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Blue Columbine

Jennifer Rodewald. Rooted Publishing, $13.99 trade paper (412p) ISBN 978-0-692-45111-3

Childhood friends Jamie Carson and Andy Harris have lived divergent lives, but, now in their 30s, the two have returned to their Colorado roots and encounter each other in the meadow where they once played as children. Jamie, an earth science teacher and amateur nature photographer, has maintained a deep relationship with God. Meanwhile, Andy, a defense attorney, has lost all respect for religion. He prefers to drown “his troubles in the anesthetizing effect of drink and the pleasures of a pretty and willing woman.” Yet, for all their differences, a strong connection remains. Melissa, Jamie’s housemate, and Ryan, who pursues a romantic relationship with Jamie, serve as strong supporting characters, providing friendship, a sounding board, and spiritual guidance. Rodewald (Reclaimed) deftly portrays the downward spiral of alcoholism and the complexities of maintaining a relationship with someone addicted to the bottle. Jamie struggles to be Andy’s friend through the tough times, and her deeper feelings serve only to cause her pain. A subplot involving intelligent design versus evolution seems out of place in the story, although it does serve to show the way Andy has changed, both intellectually and spiritually. The characters are all impressively multifaceted, engaging with complex emotional strains and difficult issues of allegiance. In her second novel of Christian romance, Rodewald proves to be a formidable new voice.(BookLife)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Pleasure Device

Regina Kammer. Viridium, $3.99 e-book (265p) ISBN 978-0-9910166-4-8

Kammer (Hadrian and Sabina: A Love Story) starts her Victorian-era Harwell Heirs erotica series with a lighthearted, medical-themed story centering on the electric vibrator, popular as an in-office remedy for female “hysteria.” Dr. Julius Christopher, wanting to experiment in detail with the device, takes in lusty servant Grace Danby and hires on young colleague Dr. Nicholas Ramsay, the protégé of his former lover, Lady Foxley-Graham. Nicholas and Helena Phillips become smitten with each other during the festivities of London’s social season. Julius realizes he’d rather experiment on a virgin than on experienced Grace; Helena’s mother, Lady Sophia, is addicted to him and his machine, so he manipulates her into promising to give him Helena. Though Kammer focuses on the female orgasm, her story is heavily filtered through the male gaze; the women describe their responses only when the men ask, and although it’s made clear that the women either already know how to masturbate or are trained by the doctors, readers are rarely privy to interesting solo sessions. This is cookie-cutter fluff without enough over-the-top villainy to carry off the humor of the setup. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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With No Regrets

Julie N. Ford. White Star, $16.95 trade paper (340p) ISBN 978-1-939203-65-6

Listing heavily toward the women’s fiction side of the romance genre, Ford deftly portrays 40-year-old Finley Harrison’s gradual recovery from the shock of divorce. After 20 years with her philandering husband, Roy, Finnie’s venture into solo life in present-day Nashville forces this picture of Southern womanhood (antebellum accent mandatory) to evolve into 21st-century personhood, but she’s fighting it tooth and nail. Married Finnie was so obsessed with appearances that the only thing worse than catching Roy in flagrante delicto with another woman was finding them thus engaged on her expensive sofa. Once the divorce is finalized, Finnie is pushed by longtime friend Cathyanne to leave her comfort zone—which means going on dates. Cathyanne sets her up with Josh, a 31-year-old hottie; Finnie is also drawn to next-door neighbor Quinton. Cathyanne doesn’t care which one Finnie chooses, so long as she sets aside her suffocating Southern-belle decorum and vows to live with no regrets. Readers who love stories of women finding their truths will enjoy Ford’s spot-on portrayal of midlife change, friendship, and romance. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Big Lead: A Stella Reynolds Mystery

Libby Kirsch. Sunnyside, $12.99 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-0-9969350-0-5

Novice reporter Stella Reynolds, the endearingly human heroine of Kirsch’s fiction debut, finds her first job in the TV industry with the Fox affiliate in sleepy Bozeman, Mont. Stella’s appreciative of the opportunity, but she can’t help having second thoughts when she learns how small the staff and resources of her station are. Stella’s first achievement of significance is interviewing river guide Bill James following his arrest for burglarizing a house and trying on the owner’s underwear. After learning that James has an alibi, Stella manages to get the sheriff to agree to dismiss the charges, but that proves to be just a temporary victory when James becomes the prime suspect in the stabbing murders of the burglary victim and her mother. The truth, Stella suspects, is much more complex, and she holds nothing back in pursuing it. The author does a good job of eliciting sympathy for Stella by depicting her embarrassing stumbles on her first days. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Secrets of a Financial Aid Pro: Master the College Funding Process and Give Your Child Lifelong Financial Skills without Losing Your Cool

Jodi Okun. 15th Street Publishing, $25.95 (214p) ISBN 978-0-9973-5272-6

Okun, a former college financial-aid counselor and independent consultant, offers an insider’s perspective on the complex and often confusing workings of the financial-aid system. Not surprisingly, she states, many fear that they have too much money to qualify for financial aid, or not enough to be able to afford college at all. Add to that worry a tricky system where simple mistakes can derail academic dreams, and you have the perfect recipe for stress. Okun seeks to demystify the process and share her expertise. Her approach is threefold, starting with the precollege years, from middle school through high school, looking at what to do and when to do it. She then explores the application process and different kinds of aid, including grants and scholarships. She also includes work-study options and other ways to lower costs. Lastly, she examines cost-management skills for college students and graduates. Along the way, she shares tips and talking points, imparting easily extractable and useful kernels of knowledge. Offering concerned parents an insider’s expert guidance, Okun provides an invaluable tool for navigating the treacherous financial aid landscape. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Marked for Death

Timothy Oliver Stoen. CreateSpace, $19.95 trade paper (386p) ISBN 978-1-5117-5743-0

In the early 1970s, first-time author Stoen joined what he thought was a “utopian movement called Peoples Temple,” led by a charismatic leader named Jim Jones, and spent the next seven years as Jones’s personal attorney. Stoen’s deeply moving memoir traces his path from true believer to horrified spectator as Jones orchestrates the deaths—mostly through suicide—of 912 people in Jonestown, Guyana, an event that shocked the world in 1978. The Jones story has been told before, but Stoen’s role as an early participant in the growth of the Peoples Temple in northern California and San Francisco, as well as its move to its own community in Guyana, adds much to the story. Stoen admirably attempts to explain the “concern about economic inequality” that led many to embrace Jones, as well as the slow slide into manipulation and a desire for power in which Jones “turned himself over to Satan.” Stoen is also excellent in his description of the post-massacre media firestorm in which he was falsely accused of using his long fight to regain custody of his son to push Jones “over the edge,” as well as his successful struggle to overcome the guilt he felt over the experience and the tragic history of the Peoples Temple. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Stone Circle

Anthony Tuck. Wheatmark, $12.95 paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-62787-307-9

Siblings fight ancient evil with help from mythological figures in Tuck’s engaging first novel. Telepathic 12-year-old twins Maisie and Jasper Tuck are spending the fall with Professor Winslop while their parents are away on an archeological dig. With nothing to do but listen to the Professor’s lectures on history and myth, the twins take to exploring the New Hampshire woods. After they find a circle of stones reminiscent of Stonehenge, the professor reveals that they are the Children of Gemini and they must use the stone circle to locate four jewels to complete the Crown of Seasons and defeat the Dark Ones. Tuck draws on a wealth of mythological elements from Norse, Greek, Native American, and other sources to create an appealing adventure, though the story can get bogged down in details and lore surrounding barrow wights, selkies, and other creatures and legends. While Maisie and Jasper are equally capable and important to the story, the characters as a whole are fairly one-note. Regardless, Tuck provides intriguing food for thought about the oral tradition of myths and the ways stories change as they’re told. Ages 9–up. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 02/19/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Song Birds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music

Heather Augustyn. Half Pint, $25 (423p) ISBN 978-1-5024-3604-7

In this engaging, well-researched book, Augustyn (Ska: An Oral History) states that women had almost no chance in the male-dominated Jamaican music industry in the 1940s–1980s; it was all “overt power and testosterone.” In the songs, women were “the playground for men” or “wrongdoers,” and the lyrics were “misogynistic and thus not very appropriate for female consumption, must less creation.” She shows that the women who pursued music careers in this setting were trailblazers. Augustyn profiles dozens of women who persevered through tough times, juggling child rearing, gender discrimination, and low pay. She includes Louise Bennett, who “brought the Jamaican patois, folklore, and culture to the stage [and] her talents to Harlem”; Millie Small, whose “bubbling” voice made her cover version of “My Boy Lollipop” an international hit; and Susan Cadogan, who went from “quiet library assistant to... superstar.” This is an exhaustive, if overlong, history of Jamaican music. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 02/19/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Sour Candy

Kealan Patrick Burke. Elderlemon, $2.99 e-book (66p) ASIN B017QCGW24

Horror author Burke (Kin) delivers an excellent terror-filled novella. Philip Pendleton is an unexceptional man, living a carefree life with his young son, Adam. No one who observes them has any idea that Philip has only known Adam for a short time, and this carefree life is really a living hell: after the two randomly meet at a store, Adam decides to make Philip his newest “parent,” using his terrible powers to completely rewrite Philip’s life so that everyone else thinks he’s always been there. Only Philip remembers the life he used to have, and those memories are no comfort as he becomes a prisoner in his own home, a slave to a demonic child. Bringing the evil-child trope to its devastating apex, Burke creates a horrific vision of what might happen if children utterly controlled their parents. Burke’s writing is visceral; Philip’s descent into madness is rendered in unnerving terms. Adding in a Lovecraftian pantheon of monsters, Burke creates a stomach-twisting ride through the depths of horror, breathing new life into an often-stagnant part of the genre. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 02/19/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Stay: Troubled Hearts, Book 1

Savannah Brooks. Amazon Digital, $2.99 ASIN B017EL0B24

This tender, uncomplicated love story has an old-fashioned happy ending, complete with a wedding—all the sweeter because it’s a pleasant 21st-century romance between two men who find love on an eastern Arizona ranch turned campground. When 23-year-old Blake Stevens wanders onto the grounds of Spirit Lake Camp, all he wants is a job, even if it’s temporary—maybe especially if it is. He just needs cash and a place to sleep. Ever since being thrown out of the house by a disapproving father, the former Marine has been trying to figure out what he wants to do with the rest of his life. Spirit Lake’s family scion Asher Collins decides the best thing Blake could do is share that life with him. The ensuing cat and mouse game comes with no earth-shattering surprises and few complications, but no matter. For fans of straightforward romance with a smattering of steamy lovemaking, this story will fit the bill nicely. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 02/19/2016 | Details & Permalink

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