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!

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!