Thanks For The Memories

Okay, I screwed up. Again. All month long I kept thinking the November TBR Challenge: Recommended Read was due on November 22 instead of November 15. Apparently, I was off a by a week. I got confused thinking that Thanksgiving was on the third Thursday of the month, not the fourth. My bad, as we used to say. Since November is the month of Thanksgiving, I plucked two Thanksgiving-themed novellas from my TBR pile: Apples Should Be Red by Penny Watson and Stuffed: A Thanksgiving Romance by Jessica Gadziala, both of which were recommended by friends who know I love seasonal stories.  And if you’re looking for a quick, light read to get you through the holiday weekend, (at the time of this writing) they are each available for $0.99 from Amazon.

I’ve been in a bit of a fog this month because my grandmother died at the end of October and because November is never an easy month for me. It reminds me of all my loved ones who are no longer with us. Both of my parents had birthdays in November, as did an uncle and an aunt. They are all gone now, but with family gatherings and the holidays coming on, they are ever present in my mind.

Tomorrow would have been my mother’s eighty-first birthday. November was her  favorite month. She loved the changing colors of the leaves and the crisp Fall air. She decorated her house with pumpkins, gourds and Indian corn. Chrysanthemums were her favorite flowers. And Thanksgiving was her favorite holiday of the year because, every so often, her birthday would fall on that day.

Twenty years ago last month, I received a phone call in the early morning hours telling me that my mother was dead. It was exactly one month shy of her sixty-first birthday. I had talked to her just a few hours earlier, before going to bed. She had been laughing and joking about how cold the weather had turned. And a few hours later, without warning, she was gone.

This year my grandmother, my mother’s mother, passed away the day before the anniversary of my mother’s death. Although she had been hospitalized for the last few weeks of her life and had been moved into hospice care a few days before her death, it is always a shock to the system when someone you love is suddenly gone. It’s hard to believe she’s actually not there anymore. She’s been there for me for all of my life. She was my first best friend, my childhood playmate, my confidant, my counselor, my mentor. She was fiercely independent and feisty and willful and stubborn and courageous. She was strong and opinionated. She could sew anything. She made my wedding dress and all four of the bridesmaids dresses. And nobody could cook up a Sunday dinner like my Granny. She used to make a Peking roast which we all laughingly called “coffee possum”, referring to an old joke from the Beverly Hillbillies show, and she baked the richest pound cake I’ve ever tasted. She made plum jelly from the plums off the tree in her backyard every Summer. She made quilts and tended to the multitude of flowers in her garden. She was never one to sit idle. She studied her bible and she read westerns and romance novels, one right after the other. She wrote poetry in secret. She bought me my first typewriter when I was thirteen. She was my hero.

Today as I remember my mother and my grandmother, their lives and their vibrant personalities, I am grateful to them both for the life they gave me, for the precedents they set for me to strive toward, and for the guidance they gave me that helped shape me into the person I have become. I am grateful to them for instilling in me a love of stories, of books, and a love of reading that has followed me throughout my life. I am grateful to them for encouraging me to write and for all of their support along the way. I am thankful to have had them in my life, even though it was for far too short a time.

And now on to the reviews.

With all of the melancholy thoughts and nostalgic feelings swirling around inside me lately, I purposely chose two lighthearted holiday stories focusing on hearth, home, and family for this month’s TBR Challenge.

 

Apples Should Be Red by Penny Watson

Description:

Recipe for Thanksgiving Dinner:

Start with 62-year old politically incorrect, chain-smoking, hard-cussing curmudgeon.

Add 59-year old sexually-repressed know-it-all in pearls.

Throw in a beer can-turkey, a battle for horticultural supremacy, and nudist next-door neighbor.

Serve on paper plates, garnished with garden gnome.

Tastes like happily ever after.

Award of Excellence finalist (2015 CoRWA)
DABWAHA finalist (2015)
“Best Romance Novels in 2014” list at About.com
Recommended Read at Romance Novel News

Penny Watson presents an over-fifty romantic comedy novella. 21,000 words. Story includes copious profanity and botanical references.

There was nothing I did not love about this story. It was a delightful, lighthearted  romantic comedy featuring older MCs which, in my opinion, the world could use a lot more of. This book was full of all my favorite tropes: opposites attract, enemies to lovers, and forced proximity. These characters are so well-drawn and the banter and interaction between them is funny and irreverent and charming. They are complete opposites, him a cranky, anti-social hermit, she a sexually-repressed, prim and proper Martha Stewart wannabe. Due to the fact that his son is married to her daughter, the two are forced into co-habitation the week of Thanksgiving and are due to host the holiday meal together. It is an endearing and entertaining tale and I laughed out loud more than a few times while reading it. It’s proof that life and love do not stop just because you get older.

 

Stuffed: A Thanksgiving Romance by Jessica Gadziala

Description:

I haven’t been home for Thanksgiving in six years. A couple days before I leave to head home, I am informed that my brother’s best friend, and also my huge, obnoxious adolescent crush, will be there as well.

So among a shaky work situation, a newfound potato chip addiction, and the usual stress of heading home for the holidays, I have a sudden urge to prove that I was no longer the mumbling, bumbling girl in Hogwarts robes and her nose in a book.

Not that anything was going to happen between us. Those hopes had died around the time I headed off to college.

But maybe….

** This is a quick romance full of sweet moments and enough steam to keep you turning the pages. Explicit content.

This was a fun, fast read about an awkward, nerdy introvert in forced proximity to her teenage crush, who happens to be her older brother’s best friend. When she comes home to spend Thanksgiving with her family for the first time in six years, the object of her adolescent fantasies is also there to spend the holiday week and he has only improved with age and time. He is more gorgeous and sexy than ever.

I enjoyed this book. It has laughs, warmth, sighs, and sizzles. It’s a sweet story with low angst and identifiable characters. In fact, I could recognize every character as a person from my own life. All in all, a cozy, comfortable read. I like that the epilogue takes us a year into the future to the next Thanksgiving and shows how much can change from one year to the next.

 

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The Ghost of Halloween Past

royalty-free halloween

It saddens me how much Halloween has changed since I was a child. I saw a commercial the other day (I forget now what it was advertising) which showed a group of costumed children merrily trick-or-treating… in broad daylight. I understand the reasons and rationale behind it, but it still breaks my heart. In this day and age of child predators, feuding gangs, and food tampering, it is dangerous to allow our children to roam the streets at night, knocking on strangers’ doors and begging for consumables. The world is a much darker, uglier, more sinister place than it was in my youth and the Halloween experience is just one of the things that has been diminished by that fact.

In addition to the safety aspects, Halloween has also become commercialized and sanitized to the point that it is almost unrecognizable as the holiday I grew up with.

I count myself fortunate to have grown up in a simpler time, during the golden age of Halloween. It was the heyday of Hammer horror films and American International Pictures. Dark Shadows aired on our television screen every afternoon. My mother’s bookshelves were filled with Gothic romance novels. On the weekends, we had weekly movie matinees of the Universal Studios monsters. We watched The Munsters and The Addams Family and Bewitched every week on TV. And we read EC Comics narrated by Uncle Creepy and Cousin Eerie and Tales from the Crypt. In short, we were steeped in the macabre. We were glutted on depictions of ghosts, vampires, werewolves, witches and goblins of every sort year round.

Granted, there were sometimes slight drawbacks to that immersion. I, for one, was a morbid child who staked my Barbies and buried them in my grandmother’s garden. But then my oddities can be saved for another post at later time.

My point is: Halloween was our favorite holiday. How could it not be?

In those days, Trick or Treat was more than just an excuse to binge on free candy. It was an event – a grand adventure – that we prepared for and meticulously planned for weeks in advance. Most of our costumes were homemade and pieced together with items we found around the house or salvaged from thrift stores. We supplemented these treasures with our mother’s makeup and costume jewelry and cheap plastic fangs from the TG&Y.

We carved scary Jack-o-lanterns, reveling in being up to our elbows in the sticky goo of pumpkin guts. We decorated our houses and front yards with rubber bats and spooky spider webs and fake tombstones and witches on broomsticks and ghoulish dummy corpses hanging from our trees.

When Halloween night finally arrived, we were filled with a rush of fear and excitement. We waited impatiently for sunset and then, grabbing our cheap, plastic pumpkin buckets, we descended upon our neighborhood to plunder and pillage whatever tasty treats were to be had. Those were the days when it was still safe to accept popcorn balls, caramel apples, and Rice Krispie treats from your neighbors without worrying about hauling your bounty to be x-rayed at the hospital before eating them. As a matter of fact, half of the goodies we received were consumed along the way as fuel for our journey.

But it was never just about the treats. It was the experience of it all. You were outside after dark, in the cold October air, trekking door to door among costumed “strangers” who hid behind masks and elaborate makeup. The familiar neighborhood of our daylight hours was transformed into a spooky and alien landscape. Candles flickered from darkened windows. Eerie music drifted from opened doorways. Our imaginations ran wild. Was that really Johnny who sat behind me at school or a ghost returned from the land of the dead? Was that the neighbor’s dog howling or a werewolf on the prowl? There, flying in the sky, was that a vampire bat or just a nighthawk searching for moths? Man, Mrs. Applegate looks really convincing in that witch’s get-up. Is that a real cauldron she’s stirring? Is she secretly a real witch?

Still, the best part of Halloween for me was getting to check out everyone else’s costume creations and parading my own with great pride. I’m not talking about cute little cowboys and shiny super heroes, mind you. In my day, you weren’t just an princess. You were the ghost of a dead princess risen from the grave to haunt the living on All Hallow’s Eve, while the veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest.

Eventually, we would return home exhausted and full of sugar, with our senses on overload. We checked under our beds and inside our closets before crawling reluctantly into bed to relive in our dreams all the sights and sounds and spooky thrills we had experienced. And, even though a part of me knew it was only a myth, I stared out my window at the moon until I fell asleep, watching for a witch to fly past it on her broom.

But that was the mystery and magic of the holiday.

All things seemed possible on those long ago Halloween nights. And sometimes, when I’m lucky, that feeling and sense of possibility still visits me.

As I said, it makes me sad that the children of today will never know the wonder of the Halloweens that I remember from days gone by. They’ll never experience the same thrills and chills I looked forward to every October 31st.

They’ll never understand that it’s not about the candy. It was about the experience itself. The candy was always just an added bonus.

 

What To Read On A Chill October’s Eve

Halloween EveningFor me, mood, atmosphere, subtlety – that’s what makes for a great paranormal read. A slow building tension, a depth of characterization that ensures empathy, an intriguing premise that suspends disbelief in the reader to such a degree they immerse themselves in the story and experience it on a visceral level. In other words, it takes real skill to write a convincing and compelling paranormal story in this day and age filled with skeptics and cynics. Having cut my teeth, so to speak, on stories by the likes of Shirley Jackson and M.R. James, and novels such as The Uninvited by Dorothy Macardle and The House on Russian Hill by Florence Hurd, it’s often hard for me to find the kind of paranormal fiction that satisfies my inner literary snob.

I confess it. I can be a snob when it comes to paranormal fiction.

In order to understand where I’m coming from, here’s a little background on me. I spent a great deal of my early childhood in my grandmother’s haunted house. Yes, you read that correctly: haunted. In addition to that, some of my earliest memories are of watching Dark Shadows every afternoon on television with my mother. My favorite films growing up were the American International and Hammer horror films of the 1950’s and ’60’s. I spent most of my free time devouring Grimm’s fairy tales, classic horror stories and vampire tales, and every dimestore Gothic romance paperback from the sixties and seventies that I could lay my hands on.

Since this list would be endless without some kind of perimeters or criteria, I’ve chosen to limit myself to five (give or take) favorite M/M romances, mainly because I’ve read more in that genre than any other genres for the past few years.

A Little Familiar by R. Cooper

A powerful witch, Piotr Russell has resigned himself to loneliness, because ordinary humans can’t know what he is, and other witches are intimidated by his abilities. Generations of Russells have lived and died with only their familiars at their side. The presence of a friendly familiar is enough to keep even the loneliest witch sane, and yet Piotr deliberately hasn’t chosen one. He forces himself to keep busy instead, but the emptiness of his house haunts him even more than the spirit of Great-Great-Aunt Elysia in the parlor. With Samhain and Halloween approaching, he’ll have much to do, and knowing that, his concerned coven seizes the chance to intervene and sends help to his door in the form of Bartleby Dorchester.

The rarest of rare jewels, Bartleby is a human familiar: a witch with no magic of his own, and a desire to find a strong witch to help and serve. In particular, he desires to help and serve Piotr, and everything in Piotr wants to let him. Bartleby was meant to be his familiar; Piotr knows it as surely as he knows when it will rain or when the apples in his garden will ripen. But what Piotr wants from Bartleby, all he’s ever wanted, is for Bartleby to love him, something he thinks is impossible.

Russells live and die unloved, and he won’t allow Bartleby to feel obligated to spend his life with him as his familiar if he could be happy in love with someone else. But Samhain is a time for change, when walls come down and borders grow thin, and Bartleby isn’t going to waste what might be his last chance to convince Piotr that they were meant to be. He might have no magic, but love is a power all its own.

Two autumns ago, when I first discovered this story, I was in the midst of one of the most awful, difficult years of my life. My brother-in-law was recovering from a severe spinal cord injury, my cousin’s mother and his wife had recently died in a tragic house fire, and my aunt was in the final stages of her fight against lung cancer. Although autumn has always been my favorite season, full of magic and mystery, beauty and exhilaration, the last thing on my mind that year was the turning of the leaves or the cooling temperatures in the air. All of my usual anticipation and joy for the coming of autumn and for the Halloween season had drained away from me.

But this story was so charming and precious and lovely, it gave me a brief respite and a small taste of the season I love so much. It gave me a moment of peace and brought me comfort, like a warm, snuggly quilt wrapped around me on a chill autumn’s evening while I curled into a comfy chair before a crackling fire, sipping hot mulled cider. It encapsulated everything that represents the Halloween season to me. It was like a piece of my childhood brought to life. It was exactly what I needed and, quite possibly, saved me from a complete emotional breakdown that autumn. Now I reread it every year and I’m certain it will always remain one of my favorite stories of all time.

Ghost in the Penthouse by Kris Ripper

Hiram Sussman is haunted.

For the last decade, Hiram has holed up in his family’s penthouse apartment on the Upper East Side. On the eve of his thirtieth birthday, his parents finally decide it’s time for Hiram to move out, ghosts and all. If he can’t fend for himself, they’ll find a place for him somewhere bright, peaceful, and medicated.

He has a contingency plan for just such an event. Unfortunately, one thing stands in his way; Hiram is in love.

James Manderly is a hick from California, who escaped to Manhattan to remake himself in a place where no one knows him. Hiram’s the kind of gay guy he’d never meet back home, campy and ridiculous, except James doesn’t think he’s a joke. He thinks Hiram is the most ethereal, untouchable, irresistible man he’s ever met.

Four years down the hall from each other, and they’ve never even kissed. Because Hiram is crazy and James doesn’t sleep with men he actually knows, let alone rich recluses who tease him mercilessly but never make the first move. When James’s little brother (and his buddies) show up without warning, James can’t explain why he’s not with Hiram, and he definitely can’t claim he doesn’t want to be.

Hiram’s been hiding for far too long, but if he wants a future with James, he’ll need to beat back his ghosts and conquer the past.

Hands down, this is the best, most vividly atmospheric contemporary story of modern haunting I have read in many years. It lingered in my mind for a long time after I read it and I am compelled, from time to time, to revisit it. Hiram Sussman is a fascinating character and, for most of the story, the reader questions whether Hiram is truly haunted by actual spirits or by his own mind. This is my absolute favorite book by Kris Ripper and that’s saying a lot, as I adore zir work. Nobody does complex characterization and intricate interpersonal relationships better. Nobody writes better ensemble casts. And – oh, yeah – there’s also a wonderful friends-to-lovers romance, as well.

Spindrift by Amy Rae Durreson

When lonely artist Siôn Ruston retreats to the seaside village of Rosewick Bay, Yorkshire, to recover from a suicide attempt, he doesn’t expect to encounter any ghosts, let alone the one who appears in his bedroom every morning at dawn. He also doesn’t expect to meet his ghost’s gorgeous, flirty descendant working at the local museum… and the village pub, and as a lifeboat volunteer. But Mattie’s great-great-grandfather isn’t the only specter in Rosewick Bay, and as Siôn and Mattie investigate an ill-fated love affair from a bygone era, they begin a romance of their own, one that will hopefully escape the tragedy Mattie’s ancestor suffered.

But the ghosts aren’t the only ones with secrets, and the things Siôn and Mattie are keeping from each other threaten to tear them apart. And all the while, the dead are biding their time, because the curse of Rosewick Bay has never been broken. If the ghosts are seen on the streets, local tradition foretells a man will drown before the summer’s end.

First of all, I love the way Amy Rae Durreson tells a story. The use of language, the subtlety with which the tale unfolds, its cadence and rhythms and multi-faceted characters all combine into a very alluring and satisfying reading experience. There were many things that drew me to this book: the Yorkshire seaside village setting, the troubled artist struggling to heal from mental and physical trauma, the May-September romance, the mysterious haunting, the eerie echoes of a hidden past. This book had a very old school Gothic vibe to me, which I loved. It’s a multi-layered story, in which modern Gothic romance meets paranormal mystery. What’s not to love?

Raven’s Rest by Stephen Osborne

Michael Cook has left his abusive lover and settled in the small town of Banning, Illinois. Having nowhere else to go, he checks into the Raven’s Rest Inn and soon learns that the haunted reputation of the hotel is well deserved. Michael gets a job at a local café, where he meets Trey Ramsey. Though Michael has misgivings about starting up a new relationship, Trey seems to be the complete opposite of Michael’s controlling ex, so he decides to give Trey a chance.

Life at the Raven’s Rest becomes increasingly frightening when the ghost of Coleman Hollis appears in Michael’s room. Coleman seems to want something from Michael, and the mystery deepens when Michael discovers he’s the spitting image of Coleman’s lover from years ago. Together, Michael and Trey must discover why Coleman’s spirit is drawn to the Raven’s Rest—and to Michael.

Once again, this is one of my favorite type of stories, weaving multiple elements into an engaging whole. It has romance (two, in fact), a ghost story, a mystery, and suspense. The hotel is a great Gothic-esque setting. The characters, both in the present and the past, are compelling and endearing. The small town autumn setting gives off the right tone and atmosphere. All in all, a perfect read for this time of year.

Vespers (Hours of the Night #1)

by Irene Preston & Liv Rancourt

Thaddeus Dupont has had over eighty years to forget…

The vampire spends his nights chanting the Liturgy of the Hours and ruthlessly disciplines those unnatural urges he’s vowed never again to indulge. He is at the command of the White Monks, who summon him at will to destroy demons. In return, the monks provide for his sustenance and promise the return of his immortal soul.

Sarasija Mishra’s most compelling job qualification might be his type O blood…

The 22-year-old college grad just moved across the country to work for some recluse he can’t even find on the internet. Sounds sketchy, but the salary is awesome and he can’t afford to be picky. On arrival he discovers a few details his contract neglected to mention, like the alligator-infested swamp, the demon attacks, and the nature of his employer’s “special diet”. A smart guy would leave, but after one look into Dupont’s mesmerizing eyes, Sarasija can’t seem to walk away. Too bad his boss expected “Sara” to be a girl.

Falling in love is hard at any age…

The vampire can’t fight his hungers forever, especially since Sara’s brought him light, laughter and a very masculine heat. After yielding to temptation, Thaddeus must make a choice. Killing demons may save his soul, but keeping the faith will cost him his heart.

Bonfire (Hours of the Night #1.5)

by Irene Preston & Liv Rancourt

(See my prior review of this holiday novella here.)

Thaddeus and Sarasija are spending the holidays on the bayou, and while the vampire’s idea of Christmas cheer doesn’t quite match his assistant’s, they’re working on a compromise. Before they can get the tree trimmed, they’re interrupted by the appearance of the feu follet. The ghostly lights appear in the swamp at random and lead even the locals astray.

When the townsfolk link the phenomenon to the return of their most reclusive neighbor, suspicion falls on Thaddeus. These lights aren’t bringing glad tidings, and if Thad and Sara can’t find their source, the feu follet might herald a holiday tragedy for the whole town.

Nocturne (hours of the Night #2)

by Irene Preston & Liv Rancourt

It’s Mardi Gras, cher, but this year le bon temps kick off with murder…

For generations, the White Monks have treated the vampire Thaddeus Dupont as a weapon in their battle against demons. However, when a prominent matron drops dead at a party, Thaddeus and his lover Sarasija are asked to find her killer. Their investigation leads them to an old southern family with connections everywhere: Louisiana politics, big business, the Church, and an organization just as secret as the White Monks.

Meanwhile, an esoteric text containing spells for demon-summoning has disappeared, Thaddeus is losing control of le monstre, and Sara is troubled by disturbing dreams. These nightmares could be a side-effect of dating a vampire, or they could be a remnant of his brush with evil. As the nights wear on, Sara fears they are a manifestation of something darker – a secret that could destroy his relationship with Thaddeus.

This series is the best vampire concept I’ve read in decades. It’s complex and appealing, with exciting action, suspense, and mystery in addition to an unlikely yet captivating romance. It has wonderful, well-drawn characters that feel so real that you wouldn’t be surprised to meet them on the street.

For me Nocturne, the second book in the Hours of the Night series, was even better than Vespers and that’s saying a lot. I loved Vespers. I loved the characters, the setting, the premise of the series – everything. For the first time in more years than I can keep track of, there was finally an intelligent approach to writing a vampire character that hearkened back to the age-old struggle between good and evil. Not just the broader, exterior conflict, but a battle raging inside the character himself, between the Super-ego (the faith and religious devotion of the monk) and the Id (the baser instincts of the vampire) resulting in an Ego (Thaddeus himself) who is an immensely empathetic, identifiable anti-hero one can’t help but love and cheer for. Add to that the incredibly modern,  lovable, and agnostic Indian-American assistant, Sarasija Mishra, as well as the stellar storytelling skill of these two authors, and the series is nothing short of addictive and enthralling.

Nocturne was everything I love in a story combined: mystery, suspense, romance, and the paranormal, all set in and around New Orleans during Mardi Gras season. The characters are compelling, the tension and suspense builds gradually but steadily and never stalls, the mysteries are not easily solved by either the characters or the reader (very huge plus for me, who usually figures everything out in the first 1/4 of a book and grows bored), and it’s filled with well-researched ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity. This book was excellent on every level. I can hardly wait for the next installment.

TBR Challenge: Paranormal

(I apologize ahead of time for the brevity of this month’s TBR Challenge review. My grandmother recently entered hospice care and my brain is mush. The past week and a half have been chaos and I’ve had to rely on the brief, choppy notes I kept while working my way through these books.)

Once upon a time, when I was trying to transition from writing horror to writing middle grade suspense and YA paranormal, I spent close to a decade reading predominantly within those genres. Since then I’ve broadened my scope considerably, although I do still read YA books from time to time. This month’s TBR Challenge: Paranormal motivated me to revisit a series I abandoned a while back about halfway through.

Clearwater Witches is a six book YA paranormal series that should have been a trilogy. As with many YA series, there is a love triangle. There is also plenty of angst and the prerequisite self-sacrifice. If you break it down and analyze the premise, overall it’s basically the same character dynamics and plot elements as L.J. Smith’s The Secret Circle trilogy. The difference is L.J. Smith did it first, did it better, and confined it to three books. The Clearwater Witches’ main encompassing story arc was stretched far too thin over the course of these six books, which weakened the tension and diluted the impact. Instead of going out with a satisfying resolution, it went out with a long, drawn out fizzle.

The first two books were pretty good reads. I liked the characters, the setting, the dilemma. They held my interest and kept me turning the pages to find out what happened next. The third book had the potential to be even better but did not quite deliver. The ending felt rushed and too simple. The main character, Krissa, became more annoying and self-absorbed throughout this book, while remaining somewhat oblivious. In fact, she even acted out like a spoiled child. This is the point where I took a break from the series, so this is also where I picked it up again for this month’s TBR Challenge and continued reading until I’d finished the series.

The fourth book was excruciatingly slow going until close to the end, possibly due to the introduction of a new POV character in addition to both Krissa’s and Crystal’s POV. There was a lot of jumping around from one character’s head to another and there was a lot of repetitive internal dwelling and circular thinking. If that wasn’t bad enough, the storyline also took a sharp left turn from the previous three books. It was similar to watching a train wreck in slow motion. The pacing did pick back up in the fifth book and it seemed like the story might be getting back on track, but by the last book I was skimming just so I could get through the tedium and find out how the series finally wrapped up. (Because my inquiring, OCD mind always wants to know, whether I’m enjoying a story or not. Once begun, I have to know how it ends.)

By the sixth book, the story seriously dragged with too much internal exposition, self-analysis, and soul-searching, and not enough action to progress the plot. Also (at least during the first half of the book), removed from the usual setting of Clearwater, which the reader has become familiar with over the course of the five preceding books, and without the constant infusion and balance of the majority of the supporting cast of characters, it feels so far removed from the rest of the series as to make it feel alien and disjointed. The ending was all over the place, convoluted and drawn out. By the time I finished reading the last few of chapters, I was exhausted and slightly confused.

Maybe I’m just done with clichéd love triangles and teen angst and needless, misguided self-sacrifice, but all of last three books in this series left me disappointed, dissatisfied, and underwhelmed.


Crystal Magic (Clearwater Witches #1) by Madeline Freeman –

Nothing is safe around Kristyl Barnette. Windows break. Books rocket across the room. Lights flicker. Strange occurrences follow the sixteen-year-old everywhere.

When tragedy forces her to move to the small town of Clearwater, Michigan, with her estranged aunt Jodi, Kristyl tries to leave her past behind. But Clearwater has secrets of its own—a mystical history that intersects with Kristyl’s life and might shed light on the inexplicable events that plague her.

When a mysterious illness threatens her aunt’s life, Kristyl will do anything to cure her. Enlisting the help of witches could save Jodi, but is dealing in magic worth the consequences?


Wild Magic (Clearwater Witches #2) by Madeline Freeman –

Kristyl Barnette’s life was finally coming together. In Clearwater, she found the reason why she could hear people’s thoughts and make objects move. She found friends to stand by her. And, in Owen Marsh, she even found someone she could love.

But one spell changed everything.

Thrust into an alternate reality, Kristyl must navigate a new past and different relationships, all while keeping the secret only she and Crystal Jamison know: In their attempt to find a powerful stone for the circle of witches to anchor to, they altered the present.

Owen barely looks at her. She’s forced to act like she’s friends with the circle and to pretend she’s been dating Fox Holloway for years. And to make matters worse, the quartz stone she retrieved from the past might not be the source of pure energy the circle hoped for. There’s a darkness to it Kristyl doesn’t trust.

Now people are dying mysteriously, and Kristyl must form new alliances with old friends in order to prevent more deaths–and to save the circle from destruction.

Power comes at a price. Will Kristyl be able to pay it before it’s too late?


Circle Magic (Clearwater Witches #3) by Madeline Freeman – It’s only a matter of time before everything Krissa Barnette knows and loves is destroyed.

Seth Whitacre, a centuries-old psychic witch, is determined to exact his revenge on everyone who stands between him and his ultimate goal: taking over the town of Clearwater and turning it into a stronghold for people with abilities. People like him. When Krissa thwarted his attempt to regain his full strength, she became his number one enemy.

Krissa’s father, absent for five years, returns to reveal the reason he left was to learn how to defeat Seth. His mysterious companion, Anya, possesses a wealth of knowledge about the fight but conceals many secrets.

But Krissa has secrets, too, including the reason why she and Owen Marsh have a connection. And it’s difficult to keep the truth from Fox Holloway now that the three of them are linked by a binding ritual.

It’s a race against time to enact the spell that will rid the world of Seth once and for all, but with threats coming from all angles, will Krissa and her friends succeed?


Moon Magic (Clearwater Witches #4) by Madeline Freeman –

What force can stop someone who will stop at nothing?

Haunted by a single night four months ago, Krissa has cut herself off from her friends and loved ones, afraid to taint them with the darkness swelling within her.

Left reeling from the consequences of the spell that removed an unwanted consciousness from her body, Crystal will do anything to reclaim the magic she lost.

Set adrift in a world she never prepared to live in, Sasha clings to the one thing she believes will bring her peace: seeking revenge against the person who destroyed her future.

When a new threat emerges against Krissa and her friends, will she be strong enough to do what is necessary to save those she loves?


Cursed Magic (Clearwater Witches #5) by Madeline Freeman –

Since the night of the Influence spell, Krissa has changed. She’s doing her best to live a normal life, but it gets more difficult every day as the energy inside her grows and becomes harder to control.

Will she win the fight against the darkness within her? Or will it overwhelm her and turn her into someone she’s not?


Dark Magic (Clearwater Witches Book 6) by Madeline Freeman

– After darkness consumes Krissa, is there any hope for salvation?

When Krissa disappears to join the Amaranthine, Fox knows he has to save her. But the magical world beyond Clearwater is more dangerous than he can imagine, and even with Sasha’s help, locating Krissa can have deadly consequences.

With time running out before the Amaranthine achieve eternal life and become invulnerable, Fox and Sasha must team up with a menacing group with a fearsome reputation if they hope to find their friend.

But locating Krissa isn’t enough. If they can’t remove the darkness from within her the Amaranthine will unleash an immortal assassin on the world. Killing Krissa may be the only alternative, but is that a line Fox is willing to cross?

The Best & Worst of Times

TBR Challenge 2017: Historical

I know, I know. I’ve been negligent in my blogly duties as of late. And I had been so proud of myself for being able to consistently post every month, thanks to this challenge, up until now. With my track record of procrastination, distraction, and lack of follow-through, that’s an accomplishment. But now I’m back on track and (fingers crossed) will not be derailed or diverted again this year.

My apologies for missing out on August’s TBR Challenge: Kicking It Old School (publication date 10 years or older), which was due on or around August 16. I did read a book for that challenge. In fact, I read Bread Alone by Judith Ryan Hendricks (published May 28, 2002), as well as its two sequels: The Baker’s Apprentice (published March 14, 2006) and Baker’s Blues (published August 24, 2015). They were all three very intensely evocative reads and took me to an emotional place I was unable to translate into words. I will write those reviews, just not quite yet. The subject matter hit a little too close to home for me on several levels and triggered some memories and feelings that I needed time to process and work my way back from.

Now, this month’s TBR Challenge: Historical was a definite challenge for me. You see, I’m not overly fond of historical fiction. (Those who know me well would probably be boggled by the ironic dichotomy of this fact, but that is a discussion too complex for this review post. Suffice it to say that if a psychiatrist ever had the opportunity to analyze the inner workings of my mind, they would have their life’s work laid out before them.) But for me to willingly choose to read a book set in the past, there needs to be a compelling reason. Yes, there are definitely exceptions (usually involving paranormal or fantasy elements), as I’ve stated in a past post, but as a general rule I don’t seek these books out and the pickings within my TBR list were slim.

Thankfully, an author of my acquaintance whose taste and opinion on books I trust and admire recommended Victorian Holiday Hearts, a collection of holiday themed, Victorian era M/M romance novellas written by Bonnie Dee and Summer Devon. Having previously read and enjoyed Summer Devon’s short story, The Gentleman and the Lamplighter, I decided to give these stories a whirl.

All four of these novellas were endearingly charming and I enjoyed them immensely. They are all very quick reads full of entertaining characters and all four stories are interconnected through the boisterous, eccentric, loving and lovable Andrews family, who serve as background characters in each brother’s story. As each season is different, one from another, so also is each brother’s story different from the other, which is  exemplified through differing moods and tone. From the melancholy to the comic, from the lighthearted to the passionate, from the solemn to the hopeful, from the mysterious to the devoted, each of these romantic pairings cross social, class, and economic barriers to reach their HFN/HEA to satisfy any romantic reader’s hopeful heart.

Four seasons, four novellas about one theatrical family. A boxed set of love.
They were the source of entertainment in a world without movies or television. Magic, singing and dancing, acting — the adopted and biological sons of the Andrews family could do it all. And in the warmth of their eccentric and large family circle, they could be anyone they wanted or love whomever they wished. In a world where men loving men was a crime, the Andrews and their friends found refuge for true love.

The stories:

Simon and the Christmas Spirit –  The holiday spirit has forsaken Simon Harris. A recent reminder of the man who used then left him sends lonely Simon on a glum visit to his club to while away a few hours. A breath of fresh air in the form of Christopher Andrews is about to enter his stale life.

Performer of many talents and faces, Christopher gained entrée into the club to win money at cards. Unfortunately, he’s losing. But the evening needn’t be a complete disappointment as he strikes up a friendship with a gentleman which ends in a bedroom.

Simon and Christopher enjoy a few hours of pleasure together, never expecting to see each other again, but Simon’s newfound resolution to change might just transform both their holidays.

A short story, which includes a brief excerpt. Simon and Christopher’s future will appear in our next short: Will and the Valentine Saint.

 
Will and the Valentine Saint –  Will Andrews wishes to escape the craziness of his bohemian family and create some order in his life. Hiding his eccentric theater background and presenting false letters of recommendation, he interviews for a position at a legal aid society. The last thing he expects is to fall hard for his genteel employer, Hugh St. John.


When Hugh needs a secretary, one magnetic candidate draws him. Will Andrews shares his vision for the Society and is also the most attractive man he’s ever met. But Hugh has never even kissed a man and would never throw himself at an employee.


As the pair plans a Valentine charity dinner, they grow ever closer to surrendering to Cupid’s arrow. But when Will’s false credentials and true background are revealed, can Hugh forgive his lies and omissions? Can fragile romance blossom into true love after trust is broken?

 
Mike and the Spring AwakeningYoung Micah “Mike” Cordett’s privileged life explodes when he is caught naked with a schoolmate. Running away from disgrace, he blunders into a trap in a seamy part of London and endures months of abuse before escaping. But with the help of the Andrews family, he’s begun to climb out of his fear. Yet, when a reminder of his happier past erupts into his life in the form of Lucas Spring, Mike’s not certain he’s ready to face the remnants of the charmed life he’d once enjoyed. He’s certainly not ready for love.

Lucas Spring pined for Mike from afar when they were in school. This shadow of the confident boy he once knew shocks him, and Lucas vows to do anything he can to help restore the person he’d so admired. With patience and determination, he hopes to ease Mike’s fears and perhaps even win his love.

But when a violent figure from Mike’s past looms into his present, will the tender shoots of a new beginning be crushed?

WARNING: Contains themes of sexual abuse that may trigger some readers.

Delaney and the Autumn MasqueDelaney, former pickpocket and now a member of the Andrews theater clan, performs magic tricks as Billbo the Magnificent. Hired to entertain at a fancy dress ball, the magician is struck by the lurking, dramatic figure of the Grim Reaper. He follows Death to a quiet room for a glorious, lustful encounter.

With his identity hidden, impoverished gentleman Bartholomew Bancroft dares to indulge in an out-of-character moment to quench his forbidden yearning for another man’s touch. But in the light of day, he can’t dismiss his memories of the mysterious magician or a craving to see him again.

Bartholomew enlists the dexterous conjurer to teach him to pick pockets. His plan: to retrieve his hand-crafted jewelry taken by a vengeful ex-lover. During the lessons, Bartholomew and Delaney yield to desire, certain their affair will last only until they retrieve Bartholomew’s stolen work.

At another costume ball, the gentleman and the magician work together to foil the thief, but when all masks are abandoned at last, can lasting love remain?

 

 

If At First You Don’t Succeed…

Fall cannot come soon enough for me. This summer seems to be dragging by in excruciatingly slow misery. Heat, humidity, illegal fireworks, shady neighborhood goings-on, personal physical discomfort, and – on top of all that – one dissatisfying read after another. I don’t know whether the fault lies with me, the season, the societal climate, or the actual quality of the books themselves, but the majority of the books I’ve read over the past couple of months have left me feeling disappointingly flat. The only stand-outs to wake me from my apathetic stupor this summer have been Peter Darling by Austin Chant, The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel, The Imperfection of Swans by Brandon Witt, my binge read of Sarah Addison Allen’s entire back catalog, and R. Cooper’s newest novella, For Better or Worse. I’ve read over 50 titles so far this summer and only eight of them have captured my full attention.

So for this month’s TBR Challenge, our mission was Series Catch-up. This is where we pick back up on a series we were behind on and I had several to choose from. You see, I have a bad habit of growing bored with a series that follows the same couple over more than one book. I prefer series that feature a different couple for each book in the series. The only exceptions to this are the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon (and even with this I am still behind because I stopped reading partway into the fifth book — but more about that next month!) and The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare.

It took me two tries before I was able to meet this month’s challenge.


Rusty Nailed by Alice Clayton

Synopsis:

In this sequel to Wallbanger, fan favorites Caroline Reynolds and Simon Parker negotiate the rollercoaster of their new relationship while house-sitting in Sausalito.

Playing house was never so much fun—or so confusing. With her boss on an extended honeymoon, Caroline’s working crazy-long hours to keep the interior design company running—especially since she’s also the lead designer for the renovation of a gorgeous old hotel. And with Simon, her hotshot photographer boyfriend, gallivanting all over the world for his job, the couple is heavy-duty into “absence makes the heart grow fonder” mode. No complaints about the great reunion sex, though!

Then a trip back east to his childhood home has Simon questioning his nomadic lifestyle. He decides to be home more. A lot more. And he wants Caroline home more, too. Though their friends’ romantic lives provide plenty of welcome distraction, eventually Caroline and Simon have to sort out their relationship. Sure, more togetherness is a good thing—but does less traveling and working have to mean the other extreme? Apple pie and picket fences? With this second book in the Cocktail series, USA TODAY bestselling author Alice Clayton delivers another delicious, frothy confection of a book, shaking up her characters, stirring in laugh-out-loud humor, and serving sizzling romance straight up!

My first attempt was to read Rusty Nailed (The Cocktail Series Book 2) by Alice Clayton. Let me just say that I loved Wallbanger, the first book in the series. It was hilariously fantastic and I loved every minute of it. Which is why I’ve been reluctant to read this second book. It’s just been sitting on my Kindle for three years. So, I tried reading it for this month’s challenge and I only made it 15% into the story before I couldn’t bring myself to read any more of it. As I said, revisiting characters who have already achieved their HFN in a previous book is not something I enjoy or something that comes easy to me. I find it difficult to care about a couple the second time around and I find 9 out of 10 of those type of stories tedious and disappointing and this was no exception. It felt disjointed and forced. The beginning was choppy and rambling and I just couldn’t get into it. Maybe someday I’ll go back and finish it. Maybe I won’t.


Swear (My Blood Approves Book 5) by Amanda Hocking

Synopsis:

In the final book of the My Blood Approves series…

Alice has moved on and is settling into a new country with a new career as a vampire hunter. Finally, she’s created a stable, happy life for herself and her family, including her boyfriend Jack. Or at least as stable as her life can be, especially with a dangerous vampire cult resurfacing.

But everything she’s worked for is put in jeopardy when she receives a disturbing message – one that sends her on a quest that delves into a tragic mystery that has haunted Peter for years.

When I first discovered this series five years ago, I binge read the first four books in less than a week. I hated the way the fourth book ended. It left me feeling betrayed. I know better than to read books containing love triangles. They never turn out well for me. Hell, I’m still pissed off about Bella choosing Edward in the Twilight books. Needless to say, I would have made a very different choice than Alice made. I was so disappointed that I was grateful Amanda Hocking kept delaying the fifth book. I wanted to forget about this whole series. But while I was updating my Goodreads account at the first of this year, I discovered the fifth book was finally published last November and I caved in, adding it to my TBR. I had to know if maybe Alice changed her mind or if fate stepped in and altered the outcome. You have to understand that I was really rooting for the other guy. He was the obvious choice to me and I was particularly fond of him. Unfortunately, I was disappointed yet again. But I do, at least, feel like I have a sense of closure now that I did not have at the end of book four. I still don’t like it, but I do understand the author’s choices and respect them. Even if she did rip my heart out at the end of this book.

Now, this book wasn’t as well-written as the first four books. It was set five years from the end of the last book. The story felt rushed and the copy was very sloppy. When I spend hard earned money on an ebook, I at least expect it to be a clean copy with all the words present and in the right order. Grammatically, this read like a rough draft. A lot of missing words in scrambled sentences. The more I have to work at deciphering the text of a story, the less likely I am to sink into that story. This also read as if the author had lost touch with her characters, or just wasn’t interested in them anymore, and just wanted to be finished with this series, once and for all. The plot was relatively straightforward and uncomplicated, with most of the big reveals telegraphed well in advance.  All in all, my opinion about the characters aside, it wrapped up all the loose ends and tied up all the dangling threads with a satisfactory conclusion to the series.

But that doesn’t mean I’m happy about it. Just feeling less betrayed than I was at the end of book four and heartbroken for an entirely new reason.

Of Favorites and Failures

Today is the first official day of Summer, but the weather has been miserably hot for weeks. This and the fact that I’ve been plagued by hormonal hot flashes and am not a fan of the humidity or bugs that come along with the season, have left me in a cranky, irritable mood. It does not help that my latest read disappointed me greatly.

For this month’s TBR Challenge, our theme is favorite trope. I chose a book that is a hybrid combination of “enemies to lovers” and “second chance at love,” two of my favorite tropes. It also revolves around a wedding, which I also normally enjoy. If I remember correctly, I picked this ebook up while it was discounted on Amazon to stash back for a rainy day when I had nothing new to read. I had high hopes for this book when I first read the summary. It held such promise of being an awesome book but, sadly, it did not live up to its potential.

The Runaway Groom (The Logan Series #1)
by Sally Clements

Synopsis:

Seven years ago, Matthew Logan ran out on his wedding to June Leigh.

Life is good for fledgling dress-designer April Leigh. She couldn’t be happier that her sister has found a new love, and is excited about her very first commission, June’s wedding dress.

When April discovers June has invited runaway groom Matthew Logan to the wedding, she has to intervene. Matthew’s presence will ruin everything – her father hates him, and just the sight of him in the church might give her mother a heart attack.

Matthew Logan has no intention of going to June’s wedding, but when intriguing April arrives on his doorstep, he can’t resist getting to know her better. When a disaster forces them together neither can deny the passion that combusts into a red-hot affair.

Discovering the truth about the past shifts April’s feelings from lust to love, but bitter experience has taught Matthew to guard his heart.

When it looks as though Matthew will lose her forever, will he fight or flee?

 

Remember a couple of months ago when I compared certain books to popcorn? Well, this one was more like stale popcorn. There were so many things about this book that failed to satisfy me that I’m not sure where to begin.

It gets off to a very slow start. Nothing actually happens to move the story forward until about 16% into the book. Just a lot of backstory and the heroine working on her sister’s wedding dress and hanging out with her friends and fuming about how the hero hurt her family in the past. About halfway in, it gets better… but not by much.

I found the character of April, our heroine, to be not very likeable or identifiable. For a twenty-three year old fashion designer, living and working on her own in London, she came off as immature. She was also a touch judgemental. I felt she was definitely too old to be that naïve about her sister’s true colors. She also seemed to just go along with whatever popped up in her life without making conscious choices or taking decisive actions, apart from her decision to confront the hero, Matthew, about not showing up at her sister’s wedding. Everything else in her life seems serendipitous rather than planned or worked toward. She’s not a decisive, take-charge type. She is a leaf borne on the winds of circumstance rather than forging her own fate. To paraphrase a line from the movie, The Holiday, she doesn’t seem to be the leading lady of her own life story. She’s an impassive chess piece being moved around the board of life by circumstances and other people’s whims. In other words, not my kind of heroine.

In fact, I had a hard time caring about any of these characters. Their issues seemed petty and trifling to me, and everything could have been easily solved if the characters simply communicated with each other openly and honestly. The main conflict, the hero’s supposed jilting of April’s sister, June, seven years prior, wasn’t enough to carry the plot. The stakes just weren’t high enough. April placed way more importance on the event than was warranted, over-inflating the significance and the impact of her burgeoning feelings for him on her family. The plot feels contrived. Some of the viewpoint shifts were abrupt and jarring. The characters seem flat, the writing stiff. The characters emotions, and even some of their physical details, were inconsistent. For example, at the beginning of the book Matthew’s eyes are described as dark blue and, in the middle of the book, they’re suddenly dark brown and then, toward the end, are back to being blue again.

It could have been a really good book if the characters had actually had any depth to their personalities and if the actions and choices of the characters hadn’t come off as juvenile. These characters are supposed to be in their mid-twenties, not teens. April is naïve and Matthew is vacillating. April’s sister, June, is a manipulative, spoiled princess. The friends are opinionated busy-bodies. The parents are basically props.

Of all the characters, I liked Matthew best. Most of the time he was a smart, successful, confident, sexy man who seemed to have his life in order. Then, toward the end of the book, he comes across as almost neurotic with his mood-swings and mixed messages. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear this character had a split personality.  In fact, by the end of the book, the actions of neither the hero nor the heroine ring true or realistic in any way.

I was severely disappointed in this book because it should have been a fantastic read. But it ended up being mediocre instead.

 

 

 

Of Letters & Literature

TBR Challenge 2017: Something Different

This month’s theme required a book which either falls outside my comfort zone, has an unusual setting, is a non-romance, etc. It took me quite a while to locate a book in my TBR list that I felt best fit this criteria. After much consideration, I finally settled on  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, which is an epistolary novel. For those who are unfamiliar with this term, an epistolary novel is a novel written entirely through letters, notes, telegrams, diary entries, newspaper clippings and/or other documents. They are not my preference for daily recreational reading because it’s a difficult form to master and takes a skilled author to successfully pull off. In the wrong author’s hands, it can become a tedious torture to wade through. Epistolary novels also have a tendency to distance the reader from the action of the story, thus slowing the pace. They are a more leisurely, contemplative read than the usual fast-paced, contemporary romances, chick-lit, paranormal suspense, and cozy  mysteries I habitually devour. That is the first reason I chose this book as my ‘Something Different.”

The second reason this was outside my comfort zone is the WWII era historical setting of the story. I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction. Of course there have been books that have been exceptions (books by Diana Gabaldon, or Anne Rice, or Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, for example), but for the most part, historical fiction is not something I seek out.

Thirdly, I rarely read any books with a wartime setting, during any era. They are, more often than not, depressingly bleak and full of suffering and sorrow and I try to avoid those feelings at all costs. There is far too much of that in reality. I don’t want it in my escapism.

That said, thank goodness for the TBR Challenge! Otherwise I might never have read this gem of a book.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Synopsis:

 “ I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some sort of secret homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.”

January 1946: London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War, and writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next book subject. Who could imagine that she would find it in a letter from a man she’s never met, a native of the island of Guernsey, who has come across her name written inside a book by Charles Lamb….

As Juliet and her new correspondent exchange letters, Juliet is drawn into the world of this man and his friends—and what a wonderfully eccentric world it is. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society—born as a spur-of-the-moment alibi when its members were discovered breaking curfew by the Germans occupying their island—boasts a charming, funny, deeply human cast of characters, from pig farmers to phrenologists, literature lovers all.

Juliet begins a remarkable correspondence with the society’s members, learning about their island, their taste in books, and the impact the recent German occupation has had on their lives. Captivated by their stories, she sets sail for Guernsey, and what she finds will change her forever.

Written with warmth and humor as a series of letters, this novel is a celebration of the written word in all its guises, and of finding connection in the most surprising ways.

This was a wonderful story full of subtlety and grace, a quiet love story gently folded into a poignant tale of hardship, suffering, war, and the triumph of the human spirit, and populated with quirky, resilient, engaging characters.

I confess, up until reading this book, I was completely ignorant about the Channel Islands, of their being occupied by the Germans for five years during WWII, and of the horrors and tragedies that befell the islanders. This book unveils the struggles and plight of these people in a subtle and personal way through the eyes of these characters who experienced and survived it. Information depicting the German Occupation of Guernsey was subtly interwoven with the description of the everyday lives of the inhabitants of the island and, in spite of the subject matter, this is not a dark story. It is charming and graceful and full of life and love and hope. I was thoroughly enchanted by it and highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading about WWII history, eccentric tight-knit communities, abiding friendships, the power of literature, or the indomitable human spirit.

The only other book set during WWII that I’ve read and truly loved was Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society evoked a strong desire in me to revisit Ms. Harris’s book.

 

Junk Food for the Stressed-Out Brain

April TBR Challenge: Contemporary

There has been a lot going on in my life lately and not much of it good.

The world seems to be descending into chaos, my social circle has been shifting and realigning and evolving, my body is aging and my hormones are in a state of flux, and all the while my anxiety and depression levels have been playing see-saw on a teeter totter.

Needless to say, I have not felt up to heavy reading. I have, instead, been indulging in comfort re-reads of old favorites, how-to books on the craft of writing, and fluff.

So, for this month’s TBR Challenge I read a contemporary, friends-to-lovers rom-com that has been languishing on my TBR list since November 2013.

Against the Wall by Julie Prestsater

Synopsis:  Shelly Gelson had it all…a job teaching English at Carver High, her best friend Mel working by her side and she’s engaged to her high school sweetheart Chase Marino. That is until Chase breaks her heart and leaves her for another teacher at the school. Now Shel is left broken-hearted and trying to figure out what she wants while watching Chase and the home wrecker make moon eyes at each other. Enter Matt Fuller, Shel’s friend for the past 5 years and the perfect rebound. He’s gorgeous, smart, funny, and fits into Shel’s idea of the right guy. Only problem is there may be more there than just a simple rebound. Is it a way to fill a void left by Chase, or is there more smoldering between these two friends? Find out what happens when the bell rings and the teenage drama ends and the adult drama begins. Who says being a teacher is boring? They obviously haven’t met the teachers at Carver High.

This is a fast, amusing little read full of close friendships, laughter, and beer. It even made this jaded cynic chuckle a time or two. Much like eating popcorn, it’s (time) filling and entertaining without being complex or complicated. It leaves you feeling neither heavy nor fully sated, but it’s not the worst way to spend an afternoon when you want to give your brain a rest from the stress and angst of the real world. The characters are neither deep nor emotionally mature. In fact, they are often immature, petty, and judgemental. And they drink a lot. These are supposed to be high school teachers, but they come off more like high school kids most of the time.

I rate it at 2 1/2 stars. It was okay, but it’s not worth a second read.

As of this writing (April 18, 2017), Against the Wall is currently free on Amazon.

Save

Hello, Darkness, My Old Friend

TBR Challenge 2017: Comfort Read

Although I am a full week late posting my TBR Challenge 2017 review for this month’s Comfort Read theme, I was determined to not skip it, in spite of the fact I’ve been floundering for the past few weeks to find a book – any book – that could hold my interest for more than a chapter and make me care at least a little about the characters and/or the story. I’ve been in a serious reading rut. I’ve started so many books over the past month, only to discard them in frustration and disappointment. Maybe it’s because my TBR list is lacking in quality reads. Maybe it’s due to my annual bout of what I like to call my own personal March Madness, wherein I typically slide into a self-pitying, depressive spiral of reminiscence, reflection, and regret during the week of my birthday. Hell, maybe it’s just that my tastes have seriously changed since adding a lot of those titles to the list and it needs to be purged. Whatever the reason, none of the books languishing in my TBR list fit the bill as a Comfort Read. I am, therefore, forced to stretch the rules of the TBR Challenge theme this month.

My own personal writing roots are in horror, Gothic romance, paranormal mystery, and supernatural suspense. These are the genres that feel like home to me and feed my need for emotional comfort; they are my mental escape when the real world gets to feeling too real.

As luck (or fate) would have it, one of my favorite authors had his newest book released last week and it was exactly what I needed. Although it is a new release, I added Insight (The Community: Book 1) to my TBR list last year as soon as I first heard it was scheduled for publication, so it technically fits the parameters of the challenge. And, since Santino Hassell is a favorite, auto-buy author for me and the paranormal is my comfort zone, this book also fits this month’s theme of Comfort Read.


Insight (The Community: Book 1) by Santino Hassell

Synopsis:

Growing up the outcast in an infamous family of psychics, Nate Black never learned how to control his empath abilities. Then after five years without contact, his estranged twin turns up dead in New York City. The claim of suicide doesn’t ring true, especially when a mysterious vision tells Nate it was murder. Now his long-hated gift is his only tool to investigate.

Hitching from his tiny Texas town, Nate is picked up by Trent, a gorgeous engineer who thrives on sarcasm and skepticism. The heat that sparks between them is instant and intense, and Nate ends up trusting Trent with his secrets — something he’s never done before. But once they arrive in the city, the secrets multiply when Nate discovers an underground supernatural community, more missing psychics, and frightening information about his own talent.

Nate is left questioning his connection with Trent. Are their feelings real, or are they being propelled by abilities Nate didn’t realize he had? His fear of his power grows, but Nate must overcome it to find his brother’s killer and trust himself with Trent’s heart.

Review:

Although Insight is categorized as paranormal romantic suspense, the romance between Nate and Trent is not the driving force of this story. This book is primarily a mystery/thriller with elements of romance and paranormal suspense skillfully woven throughout the main story. There are even faint traces of Southern Gothic in the very beginning of Insight as we’re getting to know Nate’s backstory, his estranged relationship with his dysfunctional family, and the dark secrets and implied dangers that seem to pervade the Black family. This was not surprising to me once I recognized that Nate Black is a relative of Jeremy Black, the main character of the author’s stand-alone Southern Gothic horror novel, Stygian.

Santino Hassell is a master at setting a gritty, realistic tone and then creating atmospheric undercurrents of unease and anticipation. He seamlessly weaves a complex, multi-layered plot with subtlety and skill. The world building was superb and the introduction of intriguing secondary characters (whom I’m assuming will play more prominent roles in the second and third books) laid a strong foundation for the remaining books in this series. He has a knack for creating characters that are relatable in their realistic imperfections and you can’t help but be drawn into their struggle.

While some might argue that the relationship between Nate and Trent developed too quickly or too easily, I felt their relationship evolved naturally and was completely believable, especially considering Nate’s empath abilities and their almost constant close proximity for the three or four days they spent traveling together from Texas to New York. It began with a mutual attraction, grew into a friendship based on shared interests, and finally culminated with a sexual chemistry that strengthened their trust in each other and secured their bond.

Though not the main focus of the story, the romance between these two young men is an integral part of it. Throughout all the twists and turns, the unease and surprising revelations, Trent remains Nate’s touchstone, his lifeline, his port in the storm. He is the one person Nate knows he can trust. Trent keeps Nate sane and on track in the midst of the overwhelming tide of suspicion, danger, and uncertainty as he searches for the truth about his brother’s death.

Every time I thought I had it all figured out, another piece of the puzzle would drop into place, shifting my perceptions of characters and causing me to re-examine my theories. I confess, I did solve a couple of the mysteries long before the big reveal. Chalk that up to the dozens of mysteries I’ve read and my obsession with the Investigation Discovery Channel. Nevertheless, the journey toward the unveiling of those revelations was an enthralling and entertaining ride. The story began at a slower pace, gradually gaining momentum as the mercurial clues slid into place. The climax was action-packed and adrenaline-charged and the resolution was satisfying.

Although the mystery of Nate’s brother’s death has been solved by the end of Insight, there were deeper mysteries uncovered which now linger. This book, which is the first in this series, just peeled away the first layer of conspiracy and deception in the psychic world. Hopefully, books 2 and 3 will reveal the flesh and bones of these darker secrets hidden within The Community.

I can’t wait for Oversight (The Community: Book 2) to come out this summer!