November Book Reviews (Part Two)

Wishing you all a wonderful winter as we head toward the solstice and the return of the light. I’m finishing off autumn with more books and reviews from November! I hope you find a few to enjoy over the holidays.

To all my blogger friends in the southern hemisphere… have a wonderful start to your summer, and I hope you find some beach reads!

November’s reviews (part two) include my 4 and 5-star reads of a romance/thriller mash-up, paranormal short stories, fantasy, and a children’s book.

Click on the covers for Amazon global links.

*****

Secrets, Lies & Alibis (Wounded Hearts, Book 8) by Jacquie Biggar

I can’t believe I’ve finished Book 8 of the Wounded Hearts romance/thriller series. Now that I’m caught up, I’m ready for Book 9 whenever it hits the press. Each of the books features one member of a Seal team that’s returned to civilian life. They’re a close-knit group and characters overlap as they need each other’s help.

In this book, the focus is Adam, who now works for the DEA, and his ex-boss/ex-lover Amanda, who took a demotion and transfer because she’s pregnant. She’s working behind the scenes to wrap up a big drug case, and the cartel would like to see her eliminated. Adam has a new perky partner and is following leads. As things heat up, they all end up in Texas where Adam will risk his life to close the case, and Amanda will have one big surprise to share with him.

The plot holds together well and the characters are distinct and consistent. Though the books can easily be read as stand-alones, I liked reading them in order, tracking the course of the over-arching investigation, and learning how the familiar characters’ lives are going. The book has plenty of romantic drama, but it’s evenly balanced with action and danger, which kept me flipping pages. I read this 2-hour story in one sitting. Highly recommended to readers who enjoy romance/action mash-ups and getting to know characters over a long series. (Kindle Unlimited.)

*****

The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd-Jones

In this stand-alone fantasy, Mer is in hiding. She’s the last of the water diviners who once served the realm’s cruel prince. He used her skills to find the wells of his enemies, which he poisoned, killing hundreds of men, women, and children. On the verge of capture, she’s rescued by Renfrew, her handler while in the realm’s employ. No longer beholden to the prince, Renfrew enlists her in a daring heist of treasure that will guarantee her freedom and a comfortable life. How can she resist?

The heist requires assembling a team to destroy the wellspring that protects the prince’s land and where untold treasure is hidden. The journey and magical traps provide plenty of danger, but even more compelling were the secrets and hidden agendas of each character who joins the party.

I particularly liked Mer and Fane, the cursed fighter enlisted to kill the magical boar that protects the wellspring. Their distrust of each other is balanced by their tenuous loyalty. There are hints of a romance that can never be, and that possibility kept me rooting for them. Renfrew and Ifanna, a master thief, were the most distinct and interesting of the secondary characters.

The pace moves along, and there are twists and surprises throughout. The plot tracks well, and the magic was engaging. I’d definitely read more of this author’s work. Highly recommended to fantasy readers.

*****

The Christmas Bird by Robbie Cheadle

After the family dogs destroy a bird’s nest, Stella and her younger sisters discover a surviving Hoopoe chick that they take into their care and raise in a basket. As the bird grows, the sisters must come to grips with the nature of the bird to fly free and start a family of its own. What feels, at first, like a loss becomes a celebration.

Themes of kindness and honoring nature and wild creatures take the forefront of this gentle novelette. The pace moves well and the characters are endearing. In style, the story reminded me of Laura Ingalls’s Little House on the Prairie books. Under an hour’s read, it’s appropriate for young children and middle-grade readers. Highly recommended. (Kindle Unlimited.)

*****

The Raven Spell (Book 1) by Luanne G. Smith

I enjoyed the lyrical writing and wonderful world-building of Smith’s The Vine Witch and was delighted to discover Book One of a completed duology. It’s fantasy and magical realism, the story taking place in 19th century London, where witches and magic are an accepted part of society.

Edwina and her sister Mary are witches who scour the riverbanks for trinkets that they sell in their shop. Mary also collects “corpse lights” the vibrant, shining memories of the newly deceased. Her fetish takes her to hospitals and morgues, as well as to scenes of murder.

When she takes the memories of a private investigator (Ian) who ends up surviving his attack, Edwina attempts to restore them, setting off an investigation that entangles both sisters in a mysterious disappearance and a string of murders.

I enjoyed everything about this book – the solid plot, the quick pace, the twists and slow reveals. The magic is great fun and includes some comic relief provided by a small hairy hearth elf who’s aligned with Ian. There’s also danger and tragedy and a touch of romance. The characters had me rooting for them, particularly Edwina who has some difficult truths to face.

I’m eager to dive into Book Two. Highly recommended to readers of fantasy and magical realism who love beautiful writing. (Kindle Unlimited).

(Note: I did read Book 2, The Raven Song, but struggled with it. My review is here: Something to consider if you’re interested in Book 1.)

*****

The Last Sun Born by Kate Frantz

In a land where only those born beneath the moon are allowed to live, Lewel enters the world during the day. Her infant life is spared at great risk, for with the sun-born comes a dark force called the Absence, capable of destroying the kingdom. And only she can kill it, a battle that may very well demand her life.

Veigo, the king-in-waiting, and his advisor Marrlen, an old woman with the power to cast magic, know the truth of her birth and begin training Lewel to face the Absence. Veigo and Marrlen grow fond of her, and she of them, but intrigue and deception and hatred of her kind run rampant. As a reader, I didn’t know who to trust.

The world-building in this book shines, and I liked the concept of the Absence – the evil twin of the sun born. The characters were complex and nuanced. Lewel and Veigo had fully realized personalities, and their relationship felt genuine to me. I particularly appreciated the way Veigo struggled with his feelings toward Lewel and his duty to the kingdom.

The pace moves along, and the magical elements worked well with the plot. From the description, there’s no indication that there will be a second book, but this one ends on a huge cliffhanger with very few plot lines resolved, so I think it’s a good guess. I suspect it will be worth the read. (Kindle Unlimited.)

*****

Hildie: At the Ghost Shore by Paula Cappa

This 15-minute read includes two short stories: “Hildie” and “Abasteron House.” I thoroughly enjoyed both haunting stories and wanted more of this author’s work the moment I finished. The prose is beautiful and atmospheric, exactly the kind of writing I enjoy.

“Hildie” is a mesmerizing and magical tale with a folklore feel to it. Hildie is a young woman who reads runes, and one day an old man comes seeking information about his daughter. The end is a touching surprise.

“Abasteron House” is where Davida lives with her grandfather. Each day, he walks the dunes alone, his vision peopled with angels that she can’t see. When he dies, she takes over the house and meets his dream people, and they aren’t what she expected.

Highly recommended for dark fantasy and speculative fiction readers looking to fill a few minutes with beautifully written and riveting stories

*****

Between the Darkness and the Dawn by Paula Cappa

In this beautifully written short story, Edward Fane is an employee of the Institute of Perceptual Studies, and he’s traveled to Massachusetts with his instruments to measure ley lines that connect past and future realms. He books a tour of an old manse once inhabited by Nathanial Hawthorne but it’s what he feels as he gazes through the window on the Old North Bridge that captures his attention. On that bridge, he meets the past, and though Nathaniel warns him away from his pursuits, can he forget the lovely woman he meets there? Highly recommended to fans of short stories who enjoy atmospheric writing, and haunting tales.

*****

Happy Reading!

November Book Reviews (Part One)

The holiday season has started. It’s a great time to take breaks from the chaos and snuggle up with a book. And, of course, books make great gifts!

Somehow, I read 14 books this month. They just got away from me, and it’s too many for one post. So here are half of them!

November’s reviews (part one) include my 4 and 5-star reads of a poetry/flash fiction collection, a psychological thriller, a horror novelette, a paranormal thriller, a murder mystery, and two illustrated children’s books.

Click on the covers for Amazon global links.

*****

Variety is the Spice of Life by Sally Cronin

I’m a fan of Cronin’s syllabic poetry, flash fiction, and short stories, and this latest collection is an excellent example of why. The first half of the book is filled with 38 beautiful poems in a variety of structured forms.

Many of the poems are poignant reflections on love and loss, the wonder of life, and the beauty of nature found in her garden. Each includes a complementary image. One of my favorites:

Rejection (form: a butterfly cinquain)

silence
magnifies time
and distance between us
and your rejection leaves my heart
hollow.
the promises we made that day
are scattered in the wind
and dreams have turned
to dust.

The second half of the book is comprised of 8 short stories, most of them heartwarming tales of human kindness, forgiveness, and redemption. (With a tale of magical murder thrown in). Three of my favorites were Miss Lloyd’s Robin, The Green Hill, and The Home Help. I highly recommend this afternoon’s read to fans of syllabic poetry and short stories.

*****

The Bubble Reputation by Alex Craigie

Social media is a wonderful way to connect with family and friends, but most people know that it has a dark side as a vehicle for bullying, making threats, and spreading lies. Emmie is a highly successful children’s author, until a jealous coworker and a tabloid needing a tasty scoop decide she’d make a great target for a scandal. A lie and a doctored photograph start off a social media storm that picks up momentum with frightening speed. As the feeding frenzy intensifies, it nearly costs her everything. And I mean everything.

There are a whole lot of things that are frightening about this story. The plot is highly plausible, and though I could see the escalation coming, it was still horrifying to watch. The way ordinary citizens start going for blood is not only shocking but terrifyingly realistic. It’s a situation that not every character finds their way out of without a heavy toll.

This isn’t a long book, and I read it in one afternoon, glued to the story. The pace moves quickly and there are a wide variety of authentic characters—some heartless and calculating, some risk-avoidant, some bloodthirsty, and others highly supportive. There are a lot of takeaways from this read, particularly a chance to decide which type of character we want to be. Highly recommended. (Kindle Unlimited.)

*****

Dog Meat by Priscilla Bettis

This is one of the more unusual novelettes I’ve read in years, and I needed to spend a few days processing it before I could write a review.

According to the author, “30 million dogs die each year in the brutal trade that operates in nine countries.” In this story, Kalb Ward’s job is to kill the dogs that will be served to a restaurant’s wealthy diners.

Ward lives in a closed dystopian society where he has no choice in what kind of work he performs, and his one attempt to run away lands him in a reeducation camp for 18 months. Only threats to his mother’s life are powerful enough to return him to the job he can’t tolerate.

Ward sees himself as a killer, and his reactions to the endless violence move this book beyond the horror genre into one that explores the impact of intolerable guilt, brutality, and despair on a human life and soul. This is a society without empathy, where compassion and kindness can’t find a foothold.

The scenes are horrific, and anyone who loves dogs will be tested to the core. Like the author, I hope this story raises awareness and supports the end of this cruel industry. The writing quality is excellent, and Ward’s plight drew me deeply into this well-wrought world. Highly recommended, but with a big trigger warning about graphic violence against animals.

*****

The Valley Walker by T. W. Dittmer

This impressive book certainly captured my attention. Teri Altro is part of a government task force looking into a rash of drug deaths in Michigan. She’s competent, hard-shelled, and a bit of a rogue. She’s also the target of an attempted assassination. But as three men close in on her, someone gets in the way, and in a strange manipulation of reality, the three killers end up dead. That someone is John Walker Michaels, a Vietnam deserter who shouldn’t exist, and who possesses the mystical powers of the Hmong people that became his family. The Laotians call him the Valley Walker.

What follows is an investigation into the drug deaths that extends from the streets and governing halls of Michigan to the jungles of Laos, from the present time back to the dark days of the Viet Nam war. The scenes of war are eerily visceral, reminiscent of Apocalypse Now. The Laotian mysticism adds an otherworldly surrealism that connects the timelines.

Characterization is impressive with each member of the task force wonderfully unique. Peripheral characters are also fully realized and distinct. Though Michaels participates in the multiple POVs, he retains his mysterious aura, and it’s through his relationships with other characters and his dialog and action that I came to understand him.

The author served in Viet Nam and the authenticity he brought to the story was riveting. It also didn’t hurt that his writing is polished and well-paced with just the right amount of description. A complex plot comes together with little difficulty and several twists kept me on my toes. Highly recommended to readers who enjoy complex stories about war, power, and justice, topped with a metaphysical twist. (Kindle Unlimited.)

*****

Flower Power Trip (Braxton Campus Mysteries Book 3) by James J. Cudney

This is Book 3 in the Braxton Campus Mysteries, and for readers who’ve enjoyed the first two in the series, this one was just as fun. When a renowned biologist ends up dead at a masquerade ball at Braxton College, Professor Kellan Ayrwick is once again unofficially asking questions and trying to ferret out the murderer. Some of the people close to him are suspects, and there are plenty of secrets to untangle. And then there are the postcards he’s receiving from his dead wife.

As with previous books, Kellan’s relationship with Sheriff April Montague was delightfully snarky, and I just adored their growing respect for each other. Wise-cracking, take no nonsense, Nana D is also back, and she’s a hoot. There are a lot of characters in this series. Having read the previous two books, I had the advantage of knowing a number of them already. For this reason alone, I recommend starting the series at the beginning.

The pace moves quickly, and plenty of red herrings point in multiple directions. I couldn’t guess the identity of the killer and had to wait for the reveal for everything to sort out. Though the masquerade murder is fully solved, a cliffhanger is introduced at the very end as a hook for the next book. Readers will find a likable protagonist, some fully-realized and fun secondary characters, and plenty of twists and turns. Recommended to fans of cozy mystery series.

*****

Sleepy Happy Capy Cuddles by Mike Allegra

The more I learn about capybaras, the more I want to cuddle with them. This book might come as close to the real thing as I get. A rainforest is a noisy place. So noisy that it’s hard to think and hard to sleep. But then along comes a Cuddly Capy, blowing burbly bubbles and fwippa fwipping its ears. Little by little the Happy Capy convinces the other animals to cuddle, and the rainforest grows quiet. But then who comes out of the swamp? A roaring crocodile! Can a capybara get a crocodile to cuddle? Of course.

A lovely book about the kindness of cuddles and inclusion, and how even the loudest roars and toughest skins can soften with a little loving care. The Happy Capy is single-minded in her love of cuddling and no one can resist. In addition to the fun story, beautiful animal illustrations fill this picture book from front to back. Highly recommended to cuddly preschool kids and their parents. (Hardcover only)

*****

Everybody’s Favorite Book by Mike Allegra

Everybody’s Favorite Book has to include everybody’s favorite stuff, right? Like spacemen, pirates, pink princesses, cool detective kids, giant guinea pigs, and tea parties. But so much stuff gets to be a little crazy. Everybody’s Favorite Book ends up being nobody’s favorite book… until you get to everybody’s favorite happy ending.

This is a wild, creative, wacky picture book for kids age 3-7 (my guess) and librarians and parents who love big words like gallimaufry and codswallop. This book has everything and, of course, chaos ensues. The illustrations are big, bold, and bright and add to the fun. Kids and the young at heart will enjoy the imaginative mayhem. Highly recommended.

Our local librarian gets two new acquisitions:

*****

Happy Reading!

More July and a few August Book Reviews

Yes, it’s only the middle of August, but travels have messed up my schedule. Fortunately, my reading hasn’t suffered, and I have some great books for you, all read between tromping up the trails.

I need to share the reviews before they pile up any higher.

This bunch of reviews is for 4 and 5-star reads including a personal growth book, an ageless illustrated book about love, an uplifting holiday novelette, two books from a series of thriller romances, two installments of a fantasy serial, and last but not least, a horror short story. Phew!

Click on the covers for Amazon global links.

*****

Alternate Reality by Erik Tyler

I’ve read Tyler’s other books and was eager to dive into his latest. Like his previous works, I’d categorize this one as a guide for personal growth, full of practical advice for living a happier and more conscious life as we navigate this complex world. Can’t go wrong with that at a time when politics, biases, and life’s challenges drive wedges between people and create so much hardship and stress.

As the title suggests, the book focuses on our perceptions of reality, and that by challenging our preconceived beliefs about people and situations, we might learn something new, let go of erroneous first impressions, form healthy boundaries, or make new friends. Or all of the above. Choice plays a huge role, with reminders that we may not be able to control what happens to us, but we can always choose how we respond.

Tyler relies heavily on personal anecdotes, which makes for a highly relatable and often humorous read. He illustrates the situation, his initial thinking, how the challenge resolved, and what he learned through perceiving things in a fresh way. Invariably, the change in outlook is insightful, empathetic, and positive.

Each chapter ends with a few questions for reflection that readers can use to personalize his experience and advice. Though I browsed the questions alone on a long plane ride, they would work wonderfully in an informal or formal group setting. Highly recommended to humans who want to reduce stress and live a kinder, happier, and more conscious life. (Kindle Unlimited).

*****

The Boy, the mole, the fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy

This is a beautiful book of gentle wisdom that reminded me of Pooh’s insights as he navigates the Hundred Acre Woods with his friends. But in this case, the conversations about life and love occur between a boy, a mole, a fox, and a horse.

“Asking for help isn’t giving up,” said the horse. “It’s refusing to give up.”

The “print” of the book is hand-inked, giving it a whimsical and natural look similar to a journal. Simple, elegant, and beautiful illustrations appear on every page. The book is a short one that can be read in about 30 minutes, but it’s definitely worth savoring, especially if reading to a child.

“I’ve realized why we are here,” whispered the boy.
“For cake?” asked the mole.
“To love,” said the boy.
“And be loved,” said the horse.

A stunning, magical read that I love having on my shelf and plan to give away as gifts during the coming year. Highly recommended.

(My note: The kindle version of this one is more expensive than the hardcover, so I recommend the hardcover).

*****

A Long Walk Home by D. L. Finn

It’s Christmas Eve, and Kenzie is in a horrible mood. She was supposed to get married on Christmas Day, but her fiancé decided to marry her best friend, Joy. On her long walk home, Kenzie growls at shoppers, almost gets hit by a car, and tells off her ex-friend. Then she finds a homeless cat with kittens and things begin to change. Not without a nudge from a pair of kindly angels.

This Christmas novelette is less than an hour’s read. I enjoy stories that show how loving others ultimately opens the door to love in one’s life. There’s a sense of karmic peace in that. And perhaps there’s a bit of karmic comeuppance for the fiancé too. A quick, enjoyable holiday story that I happily recommend.

*****

Summer Lovin’ by Jacquie Biggar

Five years ago, caught up in the moment, Rebecca and Mitch tied the knot in Vegas, and the next day, Mitch received the paperwork for a separation. Fast forward to the present, and somehow the divorce still hasn’t happened. Both of them live in the small town of Tidal Falls and though they try to avoid each other, their attraction is as strong as ever. Then Rebecca befriends a pair of abused children and makes herself a target of the abuser. No way is Mitch going to let anything happen to any of them.

The pace never lets up. The stakes are sky-high right from page one with the two young brothers in jeopardy, and the danger they’re in makes this a page-turner right up until the end. The characters were distinct and authentic, and I connected with them all (except the bad guys—a pair of creeps I loved to hate).

This 90-minute story can be read as a stand-alone, though it was fun to know the secondary characters’ backstories from previous books. I finished it in one sitting, and I count it as one of my favorites of the series. Highly recommended to readers who enjoy an action-packed thriller with a lovely romance tying it all together. (Kindle Unlimited).

*****

Maggie’s Revenge by Jacquie Biggar

In Book 6, the series comes around to Maggie’s escape from the Mexican drug and human trafficker Chenglei, a story that’s been hovering in the background for several books. This installment of the series is full of action and danger as Maggie leads a number of enslaved women into the Mexican desert with the bad guys in hot pursuit. They want information from Maggie, a DEA agent, and they want to make an example of them all.

Running parallel to Maggie’s struggle to keep “her girls” alive is Adam and Frank’s race against time to find her and bring her home. Here’s where the romance elements of this thriller/romance mash-up share the narrative. Adam, Maggie’s DEA partner, had a relationship with her, and though now’s not the time to be thinking about other women, he’s fallen for his boss Amanda. Frank is in love with Maggie but doesn’t want to step on Adam’s toes.

The pace is snappy as the goal to recover Maggie drives the story. The characters stay focused, even with Adam’s daydreaming about sex, and all the characters were believable to me. Maggie steals the show with her toughness and single-minded determination, and she carries the story right up until the end. This book can be read as a stand-alone or as part of the whole series. Highly recommended to readers who enjoy romance/thriller mash-ups with lots of action. (Kindle Unlimited).

*****

Dead of Winter, Journey 13 by Teagan Riordain Geneviene

In this penultimate book to the Dead of Winter serial, signs are evident that the action is wrapping up. The battle between Arawn’s army of the dead and the Deae Matres’s force of sisters, returned spirits, and fickle goddesses has begun. The water goddess Coventina aids the Deae Matres in a sea battle with some wonderful action.

Most of this Journey is in Emlyn’s POV. She becomes the youngest member of the society, and though the other women wish to protect her, she’s embracing her pivotal role as one of the three who will repair the veil separating the dead from the living. It’s clear that she’s matured during the course of the story and, no longer a helpless child, she’s coming into her power.

The pace moves along well with a focus on the concluding action. Emlyn doesn’t participate in the battle, but views it through a mirror, giving the reader a high-level overview. The number of characters requires paying attention, but the author includes a handy glossary at the end to forestall any confusion. I’m looking forward to the final book in the series, which I’m going to start right Now!

*****

Dead of Winter, Journey 14 by Teagan Riordain Geneviene

The final installment in the Dead of Winter serial! The battle with Arawn is over, yet the dead are still loose in the world of the living. The group of protagonists continue to encounter the dead and mop up the world in some excellent fighting scenes, and Emlyn has some tough choices to make. The magical staffs, gems, weapons, and spells all come together, wrapping up a number of threads from the story.

The action ends at about the halfway point of this journey and the denouement begins. For a long and complex story, the extended conclusion makes sense as the author touches on the main characters’ relationships and plans for the future. I was delighted with several of the results. A highly recommended serial to readers who love long epic fantasies and enjoy getting immersed in extensive and continually evolving world-building.

*****

The BEK Curse by Jonathan Pongratz

BEK refers to Black-Eyed Kids, creepy children with solid black eyes that terrorize rural areas. In this short story, Richard and Maria are starting a new life on a farm when they have an encounter with black-eyed kids that goes very wrong. The narrative is fairly straightforward and reminded me of Twilight Zone episodes I used to watch as a kid. A creepy tale with a bit of a twist. Recommended to readers who enjoy quick horror reads. (Kindle Unlimited).

*****

Happy Reading!