I read so many great books over my break that I decided to hold a couple book reviews until June. I have soooo many great reads for you to browse.
Below are reviews for this month’s 4 and 5-star reads including a historical fiction, a thriller, three romances, a cozy mystery, a horror short story collection, a MG horror novella, a women’s lit novel, and a debut poetry anthology.
Click on the covers for Amazon global links.
The Russian Concubine by Kate Furnivall
If you like Amy Tan, I think you’ll enjoy this beautiful, often gripping, often heart-wrenching, and tragically romantic historical fiction. The book opens toward the end of the Russian revolution and then shifts eight years into the future to an international settlement in China, another nation on the brink of communism. Lydia is sixteen, living with her Russian mother as refugees, and they’re barely scraping by.
The story unfolds primarily in Lydia’s third-person POV. She’s learned to take risks to support herself and her mother, and having grown up in China, in the midst of its culture and people, she lacks the biases of the older adults in her life. Her audacity and fearlessness thrust her into dangerous situations and into a relationship with a Chinese young man. Their story is filled with tenderness and wonder, and the sense of impending tragedy was enough to keep me up at night. This book in many ways is a love story (reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet), though I wouldn’t characterize it as a romance.
The characters are exceptional, so beautifully drawn, flawed, dangerous, and heroic. The descriptions are richly visual, and I could “see” this book as I read. One of the things that brought both characters and descriptions to life was the attention to the details of time and place, as well as how the western and Chinese cultures interacted and clashed. Everything in this book is nuanced, and I loved that.
One note that I feel compelled to share is that, to me, Lydia was neither a concubine nor a mistress as the title suggests. Instead, she’s a young woman caught up in the sweep of cultures and history and love. This is a fabulous book that I highly recommend to readers of historical fiction who enjoy Asian cultures and settings and who want both gripping action and a beautiful love story.
She Who Returns by Audrey Driscoll
I enjoyed the first book in this series, “She Who Comes Forth,” which introduced France Leighton and her archeological initiation into ancient Egypt. In this sequel, France returns to Egypt two years after her last disastrous and mystifying experience. She’s accompanied by her newly discovered half-brothers and her friend Willa. All four of them travel for different reasons, France to seek answers to lingering questions about what happened to her and about her paranormal connection to an ancient tomb.
As in the first book, the author’s world-building and knowledge of Egyptian archeology are impressive, and I was immersed in the physical reality of the setting. The spiritual, mythological, and paranormal elements of the story combine with antiquities theft to create layers of danger for France and her companions.
The narrative unfolds in France’s first-person POV, and I found all of the characters authentic and compelling. Having read the first book, I had a better grasp of the complex relationships that continue to impact France and are key to understanding many of the story’s plot threads. I definitely recommend reading the books in order. A great tale for readers who enjoy paranormal stories, thrillers, and Egyptian mythology. (Kindle Unlimited).
Pour it On by Staci Troilo
Romy Chandler owns a popular restaurant, and Valentine’s Day is right around the corner. With a big meet and greet event on the books (which also promises future business) she wants everything to go perfectly. But at the last minute, her wine sommelier quits. She’s desperate for a replacement, and the employment agency sends a fellow named Rick to cover the night.
Rick Santucci owns and operates a family vineyard and would like to provide Romy’s restaurant with wine. He drops by unannounced, and what ensues is a wild and very plausible case of mistaken identity.
This is a short romantic novella that I read in under an hour. It’s the second of the Keystone Couples series but stands alone without any difficulty. The characters are great fun and well-rounded. The mix-up is the major plotline and obstacle of the story, and it’s cleverly done. I highly recommend this entertaining, well-written, and light-hearted romance. (Kindle Unlimited).
Academic Curveball by James J. Cudney
Kellan Ayrwick heads home to Braxton with two things to accomplish: one, to celebrate his father’s retirement from his job as president of Braxton College; and two, to interview professor Abby Monroe for his true crime television show. When Abby ends up dead, Kellan’s in the perfect position to conduct an investigation while trying not to step on the local sheriff’s toes.
The story is told from Kellan’s POV, and he’s a believable, three-dimensional character with complex relationships including a complicated one with his father. The cast of characters is extensive, but they’re distinctly drawn. Nana D was a hoot and my favorite aside from Kellan. Many of the characters are plausible suspects in the murder investigation, which meant this book was loaded with red herrings, and my early guess as to who was the murderer was wrong!
The pace moves along, following Kellan’s investigation. The narrative captures the feel of small towns and their quirky townspeople, and the limited violence in the book happens “off stage.” I enjoyed Kellan’s dogged amassing of clues and his navigation through the maze of lies and misdirection as he figured out what happened. This is the first book I read in the Braxton Campus Mysteries series, and I suspect it won’t be the last. Highly recommended to readers of cozy murder mysteries. (Kindle Free).
The Sheriff Meets His Match by Jacquie Biggar
In book 4 of the Tidal Falls series the focus shifts to Sheriff Jack Garrett. He finds his new secretary Laurel Doyle irresistible, and she thinks the hunky sheriff is pretty hot too. But she has a problematic past as a swindler that doesn’t want to stay in her past. Her uncle wants her to pull one more scam to help pay off a debt to his son-in-law, Joe. And Joe is out to make sure he gets paid.
The story is a novella-length romance that checks all the boxes with some danger and action thrown into the mix. Biggar’s characters are always engaging, and I like the way this tale refers back to characters I’ve already gotten to know in previous books. Though there’s an overarching storyline (that of Maggie) that remains unresolved, this book reads well as a standalone. I polished off the book in one sitting and look forward to the next in the series. (Kindle Unlimited).
O’Roarke’s Destiny by Shehanne Moore
In this historical romance, Destiny Rhodes has a problem—her drunk of a brother has lost her ancestral home, Doom Bar Hall, in a card game to the last person she ever wanted to see. Divers O’Roarke might be handsome, but long ago, he cursed her with ruin. All she has left is her home, and now he’s trying to kick her out. Fat chance she’s going to go. Thus begins this enemies-to-friends romance complete with smugglers, excisemen, unfounded accusations, mistaken assumptions, and lots of witty dialog.
Moore’s style shines through with a quick pace and lots of clever internal dialog mixed in with outrage and laugh-out-loud humor. As in the other books of hers that I’ve read, sex plays a secondary role to the push-pull of attraction and the complications offered by the plot, which in this case has quite a bit of action, twists, and danger.
The POV is shared by Destiny and Divers, and it was easy to see how their different perspectives fueled their conflict. Like many of Moore’s leading ladies, Destiny is a spitfire, very witty, full of exaggerations, and constantly jumping to conclusions and acting on them. Divers is a little more of a mystery, a man with a secret agenda, and a straight man against her outrageous personality. I liked the dynamic. Recommended to romance readers and readers who enjoy a fast-paced, tangled plot, and entertaining characters who will make you laugh.
Zoo of the Dead by Iseult Murphy
I read this collection of nine horror short stories in one sitting late into the night, and was highly entertained by the variety! From zombies and selkies, to vampires, succubus, strange hotel rooms, and a date with Death, no two stories are alike and most end with an enjoyable twist.
The tales aren’t overly gruesome, but they are definitely creepy. After each story, the author provides a brief description of her inspiration. Three of my favorites were Death’s Girlfriend, Checking Out, and Dead Jimmy and the Selkie. Highly recommended to readers who enjoy horror short stories with lots of originality and variety. (Kindle Unlimited).
Reaper: A Horror Novella by Jonathan Pongratz
When his parents go out for the evening on Halloween, they leave 13-yr-old Greg babysitting for Imogene, his younger sister. Things don’t go well, and before the night is over, Imogene has vanished. Something terrible happened in the basement of their home and no one believes Greg when he tells them what he saw. Greg learns that Immy isn’t the only child to go missing over the years, and he’s determined to find out what’s happening and put an end to it.
This horror novella is a quick read that I polished off in one sitting. The writing is straightforward, there’s lots of great suspense, and the horror isn’t gruesome, so the story seems appropriate for horror-loving middle-grade kids on up to adult readers.
Greg is a great character, a typical kid annoyed by his younger sibling, though his love comes through loud and clear, as well as his courage and persistence. Trent, another boy who lost a sibling, is also well-rounded and a complementary ally. There’s a lot of action, and the story ends on something of a cliff-hanger, setting the stage for Reaper II. A quick, entertaining story for readers who enjoy young protagonists, creepy adults, and scary monsters.
Linda’s Midlife Crisis by Toni Pike
Linda is an overweight teacher, bullied by her students, ignored by the school’s administration, and unappreciated by her husband who has no problem humiliating her, at home and in public. When Linda has a breakdown and is ordered to rest, her husband, feeling burdened, leaves her. The sense of relief begins Linda’s journey into remaking her life.
Linda faces few obstacles in her path beyond her own self-doubt as she forges ahead with some eye-opening determination. She has wonderful support from family and friends, and though most opportunities fall easily into her lap, she also takes risks. I’d categorize the story as Women’s Lit and though it’s fictional, it offers some practical advice on how to remake one’s life, as well as messages of empowerment.
The pace is spot on for a book light on conflict, and I finished it in a day. I enjoyed the array of well-developed characters, especially Linda who carries the POV. This happily-ever-after story would make a fun beach read. Recommended to Women’s Lit readers who are looking for a light and entertaining way to spend a few hours. (Kindle Unlimited).
My Mom’s Shadow by Mariana Dynasty
Dynasty’s debut book of poetry is a short one, consisting of five poems encompassing some of the life lessons she’s learned growing up with a struggling mother and demanding stepfather. It’s less than a 15-minute read. The poems are heartfelt and raw, and from the start, they reminded me of spoken word poetry with its repetition, subtle rhyme, and play with words. The themes of struggle, identity, and overcoming hardship also lend themselves to this genre. For that reason, I read the book aloud and thoroughly enjoyed the power that “voice” added to the form. Recommended to poetry readers who want to explore the work of a new author, enjoy spoken word poetry, and are looking for a quick read. (Kindle Unlimited).