Desert Isle Keeper
Earlier this year I had the pleasure of reviewing The Hating Game by Sally Thorne. I loved it and recommended it to everyone I know. Since then, I was certain – convinced really – that no other book could or would top my best of list for 2016 (though Cat Sebastian’s The Soldier’s Scoundrel came close). I was wrong. I took a risk on a book I’d heard good things about but didn’t think would appeal to me, and oh, reader, I’m so glad I did. To my surprise and absolute delight, my favorite book this year is Wolfsong. It’s wonderful for many reasons, not the least of which is my discovery that I like shifter/paranormal romances. Ha! It also dispelled any doubt I had that a human/wolf pairing could or would capture my heart. It did. And Wolfsong did. Romantic, funny, poignant… Wolfsong is everything I hope for when I start reading a new novel.
When the book opens, Ox Matheson is a lonely and awkward twelve-year old struggling to deal with his emotions after his father abandons him and his mother. The man’s hurtful parting words to his son, that he’s dumb as an ox, and that Ox is “gonna get shit,” he said. “For most of your life.” resonate and stay with Ox through all of the significant moments of his life, until he meets the one person who changes everything. We witness Ox struggling at school and home, and then we’re given vivid snapshots of his life at a few significant milestones – when he’s sixteen, seventeen, twenty-three and twenty-six. While still in school, he gets a job at a local garage and finds a second home there, its owner becoming the closest thing he has to a father figure. Years pass as Ox finds a fragile happiness in the rhythm of his days – home, school, the garage, home – until shortly after he turns sixteen, and he meets Joe Bennett.
Walking home from school one afternoon, Ox is surprised to see a young boy standing in the (normally empty) lane that leads to his house. The boy introduces himself and tells Ox his family is moving into the house next door. Ox is initially startled by Joe’s intense interest in everything about him, but his happiness and excitement sparks something deep within, and he finds himself drawn to his new neighbor. Unable to resist Joe’s enthusiastic entreaties to come meet the rest of his family, they arrive at the house to find the Bennett clan waiting for them on the porch. They’re similarly happy to meet Ox, and if Joe’s introduction seems slightly odd, nobody says so.
“Mom! Mom. You have to smell him! It’s like… like… I don’t even know what it’s like! I was walking in the woods to scope out our territory so I could be like Dad and then it was like… whoa. And then he was all standing there and he didn’t see me at first because I’m getting so good at hunting. I was all like rawr and grr but then I smelled it again and it was him and it was all kaboom! I don’t even know! I don’t even know! You gotta smell him and then tell me why it’s all candy canes and pinecones and epic and awesome.”
Ox’s relationship with the Bennett family – and with Joe especially (despite the six-year age gap between them) – is intense from the moment they meet. When the family disappears for days at a time each month, Ox, though curious, never worries. The moment they return, he knows Joe will seek him out.
When Ox turns seventeen, his life changes again. Late one night he’s awakened by Joe’s brothers; Joe is ill and they need Ox’s help. This is the moment he finally realizes just why the Bennetts seem so different from other people in his life. They’re wolves. He doesn’t have time to dwell on that fact though, because Joe (who has just experienced his first shift) is trapped in a past trauma and is struggling to shift back from wolf to man. Only after Ox holds him in his arms and comforts him is Joe finally able to regain his human form. Once the truth is revealed about Joe and the rest of the Bennett family, Thomas, the pack’s Alpha and Joe’s father, pulls Ox aside to explain why Joe seemed to struggle so painfully during the shift. He also reveals that, until the day Joe met Ox in the lane, he hadn’t spoken a word to anyone in two years. Learning what happened to Joe leaves Ox angry and upset. Discovering that the family he loves are actually wolves, though surprising, doesn’t change how he feels about them or Joe, and various odd things about them finally make sense.
Life goes on; Ox continues to split his time between his mom’s house, the garage and the Bennett’s. He meets his first girlfriend, and then later realizes he’s also attracted to men. Joe seems to struggle and withdraw whenever Ox is in a relationship, but somehow always seems find his way back to him. The years pass by until one afternoon a twenty-three year old Ox realizes he’s lusting after his seventeen year old ‘best friend’. That evening, knowing Joe will be able to smell his arousal, he showers and douses himself in cologne before joining the Bennett’s for dinner. It doesn’t work and Joe is onto him right away. After a quick trip home to shower off the offensive cologne, a leering Joe escorts Ox into dinner where his suggestive teasing is both adorable and merciless.
As all readers know, there are certain moments in favorite books that are so memorable you find yourself cycling through them over and over again in quiet moments. I have more than a few of those from Wolfsong, but I particularly love the chapters immediately following Ox’s realization that he’s attracted to Joe. Funny, romantic, awkward, awesome, and frustrating, Klune outdoes himself detailing what happens after Joe realizes just what’s going on with Ox. Smug and thrilled that Ox finally returns his affections, Joe pursues him aggressively (and hilariously). Secondary characters, especially brothers Carter and Kelly, play memorable parts in the courtship, and the whole thing is just so silly/sweet/swoony, I dare you not to love it – and them – too. Joe’s surprise visit to see Ox’s mother and announce his intentions towards Ox (which Ox walks in on), is particularly funny and delightful. You’ll cringe (and giggle) every time Joe tries and fails to tell her about his feelings and plans for Ox. OMG. It’s the best.
I don’t want to give away too much of Wolfsong from the point when Ox finally realizes he loves Joe, because the story doesn’t move in a direction readers might expect, and I don’t want to spoil it. Trauma from Joe’s past returns, and when it does, it upends the lives of everyone Ox has ever loved.
Wolfsong is wonderfully nuanced and there are so many layers to the tale, it’s difficult to convey them in a review without spoiling this beautiful – and epic – romance. Klune never rushes the story or the characters, and his writing is beautiful and spare – in places it reads like poetry. A three year separation – right on the heels of one of the most painfully awkward dates ever – drags by so slowly I struggled to get through it. For the reader, the painful separation mirrors the frustration and sadness both men feel at being parted, and provides the author with time to satisfactorily pull together the various plot leads left unresolved in the first half. Though I hated the separation (which also splits the Bennett pack), I love that Ox and Joe mature as both individuals and pack members. Each man discovers truths about himself he would never have known had they not been forced apart, and Ox finally rises above the doubts and insecurities that plagued him since his father left.
The secondary characters in this book are terrific; I’m happy to hear many of them will get their own stories in the future. While Klune is a great writer, and the love between Ox and Joe is moving, it’s his talent for dialogue that I enjoyed most. I loved the funny conversations between Ox and Carter, and Ox and Kelly; I nearly cried over a few of the ones between Ox and Thomas, and the ones between Ox and Joe, especially as the book winds down…well, they’re simple and perfect. The tone, the words – Klune gets every detail just right.
Despite all the shifting, magic (yes, there’s some of that too) and conflict, at its heart Wolfsong is a love story. And fortunately, the patient reader is amply rewarded. The book only has a few steamy scenes, but Klune makes the most of them; hot, passionate and delightfully dirty – I loved every moment. I won’t spoil the last few pages, but I’ll share this much – the conclusion to Wolfsong is sexy, deeply moving, intense and powerful. Just like the book. GO GET IT.