Guest Review: Sten by Chris Bunch & Allan Cole

Guest Review: Sten by Chris Bunch & Allan ColeSten by Allan Cole, Chris Bunch
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: action adventure, science fiction, space opera
Series: Sten #1
Pages: 310
Published by Orbit on August 12th 1982
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This is the first book in the action-packed science fiction series, Sten. Vulcan is a factory planet, centuries old, company-run, ugly as sin, and unfeeling as death. Vulcan breeds just two types of native—complacent or tough. Sten is tough. When his family is killed in a mysterious accident, Sten rebels, harassing the Company from the metal world’s endless mazelike warrens. He could end up just another burnt-out Delinquent, but people like Sten never give up.

Guest review by Amy:

Karl Sten grew up on the industrial hellworld of Vulcan. His parents and siblings were all killed by the callous, uncaring machine-world they lived in, as a result of an industrial accident. Workers on Vulcan were on ironclad contracts that were rigged to give the Company the rest of a worker’s life. Until Sten rebelled. But escaping from Vulcan was only the first of his many adventures…

Escape Rating: A: Have you ever circled back to an old favorite from years ago, only to find out it’s not quite as good as you remember? I first read this book when I was in high school; it was originally published in 1982. The cover, back then, didn’t make it clear that this book was the first of the series, and I found it in a used bookstore, all by itself. I remember thinking, “wow, this is a great story–why don’t those guys write some more?” They did, of course, and the Sten series eventually spanned 8 books, all following Sten’s epic career after his departure from Vulcan. I didn’t find the others for a few years, but when I did, I hungrily devoured the whole series.

Now, when I say, “not quite as good as I remember,” I don’t mean to imply that Sten is a stinker–by no means! It’s a wonderful tale, fast-paced with lots of action and excitement, a cast of colorful characters, a villain that you can really love to despise, and enough hard sci-fi in there to keep geeks interested.

The Company’s boss, Baron Thoreson, is up to no good. He’s got a top-secret project that will, he hopes, let him control an even bigger chunk of the universe. He (rightly) understands that information is power – and once two people know something, it’s not a secret any more, it’s information. The Eternal Emperor is the sole holder of the secret of Anti-Matter Two, the molecule that powers…well, everything. It powers space ships, making interstellar travel possible, and can even be weaponized–the Imperial Guard’s primary weapon shoots tiny pellets of the stuff.

Sten, born on Vulcan and a teenager when our story starts, loses his family and takes up his father’s contract. He rapidly figures out just how rigged the system is, and he rebels, eventually escaping to lead a gang of juvenile criminals, the Delinqs. It’s there that the Emperor’s right-hand man Ian Mahoney finds Sten, while on an undercover mission to find out what the Baron is up to. Sten ends up leaving Vulcan, and joining the Imperial Guard. But Sten isn’t an infantry type – so after he washes out, Mahoney whisks him away to the top-secret Mercury Corps for deep intel work.

Sounds like a rollicking good adventure, right? Well, it is. There are fascinating people to meet at every phase of this story for Sten (and for us!), some great scenery, some cool tech, great battles…all the ingredients are here.

So what’s wrong with it? I’ve spent the last couple of days trying to figure that out. Sten moves really, really fast – and there’s the niggling thing that’s bothering me about it, and keeps it from being the great story I remember reading thirty-ish years ago. It moves too fast. In this first book, at least, we don’t really get into Sten’s head at all, though the bulk of the story centers on him. Things truck along, third-person with the camera pretty firmly pointed at Sten, and at the end, I’m wanting to dig deeper into this fascinating man.

So, I’ll take a minor point off for that. It’s possible that my familiarity with the book is part of what’s driving that odd feeling, so let’s not gig the book too badly. Others have called this a “hidden masterpiece” and an “underrated classic,” and I’ll buy that. For fans of hard military sci-fi, Sten is pure candy. Read and enjoy, then go see if you can find the rest of the series more quickly than I did!

Guest Review: H2O by Irving Belateche

Guest Review: H2O by Irving BelatecheH2O by Irving Belateche
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: dystopian, post apocalyptic, science fiction, thriller
Pages: 198
Published by Laurel Canyon Press on November 8, 2012
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBook Depository
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Roy Walker is curious. But in a world where knowledge has disappeared, curiosity will get you killed.

Generations ago, the Passim Virus wiped out most of humanity. The survivors banded together to form the Territory and, now, decades later, no one questions why knowledge has disappeared. Why should they? They're lucky to be alive.

But Roy doesn't feel so lucky. He's haunted by the murder of his father and he's ostracized by everyone in town. He asks way too many questions, especially about the water pumped out by the town's desalination plant.

Then Roy finds a tantalizing clue that leads him down the coast of what used to be the state of Oregon. He's stunned at what he discovers. Everything in the Territory is a lie and everything around him is a front. But to uncover the dark secret behind this front, Roy must venture deeper into the wilderness where marauders and the deadly Passim Virus wait to kill.

It's there, outside the Territory, where he discovers the truth about his father's murder and where he meets his unexpected destiny -- To free humanity from the bondage of a powerful enemy.

Guest review by Amy:

Curiosity killed the cat, the old saying goes, though Roy Walker probably never has known that, since quite a lot of the vast body of human knowledge has been lost. Once the Passim Virus wiped out vast swaths of humanity, the survivors didn’t have time to… wait.

They didn’t have time to keep up a lot of the tools and technology that actually would have made surviving easier? Something doesn’t add up here.

Escape Rating: B+: I’m normally excited about post-apocalyptic adventure/thrillers; to me, it’s interesting to see how the author constructs their world. Does it look kind of like ours? What technologies develop in the ad hoc world after whatever-it-was-that-happened? What technology and culture falls by the wayside? Action, adventure, romance, all those things being in there are all a big plus to the central theme of “modern” humans trying to survive.

Author Irving Belateche has given us a slice of our own world, on the US West Coast, and quite a lot of it looks familiar. Houses, people, vehicles, even the desalination plant that our protagonist maintains, all look more-or-less normal. There are just lots of empty houses, and no one knows, really, what’s outside “the Territory,” and everyone’s scared to find out, because of the Virus.

To me, right from that point, this story has a problem for me. Humankind likes to connect, to explore, to get out there in the wild blue yonder and find things out. It’s what we do, and it’s made us the apex life form on this planet over the last several thousand years, and even gotten us into space.

To see a huge area of the United States cut itself off and be content with that strikes me as odd, right out of the gate. And a question in my mind from the get-go was “what happened to the libraries?” There are quite a few great big ‘uns along the Washington-Oregon-California coast; surely someone would have thought to go look for a computer repair manual in one of them? Or a copy of Programming Perl? Instead, we’re led to believe that writing software and maintaining computers are some magical voodoo that few can do–and, indeed, people are punished for doing so. As a software developer on my day job, and having worked with developers for thirty years, I’m just not buying this. Life, and software, always finds a way, to borrow loosely from Jurassic Park, but Belateche somehow wants us to believe that that’s not the case. Humanity’s vast banks of knowledge – libraries – are thoroughly ignored, not even mentioned once in the book.

I’ll let that go, for a moment, and suspend the big disbelief that threw me off-kilter here. The story itself has a lot of interesting points. There’s the worry about catching the Virus, the traveling without the “Fibs” (law enforcement) finding them, even a whiff of what could have eventually turned into some kind of love interest. Roy Walker is curious where all the water goes, naturally, since he maintains the water plant, and he knows it makes more than his local community could be using. That drives him to do something he shouldn’t (“finally! Someone acting like a real human,” Amy says to herself) and he goes to find out where all the water is going. At first, he thinks it’s corruption or some other criminal activity, but of course we’re given a deeper reason, and that is, in fact, why the Virus happened in the first place. There’s a decent adventure story under the hood here, and once Roy figures out what’s really going on, a straightforward redeem-humanity plot emerges from the earlier confusion. Our accidental hero is quite heroic, our villain suitably nasty, and the final confrontation satisfying.

Other people have liked this book a lot more than I did, from the reviews. My problem, as I noted above, is that it required a little more suspension of disbelief a little more than I was willing to give it. If that doesn’t present a problem for you, and you like post-apocalyptic stories, this one might be one you’d enjoy. It wasn’t my favorite, but it wasn’t a stinker, either.

Guest Review: Sentinel of Darkness by Katie Reus

Guest Review: Sentinel of Darkness by Katie ReusSentinel of Darkness (Darkness Series) (Volume 8) by Katie Reus
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal romance
Series: Darkness #8
Pages: 152
Published by KR Press on October 16, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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She thought she’d put her past behind her…

Local artist Keva might be human, but she knows about the things that go bump in the night. Years ago, a dragon shifter saved her from certain death. Ever since, she’s lived in his clan’s territory and put her life back together. But the feeling of security is only an illusion, because her past has come back to haunt her. A past with claws and fangs, demanding blood.

He’ll do whatever it takes to defend his mate…

Dagen has finally met his mate—except he insults her the first time they meet. He’s not too proud to grovel to get back into her good graces. But when a threat from her past emerges, he realizes that he’ll do anything to keep her safe. Even if it means dying—or losing her forever.

Length: 30,000 words

Author note: This is a stand-alone story in the Darkness series complete with an HEA and no cliffhanger.

Darkness series: 1. Darkness Awakened 2. Taste of Darkness 3. Beyond the Darkness 4. Hunted by Darkness 5. Into the Darkness 6. Saved by Darkness 7. Guardian of Darkness 8. Sentinel of Darkness

Guest review by Amy:

Here’s a note from the Fair Warnings Department: Right up front, in the prologue’s third paragraph, we’re told that our heroine had been raped by her ex-boyfriend, a wolf shifter who was at that very moment chasing her down for further violence. I almost put the book down on the spot, and I’m fairly certain that there will be some readers who may find that triggering, and should therefore give this one a miss. Those events are not depicted, but they are mentioned by Keva later in the book, as a past-tense event in her life. Caveat emptor.

The messiness four years ago has turned out pretty okay for Keva. Randall’s dead, and she’s found a place to be, and do her art, where she feels pretty safe. The local dragon clan has her (literally) under their wing, and while she’s not closely integrated with them, she knows them, and knows that their Alpha is looking out for her well-being. New clan member Dagen (a distant relative of the Alpha, Conall) has moved into town, and discovers Keva – and knows almost at once that she’s the mate for him.

Escape Rating: A-: I’ve said in the past that I’m not a huge paranormal-romance fan; it’s got to be well-done, and the paranormal aspects sanely presented, or I’m just not having it. When you throw in the terroristic aspects of the first few paragraphs, this one started on a slightly-off note for me. But that moment is brief, and passes quickly as Randall gets his comeuppance. Keva was rescued by the local dragon clan, and Connall and his family keep an eye on things. Dagen comes to town, a businessman in his human form, and tries to buy her shop away from her at an insultingly low price. Connall, when made aware of this, made it clear she wasn’t to be messed with in that way, so Dagen goes to apologize – and falls for her.

This book is novella-length, so things move fast. Randall’s brother shows up with blood in his eye, and, well, wolf-shifters appear to be mostly insane. Dagen really, really wants to protect her, as she’s the mate he wants. So he sets himself as guard over her home, and when she wakes in the morning and sees him in his dragon form, she’s even more enamored with him. Things proceed as they should, with both of them revealing past traumas which help to equalize their relationship more than Keva thought possible at first.

I’ve said in the past that our paranormals must be “normal” people to me, and as much as that’s possible for dragon shifters, author Katie Reus gives us that. Besides the dragons, we have wolves and mention is made of bears as well, though we do not meet one directly. But our paranormal beings here don’t deny their nature, they embrace it, while working around the strictures of a life in the early 21st century.

This book is a quick, tidy read, with a straightforward story that ends right where a fairy-tale story must. Once it was clear that these two people were our protagonists, I had to wonder if a dragon shifter can or would allow themselves to be ridden (yes, I’m an Anne McCaffrey fan, from way, way back, and the dragons may have saved this book for me). Can Dagen take her flying? Is it as wondrous a thing as it absolutely must be for this tale to work? You’ll have to read Sentinel of Darkness to find out – and if shifter romance is one of your preferences, I recommend that you do so.

Guest Review: Mischief and Mayhem by L. E. Rico

Guest Review: Mischief and Mayhem by L. E. RicoMischief and Mayhem (Whiskey Sisters, #2) by L.E. Rico, Lauren E. Rico
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Whiskey Sisters #2
Pages: 315
Published by Entangled Publishing on July 9, 2018
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Welcome to Mayhem, Minnesota, home of the Knitty Kitty, The Little Slice of Heaven Pie Shop, and O’Halloran’s Pub—owned by the four young women known as The Whiskey Sisters.

In the wake of her divorce, Jameson O’Halloran has gone man-vegan. And this is one diet she’s determined to stick with. Even when her long-lost ex-brother-in-law shows up looking like two scoops of double dutch dipped in chocolate… She’s not giving in. Been there and still wearing the messy T-shirt.

It’s been a decade since Scott Clarke left his family and his hometown, never to return. But when tragedy strikes, he finds himself dragged back to the land of gossip, judgment, and the one woman he absolutely, positively, without a doubt can never have. His brother’s ex is off-limits. He just needs to keep repeating that to himself until it sinks in.

Guest review by Amy:

Jameson – and what an odd name for a girl, don’t you think? – is finally well and truly done with her ex. She loves her father-in-law, and she loves her son, so she’s trying to keep things civil, and so far, so good. Sorta-happily-ever-after, yeah? Well, of course, something has to happen to upset the tidy balance, and when father-in-law “Big Win” has a stroke, and they find out that his health care proxies are his other son, and his now-ex-daughter-in-law, ex-hubs Winston pitches a fit.

Other-brother Scott is traveling the world, and hasn’t been home in a decade; there’s some tension between him and his father, so when the nonprofit he’s working with gets a message to him in Mexico, he’s reluctant to head home. But he does, and realizes that there have been sparks between him and Jameson for a long, long time. Things get complex, very fast.

Escape Rating: A+: This is hands-down one of my favorite reads so far this year. No fame-and-fortune here, no paranormal shenanigans, nothing that couldn’t happen to you or me, really, just a story about real people, living out very, very complicated relationships. There are a lot of side stories here – Jameson’s younger sister is one of the county fair’s royalty, Winston is having some kind of something-or-other with another member of the court, a girl a decade younger than him, Scott and his lawyer brother can’t get along, and that leads Scott to uncover something about his own backstory…subplots abound.  But buried in there is a romance that neither Scott nor Jameson thinks should happen, at first, but they gradually grow into. This central thread is shepherded along by a recovering Big Win, who just wants to see them both happy. When the whole truth finally comes out about what happened in Mayhem, Minnesota thirty years ago, it shakes everyone’s world quite a bit.

Sounds good so far, right?  But almost-certainly Marlene or I have read at least one complicated story along the way as good or better. What sets Mischief and Mayhem apart, for this reader, was the exceptional craftsmanship of the tale. Author Rico gives us a good story, easy to fall into. But the exceptional care she took to think the characters through, and make sure that they are presented in an engaging way really shines. We flip back and forth in point-of-view throughout the book, and both of our main characters’ internal dialogues are clear, consistent, and distinct. You don’t need to be told at the top of the chapter whose head we’re in for this chapter, really, because it’s obvious from what they’re thinking. One of the funny quirks Scott ended up with is that he’s kind of behind on technology. After Jameson shows him what Siri is on his father’s borrowed iPhone, he’s entertained enough that in the interludes between chapters, he talks to the AI (and texts with Jameson’s sister Hennessy), and these provide brief giggles that serve as a sort of Greek chorus, giving us these tiny insights into whats going on.

Our settings are rich and easy to envision, the cast of secondary characters are all complicated beings without being contrived, and our “villain” is suitable to the story. Robert Heinlein wrote in The Cat Who Walks Through Walls that for every great hero, you need a great villain; the more heroic your hero, the nastier the villain must be, or things get out of balance and the story doesn’t work. Jameson’s ex Winston is, as I see it, the perfectly-crafted villain for this tale. We don’t need a scorch-the-earth supervillain here; we need a nasty ex-husband. Winston is not really an overwhelmingly bad guy, he’s just petty and vain and kind of a hot mess of his own, and since he won’t own his own problems, he complicates life for Jameson and Scott in order to feel powerful. He’s a “real” person, and having had my own share of ex-partners, I can totally see him as the perfect exasperating ex.

I could rave on about this book for a long, long time, I suppose, but that’d waste time that you should spend reading Mischief and Mayhem. If contemporary romance is your jam, here’s a beautifully crafted tale to enjoy, which has my strongest possible endorsement.

Guest Review: Poison Fruit by Jacqueline Carey

Guest Review: Poison Fruit by Jacqueline CareyPoison Fruit (Agent of Hel, #3) by Jacqueline Carey
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal, urban fantasy
Series: Agent of Hel #3
Pages: 437
Published by Roc Hardcover on October 7, 2014
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The hot-as-Hel series with the “Sookie Stackhouse type of vibe” (Paranormal Horizon) is back—but this time the paranormal Midwestern town of Pemkowet is feeling a frost in the air and the residents are frozen in fear...

The Pemkowet Visitors Bureau has always promoted paranormal tourism—even if it has downplayed the risks (hobgoblins are unpredictable). It helps that the town is presided over by Daisy Johanssen, who as Hel’s liaison is authorized by the Norse goddess of the dead to keep Pemkowet under control. Normally, that’s easier to do in the winter, when bracing temperatures keep folks indoors.

But a new predator is on the prowl, and this one thrives on nightmares. Daisy is on her trail and working intimately with her partner and sometime lover from the Pemkowet PD, sexy yet unavailable werewolf Cody Fairfax. But even as the creature is racking up innocent victims, a greater danger looms on Pewkowet’s horizon.

As a result of a recent ghost uprising, an unknown adversary—represented by a hell-spawn lawyer with fiery powers of persuasion—has instigated a lawsuit against the town. If Pemkowet loses, Hel’s sovereignty will be jeopardized, and the fate of the eldritch community will be at stake. The only one who can prevent it is Daisy—but she’s going to have to confront her own worst nightmare to do it.

Guest review by Amy:

Winter has come to Pemkowet, and the Agent of ancient Norse Goddess-of-Death Hel is breathing a sigh of relief over the end of the haunting October. It was a mess, to be sure, but lives were saved, so maybe she can relax a little?  Maybe?  And take some time to figure out which of two men she can actually get serious about?

Not so fast. If Jacqueline Carey ever gave us a straight-up romance without something wild happening, I’d eat my hat. Fortunately, my hat is safe; remember that odd lawyer that was running around Pemkowet buying up property? Hel had asked her agent, half-human, half-demon Daisy Johanssen to investigate, and with the help of her friends, she does. He’s a hellspawn, all right, and he’s up to no good…but on whose behalf is he working?

Escape Rating: A: Carey, like Nora Roberts, has something of a knack for trilogies. Never mind that unless you live in Texas as I do, there are four seasons, and I’d love to read another book set in Pemkowet, Jacqueline Carey has given us a strong conclusion to this series in Poison Fruit. Daisy’s been told repeatedly that the decisions she makes are super-important, perhaps even on a global scale, but she’s mired in what to do about the men in her life.

The super-hot Outcast ghoul Stefan has to be away for a bit, leaving her working a little more than she’d like around the super-sexy werewolf, her sometimes partner Cody. Cody, for his part, has made it clear that as much as he’d like to, he’s got to get involved with another werewolf. Preservation of the species, you see, and the fact that he does that whole once-a-month howl-at-the-moon thing, which she cannot share…you understand, don’t you Daisy? It’s not about you, right? She says she does, but unlike Cody, she understands that some couples have diverse interests and activities. He can’t go to Hel’s demesne and see the Norse goddess, either, at least not under normal circumstances, so they each have their “me time,” so to speak. Don’t we all need that?

There’s a Night Hag roaming around, and Daisy and her friends must deal with that. Just about the time they do, Stefan comes back to town, and he has brought a friend, with an unusual request: that Daisy use Hel’s magic dagger to kill him. This was a tough scene for me to read; Janek is living with ALS, and, being Outcast, cannot die on his own, or be killed by mortal means. This has led him to most of a century of suffering, unable to be healed, and unable to die and find peace in his body and soul. Janek tells his story, and asks Daisy to use the dagger. After some back and forth, she does, and Janek dies with dignity, his faith that he could gain a chance at Heaven strong. As you might guess, shadows of this scene follow her to the end of the book; there was more than just a mercy here. There was an important lesson for her, and for Stefan.

When it’s finally revealed who is trying to buy up the prime land in Pemkowet, and why…well, things get busy in a hurry. The sneaky lawyer sets up a bogus lawsuit that’ll cost Hel her home, and the goddess is not at all happy about that. Pemkowet’s diverse eldritch community must come together to fight for their right to exist, and it is Daisy who must lead them. It’s not at all clear, for quite a while, that Pemkowet will win over the outsiders, which brings a delicious tension to the book.

…and after all the kvetching I’ve done in the other two reviews about who Daisy dates, I shan’t tell you whom she ends up with. I’m such a meanie! Go read it yourself. But let’s just say I’m finally happy with her choice, in the end. All in all, I’ve greatly enjoyed this series; it’s got a heroine I can enjoy, some fascinating supernaturals, a bit of action/adventure, and some steam to go alongside. There’s something for everyone here, so enjoy!

Guest Review: Second Time Around by Nancy Herkness

Guest Review: Second Time Around by Nancy HerknessSecond Time Around (Second Glances, #1) by Nancy Herkness
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Second Glances #1
Pages: 332
Published by Montlake Romance on July 24, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
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A former love makes a lasting impression in a warm and sexy romance from Nancy Herkness.

Kyra Dixon, a blue-collar girl from the boondocks, is dedicated to her job at a community center that matches underprivileged kids with rescue dogs. When she runs into Will Chase—Connecticut blue blood, billionaire CEO, and her old college crush—she’s surprised that he asks a favor from her: to be his date for his uptight family’s dreaded annual garden party. If his parents don’t approve, all the better.

Kyra’s not about to say no. It’ll give her a chance to be oh-so-close to her unrequited love. What begins as a little fling turns so mad hot, so fast, that Kyra finds herself falling all over again for a fantasy that won’t come true. How can it? She doesn’t belong in Will’s world. She doesn’t want to. But Will does want to belong in hers.

All he has to do now is prove it. Will is prepared to give up whatever is necessary to get what his heart most desires.

Guest Review by Amy:

Kyra is a Responsible Woman. Growing up, she couldn’t wait to get away from home to go to college, no matter what her family wanted. But after her father died, and her mother ran up credit card bills in Kyra’s name (and then died), Kyra never finished; she’s working two gigs, scratching away at that pyramid of debt. She doesn’t have time for any shenanigans from any man. Nope.  But she stops in for a wrap at one of her favorite chain restaurants, and…there he sits. Will.

It’s the guy who she drooled over in college, but never dated, of course.  And, of course, he owns the restaurant; he just happened to be on an inspection run of his locations. There’s some catching-up, good-to-see-you chitchat, and then he comes around to her night job at a ritzy bar, to ask her out, to a big family gathering his mother puts on every year. Oh, and yeah, the upper-crust parents won’t approve of this working-class girl, but he’s got a point to make.

Escape Rating: A: If, reading what I just wrote, you got the impression that Will is just using Kyra to make the point to his parents that they can’t just foist women on him – including his ex! – then you’ve read it right. That’s the impression I got, too, and I was a tiny bit sour on the character from the get-go as a result. But it emerges over time that Will’s had a problem with his parents for basically his whole life. His mother, in particular, is a stellar manipulator, and he’s finally busting out of the family mold. He was supposed to be a lawyer in the family firm, but he went out on his own, found funding, and started a chain of restaurants, with great success. This upsets Daddy and infuriates Mummy, but he just has to do things his way, and live his own life.

When Will and Kyra get to the Spring Fling (in his helicopter, natch!), Will has a bit of an epiphany. While he was dating the debutantes in college, and getting hurt over and over, Kyra was always right there. And he liked that (duh!), so maybe this more than just…well, whatever. You see where this is going, I’m sure. He falls for her (again), can’t live without her, and so it goes, a pretty-predictable rich-man/poor-woman story.

What makes this book stand out as more than just ordinary, for this reader, was the lovely complexity of the subplots that swirl around these two. Will’s ex-girlfriend is still around, and still pining for him, even though she doesn’t understand him at all, being one of those floofy debutantes that he has grown beyond. There’s the whole family drama with Will’s mother and father (and sister, who is an attorney in the family firm, and tense about it). There’s Kyra’s day job at an after-school care, where they also match families with rescue dogs, and her relationship with some of the kids and dogs there. There is a fair bit going on here, for what I thought was going to be a shallow, easy summer read. Easy, yes. Shallow, not so much. The convergence of all these threads gives us the key to better understanding for our protagonists.

Our leads, of course, have history that they’re both unwilling at first to talk about, mostly because of embarrassment, and their internal dialogues around those things give us a solid feel for what’s going on in their heads. There isn’t a whole lot of reason these two shouldn’t be together, and we know it well before they do, but they figure it out fairly shortly, and we’re given a sweet ending that sees the whole cast in a better, happier situation going forward. Exeunt omnes, complete with helicopters and yachts and fancy sandwiches and designer dog chow and smiles from kids.

What started out on a mildly sour note for me, turned into a sweet, well-crafted story I could sink my teeth into and enjoy. I hope you enjoy it, too.

 

 

Guest Review: Phaze by S. C. Mitchell

Guest Review: Phaze by S. C. MitchellPhaze by S.C. Mitchell
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: paranormal romance, science fiction romance, superhero romance
Series: Xi Force #2
Pages: 215
Published by Soul Mate Publishing on April 4th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

When Kayla Armstrong is attacked in her lab, she falls into a chemical stew. Now she’s walking through walls and falling through floors.

As the leader of Xi Force, Joel Weisberg is always looking for new superheroes for his team. What he wasn’t looking for was sexy Kayla Armstrong falling through the ceiling of his apartment right into his bed. Still he isn’t complaining when the event finds him a new Xi Force member and a new love. Now she just needs some training and some time.

But when an old enemy comes back with new powers and captures Joel, it’s up to Kayla to lead the Xi Force against her. But can they rescue Joel before he’s murdered . . . again?

Guest review by Amy:

Kayla Armstrong is a scientist for a hush-hush operation for the government, dubbed “Xi Force.” From the very first words of the book, she’s doing fancy science for her team, when she’s waylaid by someone who – honest to gosh – teleports into the room, knocks her about, steals her laptop, and vanishes. In the midst of the roughing-up she knocks over a cart with chemicals, and the soup of it she falls into changes her. She’s got superpowers! She’s going to be a field member of Xi Force! Just call her…Phaze.

Escape Rating: A-: I’m not quite sure whether this is a sci-fi romance, or a paranormal. There’s an awful lot of science going on for a paranormal, and an awful lot of mystical woo-woo goings-on happening for a sci-fi. Off the pen of S. C. Mitchell, though, it works, somehow. Kayla falls through the floor of her lab after getting soaked in chemicals, leaving her clothes behind, and landing in the bedroom of the on-site apartment occupied by her boss. Who’s just gorgeous, and she’s had the hots for him for a while. Oh, and he sleeps naked, too. Isn’t that convenient? She rapidly finds out she has the ability to walk through walls, fall through floors, all that. Pass through solid matter. That’d be a handy skill; it’d make it hard for me to lock my keys in the car again.

Joel Weisberg is, of course, a member of Xi Force. Some time in the past, Xi Force got attacked; it was an inside job, near as I can figure, and someone Joel loved. But she turned on him, and did a lot of damage in the process. She’s in prison now…well, until she’s not. And she’s got blood in her eye for Joel. What follows is a mystical, superhero-ey story where the good guys get some help from a dead girl, her mage brother, and a man who had his DNA blended with a wolf. Things move fast, so hang onto your seat. Xi Force originally thinks that all the shenanigans, including the attack on Kayla’s lab, are done by their arch-rivals, the multinational criminal entity Ghaim, but when the leaders of Ghaim start turning up dead, the plot gets thicker than Southern gravy, until finally Amber makes her move. She kidnaps Joel, while he’s on his first date with Kayla, now also known as the superhero Phaze. How rude!

Amber has loosed a demon. She thinks she can control it, but (of course) she’s dead wrong about that. So Xi Force has not only Amber’s powers, augmented by a mystical Japanese sword, but the demon that she’s turned loose in the process. Our hero team takes some lumps, of course, but this wouldn’t be a romance without a happy-ish ending, which, after a bit, they do get.

Phaze is a fun, fast-moving, romp of a read. Nothing too challenging, if you can suspend some disbelief, but all of the science and mystical elements fit just fine in the story, without a lot of exposition, so you can fall right into the tale. Enjoy!

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
Goodreads

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
Goodreads

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
Goodreads

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!