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
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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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
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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
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!

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
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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.