Spring is finally making its way up the mountain. No leaves on the trees yet, but the weeds in my gardens are growing like … weeds. I’m trying to read less and write more, but there are so many irresistible books. I have some great reads to share today, including some that gave me book hangovers.
April’s reviews include my 4 and 5-star reads of a crime thriller, a historical romance, a post-apocalyptic tale, and two fantasy novels.
Click on the covers for Amazon global links.
Tuyo by Rachel Neumeier
It’s hard to decide what to rave about first when it comes to this book. I was moping around my house feeling sad all weekend and didn’t know why. Then it occurred to me that I had a severe book hangover. I hadn’t wanted the story to end. I wanted to read on and on and on.
The story is about Ryo, a young man from an unforgiving winter world. He’s left as a sacrifice—a tuyo—to the victor of a battle with the summer country. In his enemy’s hands, he expects to be tortured and slain, but finds himself spared by their leader Lord Aras. Aras has other uses for him, forcing Ryo to rethink old notions about his world.
The driver of the magic and much of the conflict in this story is a form of sorcery that allows the reading and manipulation of thoughts. That’s powerful stuff and a huge advantage for those with the gift/curse. Neumeier manages the power differential with skillful control. She does a superb job of weaving the plot around this ability that strikes fear in most men, including Ryo who struggles to unravel the truth from planted memories. This deftly crafted magic system is logical, complex, and the source of numerous plot twists and turns.
On top of that, the world-building is exceptional. I was charmed by the differences between the winter and summer countries, which were beautifully drawn, but it was the fully developed culture of Ryo’s people that had me mesmerized. It was profound in many ways, hard and tender, occasionally humorous, often dangerous, and rich with tradition and honor. I believed it completely.
It was Ryo’s first-person narration that created the link and revealed the depth of the culture and character-building. The POV is up close and personal, which immersed me in his story and didn’t let go. I think it was the deep connection to this character’s heart and soul that gave me my book hangover. The book works great as a standalone, but there are more stories in this world, which I’m sure to read.
I highly recommend this book to fantasy fans for sure, to readers who enjoy character and culture-driven tales, and to anyone who loves skillfully crafted stories with mesmerizing characters. (Kindle Unlimited)
Once Upon a Time in the Swamp by C. S. Boyack
I think this might be my favorite of Boyack’s books so far. I’m a big fan of The Hat series too but the stories aren’t really comparable. Where The Hat series is a romp, loaded with action and humor, Once Upon a Time in the Swamp is heartbreaking and courageous, written with amazingly realistic worldbuilding, fascinating detail, and a deep pov – all high on my list of reading I enjoy.
The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, decades after a 2nd US civil war. Society is rebuilding itself piece by piece without most of the luxuries or technologies we take for granted. People have adjusted and are making do with what they have. Boyak’s careful world-building and attention to detail reflect considerable thought and research. The ingenuity and resourcefulness of his characters is utterly believable and therefore, mesmerizing. It had me completely immersed in the book.
The story is told from the singular first-person point of view of Mari. She returns to her farm from a morning’s hunt for wild turkey to find her husband and child mercilessly slain. Their deaths, and her subsequent brutalization by the killers, set her on a path of revenge. The broken highways take her from Florida to Tennessee, where she meets both danger and kindness and learns the skills she’ll need to exact justice and remake her life. The deep pov made me feel like I was living this story, and I was emotionally swept up in every chapter.
Though there’s an underlying feeling of sorrow and inevitable loss in Mari’s tale, the story isn’t without humor, mostly in the shape of her traveling companions – an ox named Dirt and a dog named Worthless. The kindness and generosity she encounters along the way lend the story’s world a welcome dose of hope for the future. In the end, the tale is full of possibility.
The pace is snappy, the plot straightforward, and the quality of the writing excellent. I had a hard time putting this book down and would love a sequel. Highly recommended to readers who enjoy fabulous world-building, deep povs, and a deftly crafted tale. (Kindle Unlimited)
Haloed by Sue Coletta
This book is a seat-of-your-pants thriller from beginning to end. Sage is a fiction writer, but she can’t focus, and for good reason. A psychopathic serial rapist and killer, who brutalized her in the past, is back. She raises the alarm, but no one believes her, including her sheriff husband, Niko. Why should they? The Romeo Killer was shot dead and buried years ago.
What ensues is a cat-and-mouse game between the killer and Sage. The close calls are nail-biters. Sage makes awful mistakes that almost get her killed, and I wanted to smack her loving but cluelessly dismissive husband upside the head. They’re great characters for keeping up the tension and their 4-year-old son is adorable … and in danger.
The killer is 100% monster. He shares the POV with Sage, Niko, and Niko’s curvy deputy Frankie, all nuanced characters and easy to like. Frankie was one of my favorites with her self-confident personality, loyalty, and bold style. She’s also competent, and I wouldn’t mind seeing her star in her own series.
One of the book’s many strengths is the author’s knowledge of forensic sciences, specifically around bone and body decomposition, key elements in deciphering this read’s crimes. The pace is strong and doesn’t let up and the plot holds together well. I didn’t see the end coming.
Though Haloed is book #5 in the Grafton County Series, it read just fine as a stand-alone. Highly recommended for readers of thrillers and crime novels.
His Judas Bride by Shehanne Moore
Set in the wilds of old-world Scotland, Kara McGurkie is traveling toward her wedding with Ewen McDunnagh, supposedly to establish an alliance between two feuding clans. But that’s only part of her father’s dastardly plot. It’s also the only way Kara can think of to save her 4-year-old son from growing up in a McGurkie dungeon. On the way to wed (and murder) Ewen, she runs into Ewen’s brother, Callm, the Black Wolf of Lochalpin. He’s honorable, tall and handsome, and though he’s attracted to Kara, he’s still pining for his dead wife.
In typical Moore style, the sparks fly as does the romance. Misunderstandings and assumptions abound, complicated by Kara’s secrets, her desperation to save her son, her betrothal to Ewen, and a few days of passion with Callm. Love has some massive roadblocks to overcome.
The narrative is shared by Kara and Callm. One of the things I enjoy about this author is the tight point of view that unfolds in almost a stream-of-consciousness style, particularly for Kara who has a lot churning through her mind. It requires some focus as it moves fast, but wit and sarcasm are plentiful.
One of the differences between this book and other Moore books I’ve read is the depth of emotion in the main characters. Both had a genuine sense of nobility and a willingness to make sacrifices for those they loved. There’s a lot of kindness in this story. Recommended to historical romance readers who like a clever style of writing, a fast pace, complicated characters, and a heartwarming end.
The Palace of Lost Memories by C. J. Archer
Josie is the daughter of a village doctor, a healer in her own right, though women aren’t considered worthy of schooling or the title. Near their home is the mysterious palace of the king, which magically appeared over the span of a few weeks. No craftsman, guard, or servant has been allowed in or out through its gates.
Then a dangerous illness befalls the king’s betrothed. Josie accompanies her father to the palace and uncovers two new mysteries: there is a poisoner on the loose, and everyone in the palace has lost all but the last two months of their memories.
The plot in this first installment of the “After the Rift” 5-book series revolves around the hunt for the poisoner. Questions about what happened to everyone’s memories are explored, but the answers are saved for later in the series. A romantic subplot develops between Josie and Hammer, the captain of the palace guard, a relationship that took its time and which I thoroughly enjoyed.
Josie and Hammer are very likable characters and easy to root for. The story unfolds in Josie’s first-person point of view, so I had an “open book” view of her thoughts and motivations. Hammer is another story, so to speak. He’s complex, and the mystery surrounding his memory loss and past makes him wonderfully intriguing. Teasers abound and serve as a great hook for the next book in the series. Highly recommended to fantasy readers of all ages. (Free on Kindle)