Blame It On Texas by Amie Louellen

TEXAS
Blame It On Texas by Amie Louellen
Publisher: Samhain Publishing
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Short Story (109 pgs)
Heat Level: Spicy
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Hawthorn

Every first love deserves a second chance.

Shelby Patterson has come back to Texas for one reason and one reason only—to get her husband to sign divorce papers. She’s worked hard to build her California bakery, where clients clamor for her one-of-a-kind creations.

Seven years after her disastrous marriage, she’ll finally have everything in perfect order—just as soon as Ritter McCoy signs the dotted line.

Ritt is still pissed that Shelby walked out all those years ago without giving their marriage a chance. Sure, they were young and had just lost the baby that had rushed them to the altar, but they’d loved each other beyond reason.

Ritt gave up his college baseball scholarship, only to have Shelby and her mom take his parents’ bribe money and run. If Shelby wants those papers signed, she’ll just have to wait until he’s good and ready.

Or maybe, before she flies the coop again, he can convince her the love they had between them is still there—and still hot enough to melt their hearts back into one.

Everything is not just bigger in Texas, it seems everything is also more complicated. At least, that’s how it seems when Shelby comes home to get her husband to sign the divorce papers.

The author managed to show the tension between Ritt and Shelby very nicely; there’s attraction but also the insecurity and fear that they feel because of the events from seven years ago. Both are presented as complex characters, with believable development and complicated emotional lives. The other characters were well-written despite having very small roles.

The novella was the perfect length to tell the story with an effective pace. I was slightly disappointed by the ending (I’m referring to Ritt’s secret) that felt a bit out of character and threw a shadow on an otherwise fitting resolution. It made the ending less believable and therefore less satisfying. The wonderful characters deserved better.

The story could benefit from better copy-editing and fewer clichés, but the characters and the story were compelling enough to help me ignore that. The conflict between the main characters was especially strong because it originated in a misunderstanding that was based on Ritt’s and Shelby’s emotions. The progression from their doubts and fears to realization and acceptance was nicely shown through the story and it made it easy to identify with them.

I wished for the story to never end, I couldn’t get enough of Ritt and Shelby. This is a hot summer read.

What Echoes Render by Tamsen Schultz

Cover_What Echoes Render

What Echoes Render by Tamsen Schultz
Publisher: Booktrope
Genre: Contemporary, Mystery/Suspense
Length: Full (361 pgs)
Heat: Spicy
Rated: 4 stars
Review by Poppy

There’s a killer in Windsor intent on making Jesse Baker burn for the sins of others. But arson investigator David Hathaway isn’t about to let that happen. As the past echoes through their lives, will they remember that history, like fire, can give life just as easily as it can destroy it?

Thoroughly enjoyable, What Echoes Render is a well written story with one foot solidly in both the romance and suspense camps.

Jesse, the heroine of our story, is a great woman. She’s strong, smart, determined. She’s a great mom, but not without her flaws or without a troubled backstory. I really liked Jesse, though I wasn’t completely sold on her reasons for keeping her budding relationship with David a mystery.

David was pretty amazing, too. Much like Jesse, he’s strong (but compassionate and caring), smart, determined, loyal and a good dad. But also with a difficult past in both the personal and professional sides. He puts up with a bit of an emotional yo-yo from Jesse, but sticks it out because he sees what’s underneath her insecurity. I liked, too, how he involved her boys in much of what was going on with their relationship. As a single dad, he really understood that area.

The mystery was intriguing and had plenty of clues, both real and the red herring type. I was certainly engaged in trying to find out whodunit and why. I suspect many true mystery buffs will figure out the villain before our protagonists do, but even so, I absolutely enjoyed this part of the book. In fact, despite being very much a romantic, I chomped at the bit when the author turned away from it and turned to the community building.

What community? Well … this is a small town story, so there are plenty of secondary characters to liven things up. However, as entertaining as they were, I admit I tended to skim past the parts that weren’t directly involved in either David and Jesse’s relationship or the mystery. Maybe if I’d read the first books in the series, I would have been more engaged in those folks, since it’s clear they figured in previous stories. But since I didn’t already know them, I just wanted to get on with the story I was reading!

Even so, What Echoes Render really sold me on the author. Her skill with prose and plot is undeniable, and I’m betting this book (and the entire series) will be a hit to other romantic suspense fans.

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Spirit of Love by J.L. Addicoat

LOVE
Spirit of Love by J.L. Addicoat
Publisher: Rogue Phoenix Press
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary, Paranormal
Length: Short Story (120 pages)
Heat Level: Hot
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Old buildings have an eerie haunting feeling, and the 17th Century Manor house in the Cornish countryside Julia intends to restore, is no exception. Originally her dead husband’s dream, she feels it’s up to her to complete it in his memory. When she arrives, she realizes it’ll take more than a quick clean to put the dilapidated old Manor to rights.

While exploring the house, she feels as someone, or something, is watching her. Darting shadows and movements, seen from the corner of her eyes, seem to confirm sinister happenings at the Manor in the past. The discovery of an old diary hidden in a chest of drawers and the story it tells, lead Julia in a different direction than she originally thought she would be taking.

Grief does funny things to people. All it’s made Julia want to do so far is turn back the hands of time. Will a change of scenery help her or will it only make her miss her husband even more?

I was expecting a lot of things out of this story, but laughter certainly wasn’t one of them. Ms. Addicoat has a bawdy sense of humor that worked really well with these particular characters. It’s difficult to say anything else about this without giving away spoilers, but the scenes that dipped into this genre were by far my favorite ones of them all.

It would have been helpful to get to know Julia better. She switched so rapidly between serious indecisiveness and giving clearcut instructions to her new servants that I was never quite sure which side of her personality was the more accurate one. Julia also had a few ditzy moments that seemed out of character for someone who has been successfully self-employed for so many years, but once again I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to find her a little flighty or if I was reading too much into the clues that were provided about the kind of person she was before her husband died.

The romantic elements of this tale are just as strong as the fantasy ones. At first I was little skeptical of how everything would be tied together since there were so many things going on in the plot simultaneously, but the people involved in it were given ample time to get to know each other first. Allowing their attraction to one another to heat up slowly was definitely the right choice in this case!

I’d particularly recommend Spirit of Love to anyone who likes paranormal romance novels that have one foot planted solidly in each genre.

Lady Annabelle’s Abduction by Charisse Howard

LADY
Lady Annabelle’s Abduction by Charisse Howard
Publisher: Boom-Books
Genre: Historical, Mystery/Suspense
Length: Short Story (81 pgs)
Heat Level: Spicy
Rating: 3.5 stars
Reviewed by Hawthorn

If Lady Annabelle Chatfield’s reckless brother had to die in debt, couldn’t he have borrowed from someone young and handsome? Marrying the dumpy middle-aged Earl of Brackenbury is not her idea of a bright future. But that sacrifice starts to look like bliss when a dark stranger blocks her wedding by climbing in her bedroom window and carrying her off into the night. Who is this ruthless but compelling man known as Hawk? What does he plan to do with her? Can her pet spaniel and a young footman rescue her before her honor and her family are ruined?

Lady Annabelle’s Abduction is a story about the passion that upsets the plans for a marriage of convenience.

I was intrigued by the premise of the novella because I’ve read some remarkable renditions of the topic of a kidnapped heroine. Ms. Howard didn’t disappoint in this respect. She made both Lady Annabelle and her captor likeable characters that made me hope their predicament could be solved favorably in the end.

What Lady Annabelle’s Abduction lacked was a story supported with more details and a deeper insight into Lady Annabelle’s and Hawk’s emotions and the progression of their relationship. Where the blurb promised that Annabelle and Hawk warily grow acquainted, their relationship actually progresses into far more than mere acquaintance in the space of a few pages. Instead of dedicating a third of the story to Hepton’s attempts to finding Annabelle, the space would’ve been better used focusing on the heroine and her abductor.

The language and manners of the characters were all very age appropriate, but I felt, especially in the most intimate moments between Annabelle and Hawk that the discrepancy between the events and the language was too big; it seemed like the language was mocking the characters. It bothered me and it took some pleasure from reading.

This novella is full of suspense and romance set in the authentically presented Regency era.

The Magpie Chronicles by Sherry Gloag

MAGPIE
The Magpie Chronicles by Sherry Gloag
Publisher: EsKape Press
Genre: Suspense/Mystery, Horror, Contemporary, Historical, Paranormal
Length: Short Story (106 pages)
Heat Level: Sweet
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

A collection of thirteen mixed genre short stories based on the well-known Magpie Rhyme.

One for sorrow
Two for joy
Three for a girl
And four for a boy
Five for silver
Six for gold
Seven for a secret never to be told
Eight for a wish
Nine for a kiss
Ten a surprise you should not miss
Eleven for health
Twelve for wealth
Thirteen beware of the devil himself.

Traditional poems are remembered because they speak to every generation that hears them. Will they continue to resonate with us in the twenty-first century?

As soon as I read the blurb, I couldn’t wait to find out how Ms. Gloag’s interpretation of each line could be reimagined in a fresh way. It’s uncommon for so many different genres to be represented in the same collection, and I was curious to see how and when they’d pop up together.

In “Three for a Girl,” a teenager gets into a fight with her boyfriend and decides to take a long walk to cool off before going home. What happens next caught me by surprise due to the attention-grabbing opening scene as well as how smoothly everything was tied together in the end. This is a good example of how to straddle the thin line between genres without compromising a quickly-paced plot.

Five for Silver” follows two sisters around as they discuss the booming jewelry business that is bringing a lot of success to one of them. Like several other stories in this collection, this one had a great premise but never quite delivered enough details about what was happening in order for me to get into it. There were a few times when these tales had too many characters or never quite fully introduced them to the reader, and this made me feel a little lost in certain sections.

By far my favorite part of this anthology was “Eleven for Health.” The narrator is a woman who was married to the love of her life for decades. Their relationship has weathered far more than its fair share of bumps in the road. As she prepares for a monumental shift in her life she brushes up against funny, painful, and poignant memories that she hasn’t confronted in years. Strong character development and a plot that assumes the reader is intelligent enough to make certain deductions on his or her own made me wish for a sequel. I don’t know if the author has any plans to write one, but I’d love to revisit these characters!

The Magpie Chronicles dabbles with so many different themes that I’d recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in any of them. Some books benefit from shaking up the reader’s expectations of what will happen next. This is one of them.

When Swallows Fall by Gloria Davidson Marlow

FALL
When Swallows Fall by Gloria Davidson Marlow
Publisher: The Wild Rose Press
Genre: Historical, Suspense/Mystery
Length: Full Length (262 pgs)
Heat Level: Sensual
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Poinsettia

Although Ophelia Garrett loved Cade Scott first, it was her sister he married and took home to his plantation. When Ophelia receives word of her sister’s murder and Cade’s arrest, she travels there on a mission to learn the truth. She soon finds the halls of Almenara are haunted by secrets, peril, and quite possibly her sister’s ghost.

Despite the cold, angry man Cade has become, Ophelia’s heart refuses to believe he is a murderer. Vowing to do everything she can to prove his innocence, Ophelia must open wounds she’d hoped were long healed and face the feelings that still burn between her and Cade. As everyone looks to Cade as the suspect, evil haunts the dunes and halls of Almenara, bringing death to two more young women and forcing Ophelia to confront the danger.

Ophelia was betrayed by the two people she loved most.

Ophelia is a sweet young woman who has every reason to be angry with her late sister and her brother-in-law, Cade. The first time she falls in love, her sister swoops in and steals the man away from her. My curiosity was immediately piqued. I wanted know what could have possibly induced Cade to marry Desdemona when he was clearly in love with Ophelia and then cut Ophelia out of their lives entirely. I eagerly dove into the pages searching for an explanation. The truth behind Desdemona’s betrayal is dreadful.

I have a lot of respect for Ophelia. Desdemona’s betrayal regarding Cade was simply the last in a long line of offenses she committed. It took a lot of courage to go to her sister’s funeral, investigate the murder, and face the man she once loved. It took even more courage to examine herself and acknowledge the very small part she played in the tragedy. I do think that Ophelia is a little too hard on herself. Desdemona and Cade are adults and clearly responsible for their own actions.

Ophelia is heart broken when she learns how unhappy Desdemona’s life had been. However, I had a very hard time sympathizing with Desdemona’s plight. Desdemona struck me as a cruel woman who rarely thought of anyone but herself. She used people and then tossed them aside when she was done. Her tragic situation was entirely of her own making. I couldn’t really sympathize with Cade either. I understand that Ophelia was called away from him when their romance was still young, but no one forced him to find comfort in the arms of Desdemona.

Ms. Marlow did a good job of weaving the mystery surrounding Desdemona’s death. There were a lot of plausible suspects. In fact, there were so many suspects that the sheriff’s insistence that Cade killed Desdemona as well as the other young women is completely ridiculous. With such an abundance of suspects, I was on the edge of my seat, and I didn’t figure it out until the very end.

Overall, I enjoyed reading When Swallows Fall. Its pages are filled with heartbreak, mystery, and love. Anyone looking for a story of tragedy and romance of Shakespearean proportions should give When Swallows Fall a try.

Shaman by Scott Rhine

SHAMAN
Shaman by Scott Rhine
Publisher: Self-published
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal, Contemporary, Action/Adventure
Length: Full Length (304 pages)
Heat Level: Sweet
Age Recommendation: 14+
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Daniel is training to become a shaman and living on the Dakota reservation with his grandfather. As a member of the thunderbird people, he can visit a shared dream world and meet others like himself. Over summer break, he takes a road trip to New Orleans to rescue a sixteen-year-old girl from the Dark Tree Coven. Daniel knows he’s going to be grounded, but promises his cousins that the adventure will be worth the punishment.

What follows reads like a Native American “Blues Brothers” with a trained raccoon.

“We have the raccoon and the police gear. All we need is a net, an acetylene-propane torch, forty feet of rope, a Bavarian cream doughnut, Karo syrup, and red food coloring.”

Having a talent isn’t the same thing as knowing how to use it.

The character development in this story is phenomenal. Daniel’s earlier adventures acknowledged how all of his painful experience in life have shaped in personality, but this sequel stitched those memories together in ways that I often didn’t see coming. It was especially interesting to see how his interpretation of certain events has changed over time given how much they affected his mood and behavior in the past.

At first I was a little thrown off by the pacing. Given how quickly things moved in the first book in this series, Messenger, I wasn’t expecting to slow down and spend so much time getting to know the secondary characters in the sequel. Once everything began to congeal together I understood why the author made this decision, but it is something I would have liked to know about ahead of time.

Daniel didn’t have much exposure to his Dakota relatives growing up, so it was fascinating to see him explore that side of his family tree. I wasn’t familiar with the legends or traditions of that tribe. While the plot can be easily understood with the details already provided in it, I was so curious about that aspect of Daniel’s life that I ended up hunting down a few outside sources to learn more once I finished the last chapter.

Read Messenger before diving into this one. While the author briefly recaps the most important things that have happened so far, there are so many people, creatures, and otherworldly beings in this universe that certain references are much easier to understand if you know everything that has been revealed about their backstories so far.

Once again it took me a while to figure out the best age recommendation, but this time it isn’t a strict one. The darker themes of Messenger have been intensified in the sequel. Daniel’s anger, sorrow, and guilt are woven into his journey incredibly well, but some of the ways he copes with these things are intense. Exercise causation when passing this story on to 12 and 13 year olds, and I definitely wouldn’t suggest it to anyone younger than that.

Shaman is one of the most entertaining young adult novels I’ve read so far this year. This is a great choice for anyone who likes role-playing games or other similarly imaginative hobbies.

Caution: Filling is Hot by Tara Mills

HOT
Caution: Filling is Hot by Tara Mills
Publisher: Beachwalk Press, Inc.
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Full Length (197 pgs)
Heat Level: Hot
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Hawthorn

Some men should come with a warning.

Here’s a recipe to share with friends. Take one prickly demonstration cook, handle carefully. Add one lonely widower, slightly beaten. Mix gently. Fold in two six-year-olds, one at a time to temper the batter and avoid scrambling. Then finally, add the mother with an agenda—but just a dash, because she’s spicy. Whip into stiff peaks then spread over an ungreased sheet for best results. Method of cooking can vary, however—Caution: Filling is Hot.

Piper Frost is taking a break from men when contractor Chad Thomas crashes her cooking class and turns on the charm. His persistence annoys her but she’s already melting, even without his sneaky mother and conspiring twins in the mix. But just when things are really starting to sizzle, disaster strikes. Can Piper save her recipe for happily ever after or is it already ruined? Grab your oven mitts and find out.

Just as Piper, at long last, realizes Chad has gotten under her skin, I’m betting you will realize at the end of the novel that you’ve become very fond of Piper and Chad.

I took me a while to get into the story. The first few pages weren’t too promising. I felt Chad’s advances were too ‘stalkerish’, and at the same time Piper’s rejections were too cold and aggressive. However, once Piper relented and decided hanging out with his family was not such a terrible thing after all, their dynamics shifted and their chemistry felt more apparent. Their characters became more pronounced and their motives clearer and more reasonable once their backgrounds were explained.

I was charmed by Chad’s family, both his twins and his mother. They were all a nice comic relief without being stock figures. Apart from that, they also managed to show deeper nuances of Piper’s character through their interactions with her; this was especially true of the children. Piper’s best friend Joy was also indispensable for the story, functioning almost like a catalyst with her constant jibes at Piper, and then ultimately making Piper realize she’s no better than Mick whom she’s blamed for a lot of problems in her life.

The pace of the story was just right, aided by the fact that Chad’s and Piper’s dates were never dull, instead they always involved some unusual activity and fun company. It was thrilling to watch them fighting their emotions, especially when Piper’s resistance and Chad’s misinterpretation of a situation led to a critical point in the story that was fraught with angst. It took Piper a long time to recognize her feelings, but her development seemed believable.

Caution: Filling is Hot is both a story of love at first sight and a story about stubborn denial. It’s a story about passion and devotion. It’s also a story about healing and overcoming tragic loss and grief.

The Secret Kiss of Darkness by Christina Courtenay

KISS
The Secret Kiss of Darkness by Christina Courtenay
Publisher: Choc Lit Limited
Genre: Historical, Paranormal, Suspense/Mystery
Length: Full Length (317 pages)
Heat Level: sweet
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Orchid

Must forbidden love end in heartbreak?

Kayla Sinclair knows she’s in big trouble when she almost bankrupts herself to buy a life-size portrait of a mysterious eighteenth century man at an auction.

Jago Kerswell, inn-keeper and smuggler, knows there is danger in those stolen moments with Lady Eliza Marcombe, but he’ll take any risk to be with her.

Over two centuries separate Kayla and Jago, but when Kayla’s jealous fiancé presents her with an ultimatum, and Jago and Eliza’s affair is tragically discovered, their lives become inextricably linked thanks to a gypsy’s spell. Kayla finds herself on a quest that could heal the past, but what she cannot foresee is the danger in her own future.

Will Kayla find heartache or happiness?

Kayla is happy in her job, about to be married to her boss and loved by her family. What more did she need? Life changed when her Aunt leaves her a legacy and Kayla buys a painting. Her fiancé is not amused and their engagement ends. Even more frightening, the man in the painting begins to talk to her.

Jago, the smuggler, and Lady Eliza fall in love but the lady is married to Jago’s half brother, the lord of the manor. After the birth of her son, Eliza dies but Jago vows to join her in eternity. During their affair they are painted individually by Thomas Gainsborough and yes, this is the painting Kayla buys. The portrait of Jago.

The one time smuggler asks Kayla to find the painting of Eliza so the lovers may be together. She can’t resist the temptation and with Jago giving her clues she follows the trail to the old manor house. Here she meets Wes and his daughter Nell, descendants of Eliza.

I loved this book. At first I thought it would be another time travel or love across the ages, but the neat seams between the past and the present, the story of Jago and Eliza entwined with Kayla’s life in the present – all this kept me reading avidly from beginning to end.

I have to admit I originally started reading this book because I like Choc Lit books, but in future I will also look out for more books by Christina Courtenay. She has the ability to draw me into the story and keep me there, eagerly awaiting the next chapter and following the lives of people many years apart. Brilliant, absolutely brilliant. Loved it.

Once More, My Darling Rogue by Lorraine Heath

ROGUE
Once More, My Darling Rogue by Lorraine Heath
Publisher: Avon
Genre: Historical
Length: Full Length (384 pgs)
Heat Level: Spicy
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Reviewed by Bluet

They are England’s most eligible bachelors, with the most scandalous reputations. But for the right woman, even an unrepentant rogue may mend his ways…

Born to the street but raised within the aristocracy, Drake Darling can’t escape his sordid beginnings. Not when Lady Ophelia Lyttleton snubs him at every turn, a constant reminder he’s not truly one of them. But after rescuing her from a mysterious drowning he realizes she doesn’t remember who she is. With plans to bring her to heel, he insists she’s his housekeeper—never expecting to fall for the charming beauty.

While Ophelia might not recall her life before Drake, she has little doubt she belongs with him. The desire she feels for her dark, brooding employer can’t be denied, regardless of consequences. So when her memory returns, she is devastated by the depth of his betrayal. Now Drake must risk everything to prove she can trust this rogue with her heart once more.

Remember that movie “Overboard,” with Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell? How tempting would it be if you had the opportunity to get a little of your own back against someone who had belittled you and scorned you at every opportunity? That’s the first thing that came to my mind as Lady Ophelia Lyttleton called Drake Darling “Boy,” and ordered him to bring her a glass of champagne at a ball. While Drake is not a noble, he is the adopted son of a duke, and has never done a thing to spark Ophelia’s spitefulness. So, later when he rescues a mud-covered lady from almost drowning, and takes her home, and realizes that it’s Ophelia, and that she has no memory of anything, he decides to make her believe she is a servant for a day before he returns her to her home.

This Ophelia, however, is not at all like the haughty heiress who has plagued Drake. While she is pretty inept as a servant, she quickly learns, and works hard, much to Drake’s amazement. Since the circumstances of her accident are very murky, Drake does some investigating, and feels that she may still be in danger, so he doesn’t take her home right away, as planned. They quickly develop an intimacy and an attraction. Without her prejudices clouding her judgment, Ophelia (now called “Phee”) sees Drake for the man he is. And Drake is a wonderful man – he’s big, strong, handsome, and protective. And I quite liked Phee now, that is, until her memory came back.

This book was well written, and flowed nicely. I love the trope of amnesia, when it’s well done. And, frankly, it was a good thing that Ophelia had a chance to reflect on her former nasty self, because she came out of it a much better person. There are a couple mysteries – what caused Ophelia’s accident, and what happened in her past to make her the unpleasant person she had been. There is a touching scene near the end between Drake and his adopted father which brought tears to my eyes. And I thoroughly enjoy that this series of books is about the children of the characters from Lorraine Heath’s previous series, The Scoundrels of St James. This is a wonderful read, particularly if you like stories of redemption and self-forgiveness. I highly recommend reading it.