River City Dead by Nancy G. West


River City Dead by Nancy G. West
Publisher: Henery Press
Genre: Contemporary, Suspense/Mystery
Length: Full Length (224 pgs)
Rating: 3.5 stars
Reviewed by Cholla

Advice columnist Aggie Mundeen and SAPD Detective Sam Vanderhoven plan their first rendezvous at a San Antonio River Walk hotel during Fiesta Week—sumptuous sights, sounds, and festivities in the middle of America’s Venice. A vacation from crime and a reset for their tumultuous relationship.

But murder descends on the Casa Prima Hotel. Disturbing revelations surface about the Fabulous Femmes, Aggie’s new friends holding a convention. Evil emerges at parties in La Villita. Calamity plagues Aggie’s debut dance performance at the Arneson River Theater, the celebration skewed by carousing, crazies, and corpses. Even in idyllic River City, crime complicates relationships.

All Aggie wants is a quiet vacation cozied up to her new boyfriend, Sam. With the relationship still fresh and new, she wants to spend some quiet time with Sam and get to know him better. But when you’re dating a cop, things don’t always work out the way you had planned. Case in point: when a woman is murdered in the hotel you’re staying in, your boyfriend tends to get really busy really quickly. Not that Aggie is about to let that stop her fun.

Aggie Mundeen is an advice columnist who takes her real life experiences and uses them to guide others. I was amused that the letters from her readers were included in the story, giving us a little insight into Aggie’s downtime rituals. Her boyfriend, Sam Vanderhoven, is also an interesting character. Although he’s a rather typical cop-like character, his frustration and affection for Aggie make him a more complete character. That he knows he wants to keep her safe and yet realizes at the same time that he’ll never get her to heel, is both sweet and reassuring.

I really enjoyed the setting in Austin, Texas. It’s a city I hear so many good things about and yet have never visited, despite having lived in Houston for a year. The characters are also very interesting and likable, despite Aggie’s penchant for getting herself into trouble, even though her boyfriend and cop, Sam, warn her to stay out of it. That said, if every lead in a cozy mystery took that advice, we’d never have any novels, right? At times I felt like the dialogue was a bit stilted and awkward, but the overall story was entertaining and engaging. I’m going to hunt down the prior three books in this series now and find out how it all began. A story with a few twists and turns and an unforgettable cast.

The Bloom Girls by Emily Cavanagh


The Bloom Girls by Emily Cavanagh
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Full Length (256 pgs)
Rating: 3.5 stars
Reviewed by Cholla

A tender, heartfelt story of three sisters, their late father’s painful past, and the power of forgiveness.

When the news of their father’s death reaches them, sisters Cal, Violet, and Suzy Bloom have to set aside their own personal crises, and their differences, to gather in Maine. Responsible Cal, the oldest and closest to their dad, is torn between taking care of her family and meeting the demands of a high-pressure law career. Impulsive Violet, the estranged middle child, is regretting a messy breakup with a man she’s just now realizing she truly loves. And Suzy, the sweet youngest daughter, is anguishing over a life-altering decision.

Arriving in their father’s small coastal town, the Bloom sisters can’t help but revisit the past, confronting the allegations against their father that shattered their family nearly twenty years earlier. As they try to reconcile different versions of their childhood and search for common ground, they’re forced to look at their father’s life—and their own lives—with new eyes, or risk losing all they hold dear.

Nothing brings families together like the death of one of their own. Even when the family is fragmented and scattered, everyone will turn up for a funeral. However, when family is reunited, all the skeletons thought to be long buried are dug up and held under the lights for inspection. The Bloom family is no different.

When their father dies, sisters Cal, Violet, and Suzy come together to make arrangements and face their past. While all three know that there were accusations of impropriety leveled against their father while he was a teacher, none of them know the whole truth, only their own piece of the puzzle. As the truth comes to light – not only about the accusations made against their father, but the truth of his life after his divorce from their mother – the sisters are forced to reconcile what they’d known with what they now know. It’s not an easy task for any of them, since they’re each dealing with their own crises and baggage.

In a lot of ways, I can relate to the sisters. Although my dad didn’t have any deep, dark secrets when he passed, my younger sister had such a different take on the man he’d been than I had as the older sibling. Talking about our childhood shed a lot of light on things for both of us. So, watching how Cal, the oldest, and Suzy, the youngest, worked through things was fascinating to me. Violet, the middle child, was the one with the most to assimilate and accept, however. I did love how they each managed to take their anguish over their loss and use it to begin to work through the issues in their current lives. The one downside to this story was that there was so much sadness in their childhood, things that they didn’t know or understand, that caused them to not only push away from their father, but also from each other. It makes me wish they could have figured these things out long before they lost their father. But, in the end, that they figured them out while they still had each other, gave the story enough of a happy ending that you didn’t leave it feeling down. You feel hopeful for their future, even if you do feel for the missteps of their past.

The Bloom Girls is a slice of real life. Families are complicated and complex creatures that harbor many secrets and harsh truths that are often ignored for a variety of reasons. It shows the many facets of a grieving family and how relationships evolve over time and distance. A bittersweet and heartwarming story of estranged sisters finding their way home again.

The Good Widow by Liz Fenton & Lisa Steinke


The Good Widow by Liz Fenton & Lisa Steinke
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Genre: Contemporary, Suspense/Mystery
Length: Full Length (300 pgs)
Rating: 4.5 stars
Reviewed by Cholla

Elementary school teacher Jacqueline “Jacks” Morales’s marriage was far from perfect, but even in its ups and downs it was predictable, familiar. Or at least she thought it was…until two police officers showed up at her door with devastating news. Her husband of eight years, the one who should have been on a business trip to Kansas, had suffered a fatal car accident in Hawaii. And he wasn’t alone.

For Jacks, laying her husband to rest was hard. But it was even harder to think that his final moments belonged to another woman—one who had left behind her own grieving and bewildered fiancé. Nick, just as blindsided by the affair, wants answers. So he suggests that he and Jacks search for the truth together, retracing the doomed lovers’ last days in paradise.

Now, following the twisting path of that fateful road, Jacks is learning that nothing is ever as it seems. Not her marriage. Not her husband. And most certainly not his death…

Marriage isn’t ever easy, but it’s worth all the ups and downs along the way. At least, that’s what Jacks had always believed. However, when two police officers arrive on her doorstep to tell her her husband has died in a place he never should have been, she begins to question everything she once knew. What do you do when your world is turned on its ear? Do you curl into a ball and ignore it or do you dig until you find the answers you need?

Jacqueline “Jacks” Morales is my kind of woman. Despite the fact that her in-laws don’t much like her, she carries on with her marriage. Although she does try to thaw her mother-in-law’s icy demeanor, she doesn’t become obsessed with it either. Her relationship with her sister is the best though, and Beth’s love and support are amazing.

Nick Ford is every woman’s dream. Smart, handsome and a firefighter to boot. Despite losing his fiancée to another man and then – eventually – to death, he perseveres. I was wary of his idea to trek all the way to Hawaii to find out the truth of what happened to Dylan and James, but once they were there, I was fully on board. It didn’t surprise me to find Nick and Jacks drawn to one another after their mutual tragedy, but I wasn’t sure I liked it a whole lot either.

You learn a lot more about Dylan Matthews, the woman James Morales is seeing on the side, than you do about James, but that’s okay, too. I think seeing Dylan’s side of the whole story helps you understand exactly why she did what she did. Not that it makes her infidelity right, but it does make it more plausible. I wish we could have gotten a chapter or two from James’ point of view, if only to help the reader reconcile the things that Jacks wouldn’t ever know.

The Good Widow hooked me from the blurb. I didn’t even have to crack the book to know that I was going to love it and I wasn’t wrong. I had the hardest time putting this book down because my need to know the truth was so strong. Then, the authors threw a twist in there that maybe I should have seen coming but, like that big truck late at night, it completely blindsided me. I felt a lot of kinship and sympathy for Jacks, although I’ve never been in her situation before. By the end, I was also firmly on Dylan’s side because, as her story unfolds, you get to know the real girl behind the face of the mistress. Engaging, intense, and full of surprises, The Good Widow was an excellent read.

Kiss Me, Cowboy by Carol Lynne


Kiss Me, Cowboy by Carol Lynne
Publisher: Pride Publishing
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Short Story (59 pgs)
Other: M/M Anal Play
Rating: 3.5 stars
Reviewed by Cholla

It isn’t easy to cling to teenage promises when you become one of the forgotten.

For Eli Barron, Jesse Clooney has always been the one. From their first day of kindergarten through their high school graduation, the pair were inseparable.
So, when a situation arises that splits the two men apart, it’s up to Eli to keep the home fires burning as Jesse sets off to follow his dreams on the rodeo circuit.
But how long can a man continue to stoke the fire before the flames die out?

They say love is forever, but when you find your soulmate as a teen, it’s much harder to believe. Just ask Eli Barron who found the love of his life in kindergarten. When life happens and Eli is forced to say goodbye the only man he’s ever loved, will he be able to hold on? Or will he be forced to move on and give up on his dreams?

Eli is quite a catch. Although he’s loved Jesse since they were kids, he’s still able to allow his boyfriend the freedom to ride the circuit and try to make a living away from his abusive father. He’s so confident in Jesse’s love that no matter how difficult things get, he keeps hold of his faith and continues on. Jesse has no idea how lucky he is.

Jesse Clooney needs to get the heck out of town. Having spent his life under the scrutiny of everyone in their small town, as soon as graduation hits, he feels the need to flee. It’s not a choice he wants to make, but it’s one he feels like he has to make in order to break free of the stigma of being ‘that abused child’. Since the entire story is told through Eli’s point of view, it’s hard to know what’s really going on in Jesse’s head, although I want to believe that he thinks he’s doing the right thing, even if he really pushes Eli’s love to the limit.

Kiss Me, Cowboy is a short and intense story spanning many years. You really get to know Eli, his life, and his heartache over Jesse. That was the only thing that really bothered me about this story. Eli suffered so much waiting for Jesse to return and dealing with the disappointment as the narrative wore on. You want things to work out for him, but sometimes you also wish he said ‘enough’ and moved on to someone else. In the end, I’m happy that they managed to work it out and get their happily ever after. Jesse should be thankful, too, after the emotional roller coaster Eli took us on. All in all, a very emotional and passionate story.

Cowboys Don’t Come Out by Tara Lain


Cowboys Don’t Come Out by Tara Lain
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Full Length (200 pgs)
Other: M/M, Anal Play
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Cholla

Rand McIntyre settles for good enough. He loves his small California ranch, raising horses, and teaching riding to the kids he adores—but having kids of his own and someone to love means coming out, and that would jeopardize everything he’s built. Then, despite his terror of flying, he goes on a holiday to Hana, Hawaii, with his parents and meets the dark and mysterious Kai Kealoha, a genuine Hawaiian cowboy. Rand takes to Kai’s kid brother and sister as much as he drools over Kai, but the guy sports more prickles than a horned toad and more secrets than the exotic land he comes from.

Kai’s earned his privacy and lives to protect his “kids.” He ought to stay away from the big, handsome cowboy for everyone’s sake—but since the guy’s just a haole on a short vacation, how much damage can he do? When all of Kai’s worst fears and Rand’s darkest nightmares come true at once, there’s not much chance for two cowboys who can’t—or won’t—come out.

They say opposites attract and there aren’t two men more different than Rand and Kai. But when the two men finally meet and discover an undeniable attraction, will the two closeted cowboys find a way to overcome their fears and find happiness? Or will they allow their stubborn pride and obligations come between them? Hop a flight to Hawaii and come find out.

Rand is my kind of guy. Although he’s so far in the closet he might wind up in Narnia one day, he’s content with the life he’s living. He puts all his energy into running a little tourist ranch and raising horses. His loyalty to his crew and his love of his parents made me like him even more. He’s a good guy who only needs to meet the right guy and he’d finally have it all. Kai truly is that right guy.

Kai is an interesting guy who is hiding a secret. Unknown to anyone, he is sole provider to his much younger brother and sister. Working as a trail guide, he does everything he can to provide for the kids and keep their situation quiet. While this is admirable, it does cause Kai to act a little suspect at times. Until this book, I’d never heard of panilolos – Hawaiian cowboys. And then I met Kai and was entranced. There is so much history in Hawaii and I have only scratched the barest surface. It added an interesting dimension to his already complicated character.

Cowboys have long been a favorite subject of mine, seeing as I’ve spent most of my life in the southwest, so Cowboys Don’t Come Out was a natural choice for me. Although, at times, there was a bit of unnecessary melodrama due to a few side characters, the overall story was sweet with a few heartbreaking moments near the end. It was an excellent start to the series.

Just a Cowboy by Julia Talbot


Just a Cowboy by Julia Talbot
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Short Story (88 pgs)
Other: M/M, Anal Play
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Cholla

Can an old-fashioned cowboy and a young man on the run from his dark past find a future together?

Herschel is a simple rancher who believes everybody deserves a second chance, which is why he tends to hire underdogs—like Dalton, a young cowboy who needs all the support and TLC Herschel can offer.

Dalton doesn’t think anyone can forgive him for what he did, but Herschel seems willing to try. In fact, he might be the best thing that has ever happened to Dalton. He might even be the one to help Dalton trust in the future again. Just when he’s about to tell Herschel everything, all hell breaks loose. Herschel must help Dalton break free from everything that’s haunting him, or they’ll both end up alone.

Everyone deserves a second chance… or do they? If you ask Dalton, you might be surprised by his answer. What Dalton doesn’t expect is to run into the one cowboy that can change it all for him if he’ll only put forth a little effort and communicate. Can two very stubborn cowboys from different worlds find a way to make it work? Time – and a little love – will tell.

I loved Herschel from the very beginning. He’s your typical cowboy who only wants a simple life doing what he loves. Herschel can waver between big brother and father figure to everyone he knows and it’s quite endearing to see how he is with other cowboys. Watching him move from boss to lover with Dalton was a real treat.

Dalton has a habit of acting like an irrational child. While he’s young, he’s been on his own for a bit and should have a better handle on his reactions. That said, he’s a sweet kid and an excellent match for Herschel as he brings a bit of levity to Hersch’s stubborn ways. The older cowboy does a lot to help Dalton overcome his fears and grow into the boots he’s wearing in return.

Once Dalton is forced to face his past, things get hairy, mostly because the entire situation is a little dramatic. Dalton’s pregnant sister, his parents, and half the town where Dalton grew up only add to the chaos. This is one of those times where being a bit stubborn is both good and bad. Good because it gives you the drive to do what needs to be done, but bad as well because it keeps you from admitting to being wrong. In the end, Just a Cowboy, was a sweet and enjoyable story full of hot cowboys and a lot of craziness.

Cowboys Don’t Ride Unicorns by Tara Lain


Cowboys Don’t Ride Unicorns by Tara Lain
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Full Length (226 pgs)
Other: M/M, Multiple Partners, Anal Play, Voyeurism
Rating: 3.5 stars
Reviewed by Cholla

Cowboy Danny Boone—a name he made up one drunken night and has regretted ever since—harbors a big past and yearns for a small future. A short, bright career as a champion bull rider almost ended in his death when his homophobic father discovered Danny was gay. Now Danny longs for a plot of land he can build a ranch house on and enough money to make up for some of the education he missed.

Danny also hides a preference for beautiful femmes who like to top—a combo rarer than a unicorn. Then onto the guest ranch where Danny works drives San Francisco decorator Laurie Belmont, a young man so gorgeous he makes horses gasp, and so ballsy he almost kills Danny’s attacker.

Laurie’s trying to find his way out from under the thumb of a domineering mother, helpless father, and rich, privileged boyfriend.

But no matter the attraction, their lives are worlds apart, and cowboys don’t ride unicorns.

Everyone has their own preferences and discerning tastes, but sometimes what you want and what you can actually get are on opposite ends of the spectrum. This is Danny Boone’s quandary – does he settle for what he can get his hands on or does he keep searching for that elusive man that will trip his trigger indefinitely? Should a cowboy search for his unicorn or stick with his ever-ready pony?

Danny Boone! I was so happy when I realized this was his book. I loved the relationship he and Rand had in the first installment and seeing him more fully fleshed out made me happy. He’s a great guy – solid, hardworking, reliable – and the best hand Rand has around. But he’s also lonely and looking for something more which made me sad to read. It was good going into the story knowing he was finally going to find his happiness.

Laurie Belmont. I wanted to like Laurie so much, especially once you learn about how his family and his boyfriend treat him. You don’t find many unrepentantly authentic characters these days and I was happy to see Laurie so at ease with the man that he was. However, since he’s very femme, at times, his actions and reactions went over the top. So much so that, at several points, he felt more like a caricature or stereotype rather than an actual character. The moments when he and Danny are alone, Laurie is most like himself and he’s really fun and lovable at those times.

Cowboys Don’t Ride Unicorns brings two very unlikely characters together under even more unlikely circumstances. Generally, those ‘deep, dark secrets’ don’t work for me, but Danny’s secret is of the kind that makes sense to hide in an effort to move past it. For the most part, he has done exactly that. The author does throw you a twist by switching up the sexual preferences of Danny and Laurie, giving you a less stereotypical romance between the two men. Even with all the drama, meddling parents, and other craziness, I enjoyed seeing Kai, Rand, and the kids again as well as watching Danny find his happiness.

I Liked My Life by Abby Fabiaschi


I Liked My Life by Abby Fabiaschi
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Full Length (272 pgs)
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Cholla

Maddy is a devoted stay-at-home wife and mother, host of excellent parties, giver of thoughtful gifts, and bestower of a searingly perceptive piece of advice or two. She is the cornerstone of her family, a true matriarch…until she commits suicide, leaving her husband Brady and teenage daughter Eve heartbroken and reeling, wondering what happened. How could the exuberant, exacting woman they loved disappear so abruptly, seemingly without reason, from their lives? How they can possibly continue without her? As they sift through details of her last days, trying to understand the woman they thought they knew, Brady and Eve are forced to come to terms with unsettling truths.

Maddy, however, isn’t ready to leave her family forever. Watching from beyond, she tries to find the perfect replacement for herself. Along comes Rory: pretty, caring, and spontaneous, with just the right bit of edge…but who also harbors a tragedy of her own. Will the mystery of Maddy ever come to rest? And can her family make peace with their history and begin to heal?

Maddy Starling had it all. A beautiful house, fulfilling volunteer work, a successful husband and a beautiful daughter. She is the glue that holds her family’s world together. But when she commits suicide unexpectedly, everyone’s world is rocked to its core, leaving her family to wonder what they missed. How could they not have known she was so unhappy?

I Liked My Life is told through three alternating points of view – those of Maddy, the deceased mother who isn’t ready to let go of her family, Eve, the almost seventeen-year-old daughter, and Brady, the devoted if absent husband. Sometimes I’m wary of being in so many characters’ heads at one time, but this really works as you get a more complete view of how the family worked prior to Maddy’s suicide and the obstacles they now have to overcome.

This novel touched me in several ways. First, as the mother of two teenaged girls, I saw a lot of them in Eve. In her rebellion, her sarcasm, and her pain. I could also related to Eve’s situation as a daughter myself. I’m lucky enough to still have my mother in my life and couldn’t imagine what would have become of me if I’d lost her in my teens. I could also relate to Maddy’s view on her relationship both with her daughter and her husband. It’s such a fine balance between giving them a little leeway and letting them run all over you. Maddy seemed to have found the balance of power that worked for them all, even if she wasn’t always completely satisfied with the outcome.

I Liked My Life is a rollercoaster of emotions. There are moments that tug at your heartstrings, others that make you laugh or rage in anger. In the end, it’s a story of a life cut short and those that are left behind wondering what happened. It’s also a story about how life goes on and that through the pain, you can find happiness again.

Crimes Against a Book Club by Kathy Cooperman


Crimes Against a Book Club by Kathy Cooperman
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Full Length (320 pgs)
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Cholla

Best friends Annie and Sarah need cash—fast. Sarah, a beautiful, successful lawyer, wants nothing more than to have a baby. But balancing IVF treatments with a grueling eighty-hour workweek is no walk in the park. Meanwhile, Annie, a Harvard-grad chemist recently transplanted to Southern California, is cutting coupons to afford her young autistic son’s expensive therapy.

Desperate, the two friends come up with a brilliant plan: they’ll combine Sarah’s looks and Annie’s brains to sell a “luxury” antiaging face cream to the wealthy, fading beauties in Annie’s La Jolla book club. The scheme seems innocent enough, until Annie decides to add a special—and oh-so-illegal—ingredient that could bring their whole operation crashing to the ground.

Hilarious, intelligent, and warm, Crimes Against a Book Club is a delightful look at the lengths women will go to fend for their families and for one another.

A mother will do anything for her child, that much is a given. So when it becomes clear that Annie’s autistic son needs expensive therapy, she turns to her best friend, Sarah, for help. Since Sarah, desperate for a baby of her own, needs some quick cash of her own for pricey IVF treatments, they put their heads together and come up with a plan. Although a crazy, outrageous plan that might just land them in the hottest water of their lives, it’s the only shot they have.

Crimes Against a Book Club hit me right where I live – my kids. Even though I can’t relate to Sarah’s plight with infertility, I can relate to how Annie was willing to go to jail to get her son the treatments he so desperately needed. I loved her relationship with Sarah, and it reminded me of my best friend who is also named Sarah. She’d never think twice to help me or one of my kids out in a time of need. Annie and Sarah have their ups and downs during the course of the story, but in the fashion of true, lifelong friends, they always find a way to meet on common ground.

Funny, heartwarming and a little left of center, Crimes Against a Book Club is a story about real life struggles tackled in an unconventional manner. The characters are real and relatable, even the upper crust members of the book club that Sarah and Annie target with their scam. It’s a story that proves the old saying that necessity is the mother of invention. My only complaint is that I wish there was a follow up novel telling us about Sarah and Annie’s life post book club, but I’m quite happy with what I got in the end. For a first novel, I’m impressed and cannot wait to see where the author takes us next.

Forever is the Worst Long Time by Camille Pagan


Forever is the Worst Long Time by Camille Pagan
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Full Length (284 pgs)
Rating: 3 stars
Reviewed by Cholla

When struggling novelist James Hernandez meets poet Louisa “Lou” Bell, he’s sure he’s just found the love of his life. There’s just one problem: she’s engaged to his oldest friend, Rob. So James toasts their union and swallows his desire.

As the years pass, James’s dreams always seem just out of reach—he can’t finish that novel, can’t mend his relationship with his father, can’t fully commit to a romantic relationship. He just can’t move on. But after betrayal fractures Lou’s once-solid marriage, she turns to James for comfort.

When Lou and James act on their long-standing mutual attraction, the consequences are more heartbreaking—and miraculous—than either of them could have ever anticipated. Then life throws James one more curveball, and he, Rob, and Lou are forced to come to terms with the unexpected ways in which love and loss are intertwined.

What do you do when you meet the love of your life? A better question is: what do you do when the love of your life is engaged to your best friend? This is the question that struggling novelist James Hernandez finds himself contemplating the day he meets Louisa Bell – the woman about to marry his longtime friend, Rob.

In a way, I can relate to James’ life. Never able to finish that novel, unable to move past his love for Lou, he stagnates, stuck on his dreams. But on the other hand, he doesn’t try very hard to move on from his feelings either. That’s where he and I differ. If he were a teenager, his inability to find happiness with someone other than his best friend’s wife would be understandable. However, as the years go by and his relationships continue to fail and his manuscripts never get finished, it gets to be a bit old. He has very little character growth until the last quarter of the novel.

Lou was much less annoying in the sense that she did everything she could to make her marriage to Rob, James’ best friend, work. Even when Rob wasn’t on board with it all. She doesn’t give in to her suppressed wishes until she realizes that things aren’t as perfect as she wants them to be. By that point, I couldn’t blame her, honestly. You can only give so much without getting anything in return before you stop giving.

I really struggled with the first half of this novel. It felt like it took a long time to get to the point where the ‘big thing’ happened and the story really started. Once we hit that point, I felt more invested in the characters and became involved in what was happening. The story that unraveled in the last third to half of the book was fascinating, engaging, and heartbreaking. I only wish that it had engaged me sooner. Overall, I did enjoy the story and the characters, but for me, it took entirely too long to set up what I felt to be the meat of the plot.