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Holding Out

Serena Bell. Jelsba, $3.99 e-book (308p) ISBN 978-1-73289-483-9

Bell’s fourth Returning Home contemporary (after To Have and to Hold) provides a super-steamy pairing of heartsore protagonists struggling to put their painful pasts behind them. Becca Drake, 24, is determined to reinvent herself from an insecure child into a confident, self-assured woman. Part of her transformation includes losing her virginity, but she can’t find any man capable of helping her out, until she remembers her brother’s best friend. Divorced Army veteran Griff Ambrose has pledged never to lose his heart again, but he’s willing to consider Becca’s request, not least because he can’t stand the thought of some other guy touching her. Then she starts working alongside Griff and his friends at a retreat for veterans with PTSD. Forced into close quarters, Griff and Becca find their one-time arrangement developing into a consuming passion. Though Griff’s PTSD is more described than felt, both protagonists demonstrate real emotional growth, making their journey together as personal and profound as it is pleasurable. This sultry novel packs a surprising emotional punch that will please both the author’s fans and newcomers. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 07/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Beneath the Fallen City (Omni Towers #1)

Jamie A. Waters. Jamie A. Waters, $12.99 trade paper (374p) ISBN 978-0-9996647-0-4

Waters builds this dystopian survival novel around a reckless, talented heroine who’s deeply loyal to those she loves. A devastating nuclear war left huge swaths of land uninhabitable. About 150 years later, “ruin rats” like Kayla are hired by the wealthy, who survived in self-contained towers and boast psionic powers, to fetch relics of the past from the ruins that litter the landscape. Though she’s a talented scavenger, Kayla doesn’t think she’s anything special, until a chance encounter with representatives from the OmniLab towers reveals that she’s the lost child of a powerful family. Her world is turned upside down as she is dragged from the life she knows into the politics and power plays of the tower elite. The ensuing love triangle with a snooty tower scion and a rough-edged artifact trader feels a little forced at times, but fans of postapocalyptic tales will appreciate the details of the unusual setting. This clever story will draw plenty of fans. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 07/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Safe Passage

Rachel Ford. Rachel Ford, $4.99 e-book (320p) ASIN B07NQL5XX9

Ford (the Time Travelling Taxman books) launches an adventure series with this fun and unexpectedly tender-hearted novel featuring plucky space pirates in love. Software engineer Kay Ellis is on the run from the Conglomerate, a powerful organized crime syndicate for whom she designed Deltaseal, the ultimate digital security system. Knowing it’s only a matter of time before the Conglomerate assassinates her to protect their investment, Kay accepts a rescue from Magdalene Landon, fiery captain of the pirate vessel The Black Flag, in exchange for the very information the Conglomerate wants to destroy: how to crack Deltaseal and rob them of trillions of dollars. As she and the mixed-species crew of The Black Flag plan their big heist, Kay first bonds with shipmate Frank and then discovers, to her surprise, that she’s falling for Magdalene, who closed herself off after the death of a previous lover. After Kay is almost killed during an attempted kidnapping, Magdalene realizes she can no longer deny her interest in Kay. There’s no steamy content on the page, making this a perfect all-ages story for fans of space adventure. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 07/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Narrows

Travis M. Riddle. Travis M. Riddle, $2.99 e-book (256p) ISBN 978-1-72676-874-0

Fans of Twin Peaks and Stranger Things will recognize many elements of Riddle’s story, but he puts his own spin on classic tropes in this chilling mix of horror and fantasy. In a quiet suburb in present-day Shumard, Tex., Oliver and his friends lament the suicide of their friend Noah. Desperate to understand why Noah killed himself, Oliver secretly visits the crime scene each night. When he sees a man dissolve into a puddle of orange goo and begins to get flashes of an alternate Shumard , he wonders whether there’s more to the story of Noah’s death. Soon he ventures into a preternatural world called the Narrows where horrors and answers—as well as further mysteries —await him. Riddle’s intricate worldbuilding and familiar but strong narrative arc sustain fear throughout. However, the author is too eager to answer readers’ questions, stifling the suspense, and backstory slows the momentum. The well-written and highly individualized characters carry the story through its lapses. Fans of eerie tales will easily fall into this one. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 07/26/2019 | 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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Tough Girl: An Olympian’s Journey

Carolyn Wood. White Pine Press (Oregon), $18 paper (306p) ISBN 978-0-9977828-0-6

In this scattered debut work, written after hiking the Camino de Santiago, Wood reflects on the struggles of youth as the root of her courage and strength necessary to push on in later life. Wood, a competitive swimmer in her early years, attempts to relate a life of hard lessons that got her to the 1960 Junior Olympics in Rome and helped her through adolescence in the mid-1960s. However, while Wood thinks fondly of her time in the pool, swimming feels like something she did in between more important life happenings. Wood depicts herself in turn as a daughter in a strained relationship with a mother recovering from cancer, an athlete constantly pushing to be and do better, a lesbian finding comfort in her own sexuality, and a middle-aged woman looking to the next phase of life. Making stops at every trying life obstacle from childhood to late adulthood, she introduces so many charged elements that the novel feels unsure of which story it is trying to tell. The sections on swimming, her mother, and her lesbianism are thought provoking, but this is mostly an aimless journey in the present while dipping into the past, with a number of rhetorical questions that read as though she’s trying to figure out her life as she’s writing it. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/04/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Singing In My Own Key: A Vocalist’s Triumph Over Stroke

Valerie L. Giglio. Forza, $9.99 (250p) ASIN B01GF174YC

Giglio, a Boston-area singer and lawyer, details the year she spent recovering from a devastating brain stem stroke she suffered at age 42, which caused her musical and legal worlds “to spin out of control.” Balancing chapters on the details of her recovery—including prolonged hospital stays, confinement to a wheelchair, and “relentless” dizziness—with others on developments in both of her careers, Giglio more than meets her goal of showing readers that “miracles happen.” She deftly explores the “surreal” experience of having a stroke: “Inside you’re screaming to get out, but you can’t move.” She also describes the various grueling physical and mental therapies she endured in order to meet her goal of returning to performing in a year—a goal she accomplished with the help of supportive family and friends. She is guided by the words of her mentor, legendary jazz performer Al Vega, who shows her that “sometimes we have to take a chance and keep going no matter what obstacles we face.” Deciding that “the only limitations were the ones I put on myself,” Giglio hopes her story and struggles will help others “reach for the stars and dream big.” (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/04/2016 | Details & Permalink

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