Junior Willis by Richard Natale


Junior Willis by Richard Natale
Publisher: Untreed Reads
Genre: Romance, Historical, LGBTQ
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

The journey from self-loathing to self-acceptance takes Midwesterner Tom Larson through the Korean War, pre-Castro Havana and, finally, Hollywood, where he is befriended by the elusive and charismatic Junior Willis and must decide whether he’s prepared for genuine commitment.

Romance comes in many different forms, and some of them will gently sneak up on you if you allow them to.

Living in the closet was necessary for survival in previous generations, and it’s still the only option for some members of the LGBTQ+ community today. Some of my favorite scenes were the ones that showed the emotional toll this took on Tom and Junior. As friendly as many of their friends and relatives were, neither of these protagonists could ever be entirely sure how those folks would respond if they knew that Junior and Tom were both attracted to men. The descriptions of the steps they took to avoid arousing any suspicions were just as interesting as the passages that showed what happened when some of their loved ones were accidentally given peeks at a subculture heterosexual people knew almost nothing about back then.

I had trouble keeping track of all of the characters in this novella. Many of the people Tom and Junior met during their lives were only mentioned in passing, and the ones that stuck around weren’t always developed well enough for me to recall who they were when they were mentioned again later. It would have been helpful to either have more information about the personalities and backstories of the folks the main characters met or for the narrator to focus on a smaller supporting cast in general.

One of the other themes of this tale that I loved had to do with how Tom’s past affected his daily life as he left his 20s behind and settled into stable habits and a good job. Attempting to heal is difficult, especially for someone who was facing such high stakes and who only had a small number of people in his inner circle he could be his true self around. A memory might be decades old but still feel as fresh as the day it was made. I don’t want to share any spoilers about how Tom approached his difficult memories, but they did make me want to learn more about him. He demonstrated a great deal of courage in these moments. That is an admirable thing to do without a doubt.

Junior Willis was a thought-provoking and encouraging read.

Monkey Business: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Films of the Marx Brothers by Josh Pachter


Monkey Business: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Films of the Marx Brothers by Josh Pachter
Publisher: Untreed Reads
Genre: Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Historical
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Voted BoM by LASR Readers 2013 copy

A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, Duck Soup, Animal Crackers…over the two decades between 1929’s The Cocoanuts and 1949’s Love Happy, the Marx Brothers—Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and sometimes Zeppo—entertained movie-goers around the world with their madcap antics, rapid-fire dialogue, and prowess on the piano, the harp, and in song.

Now, a Who’s Who of award-winning crime writers pays homage to the Marxes in fourteen short stories, each inspired by one of the brothers’ thirteen studio films. (Wait a second: fourteen stories inspired by thirteen films? How does that add up? You’ll find the answer to that question…and so much more!…inside the covers of this book.)

The authors? Donna Andrews, Frankie Y. Bailey, Jeff Cohen, Lesley A. Diehl, Brendan DuBois, Terence Faherty, Barb Goffman, Joseph Goodrich, Robert Lopresti, Sandra Murphy, Robert J. Randisi, Marilyn Todd, Joseph S. Walker, and editor Josh Pachter, who is a recent recipient of the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Golden Derringer Award for Lifetime Achievement and the editor of two previous “inspired by” anthologies from Untreed Reads, The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell and Only the Good Die Young: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Billy Joel.

To paraphrase Groucho: Outside of a dog, this book will be your best friend. (Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.)

Perfection comes in many forms, including funny ones.

“The Cocoanuts” showed how a family took over the management of a hotel in Florida and attempted to improve it. Money was tight, so they had to be creative with the resources they already had. I was intrigued by the ideas they came up with and wondered if they’d manage to pull everything off before the tourists began arriving. This was a breezy and hilarious read that made me wish I could visit this state and enjoy the sunshine there.

While it wasn’t strictly necessary to be familiar with the Marx brother films of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s in order to read this, anyone who has seen them will find an extra layer of enjoyment in these tales. “At the Circus” was one such example of this. The physical comedy included in it was a wonderful reminder of how much can be communicated through body language and gestures. I also chuckled at their reference to the Ringwing brothers instead of the Ringling brothers, especially once it became obvious that these shysters were counting on people to misread it in their excitement to see a famous circus act. The plot twists played out in my mind as clearly as if I were watching them happen on film, and I loved every single one of them.

The main character in “A Night at the Opera” was convinced there was a stowaway onboard the cruise ship she and her cousin Eloise were currently enjoying. It was amusing to see how she planned to prove her theory and what she wanted to do if it was correct. While she wasn’t someone I’d want to go on a cruise with for reasons I’ll leave up to other readers to discover for themselves, her cleverness and ability to keep the audience guessing made it impossible for me to stop reading.

Monkey Business: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Films of the Marx Brothers was a marvelous homage to silent films in general and to the Marx Brothers in particular.

A Difficult Truce by Joan Wolf


A Difficult Truce by Joan Wolf
Publisher: Untreed Reads Publishing
Genre: Historical, Romance
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Mistflower

Taken captive by her ancestral enemies, the hated British, beautiful Irish aristocrat Christina MacCarthy had only one route of escape: marriage to one of England’s most powerful, dangerously handsome lords, the Duke of Dacre. In his embrace, Christina would have to fight a threat more perilous than a stone cell and chains . . . the prison walls of love.

Wowza! Joan Wolf never ceases to amaze me. When I think of her, there is one characteristic that comes to my mind “talent”. She is nowhere near a cookie cutter author. I’ve lost count how many Joan Wolf books I’ve read but each one feels different to me. I can’t explain it. I love each one in their unique way. A Difficult Truce blew me away. I should have known when I read the Author’s Note in the beginning of the book. In fact, I have a suggestion for future readers; If the synopsis sparks your interest, then read the Author’s note before you begin. If you are still intrigued, then go for it. This is a true historical romance! Personally, I don’t come anywhere close to being a history buff. Why I like historical romance books is incomprehensible to me. Regardless, I love them and before this book I couldn’t tell you anything about Irish history and their battle for the Catholic Emancipation. I now know more about the struggle then I’d ever want to know thanks to Joan Wolf who magically spun a romance in that history lesson. Now that I think about it, if history class was taught like this in school, then I’d might have liked the class. That thought just made me giggle.

Joan Wolf states in her note that her purpose was “solely to create what I hope is a good story”. I for one can testify that A Difficult Truce was an excellent story. I was torn apart for the hero, Dacre, and the heroine, Christina. I should have known after reading the synopsis that I was going to be emotionally distressed. The synopsis says in capital letters, “How could she vow to love the man she was sworn to hate?”.

The answer to that question is easy, because the Duke of Dacre was dream worthy. Dacre was open minded and possessed a heart of gold. It didn’t matter how “fiercely independent born-and-bred rebel” Christina was because Dacre was irresistible. I fell in love with both of them. Their romance was very slow, but they had major outside obstacles in their way. I became a “prisoner of their love”. I’m not going to lie; I was anxious for them. I wasn’t sure if they were going to reach their happily ever after.

To say I was entertained is putting it mildly. There was a large cast of characters, but the focal point was Dacre and Christina which kept the pace of the story consistently moving forward.

I was speechless when I finished this book because I felt bad for the Irish. Joan Wolf wrote in her Author’s note that she “took the liberty of compressing a whole century of Irish history into a few years’ time.” I couldn’t help but feel horrible for the way the Irish were treated back then.

I definitely feel this was one of Joan Wolf’s better books and worthy of putting on my “keeper’s shelf”. I’d encourage anyone who enjoys a true historical romance to start reading this book as soon as possible. It was an educational and entertaining read for me.

The Portrait by Joan Wolf


The Portrait by Joan Wolf
Publisher: Untreed Reads Publishing
Genre: Historical, Romance
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Mistflower

Isabel Besson’s father owns a French Equestrian Circus in which she grew up, touring throughout France and performing with her brilliant horse, Alonzo. In the audience at a performance in London is Leo Sommers, Earl of Camden, who is stunned when he sees in Isabel the replica of his famous great-grandmother, whose portrait hangs in his drawing room.

This is no coincidence, as it soon comes to light that Isabel had been kidnapped as an infant and adopted by “Papa” and his wife when an English woman attempted to sell them the baby.

Isabel isn’t interested in meeting her natural family, but when she learns that her birth father, the Earl of Mansfield, has left her a great deal of money, Isabel sees a means for her Papa to retire from circus life, and she heads for a summer at Camden Hall to prove her right to the inheritance.

Camden Hall is one of England’s Great Houses, and everything about it feels alien to Isabel. She misses her Papa, the circus, France…everything from the life she knows. She does not like her new relatives: Lady Augusta, Leo’s elderly aunt who is always correcting her; Leo’s cousin Roger, who calls her “circus girl” and undresses her with his eyes; her own brother Henry, Earl of Mansfield, who doesn’t want to surrender their father’s money to her.

There is one person at Camden Hall who Isabel comes to love…the Earl of Camden—and Leo feels the same about her.

Which will win out…love, or money?

I think it’s impossible to dislike a Joan Wolf romance book. I must be enchanted by her style of writing. I was excited to start The Portrait because the synopsis sounded original to me. I’ve never read a plot where the heroine was kidnapped as an infant. Isabel, the heroine, grew up in an unconventional lifestyle compared to the life that she was born into. It was fascinating how the story evolved from beginning to end with the cast of characters and plot twists.

The hero, Leo, is every bit the Webster Dictionary definition of a hero, hands down. He was easy to fall in love with. He made the discovery and transition for Isabel’s new way of life bearable. I can’t imagine what it would be like to discover that I was the daughter of an earl after living nineteen years of my life. There is no comparison between growing up part of a French Equestrian Circus vs. growing up at Camden Hall, one of England’s Great Houses.

While I was pleased there was an epilogue included in this story, I was slightly disappointed with the plot thread regarding the death of a certain person. That thread felt weak, rushed or just tossed in there. Traditionally, Joan Wolf would weave a thread like that throughout her story making me riveted to my seat, not able to turn the pages fast enough. I didn’t let this disappointment hinder my enjoyment of the story. It just didn’t meet my level of exception that I’ve grown accustomed to from a Joan Wolf book. The Portrait was still a great read.

I recommend this book to a reader that is looking to escape into a sweet original romance. I enjoyed the relaxing romance between Leo and Isabel. I particularly enjoyed Isabel’s comments regarding “Off with their head”. It made me laugh. The Portrait was a fun read for me.

Happiness Is Listening to Your Dog Snore – Humorous and Inspirational Dog Quotes to Celebrate Our Canine Friends by Sandra Murphy


Happiness Is Listening to Your Dog Snore – Humorous and Inspirational Dog Quotes to Celebrate Our Canine Friends by Sandra Murphy
Publisher: Untreed Reads
Genre: Non-Fiction, Inspirational, Contemporary, Historical
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

From Afghans and Akitas to Yakutians and Yorkies, and everything in between, there’s a very special connection between dogs and their owners. Our four-legged friends put smiles on our faces, comfort us when we’re down and make us laugh with their antics. They aren’t just “man’s best friend” but a terrific companion to women, children and anyone in need of the perfect companion.

Bestselling author and editor Sandra Murphy (Peace, Love, and Crime: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of the 60s, From Hay to Eternity) has compiled a collection of quotes celebrating canines; our furry friends who bring so much joy to our lives. Some quotes will be familiar, many will be new, but all remind us how wonderful it is to have dogs in our lives.

Dogs make the world a better place.

One of the things I liked the most about this collection was the way the author separated all of the quotes out in various sections. The first portion was dedicated to humorous quotes, while later ones included themes that ranged from inspirational to what the author’s peers at Untreed Reads thought about dogs. It was nice to know what to expect from each section before I read it, and it also made it easy to flip ahead or back to a specific theme if needed.

As much as I enjoyed reading these quotes, there were times when I found them repetitive. The same themes and ideas were repeated over and over again in the various sections. It would have been nice to have a wider range of thoughts on the topic as dogs are creatures almost everyone loves. Had this been the case, I would have happily gone with a much higher rating as the concept itself was well worth checking out.

Some of my favorite sections were the ones that pondered what the world might look like through canine eyes. For example, one quote discussed whether the writer’s dog might have given them a name and, if so, what that name might be. That was exactly the sort of content I was hoping to read about! It’s fascinating to gaze into the eyes of a dog and try to figure out what they’re thinking about.

I smiled as I read Happiness Is Listening to Your Dog Snore.

Portrait of a Love by Joan Wolf


Portrait of a Love by Joan Wolf
Publisher: Untreed Reads
Genre: Contemporary, Romance
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Mistflower

“I swore I would never get involved with a man again….”

Gifted artist Isabel McCarthy vowed to keep every moment spent with Leo Sinclair strictly business. Painting a portrait of this popular young senator could give her reputation a tremendous boost, but did she dare spend long hours alone with such a devastatingly handsome man—especially one who had a reputation for charming and disarming women? In Leo Sinclair’s brilliant blue eyes, Isabel clearly saw what he wanted from her. But while she was supposed to be fighting his passionate overtures, reminding herself how badly she had been burned by love before, her twice-foolish heart told her it was too late…the banked fire within her was ignited….

I undoubtedly would have rated this Best Book if there had been an epilogue. I absolutely loved this romance story. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. I knew I was nearing the end and I didn’t want it to end. I started to scroll slower hoping I wasn’t as near to the end as I feared. I wanted to keep reading, I wanted to know more, I was so happy and then…I scrolled and saw “About the Author”. I crashed and burned feeling bereft. I will never know what happened to my book boyfriend. I had a major book glow that dimmed when I realized I couldn’t be part of the hero and heroine’s life anymore. All the plot threads were tied up into a pretty bow, but I selfishly wanted more. The synopsis says “the banked fire within her (heroine) was ignited…” I really like that analogy. I think my love for romance books is like a “banked fire”. Either the book ignites me or it doesn’t. Portrait of a Love by Joan Wolf definitely ignited me.

One of the reasons I enjoyed this book was because there weren’t any mind games between the hero, Leo, and the heroine, Isabel. They were forward and honest with each other. Both characters were relatable and well-developed. The sincerity between all the characters was tangible and realistic. I really felt part of the book.

Leo was intelligent, respectful, patient and genuinely kind-hearted to everyone. Leo was also rich and famous. Isabel was just as wholesome and well-rounded as Leo, but she was close to poor and not famous. Together they made a formidable pair. Their romance was sensual and heartwarming. The banter between them made me smile and/or laugh. They were comfortable as individuals and as a couple. I love that kind of balance between a hero and heroine. True best friends.

I can’t find any constructive criticism to mention about Portrait of a Love other than I wanted to see into Leo and Isabel’s future. This book is definitely a keeper to re-read some day. This novel is a must read to be put on someone’s “to be read” list. I hope this book ignites other readers’ “banked fire” and they read the story too.

The American Duchess by Joan Wolf


The American Duchess by Joan Wolf
Publisher: Untreed Reads
Genre: Historical, Romance
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Mistflower

THE DUTIFUL DAUGHTER

Young and lovely Tracy Bodmin was as spirited and independent as the America she came from—but love for her father made her yield to his heart’s desire. Though William Bodmin had made his fortune in the New World, he dreamed of a title for his daughter in his native England—and his wealth won a marriage proposal to Tracy from the proud Duke of Hastings.

Thus it was that Tracy voyaged full-sail into the world of the aristocracy as wife to one of its most splendid lords. Behind she left Adam Lancaster, the handsome, rugged New Englander who adored her. Ahead lay fear and danger in the arms of a powerful, magnetic man whose mode of life and love she did not know…

The American Duchess possesses the stereotypical historical romance plot plus something more. Basically, it’s about a duke returning from war, and he inherits his father estates only to find out his father gambled all the family money away. The duke needs money to pay off debts and restore his estates to what they once were so of course, an arranged marriage to a rich bride is the only solution. Typically, the bride has her own reasons for needing a husband. However, this is a book by Joan Wolf which means there’s going to be a twist. The bride is from America. That is where the fun begins in the story because the bride is not accustomed to the aristocratic world.

Tracy, the heroine, is from Salem Massachusetts; a girl after my own heart. I was born in Massachusetts, so I know the area she’s from quite well. I could only imagine leaving the only home I knew to live in a foreign place where everyone only called you “Your Grace”. Tracy did her best to adjust to her new role as the duke’s wife.

Adrian, the hero, did his best to accept Tracy for who she was. He didn’t expect her to change her opinions or political beliefs. Adrian was extremely busy, but he made time to get to know Tracy and make her welcome.

Adrian and Tracy went from strangers to husband and wife rapidly. However, they had a sweet budding romance that slowly grew throughout their marriage which helps the reader to be able relate and fall in love too. Their friendship was endearing while their romance was heartwarming. It wasn’t all smooth sailing that is for sure but that is what made the happily ever after more satisfying. I hate to say it because I’m a fan of the author, Joan Wolf, but I felt this story was a wee bit drawn-out. I understand though that I had to go through the emotional conflict of ‘does he/she really love me for me?’ to get to the ‘deep sigh’ of “I love you” moment. Considering they both married for two different reasons, I understood their insecurities.

The story as a whole held my interest from the first page to the last, giving me the feeling of not wanting to put it down until I did reach the final page. I encourage readers give The American Duchess a look and a try. I’m glad I did.

Golden Girl by Joan Wolf


Golden Girl by Joan Wolf
Publisher: Untreed Reads
Genre: Historical, Romance
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Mistflower

It should have been a marriage made in heaven. Cheviot was aristocratic and gorgeous—a man tempered by his father’s downfall and his own experiences at war. Sarah was artistic and free-thinking, shaped by the best education her nouveau riche grandfather could afford. But there was one problem. The marriage was arranged. The Duke of Cheviot needed money. Sarah’s grandfather wanted a title. And so, what could have been a perfect love affair was begun in a most imperfect way.

I felt the need to check out of reality for a few hours from all that holiday stress and escape into a romance book. I turned my phone off, hid in my room and picked up a book by one of my favorite authors, Joan Wolf. I picked Golden Girl because the synopsis sounded like my type of love story. I have a weak spot for arranged marriages that end in a happily ever after.

Anthony, the hero, was almost too perfect but there was something mysterious about him that drew me in like a moth to a lightbulb. It’s practically indescribable to explain why his character lured me. He had a secret strength about him yet was vulnerable to the heroine. I just loved Anthony.

The heroine, Sarah, was humble, down to earth and a free spirit. She was a character that I could respect and look up to.

When Anthony and Sarah started their relationship, I was smitten. I had a goofy smile throughout the story. Their relationship was sweet with the right amount of sensual to make me feel all gushy for them.

The cast of characters were well developed. I experienced a variety of feelings toward several of them at different times. I was definitely engaged starting on the first page all the way through to the last page. The story flowed at a smooth and steady pace. I actually paused a few times to soak in the moment with either a pleasant sigh, a gasp of surprise or to give a stink eye.

A heads up: the synopsis does not reveal the entire plot. There is an ongoing thread that is suspenseful. This particular thread escalates throughout the story, but it didn’t end the way I predicted. I was riveted to my seat from start to finish between the budding romance and through the plot twists.

If you are looking for a fun distraction, then I recommend this book. I felt so much better after reading it.

Summer Storm by Joan Wolf


Summer Storm by Joan Wolf
Publisher: Untreed Reads
Genre: Contemporary, Romance
Rating: 3 stars
Reviewed by Mistflower

Chris was a struggling actor and Mary a struggling scholar, but their marriage was a perfect, passionate union—until the glitter of Hollywood and a dazzling starlet stole Chris away. At the time when she needed him most, he betrayed and failed her, and she swore never to see him again. Chris became a world-famous actor, and Mary a respected professor, and only in the darkness of the movie theater did she allow herself to think of him. Then, in the flash and glare of reporters’ cameras, they met again, and the smoldering love reignited. They had never officially divorced. Had he come back to reestablish their marriage…or end it irrevocably?

I chose to read this book because the synopsis sounded original, and I felt like reading a contemporary romance instead of a historical. I was looking for a fast, satisfying read and Summer Storm qualified. This was the perfect short story for me since I was able to read it in a couple of hours. It provided the necessary escape from reality that I was craving.

I’m not sure if this book was so awesome that I buzzed through it so fast, making it seem like a short story, or it truly was a short story, I didn’t have page numbers to refer to. I reached the end in record time (for me). Like I said, the synopsis sounded original, and it definitely was. I can honestly say that I have never read a plot similar to Summer Storm in my lifetime. I’m not going to analyze the story too closely, but I enjoyed the clever plot, and it was a fun read. The downside is that I wasn’t convinced of the reality of the storyline.

I consider the hero, Chris, to be a complicated character in his own way as well as the heroine, Mary. They were relatable in their complexity, and I enjoyed their romance story even though there were elements that didn’t gel for me. In other words, neither Chris nor Mary possessed the characteristics of a hero or heroine that I specifically prefer. Why do I feel that way? Without giving any spoilers, it has to do with what the synopsis says, “At the time when she needed him most, he betrayed and failed her,”. I couldn’t see myself making the same choices Mary did, yet the author eased the reader through that moral conflict, and I was able to see Mary’s decision through her eyes and heart. I’m still not sure I agree or forgive Chris for his actions in that plot thread but the fact that I kept reading speaks for itself.

The writing style pulled me through from beginning to end. There was a consistent progression leading me to their happily ever after and I was very grateful for that smooth sailing through the story. I was very pleased when I did reach the end because there weren’t any loose threads.

I recommend this book for its contemporary originality. My loyalty to Joan Wolf has me conflicted. Summer Storm is unlike any other book I’ve read by her but then again, that’s one of the author’s storytelling strengths. For that reason, I can suggest a reader give this story a try.

Murder by the Glass: Cocktail Mysteries by Edited by Teresa Inge and Yvonne Saxon


Murder by the Glass: Cocktail Mysteries by Edited by Teresa Inge and Yvonne Saxon
Publisher: Untreed Reads
Genre: Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Contemporary
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Whether the setting is a vineyard in Argentina or a small town in Virginia, these 17 mystery and suspense authors infuse this collection of deadly deeds with a variety of potent potables, the stories in Murder by the Glass: Cocktail Mysteries range from light-bodied puzzles to edgier tales with bitter consequences. No matter what your taste, these stories pair well with any beverage, each blending a baffling mystery, a glass and a murder.

This anthology includes works by Allie Marie, Betsy Ashton, Frances Aylor, Mary Dutta, Eleanor Cawood Jones, Diane Fanning, Debra H. Goldstein, Libby Hall, Maria Hudgins, Teresa Inge, Maggie King, Kristin Kisska, Allie Marie, K. L. Murphy, Alan Orloff, Josh Pachter, Shawn Reilly Simmons and Heather Weidner.

Sometimes thirstiness is deadly.

Maddie attempted to solve her sister’s murder and get revenge on the killer in “Revenge on the Rocks.” There were so few clues to go on that I was quite curious to see how she’d figure out who killed her sister. I liked the fact that she had to work so hard to put the pieces together. It made sense given what a private person the sister was and how she originally met the man who took her life.

All of the stories in this anthology were well worth reading, but I thought a few of them would have benefitted from a little more development. “The Good Citizen” was one of them. While I completely understood how irritating it is to spend time with someone who complains about everything, I would have liked to know why Sylvia’s killer thought that taking her life was their best option. She was no doubt a highly difficult person to have a conversation with, but she wasn’t violent or dangerous. It seemed to me that it would have made more sense to let her live out her final days and avoid her as much as possible in the meantime. With more exposition, this could have been one of my favorite stories of them all.

“Swiping Right” started off with a first date between Corynne and Tad, two single people who’d recently matched with each other on a dating site. They were both excited to meet, but there was something unusual about Corynne that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I eagerly read on to find out what else she was looking for from Tad other than the possibility of love. This tale meandered a little, but everything it mentioned while slowly moving towards the exciting conclusion was critical to understanding what was really happening here. I had a wonderful time figuring it all out.

Murder by the Glass: Cocktail Mysteries kept me guessing. I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys a strong drink or an intriguing mystery.