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First Crush, Last Love

Elizabeth McKenna. Elizabeth McKenna, $0.99 e-book (314p) ISBN 978-1-5483-7173-9

McKenna uses alternating perspectives to chart the winding roads that bring two soulmates to discover true love in this sweet, if superficial, novel. Jessie Baxter knew her high school crush on Lee Archer was real love—even if he didn’t. No matter what she did, Lee saw her as a trusted friend but not a romantic prospect. When Lee fled his violent stepfather, Jessie was bereft, and she married the first man to show her any attention. While her marriage crumbles under the weight of her husband’s drinking, emotional immaturity, and abuse, Lee forges a career in the Chicago PD. Fate, in the form of a 10-year high school reunion, brings them back together, forcing both Jessie and Lee to reconsider all that might have been between them. The choice of 1989 as a setting is never explored or justified, coming across primarily as a justification for an uncomfortably stereotypical storyline about Jessie’s gay brother contracting HIV. Though the reunion of these long-lost sweethearts is earnest and rewarding, the lack of nuanced emotional development robs this story of real impact. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 08/17/2018 | Details & Permalink

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ShadowWolfe

Kathryn Le Veque. Dragonblade, $0.99 e-book (394p) ASIN B071HH5CQ3

Le Veque’s fourth de Wolfe Pack historical focuses on Scott de Wolfe, oldest son of Jordan and William de Wolfe, who locks away his emotions and becomes a feared soldier after the deaths of his wife and young children. After a captain under his command dies, leaving behind his pregnant wife, Avrielle, and two young children at a strategic castle in Cumbria, Scott immediately takes his troops to protect the castle and its inhabitants. Soon Scott must balance his growing feelings for Avrielle and her children with his responsibility to protect them from traitors within the castle walls and aggression from without, and the political necessity of finding a new husband for Avrielle. A streamlined plot provides the backbone for a careful portrayal of varying reactions to loss, from Scott’s iciness to Avrielle’s dissociation and her brother’s resentment. While the story beats are familiar and the antagonists clichéd, the details of castle and village life shine, and Scott’s burgeoning relationship with Avrielle and her family is worth the time. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 08/17/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Rogue’s Seduction

Lauren Smith. Lauren Smith, $3.99 e-book (224p) ISBN 978-1-947206-02-1

Regency London praises Perdita Darby’s perfect manners and friendly conversation, but her pristine reputation is also her downfall when unpleasant Samuel Milburn shows an interest in her. Perdita begs Vaughn, Viscount Darlington, for a fake engagement during her family’s house party, hoping to escape Milburn and the rumors of his cruelty. Darlington, a charming rogue with a powerful reputation of his own, is happy to pretend, but plans to seduce Perdita into actual marriage because he needs a rich wife to save his estate. The romance is formulaic, and Milburn’s aggression is predictable, but Perdita and Vaughn are surprising in how they relate to their friends, their families, and each other. They are sincere and innately kind, and they avoid self-centered drama. Vaughn promises Perdita a little bit of pain with pleasure, but his bedroom play is tender and exploratory, and their embraces heighten the romantic tension. Each carefully crafted scene drives the plot toward a satisfying ending. Occasional plot holes and anachronisms barely detract from this tender romance. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 08/17/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Limbo

Laura Koerber. Laura Koerber, $0.99 e-book (156p) ISBN 978-1-946044-17-4

Koerber (The Dog Thief and Other Stories) paints a quietly sweet portrait of the afterlife through a series of interconnected vignettes. Trey, a middle-aged Texan, and Alyse, the youngest and most recent arrival in Limbo, spend most of their days in their small, unnamed town playing poker in Lily’s run-down saloon and floating aimlessly around on “walks.” Like many of the inhabitants of Limbo, Alyse has many questions about why she ended up where she is, as well as a multitude of regrets about her past life. Over time, the reader is introduced to the rest of the town: the Preacher, known only by his title and his loose understanding of the Bible; the garden-loving Chinese Lady, isolated from her white neighbors by an impassible language barrier; Lily, the self-proclaimed mistress of the saloon and a shameless card shark; Warren, a sardonic ex-professor; and Warren’s dog, Dean. At first the white characters’ racism sometimes seems to be supported by the narrative, but this is mitigated later on as each nonwhite character narrates a chapter and is portrayed as a full person with flaws and desires. Koerber weaves a slow, captivating exploration of life, death, and the place of kindness and forgiveness in the salvation of the spirit. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 08/17/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Safari

Alexander Plansky. Meq Media, $9.99 trade paper (232p) ISBN 978-0-9992399-0-2

Michael Crichton fans will appreciate Plansky’s suspenseful homage to Jurassic Park. Sydney Marlowe receives what seems to be the opportunity of a lifetime when she becomes one of four interns selected to work as field researchers for two weeks for SansCorp, a leading bioengineering company run by reclusive multimillionaire William Sans. At Sans’s private game reserve in Tanzania, bordering the Serengeti National Park, Sydney and her three colleagues, whose duties include injecting animals with advanced tracking chips, are surprised to learn from their employer that all the animals on his property—including elephants, wildebeests, and lions—are clones. Then, on an outing to tag some wildebeest, her group finds the eviscerated corpses of seven antelopes, seemingly killed by an unknown predator. After that grim discovery, Sydney’s time at the Sans reserve only becomes more hazardous. While Plansky doesn’t present the science as plausibly as Crichton, the fast pacing and the author’s willingness to not pull punches will make science fiction thriller devotees eager for more of his work. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 08/17/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Tribulations of August Barton

Jennifer LeBlanc. CreateSpace, $8 trade paper (174p) ISBN 978-1-5397-5811-2

LeBlanc’s coming-of-age tale about a nervous new freshman at North Dakota State University is an odd but charming blend of modern college life with an old-fashioned feel. August Barton, or Augie, moves into a dorm and meets Isaac, his roommate—and as is true of just about everyone except Augie, Isaac is “cool.” Augie struggles with bullies and the vicarious stress from his mother’s second divorce and her tense relationship with her own mother, Augie’s 78-year-old Grandma Gertie, who audaciously escapes from her rest home, provides booze for a college party, and proudly proclaims, “I was the best prostitute North Dakota had ever seen!” Gertie’s lively presence in her grandson’s life fills a void created by his distracted mother, and this sheds light on his decision to focus his degree on gerontology. As Augie gradually evolves and develops a friendship with Isaac, another freshman at NDSU, Rose Varley, finds the virginal Augie to be adorable. The romance with Rose exemplifies the unusual time-warp tone of the story when intense, contemporary sexuality is replaced by an old-fashioned courtship. Though this and most of the novel’s other elements are effectively portrayed, the prose sometimes feels clumsy and choppy. Augie’s personality is awkward, altruistic, and funny, and it’s a pleasure to watch him grow as he and the other entertaining characters live through a sweet, relatively wholesome winter. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 08/17/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Soul Mender

R.S. Dabney. Red Pen Warriors, $14.99 trade paper (380p) ISBN 978-0-692-47201-9

A familiar science fiction theme—a parallel reality populated by alter egos of the inhabitants of our own—gets a fresh spin in this intriguing variant of a dark fantasy. Since childhood, Riley Dale, an environmental scientist living in Boulder, Colo., has been plagued by visions. Then she unexpectedly crosses over into the world of her imaginings with the help of a magic ring left to her by her grandmother. Partnering with Oz, a drug-addicted ne’er-do-well who represents the other half of her divided soul, and protector Zachary Stone, who’s a serial killer in her own world, Riley travels cross-country to Los Angeles, the terrorist-bombed capital of this alternate U.S., to learn the crucial role she must play in events rocking the parallel world. Dabney’s writing is crisp and confident, and her characters—including both of their personalities—are well-developed. She introduces more subplots than can be resolved by the novel’s end, making this a promising start for a projected trilogy. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/04/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Hunting in the Zoo: A Detective Pete Nazareth Novel

R.H. Johnson. Hampton, Westbrook, $17.95 trade paper (264p) ISBN 978-1-5323-0214-5

Johnson’s suspenseful third novel featuring Det. Pete Nazareth of the NYPD (after A Measure of Revenge) places presidential candidate Archer Grande, who boasts that he could “stroll naked down Fifth Avenue, and my supporters would still vote for me,” in the crosshairs of an assassin. Nazareth is half of a team dubbed the Dynamic Duo, after he and fellow detective Tara Gimble amassed an impressive record for “not only closing the toughest cases but also for putting themselves in harm’s way again and again to get the job done right.” New York City’s mayor taps the pair to go after Stone Jackson, an expert sniper who has begun taking out child molesters, starting with the Little League coach who abused him. As Nazareth and Gimble search for Jackson, the killer ups the ante after concluding that Grande is a dangerous demagogue. Unexpected developments ratchet up the tension en route to a dramatic climax. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/04/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Flame Eater

Barbara Gaskell Denvil. Gaskell Publishing House, $4.99 e-book (424p) ASIN B01B8SEC3S

This meticulously detailed romantic thriller portrays two flawed families in medieval England whose less moral members are victims of a murderer/arsonist. The families are united in 1485 when heiress Emeline Wrotham marries Nicholas Chatwyn, an earl’s son and the aloof, scarred younger brother of Emeline’s true love, Peter, who was murdered. On their wedding night, the castle is engulfed in flames, and Nicholas is injured. Emeline and Nicholas, who is still recovering from extensive burns, depart for his cousin’s Nottingham home while the castle is being repaired, but an outbreak of the plague sends them away, eventually to London. During their travels, the marriage is consummated, and they become true partners, in love and in adventures. Charismatic and witty, Nicholas is the heart of Denvil’s novel; he works undercover for King Richard, rooting out political threats while maintaining the persona of a lazy drunkard to his disapproving father, whose favorite son is dead. Denvil’s numerous minor characters are as intriguing as Nicholas, infusing vitality and never detracting from the story. Everyday 15th-century life is richly evoked—the clothing, food, travel, habits—providing substance to a winning narrative. Family dysfunction is deftly woven into a mélange of murder, politics, and romance, with a wickedly realistic, often comical portrayal of kinship. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/04/2016 | Details & Permalink

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American Tango

Jennifer Vandever. Melograno, $14 trade paper (264p) ISBN 978-0-9966795-2-7

In her enjoyable second novel, Vandever cleverly meshes strikingly eccentric characters with everyday situations. Rosalind Plumley, a 37-year-old Oregonian, is an artist trapped in a retail job that caters to snobby hipsters. She’s the middle child in a bohemian family and married to a sweet but sad man who has a budding marijuana addiction. Amid her failing marriage and struggles with her neurotic family, Rosalind fantasizes about escaping her life and moving to Buenos Aires. She signs up for a tango class in preparation for her imagined future, and what follows is a story about love and reevaluating your dreams when reality comes crashing down. Rosalind can be amusingly gloomy and the story is seasoned with salty wit—she describes a pair of shoes as appearing to have been “dipped in the shimmery gold powder used to kill off a Bond girl,” and when her liberal mother considers a late-in-life romance, the greatest drawback is that the man voted for Romney. Vandever (The Brontë Project) writes smart, interesting characters who gradually mature in believable ways. Perceptive, bittersweet, and sometimes darkly funny, this is light enough for a quick read, yet it has enough depth to leave a satisfying impression. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/04/2016 | Details & Permalink

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