in October.” Andrew’s fingers trail down the wall. In the night, the walls look black except where the lantern reveals a deep blue. Above his head are scatters of light pricks and moons and planets.

“Finding your way?” Milo jokes lightly. Andrew has always found his way by the stars, not using standard constellation maps, but his own visions.

“Searching for Cygnus,” Andrew says. Milo’s not sure which one that is, only that the irony in his tone means something.

They don’t say anything, letting the night settle over their tiny retreat like its own blanket. Milo lets this place, a place that was always theirs—one that they’ve outgrown—settle him. He dropped out of sleep heavily; that something’s missing feeling startled him until he realized it was Andrew. That disoriented him even more.

He takes time, now, to look him over. That uneasy sense that they’ve both changed irrevocably in the months since September has dissipated. Andrew doesn’t look any different—he’s the boy Milo has always known. Well, man. They’re supposed to be men now, forging into adult lives away from school and their parents.

“I can’t tell what I’m feeling,” Andrew says.

“Yeah, I’m sort of there myself.”

“It’s cold. This is dumb,” Andrew opens his blanket and arranges himself, inviting Milo to share his body heat. They shuffle and tangle until they’re perfectly fitted in a space a shade too small. This is the shape of my childhood, too tight around me. But Andrew makes it okay.

“Are you okay?” Milo asks.

“Of course I am.” There’s a tiny thread suggesting otherwise in the words, though.

“How is this going to work?”

Andrew’s fingers slide between Milo’s, tracing the beds of his fingernails and the palm of his hand. “I think you have to say goodbye.”

“I didn’t mean home. I meant us.”

~*~

What it Takes is currently available for pre-order and will be out Jan. 14th.

Enter to win a copy of What it Takes in the Goodreads giveaway!

Countdown time!

Y’all, in less than ONE month, What it Takes will officially be out in the world. At this time last year, that book was one crazy hot mess of NaNoWriMo scribbles, completely out of order, 50k of who knows what. Next thing I know, I’m getting a starred review in Publishers Weekly and they’re saying it’s a “tender and beautifully written love story”.

And now….now it’s almost in your hands!

So, a couple of things. First, wanna enter to win a free copy? Head over to Goodreads right here. Free copies of books are awesomesauce, trust me.

Other thing: starting 10 days before release I’ll be tweeting snippets from the book. Keep your eyes out for that. I try to # that but you know, 140 characters is freaking short! I’m not known for my brevity. I’m short but can’t keep it short. Ya know what I mean?

Third thing: I’m on grad school break! I have 3 weeks of FREEDOM. Well, if you call getting book #3 in shape to turn in… This also apparently means I am drowning myself in romance novels. Feel free to recommend one to me if you want, I love new books.

Thing the fourth: I also was thinking about posting excerpts from the book about once a week if y’all are interested? Lemme know. Popular vote wins 😀

As a tiny tease, I’ll give you a small snippet so you guys can get a taste.

~*~

He wakes up and lives his life, but there are days when he doesn’t think he’ll ever get through without Andrew helping him breathe with light touches and easy smiles. If he ever let himself, if he ever gave in to the sweet, silver thread of longing he has for Andrew, he knows he would somehow end up breaking everything.

~*~

What it Takes is currently available for pre-order and will be out Jan. 14th.

Hush is currently for sale at Interlude Press Web Store
AmazonAll RomanceBarnes & NobleBook Depository, Apple iBookstore, Smashwords, and Independent Bookstores

Book Review: Bitter Springs by Laura Stone

Okay. M’kay. Let me just…take a breath.

There are so many things to love about this book. The prose is just beautiful. Stone has a gift for creating a rich backdrop for her stories so that the whole experience feels well loved and well rounded. I always learn from her stories. The level of detail and obvious commitment to research make this story shine and are a testament to how very much Stone cares for her craft.

Now let’s talk about what she crafted. Renaldo’s family is EVERYTHING. They made me miss my family so much. The love and care they have for each other was so palpable. Even when both Renaldo and Hank were terrified of what would happen, as a reader, I trusted that Renaldo’s family would love him unconditionally.

Renaldo…oh lord. What a sensual and romantic man. I wish I had a man in my life who spoke to me like he does to Hank.

And HANK. Oh man do I have a sweet spot for complicated, lovely men. His reserve, initially, spoke so well to his vulnerabilities without Stone every having to state them. She showed us. And as the story unfolds, watching Hank unfold, demonstrating how sweet he is, how much he needs and wants love…UGH. MY HEART. His commitment to being an honest and upstanding man was really moving as well.

Bitter Springs is currently available for sale at the Interlude Press webstore, Amazon, All Romance and many other retailers.

Something Like A Love Song Book Review

Something Like a Love Song (print edition)

This story is love as a verb. I don’t even know if that will make sense to anyone, but that’s what it is.

It’s an emotionally difficult book to read, but I applaud Burton for tackling such a difficult story and just executing it brilliantly. There was nothing prettied up for this book about Landon’s injury or recovery; it was slow and difficult and there were successes and setbacks.

I really appreciated that Burton paid such good attention to Dylan’s emotional journey, beyond caring for and loving Landon so much. With Landon’s physical trauma, it could have been easy to create a more formulaic book that focused just on him and gave him a perfect partner. But Dylan isn’t perfect, he is just as damaged by the events of that night as Landon. And together and individually these men have to learn how to heal and to move on.

Underpinning this book is a constant and very beautiful sense of love and community. Their families are beautifully flawed, but also come together and love and support both Dylan and Landon in individually helpful and at times frustrating ways — but ultimately, without that community, none of them would have gotten through the experience as well as they did.

I have to admit I’ve never had a family member suffer a brain trauma, but I have cared for a parent in end of life transition who had multiple brain tumors that changed him completely (both his personality but also his abilities) and his decline was very painful to watch. I felt so much understanding and honesty and care from Burton for her characters, as well as honest portrayal of what people who love someone but are watching this happen to a family member/loved one are going through.

The icing on the cake is Burton’s writing which is clear, consistent, and lovely throughout.

Highly recommended, along with a box of Kleenex.

You can find Becca Burton here, and her books are available to order at

The Interlude Press bookstore (where you can currently get the paperback + e-book package for the price of the paperback, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository, Smashwords, All Romance, the iBookstore, and an Indie Bookseller near you!

 

 

Throwback Thursday Sock Saturday Contest Winner

And OMG this announcement actually comes…wait for it…on Thursday! My asshole random hashtag worked out. Or something?

ANYWAY, the point is that I am FINALLY announcing the winner of the Sock-Off contest! I got lots of great pictures of socks — you all have some fucking awesome socks — but the grand prize goes to Carol, who sent me a little collage of socks that included socks I have a burning need in my life for…the fuck you socks.

I should be clear that I am actually the nicest person and not generally angry, but man. Don’t you think that sometimes your feet need to tell people to fuck off? I mean, also, the perfection of these socks when you’re telling your roommate to stay clear so you can do it?? Especially with Cam and Nate’s friendship; this is exactly the kind of joke they’d share in the right spirit and laughter.

So congrats Carol!! Carol is the winner of a signed copy of Hush, or when it comes out if she wants, of What it Takes.

What it Takes is currently available for pre-order and will be out Jan. 14th.

Hush is currently for sale at Interlude Press Web Store
AmazonAll RomanceBarnes & NobleBook Depository, Apple iBookstore, Smashwords, and Independent Bookstores