November Book Reviews, Part I

My 60-book Autumn Reading Challenge is rolling along. As I hunker down at home, I’ve upped my total of reviewed books to 34.

November’s Part I book reviews includes my  4 and 5 star reads of fantasy, sci-fi, poetry, women’s lit, and two memoirs! I hope you enjoy the browse.

Click on the covers for Amazon global links.

*****

A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzie Lee

I picked up this book because I’d heard it’s wonderful (which it is). And as usual, I didn’t bother to browse the blurb, so I was surprised to find myself reading a love story. I’m not usually a fan of love stories, and yet I was enraptured by this beautiful and tender tale. Who knew? (Probably anyone who read the blurb, but that wasn’t me.)

Monty and Percy, and Monty’s sister Felicity, go on a “tour” of the Continent before Monty has to settle down and start a respectable life according to his father’s rigid standards. The tour ends up being a quest that involves highwaymen, pirates, sinking tombs, and magical hearts, but honestly, I didn’t care about the quest. Though peppered with vivid characters and clever dialog, the quest was just the backdrop to Monty’s and Percy’s unfolding love story. I wanted to hug them through most of the book, and Monty’s character arc is believable as well as emotionally riveting.

The writing is fabulous and full of droll humor. The first-person story is told from Monty’s pov. He’s a spoiled rich lord – witty and sarcastic and prone to exaggeration. His carefree life is falling apart, and his devil-may-care attitude is getting knocked out of him as he faces himself and his choices. His relationships with Percy and Felicity are perfectly expressed through exceptional dialog and the way the characters care for each other (despite their difficulties). Secondary characters are just as distinct and entertaining.

This is Book 1 in the Montague Siblings series, but can be read as a stand-alone novel. Highly recommended!

*****

The Emissary 3: Love Hurts by Marcia Meara

I really wondered how Meara was going to wrap up this series. At the end of book 2, Dodger receives permission from the Archangel Azrael to experience a loving relationship with a girl. But I just couldn’t imagine how it would work between a human and an immortal emissary of the angels. Well, silly me for being skeptical. The author pulls it off beautifully, though not at all how I expected. I was a teary mess.

This is a wonderful series with characters that I completely empathized with. They’re supremely human, emotional, and kind-hearted. Even scary old Azrael is enjoyable as he loosens up a little. Though there are problems to be overcome in the story, the main conflict centers on the challenge I posed above. The ending is brave, believable, and emotionally stunning.

The writing is tight, and the editing is flawless. The books in the Emissary series aren’t long, so they make for quick satisfying reads. I’d definitely recommend starting at the beginning of the series. A wonderful trilogy for readers who enjoy feel-good stories. 

*****

Lethal Impact: A Dragon Soul Press Anthology

This post-apocalyptic anthology includes 16 science-fiction tales by 15 authors. These stories border on novelettes, so there are plenty of pages for fabulous world building, rich characters, and interesting plots. What they have in common is the end of civilization as we know it and humans facing a dangerous world where survival requires a whole new set of skills. There are viruses, androids, steel forests, and vicious gangs. Add to that some cannibalism, zombies, and aliens. The stories are highly original and well-edited. My favorites were King’s Note, Eve’s Apple, Blood and Light, Assimilant 620-Singe, and A Little Less Conversation. Highly recommended for sci-fi readers and post-apocalyptic fans.

*****

Marriage Unarranged by Ritu Bhathal

This is a light, romantic jaunt from England to India and back again. When Aashi finds a used condom in her fiancé’s bathroom, the wedding is suddenly off. Her family is angry and embarrassed, but they support her decision. A trip to India, originally to purchase a wedding gown, becomes a vacation for Aashi and a chance to unwind and heal. Her two brothers and her best friend Karin go along.

The romantic story is fairly straightforward, and it unfolds at a leisurely pace. What held my attention was the story’s immersion in India’s rich culture and setting, specifically the bustling city of Delhi. The main characters are England born and raised, so the influences of their dual cultures were interesting to see played out, and the details of life in India were fascinating. Bhathal clearly incorporated a wealth of personal experience into the narrative.

The characters are all likeable, except for the cheating fiancé, though I felt a twinge of sympathy for him by the end. All in all, this story was about family, culture, self-esteem and independence, love and friendship. Recommended for readers of romance and women’s lit.

*****

The Wind Weeps by Anneli Purchase

The Wind Weeps starts off as a romance and gradually shifts to a tension-filled walk on the high-wire of domestic violence. Andrea is a naïve and insecure single woman who, despite warnings from her friends, rebounds after a very short relationship into the arms of a charming man with a dark side.

The story takes place in the Canadian Pacific Northwest, beautiful and rugged country where commercial fishermen make their livings. The author’s familiarity with the area and with the details of the industry lend an incredible amount of authenticity to the narrative. As Andrea’s life becomes geographically isolated, she falls into more and more danger. I was on the edge of my seat.

The plot moves along at a good clip once things get tense. The writing is polished with well-rounded, consistent, and interesting characters. I wanted to shake some sense into Andrea in the beginning, but was quickly caught up in her fearful situation and her determination to save herself. The book offers an honest look at domestic violence, including why women are sometimes slow to make a break. My only complaint would be the abrupt ending; however, the story continues with a second book: The Reckoning Tide. Recommended to readers who enjoy a mash up of romance and suspense and plan to read both books. 

*****

Words We Carry by D. G. Kaye

D. G. Kaye shares the true story of her growth from a child with poor self-esteem into a confident woman who changed her thinking, took responsibility for her relationships, and discovered happiness. Though she shares her personal experiences, many of her observations are common to other women, and there are lessons to be gleaned from her advice.

The book is divided into two sections: Appearance and Relationships. The focus of the appearance section is on boosting self-esteem by paying attention to physical appearance. It isn’t about being beautiful, but about feeling beautiful and investing energy into clothes, shoes, hair, and makeup that enhance a woman’s strengths and make her feel attractive. Chronic lazy dressers like me may not relate to Kaye’s love of shoes and big hair, but there’s a lot of humor in this section that kept me smiling.

Section Two, Relationships, was the most meaningful to me as it opened a discussion of the deeper issues that contribute to low self-esteem, as well as the vicious cycles that can lead to isolation, depression, and abuse. The author maintains that healthy self-esteem is essential to healthy relationships of all kinds. She provides strategies for evaluating relationships honestly, changing patterns, and taking control of choices.

Words We Carry is part memoir/part self-help. Recommended for women who are struggling with feelings of low self-esteem and want to make a positive change in their relationships and lives.

*****

Shorts: a take on poetry by Eric Daniel Clarke

As the title of Clarke’s anthology states, the poems in this vast collection are generally short in length and spare of words, drilling down to the essence of thought and experience. To me, the poetic style was one that frequently invited contemplation and interpretation. The poems range from a few lines to several stanzas, and in most cases, they explore the reality of relationships. My favorite poems were Life’s Lights, Promises, Called Your Name, and the heartbreaking poem Forgotten:

I don’t remember everything
dates and place escape me
moments spent with you
fade and forsake me too

Strange faces begin to haunt
with their smiles and tears
I still know I love you
ask of you one thing

When I don’t know you
all our years forgotten
I beg no regrets be free
let me forget to breathe

Recommended to poetry readers who enjoy a unique style and generous selection of poems. 

*****

My Gentle War by Joy Lennick

This memoir focuses primarily on the years 1939 through 1941 when the author was 9-11 years old, a child living in Wales with her younger brothers during WWII. The children were sent to Wales to escape the more dangerous areas around London.

This isn’t a harsh story. It’s a recounting of life from the perspective of a child and is, therefore, full of fun and imagination and resilience. There are “ear-wigging” glimpses into the adult world, news of the war, and letters from the author’s dad who was serving in France. The sad and confusing realities of war surely intrude on daily life, but the focus is on friends and relatives, memorable gatherings and events. There are new trousers, dance performances, and games of truth or dare!

Lennick’s writing is witty and conversational, and she includes a handful of poems commemorating particular memories. Perhaps my favorite part of the book was the brief jump ahead at the end to the conclusion of the war. The feeling of joy is palpable in the pages.

As Lennick concludes: “Oh the puzzling juxtaposition of every-day events, the ordinary, the extraordinary and the tragedies of life.” That sums up this book perfectly. Recommended for readers who enjoy memoirs of the war years.

*****

Happy Reading!

October Book Reviews, Part II

Happy Halloween! Bwa-ha-ha-ha. My 60-book Autumn Reading Challenge is stumbling along. I’ve read and reviewed 21 books so far.

October’s Part II book reviews includes my  4 and 5 star reads of fantasy, sci-fi, short stories, women’s lit, an exploration of spiritual landscapes, and a guide for new educators! I hope you enjoy the browse.

Click on the covers for Amazon global links.

*****

Heir of Doom by Jina S. Bazzar

It’s been a while since I read Heir of Ashes, the first Roxanne Fosch novel. This one reminded me how much I enjoyed this kick-ass female character, as well as Bazzar’s complex world-building. This book picks up where the last left off. Roxanne is training with the hunters, but her halfbreed status will always leave her an outsider. When a young girl goes missing, Roxanne’s clan singles her out for blame. It’s a set up, and she has two weeks to find the child or face execution.

The pace moves quickly, and the action is well done. Danger is Roxanne’s constant companion and it’s hard to know who she can trust among these powerful and ruthless preternatural beings. Across the board, the characters are compelling, demanding, and rather scary. I’d last about 2 minutes with this bunch. Roxanne is tough! But she has a soft side too that puts the reader solidly on her team.

The world-building around the story is complex. There are multiple dimensions, magic talents, preternatural beings, clans and hierarchies and histories. I recommend reading the series from the beginning in order to absorb the backstory as its shared and to get a grasp on the large number of characters and their roles. The book ends with a cliffhanger, so you’ll want to keep going onto Book 3. Recommended for readers of urban fantasy and paranormal thrillers. 

*****

The Vintage Egg by A. C. Flory

A. C. Flory writes some great sci-fi, and though I’ve read her novels, this was my first experience with her short stories. Her imagination and polished writing skills never disappoint, and these six stories are original and entertaining. My favorite tale was broken into two parts—The Vintage Egg and Egg Run—which bookend the other offerings. I also thoroughly enjoyed The Christmas Roast. I read this collection in under an hour and highly recommend it. A great peek at acflory’s writing talent.

*****

My Baby Wrote Me A Letter by Jacquie Biggars

Grace’s mother, Beth, disappeared when Grace was 5 years old. For most of their lives, Grace and her older brothers believed that their mother had abandoned them. Their father, Ray, had been stuck in Vietnam at the time, and he blames himself for the hardships his wife endured without him. All grown up and 8-1/2 months pregnant, Grace travels with her father to visit her brothers, and Ray brings a letter discovered in an old desk. The truth changes everything.

This short story is full of grief, anger, and self-blame. It also has plenty of humor along with lots of sibling banter. The deep camaraderie and caring between the siblings felt both authentic and poignant to me. A quick heartwarming tale with great characters and a message about the resilience of family and the power of love.

*****

A Home for Her Daughter by Jill Weatherholt

The reading of a will reunites two old friends who must work together in order to take advantage of a generous inheritance. Janie, the mother of a little girl named Riley, has a secret—she’s just left an abusive marriage. But she’s not the only one with a painful past. Drew’s wife and daughter died in a car accident, and he blames himself for falling asleep at the wheel.

The characters are endearing, and they become increasingly closer as they face the challenges of fulfilling the will’s requirements and accepting their past mistakes. This is the perfect book for romance readers who appreciate cute kids and a sweet tale of second chances.

*****

The Initiate by Sue Vincent and Stuart France

This is the first book in the Triad of Albion series which chronicles the explorations of Don and Wen through some of the old churches and ancient ruins of the UK, a journey “beyond the realms of accustomed normality.” It’s an erudite read, abounding with spiritual symbolism that weaves connections between Egyptian and Christian mythology, the ancient landscape and its lore, numerology, astrology, tarot, and other esoteric studies.

Essentially a true story, the characters’ discussions of their discoveries are accompanied by photographs. Images are also the basis for a series of reflective poems at the end of the book. I found the read dense with information, sometimes beyond my grasp, but with enough gentle humor and personality to keep me engaged. The authors’ knowledge of lore, history, and symbolism is highly impressive. Recommended to readers interested in the “deeper truths of existence… and opening wide the doors of perception.”

*****

They Call Me Mom by Pete Springer

I was impressed with this highly accessible, entertaining, and informative read. A long-time educator, Springer shares his practical experience and the wisdom gleaned from working with children within the educational system. My impression was that the book is geared toward new teachers as it offers ideas about setting up a classroom, dealing with colleagues, administrators, students, and parents.

As an early childhood mental health counselor, I was most interested in Springer’s thoughts about discipline. I was glad to discover a thoughtful, holistic approach to children and their challenges in light of the stressors in their lives. Springer highlights a number of strategies that would be helpful to parents as well as to educators.

Most of the chapters provide concrete and anecdotal examples of Springer’s approach in action. He touches on cultural diversity, grief, problem-solving, and other life experiences that are part of a child’s broader education. My favorite chapters were Memorable Students and Funny Moments at School. These two chapters are testaments to his success as an educator as well as to the joy and value of teaching in general.

*****

Tales from the Annex by Audrey Driscoll

I jumped into this collection of stories despite never having read H.P. Lovecraft or Driscoll’s novels based on the HPL character Herbert West. That may have been a mistake since the first seven stories are “by products” of Driscoll’s Herbert West novels. Without knowledge of the original stories, I had a difficult time following the narratives.

Don’t get me wrong. Driscoll is talented, and these are beautifully written tales. The prose is polished, and the characters have distinct voices and believable sentiments. I’d characterize the style as literary fiction with a turn-of-the-century tone. I suspect that Herbert West fans will appreciate the connections.

The final five stories are stand-alone speculative fiction tales, and I thoroughly enjoyed them. My favorites were The Colour of Magic and A Howling in the Woods, though I recommend them all. Each tale is unique, and they range from creepy to bone-chilling!

*****

Fireborn by Trent McDonald

Dr. Elliot Everett-Jones has a semi-scholarly knowledge of ancient Celtic myths, and when his archeologist brother unearths a giant cauldron in the English countryside, Elliot is intrigued. When naked blue zombies, berserkers, and goonies start popping up around the world and going on killing sprees, Elliot searches for the mythological keys to their destruction.

I prefer a more cohesive plot with less wandering and more foreshadowing, but there are intriguing elements to the story—specifically some exploration of Arthurian legends, including Excalibur and the Lady of the Lake. I also enjoyed the human relationships, particularly between Elliot, his ex-wife, and his brother. The relationships felt natural, and the dialog was well done. These were the scenes where I felt the most connected to the characters’ emotional life and reality.

Otherwise, the book requires a willing suspension of disbelief on multiple levels. Elliot becomes the Merlin of the story, and there’s a fair amount of magical dreaming, mind reading, and implausible fighting skills. The battle scenes are well written, though Elliot’s final solution seemed a bit out of the blue. Recommended for readers who enjoy slightly campy stories and are interested in Arthurian legends, evil kings, and battles with zombies.

*****

Happy Reading!

October Book Reviews, Part I

My 60-book Autumn Reading Challenge is progressing, even though I’m behind and probably won’t catch up. I’ve read 13 books so far – enough to warrant a mid-October review post!

This month, my offering of  4 and 5 star reviews includes a sentimental thriller, historical fiction, horror, short stories, poetry, and a children’s book. I hope you enjoy the browse.

Click on the covers for Amazon global links.

*****

A Boy Named Rabbit by Marcia Meara

I fell in love with a little boy named Rabbit. OMG. This book is so wonderful, I can’t recommend it enough. Rabbit is ten years old, and for his entire life, he’s lived in the deep forest of the Blue Ridge Mountains with his grandparents. They took him there when he was a baby to keep him safe from the “bad people.” When his grandparents die, he starts a solo journey to find a place he belongs.

Rabbit enters the lives of Sarah and Mac Cole and what follows is a story of love, loss, and discovery as Rabbit learns about a whole new world. He’s never seen electricity in action or ridden in a car or listened to music! He’s an amazing character—inquisitive, funny, heartbroken, and wise beyond his years. As Rabbit transforms, the characters around him transform as well.

There’s danger in this book, a bit of paranormal “sight,” and kindness galore. My investment in Rabbit was intense, and I couldn’t stop rooting for him. Though Rabbit is the star of this literary show, the other characters are well-rounded and emotionally authentic. The writing is exceptional with spot-on dialog and an excellent pace. I couldn’t put the book down and got all teary with happiness at the end.

Though this is Book 2 in the Wake-Robin Ridge series, I’m not sure it’s necessary to read Book 1 first, though it wouldn’t hurt. I enjoyed that book too. Interested in something thoroughly original, engaging, and tender? A Boy Named Rabbit will steal your heart.

*****

The Last Pilgrim by Noelle Granger

I just finished this amazing historical fiction, and despite its length (458 pages) I clung to every word. The story chronicles the true events of the Pilgrims’ journey to the New World in 1620, and then continues through 80+ years as the colony struggles for survival and contributes to the growth of a nation. The author deftly weaves two narrative threads from beginning to end: the historical events of the times, and the personal lives of those who lived them, as seen through the eyes of Mary Cushman.

One thread, about 50% of the narrative, focuses on the politics of the time—conflicts between the venture’s investors and the colony, friendships and wars with the Native Americans, and problems with governance, both civil and religious. This is primarily narrated through the eagerly prying ears of Mary Cushman whose family(s) are leaders in the Plymouth colony.

The other 50% of the narrative is Mary’s personal story of growth into a pioneer woman, wife, mother, and grandmother. Mary is 4 years old at the crossing and the book ends when she’s in her eighties. The story is told initially from the perspective of Isaac Allerton, her father, and then gradually shifts to Mary’s point of view alone.

One thing I found enthralling was how “true to the time period” she was in her thoughts and actions while at the same time demonstrating her innate intelligence and will. She’s a lively character, and the connection to her was instantaneous. All of the characters are 3-dimensional and beautifully written, and the themes of friendship, loyalty, faith, love, loss, and family are no different than today.

The author’s research was clearly extensive—of both the actual events and politics of the time but also of the daily lives of men, women, and children. Wonderful details brought the story to life, transporting me smack into the 1600s.This isn’t a glorified tale of colonization. The events are conveyed through the lens of those who made choices for the colony and their families. Some are disturbing to our modern sensibilities, but I thoroughly appreciated the authenticity.

Having grown up in New England, many of the places were familiar and I was captivated by the history. I highly recommend this novel to history buffs and readers of historical fiction.

I just finished this amazing historical fiction, and despite its length (458 pages) I clung to every word. The story chronicles the true events of the Pilgrims’ journey to the New World in 1620, and then continues through 80+ years as the colony struggles for survival and contributes to the growth of a nation. The author deftly weaves two narrative threads from beginning to end: the historical events of the times, and the personal lives of those who lived them, as seen through the eyes of Mary Cushman.

One thread, about 50% of the narrative, focuses on the politics of the time—conflicts between the venture’s investors and the colony, friendships and wars with the Native Americans, and problems with governance, both civil and religious. This is primarily narrated through the eagerly prying ears of Mary Cushman whose family(s) are leaders in the Plymouth colony.

The other 50% of the narrative is Mary’s personal story of growth into a pioneer woman, wife, mother, and grandmother. Mary is 4 years old at the crossing and the book ends when she’s in her eighties. The story is told initially from the perspective of Isaac Allerton, her father, and then gradually shifts to Mary’s point of view alone.

One thing I found enthralling was how “true to the time period” she was in her thoughts and actions while at the same time demonstrating her innate intelligence and will. She’s a lively character, and the connection to her was instantaneous. All of the characters are 3-dimensional and beautifully written, and the themes of friendship, loyalty, faith, love, loss, and family are no different than today.

The author’s research was clearly extensive—of both the actual events and politics of the time but also of the daily lives of men, women, and children. Wonderful details brought the story to life, transporting me smack into the 1600s.This isn’t a glorified tale of colonization. The events are conveyed through the lens of those who made choices for the colony and their families. Some are disturbing to our modern sensibilities, but I thoroughly appreciated the authenticity.

Having grown up in New England, many of the places were familiar and I was captivated by the history. I highly recommend this novel to history buffs and readers of historical fiction. 

Side Note: There was an interesting moment in the book when one of my notorious ancestors, Arthur Peach, was hanged by the colonists for murder. Arthur’s history has been well-researched by my family, and it was wild to read a few paragraphs about him in Noelle’s book.

*****

Murder They Wrote

by Judi Lynn, C.S. Boyack, Mae Clair, Kathleen Palm, Julia Donner, D.P. Reisig, Rachel Sherwood Roberts

Seven authors, seven genres, seven murders. One of the things that appealed to me about this book was the blend of genres and authors, which guaranteed lots of varied entertainment. The stories offered a wide range of settings and characters from a 19th century courtroom to a medieval castle, from a modern sleuth with the ability to dissolve into a fog to a regency couple who solve a murder at a balloon launch while engaging in witty repartee.

Story length ranged from short story to novella, and together made a full-length book. I was impressed with the quality across the board. No weak links in this group. Well-constructed plots, three-dimensional characters, and expertly edited. Highly recommended. 

*****

We All Die in the End by Elizabeth Merry

This collection of loosely-connected vignettes offers glimpses into the lives of nineteen different residents in a small, seaside Irish town. For the most part, the stories are grim, the characters ranging from slightly off kilter to severely struggling. There are tidbits of humor and kindness here and there, but those are few and far between.

The writing is polished, and the characters are deeply rendered and distinct. My overall impression was that the characters are trapped in their lives, contributing to a sense of despair, sadness, madness, and violence. Despite the bleakness of the situations, the read is mesmerizing. Each story is unique. Highly recommended to short story readers and readers of literary fiction.

*****

Brazos Wind by Jan Sikes

A wonderful western short story. Jack McClean finds Savannah Logan on the brink of death outside her burning farmhouse. In a nutshell, what follows demonstrates how kindness can not only save a life, but heal a soul. As Jack helps Savannah, he changes both of their futures.

There are no bad guys in this short story beyond chance and bad luck. Like life for many of us. The story is expertly crafted with well-rounded believable characters. It leaves off with a hint of more to come and I hope the author follows through. A lovely read.

*****

Slices of Soul by Harmony Kent

I picked up this book after learning that the author spent 13 years in a Zen Buddhist Temple. I was curious about how her experiences influenced her poetry. The poems are divided into seven sections beginning with Shaved Head, Short Hair, and Long Hair, representing the journey from the monastery back into modern life.

Many of the poems read like koans, statements used for meditation. The poems are simply written and it’s easy to appreciate how they reflect of the author’s journey of change and discovery. Several favorites are Rebirth, Diamonds, Waterfall, and The Alchemist. A lovely collection that I read in less than an hour.

*****

Molly Finds Her Purr by Pamela Wight

Molly is a stray who sees a pampered cat named Clara purring as she gets some loving from her owner. Molly wants a purr too, but has trouble finding it, since life on her own is pretty lonely. That all changes when she encounters Petey the squirrel and a couple of other friendly creatures who create a circle of friends.

This is a lovely story about friendship and belonging. As a rescuer of feral cats, I happen to know that inside every cat there’s a purr waiting to come out. How true for people too. The sweet message of friendship and kindness will resonate with children, young and old. Beautiful illustrations and perfect for preschoolers.

*****

Nightmareland by Dan Alatorre (Editor)

Robbie Cheadle, Ellen Best, Kaye Booth, Betty Valentine, Alana Turner, Christine Valentor, more…

I haven’t read a horror anthology before, and with Halloween right around the corner, I thought I give this one a try. With 23 stories from 14 authors, I was bound to find something I enjoyed. I wasn’t disappointed.

The anthology offers a variety of stories from witches and hauntings to madness and murder. Monsters come in all shapes and sizes, including human ones, and to me, those were the most frightening tales of all. “My Scared” was such a tale and my favorite in the collection. The variety of authors ensures a range of narrative voices and writing styles that I thoroughly enjoyed. A great read for anyone who enjoys suspense, thrills, spooky tales, and a few bone-chillers.

*****

Magical Whispers by Balroop Singh

I’ve read a few of Singh’s poetry collections, and this one is my favorite. Each poem is a gem, and though this isn’t a long book, it’s worth taking a few leisurely days or weeks to savor.

The 73 poems are divided into two sections: Magical Whispers and Whispers of Life. The poems in Magical Whispers have a strong focus on Nature—the mysteries, solace, and magical connections the author has to Mother Earth. A few of my favorite poems are Dawn Whispers, Magic of Senses, and A Moon Fairy.

Whispers of Life is broader in scope, touching on love, growth, longing, memories, and other facets of human life. Though personal to the author, the poems are relatable and insightful. My favorites in this section are My Words, Only Memories are Mine, and Muted by Time. Highly recommended.

*****

Happy Reading!

September Book Reviews

Another month of reviews

including some from my Autumn Reading Challenge
(which I’m already behind on – yeesh).

This month, my offering of  4 and 5 star reviews includes thrillers, humor, sci-fi, horror, short stories, and YA fantasy. I hope you enjoy the browse.

Click on the covers for Amazon global links.

*****

You Beneath Your Skin by Damyanti Biswas

This debut novel by Biswas travels at breakneck speed. Set in India, it deals with the atrocious and criminal practice of throwing acid in women’s faces. But that’s only one theme in this complex and engaging plot that kept me riveted from page one. I’m not surprised that this book is receiving so much acclaim.

A police investigation headed by Jitan Bhatt into the mutilations and murders of several women intersects with an acid attack on Anjali Morgan, his lover. Everything goes totally crazy, and I mean Totally Crazy, as characters get tangled up in a web of power, secrets, confessions, and extremely hard choices.

Though I sympathized with Anjali, Jitan was the character that captured my attention. He’s the one who’s pulled in every possible direction as his marriage and career teeters on the brink of destruction, his son forces impossible choices, and his sense of morality is challenged in the face of a system riddled with corruption.

The story is a thriller indeed, but it’s also about inner strength and survival, identity and love, truth and justice, and what one is willing to do for family. An excellent read that I found difficult to put down.

*****

The Stones (Astral Conspiracy #2) by D. L. Cross

Book two of the Astral Conspiracy series starts off at a thrilling pace that doesn’t let up right to the last page. At the same time, somehow, the narrative managed to catch me up on what happened in The Gate, so if it’s been awhile since reading book one, no worries.

In this book, the aliens have landed. Professor Landon Thorne is front and center again. But the story tracks a number of contingents with separate agendas – from a paramilitary “resistance” unit to a brutal agency called CORE to a fanatical priest who believes the aliens are the spawn of the Devil. There’s a lot going on.

Thorne’s focus is on following several ancient clues that might explain the aliens’ objectives and how to defeat them. Thorne’s knowledge is interesting, entangled with well-researched speculation into the akashic records, Atlantean firestones, and the Georgia Guidestones. He and his team are at risk as the factions attempt to protect, control, or kill them.

The aliens are still a mystery in this book. They come in several variations and can be incredibly violent. Cross doesn’t hold back on the human violence either, which raises the stakes for all the characters. The world-building is great and full of details that add authenticity.

It’s clear that the series is one long and complex story, and therefore should be read in order. This book doesn’t wrap up neatly but ends with a big cliffhanger. The good news is that the series will be complete at the end of September 2020 so readers can keep going without a hitch. A highly recommended series for sci-fi fans.

*****

In Search of McDoogal by Mae Clair

In this lighthearted novella (about a 90-minute read), Brady and his friend Declan go in search of a painting of an ugly cat named McDoogal. Brady accidently sold his artist-girlfriend’s creation when filling in for her at an art sale, and he’s got one day to hunt it down and buy it back.

A road trip ensues and finding the painting isn’t as simple as it seems. Several colorful characters come into play, and there’s plenty of witty dialog about the feline subject of the artwork. Brady’s deadline keeps the pace moving.

This is a purely feel-good read, fine for the whole family. Definitely check out the author’s Afterword about the real McDoogal – it’s a touching treat for anyone who’s ever loved a cat.

*****

Tales from the Thrift by Kim Laettner

Francine gets a job working at a thrift store, but this is no ordinary shop. The customers who come in usually find exactly what they’re looking for—sometimes a memory, sometimes healing, sometimes kindness, and perhaps even romance. It’s a magical place where I’d love to work!

The story is told from Francine’s third-person POV with some minor tangents into the POVs of other characters. The pace is steady and the book is an engaging read with well-rounded, genuine characters through and through. Francine is a strong female protagonist, and I liked that she was able to take care of herself without needing a man to manage or rescue her. The dialog is fabulous, though some speaker confusion interrupted the story’s flow. Otherwise, I was swept right in.

This is primarily a sweet romance, but about halfway through, a second plot enters the story as women in the area start showing up dead. There are a number of red herrings and until the reveal I wasn’t sure who the murderer was. I’d recommend this book to readers of romance who enjoy a dose of magic and murder to spice things up.

*****

Malice and Foresight: Short Stories of Malice and Murder

This collection of 4 short stories kept me entertained for an hour on a rainy afternoon. Each story reads like a vignette, with vivid characters and a quick pace. The central theme is murder with a bit of malevolence and planning, and the stories are quite different from each other. A favorite was hard to choose, but I probably enjoyed “The Marshall Sisters” most of all. Recommended for short story readers who enjoy a good murder and quality writing.

*****

Diaballein by Cage Dunn

This is an unusual read. The writing style is distinct with short sentences and fragments that almost give it a staccato quality. The narrative is highly “present” with minimal backstory or internal reflection. I felt as though I experienced the story the very instant it happened, each sight, action, and thought recorded with precise detail. My only challenge was that I noticed the fascinating writing more than the tale.

That said, this is an engaging story. It alternates between two characters, Kano and Eyza, both struggling with what is real and what is madness. I liked the uncertainty while it lasted, and it was during this time of disorientation that I most connected with the characters. I felt their panic, as well as the power of their choices and the risks they took. The staccato quality of the writing added to the disjointed feel of the characters’ thoughts, which I thought was effective.

The story takes place in the Australian bush and an amazing sense of place grounds the narrative. Both characters are researchers, one a metallurgist, the other a naturalist. Their research brings them to the outback where a dark force is at play. The quick pace becomes quicker for the second half of the read when the couple battles the Diaballein. The battle feels both epic and surreal as science overlaps with ancient lore and Earth magic. I recommend this novella to readers looking for something different. It’s worth exploring.

*****

Maya and the Book of Everything by Laurie Graves

I love magical books, and the Book of Everything that a desperate woman slips into Maya’s pocket is magical indeed. And apparently, it’s no accident that Maya and the book find each other. The book has many talents, including the ability to transport her to other times and planets.

With her friend from the past, Andy, Maya travels to a medieval world, Ilyria where she encounters two dukes, rival brothers vying for control of the dukedom. And the Book of Everything in Maya’s pocket isn’t the only magical book in play. If both books come into the possession of those who wish to exert control over knowledge, all will be lost.

The world-building is engaging including the wondrous Great Library and the Toad Queen who “peels” Maya’s eyes. Maya was my favorite character, a brave 15-year-old with a strong sense of duty. She always chooses well, which is something that can’t be said of everyone in these pages.

The story starts off at a brisk pace, though there’s a significant portion of the second half that proceeds without Maya and the pace slows. There are bad guys and poor choices but no gory violence and little death. For that reason, I think this book is well-suited for young teens on up to adults who enjoy YA tales. I’m curious to see where the Book of Everything takes Maya next!

*****

I Wouldn’t Be Surprised: A Short Story by D. L. Finn

This thriller of a short story starts with an evening of laughter between Janice and her husband, Dale. Her supposed lack of surprise at some hypothetical scenarios sets the couple up for trouble when a ghost tests their bravado. The scary-factor ramps up quickly without much backstory or foreshadowing. Go with the flow, and enjoy the build-up of creepy tension; the ghost will provide backstory near the end.

I’ve read other books by DL Flinn and think this would make a great prequel to her world of ghosts, red-eyed evildwels, and angels. Janice and Dale’s story continues beyond this short read, and I liked learning how it all began. A quick tale for readers of paranormal thrillers and for fans of Finn’s evildwel-based fiction..

*****

Happy Reading!

August Book Reviews

Only four this month! I’ve been slacking.

Actually, I’ve been super busy preparing for my launch and then dropping into bed at night, too tired to read.

This month, my offering of  4 and 5 star reviews includes fantasy, sci-fi, and a children’s book that my 7-year-old grandson reviewed. I hope you enjoy the browse.

Click on the covers for Amazon global links.

*****

Coyote Summer by Laura Koerber

I really, really enjoyed this book. The story starts with a “boys will be boys” rape of a very drunk teenager at a party. The main character, Ben, doesn’t participate, but he also doesn’t take strong action. This story is about his loss of innocence as he grapples with his guilt and the disheartening cultural biases, including within his own family, that force the victim into silence and give the perpetrators a break.

The story, the attitudes, and the choices of all the characters felt authentic to me. I related deeply to Ben as his rosy, privileged world dimmed, and he was forced to grow up and consider his values and actions, to decide what kind of person he wanted to be. Though his situation was unique, the loss of innocence and the rite of passage into adulthood felt universal. He’s a great character that I liked a lot.

There is a paranormal thread to the story that complements the main one. I wasn’t sure the paranormal aspects were necessary, but they didn’t detract, and I appreciated Ben’s relationship with the young woman Puppy and how healing and defining that was for him. All of the characters were beautifully written. The pace is perfect, and the story moves along without a hitch. The ending felt important. Highly recommended.

*****

Serang by C. S. Boyack

This is my first read from Boyack that wasn’t a madcap paranormal adventure, and I enjoyed the seriousness of this story. It’s described as an origin story about Serang who has a role in the Lanternfish books (which I haven’t read yet). I think that description is exactly right.

The story begins when Serang is 6 years old and progresses through her teens. As a child, she’s abandoned at a temple by her mother. The monastery becomes her home, its residents her family, until the Emperor has the monks killed. On the run, Serang finds a new master who continues her training as the two of them travel across the harsh land.

The characters are wonderfully 3-dimensional, and I enjoyed the way their relationship developed. The worldbuilding is exquisite. After I finished reading, I learned that the tale is a fantasy, and I laughed because I had assumed that the setting was a real place.

The plot consists of the journey as well as Serang’s training and mastery. As an origin story there’s no giant climatic conclusion, but there is a satisfying ending to the intriguing tale. The pace is steady overall with moments of exciting action. I recommend this book as a companion read/prequel to the Lanternfish books, which I’ll be reading soon.

*****

Aftermath (Book 2 of the Shard Chronicles) by Ono Northey

Aftermath is the second book in the Shard Chronicles series. Any book that’s over 600 pages makes me a little squirrelly, but I enjoyed the first book in the series and dove in.

The main strength of both books is the wonderful characterization. Steve is an awesome protagonist and tough as nails. In this book, we get to know the bad guys who were rather nebulous in the first installment. These mages are so powerful that they almost don’t know how to function in the real world and the situations can get funny as well as outrageously weird. They also kill and destroy indiscriminately without the slighted idea that this might be wrong.

The writing is exceptional. Northey has a wonderful grasp of language, description, action, and dialog. It’s hard not to be impressed. The world-building is also outstanding. It’s broad and deep, and comes off as real science and psychology… and after reading, I almost believe that magic exists. Overall, I enjoy the long discussions of the power of perception and mind over matter, though some readers may find this too labored.

And that gets me to the challenge with this book. I think it suffers from a second book slump. As wonderfully as its written, there’s a long long stretch (about half of the book) where the plot stalls. Several characters from book 1 disappear while Steve trains his mind and the mages prepare for conflict within their ranks. The action is great when it happens, but much of this book seems like preparation for the third book. That’s a lot of preparation.

This is a hard book to rate. I love the writing and characters and didn’t skim any of the 600+ pages. But the lack of movement in the plot and long delivery were a disappointment. I’m going in the middle with four stars and a warning to readers that the “action” in this book is conceptual more than physical.

*****

Brody Cody and the Stepmother from Outer Space by Toni Pike

I purchased this book for my grandson, and this is what he said about it:

I liked this book. It’s about this boy, Brody Cody, whose mom died. He and his dad live together and Brody doesn’t have very many rules. Then his dad goes away and comes back with a new mom. Brody doesn’t like her because she has rules, like eat vegetables and do chores. He thinks she’s an alien. The best part is when he thinks he sees the spaceship. I liked Brody, and he found out having a mom was pretty good. I read the whole book. There aren’t pictures, but it was good.

*****

Happy Reading!

July Book Reviews

I’ve been writing like a madwoman, so fewer book reviews this month – but some good ones!

My offering of  4 and 5 star reviews includes romance, historical fiction, mystery, family drama, superheroes, and prehistoric fiction. I hope you enjoy browsing.

Click on the covers for Amazon global links.

*****

The Sister Pact by Jacquie Biggar

I read this book in a day and thoroughly enjoyed the distraction. It’s a romance, but so much more than that. The story has a maturity to it that I appreciated, genuine characters struggling with all kinds of relationships, old hurts, forgiveness, and love.

Holly Tremaine is ill and, forced to leave her job, returns to the dysfunctional home of her childhood. You couldn’t cut the tension with a chainsaw, and she immediately wonders what the heck she just did. An old beau enters the scene, but so do old wounds, misunderstandings, and hurtful assumptions between the family members, particularly between Holly and her sister Susan.

One thing that I enjoyed about the book was how genuine the family and characters felt, flawed but trying hard to make their lives work. The focus is on Holly who shares the story’s pov, primarily with her sister. The writing is polished and tight, which provides a speedy pace while allowing for some beautiful descriptions. The plot works well and wraps up nicely. Highly recommended for readers who enjoy romances, relationship stories, and a fast-paced entertaining jaunt through family life. A perfect beach read.

*****

Cape Menace by Amy M. Reade

This mystery begins in 1711 in Cape May, New Jersey, a small settlement in the new world. Sarah Hanover’s mother disappears, and despite their grief, she and her father, the local apothecary continue on. But the question of what happened to Ruth Hanover never goes away and Sarah is determined to discover what happened.

I like historical fiction and the richness that a particular time period adds to a story. In this case, the beliefs about healing are fascinating – a reliance on blood-letting, drawing out a burn with hot metal, and shaving a head to cure a fever, to name a few.

The entire tale is tole in Sarah’s first-person pov. She’s a great character, kind and obedient to her father, but endowed with a well of inner strength, resilience, and independence. She’s also a bit of a snoop, which is highly improper, and about which she feels guilty. Secondary characters are also wonderfully developed, particularly Sarah’s father.

The mystery aspect of the story is well done with a weave of red herrings and parallel running plots. Despite all my guessing, I wasn’t able to guess the ending until it came. The book isn’t particularly bloody or scary though there is plenty of tension at certain points. The writing is polished and beautifully edited. Highly recommended for readers of historical fiction and cozy mysteries. Appropriate for YA and adult audiences.

*****

A Ghost in the Kitchen: Three Ingredients 2 by Teagan Geneviene

I’ve read a number of Geneviene books, and what I love about them is how light-hearted and whimsical they are, full of great characters, fantastical creatures, and quirky adventure. This one is no different. Pip and her grandmother have the ability to see ghosts and several show up in Granny’s kitchen, including a rather colorful Maestro who enjoys cooking. The story has mermen, cursed cowboy ghosts, and Daisy, Pip’s friend who died under mysterious circumstances. Pip and her friend Andy are determined to discover the truth.

This is a lively story with great characters and a lickety-split pace. Pip is a 1920’s flapper with an engaging personality, and the story is full of fun lingo. I haven’t read the first book in the series and though there are references to what occurred, this book worked fine as a stand-alone. A lighthearted, magical read

*****

Watching Glass Shatter by James J. Cudney

Families aren’t easy, filled with flawed humans who bounce off each other in myriad directions, some sweet, some chaotic. When a family is full of secrets, things can get pretty tangled. Ben Glass was the glue that held his family together, and when he’s killed in a traffic accident, his widow Olivia and their five grown sons start the process of shattering.

Olivia struggles for control, and one by one begins interfering in her sons’ lives. She is the keeper of one of Ben’s secrets, but the young men have secrets of their own, and like an overpowering mother, she tries to “fix” everyone and “fix” their relationships. There were definitely points in the book where I wanted to shake her. That said, there aren’t any villains in this story, and I appreciated that real-life quality.

Without giving too much away, the family’s journey through grief and separation into repair is the main focus of the plot. A lot of detail and description gives the book a leisurely but steady pace. The characters are thoroughly developed, three dimensional and unique, with full emotional lives. I felt a lot of empathy for all of them, even for Olivia as she bungled along, an imperfect person who wants so much to manage her family into healing. In many ways, the story is about family strength and love. Recommended for readers of family sagas and literary fiction.

*****

Bystanders by Phillip Murrell

This is a great read for anyone who loves action, a plot-driven story, and superheroes. But it’s not typical of superhero reads since the superhero has almost no role in the narrative. Instead, the story focuses on those touched by his actions – a news anchor, hospital workers, EMTs, law enforcement, criminals, and a couple of teenage bloggers.

Don’t expect any deep character development, emotional turmoil, or personal growth. For the most part, the characters are simply reacting to events and don’t have overarching goals that drive the action. But do expect well-rounded personalities revealed through exceptional dialog, the strongest element of the book.

The pace is good throughout, though there are times when the dialog, though realistic, goes off on short tangents. There’s some humor around the superhero’s name, and there’s plenty of violence, so be prepared for blood. An entertaining book that I recommend to readers of plot-driven superhero and action novels.

*****

Against All Odds by Jacqui Murray

This book concludes the fascinating trilogy that began 850,000 years ago as Xhosa and her People begin their search for a new home, migrating across continents, meeting different peoples, and facing the harsh elements. They learn new skills, adapt, and develop strategies that help them survive. I recommend reading this series in order since it entails a single journey.  (For the full review, click here.)

*****

Happy Reading!

June Book Reviews

If you’re out and about, take a book with you on your wanderings. If you’re stuck at home, here are some reads to while away the time.

This month my offering of reviews includes fantasy, historical fiction, poetry, a thriller, a murder mystery, and more. I hope you enjoy browsing my 4 and 5-star reviews.

Click on the covers for Amazon global links.

*****

The Mermaid and the Bear by Ailish Sinclair

I finished this book a few days ago and it’s stuck with me. I didn’t realize until I’d reached the end that it’s historical fiction based loosely on real women in 16th century Scotland when witches were rounded up, tortured, and murdered. Somehow it was easier to read when I thought it was pure fiction. After getting to know the characters, the author might as well have stabbed me in the heart.

The whole book is beautifully written. Beautiful prose, beautiful characterization, deeply emotional. For the first half, the book is a sweet love story between Isobell (mistaken as a mermaid) and Thomas (mistaken as a bear). There are villains and obstacles, but life is full of promise and goodness. Isobell is a strong first-person POV character, and I found her thoroughly engaging, kind, sweet, and courageous.

Then, be prepared, for the story takes a dark turn. The author deftly intertwines the cruelty with kindness and faith, and so the story continues to hold onto its commitment to love. The ending is gorgeous and deeply moving. I had a hard time putting the book down. Highly recommended for readers of historical fiction, love stories, tragedies, and the resilience of love, kindness, and faith.

*****

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

This is a great read! The four raven boys are students at a private school with a raven mascot. Aglionby caters to the super-wealthy, so class plays a part in defining the characters and their relationships. But the story doesn’t focus on school activities. Instead, it follows the group’s paranormal investigations, led by Gansey, their un-proclaimed leader. The fifth of their party is a local named Blue, the daughter of a clairvoyant. Though a YA story, there isn’t much romance (phew), because Blue happens to know that if she kisses her true love, he’ll die.

The first 50% of the book focuses almost entirely on character development with the plot taking a back seat. It’s time well spent as these are deeply developed characters with complex personalities and relationships. Each character is unique, and by unique, I mean UNIQUE, fascinating in their own right but also as the different personalities blend together and bounce off each other. To a great extent, this is a book about deep friendships and loyalty.

All the character-prep in the first half of the read pays off when the plot ramps up. I was thoroughly invested when things got dicey. The presence of magic increases as sacrifices are set in motion and the number of characters involved in “waking the corpse road” increases. The book ends well with plenty to look forward too as their hunt for an ancient king continues. I’ll definitely be reading onward into this series. It’s well worth it. Highly recommended for fantasy readers.

*****

Wake Robin Ridge by Marcia Meara

Part romance, part thriller, part mystery, part ghost story, part epistolary, and most of all a love story, this first book in the Wake Robin Ridge series has it all, pulled together into a well-crafted tale. It’s quite a feat and thoroughly engaging.

The first half of the book alternates between two stories. One is Ruthie’s narrative, set in the early 1960s. She runs away from an abusive relationship and rebuilds her life in a rural cabin in the Carolinas. Ruthie’s story is definitely a nail-biting thriller, and I wanted to hide under my blankets.

The second narrative belongs to Sarah, who moves into the same cabin in 2011 and starts up a romance with her neighbor, Mac, a man with a secret who’s conflicted about starting a relationship. Romance readers will enjoy many of the tropes that pepper their relationship.

Then in the middle of the book, an event changes everything for both women even though they live 50 years apart. Ruth’s story continues through a series of unmailed letters, and Sarah and Mac are determined to find out what happened to her. The romance and thriller parts of the book fade as the narrative shifts into mature love, grief, loyalty, and sacrifice. There were times when I got a little choked up.

Clearly the book has a lot going on, but it’s beautifully told and kept up a good pace, particularly in the second half. The characters are three-dimensional with rich emotional lives and distinct voices. Ruthie was my favorite and the most sympathetic; it was her story that blurred the eyes. Highly recommended to love story and romance readers who enjoy a bit of a thrill and mystery blended in to add interest to the tale.

*****

Death in a Dacron Sail by N. A. Granger

This is my third Rhe Brewster book, and it was fun to read this character again. Rhe is a mom, wife, ER nurse, and part-time detective, helping out her brother-in-law who’s the sheriff in a small Maine town. A crabber finds a child’s finger in a trap, and Rhe is on the case which quickly grows into a search for four missing girls.

She’s a well-rounded character: witty, competent, brave, and very relatable as she navigates family, relationships, and work. Life is far from perfect, and as a reader, I enjoyed getting to know her on multiple levels. Secondary characters are equally human and engaging. There’s a wide range of relationships from sweet and loyal to distant, violent, and downright pathological.

The plot is well-paced and multi-layered including not only the investigation, but personal danger to Rhe (who’s pregnant), the deterioration of her marriage, and her boss retaliating for a previous investigation that involved the hospital. Red herrings add to the suspense. I was engaged in each plot thread and the book flew by.

A great read for lovers of mysteries, thrillers, and engaging characters. I hope there’s another in the series because I have to read what happens next…

*****

The Memory by Judith Barrow

The Memory, though fiction, reads like a memoir, chronicling the love-hate relationship between a daughter and mother. The story is told from the point of view of Irene, tracking her life from 1963 to 2002. Irene’s young sister, Rose, has Down’s Syndrome and dies at the age of eight. Irene is devastated. She knows what she saw. The secret of her sister’s death is never once discussed between Irene and her mother, though the rift it creates is ten miles wide.

Though the focus of the book is the arc of Irene’s life, each chapter starts with a glimpse into two days in 2002 when she is caring for her mother who suffers from dementia. Lily is an extremely difficult patient. These glimpses are frequently just a paragraph long, minutes apart, and they clearly convey Irene’s exhaustion. They serve as a backdrop for the longer story that leads up to those final days and moments.

The story is a long one, full of details that create rich well-rounded characters and a sense of time and place. By the end, I knew Irene well, and as a caregiver myself, I found her story moving and authentic. The pace is moderate overall and well suited to the narrative, though there are some tangential details in places that slow it down. Short chapters help keep it moving, and the unspoken secret creates the tension that pulled me through to the end, even though I guessed the truth early on. A beautifully written and edited book, perfect for readers of memoirs, women’s lit, and family dramas.

*****

His Revenge by John W. Howell

His Revenge follows on the heels of the previous book, My GRL. I had fun revisiting a great character, John Cannon, an ordinary nice guy forced into the role of a hero. He’s once again kidnapped and trying to outwit the terrorist mastermind plotting to create havoc in the US. I do recommend reading the books in order, even though the author provides adequate backstory to get the gist of what previously happened.

There’s plenty of action and danger, though less than in the first book. The pace starts out a touch slow, but when it picks up, it charges ahead. John isn’t a macho, gun-toting character, and the solutions to his problems rely more on his wits and a clever plan, along with some strongly developed allies that added depth to the story. The characters face some tough choices that will make the reader squirm.

The bad guys are quite diabolical, heartless, and seemed to cover every base. But they also struck me as a touch gullible, especially since they’ve been outwitted by John before. That said, the rationale backing up the plot is detailed and the solution well-crafted. The writing is professional, the dialog and characterization excellent. I’ll be reading more of John Cannon in the future.

*****

Walk Away Silver Heart by Frank Prem

I purchased this book because I loved the premise of taking a poem (in this case, Amy Lowell’s “Madonna of the Evening Flowers”) and using each line as an inspiration for a wholly new work. The original is beautiful as are Prem’s poems that it inspired.

Prem’s style is different from Lowell’s, more like chains with each link composed of a word or three, yet he captures the tone and language of Lowell’s poem with lovely originality. Each response becomes a glimpse, and combined, they encapsulate a graceful reflection on a loving relationship. There’s a sense of depth and maturity in the feelings it evokes. A beautiful collection.

*****

Father Figure by James J. Cudney

This family drama alternates chapters between two women who, 20 years apart, are transitioning from high school to college. Amalia lives in rural Mississippi under the abusive thumb of her mother. Brianna is from New York City, and though she has a loving mother, she is desperate to know her father’s identity. Her mother, Mollie, refuses to disclose any details of her past.

In a way, the book is a character study, chronicling the two young women’s journeys from adolescence to young adulthood primarily through their sexual experiences and relationships, both positive and negative. This part of the narrative, for me, explored how each woman finally grew into her own skin.

I felt a great deal of empathy for timid Amalia, more so than for Brianna who is so persistent about finding out who her father is that she causes endless problems for everyone around her. It’s Brianna’s search that leads to the climatic end where the mysteries in the book are resolved.

The pace for most of the book felt very slow to me until the last 15% when things started coming together. Otherwise, the writing, characterizations, descriptions, and dialog are all well done. I think this read might be too long and slow for a YA audience, but I recommend it for readers of women’s lit and family dramas.

*****

Guns of Perdition by Jessica Bakkers

This is the first western-horror to cross my Kindle, and the blend of genres was a treat. Jessie is a young man sweeping up a saloon when Grace, one tough and dusty drifter, saunters in. Her face is hidden by a broad Stetson, and her holsters boast a pair of pearl-handled Smith & Wessons. It doesn’t take long before Grace’s guns are blazing, but she isn’t shooting criminals. She’s hunting demons and out to get revenge against the Darksome Gunman. With no idea of what he’s signing up for, Jessie decides to tag along. Oh, Jessie, don’t do it!     (For the full review, click here.)

*****

Happy Reading!

May Book Reviews

This is an upsetting time in the US with virus deaths reaching 100k, and the 9-minute public murder of an African American man by police. My heart is broken. Reading continues to be a release.

This month my offering of reviews includes beautiful poetry, fantasy, sci-fi, and a short story. I hope you enjoy browsing my 4 and 5-star reviews. There are some lovely reads here.

Click on the covers for Amazon global links.

*****

Passions: Love Poems and Other Writings by Gabriela Marie Milton

There are poetry books where the words feel like chocolates that melt on your tongue, where the imagery seduces you into a timeless place of mystery or lays out a universe of emotion, the crux of a life in a few perfect lines. I love free verse that’s evocative, where the sounds and rhythms sweep me off my feet. Gabriela Marie Milton’s poetry is and does all those things.

The book is set up into three parts. First, Love Poems, a generous collection of free verse that took my breath away. Part two has side-by-side poems, one in English, the other its Italian translation. And Part three has short prose that honestly, reads like poetry. All of it is sublime.

And none of it should be rushed. I read this collection over two weeks, savoring each offering in the darkness before sleep. A luxurious read for anyone who loves poetry and beautiful words.

*****

An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson

This book is charming, charming, charming. Did I mention that it’s charming? Isobel, a human, paints portraits for the fair folk, and something about her painting of Rook, the Prince of Autumn, thrusts her into danger. Stuck in the courts of the fair folk, they fall in love, but the penalty of breaking the Good Law that forbids such affairs is death.

Forbidden romance is a source of tension in this story, but I’m hesitant to call it a romance. There’s deception, danger, magic and glamour, hard choices, and sinister forces at play. The fair folk are beautiful and exquisitely described, but beneath the nearly perfect exterior, they are opportunists, decaying, hollow, and cruel.

Characterization is exceptional. The story is told from Isobel’s pov. She and Rook are sympathetic protagonists, and their perceptions of each other’s worlds, behaviors, and rules are fascinating. In general, the differences between the fair folk and humans are meticulously developed and kept me entranced. Secondary characters run the gamut from the human Aunt Emma, to the murderous fairy thanes, to Isobel’s delightful half-sisters who are also half-goats who eat everything and climb on furniture.

Descriptions of the landscapes are as immersive as those of the characters. The writing is quite beautiful. The plot is well thought out and keeps moving right up to the reveal at the climax. I wish this was a series because I had a serious book hangover. I’ll be reading more of this author. Highly recommended to fantasy readers and anyone who loves beautiful writing.

*****

It’s All in the Blood by Carol Forrester

I was looking forward to this generous collection of poems, and as soon as it was available on kindle, I picked it up. To me, Forrester’s style is gentle and reflective with an underlying poignancy. The free form poetry unfolds in short phrasing almost like an internal monolog but interspersed with the beauty of poetic metaphor. My favorite poems were those nostalgic musings about family, aging, loss and love, regrets, hopes, and an array of universal experiences that I could relate too. This poetry is simply stated, sprinkled with jewels of imagery, and rich with feeling. An excellent collection. Highly recommended

*****

Awakening: The Shard Chronicles by Ono Northey

I’m a reader of character-driven novels. A fantastic character will keep me riveted, and this book has a six-star main character. Steve is a veteran who lost his legs in Afghanistan in an explosion that took out his team, and he wants out of the hospital. A strange murder ends up splattering his hospital room with a human smoothie and suddenly he’s on the run, learning to use a unique mental power that gets him into trouble as much as it saves him.

Why is Steve a fantastic character? He has a sardonic sense of humor that I thoroughly enjoy and that runs through the book from start to finish. External and internal dialog is exceptionally witty, consistent, and natural. He also has a complex personality; he’s a competent soldier, as well as a nice guy at heart who’s grasping at happiness while hiding from the police and visiting his unusual shrink, Tony. The secondary characters, Tony and Steve’s love interest Amber, are both perfectly believable personalities, and the relationships were interesting as well as genuine.

The pace rips along, and there’s a lot of action interspersed between Steve counseling sessions and his budding relationship with Amber. I was impressed with the military details as well as the psychological concepts resulting from Steve’s conversations with Tony. They seemed grounded in reality (I couldn’t really tell but was totally sucked in) and I found myself paying close attention.

Unfortunately, I struggled with the sci-fi-bad-guy elements of the plot. The bad guys have about 6 pov chapters out of about 60 chapters (Tony has one, Steve has the rest). I had a hard time grasping who the bad guys were, their relationships, and their motivations to kill or save Steve. The story ended with lots of loose ends, which I assume will be addressed in the next book. I’m looking forward to the read. I considered a 4-star rating, but the characters forced me to go with 5.

*****

Limbo by Laura Koerber

I wasn’t sure what I thought of this book at first. A teenager, Alyse, finds herself in Limbo after dying of a brain tumor. It’s a dismal place, populated by rather dreary ghosts like herself. The pov doesn’t stay with Alyse, and though I found this distracting for a couple of chapters, as the story progressed, I got to know this odd community, the characters’ backstories, their hopes, dreams, failures, and sorrows. Suddenly, they became deeply human, relatable, and utterly poignant. I was moved.

The world-building details are unique, clever, and enjoyable. For example, many of the characters are wearing hospital gowns (and many of us know that those don’t close securely in the back). They make poker cards out of peeling wallpaper, and have a tendency to float.

Most of the characters don’t understand why they’re in limbo or how to leave. Honestly, I didn’t understand why they were there either, and I didn’t think that question was answered by the end. For me, the lack of a reason for their presence made God (who is not a character in the story) seem cold and unkind. The end is incredibly touching. I recommend this short, well-written, and gentle read to anyone who enjoys a human story.

*****

No Pedigree: A Really Short Story by Nonnie Jules

Baylee is biracial and lives with her hardworking single mom. Mom wants her to get the best opportunities for a successful future and part of that means getting a great education in a posh high school. But in Oklahoma, racism is alive and well, and Baylee is the victim of both verbal and physical abuse. A lucky break enables her to get justice in the end.

This story is a 90-minute read and geared toward young adults, though I enjoyed it as an old adult. Lol. It takes on the important topic of racism and injustice as it still exists today in schools, communities, and the criminal justice system. I enjoyed Baylee’s strength of character and that of her good friend Carson. My only struggle with the story was the somewhat implausible way Baylee skyrocketed out of her situation, but her ability to get justice was satisfying.

*****

An Island Too Lovely by Deborah Kaminsky

Isadora lives on an island, her community isolated from the mainland, peaceful and prosperous, technologically equipped, but tightly controlled. A strange experience with a force field compels her and her friends Annie and Dylan to start questioning the mysteries of their island home.

The first part of the book covers her fruitless explorations as a child. Part 2, the bulk of the story, chronicles her “Walkabout” on the mainland with her friends, a once in a lifetime adventure that all island residents experience in their teens. Part 3, covers her return to the island and her discovery of its secrets.

For most of the book, the plot seems to wander with rambling goals and tangents… until part 3 when the whole thing comes together with an intriguing and clever twist. I thoroughly enjoyed the revelation. At the same time, I did struggle with the middle of the book and was left with questions, particularly about the structure of the walkabout (no spoilers here).

Isadora, Annie, and Dylan are great characters, and I particularly enjoyed Isadora and Annie’s lifelong friendship. They are richly-developed characters and Isadora’s point of view gave me a thorough insight into her personality. The sci-fi elements are detailed and techy, which I enjoyed. Overall, quite entertaining.

*****

Happy Reading!

April Book Reviews

A very eclectic selection this month: sci-fi, fantasy, poetry, romance, Danny the Dog, historical fiction, and parenting advice! I hope you enjoy browsing my 4 and 5-star reviews. There are some great reads here. Click on the covers for Amazon global links.

*****

Running out of Space by S. J. Higbee

If readers enjoy sci-fi and a powerful female lead character, this book hits the mark. Lizzy makes one reckless mistake, and her hopes to enter an officer-training program are dashed. But that’s not the end of her problems. She’s caught between competing forces who use her to solidify their power, and her plans to escape their clutches with the man she loves are repeatedly foiled. When things can’t get worse, they do.

The book starts with some love-struck romance (in the midst of some action), but the romance is background music as the main story takes off. Lizzy is a tough character, full of anger and impulsiveness. She has a hard time controlling her temper and tongue, but she’s justified and therefore sympathetic. Her story unfolds with a first-person point of view, and I was invested from the start, rooting for her when she suffered and cheering for her small victories and fiery personality. I found all of the characters consistent, authentic, and compelling, and the author does a nice job of holding back their secrets so there’s always a reason to turn the page.

This fast-paced book is both character-driven and plot-driven, and I enjoyed the balance. The world-building is complete, hard sci-fi with enough technical detail to be believable while not overwhelming the story. The plot belongs to Lizzy and her desire to escape those who are manipulating her, but there are larger political subplots working in the background that may rise to the surface in later books. The first book in a series, this ends at a transition point, but the story doesn’t conclude. It definitely invites a dive into book 2. Highly recommended.

*****

Tiger House by Wendy Scott

This is a great read for lovers of adventure, action, fantasy, and fabulous worldbuilding. The cover is gorgeous. And the prose is excellent too. Can you tell that I enjoyed this book? The story is about a young farmer Jairus who is kidnapped through a magical portal by the inhabitants of another world. He’s enslaved and ordered to represent Tiger House in a series of challenges to the death that will decide the new emperor. The first half of the story is an account of the competitions and the action and intrigue are non-stop. The second half of the book deals with Jairus’s attempts to stay alive for as long as he can while trying to find a way home.

To me, the worldbuilding resembles ancient Asian cultures (though I’m no expert), with the added elements of magic, strange rituals, and a whole lot of disregard for the contestants’ lives or their homeworlds. The people are brutal, macabre, and think nothing of it. The tentative head of Tiger House, a woman named Tekagi, is a ruthless, ambitious villain in the truest sense. An interesting dynamic set up by the author is that rooting for Jairus is also rooting for Tekagi.

So, the worldbuilding is perfection and the characters engaging – Jairus for his good nature, determination, and intelligence, and Tekagi, because she’s sooo bad! I woke up in the middle of the night to read more chapters under my sheets like a kid afraid of being caught by my mom. The plot is driven by Tekagi’s ambitious designs for most of the book, but Jairus does evolve as a character by the end.

There are plenty of loose ends by the book’s conclusion to hook a reader into picking up the next in the series. I know I will. Highly Recommended.

*****

My Name is Danny by Danny (and Andrew Joyce)

If you need something to read that will warm your heart, lift your spirits, and make you laugh, this book will do it. What a fun way to spend an hour.

Danny the Dog lives with his human, Andrew, on a boat in Florida. This collection of brief stories focuses on Danny’s adventures, his human and animal friendships and rivalries, and his daily activities including acquiring hotdogs. He gets into a lot of trouble and is great at justifying his choices.

The stories are all told from Danny’s perspective with a rare story by Andrew while Danny’s vacationing. Each short chapter starts with a photo of Danny, a small dog with a huge personality. Danny’s wry sense of humor, indignation, and sarcasm are hilarious. He definitely thinks he’s in charge of this human/dog duo. Dog lovers will recognize many aspects of life with a canine companion. I adored this read and recommend it to dog lovers everywhere.

*****

I Am Soul by Yecheilyah Ysrayl

I picked up this book of poetry some time ago and finally opened it. My dad was in the hospital and I had hours to kill. I started reading Ysrayl’s poetry, and the first thing I noticed was the powerful words and rhythms. This is poetry with heart, and it begged to be read aloud.

I found myself a green space outside the hospital and for a couple of hours I walked by myself and read aloud, swept away by the strong emotions and messages, the sometimes hard and sometimes soft beat of the words, and the vivid imagery. The blurb says that this collection of poems focuses “on Black History, Identity, Personal Development, and Spirituality. Readers describe this collection as touching, intelligent, personal and deeply soulful.” I can’t say it any better. A moving read and if you can find a place to read it aloud, you won’t regret it. Highly recommended.

*****

Orion’s Gift by Anneli Purchase

Sylvia and Kevin are both escaping abusive relationships and individually head to Mexico to camp along the beautiful beaches of Baja. They end up meeting and fall immediately into lust, which gradually turns into something deeper. But nothing’s going to be that easy as the drug trade south of the border strikes a little close to their camper-homes, and even worse, their exes are trying to hunt them down.

Romance with lots of misunderstandings and emotional turmoil is a major theme in the book, but the subplots add a lot of drama to the story. Both exes—who are quite different from each other—have chapters from their points-of-view which adds to the building tension. The subplot regarding the drug trade escalates the danger, particularly for Sylvia.

I liked the quick pace of the story and there was plenty going on to keep me turning the pages. The descriptions of camping in Baja include well-researched details, not only regarding the landscape but also the challenges, the things visitors need to know, and some of the pitfalls. I enjoyed the authenticity they lent to the story.

Kevin was my favorite character as he’s pretty solid and straightforward. Sylvia suffers from insecurities throughout the book, but this struck me as realistic based on her history as a victim of domestic violence. She also has a secret that interferes with any dreams of a future with Kevin. A well-rounded story and highly recommended to readers of romance.

*****

The Lost Signal by J. S. Fernandez Morales

This book is almost 400 pages, and every word was worth the read. This sci-fi adventure was a great story. For ¾ of the book, there are two alternating, unconnected narratives. One storyline follows the efforts of a group of Earthlings who are preparing for an alien invasion aided by a renegade alien named Bill (named so for convenience).

The other storyline is told primarily from Fiona’s point of view. She’s an alien/human hybrid who’s lived her whole life with humans and feels compelled to protect them when aliens descend on their village and enslave them. The stories begin to overlap at the 75% mark and it’s a very cool twist.

Fiona’s story has a persistent undercurrent of tension as she navigates the alien environment. The villain that she’s connected to is consistently brutal and unpredictable while also oddly vulnerable. I love complex villains like this. He’s horrifying and redeemable. The Earthlings’ story isn’t quite as action-packed, but it is fascinating, particularly Bill’s role. And there are a couple of shocking moments.

Characters throughout the book are unique and plausible and emotionally rich, and I’d say that they stole the show, except the plot is also very cool. A great blend that makes for a great read. Sci-fi readers who enjoy alien stories, action and adventure, and great characters will love this. Worth every word.

*****

Smoke Rose to Heaven by Sarah Angleton

This book isn’t typical of those I normally read, and I’m happy to report that I enjoyed it. Spanning the mid to late 1800s, Ada Moses relates the story of her life to an old man called the Prophet, a key influencer of the Mormon faith at its initiation. The entire book is Ada’s narrative, but it’s told in such a way that I was immersed in Ada’s experiences as they unfolded.

The impetus driving Ada to tell her story to the Prophet is a secret manuscript that came into her possession as a child, a manuscript that is dangerous to the Mormon faith. The document has put her life at risk, and she wants to tell her story before death finds her. Though this was interesting, it wasn’t the plot thread that sucked me in and didn’t let go.

For me, Ada’s human story was more compelling. Her mother dies when she’s a child, and her father gives her away to his sister and her husband. Ada’s aunt is a fundamental Christian zealot and her uncle is a snake oil salesman with some skill at dowsing and other esoteric arts. Ada is caught in the middle, trying to navigate her way safely through her aunt’s fanaticism and seeking some desperately needed parental love which she finds in her uncle and his unsavory business partners. I was riveted by her psychological and emotional growth, insights, and perspectives. Her experiences guide her choices and determine who she ultimately becomes. This is a character-driven story, beautifully written, and thoroughly engaging. Highly recommended.

*****

Be a Happier Parent or Laugh Trying by Betsy Kerekes

Kerekes offers some wise advice for parents and delivers it with plenty of wit. The exaggeration and sarcasm woven into her view of children and parenting is hysterical, but throughout the read, it’s also clear that love makes up the solid foundation of her parenting style. Parenting strategies in the book are often creative and buried in fun, but there’s also some great guidance on discipline and the less glamorous trials of being a firm parent.

As a retired early-childhood mental health counselor, I found the information in this book highly relevant as well as laugh-out-loud funny. The ideas presented in the book are geared toward parents but are equally relevant to grandparents and other caregivers.

Kerekes isn’t shy about sharing her Christian faith and a few chapters focus on parenting within that framework. My impression is that though these chapters focus on Catholicism, they could apply to other faiths or to no faith at all, such as how to encourage kindness and charity in children. I highly recommend this book of sound parental advice delivered with love, fun, and a laugh.

*****

Happy Reading!

Otherworldly #Writephoto

copyright Sue Vincent

Meriel knelt by the flame’s soft heat. “It’s so quiet here.”

The wrinkled woman sat beside her in hushed contemplation. “The stones hold the silence of time. Do you not hear it? An ancient serenade exists between the voices of the sea and the silence of the stones. There is no song without silence, and no two songs are the same, just as no stones shaping this world are the same. Each song arises from a singular darkness. Each stone bears a singular face.”

Her eyes closed, Meriel listened to the stone’s silence and peered into her clay body, attentive to the voice of her inner darkness. She waited to behold what lay hidden and fearful there, what lay wished for with secret hope, desiring to be set free. She began to see that love wove the cloth of Belonging and entwined in its folds ran threads of otherness, uncertainty, surrender, and integration.

“Will you speak to me of my journey?” Meriel asked.

With a crooked stick, the woman stirred the fire. “The Belonging never leaves us alone, child. We hold our yearning in our hearts always. We wait for an invitation to love, but we are already loved. We wait for love to fill us, but love already abides within us. When we extend our hands in love, we offer the diamonds of our souls. We offer that which is sacred and terrible in its possibility, for love is a creative and rebellious force. It is the culmination of all our dreams and desires, and therefore it is equally shrouded in fear.”

Her fingers unfolded, revealing a diamond the size of a pebble. “So, we offer the diamonds of our love. And our lover, our friend, our other, sees through the darkness only a rock, one of these pebbles worn smooth by the sea.” She closed her fist and opened it again, this time tendering a round stone. “Old wounds blind them, even though it is a precious gift we offer. We feel misunderstood, unappreciated, and in our anger and hurt, we withdraw the gift. When we are wounded, we offer the diamond conditionally. It is payment for filling our needs, for following our orders, appeasing our desires. In this way, we also turn our gifts into stone.”

A smile crossed the woman’s lips, and when Meriel looked again into her palm, the stone shimmered and transformed before her eyes. “Offer your diamonds always, Meriel. Offer them when they are rejected; offer them when they are perceived as valueless rocks; offer them when it hurts you to do so, when you tremble in pain, when your wounds gape open and bleed. Only then will they truly be the diamonds of your soul. And only then will your lover or friend or brother or sister see them for what they are. Love creates space for wounds to heal.”

Meriel wanted to believe in the possibility of transformation, the promise of hope in a world she found enormous, fractured, and filled with fear. “Where am I in my soul’s journey?” she asked.

“You are everywhere,” the woman said. “The journey is cyclical, round as our globe. We walk it individually and as communities. It ripples through our lives, often more than once.”

Meriel accepted the diamond offered in the woman’s hand.

“You must decide where you are, child, how long you will stay there, what you are willing to endure, and whether you are brave enough to risk love and hold it in your heart.” She touched Meriel’s shoulder and left her to her dreams.

At dawn, Meriel scaled the stone steps leading to the island’s grassy cliffs. Her arms rose to her sides. Love’s song, the song of the sea, her own song blended to fill the patient silence of the stones. The tides surged in her blood. Her heart pounded against the sheer walls with the waves, and her eyes filled with light. Love spiraled, descended, and alighted around her. The mist lifted, and as a warm wind bent the grass, her heart leapt without fear from the edge of the precipice into the rising sun.

***

A modified snippet from my Dragon Soul series. I hope you enjoyed it.

In response to Sue Vincent’s alluring photo prompt. She posts her prompts on Thursdays if you want to join in.

I apologize for my absence from visiting your blogs. I spend a few days caring for my mom while my dad was hospitalized. All better now. Stay safe and take good care of yourselves. ❤