The Unexpected Consequences of Love by Jill Mansell

LOVE
The Unexpected Consequences of Love by Jill Mansell
Publisher: Sourcebooks-Landmark
Genre: Contemporary, Women’s Fiction
Length: Full Length (411 pgs)
Heat Level: Sensual
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Stephanotis

Sophie has no interest in finding love. But what happens when love finds her?

Sophie Wells is a successful photographer with a focus on putting the past firmly behind her. When Josh Strachan returns to the seaside town of Cornwall from the States to run his family’s hotel, he can’t understand why the fun, sexy girl has zero interest in letting him-or any man for that matter-into her life. He also can’t understand how he’s been duped into employing Sophie’s impulsive friend Tula, whose crush on him is decidedly unrequited. Both girls remain mum about the reasons behind Sophie’s indifference to love. But that doesn’t mean Josh is going to quit trying…

I always think the first and last book you read each year should be extra special so I’m glad I got to read this new one from Jill Mansell. I’ll admit I’ve never disliked any of her stories and this one was no exception.

If you’ve never read anything by the author let me start by saying if you love sometimes quirky and not your run of the mill characters, you’ll enjoy the author’s writing. This particular story is also filled with tears, laughter, and generally puts a smile on your face on a cold winter’s day.

I loved all the characters but have to say I did find myself longing for more scenes with the hero Josh. He’s kind and honest and you share his frustration when Sophie isn’t showing any interest in him. You feel yourself shouting at the pages, saying Sophie, this guy’s perfect for you.

However, part of the enjoyment of reading this story grows from the author’s clever plotting of having everyone else wanting someone they can’t have or someone who only has eyes for someone else. It has you turning the pages to find out if Ms. Mansell was kind enough to give everyone the happy ending you craved. Sometimes things didn’t work out but I found myself reading the last sentence of the book with a smile on my face.

One added bonus for me was the setting of Cornwall. It’s mostly mysteries or romantic suspense stories I see set there so this was a nice change of pace. The author did a great job describing it and the hotel that Josh runs. Despite its 400 plus pages, this story clips along at a steady pace and is sadly done before you realize it.

If like me you take extra time selecting that first or last book of any year, I’d recommend this one.

Starter Wife by Moriah Densley

WIFE
Starter Wife by Moriah Densley
Publisher: EsKape Press
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Full Length (280 pgs)
Heat Level: Spicy
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Quince

Linnea King has it all, fabulous social life, adorable children, and her successful husband’s income… until he serves her with divorce papers. Her perfect life crumbles in a storm of police reports, cranky bus drivers, and burned dinners. The single life feels as foreign as a trendy haircut.

Just when Linnea fears she’ll lose everything, her new neighbor steps in to help. Not that she’s judging by appearances, but TJ Gates looks like trouble with a capital T. Tattoos, motorcycle, and sexy southern manners, TJ is the last person Linnea expects to be her hero.

A demolitions expert who takes prizefighting gigs to pay the bills, TJ has pretty much screwed up everything that matters, and rebuilding his life after a violent past is harder than it looks. He thinks the polished, expensive-looking Linnea King needs the same thing he wants: a second chance.

It is a universal truth that there are some stories that grab reader’s attention immediately, and there are some where it takes a while to warm up to them. Starter Wife falls within the second category. I even put it aside after the first half and returned to it after a week. Am I ever glad that I did return to reading it and did not gave up on the book because it turned out to be a really good story!

As the book opens the reader meets Linnea King at her lowest. She is taking the punches (figuratively speaking) from her ex-husband, who left her with three kids (one of them with Down’s Syndrome), no money and visitations from child protection services. At the beginning Linnea is a woman with no self-esteem because years of psychological abuse took its toll. Gradually as the story progresses, the heroine, with a little determination and help from her sexy neighbor and a few other friends, gets her confidence back. She becomes stronger, so she can have her revenge. In the process she also found the love of her life.

I find Starter Wife to be a very interesting and empowering story because there are many women out there who helped their husbands build their careers only to be left with kids and no job in the end. Linnea made it; she got her groove back and her life back on track, but it wasn’t easy. I found Linnea’s character amazing. At the beginning she wallows a bit in self-pity, but once she takes her life in her own hands, she turns out to be smart, funny and an interesting woman. Although she finds a new love (true one) and married him, she does not made same mistake twice and so, at the end she becomes economically independent as well. On the other hand, the hero, TJ Gates (sexy as hell) is a bit too much for me. He is a great character and he also grows through the story but he too much alpha for me.

Starter Wife is cross between women’s fiction and a romance novel. The story focuses on Linnea’s life – her trials and ordeals and on her relationship with TJ Gates; but really it’s a bit more focused on her getting her life back on track. Both storylines are well combined and the writing in general is great. The pace of the story is a bit slow at the beginning but it speeds up in the second half. Starter Wife is not an instant “falling in love” kind of story and it has only one lovemaking scene but it’s a book with a solid character driven plot.

All in all Starter Wife is worth reading, and it made me want to read other stories by Moriah Densley. It is a cozy read that made me feel good. I highly recommend it.

Mr Fix It by Noel Thomas Fiems

FIX
Mr Fix It by Noel Thomas Fiems
Publisher: Self-published
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Short Story (19 pages)
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

A father loses his son, will he also lose his daughter?

There are some things even the most talented handyman can’t fix.

The character development in this short story was incredibly well done. Within a handful of pages I knew exactly why the main character was acting the way he was. I even caught a few glimpses of the kind, gentle parent he must have been before the terrible accident that changed his family forever. It’s hard to discuss the plot in any more detail than this without giving away spoilers, but its gut-wrenching themes brought a tear to my eye.

There were a few times when the narrator seemed to veer off topic, but sometimes appearances can be deceiving. What impressed me about his flashbacks were how applicable they were to everything that was currently happening in his life. Mr. Fiems clearly chose every single word he used carefully even if their meanings weren’t immediately apparent to this reader. I’d recommend reading it through again a second time to anyone who has a similar response to their first interaction with these characters.

One of the hardest things about experiencing a loss, no matter what kind of loss it is, has to do with how easy it is to replay critical moments in one’s mind over and over again. It’s unbelievably tempting to get sucked into this cycle of regret and shame, but that doesn’t make it a healthy, longterm decision. This tale perfectly captured what it feels like to wade through such a tangled mixture of emotions.

Mr Fix It is a must-read for anyone who has ever been overwhelmed with grief.

Little Miss Sure Shot by Jeffrey Marshall

SHOT
Little Miss Sure Shot by Jeffrey Marshall
Publisher: Self Published
Genre: Action/Adventure, Historical
Length: Short Story (124 pgs)
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Aloe

Little Miss Sure Shot is a fictionalized account of the life of Annie Oakley, drawing heavily on the real timelines and events of her life. However, the book is not a biography – it invents situations, people she meets, and a myriad of conversations. Moreover, while the book is presented chronologically, apart from the prologue, it skips certain periods and attempts to focus on those that are especially vital, such as the early years Annie spent with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, including the tours through Europe.

A special feature of the novel is the framing of Annie’s loving marriage to fellow sharpshooter Frank Butler, whom she married at sixteen and remained married to for 50 years until her death. Frank was far more than just her husband – he was her manager (he gave up his own shooting for that role) and her constant companion.

The novel closes with an epilogue in Frank’s voice, presenting an overview of their lives together and the circumstances of her death in 1926.

Annie Oakley is almost a legend in western history. This author’s account of her lets you get to know her personally. You learn of her humble beginning where she learned to use the rifle to keep meat on the table for her family, about her well-loved husband, and about her travel life as she toured with shows to both show off her skill and support herself. It’s a fascinating story.

It’s even more enjoyable because the author lets her talk. She never had a formal education so while she could shoot well, she couldn’t read. She did learn how later in life. She’d worked a seamstress once, so she could make her own costumes. And when she married Frank Butler she’d found the love of her life. If only we all could be so lucky.

Mr. Marshall accurately portrays that era and mines the history that remains of Annie’s Oakley. She was born at a time of change in the world and she adapted. They travelled all over the world. She wasn’t fond of Venice because of all the water. Little facts like that made it fun to read.

This could have been a very dry historical read, but Mr. Marshall infused his characters with personalities and opinions and made the story alive. Annie and her husband Frank made a mean team. They made enough to live comfortably and her shooting skills were admired by all. In Europe, women weren’t supposed to be shooters. After she shot, she had their admiration.

I knew quite a bit about Annie before I read this book, but I learned several things along the way: How she didn’t like Venice, how she was unsecure when another young woman joined the show, and when her hair turned white. Mr. Marshall did a very nice job compiling the facts and presenting them in book. If you’ve ever wanted to read a good book about a competitive female shooter, here you are.

Qualified Immunity by Sylvie Fox

QUALIFIED
Qualified Immunity by Sylvie Fox
Publisher: Penner Publishing
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Full Length (176 pages)
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Sheila Harrison Grant is the first African American woman ever nominated to the federal bench in Cleveland. But when her thirteen-year-old daughter Olivia shares a family secret with a well-meaning guidance counselor, she sets the wheels in motion to feed a partisan senate’s opposition, threatening her mother’s position…and both of their lives.

Once an ambitious young law student with promise, Casey Cort made the mistake of
crossing a classmate from a prominent and influential family. Now she works as an unfulfilled, faceless cog in a broken legal system.

When fate gives Casey a second chance, she has to set aside her lack of faith in justice and find the strength to fight for those with nowhere else to turn.

In this first novel of the Casey Cort series, Sylvie Fox—a former trial lawyer in Cleveland—weaves a tale that blends the best of today’s top legal thrillers with the heart and soul of women’s fiction, in a story ripped from real-world headlines.

Good intentions don’t guarantee anything.

People have reasons for even their most illogical decisions. One of the things I liked the most about this book was how explained the poor choices certain characters made. They were described in ways that illuminated why those decisions seemed like the right ones to the people involved without ever making excuses for anyone. It’s entirely possible to understand why someone did something and yet still hold them accountable for the harm they caused. Ms. Fox knows how to balance these things out just right.

There were quite a few people in this story, three of whom shared the spotlight as co-protagonists. While I enjoyed reading the backstories of everyone, including the history of almost every character did slow down the pacing of the plot. It also wasn’t necessary, especially for the supporting characters who were only part of the action some of the time. It made me wonder if I’ll be meeting some or all of them again in the sequels, although I was never sure if that is actually what the author is intending to do.

Social workers aren’t always written sympathetically, so I was glad to see how well they were treated in this tale. Their occupation is something that fascinates me for many reasons. It was nice to see it treated fairly even while acknowledging that no system or person is perfect. The nuances that were woven into these passages makes me curious to see where this series goes from here.

I also noticed a lot of switching among narrators. Moving between so many different points of view was distracting. No sooner could I adjust to one character’s way of describing the world around them then the narrative would move me into someone else’s mind. Virtually all of the character and plot development could have been accomplished with only one or two protagonists. It would have been much easier to enjoy what was happening without so many abrupt transitions.

Sheila’s character development was strong and rewarding. She is far from perfect, but her intelligence and resourcefulness made it easy for me to like her even when she acted unethically. There is something to be said for a well-rounded personality, and she most definitely has one of those!

Qualified Immunity has caught my attention. I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys fiction about the legal system.

The Tumble Inn by William Loizeaux

TUMBLE
The Tumble Inn by William Loizeaux
Publisher: Syracuse University Press
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Full Length (166 pgs)
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Reviewed by Stephanotis

Tired of their high school teaching jobs and discouraged by their failed attempts at conceiving a child, Mark and Fran Finley decide they need a change in their lives. Abruptly, they leave their friends and family in suburban New Jersey to begin anew as innkeepers on a secluded lake in the Adirondack Mountains. There they muddle through their first season at the inn, serving barely edible dinners to guests, stranding themselves in chest-deep snowdrifts, and somehow, miraculously, amid swarms of ravenous black flies, conceiving a child, a girl they name Nat. Years later, when Mark and Fran are nearing middle age and Nat is a troubled teenager, Mark’s life is ripped apart, forever changed, and he must choose between returning to his old home in New Jersey or trying to rebuild what is left of his life and family in the place of his greatest joy and deepest sorrow. The Tumble Inn is a moving drama about home and about the fragility and resilience of love.

The Tumble Inn is a story that has me examining my own life and priorities. I loved both the characters of Mark and Fran. Mark’s the only narrator in this book but we get a well-rounded view of both him and Fran.

I think anyone reading this will relate to them. Stuck in a job they’re not entirely thrilled about and given the opportunity to do something completely different. Something they’re not really qualified to do but decide to go for it and never look back.

The author did a wonderful job describing the inn that Fran and Mark run and also the surrounding area. I felt like I was there. The secondary characters are wonderful too. You’re happy for this couple when their daughter Nat comes into their life. I did, however, wish the author would have added some more chapters about her and her growing up at the inn instead of using narration to chronicle the years between her being an infant to a troubled teenager.

There’s a sad spot in the book which I won’t give away. It’s a turning point for the characters and you’re drawn further into the story. I loved the ending which gives you that (as all good books should) feeling that you’re glad you took time to read it.

If you’re normally a genre reader don’t let the literary tag on this story put you off. It’s fast paced and Mr. Loizeaux has an easy to read writing style. I’d say add The Tumble Inn to your fall reading list. I know I’ll be looking for more of this author’s work.

Nice Girls Don’t Date Dead Men by Molly Harper

DEAD
Nice Girls Don’t Date Dead Men by Molly Harper
Publisher: PocketStar
Genre: Urban Fantasy, Suspense/Mystery, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (380 pgs)
Heat Level: Spicy
Rating: 3 stars
Reviewed by Cactus

With her best friend Zebs Titanic-themed wedding looming ahead, new vampire Jane Jameson struggles to develop her budding relationship with her enigmatic sire, Gabriel. It seems unfair that shes expected to master undead dating while dealing with a groom heading for a nuptial nervous breakdown, his hostile werewolf in-laws, and the ugliest bridesmaid dress in the history of marriage.

Meanwhile, the passing of Janes future step-grandpa puts Grandma Ruthie back on the market. Her new fiance;, Wilbur, has his own history of suspiciously dead spouses, and he may or may not have died ten years ago. Half-Moon Hollows own Black Widow has finally met her match.

Should Jane warn her grandmother of Wilburs marital habits or let things run their course? Will Jane always be an undead bridesmaid, never the undead bride?

New vampires probably shouldn’t be involved in anything Titanic-themed. Jane Jameson is back and she’s the matron of honor in her best friend’s wedding to his ladylove werewolf. Zeb and Jolene want a Titanic-themed wedding because…well why not? Jane is not overly excited about the wedding, losing her best friend’s undivided attention, her mysterious boyfriend’s recent odd behavior, and the consistent pressure from Zeb’s mother to stop the wedding so Jane can marry Zeb. You’d think all of it would be too much for a newbie vampire but Jane still finds time to look into her grandmother’s sixth fiancé. Although her plate is more than full with anything but food, Jane and her friends transverse the crazy town of Half Moon Hollows once more.

Nice Girls Don’t Date Dead Men is book two in the Jane Jameson series by Molly Harper. Although you technically don’t need to read book one to understand this one as the author does a really nice job of reminding new and returning readers of important details, I think readers should as it’s essential to understanding the cast dynamic and fully appreciating the characters themselves. In this new outing, Jane doesn’t really mature much unfortunately and I thought she came off slightly worse for the wear with her antics. The plot revolves around Jane’s best friend Zeb getting married; an event that Jane is ambivalent about at best since she’s struggling to come to terms with Zeb maturing and growing up while she isn’t. Additionally Zeb’s mother, Mama Ginger, is of course a caricature from hell bent on destroying the wedding in an attempt to make Zeb and Jane marry instead.

I found the story humorous and entertaining for the most part. The few issues I had were that Jane could have easily stopped the drama with Zeb’s mother by simply telling her that Jane was a vampire. Of course there would be no book with over the top wacky hijinks if logic actually prevailed so there is a reason for the lack of any common sense. Whether readers like that or not is a personal choice. Furthermore it was almost ridiculously easy to figure out what was going on, and who the bad guy was this time, and Jane started to look rather stupid in not figuring it out sooner. The book did everything but paint neon signs with the answers while Jane just shrugged and did nothing to add any intelligence nor intuitive thinking to any of the problems brought up. So I was much less enamored of Jane’s pratfalls, witty mumblings, and general air of buffoonery in combination with her less than average intelligence.

That said I still love the ensemble cast of characters and their ability to act as wonderful counterpoints to Jane’s sometimes irritating personality. I am not a huge Jane lover as she feels like a character pandering to a certain reading demographic. However the supporting cast is funny, entertaining, and generally helps soothe over any frustration. The writing is quick and easy to absorb without really remembering the details. It’s a little repetitive and formulaic to be sure but with the lack of real humor in the vampire genre I find this series much like ice cream. It’s not exactly something to be proud of binging on but it seems to taste so good at the time.

Small Blessings by Martha Woodroof

SMALL
Small Blessings by Martha Woodroof
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Full Length (310 pgs)
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Stephanotis

Tom Putnam has resigned himself to a quiet and half-fulfilled life. An English professor in a sleepy college town, he spends his days browsing the Shakespeare shelves at the campus bookstore, managing the oddball faculty in his department and caring, alongside his formidable mother-in-law, for his wife Marjory, a fragile shut-in with unrelenting neuroses, a condition exacerbated by her discovery of Tom’s brief and misguided affair with a visiting poetess a decade earlier.

Then, one evening at the bookstore, Tom and Marjory meet Rose Callahan, the shop’s charming new hire, and Marjory invites Rose to their home for dinner, out of the blue, her first social interaction since her breakdown. Tom wonders if it’s a sign that change is on the horizon, a feeling confirmed upon his return home, where he opens a letter from his former paramour, informing him he’d fathered a son who is heading Tom’s way on a train. His mind races at the possibility of having a family after so many years of loneliness. And it becomes clear change is coming whether Tom’s ready or not.

It’s always a plus when you’re reading a book and the story puts a smile on your face. That’s exactly what happened while I made my way through Small Blessings. Its plot sometimes had things conveniently falling into place for the characters but if you overlook that, it’s a fun read filled with feelings all of us deal with at one time or another.

What I enjoyed most about this book was its setting. A small college town inhabited by what appeared to be a cast of quirky characters. I had mixed feelings about the main character Tom. You almost have to forgive him for his past sin that has produced a surprise son because in the opening pages he seems to be a sweet guy who is caring for this very fragile woman, Marjory. I won’t give the plot away but I hoped we’d see more of her in the story.

Rose, the other lead character, is also flawed but it seems that Marjory has seen something within her that others haven’t and that’s the reason I hoped Marjory would be in the story more so I could see how their relationship progressed and if, as Tom suspected, it was a turning point for his wife.

Small Blessings has its humor too. Its pacing is not too fast and not too slow and the sort of story that’s perfect for settling down to an hour of reading here and there.

If you like stories with small town settings, lots of characters, and one that leaves you with a positive feeling that there’s a reason certain things happen to us, then you’ll probably enjoy this one.

The Retail by Joshua Danker-Dake

RETAIL
The Retail by Joshua Danker-Dake
Publisher: Self-published
Genre: Contemporary, Humor
Length: Full Length (310 pages)
Heat Level: Sweet
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Aspiring writer Penn Reynard has just joined the ranks of America’s fifteen million retail workers: fresh out of college with an English degree, he can’t find a job anywhere except at the local big-box hardware store. Working returns, Penn experiences firsthand the often comical absurdity, chaos, and shenanigans of the retail world. At least he has a new romance with a coworker going for him—if he doesn’t screw it up. The constant pressures of dealing with hostile customers, oblivious coworkers, and overbearing management begin to take their toll on him, though, and as his desired career path threatens to fall out of reach, Penn struggles to break free of retail’s clutches.

Few things are more disheartening than being stuck in a soul-shredding job.

The amount of time that was put into developing Penn’s personality made him one of the most memorable characters I’ve met so far this year. Penn’s flaws happen to be things that deeply irritate me, so I can’t honestly say that I always liked him. I can say that he made me think, though, and that he was written in such a way that I paused about a third of the way through his tale to see if it was actually a memoir. Penn comes across as a three-dimensional person, metaphorical warts and all. That isn’t something that’s at all easy to accomplish, and it’s whetted my appetite for more from Mr. Danker-Dake .

This book includes well over two dozen different characters, many of whom have nicknames that weren’t always easy to connect to their actual names. At times I mixed up the identities of certain employees and customers that made less frequent appearances because there was such a large number of them drifting in and out of the plot. It would have been really helpful to have a brief list of their names as well an indication of whether each character was an employee of the store or one of their regular customers.

Worldbuilding is definitely one of Mr. Danker-Dake’s strengths. Not only does he create incredibly complex settings for his characters, he allows Penn to slowly change in response to the things that happen to him. In some ways the setting almost functioned as its own character due to how much influence it had on Penn’s personal development. Watching this unfold was a treat, and it made me curious about what this author will come up with in the future.

I’d especially recommend The Retail to anyone who has ever worked in the service industry or who wonders what it’s like to be on the opposite side of the booth, till, or help desk.

The Hanging Tree by Michael Phillip Cash

TREE
The Hanging Tree by Michael Phillip Cash
Publisher: Red Feather Publishing
Genre: Contemporary, Historical, Paranormal
Length: Short Story (75 pgs)
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Thistledown

Enter a world where spirits roam the earth in Michael Phillip Cash’s haunting new novella, The Hanging Tree. Set amid the eerie backdrop of Long Island, an area famously steeped in old legend, two young would-be lovers contemplate their future while visits from those who have come before them reveal the lure of fate…and the power of free will. At seventeen years old, Arielle’s relationship with her parents is slowly deteriorating. Angry and defiant, she is at a loss on how to cope with the tumultuous situation in which she finds herself. Arielle’s only comfort is Chad, an eighteen-year-old young man who seems to truly understand her struggles. Arielle and Chad meet beneath the low-hanging branches of what the local community has nick-named the “Hanging Tree”. An ancient and majestic landmark, it has long been rumored that the tree is haunted by ghosts. These ghosts span various centuries and vary wildly in age, but each one of them has one thing in common: their deaths are all somehow connected to the tree itself. As Arielle and Chad commiserate over their current situation and their precarious nature of their future, the spectral inhabitants of the Hanging Tree witness their conversation. One by one,the ghosts begin reminiscing about their own lives-and deaths- as they examine the inner demons with which their human forms long struggled. An eerie meditation on the oft-overlooked power of choice, Cash’s The Hanging Tree will stay with readers long after they turn out the light.

What happens when you test your boundaries under the infamous Hanging Tree?

Seventeen year old Arielle is rebelling against her father’s will. She is dating a boy her father doesn’t approve of. She decides, against his wishes, to go with the boy on a date under the infamous Hanging Tree. When things start to happen, will she make the right choice and get away or will her fate be tied to the tree?

Five spirits are tied to the tree. All of which have a historical connection to the spot because of their deaths. The characters are a witch and her granddaughter, a cat, two young male lovers and a woman called the Gibson girl who died after being brutally raped. Each story is brought to life by the author and we as readers get a glimpse into the past of Goody the witch and her granddaughter Claire and the horrors that led to their demise as Goody was put to death for witchery after her granddaughter commits suicide. As she died, Goody cursed her murderer and his family.

The two young lovers’ tale is equally tragic and we glimpse a time when it was nearly a death sentence to admit that you were gay and in love. The only ghost that really is never talked much about is the Gibson girl and the horrible rape that led to her death.

Arielle sits against the tree fending off the amorous boy whose attention she craved. Should she give in and allow him access to the body he wants or keep herself pure for someone worth having? Each of the ghosts in the tree interacts with her and the boyfriend, driving him away with spooky sounds and moving tree limbs.  When the ghost cat finds itself in a perilous situation, will Arielle make the right choice for her and for the cat? Some decisions we make linger long after the grave. Can Arielle save herself before she becomes another victim of the tree?

I really enjoyed this book and read it in one sitting. Page after page I had to know what happened to Goody and her granddaughter Claire. The two young lovers were also tragic and I loved their story just as much. Arielle is a girl like so many teenagers. Angry and trying to find her way, she considers giving away her body, one of the only things she has control of. As the night develops she learns to listen to the wind and hear the whispers between the branches.

Great story and I look forward to more spooky tales from Michael Phillip Cash.