Jeff & Will talk about seeing In The Heights and praise the season finale of Pose. Will reviews the audio fiction podcast The Two Princes. Jeff reviews the Gay Future Podcast, another audio fiction show, and Pocketful of Stardust by J.P. Barnaby and Rowan Speedwell.

Frederick Smith and Chaz Lamar join Jeff to talk about their debut novel, In Case You Forgot. Frederick and Chaz share how they worked together on this first collaboration, the inspirations for Kenny and Zaire, favorite scenes in the book. They also share what they’re working on next.

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Show Notes

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Interview Transcript – Frederick Smith & Chaz Lamar

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Jeff: Frederick and Chaz welcome to the podcast.

Frederick & Chaz: Thanks for having us.

Jeff: So for those on the video feed, we’re actually coming from the Lavender Library in Sacramento tonight, where you guys have just done your first event for the first co-written novel you’ve done together called, ‘In Case You Forgot’. I raved about this book back in episode 196. Before we get to the book, you’ve just finished this event. What was it like to do your first public reading and Q&A?

Frederick: You know what, it was magic. It was wonderful. We chose Sacramento specifically because we have a great connection to the community up here in Northern California. And we knew we had a community of readers who had read ‘In Case You Forgot’. So for Chaz and me this was natural just to be here in Sacramento for the first – and we felt great, great questions and great audience interaction.

Chaz: Yes it was wonderful. And for me this is my first public book reading ever. This is my first book and this is Fred’s fourth book. I remember when Fred wrote – I started to become your fan when you bought your second book and I used to go to Fred’s book readings and now I’m partnered with a friend writing these things and touring. So this is amazing. And we’re happy to have had this opportunity here.

Jeff: You’re right about the questions. The audience asked you guys really insightful questions and I think I’ll repeat some of it for the podcast audience too. For those who don’t know, can you give us a little bit about your backgrounds and introduce yourselves. We’l start with Chaz – we’ll start with the guy whose name is second on the book.

Chaz: So my name is Charles Lamar and I by day I work in higher education. I’m an administrator at a university and on the side I am more known for poetry – I write poetry. And this is my first novel. And so that’s a little bit about me. And I’m from Southern California was raised with my grandparents.

Frederick: And I’m Frederick Smith. This is my fourth novel. ‘In Case You Forgot’ co-written with Chaz. I’m originally from Detroit Michigan. By day I’m also a university administrator. And then when I turn all the students away and come home I get on my laptop and start writing.

Jeff: It’s nice that you both have these nice creative outlets from the day job.

Frederick: Absolutely. So important because if I were just to think about students and higher ed and campus life, I wouldn’t have a life.

Jeff: Tell us what ‘In Case You Forgot’ it is about.

Chaz: Well, ‘In Case You Forgot’ follows the lives of two characters – in a year span – as they navigate relationships, jobs, work and some of those relationships are friend dynamics and some of them are romantic intimate partnerships that are coming to an end, and also beginning. It’s set in West Hollywood which is a city in Los Angeles County and it’s also known as the queer space in Los Angeles County.

Frederick: As we begin the novel the character of Zaire James is encountering or wanting to separate from his partner and the main character of Kenny Kane is actually broken up with a text message on the way to a funeral.

Jeff: Which is just brutal. I have to say as a way to open a book, because both characters are breaking up at the beginning. So you started the book at an end for both.

Frederick: Yeah. So one is kind of more being proactive with ending a relationship on the other one is being acted upon in terms of having a relationship. And but yeah, they’re both about endings, but then renewing again or beginning again.

Jeff: What was the inspiration behind the collaboration and the book?

Frederick: All right. So I had a novel out in 2015 with Bold Strokes Books called ‘Play It Forward’, and I took a little hiatus from fiction writing because I went back for doctoral program and when I finished the program I had been out of fiction writing for about three years and the publisher emailed and said they were looking for some manuscripts – and Fred “hint, hint” – we’d like one from you. And would you like to get back on this fiction writing thing. We’d like another book from you. And so I said absolutely I would love to write a novel and then I thought about Chaz’s interest in spoken word poetry and having read many of my previous novels and so I said Chaz would you like to write a novel and Chaz said…

Chaz: Absolutely. And then we came up with a plan, and we executed the plan to get this book off the ground.

Jeff: What was it like for you to suddenly get this invitation to write your first book?

Chaz: It was amazing because, like I said, Fred has been one of the writers that I’ve read and enjoyed reading. And so when he asked, I took the first offer. I didn’t think he was joking or anything, so I jumped at the opportunity, and knowing that I didn’t have anything published, though I’ve written academically poetry, I was a little bit intimidated going into the process or writing with this expert – but also my friend. Those feeling subsided after we actually started to write together.

Frederick: Yeah. But I never had a doubt that Chaz wouldn’t be up to the task of writing a novel because I knew and know that Chaz is an avid reader. I have been to many of Chaz’s events, performing, doing poetry, spoken word. And so I knew that Chaz had the discipline and the wherewithal to stick to it. With that deadline in place from the publisher and Virgo me, we started – and we just worked and worked and worked and worked after hours, after our day jobs.

Jeff: You mentioned during this event tonight that Kenny actually comes from one of your other books.

Frederick: Yeah. So my second novel is called ‘Right Side of the Wrong Bed’, and Kenny was a central character in that novel. I hadn’t thought about that character for a long time. And as we were starting to work on ‘In Case You Forgot’, I was actually having a tough time thinking about where do I begin with the character I wanted to create or write. And then I thought, I have this character lingering from like 10 12 years ago who I kind of like to know what he is up to 10-12 years later. Let me reread ‘Right Side of the Wrong Bed’, let me think about what was going on in Kenny’s life then, and how do we update it for the novel that we were working on that just recently came out. And so yeah. Kenny is an old friend of mine.

Jeff: Was it fun to revisit?

Frederick: You know, it really was, both in terms of looking at writing style – what was relevant to Kenny back in 2008 – 2009 when that novel came out. And then it was kind of like picking up with an old friend after many years of not seeing them. Maybe you see them on social media every now and then, but getting back with Kenny again was really rewarding and really nice and especially given that in ‘In Case You Forgot’, one of the pivotal moments is the loss of Kenny’s mother, and in ‘Right Side of the Wrong Bed’ Kenny’s mother was so pivotal and so important and so funny. Sometimes people would joke and say she’s like the mother in that TV show – Jennifer Lewis from ‘Black-ish’ – the one they call the mother of black Hollywood. Everyone said that mom is like Jennifer Lewis. And so to be able to write this character then navigating life without that mom, was a really important and pivotal moment in terms of picking up with Kenny’s life.

Jeff: And where did Zaire come from?

Chaz: Zaire. Well the name Zaire comes from the fact that I love Z’s. I have two Z’s in my name.

And also, in my personal life, had gone through some transitions. I had just moved back to L.A. specifically living in West Hollywood and when a friend asked if I wanted to write a book about transitions, about endings and beginnings, I used my personal life to create the character of Zaire because I was also going through endings and new beginnings.

Jeff: How much of you two are in your characters because I see, just in your bios some connections that there’s, working in higher ed and, you know, living in West Hollywood. How much of you is in these two characters?

Chaz: What we like to share with folks is that fiction writing is not real, but it’s so full of truth. And so we took the aspects of our lives that we wanted to talk about through a truthful way in a fictional way, and put them into the characters that we took lead on. And so one major element from my personal life that I was going through, that Zaire shares, is that Zaire is going through a divorce, and I also went through a divorce. And so that was one transition that I was intentional about putting into the life of Zaire.

Frederick: And on one transition I was going through at the time of starting the novel, the character of Kenny lost a mother, I also lost a parent, I lost my mother. And so that was something that I felt made the writing really rich because I was also experiencing many of the emotions that Kenny felt, specifically in terms of loss and losing a parent figure. And so I feel like that led to some emotional realism as it related to some of the other fictional situations that Kenny went through in the novel.

Jeff: What do you want people to take away from this book?

Frederick: Wow. One thing that I would like people to get out of a novel is that there is hope for tomorrow, that no matter the challenges or struggles that life continues and that for me personally I’m thinking about the idea of seeking help when one needs it. And for both of these characters not only are they dealing with specific situations and issues in the queer community and in their personal lives, but there are some issues that connect with mental health, especially for the character of Kenny. I would like for people to get out that there’s nothing wrong with asking for help, seeking help, help that’s maybe not necessarily within your personal circle, but someone who’s, you know, separated a little bit. That’s important to me.

Chaz: All the things that you said I’ll echo. One final thing I guess I would add is that sometimes when one navigates so many things in your life it can feel really difficult to continue. And so I hope folks read the book and see themselves or see a friend in the book, and to continue with trying somehow.

Jeff: You had mentioned in the Q&A that this was very much like an improv. You didn’t come into this book with an outline and you didn’t come into it even knowing where your endpoint was. Yet you deal with so many big topics like the mental health, like being a person of color in West Hollywood, losing parents – all of this material – and you stretched it through the narrative so well. Were there were a lot of edits after the first draft or did this come out as fully formed as it did?

Frederick: Yeah. The magic happened on the first try. No, no, no. So when I write, especially fiction, I don’t outline. I kind of go where the characters go. They take on a life of their own. But in terms of the question, kind of tying up loose ends happened after the first draft was completed.

And once we started looking for either holes in plot, or loose ends that need to be tied up, or situations that maybe were mentioned at some point in the novel, but we didn’t either bring to closure or didn’t thematically connect throughout the novel. So a lot of that kind of magic happened once the first draft was done. And then we did that cold hard read of – like many writers – This is crap. This is awful. I want to throw it across the room like a vase or something. Once you finish the first draft, then we were like, you know what we need to tie up loose ends and put some plot points together and make sure that A to B to C to Z match and everything.

Chaz: We didn’t have like an outline. We did know that we wanted to talk about specific topics through the lens of the characters. And so we said, what do these characters look like at work. So we had that kind of structure and we allowed the story to just blossom from that kind of outline.

Jeff: Having now worked together and gone through this book – I’m gonna put you both on the spot – what is a favorite scene that the other wrote?

Chaz: That’s such a good question.

Frederick: Favorite scene that the other wrote? Well, I mean I really enjoyed all of Chaz’s scenes. I think the one – I don’t even know who wrote Palm Springs – who initiated it, but one of us wrote a version of Palm Springs, then the other took and reworked it with lots more magic. I think that was probably the most fun of the collaboration, was how Palm Springs turned out, because we did not know it was gonna go where it went.

Chaz: Another one from Kenny that left me with all the emotions was the chapter when Kenny is having an argument with his best friend. And I remember reading it, because we started off writing the book together, we would meet up, and then towards the middle of the book we would just say tonight talk about this and then we can write on the cloud separately. So when I read Kenny’s interaction with his best friend, I called Fred and I said this is too much. I can’t do it.

Frederick: I think you were in tears.

Chaz: Yes it was emotional for me.

Frederick: Then I got in tears I was like Oh my God. That’s kind of what it would be like if best friends…

Jeff: It was brutal.

Frederick: But that’s what happens when people know each other’s vulnerability and then they decide to hurt you. You’re going to tap into that vulnerability even though they really don’t mean it.

That was one of those spontaneous chapters that we didn’t know what was going to go, much like the novel, but I knew there were characteristics of Zaire that made Zaire maybe not so good for Kenny and the wrong aspects of Kenny that were maybe not so good for Zaire. And we were like that’s going to play out at some point. And so a Palm Springs scene was the place for that to happen.

Jeff: I said as I closed out my review that I want sequels. I want a romance book for both Kenny and Zaire because I want to find out they’re happy and they’re in a good place. I think they’re both in a good place at the end of this book but I want their happy with the right people. Do we get that, maybe at some point?

Chaz: We will say that we have started writing together again.

Frederick: Having seen Kenny’s trajectory from ‘Right Side of the Wrong Bed’ to ‘In Case You Forgot’, I am ready for Kenny to be secure, to grow up, make some more adult choices around romance and not just fall for the okey doke, but to really find someone who really accepts and complements all of Kenny’s magic. And so I am looking forward to writing that. I just hope that when we do write it that it’s interesting for readers and that people find their happy with Kenny’s happiness – and I want Zaire to be happy too.

Chaz: I wouldn’t say, like you said, I don’t think they’re not happy but I think happy can look different in different ways. So we’re going to explore what happy is.

Jeff: So we talked about this is not your first book. What got you in to writing fiction?

Frederick: Okay so I’m not originally from Los Angeles but when I moved there I went with the intention of getting into TV writing. I grew up watching soap operas. “Young and the Restless,” “General Hospital,” “One Life to Live,” “Guiding Light,” with my grandma, uncles, aunts and everything so I always wanted to be a soap opera writer but really had no outline of how to do it. And so with TV writing I figured that wasn’t gonna happen. I took some creative writing classes at an extension program at a university across town and there I got connected with other people who were interested in fiction writing and after the class was over my professor, her name was Carrie Madden, she said join my writers group. And in her writer’s group there was Denise Hamilton and someone who wrote “White Oleander.” I’m sitting in a room with all these people, who wrote all these books, and they want little ‘ole me, gay black me in their group? But what happened from there was Denise Hamilton, who writes these wonderful mystery novels in L.A., was at a party in New York and was just having small talk with someone about – “Yeah there’s this black gay person in my writer’s group and he writes these wonderful chapters about black gay life in Los Angeles” and an editor who was at my previous publisher overheard her and said give me Fred’s contact information and that’s how it started. And then from there that’s when a relationship with fiction writing started. Luckily I had a pretty close to full manuscript because this writer’s group, and all the magic happened from there in terms of – book agent, publisher.

Jeff: You’ve been Lambda Literary award nominated along the way too.

Frederick: Yeah. That was a total surprise. ‘Right Side of the Wrong Bed’ which Kenny started in, was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award and then became a finalist. I thought I was gonna win, but I didn’t win, but that’s OK. No Erica Kane moment there. I want that Emmy. No. But we shall see what happens. But yeah it was it was such an honor. The awards that year were in Los Angeles and I went with my friend Fiona Z who was also nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. And so we have fun together. And you know the fun part is just being in an audience with everyone and celebrating all this queer fiction that’s happening in the room and just meeting all these wonderful authors and everyone affiliated with writing and the Lambda Literary organization is great.

Jeff: Now Chaz for you, you’ve been writing poetry. What brought you to that creative outlet?

Chaz: So my mother, I think her second time in rehab, gave me a journal. I was a teenager at that time and that journal became my way into tapping into my emotion – sharing my emotion on paper. And so that helped me into creating poems. And then later down the line I found out that my mother also was a poet.

But then I went to college, undergrad, I started to share with people the things that I would write in my personal journal that were poems. And I remember I joined a few competitions and won. And when I started to win I realized, OK maybe people like the things that I write, the things that I share. And that helped me continue to write poetry and also to share my experiences.

My understanding of the world, my understanding of myself in society, and yes that started my journey with writing and then Fred asked me to join in a novel.

Jeff: How did it feel to transition from poetry to longer form fiction and, as I think you put it in session this evening, writing entire sentences?

Chaz: That was one thing that I really worried about going into this process because of poetry I can share a story, a whole story, in five lines – but then I was writing a novel. You have to share that story in a few hundred pages and you have to write in complete sentences and so that was in the back of my mind. I don’t know why it was in the back of my mind because I’ve written academic papers before but something about fiction writing scared me a little bit. And I think it’s because I was writing with a friend who is an amazing writer who I enjoyed reading. Yeah, I did think about – OK Chaz, you can’t just use a metaphor here. You have to explain this metaphor. You can’t just use a simile. You have to explain it and stretch it. But I think Zaire’s chapters are kind of poetic.

Jeff: I certainly thought that when you were reading tonight that there was a certain kind of cadence to it. And if people want to check it out in the shownotes for this episode, we’ll link up to the live video that we shot of the reading tonight. In case you missed it before. What’s coming up next for both of you, either collaborating or separately?

Frederick: Chaz has started on the continuation of ‘In Case You Forgot’. I will get on that cloud and start contributing to the novel to see what what corners Chaz has written. Zaire, Kenny, and Sue, and pick up from there. But yeah, we’re really excited about working together again on a continuation, not only because we want to do it, but also from people who’ve read the novel. They enjoy it and they enjoyed the ending and they’re like – we want more. And so I think we need to give the readers what they want. So we’re going to give them more. Kenny and Zaire.

Chaz: Yes. So that’s one collaboration. I’m also doing a few more collaborations with writing and I’m really excited for to continue the story of Zaire and Kenny.

Another story that I am breathing life into follows the life of three millennials living in L.A. – who are navigating L.A. – through the lens of a loss, particular different kinds of loss. Then another collaboration I’m working on is a poetry book with a dear friend of mine. We write poetry to each other every day without knowing what we will read or what we’re going through. And we don’t discuss it, but we have a cloud and we just write for you to each other. I want to make that into a theme.

Jeff: That is a fascinating concept in general. Just to have that. Daily trading of creative energy back and forth.

Chaz: Yes. I’m always writing now. And with this now, it inspires me to continue to write and to share because, like journaling is something intimate to me and I start to deal with processing my emotions with my mother. And now I’m starting to share the things  that I write.

Jeff: How does it feel to share because that could be so incredibly intimidating but also very freeing at the same time I would imagine.

Chaz: Yes. Is it scary for me because it pushes me to be more vulnerable and being vulnerable is so scary for me. But not a lot of people know that, but sharing is very scary. But when I meet people who enjoy the things that I share, that’s when it comes back. The gift of sharing comes back.

Frederick: And for me I’m not really shy about sharing my work. I’ve been doing creative writing stuff since third grade. A contest in elementary school. I did newspaper in high school and college, and so I’ve always felt kind of confident, and received a lot of compliments and great feedback from teachers, from readers, about the work that I’ve done. So yeah, I am fine with sharing. But what does get me hurt – they tell us not to read reviews, they tell us not to read what’s on Amazon… you know, all the other sites where people read books. But I get that phone out and sometimes I glance through and I read online. What do you mean you thought this, or you didn’t think it was a 5 or something? And then I have to tell myself, people are entitled to their thoughts and opinions. And you write because you want to create for the greater good of getting work out and not necessarily for a specific number or letter grade and things like that. But I do like all A’s and I do like 5’s.

Chaz: So if you read the book, give us a review.

Jeff: What’s the best way for people to keep up with you guys online.

Frederick: OK. For me I’m on Twitter and Instagram pretty actively under FSmith827. I’m also on Facebook too as Frederick Smith author.

Chaz: I’m on Facebook as ChazLamar. And you can go to my website

Jeff: Fantastic. Well, we wish you the best of luck as ‘In Case You Forgot’ continues its journey out into the world. Thank you guys so much for hanging out with us.

Frederick: Thank you for having us today.

Podcast & Book Reviews

Here’s the text of this week’s podcast and book reviews:

The Two Princes. Reviewed by Will.
“The Two Princes” podcast is an absolute, utter delight. It would be ideal to listen to on a family road trip. So if you’ve got a family car trip planned you might want to bring along “The Two Princes” because I think it is amazing.

The story revolves around Prince Rupert. He is far too curious about the dark force that is overtaking his kingdom. His mother decides to throw a bride finding ball to distract him. But in the middle of the ball, the force attacks the castle and Rupert makes his escape. Incidentally, the prince is played by Noah Galvin and his mother is played by Christine Baranski.

So Rupert makes his way to the hollow at the center of the forbidden forest and he vanquishes his very first foe, a really big bug. But, he’s immediately captured and seduced by this sentient plant. He’s saved by Prince Amir of the east and Amir fills him in on the curse and the prophecy that they’re both trying to deal with. Rupert decides to tell him that he’s Fritz, the daring thief, because being a daring thief is better than being a clueless Prince. They eventually end up taking shelter in a cave but are trapped by a cave in. They eventually come across a baby dragon, who they named Porridge, and Porridge helps them escape.

Meanwhile back at the Kingdom, Amir’s mom pays a visit to Rupert’s mom and she explains that the prophecy is coming to pass and that their sons are both in danger. They must raise a crew of debutantes and princess wannabes to help save the princes. Amir’s mom is so bad ass where Rupert’s is flighty and ridiculous. Amir’s mom is so down to business she has this enormous dirigible flying machine that they’re going to use to save the princes.

So, episode four, Rupert and Amir encounter a band of cutthroat highwaymen and their leader is a frustrated actor. This gets my vote for the funniest episode in the series. The wordplay and the ridiculousness is just beautiful. Rupert uses his wits and talks their way out of danger. Eventually, our two heroes end up getting stuck in a muddy bog but clean themselves up at a picturesque waterfall where Rupert decides to actually come clean and say that he is the prince of the West. This does not go over well with Amir because the prophecy states that the two princes must do battle in the center of the forest.

A giant spider reminds them of this and, though they really like one another, the prophecy dictates that they must do battle. There can be only one.

Rupert and Amir make their way to the hollow where they’re joined by their moms and they discover that the two kings have been there at the center of the forest the entire time. They’re going to force their sons to do battle and decide the fate of the two kingdoms. But Rupert and Amir are smart and they find a way to break the curse without killing one another. They eventually join the two kingdoms and find their happily ever after all.

This was remarkable and I’m kicking myself for waiting so long to listen to this. It is an absolute delight. The entire voice cast is remarkable. The script is amazing. This is a narrative podcast so instead of like an audiobook where it’s just a single narrator telling the story it’s an entire cast. They’ve got music and sound effects. It’s really creating an environment that sweeps you away to another world.

This is essentially the movie I wish Disney would make. It’s utterly wonderful and I highly recommend “The Two Princes.”

Gay Future Podcast. Reviewed by Jeff.
Who would’ve thought a dystopian future could be caused because Ruben Studdard beat out Clay Aiken on American Idol in 2003? And who would’ve thought it possible that it would be the subject of a young adult novel written by a young Mike Pence?

That’s the premise behind the Gay Future Podcast, a hilarious audio fiction podcast that debuted earlier this year. It’s first season of six episodes plus five bonuses is one of the funniest things I’ve listened to in a long time.

The Gay Future story is said to be from a never before published YA novel by Pence set in the year 2062. A totalitarian government, lead by President Clay, rules over what’s left of North America to spread the gay agenda–there is a gay academy, a lesbian academy, even a place where babies can be picked up by their gay parents. Yet it’s also a dark time and humanity’s only hope for a rebellion rests on the shoulders of a teen boy with a dark secret: He’s straight.

Yup, young Mikey is the lost son and he’s wanted by the rebellion to start a rise up and set the world right. Of course, President Clay also wants him because the little glowie rock in a cave (yes, Clay’s advised by an alien rock who he’s made his manager) has him convinced that if he can harness Mikey’s “Straight Voice” he’ll be number one forever.

The less than four hour production, not counting the bonus episodes, plays out as a wonderfully subversive YA novel. You’ve got the dystopian future with some great Hunger Games-style moments, there’s a dash of Harry Potter and some Star Wars along with some great pop culture artifacts along the way too.

Mikey’s quest to get to the Lost City of Straights to kickstart the rebellion is fraught with peril and lunacy. Mikey and his band of “misfit” friends–including a rebel leader who is a genetic mutant, a boy who has no senses other than sight and someone who is out to doublecross them–do not have an easy journey ahead of them. Mikey’s Luke Skywalker-esque quest (including an excellent training montage that you have to hear to believe) offered up depths of character that I didn’t expect from a story that is so glib. The more that was revealed about Mikey, the more unexpected feels I had.

The primary characters–Mikey, Deb, Tristan and Chad–are everything you could want in a motley group of teens. Each has baggage of some kind, each believes they’re working for the greater good and each one has a love interest within the group. I love how all the YA tropes are blended up here, including everyone’s desire to have friends, fit in, be popular, find first love, etc. It’s all here.

What I didn’t expect and fell so hard for was how the story concluded. As with any YA story of this nature, there’s an epic good vs evil battle that brings everyone together. The writing is so sharp in this podcast with great social commentary right alongside all the pop culture and YA references.

The acting and sound design here is top notch and I loved all of it. Don’t miss the bonus episodes too because they feed in perfectly to the universe of “Gay Future.” In particular, I loved the Behind the Music take off on “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Dykes.” It was so perfect and you may never listen to Fleetwood Mac or Stevie Nicks the same way again. The behind the scenes bonus episode was also a favorite as I geeked out on sound designer Ben discussing how the theme song was made and the creation of Mikey’s “straight voice.”

I can’t wait to see what the “Gay Future” team cooks up for season 2.

A Pocketful of Stardust by J.P. Barnaby and Rowan Speedwell. Reviewed by Jeff
When JP Barnaby was on the show back in episode 166 we talked about this project that she was working on with Rowan Speedwell. I was intrigued by the concept then and I’m so glad I’ve read the finished book because A Pocketful of Stardust was a magical book for me.

Noah Hitchens has come home to Aster, Georgia because his father suddenly passed away. He and his father are close, but Noah didn’t know how sick his father was. Now he’s faced with handling his father’s estate, which includes the Stardust bookstore where he’d often helped out as a child. He arrives to a mess–there’s debt on the house and the bookstore, paperwork isn’t organized, there are signs his dad might’ve been trying to expand too because a few thousand dollars worth of coffee making equipment arrives. He’s got limited time to figure it out though because his New York City life awaits him and there’s a ticking clock on the debt.

Surprise turns await Noah though. As he organizes and inventories the book store he finds an attic he never knew existed and there he finds human remains. His father bought the store from the daughter of the man who died there–Henry, who is now a ghost. If that’s not enough, Noah also meets Kyle, who he not only develops feelings for but he soon unravels the complicated life that young man has had because he’s on the run from a cult.

Yes, there’s a lot going on in this book and I loved every bit of it. Noah had me hooked from the beginning as he returned to Aster, a town that he forgot that he loved so much. There were all the feels as he uncovered what his dad was doing and that he’d hidden it from Noah because he didn’t want us son to worry or to think that he had to come home.

Henry the ghost is an unexpected treat. I was leery about what his role in the story might be. But, he’s wonderful–at times playing historian of the town, businessman helping Noah understand the bookstore and some of the rare volumes his dad had and at others he’s a father figure. And don’t mess with the bookstore ghost either, but he can be a fierce protector. There are some moving moments with Henry that I won’t spoil here because you should discover and enjoy those as much as I did. The many layers of character that J.P. and Rowan gave Henry are incredibly wonderful.

The gentle love story between Noah and Kyle is the book’s centerpiece. They’re drawn to each other early. Noah is gentle with Kyle even before he knows Kyle’s full story because he sees how skittish the young man is. It was so sweet how they immediately knew how to comfort each other through their individual issues. This is one of the sweetest romances ever, even as it blooms under the thought that Noah will go back to New York and Kyle’s being stalked–because people from the cult do come for him.

And then there’s Jake, the dog. Never has there been such a loyal, loving dog in a book. Jake’s there for Noah as soon as he comes home. He’s there for Kyle too as Kyle becomes a larger part of Noah’s life. I often wanted to give Jake a hug and scritch for being awesome.

Let’s talk about the town too. I’d like to move to Aster. Except for a few jerks–who do get theirs in the end–the town is full of amazing, loving, helpful characters. They support Noah at every turn as he works to save the bookstore from being sold and demolished in favor of “progress.” It all works out in the end–it is a romance after all–and I love how J.P. and Rowan wrapped it all up.

I hope they are planning more Aster books. I’d be happy to revisit this town and its residents anytime they’d like to take me there.