Guest Review: Finding Kat by Kimberley O’Malley

Guest Review: Finding Kat by Kimberley O’MalleyFinding Kat by Kimberley O'Malley
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Windsor Falls #5
Pages: 314
Published by Carolina Blue Publishing on December 5th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
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Kat De Luca loves her family, and working in their bakery, but wants something more, something different. Sebastian Walker, local Cardiologist, grew up in the ultimate dysfunctional family. He can’t imagine why Kat wants to change anything about her life. Can she make him understand? Will he accept what she wants? Will their sizzling attraction be enough to overcome their differences?

Guest Review by Amy:

Kat De Luca grew up in a small town, with an Italian family rich in history and tradition. She’s part of the fourth generation of her family to operate the best (only?) bakery in Windsor Falls. Her father, the current patriarch, is…  well, that’s complicated. We’ll get to him in a minute. And one early morning, Kat’s making bread and treats, and in walks – him.  Sebastian Walker, she’ll come to find out, who is a cardiologist and the best friend of the person who is marrying Kat’s best friend.  Katie’s been trying to set them up, but they both are decidedly single, and not overly inclined to change that. But wow, this guy is hot. He comes around again a few days later, when Papa is there, and things get crazy in a big, big hurry.

Escape Rating: A: Overall, I liked this story. I grew up in small-town America, and understand some of the pressures that come with it – everyone knows pretty much everyone, and there is often only one provider for any given service in town, so if you need that service, it is helpful to stay on good terms with that provider. Kat’s reluctance to admit the hots she has for the handsome Sebastian is, to my mind, quite sensible: doctors can’t always be there for you, as patients’ needs can get in the way, and, well, he’s her father’s cardiologist, after all, and is the best friend of the man who is marrying her best friend. If either relationship fails, drama a-plenty would be afoot, and that’s all best avoided. Isn’t it?

For his part, formerly confirmed-bachelor Sebastian just isn’t really all that interested in commitment, or hasn’t been in the past, anyway. But Kat is just different, somehow, and it takes our handsome hero a bit to figure it out. Sebastian and Kat join Katie and her beau Flynn when the couple-to-be decides to elope. Flynn’s family’s got big money, so off they go in a private jet for a few days in the Caribbean, and a hasty wedding. And the sparks start for our pair, of course. Nothing like sand and sea and no day-to-day worries to get the…erm…juices flowing, so to speak.  Ahem. This section of the story provides some lovely steam, explicit but not at all tawdry. The encounters are unfortunately brief, but quite intense for all their brevity.

I had some concern for a bit about Kat’s career path, and how that would influence things in her relationships with both her father and Sebastian; indeed, her father’s intransigence is a major driver of this story, as he’s just not having her innovate the way she wants, “betraying” him by baking something that’s not in the family tradition. Now, before you jump on me, I’m not knocking tradition. There’s always room for tradition, and if the little family bakery near my home ever stopped making their jalapeño, sausage, and cheese kolaches the way they’ve always done, I would cry. A lot. But Kat’s not asking to stop baking the traditional goods. After all, they’re still wildly popular! She’s wanting to add to the business by trying new things, in addition. But dear old Papa just isn’t having it. I found him to be a frustrating figure, and the closest thing this story has to an antagonist.

I’ve seen a lot of romances that involve the breathtakingly wealthy, and a lot where it’s regular, everyday folks, but this one gives us a healthy shot of the best of both. I hope you’ll find it an enjoyable, easy read, as I have.

 

Guest Review: Sworn to Forget by Maria Imbalzano

Guest Review: Sworn to Forget by Maria ImbalzanoSworn to Forget by Maria Imbalzano
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Sworn Sisters #1
Pages: 340
Published by Wild Rose Press on July 18th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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By all appearances, Nicki Reading is a star. PR director at a major music label, Nicki is sharp, successful, independent, and confidently calls the shots. She dates whom she wants, when she wants, with no strings attached. But beneath that shine, loneliness flickers. Events from her past prove love leads only to pain. Commitment is not an option.

Until Dex Hanover, a classy, principled, and prosperous CPA, enters the picture. Undeterred by his unhappy childhood, he has an amazing capacity to be both caring and generous, giving his free time as a mentor for a child from the projects. Dex wears his paternal yearnings on his sleeve, and he is at a point in his life where commitment is the only option.

Despite their opposing views, Nicki and Dex ignite each other. But will events from their pasts ruin their challenging relationship and prevent them from experiencing everlasting love?

Guest review by Amy:

I’m in the habit of saying nice things about books, even books that other reviewers might find questionable; sometimes, however…well, this time, about the nicest things I can say about this one is that I didn’t spot many typos, and I feel accomplished from actually getting to the end. Reader beware: I’m gonna bring the snark out for this one.

Nicki Reading is on a cruise with her soon-to-be-ex, and meets Dex Hanover, also on the cruise with his soon-to-be-ex. Okay, that sounds like nice spicy fare from the get-go, although both of them are happy to explain at tedious length why they are on a cruise with this other person, and their reasons for dumping their exes are perfectly viable. Because they don’t have any real private space, they hold off on the steamy bits until they return home – convenient, isn’t it, that the two lovebirds live in the same city, not at all far from each other? This would have been a short story, otherwise. Come to think of it, that might have been a mercy, really.

They start seeing each other, the sex is magnificent, things are ticking along pretty well, until abruptly, they aren’t. Dex proposes, and she turns him down flat. You see, Dex wants kids, and Nicki just doesn’t.

Escape Rating: D+: We spend fully half of a way-too-long book exploring why there is this disconnect–Dex wants a big family, and to be the father of several kids, because his father abandoned him and his family when Dex was a youngling (huh?). Nicki was a teen parent, who gave her baby up for adoption, and cannot – CANNOT, I TELLS YA – tolerate being around kids, knowing what a crappy parent she was to her own child by giving him up (again, I say, “huh?”)  I mean, I get why those things in their past hurt them, I really do. But both of them are letting it drive their personalities in weird directions, and they’re not even bothering to tell each other. If they would just communicate with each other, so they could understand each other better, but no, both of these folks are way, way too self-centered, almost to the point of narcissism, and way too determined to make themselves miserable over something that happened ages ago. At many points in the front half of the book, I almost gave up. These characters are nothing at all that I can identify with.

52% in (according to my book reader app), we hit on something resembling some plot:  Turns out that the child Nicki gave up fourteen years ago is not all that far away after all. He was adopted by one of her best gal-pal Denise’s brother-in-law and his wife, who were raising him fine until they were killed in an auto accident. The gal-pal and her husband now have Bobby with them, and are looking to adopt him.  But (PLOT TWIST!) he turns up with leukemia. So another gal-pal, Sam, an attorney, works to get at the real birth records, so they can maybe find a bone marrow donor for the boy.

You can probably write the next chapter or two, can’t you? Sam shows up at Nicki’s office to break the news to her, there’s a fit pitched, drama drama drama. And we know who the father is – Michael, who was “just a friend” to Nicki way back when (grin grin wink wink nudge nudge), and disappeared right as they got out of high school, never to be seen again (my eyes are rolling up in my head here) until recently…when he’s involved with Sam.  ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

Through this whole hot mess, Nicki is still pining over Dex, but nope-not-havin’-kids-and-that’s-what-he-wants…until she starts to come around to the idea of maybe possibly…so she hits him up.  Yep, he’s still interested. (PLOT TWIST!) and she gets pregnant.  So they’re gonna get married, happily-ever-after, gosh I’ll try my best even though I’m not keen on kids, all for you, baby.

(PLOT TWIST!) Until she miscarries.  And dumps poor Dex, right before the wedding.  It takes us a couple more really contrived twists and turns to get to a happy ending. But for me, the happy ending was not the honeymoon in Bermuda, but simply finishing this one and seeing THE END.

Other people have given this book good reviews, in several venues, and I had truly hoped for better.  It’s the first in a series about these four friends, the Sworn Sisters, but right now, I just can’t wrap my head around reading the second one (Sworn to Remember), which was recently released.

Guest Review: Autumn Bones by Jacqueline Carey

Guest Review: Autumn Bones by Jacqueline CareyAutumn Bones (Agent of Hel, #2) by Jacqueline Carey
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal, suspense, urban fantasy
Series: Agent of Hel #2
Pages: 436
Published by Roc on October 1, 2013
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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New York Times bestselling author Jacqueline Carey returns to the curious Midwest tourist community where normal and paranormal worlds co-exist—however tenuously—under the watchful eye of a female hellspawn…...

Fathered by an incubus, raised by a mortal mother, and liaison to the Pemkowet Police Department, Daisy Johanssen pulled the community together after a summer tragedy befell the resort town she calls home. Things are back to normal—as normal as it gets for a town famous for its supernatural tourism, and presided over by the reclusive Norse goddess Hel.

Not only has Daisy now gained respect as Hel’s enforcer, she’s dating Sinclair Palmer, a nice, seemingly normal human guy. Not too shabby for the daughter of a demon. Unfortunately, Sinclair has a secret. And it’s a big one.

He’s descended from Obeah sorcerers and they want him back. If he doesn’t return to Jamaica to take up his rightful role in the family, they’ll unleash spirit magic that could have dire consequences for the town. It’s Daisy’s job to stop it, and she’s going to need a lot of help. But time is running out, the dead are growing restless, and one mistake could cost Daisy everything…...

Ask in the editor’s note, and ye shall receive, oh mighty Editor-in-Chief Marlene Ma’am.

Guest Review by Amy: So, it looks like things are slowing down some for Daisy Johanssen, half-demon Agent of Hel, the Norse goddess of death who runs the eldritch community in Pemkowet, MI. Daisy has a new boyfriend, whom we met very briefly in the last installment (Dark Currents), and it’s Labor Day weekend, so most of the summer tourists are leaving.

But, of course, that would make a really short novel, so no slow-and-easy life for Daisy! When boyfriend Sinclair’s sister shows up with a threat, it’s back to the job for the Agent of Hel. Sinclair really is Jamaican, you see, and his powerful family wants him to come home. They’re not at all against threatening the whole town to get what they want, either.

Escape Rating A-: Remember how, in my review of Dark Currents, I expressed some dissatisfaction at Daisy’s choice of suitor? Yeah, from the get-go in this story, starting with the second paragraph, Sinclair is there, and I’m just…underwhelmed. She had two other much-more-interesting men chasing her in Dark Currents, but she ends up with this…person. She was, she says, somewhat fascinated with the idea of having a “normal” boyfriend.

Except, well, he isn’t, of course. I can’t say I was at all dissatisfied with how Daisy got a grip on herself over this lukewarm relationship, and managed to end it and still remain friends with him. She can do better than him. And despite the fact that it’s Sinclair’s mother and twin sister who are primary antagonists that drive the plot of this book, Sinclair’s role in the drama fades to a much lower level than I was expecting from reading the publisher’s blurb. Yes, yes, it’s good seeing him finally growing as a character, finding the allies he needs to stand up to his family, all that jazz – but as a character, Sinclair still feels rather flat and unimpressive to me, all the way through this tale, and it’s really the biggest downer in the book. He was somewhat one-dimensional to me in Dark Currents, and I’d hoped that Carey would, given the plot opportunity of lots of time with Daisy, make him jump off the page for me…but he never really did.

Of course I probably should give poor Sinclair a break; when your castmates are a whole bunch of supernaturals, well, it’s hard for any more-or-less normal human to look at all extraordinary. The gang of ghouls, led by the enthralling and handsome Stefan, a werewolf, assorted faerie folk, vampires, a thousand-year-old lamia, and even Hel herself continue to shine in this story. As I’ve said in my other reviews of paranormal stories, it’s because they’re “real people”, and here Carey’s genius shows; all of these supernaturals are just trying to get through their lives in peace, the same as you and I.

During the course of the story, as the deadline for Sinclair leaving town nears, our heroine and her friends must deal with an increasing number of restless dead folks haunting the town. This is good for late-season tourism, of course, but it keeps Daisy and her werewolf partner from the police (Cody.  Mmmmmm…) rather busy. When events reach their climax on Halloween night, we have a battle royal involving eldritch folk, some witches, and even a bunch of normal kids helping out with water balloons, all trying to put a zombie and the ghost that animates him (Sinclair’s grandfather) to rest. Things don’t go perfectly, of course, and dealing with the aftermath is how Carey brings this busy tale to a close. Most of the dangly loose ends in the book get wrapped up, sure, but I’m left feeling slightly…unfulfilled.

In the end, Daisy is left still wondering what to make of things with the two men remaining in her life as potential partners. With that juicy bit of bait out there, and with unanswered questions about a seemingly-unimportant side plot, Jacqueline Carey leaves me wanting to go find a copy of Poison Fruit, the third book in this series. So I will, and you’ll see a review here, when I do, I promise!

Guest Review: Tangled Dreams by Cecilia Dominic

Guest Review: Tangled Dreams by Cecilia DominicTangled Dreams: A Dream Weavers and Truth Seekers Book by Cecilia Dominic, Holly Atkinson, Angel Durham
Format: ebook
Source: author
Genres: paranormal romance
Series: Dream Weavers & Truth Seekers #2
Pages: 326
Published by Atlanta Insomnia & Behavioral Health Services on July 31, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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When the walls between reality and the dream world crumble, sleeping with the lights on won't save anyone from their nightmares.

Restaurant reviewer Audrey Aurora Sonoma's life is like a steakhouse meal: utterly predictable, comfortable, and just exciting enough to satisfy her independent streak. But when odd characters from her dreams show up during daylight hours - were-bats and a vegetarian dragon, of all things! - the menu goes from familiar to fusion. When she learns the job she accepted in her dream is real, well... Who would have guessed the goddess Persephone exists? Finding her - and figuring out why the walls between reality and the Collective Unconscious are slipping - seem to be impossible tasks for a mere mortal.

Damien Lewis turned down promotions to keep his life orderly and predictable. He has enough challenge with real-life hassles like eating regular meals. And forget dating. But after encountering three naked, delirious Jane Does on consecutive nights, he suspects more than drugs are behind their appearances, and he soon becomes much more involved than he'd like.

As the walls between the Collective Unconscious and real world continue to erode, vampires, demons, and, of course, were-bats come through to prey on those who get in the way of the god who is masterminding it all with human help. Can Audrey and Damien face their biggest fears and work together to stop the waking world from being overrun by creatures that no human has dared to dream of? Or will their nightmares become real - and permanent - when the pathways open for good?

Guest Review by Amy:

Audrey Sonoma is a restaurant critic, just trying to get by. It’s going well, for now, but then she starts…hearing things. Things that aren’t there. Lt. Damien Lewis is a beat cop, who’s had a bit of a novelty the last three nights: he’s picked up three different women, wandering around, speaking gibberish. One of them was naked, even. But none of them seem to be on drug trips.

Unbeknownst to these two strangers, the lines between the waking world and the place of dreams that we all share are being eroded. But why? What force is doing this, and to what end? Gods and goddesses of old are wandering around loose on the streets of a Georgia city, and something’s got to be done, before mayhem breaks loose!

Escape Rating: B: It took me a little bit to catch on to the premise here; the Collective Unconscious is that place where we go when we dream. The Greek pantheon (and, presumably, others) live there. Most of us don’t really control what happens in our dreams, but a few souls can: the Dream Weavers. Audrey, is, of course, one of these, which she finds out in the course of things. Zeus himself is trying to get out of the Collective Unconscious, so he can run things in our world, and he’s found an ally to help him do it.

Tangled Dreams is classed as a “paranormal romance,” but to this reader’s mind, it was strong on the “paranormal,” but a little short on the “romance.”  Yes, there’s that steamy dream they both have, only realizing later that they’d ended up “together” in the Collective Unconscious, but the chemistry and heat that I normally expect from a romance just wasn’t as strong as it perhaps could have been.

We’ve certainly got a great paranormal action/adventure story, and there’s a bit of whodunnit factor for a while, as our heroes try to figure out what’s going on around them. But while they’re both rather-obviously interested in each other, Audrey in particular has a bit of a thing about dating cops: they might not come home some night, so they’re really not a good prospect. She harps on that point internally a lot. I get where she’s coming from, but it’s a bit of overkill. Damien is convinced that he doesn’t need a woman in his life, and makes much of that in his own internal dialogue.

When Audrey meets the feisty Aphrodite, stuck in our world, the goddess knows, of course (Goddess of Love, remember?), and has Cupid shoot poor Damien, who falls head-over-heels, googly-eyed in love. This makes Audrey uncomfortable when she realizes it, as Aphrodite’s interference just confuses the situation for her, and when Damien figures it out, he’s greatly pissed about it.

He wonders, is the love he feels for Audrey real, or the product of Cupid’s arrow? Much is made of the fact that Cupid’s power is enhancing what’s already there, not creating love out of nothing, but he feels trapped. For Audrey’s part, she’s got a boyfriend (tropey, little-seen Kyle, who is, of course, cheating on her) that she’s not yet officially broken-up-with, so she’s feeling very conflicted about the tasty steel-eyed cop, herself. We’re given a happy ending, of course, but it seems a little bit contrived to me, with one last bit of interference from Aphrodite, reminding them both that they’re perfect for each other. How she knows this is unclear, but she’s the goddess here, so let’s trust her meddling soul, and go with it.

I struggled a bit about how to approach this book. I wanted to say I really disliked it, because of the awkward chemistry between our heroes and the lack of steam-factor, but I liked the action/adventure story that we’ve got underlying this book; it’s an unusual premise, and one that the author spent a lot of time and words developing into an interesting setting. I wanted to say I really loved it, but the chemistry and heat of this book was just lacking for me, as a romance reader.

Your mileage may vary, of course, but I feel that if the author had as much invested in her protagonists as she did her setting, it might have been a better, longer book. If you’re a die-hard paranormal fiction fan, give this one a read. It’s got some fun depictions of ancient gods and goddesses, in a novel setting. But if you’re looking for heavy romance, this one may come up short for you.

Guest Review: Stardance by Spider and Jeanne Robinson

Guest Review: Stardance by Spider and Jeanne RobinsonStardance by Spider Robinson, Jeanne Robinson
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Stardance #1
Pages: 288
Published by Baen Books on February 1st 1977
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A woman of perfect beauty is too big for perfect grace as a ballerina; she will never be more than an understudy. Stardance is the story of one such, one with the body of Venus di Milo and a talent greater than Pavlova's. But if there is an answer, genius will find it; Shara Drummond goes to Space, where her life is devoted to creating a weightless art form that is to Dance as three dimensions are to two.

Then the aliens arrive, beings of pure light who dance forever between the stars. And so it falls to Shara Drummond to prove that the human race is ... human. By her Stardance.

Guest Review by Amy:

Our story is told in the voice of Charlie Armstead, a cynical former dancer and videographer. He’s the best at what he does, (probably because he’s a former dancer), and when he gets the opportunity to shoot video of the finest dancer he’s ever known in zero gravity, he jumps at the chance. But when aliens show up, Shara Drummond must dance for them, and Charlie gets the tape of a lifetime.  But, you see, that’s just the beginning of the story.

Escape Rating: A+. If you read the cover synopsis from the publisher, you might be misled into thinking that this book is about Shara Drummond, and her Stardance. I was, and when the dance with aliens came to a climactic conclusion a third of the way through the book, I was left wondering, “now what?” Frankly, I was a little bit mad that we’d hit the “end” so soon!

But, stubborn woman that I am, I kept reading, and when I finished the book, I had to spend rather a long time sussing out how I was going to describe this book. Because the end of Shara’s Stardance isn’t the end of the story; there’s a lot more to it, and Charlie must find his own way through to the end. It’s…complicated.

Spider and Jeanne Robinson have written a sonata, if you will. In the first movement, allegro, Shara does her dance for the aliens, Charlie taping every moment of it. This tape transforms the lives of a number of people in the second movement, a rondo, wherein Charlie and Shara’s sister Norrey marry and start a zero-gee dance school. In the third movement, the scherzo, the aliens return! An almost-pastoral coda ties up a few loose ends to the story’s structure, and we’re left with a tale to make you spend the night thinking about the real question that the Robinsons pose in this work: “What does it mean to be human?” Each part of the Stardance “sonata” is a story of its own, with its own tale to tell, and it isn’t until you get near the end that you figure out that all of these stories are actually a necessary part of a larger whole.

The first “movement” of this story doesn’t move terribly fast. Charlie is a depressive alcoholic, and it shows. That sort of life isn’t all that appealing to me, and so it made him a bit hard to like. After Shara’s dance, though, the transformative power of the Stardance wakes something up in him – he even later comments that it cured him of his alcoholism – and the vast profits from the tape let him move his life onto a more positive trajectory. Norrey is, as she has always been for him, a good influence, and when other members of their dance-school team join on, they forge an extended family of six: Three couples, one of them a gay couple, who love and trust each other completely. When the challenge arises, as the aliens return and park near Saturn, all six jump at the chance to go try to communicate with them, through their own Stardance.

There were some ironic moments for me in this book; one of the diplomats who accompanies the Stardancers out to Saturn is an American, Sheldon Silverman. He is nationalistic, vain, greedy, and always seeking a strategic advantage over the other five diplomats and the dancers. When he started causing problems, I had a thought: “well, of course. Stereotypical American politician.” Indeed, all of the diplomats in the group were somewhat trope-ish to me, from the cagey Chinese man to the Russian woman who tried (briefly) to bully the dancers, to the affable and brilliant Spaniard. This was a minor distraction, and it served the point that the us-vs-them that we embrace so much of here on Earth is part of the problem–but there is a solution, and in the end, when we find out that the aliens have the solution, two of the diplomats find that it just can’t work in their worldview.

If this was the only work in this universe that Spider and Jeanne Robinson created, it would be enough; it tells us an epic story, with adventure, romance, thrills, and a bit of mystery. Even more, it challenges the reader to think about the nature of family and humanity. It’s definitely worth a look. Originally published in 1977, it has startling insight into the “progress” we’ve made in the years since its publication. But there are two other works in this trilogy (Starseed and Starmind), which I hope to track down soon. If they’re as wonderful as Stardance, I’ll be in for a couple of thoughtful, thoroughly wonderful reads.

Guest Review: Orb by Gary Tarulli

Guest Review: Orb by Gary TarulliOrb by Gary Tarulli
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 322
Published by Gary Tarulli on November 16, 2011
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

Three months outbound from Earth and the starship Desio approaches its planetary destination, her crew eager to commence a mission of scientific discovery. Kyle Lorenzo, however, has a personal reason for being on board--an inner conflict that will ultimately propel him to explore not only of the furthest reaches of an enigmatic ocean world but the nebulous recesses of his inner psyche.

During the long and isolating interstellar journey a physical relationship develops between Kyle and the ship's physician, Kelly Takara. That part is easy. Understanding the reasons for avoiding the emotional commitment desired by Kelly is harder. So, too, is trying to penetrate the mind of Larry Melhaus, the mission's brilliant and reclusive physicist - a failure to communicate made exponentially more troublesome when the scientist's disturbing behavior begins to threaten the crew.

While Kyle struggles to comprehend himself and Melhaus, the ship's crew, led by their strong-willed commander, Bruce Thompson, attempt to fathom a planet where none of the precepts of science seem to apply. A world where every preconceived notion of what constitutes life must be re-examined and challenged.

Two journeys: One inward, one outward.Culminating at the same destination.

Guest Review by Amy:

Interstellar exploration is hard, even if you have a wormhole to make the trip shorter. They only pick the best of the best, but the first crew that went to the planet labeled “231-P5” … had problems. The stress of the trip, being alone with only each other for months on end, the situation they found themselves in, no one’s entirely sure. This crew is carefully hand-picked: five scientists, one…wait, what? A writer? And a poodle?

Months out there in space, and our intrepid wordsmith has fallen for the ship’s doctor, one Kelly Takara, but Kyle Lorenzo is sort of afraid of commitment. Things are tense, and only get more so as the expedition’s physicist, Dr. Larry Melhaus, starts acting even more strange than usual.

Escape Rating: B+. The first chapter or two of this book didn’t quite grab me the first time I picked it up about a year ago. I chalked it up to the mood I was in at the time, and threw it back on my TBR heap for later consideration. When I decided to give it another whirl last week, I discovered that the problem with the book wasn’t me. Well, not exactly.

I’m reminded of the first time I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey. While visually stunning, there is an awful lot of the early part of the film that, to me as a then-very-young person, just didn’t serve the plot in a meaningful way. That’s the problem I had with the first couple of chapters of Orb. Author Gary Tarulli gets us deeply into the head of a literary-minded person, and it reminded me rather a lot of the existential maunderings I had to read in freshman lit classes in the late 1980s: slightly less-exciting than cold oatmeal with no butter.

Let me say right now that that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Existentialist fiction, if I may paint it with that deliberately-broad term, isn’t by definition bad, despite what I just said about my poor freshman lit teacher’s choices. I just didn’t expect it to come at me in a book labeled “Science Fiction.” And far be it from me to dish on a self-published author–as self-published first works go, this one isn’t bad, really–it just took me a while to catch on to what Tarulli was trying to give us. I’m a slow learner, sometimes.

When our crew arrives, early-ish in the book, at the water world that they are there to explore, the sci-fi story starts to emerge, and it’s a good one. The intelligence that populates the planet is so wildly different from ours that our crew struggles with first-contact matters in unexpected ways, and watching Dr. Melhaus’ slow-motion implosion gives us a nice dose of tension, if not quite a villain. Kyle’s internal dialogue over his relationship with Kelly Takara is fairly-understandable, and watching him progress into that relationship is a sweet counterpoint to the precarious situation the crew is in.

“Not quite a villain,” I just said–there’s really no villain, as such, in this story. Our cast of characters spends the whole book discovering a place and flavor of life that is incomprehensibly different from ours, and spends even more time discovering … themselves. This is a book that, if you can digest it, will make you think about things rather a lot. It did me. This book is not escapist fiction, not like lots of other reviews I’ve brought you here at Reading Reality; it’s a thinker’s book. Read it with that in mind, and I’m sure you’ll get something out of it, as I have.

Guest Review: Dark Currents by Jacqueline Carey

Guest Review: Dark Currents by Jacqueline CareyDark Currents (Agent of Hel, #1) by Jacqueline Carey
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal, suspense, urban fantasy
Series: Agent of Hel #1
Pages: 356
Published by Roc on October 2, 2012
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Jacqueline Carey, New York Times bestselling author of the acclaimed Kushiel’s Legacy novels, presents an all-new world featuring a woman caught between the normal and paranormal worlds, while enforcing order in both. Introducing Daisy Johanssen, reluctant hell-spawn…

The Midwestern resort town of Pemkowet boasts a diverse population: eccentric locals, wealthy summer people, and tourists by the busload; not to mention fairies, sprites, vampires, naiads, ogres and a whole host of eldritch folk, presided over by Hel, a reclusive Norse goddess.

To Daisy Johanssen, fathered by an incubus and raised by a single mother, it’s home. And as Hel’s enforcer and the designated liaison to the Pemkowet Police Department, it’s up to her to ensure relations between the mundane and eldritch communities run smoothly.

But when a young man from a nearby college drowns—and signs point to eldritch involvement—the town’s booming paranormal tourism trade is at stake. Teamed up with her childhood crush, Officer Cody Fairfax, a sexy werewolf on the down-low, Daisy must solve the crime—and keep a tight rein on the darker side of her nature. For if she’s ever tempted to invoke her demonic birthright, it could accidentally unleash nothing less than Armageddon.  

Guest review by Amy:

What kind of a mom would name her demon-spawn child “Daisy?”  Really?  But here’s Daisy as a plucky young adult with…erm…anger-management issues. Oh, and a tail. She’s the daughter of a human woman, and…well, a demon. Literally making the case for never, ever getting around a Ouija board ever again. Her dad, if Daisy just calls on him, can, in fact, bring on the Apocalypse. It doesn’t make for a close daddy-daughter relationship.

But she’s got her mom, who’s quirky and adorable, and she’s got a job working for the police department as a part-time file clerk, her friends, even a crush (on a fellow cop, who also happens to be a werewolf).  Oh, and a second job as liaison to the local goddess, Hel, who kind of runs things in the local eldritch community. Certainly grounds for an interesting life, but early in our story, a frat boy from a nearby college dies under suspicious circumstances.

Escape Rating: A+. I’m a huge fan of Carey’s Kushiel universe, which are delicious epic fantasy reads. Jacqueline Carey shows us she’s not a one-trick pony with Dark Currents. This story moves along rather a lot faster than her Kushiel works (aside from Kushiel’s Dart, which was over much too soon for my tastes), and we’re shown a solid cast of characters, all of whom seem to have a pretty good grasp on who they are in the grand scheme of things.

One of the things I like about this book (as with my prior review of MaryJanice Davidson’s Derik’s Bane) was that our supernatural beings aren’t…inhuman. Even the ones most-divergent from humans (faeries, naiads, a mermaid, a frost giant) have concerns and cares and lives that – while necessarily different from ours because of their nature – aren’t so far different from us that we can’t understand their motives. They’re just trying to get along with the overwhelming force of humanity around them, that’s all. Even the ghouls and vampires, as creepy as they are, make sense, and become characters you can understand and even like, in a way.

Daisy is a snark-o-matic, and her nature adds to this, along with her occasional frustration with being who she is. I had lots of giggles reading this tale, thanks to a generous sprinkling of puns and silly one-liners.

I tagged this as a suspense novel, and it is The core story here is a whodunit that crosses between the mortal and immortal realms. Daisy must stand astride that line, and dispense the justice she is empowered to hand out by her boss Hel, while making sure that any involved mortals get the treatment they deserve from her other boss, the police chief. But this book is more than that.

There’s a taste of romance here, too. Daisy tells us right up front about her long-time crush (a werewolf, who ends up partnering with her to solve the case), and we meet two other men who express interest in her, one a very intelligent, very dapper ancient ghoul, and one a mortal, with a fake Jamaican accent. All three are fascinating men, and I spent quite a while wondering which one she’d center on–if any, since there was also that flirtation with the very feminine lamia who used to babysit her, back-when. She says she’s straight, but this one does something for her even with the millenia-sized age gap.

I enjoyed this book immensely, and can’t wait to read (and maybe review for you here – Marlene? Can I?) the other two books in this series. My only downer in the book came right at the end, when Daisy ended up dating a different one of her crushes than I would have, in her shoes. I can’t tell you which, now, that’d ruin the whole thing for you, wouldn’t it? Go read for yourself!

Marlene’s Note: The next book, for those following along at home, is Autumn Bones. And YES, you certainly may review it for me here. In fact, that’s pretty please would you review it for me here. With bells on. I also love the Kushiel series. And I cite her Banewreacker/Godslayer duology fairly often as a classic in the “history is written by the victors/good and evil depend on which side of the fence you’re on” fantasy.

Guest Review: Derik’s Bane by MaryJanice Davidson

Guest Review: Derik’s Bane by MaryJanice DavidsonDerik's Bane by MaryJanice Davidson
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Fiction, Romance, Contemporary, Erotica, fantasy
Series: Wyndham Werewolf #3
Pages: 298
Published by Penguin on January 1, 2005
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Derik's a werewolf with alpha issues--and a body to die for.

Sara is the personification of unspeakable evil--and smells like roses.

Now if they could just stop drooling over each other long enough to save the world.

Okay, okay. I said in my review of Davidson’s Sleeping With the Fishes a while back that I didn’t care much for paranormal romances with werewolves in them. I may have to rethink my position, at least in the case of this series.

Guest review by Amy:

Derik has a problem, you see – he’s an alpha, born to it, and now that he’s coming into his own, it makes it really hard to get along with his pack’s alpha, Michael. There can only be one, of course, so things are tense right from the get-go. The seer in the group, though, has seen a solution. Out on the west coast, there is a woman who is a reincarnation of an ancient evil. Taking care of her will prevent the destruction of the world. Aha! A quest!

The ancient evil, however, is reincarnated into a really ditzy, unbelievably lucky, stunningly gorgeous woman. And…she’s really not that evil. Derik tries to kill her, and fails, of course. Derik and Sara embark on a cross-country trip to find and prevent the end of the world, and along the way, they get a little bit crazy for each other.

Escape Rating: A-. I had such a good time reading Sleeping With the Fishes last year that when I saw this book at my used bookstore, I had to pick it up. Davidson gives us another really fun romp of a read, complete with Milk Bone jokes from the snarky Sara that had me laughing until I wheezed.

I’ve spotted a pattern with Davidson’s supernatural characters: they’re real people. In Derik’s case, he’s a real guy, who just-happens-to-be a werewolf, and has to deal with that. No big drama, no woo-woo mystical magic-ness in them; they’re just…people, of a different species, who must necessarily deal with who they are, living in a world full of homo sapiens. I’ve gotta say, I like that feature in both of these books. One of the things that’s been so off-putting to me about paranormal romance in the past is the near-fetish status of the supernatural character. People make a Big Deal about that lycanthrope in their life, or worse, the lycanthrope in their life fetishizes themself. Davidson’s “we’re all just people here” aesthetic really lets me fall into the story, suspend disbelief, and enjoy it, without the distraction of the otherworldliness of one or more characters.

Derik’s Bane gives us a comedy-of-errors, North by Northwest kind of frenzied trip from coast to coast, and, like many road-trip stories, the characters end up way closer to each other than they originally planned on. The quality of the story in that part of the book was so good that the ending, where our hero and heroine discover the awfulness that will end the world if they don’t stop it, comes as a tiny bit of a disappointment. I won’t spoil it for you, but imagine the Monty Python and the Holy Grail scene where the knights come to a cave, and the horrid guardian of the cave turns out to be a rabbit. The semi-heroic battle that followed picked things back up a bit, and what the clairvoyant tells our happy couple after the fact makes it clear that, of course, things were never quite as they seemed to Derik all along.

It’s official: MaryJanice Davidson is going on my list of read-for-fun authors. There’s no way to call this “serious” fiction, for any construction of that term, but Derik’s Bane gives us another rollicking read, with rich, entertaining characters. No deep thinking required, just enjoy!

Guest Review: Perennial: A Garden Romance, by Mary Anne Mohanraj

Guest Review: Perennial: A Garden Romance, by Mary Anne MohanrajPerennial: A Garden Romance by Mary Anne Mohanraj
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance
Pages: 90
Published by Tincture on May 1, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
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Perennial tells the story of Kate Smith, an aspiring artist facing a difficult cancer diagnosis, and Devan McLeod, a flower shop owner. It draws on the experiences of the author, Mary Anne Mohanraj, who was diagnosed with breast cancer and treated (successfully) with chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation. This little book intercuts poems she wrote over the course of that year with a garden romance. Mohanraj is an enthusiastic Chicagoland amateur gardener, and during treatment, she took great solace in her garden. She hopes this book bring solace and joy to its readers.

Guest Review by Amy:

It’s January, and Devan McLeod has just met Kate Smith, who walked into his small garden shop with something on her mind. It’s cancer, we find out soon enough. When it’s confirmed a month later, she remembers the kindness of the shopkeeper she’d barely met, and returns to his Oak Park Village shop for flowers–and to tell Devan, a near stranger, the news.

In the crucible of that experience is forged…something. Two people caring about each other from some distance, not quite a romance yet, nor a friendship, just a presence in each other’s world and thoughts as Kate begins the stressful, painful path through treatment.

Over the course of the year, the distance closes, and two people figure out how to help with each other’s pain.

Escape Rating: A+. I had a difficult time reading and reviewing this story, as it hits on a theme that is personally painful for me. Following the principle of full disclosure, I’ve got to admit that I’ve known author Mary Anne Mohanraj online for a couple of years, having “met” through a mutual friend. She’s a versatile writer, from cookbooks to romance to sci-fi to erotica, and every bit of her work that I have read so far brings out the empath in me. Reading Kate’s story, knowing that some of it is informed by Mary Anne’s own experiences as a breast cancer survivor, you can almost feel what she’s going through, and what Mary Anne went through. Devan is no knight-in-shining armor, here to save the day. He realizes (correctly) that she must walk part of her path for herself, as he must deal with his own struggles. Neither of them is all that extraordinarily or heroic, just two ordinary people with their own hurts, who find a path together, in time.

In between the chapters of this little story are poems, written during Mary Anne’s own fight with cancer. These poems only add to the sense that Kate, while very different in many ways from Mary Anne, is sharing snippets of Mary Anne’s own experiences.

Perennial is a short, easy read at just 90 pages, but you’ll find a sweet, heartwarming story in those pages, one that is definitely worth your time.

Guest Review: Finders Keepers by Linnea Sinclair

Guest Review: Finders Keepers by Linnea SinclairFinders Keepers by Linnea Sinclair
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction romance
Pages: 453
Published by Bantam on April 26, 2005
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Be careful what you wish for. You might get it... Her ship's in shambles, her boyfriend's dumped her and she's frankly out of funds. Captain Trilby Elliot hopes her luck has changed when a high-tech fightercraft crash lands at her repair site. Finders keepers. She can sell the ship as salvage, pocket the profits. Except for one small problem: the pilot, Rhis, is still alive and intent on commandeering her ship. And another much larger problem: someone very powerful and very important wants Trilby Elliot dead.

I love the used bookstore, because of the serendipity of things; you never know what you’ll bump into! Quite a few of the reviews I’ve done here at Reading Reality have been things I found in the bargain bin at my used bookstore. I found this one, got hooked on the first page, and casually mentioned it to Marlene–turns out, she’s a fan of both sci-fi romances, and this author, but hasn’t ever reviewed any of her work here.

For shame! “If it is to be, it is up to me.”

Guest Review by Amy:

Trilby Elliot isn’t just any tramp-freighter captain plying the space lanes, trying to make a living, no. She does it all alone, except for her trusty ‘droid Dezi, in a clapped-out old ship that has seen better days. So, not a wimp, this lady fair. We find her holed up on some back-end-of-nowhere planet, hacking on repairs, and hoping to get home in time for her next cargo job, when she sees another spacecraft crashing.

She goes to check, thinking there might be salvage, and she finds…him. Mr. Tall, Dark and Handsome, in the flesh. He’s injured from the crash, but Trilby and Dezi drag him back to the ship and get him in the med-bay to heal.  When he wakes, we find out he’s a lieutenant in the Zafharin military. He’s on the wrong side of dividing lines between three different sorts of civilization, in a ship belonging to the most non-human (and inhumane) of the three, and she just wants to get back to work.

Escape Rating: A+. Marlene warned me, she truly did. Linnea Sinclair is an awesome storyteller. The universe she constructed for this tale is rich in detail, but the details are close enough to our own sense of normalcy that we can grasp what’s going on, and not have to have things explained at great length. It’s a comfortable universe for a sci-fi fan to land in, even for all its violence and tension.

This is really my first foray into the sci-fi romance genre; I’m a fan of both sci-fi and romance, but this is new turf for me, and now I’m hooked. Unlike a lot of romances I read, this isn’t as trope-laden and obvious as a Harlequin, and there’s action and intrigue enough to keep sci-fi fans reading right along. Our heroine is a bit of a badass, with a softer side that she doesn’t let out much. But the handsome Rhis cracks her armor enough for them to fall for each other. He is, of course, Not Who He Appears to Be (we can’t totally escape the tropes, now, can we?), and when Trilby finds out, she’s furious, because the person he is reported to be is…infamous! A monster! Scourge of Space! But underneath the tough guy is a very real man, with very real feelings, and those closest to him know it, and push him back toward the woman he loves.

For quite a bit of this book, we’re not entirely sure who the antagonists are. There are two human-ish civilizations, the Zafharin and the Conclave, plus the ‘Sko, decidedly non-human. All three groups have been at cross purposes for years, and there is, of course, intrigue at the highest levels of Trilby’s tribe, the Conclave.  Over time, as I mentally shadow-boxed these characters looking for the villains, I got to the point that I was finding villainy even in our protagonists’ closest friends…could it be that even those closest to Trilby and Rhis are part of this vast conspiracy?

Once the bad guys were revealed, we have two people in love, who are also in a bit of a rough spot together, and the ending, while quick and to-the-point, gave me a happy smile.

Marlene’s Note: For anyone – including Amy – looking for more great science fiction romance, be sure to check out the SFR Galaxy Awards. While the 2018 Awards won’t be posted until January 31, there are PLENTY of great SFR stories among the previous years’ award winners!