Dick’s Joke by Clint Mannschaft


Dick’s Joke by Clint Mannschaft
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Contemporary, Fiction
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Pain. Hate. Fear. Death. Stand-Up Comedy. A Novella.

The dark underbelly of stand-up comedy is something worth examining in greater detail.

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t find most of the characters in this tale to be likeable people, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to figure them out. Some of them were sexist, while others were so absorbed in their own quirky hobbies that it was tricky for them to see the world from other perspectives or consider the feelings of those around them. My opinions of them often shifted in a positive direction as I got to know them better, though. How someone acknowledges, or sometimes chooses to remain willfully obtuse about, their flaws can say so much about them as an individual. Characters don’t have to be morally upstanding citizens in order to teach readers about the world by any means, and I felt I learned a lot from these characters even if I often disagreed with their behavior.

There were pacing issues that interfered with my interest levels. Some scenes moved much more quickly than other ones did. When combined with the large differences between how many pages different scenes lasted, I never knew what to expect next. The middle portions, particularly the monologue, seemed to slow down which made it harder for me to want to keep reading.

I appreciated how much effort Mr. Mannschaft put into experimenting with how a story should be told. There is definitely something to be said with playing around with a genre and seeing which tropes from it are actually necessary to keep readers’ attention versus which one can be safely sidestepped. This was creative.

Dick’s Joke pushed the boundaries of storytelling and came up with some interesting conclusions.

Mrs. Holloway’s Christmas Pudding by Jennifer Ashley


Mrs. Holloway’s Christmas Pudding by Jennifer Ashley
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Historical, Holiday, Romance, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Fern

December 1882

When Cook Kat Holloway is blamed when a dinner guest mysteriously takes ill after eating one of her meals, she sets out to prove she had nothing to do with the gentleman’s sickness. She discovers a whole host of people who might wish to do away with the man, and she and her friends—Daniel McAdam, Lady Cynthia, Mr. Thanos, and various members of the household staff—begin to hunt for the would-be killer.

Simultaneously tasked with crafting the perfect Christmas feast, including the pièce de résistance, the Christmas plum pudding, Kat frantically works to finish all, fearing she’ll have to choose between stopping a murderer and cherishing her few precious Christmas moments with her daughter.

When a guess of her employer falls mysteriously ill, Mrs Holloway is irritated when her food is instantly blamed – despite the gentlemen being the only member of the dinner party having an adverse effect. Determined to not let any whispers grow and cause trouble, Mrs Holloway is determined to investigate what is really occurring. Can she and her friends work out what’s going on while Kat simultaneously plans and cooks the perfect Christmas feast and also attempts to spend a few precious moments with her young daughter.

This is the third short story I have enjoyed set in this historical world by the author. I have enjoyed them all and equally enjoy the fact that other than the same time setting they can easily be read and thoroughly enjoyed on their own merits, and they aren’t really linked other than the characters connections. While a little suspension of belief is required – I simply can’t imagine a cook interacting so freely and warmly with any of the above-stairs people, nor having the freedom of movement to investigate a crime nor make speeches about who the dastardly villain really is etc – I nevertheless found this a well-paced and thoroughly refreshing read. Kat and her love interest, Daniel were vibrant and very well written characters and with a strong cast of equally engaging secondary characters there was plenty to hook any reader.

I also feel readers who usually don’t enjoy historical stories should feel comfortable giving this book a try. The mystery is fairly simple, but there were enough layers and twists to keep me engaged and while the historical setting was lovely, I didn’t feel like our noses were pushed too hard into it. I really feel the author has done a commendable job balancing the characters, the plot and the pacing of this Christmassy story. The blossoming romance between Mrs Holloway and Daniel is quite chaste – merely a few kisses – so readers more used to reading mystery shouldn’t find the romance aspect to the plot too overpowering.

Readers who are unsure whether to dip their feet into the connected full-length series should absolutely give this novella a try – for the cheaper price and shorter length I think it’s a lovely gateway into the world and series by this author and is in and of itself a thoroughly enjoyable short story. Recommended.

Sinister Sort by L.M. Harper


Sinister Sort by L.M. Harper
Publisher: Self-published
Genre: Cozy Mystery, Contemporary
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Snowdrop

Miranda Vincent thought East Syracuse was the perfect place to sort out her life. A host of friends, both old and new, welcomed Miranda back to the town where she grew up. She landed a job in the mail room at Crane Community College and the perfect apartment.

Life is starting to look up for Miranda except for one major issue. Her new coworker, Hadley Mitchell, thought Miranda’s new job should have been hers and Hadley aims to cancel Miranda’s stamp. When Hadley turns up dead, all eyes are on Miranda.

Can Miranda figure out who killed Hadley and deliver justice? Or will she find herself in a permanent hold?

You know that uncomfortable feeling of getting a job that a current employee feels they should have gotten? Miranda was excited to get a job in the mail room, but Hadley was mad, really mad. Snotty and mean too. She was sure she was a shoo-in, then they hired Miranda, and she wasn’t even connected to Crane Community College. When things didn’t work out her way, Hadley did everything possible to undermine Miranda. Miranda was visibly aggravated about Haley and even though she shouldn’t have, she might have complained loudly to a lot of people. Then, when you’re found leaning over the body, it just doesn’t look good.

This is a quick, easy-to-read cozy. It’s a good mystery, and one of the reasons I enjoyed it the most was L. M. Harper’s characters. Well, maybe I didn’t like snotty Hayley but then again that’s good character definition too:)

This is your typical cozy with what I’ll call all the normal elements…an amateur sleuth, someone suffering from a love-life trauma, a handsome cop, a dead body, etc. It is not, however, a carbon copy of other cozies. It has dear friends, an adorable pet, a few more twists and turns, and it does leave you wondering who the bad guy/girl might be until the end.

A fun read. Looks like L.M. Harper only has one other book. Hope she writes some more.

My First Birding Adventure – North America by Elya Baird


My First Birding Adventure – North America by Elya Baird
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.), Non-Fiction, Contemporary
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Bring the world of birding indoors with My First Birding Adventure-North America!

My First Birding Adventure- North America was designed to replicate the outdoor birding experience. When outdoors, bird enthusiasts will go to various locations in nature, look for birds, and identify the birds they find using their field guide. This book brings the world of birding indoors as readers flip through nature scenes, search for birds, and identify them with the mini field guide at the back of the book.

Once the book is finished, complete the bonus activities or go outside with the field guide and see if you can find any of the birds in nature!

Calling all bird lovers as well as future fans of this hobby! I have quite the treat for you.

Bird watching requires patience and close attention to detail, so it only made sense that this picture book encourages both of those habits. This is something that is meant to be savored and returned to again and again as readers both young and old sharpen their identification skills. I’d recommend bringing it out on such excursions when possible in the beginning in order to have a quick reference for what to look for.

I liked the fact that Ms. Baird included so many hints about where to find this sort of wildlife, how to identify them, and how to tell the differences between males and females of the same species. This was a solid introduction to those topics that can easily be built upon as new bird watchers become more comfortable with quickly taking note of these things and learning how to identify lots of other types of birds, too.

The best portions were the ones that showed various nature settings and asked readers to quickly identify which birds they could see there and remember as much about them as possible. Sometimes one only has a moment or two to figure all of this stuff out in real life, so practicing ahead of time is an excellent way to get better at it while at a park, field, lake, or other natural setting. While it certainly isn’t possible to include every common type of bird in something like this, I thought the author picked a nice cross-section of possibilities for readers living in North America.

My First Birding Adventure – North America was exciting and informative.

If the Fates Allow: A Short Story by Rainbow Rowell


If the Fates Allow: A Short Story by Rainbow Rowell
Publisher: Self-Published, Amazon Original Stories
Genre: Contemporary, Romance
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Dicentra

Social distancing came easily to Reagan. Maybe a little too easily. She’s always liked people better from afar. But Reagan doesn’t want her grandpa to be alone for Christmas this year—he’s already spent too much time on his own in 2020. So she heads back to her hometown with a dish of holiday Jell-O salad, hoping they can have a little normalcy. Hoping it will be safe…

She isn’t expecting to run into the boy next door. Mason is all grown up now. He’s considerate. He’s funny. He doesn’t mind how prickly Reagan is—he maybe even likes it. And it makes Reagan feel like her defenses are falling. She needs her defenses, doesn’t she? In a time when six feet is close enough, how long can they keep their distance?

With a title that’s a spin on Judy Garland’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, Rainbow Rowell’s If the Fates Allow is a sweet short story of a holiday romance read. Set in the same world as her young adult novel Fangirl (though not directly connected), it tells the story of two people who meet in the time of social distancing and find a unique connection.

While COVID has upended all of our lives since 2020, I wasn’t expecting it to be the setting of a romance. I think the author did a good job acknowledging the realities of COVID (i.e., the isolation, people who don’t believe in measures like masks or vaccines) while also including some lighthearted moments in an attempt to balance out the dark cloud that is COVID. Reagan does worry a lot about the pandemic, but I actually found myself empathizing with her given I experienced those concerns myself. While this book is marketed as a romance, I was admittedly more invested in Reagan’s relationship with her grandfather and the rest of her family rather than with Mason (the boy-next-door love interest). Fear not, however – the romance was still cute and well-written.

Audiobook narrators are usually a plus for me, but I actually found it preferable to read in print rather than listen because narrator Rebecca Lowman’s performance was a bit dry. She didn’t really change tone over the course of the read, and there weren’t different voices for the various characters either. I was hoping for a bit more animation, but that didn’t happen, so it did negatively impact my enjoyment of the read a bit.

Overall, this was an entertaining read. I would have hoped for something a bit longer (more of a novella length than short story), but it was satisfying as is. I would recommend it to Hallmark Christmas movie fans who are looking for something short to read. Bonus points if you have Kindle Unlimited, as it’s free to read on that service.

TRIGGER WARNINGS: COVID, Grief, Death of a Grandparent (in the past), Messy Family Relationships

Oddities by Thurdy


Oddities by Thurdy
Publisher: Self Published
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

A dystopian vampire teenager, severed finger salad topping, disgruntled Teddy bears, and an army of Percivals. What do these all have in common? They are all trapped within the pages of this collection of stories, like a genie waiting to be released from a bottle. Oh, forgot to say, there’s a genie in there too, but not one like you’re picturing. This one is actually … well, you’ll find out.

So, for those of you who spend your life in a state of perpetual distraction, who want to buy everything in the art supply shop, whose co-workers don’t know you write poetry…

no more staring into the mirror wondering how nice it would be to have horns.

It’s time to grow a pair.

If you love delightfully weird and memorable tales that break the rules, keep reading.

“Author” showed what happened when Ruby tried to wander away from the storyline her author was writing and do something else with her time. I enjoyed the surreal feeling of this short story as the author and characters debated over who was actually in charge of what was going to happen next. It kept me guessing until the last possible moment.

As much as I enjoyed Mx.Thurdy’s creative writing style, I did find myself wishing that certain portions of this collection had been given more time to develop. “Review” was included in this list. It followed a food critic visiting a bizarre new restaurant that felt like something from a bad dream. Every course was worse than the last one, and I struggled to understand why the critic stuck around when they clearly didn’t have anything good to say about this establishment. As entertaining as this was, it never quite gelled together for me. That pattern happened often enough for me to choose a three star rating, but I do hope to read more from the author in the future as they are a good storyteller.

Honestly, I couldn’t blame Teddy, a bright purple teddy bear created after a human wished him into existence, for being so grumpy in “Wish.” I would have been just as irritated if I were in his uncomfortable position. While this was a short piece, it was exactly long enough to get its point across and make me smile as I got to know the main character and the conflicts he faced in his life. In the end, I was content to imagine what happened to him next after the final sentence ended.

Oddities put a unique spin on the science fiction genre.

Fillion by Sean Michael


Fillion by Sean Michael
Publisher: Self-published
Genre: Contemporary, Erotic Romance, LGBTQ, Holiday
Rating: 3 stars
Reviewed by Fern

Could the gift of a massage be exactly what Fillion needs to make this holiday his merriest ever?

Fillion Berry is a profitable bookshop owner, but his personal life is less successful. His Daddy left him on New Year’s last year and he’s been floundering. When his friend Chrissy discovers how bad things are getting, he enlists the help of his Daddy, Jerusalem, and together they cook up a plan to bring some holiday joy into Fillion’s life.

Spa owner Rome Aparny holds an auction every year to raise money for charity. When the highest bidder of a full-body massage gifts the item to Fillion with the note “for a lonely boy in need’, Rome thinks he knows exactly what that means and he arrives at Fillion’s store with his massage table, his oils, and the willingness to get to know Fillion better.

Could a little holiday magic turn Christian and Jerusalem’s matchmaking into a success? Find out in this Daddy Boys story.

Fillion owns a successful and prosperous bookshop, but his private life is quite the mess. After his Daddy and long-term partner left him on New Years the previous year, Fillion has struggled to recover from the loss. Fillion’s good friend, Christian, is blissfully happy with his own Daddy and relationship and when Fillion confides that he’s seriously unhappy and lonely, Christian is determined he and his Daddy should help. They purchase a private massage as a Christmas present for Fillion and quietly let the masseuse – Rome – know that he’s a boy looking for a Daddy, something that piques Rome’s interest immediately. Can this be a Christmas neither man will forget?

I found this to be a lovely and sweet short story. It’s part of a much larger series by multiple authors called “A Daddy for Christmas” but I thoroughly enjoyed this story, and I haven’t read any of the others in the series. I found it still stood by itself very well. I really felt a connection to Fillion’s character. Owning a prosperous bookshop means for the most part he’s really got his head screwed on straight and I really liked that. I also was pleased that Rome had noticed Fillion at previous gatherings, but just assumed he was in a relationship with someone. That previous connection helped the situation feel a little less like insta-love and while in a story this short they obviously moved very quickly I did find it still worked well for me.

Readers should be aware that this short story doesn’t have a complicated plot or a long, slow drop into the relationship. The two men recognize what they want from each other and while they do ease into the intimacy it’s exceedingly fast and there isn’t a whole lot of other plot revolving around them. For such a short story I can understand and even enjoy this – but I can certainly understand some readers might want a bit more complexity and plot to their stories.

Fun and sexy, this would be a good introduction to some readers on the Daddy/boy lifestyle and also a good quick taste for this particular author and their style/tone of writing.

Invisible York by Aden Simpson


Invisible York by Aden Simpson
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Invisible York is a dystopian satire set on the island of Manhattan following an unknown phenomena that renders its citizens invisible.

While the outside world grows wary of their Invisible compatriots, within Manhattan a new society emerges, with bold plans for expansion.

FBI Agent Leonard Walcott did not expect to become a modern day apostle. But he will certainly make the most of it.

Not every superpower is as fun as it might originally seem to be.

The creation and evolution of conspiracy theories were deeply woven into the storyline. This was not something I was expecting to think about as I read this, but it played nicely with how little most of the characters knew about what was going on and how desperate they were for an explanation of or, even better, a cure for their invisibility. People who don’t have access to much outside information can come up with all sorts of stories to explain things, and it made perfect sense for them to react this way as the government continued to hamper their efforts to figure things out.

I struggled with the slow pacing of this book. As important as it was to meet all of the characters and learn about the mysterious event that made them become invisible, so much attention was paid to these portions of the plot that there wasn’t much room for conflict or action for the first hundred pages or so. This meant that there weren’t many moments that made me eager to read just one more page or chapter until I was more than halfway through this tale.

Some of the most interesting scenes were the ones that explored what happens when a community needs a leader but none of the most capable and intelligent possibilities for the role are interested in taking it. Leadership can be difficult under the best of circumstances, and this is even more true when society is also struggling to adapt to changes like, for example, a large group of people suddenly becoming invisible. The author did a good job of allowing the reader to tease out the reasons why many of the leaders in this tale craved power so deeply and how those character flaws negatively affected everyone eventually. Not everything necessarily needs to be spelled out directly in order to be effective.

It was difficult for me to keep track of the large cast of characters because of how little time was spent describing them. Sometimes only their names were given which meant that I didn’t have any physical features, hobbies, or personality quirks connected to those individuals to help me recall who they were and how they were connected to Leonard. While I certainly wouldn’t expect everyone to be described in as much detail as the protagonist, it would have been really helpful to have even one interesting thing to remember about every character when I was trying to figure out who they were later on in the storyline.

The deep and totally understandable mistrust of the government by some citizens was another theme in this book that I thought was handled well. In both our world as well as the fictional one in this book, the government has not always been honest with their citizens about a wide variety of topics from why environmental tragedies really occurred to what happened to certain community leaders who suddenly died at the height of their popularity. This was not a partisan take on the topic by any means. The author was careful to choose examples that readers from any background could relate to, and I appreciated that.

Invisible York was a thought provoking read.

The Convenient Roommate by E.C. Finnegan


The Convenient Roommate by E.C. Finnegan
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Romance, LGBTQ, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place…

After enduring a devastating betrayal, Fox finds himself in dire need of a fresh start and a new place to call home. When his loyal friend offers him a spare room in the house he shares with his charismatic brother, Fox cautiously accepts the invitation. Little does he know that this housing arrangement will ignite a flurry of unexpected emotions within him.

Caught off guard by a magnetic pull towards his friend’s older sibling, Fox battles with the fear of embarking on another vulnerable relationship. Despite his reservations, he soon realizes that there’s no escaping the undeniable chemistry that intertwines their lives.

As Fox navigates the intricacies of cohabitation, he discovers a bond beyond what he ever imagined. With shared moments of laughter, secrets exchanged, and tender gestures that hint at something more, can Fox find the courage to let go of his past heartbreak and embrace the tantalizing possibilities that lie with his conveniently attractive roommate?

It’s never too late to heal from the past.

The dialogue was realistic and entertaining. Given the difficult childhoods that both West and Fox experienced, it made total sense that their communication skills weren’t always particularly strong. This is something I’m sharing as a reader who is not generally a huge fan of plots that rely on miscommunications for conflict, but in this case, it worked perfectly for everyone involved given how much they had to hide their sexual orientations, among other things, in order to feel safe as kids. Honestly, I would have been shocked if either of them had emerged from childhood without these sorts of emotional scars. Including them enriched the storyline and made me want to keep reading.

I had trouble keeping track of many of the secondary characters. There wasn’t as much time spent describing their physical appearances, personalities, or interests as I would have preferred to see, so except for the two protagonists I struggled to form mental images of them that could have helped me remember who was who. This did improve once I was more than halfway through it, but it was still something that held me back from enjoying this as much as I would have liked to.

With that being said, I appreciated how slowly and organically the romance was allowed to unfold. The friends to lovers trope is one I already loved, and it was put to great use here. Fox and West both had excellent reasons for not rushing anything, especially given all of the other stuff going on in both of their lives that was rightfully taking up so much of their attention when they first met. In my opinion, romance novels are best to read when the characters in them already have full and satisfying lives before the slightest whiff of a new love interest is introduced. Kudos to the author for putting so much effort into this.

The Convenient Roommate had a fun premise.

*Fashionista’s Playbook by Candi Scott


*Fashionista’s Playbook by Candi Scott
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Contemporary, Romance
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Larkspur

The door to the New York fashion world shut firmly in her face, Moriah Stanhope’s only option seems to be to return to her small-town home as a failure. At least, she would go home in disgrace, but her car was just repossessed. In front of the hottest guy she’s ever seen.

Travis Madera is supposed to hire an assistant. One with qualifications and experience. Someone who won’t be starstruck by the fact he’s a professional football player. But he never could resist a damsel in distress, especially one with all those curves.

Moriah’s been humiliated in front of guys like Travis before. But as his assistant, she has access to every moment of his day-to-day life, so surely she can stay ahead of any potential problems.

Until the past comes rushing into the present.

Candi Scott writes an emotional and entertaining, sports romance. The story is well written, the characters were easy for me to relate to and the story immediately drew me in.

I loved everything about the two main characters. Moriah is curvy, smart and sweet and Travis is a hot football player with a heart of gold. Moriah and Travis have undergone pain and hurt in their pasts, which makes them vulnerable and slow to trust others. However, when these two meet, they meet they have a strong connection and attraction. They feel comfortable with each other and are able to put down their guard.

It was so much fun reading Travis and Moriah’s story as they fall in love. I easily connected with them and enjoyed all of the interactions. They have a strong chemistry and thought they were perfect for each other. You don’t want to miss this captivating story.