Designed by Destiny by Maya Tyler

Designed by Destiny by Maya Tyler
Fairy Godmothers Incorporated, #1
Publisher: Tirgearr Publishing
Genre: Contemporary, Romance, Paranormal
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Xeranthemum

Confirmed bachelor Nicholas Grey is more than the playboy perpetrated by the tabloids. Now his position as CEO of the architecture firm Grey & Company is on the line, and his mother’s interference is making things more difficult. Nick’s committed to his work, but, in order to be taken seriously, he needs to land a huge project. A stable personal life will help guarantee the contract.

Fairy Godmother Faye Delmore hears Nick’s plea and steps in to help. Posing as a publicist, she suggests a strategy to polish his public image, which includes convincing Beth to play his wife. Faye knows Nick needs the huge project to save his job, but she also knows he needs Beth in his life.

What happens when you add a fairy godmother who loves playing matchmaker into the equation? A future designed by destiny.

If readers enjoy the fake fiancé trope, then this is a fun story to try. Bethany Clark and Nicholas Grey accidently meet during a meet and greet at an architectural conference. What I found interesting is that there is a fuzzy thread of ‘love at first sight’ though that’s not the theme of this romance tale. Nevertheless, their initial contact frankly screamed attraction and interest. The author wasted no time in creating a situation of desperation, the catalyst that starts a series of events Nicholas could never have conceived. It quickly snowballs out of control and he and Beth have to navigate it as a team.

The thing about two strangers coming together in this manner means that there’s a lot of vulnerability that can easily be taken advantage by unscrupulous characters. And boy oh boy did the author create some whackos. Poor Nick was surrounded by them, and it shocked me that one of them was a member of his own family. Even though it’s a common kind of wrinkle in fledging relationships, Ms. Tyler used it to good effect. I kept hoping for a fairytale ending, and I kind of got one, but not in the manner I expected.

This book, though touted as paranormal, wasn’t heavy with it. It’s a light touch via the gentle guidance/inference of a fairy godmother, Faye. What was unexpected is the sub-story of Faye’s own doomed romance also getting a second chance. While I wasn’t thrilled with the ‘interruption’, Faye’s character grew on me. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with hoping for two ‘happy ever afters’, right?

I really liked Cara, Beth’s best friend. Everyone should have a friend like Cara. In a way, Nick had his best friend, Greg, to rely on as well, but I was ambivalent about him for most of the story. I was worried he would end up like Jason Alexander’s character from Pretty Woman – there were subtle similarities and it preyed on my mind in the background every time he was on scene. I don’t know if it was accident or design by the author, but it provided a heightened sense of worry for both Nick and Beth – I really wanted them to be happy. I became 100% engaged in their journey to a happy ever after that I felt they both deserved. I am relieved to report that this romance story satisfied my optimistic hope for the couple – after a very scary encounter with an enraged and vengeful secondary character. I didn’t expect that and was properly stunned.

Designed by Destiny is a really good read and a wonderful romance story. It includes variations of the tropes of the genre that fans will recognize, but Ms. Tyler uses them to create an engaging and entertaining tale of two unlikely people who share a passion for architecture and discover a new passion, for each other. Its ending shows a promising future for both Nick and Beth as they both open themselves up to trust, love, and the realization that together, they could conquer anything. I think the only thing that could have made this story even better would have been adding an epilogue showing the fruits of their new dream. Alas, I have to use my imagination – which isn’t too much of a stretch. The author laid a solid foundation that pretty much guaranteed their solid HEA. I definitely recommend this book and if you do decide to pick up your own copy, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Dark Whisper by Christine Feehan

Dark Whisper by Christine Feehan
Publisher: Berkley
Genre: Contemporary, Romance, Paranormal
Rating: 3 stars
Reviewed by Xeranthemum

Vasilisa Sidkorolyavolkva is a Lycan of royal blood. She knows what is expected of her, but all she wants is to be out from under her family’s watchful eyes. There is a fire inside her that is building. A restlessness coupled with a sense of growing dread. Every day she feels the weight of the legacy passed down through generations. The prophecy that says a man will come to claim her as his mate, and that she will guard his soul. She knows nothing about him except that he is hers. But nothing seems real until the night she meets him in the flesh….

Afanasiv Belan is a Carpathian, an ancient one. In all the centuries of his existence, no one has ever affected him like Vasilisa. He can see into her mind and feel what is in her heart. They are so alike, warriors bound by honor and plagued by secrets. They both know they must reveal the darkest parts of their souls if they hope to survive and protect the ones they love.

But if they claim each other as lifemates, it will change them down to the bone. They will become something more—something feared by both of their kinds….

The action is well-written, the suspense and drama are strong, and the characters are as interesting as ever. What I liked about Dark Whisper is that there is no stupid drama about the heroine resenting or resisting Afanasiv’s claim to her, or the possessive alpha nature of the hero. Vasilisa is well aware of what she guards, and I actually like that about her. No unnecessary angst, just a strong sense of self, knowing her duty and the confidence of her skill to carry it out, come what may. She’s a very strong heroine.

Both hero and heroine work well together. They don’t get a lot of down time because the pace of this novel is non-stop. The plot conflict keeps coming at them. But with their allies, Afanasiv and Vasilisa are up to the task of fighting off demons, vampires and betrayers. It’s a dark read which fits the title appropriately.

The ending is a bit abrupt, and I wasn’t expecting that. Usually there’s a wrap up that gives a reader time to admire all the threads of the plot being wrapped up, including the happy ever after. It felt like a roller coaster ride that ended too soon, up, down whoosh and …done. It was still a good tale, entertaining and engaging. Afanasiv and Vasilisa definitely complement each other. There were even a few surprises which I enjoyed.

I’m not too thrilled with the current story arc. I’ve been a fan of the series for a very long time, and most of the books are awesome. This one with the demons and Lilith mixing with vampires and mages just seems like it’s pushing the envelope into an area I don’t care for. The one sticky point that bothered me the most was the use of holy water. It seemed disingenuous because there was no correlation to anything referring to Christianity in Dark Whisper. I am used to holy water being directly associated with some type of Christian faith because it’s one of the most potent, visible and easily accessible symbols, yet it’s frequently taken out of context, using all its power but none of its source. I’m all for engaging willing suspension of disbelief in order to enjoy the paranormal romances I read, but I can’t ignore the use of something with power devoid of what gives it power in the first place. Using it on evil beings and then expecting me to believe that it would have the same powerful effect as if it were produced from the sole source, a Christian religion, but not? Nope, that didn’t work for me. It didn’t completely kick me out of enjoying all the other aspects of the novel. Like I said, there was a lot going on, but I took note, and it bothered me enough to mention it. It’s a good thing that there were many other facets of the tale I did like. There were exciting and powerful characters helping the hero and heroine out and I enjoyed the idea that there is something about Skyler that could create a new story arc for her and Dimitri. It certainly brought up more questions than answers, but they are captivating ideas to ponder. Then there’s the mention of the trapped Carpathian, Justice. Something big is building, that’s for sure. I’m glad they got one of the bad guys out of the picture. How they did it was sort of gruesome but extremely apropos. This is a dark romantic paranormal suspense after all. Ms. Feehan knows what she’s about.

Overall, I enjoyed the story. It’s a good read and I think fans of the series will like it. I did go, Wow! a few times and threw in a whoa! or two as well. It’s worth checking out.

Bella Cigna by Wendi Dass

Bella Cigna by Wendi Dass
Foreign Endearments, Book 1
Publisher: The Wild Rose Press
Genre: Contemporary, Romance
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Xeranthemum

Devastated by personal loss, Sarah Flynn escapes to Rome where she finds a job teaching English. Only the girls’ school is like a nunnery and she’s expected to speak fluent Italian overnight. What has she gotten herself into? While the beautiful sights rekindle her interest in art, not even her brush finding canvas can heal all the wounds she carries. She’ll need the help of a meddling nun, a nutty mathematician, and a handsome Italian admirer. Can Sarah overcome the insecurities born of a shattered marriage? Will she again take a chance on love?

This is a character driven, drama-infused novel of a very flawed woman trying to find her way back from the betrayal of her husband, someone she trusted implicitly. His leaving Sarah like she was nothing to him was traumatic and sent the heroine into an emotional quagmire.

Sarah’s friend, Meredith, is crucial in not only supporting the heroine, but giving her advice and a shoulder to cry on when needed. She also acts as a sounding board on and off throughout the novel. Another person that interacts with Sarah is her mother. The relationship is very similar to real life – a relationship that bounces between love, annoyance, impatience, gratefulness, supportiveness and every other quirk that can exist between a mother and a daughter. There are quite a number of interpersonal relationships sprinkled throughout the book – not all of them are benign. Then there’s Anna. I liked her. She is a young, quirky and energetic young woman who ends up taking the older Sarah under her wing. It’s up to the reader to decide if that is a good or bad thing. I think Anna was a good-hearted young lady who was still maturing during the course of the novel. Sister Maria is another secondary character that I felt was crucial to the romance’s success.

When I said that Sarah was flawed; that’s an understatement. Lying by omission comes back to haunt her. Going against her better judgement and drinking to excess in a foreign country also comes into play as a plot conflict. Her lack of self-esteem, her lack of confidence in herself as a woman, courtesy of her ex-husband, messes with her decision-making skills and she makes some bad ones. Repeatedly. Then she comes up against a sexual predator, so that may be a trigger for some readers. Sarah goes through so many ups and downs, it made me dizzy. Eventually things even out and a reader can finally breathe a sigh of relief as the hints of an HEA become realized.

This is ultimately a romance story, and Eduardo and his daughter are the bright spots that made this novel enjoyable. I really adored every interaction between Sarah and Lucia, Eduardo’s daughter. I felt they were the most beautiful exchanges in the whole book. Eduardo is a very nice guy, handsome and rich, but he can be very emotional and easily hurt. But he is also very forgiving, and that part of his nature is key in the success of the romance.

The happy ever after is hard won but satisfying in the end. Actually, it’s a very happy HEA and I was thrilled for Sarah. After everything she went through, she deserved to be happy. Bella Cigna is not an easy read but it’s a good story with a nice romance between two people that sound like someone you could meet in real life.

The Akseli by Dianne Duvall, Kirsten Potter (Narrator)

The Akseli by Dianne Duvall, Kirsten Potter (Narrator)
Aldebarian Alliance, Book 4
Publisher: Self-Published, Tantor Audio (Publisher)
Genre: Romance, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Action/Adventure
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Xeranthemum

Voted BoM by LASR Readers 2013 copy

Simone has hunted and slain psychotic vampires night after night for hundreds of years and desperately needs a change. When the leader of the Immortal Guardians offers her an opportunity to guard ten mortal women who are venturing to another planet, she dives right in and finds traveling into space and meeting amazing alien races just as exciting as she’d hoped… until an enemy attacks. Simone saves everyone she can before she’s thrust into an escape pod and the ship explodes. Alone, fearing some—if not all—of her friends have been killed, she vows to seek vengeance.

Despite his fierce reputation and propensity for violating the law, Janwar has formed a friendship with strait-laced Prince Taelon of Lasara. When the prince’s ship is destroyed, Janwar joins the massive Aldebarian Alliance-wide search and rescue mission and soon locates the Gathendien ship that launched the attack. An odd thing happens, however, as he and his crew stealthily approach it. The lifeforms inside begin to perish, two or three at a time in quick succession. Much to his surprise, someone else has reached the ship first: one of the very Earth women he hoped to rescue.

Fascinatingly fierce, Simone bands together with Janwar and his crew to search for her missing friends and wreak havoc upon those who wish to harm them. She also widens eyes, drops jaws, and sparks laughter and mischief as she banishes the warriors’ world-weariness and makes each day seem like a new adventure. The friendship that grows between Janwar and Simone swiftly deepens into love. But the enemy warriors they face are tenacious and boast more weapons in their arsenal than the alliance knows. Can Janwar, Simone, and such a small crew vanquish them?

Looking for an edge-of-your-seat, romantic suspense, sci-fi adventure that will knock your socks off? The Akseli is definitely the book to check out. There are space battles, sword fights, alien monsters, narrow escapes, action behind enemy lines on an ice planet, an A.I. program that can actually be considered a secondary character, and a romance that made my little heart go pitter-patter.

That list is only a tiny fraction of what made this story stand out as it amazed and enthralled me and had me listening to the audio version twice – some scenes, thrice. Lest a reader worry that it’s all flash-bang action, I assure you that there are tender moments, sweet moments, character dialogue that made me sniffle and my heart hurt for some of the guys in the scenes. Janwar’s crew each have their own story, and I will tell you, every single one needs their own HEA. You want tortured heroes? Men who’ve been hurt, scorned, made examples of and treated as pariahs by either their culture or their families? My heart broke for each of these brave men that Janwar now calls family. They all have good hearts, are actually noble and, even having chosen an unorthodox career in order to survive, have resisted becoming villains and instead kept their honor and are fiercely loyal to Janwar and to each other. How could the heroine NOT fall in love with Janwar and his ‘family’?

The Gathendiens are back being their dastardly, disgusting, vile, smelly selves – they are the perfect villains. They hate everyone and are bent on genocide towards any civilized planet that has something that they want. And they are not the only characters with defunct moral compasses – a reader finds out there are more deviant, greedy, power-hungry beings that will do anything for power and/or money. One of them reminds me of a character from the second set of Star Wars movies, and the other, is too close to a real-life villain. But I won’t go there. This novel is about a hero and heroine who defy and overcame incredible odds, all in order to rescue victims and friends from evil aliens. The story is about Janwar and Simone falling in love even while in the thick of things. It’s about a man who becomes better, stronger, more focused and more heroic all because of the love of a strong woman with a zest for life and adventure. It’s about acceptance, embracing differences and finding common goals. All of that is woven in throughout the novel with excellent storytelling skill.

If fans listen to the audio version, they are in for an experience of delight, entertainment, laughter and being 100% engaged and invested in every character’s wellbeing. The narrating talent of Ms. Potter is second to none. Each character has their own voice and Ms. Potter uses her voice skills flawlessly. I’ve yet to experience another narrator with her consistent range and ability to express emotions only through voice. Yes, the writing has to have it first, and it does, but the narration explodes the story into brilliant life. It’s one of the reasons that, when it comes to Ms. Duvall’s books, I purchase them in all three formats, audio, print and ebook. I’m always so satisfied, I find it well worth the investment.

The Akseli is a star-quality novel that gives readers a top-notch reading experience that thrills and entertains non-stop, all the way to the perfect and romantic happy ever after ending, with an irresistible hook for the next adventure in the series. Sign me up! I simply can’t get enough of this wonderful universe Ms. Duvall has created through the Aldebarian Alliance. It’s a book addiction worth having.

Sweetwater and the Witch by Jayne Castle

Sweetwater and the Witch by Jayne Castle (Author), Barbara Rosenblat (Narrator)
A Harmony Novel, #15
Publisher: Berkley (Print), Recorded Books (Audio Publisher)
Genre: Romance, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Xeranthemum

If there’s something Ravenna Chastain knows, it’s when to end things. And after she almost winds up the victim of a cult that believes she’s a witch, it’s easy to walk away from her dead-end career, ready for a new start. But where to find a job that would allow her to use her very specialized skill set? The answer is clear: she becomes a matchmaker.

But even a successful matchmaker can’t find someone for everyone, and Ravenna considers Ethan Sweetwater her first professional failure. After nine failed dates, Ravenna knows it’s time to cut Ethan loose. But Ethan refuses to be fired as a client—he needs one final date to a business function. Since Ravenna needs a date herself to a family event, they agree to a deal: she will be his (business) date if he will be her (fake) date to her grandparents’ anniversary celebration.

What Ethan fails to mention is that attending the business function is a cover for some industrial espionage that he’s doing as a favor to the new Illusion Town Guild boss. Ravenna is happy to help, but their relationship gets even more complicated when things heat up—the chemistry between them is explosive, as explosive as the danger that’s stalking Ravenna. Lucky for her, Ethan isn’t just an engineer—he’s also a Sweetwater, and Sweetwaters are known for hunting down monsters…

I’ve been a fan of the Harmony series, and the Dust Bunnies, for quite some time. This latest adventure delivered what I enjoy most about Ms. Castle’s writing. There’s of course, the romance, but there is laughter, intrigue, close calls and daring escapes, mystery and murder and fascinating secondary characters. The dialogue is fast paced, witty, and always provides great forward momentum to the plot. That is all a credit to the great writing talent of Jayne Castle. What brings this story over the top beyond the author’s skills, is the talent and incredible storytelling voice of the narrator, Barbara Rosenblat. Ms. Rosenblat brings the story to life in such an effective manner that it’s a delightful pleasure to listen to the story. In fact, I listed to the audiobook twice before I sat down to write this review. I know I missed things the first time around and when the story is as good as this one, it was an easy decision to give it another go-round to catch what I might have missed the first time. It’s actually a treat when I do find some missed words or descriptions because the added details make the book come alive for me again. It was an awesome experience.

What makes me crack up is Ethen Sweetwater and his return dialogue with Ravenna when she says something that once again makes it clear that she is completely oblivious to his attentions with regards to herself. The narrator’s perfect intonation gave me the giggles – Ethan has a dry wit so that when he responds to Ravenna’s clueless response in that certain way, I felt for the guy. A reader will know long before the heroine that the hero is smitten with her, and his dry responses just slayed me.

The cutest scene has something to do with Dust Bunny theater. Harriet, the Dust Bunny, stole quite a few scenes with her chortling and waving of pens. The newspaper headline gave me the snickers as well.

There are a few red herrings in the mystery and a few surprises too which ratcheted up my enjoyment. There was mild suspense and drama sprinkled throughout the book, keeping me riveted throughout the entire story. I couldn’t believe how fast time flew. I had such an awesome time reading and experiencing Sweetwater and the Witch. I was very happy with the happy ever after too. I suspect fans are going to have So much fun reading this story just like I did. This was an excellent book and I highly recommend it.

Vestige of Hope by Sara Blackard

Vestige of Hope by Sara Blackard
Vestige in Time Series, Book 2
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Contemporary, Romance, Historical, Inspirational, Paranormal
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Xeranthemum

A special ops soldier in a situation he’s untrained for. A woman struggling just to survive. When dangerous enemies won’t relent, will they find hope in each other and overcome the threats?

Thrown out of his element into a time not his own, Hunter must overcome his doubts to save the life he never knew he wanted.

Soldier, Hunter Bennet, is always in control…
…control of his missions.
…control of his life.
…control of his emotions.
Until he hesitates on a rescue mission, which leaves a child orphaned and his brothers-in-arms in peril. Chased by the demons of failure, he falls into a time and place where he has no control.

When her world begins to fall apart, Viola finds help in the most unexpected person.

Viola Thomas’s idyllic life in the new state of Colorado is in turmoil. Her father fails to return from winter trapping, and a stranger tumbles into her life from the future. When an unwanted suitor turns his advances into threats, everything she holds dear is at risk. Can she find hope in a man from a world far from her own?

Hunter must reach through the shadows of doubt to save his future, but will he fail in the most important mission of all?

Have you ever read a book because of another book? I read Discovering Rafe a while back and I mentioned in my review that I really needed to ‘meet’ Hunter, their fellow soldier who kept up their morale with biblical wisdoms during stressful missions. Well, I did it. I found Vestige of Hope and get this, it’s a time travel Christian romance series! Who ever heard of such a thing? Not me. Not until I started reading Ms. Blackard’s books. I’m not fond of time travel stories but the reason and methodology that accomplished the time travel simply blew my mind. Not only that, but it made sense. Like, it could happen, even now! Yeah, I sat back and blinked a few times when I read that section. The fact that I could conceive such a thing as possible, based on a couple of tiny sentences in the Bible, and add in the faith one would need to believe? That just sent my brain into a spin of wonder. So very cool.

Now that I got that amazing nugget out of way, I can get to the fun stuff – the romance. Hunter is about as good a hero as the books in the other series led me to believe. He’s honorable, smart, mostly in excellent physical condition, and he defines the word, hero. Now, I say mostly excellent health because he had a bit of a run-in with a wild cat. He’s at a disadvantage for a good portion of the book because of his injuries, but that made me like his character all the more. He’s not an over-the-top super man with Jackie Chan reflexes, a Chuck Norris attitude and a Captain America complex…although there was a scene or two that led me to believe he might have had the sculpted body of Captain America…that was a nice bit of info. But his drive to protect the women who save him, one being Viola, the heroine, is what I liked because Hunter wasn’t overbearing or demeaning. He didn’t talk down to them just because he was a soldier from the future, and they were backwoods women from the more primitive past in our country. In fact, Viola and her sister, Beatrice, were more than capable of taking care of themselves, and that includes hunting for food. Watching Hunter come to terms with the reality that he truly did travel back in time, was entertaining and interesting. It was kind of fun seeing Viola and Beatrice’s reactions when he respected their skills and the knowledge both women had. They didn’t expect that from a man; it was almost unheard of.

Like I said, the two sisters could take care of themselves, but they usually didn’t have to. They had their father and brother to help out. Except, something bad happened and they were left to handle things on their own. You know what that means, right? Plot conflict. A woman alone is considered “easy pickins’ and an onery villain has the clever idea that he can force Viola to marry him, thereby gaining the farm and all the land. What he didn’t expect to find was, Hunter. Ooh, the classic scenario, and very satisfying to read.

I did say this was an inspirational romance, too, right? Hunter’s relationship with God is a tangible thing. It’s important to him as a man, and actually pertains to a lot that goes on in the novel. It’s not preachy, it shows how strength can come from faith, even in the worst-case scenarios. Viola and Beatrice are of like mind, but they didn’t have quite the same level of experiences. Perhaps it’s because, as a soldier, Hunter has faced situations in the past that, without faith, would crush another man. There are no sparkly rainbows in this story. It’s gritty, realistic, and hard, yet at the same time, optimistic. There was the time, however, where I totally and completely understood Hunter’s reaction when Viola proceeded to ‘prepare’ the herbs for the poultice. I guess if it works… The other fun part is when, even in sleep, Hunter sought to protect Viola. That scene gave me the giggles. This is a clean romance, so nothing happened to change that, but like Beatrice said, “It’s kind of sweet.” There were a lot of delicious looks that bounced between Viola and Hunter, and plenty of blushes to go with them. The romance is simply delightful.

There is drama and a bit of suspense when the bad guys pay a visit. From that excitement, comes a revelation. Oh, and then there’s a complication with a friend of the family. He sure sounded interesting. I wouldn’t mind if there was a story about him!

There is so much that goes on in the book. It’s a character driven romance story with plenty of fun dialogue, action, secrets and an absolutely wonderful happy ever after wrap up in the epilogue. Vestige of Hope was an awesome read and I’m so very glad I looked up Hunter’s story. It was well worth it.

The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (And Their Muses) by Terri-Lynne DeFino

The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (And Their Muses) by Terri-Lynne DeFino
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
Genre: Contemporary, Romance, Women’s Fiction
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Xeranthemum

A whimsical, moving novel about a retirement home for literary legends who spar, conjure up new stories, and almost magically change the lives of the people around them.

Alfonse Carducci was a literary giant who lived his life to excess—lovers, alcohol, parties, and literary rivalries. But now he’s come to the Bar Harbor Home for the Elderly to spend the remainder of his days among kindred spirits: the publishing industry’s nearly gone but never forgotten greats. Only now, at the end of his life, does he comprehend the price of appeasing every desire, and the consequences of forsaking love to pursue greatness. For Alfonse has an unshakeable case of writer’s block that distresses him much more than his precarious health.

Set on the water in one of New England’s most beautiful locales, the Bar Harbor Home was established specifically for elderly writers needing a place to live out their golden years—or final days—in understated luxury and surrounded by congenial literary company. A faithful staff of nurses and orderlies surround the writers, and are drawn into their orbit, as they are forced to reckon with their own life stories. Among them are Cecibel Bringer, a young woman who knows first-hand the cost of chasing excess. A terrible accident destroyed her face and her sister in a split-second decision that Cecibel can never forgive, though she has tried to forget. Living quietly as an orderly, refusing to risk again the cost of love, Cecibel never anticipated the impact of meeting her favorite writer, Alfonse Carducci—or the effect he would have on her existence. In Cecibel, Alfonse finds a muse who returns him to the passion he thought he lost. As the words flow from him, weaving a tale taken up by the other residents of the Pen, Cecibel is reawakened to the idea of love and forgiveness.

As the edges between story and reality blur, a world within a world is created. It’s a place where the old are made young, the damaged are made whole, and anything is possible….

My mind is blown by this novel. How do I even write this review? If you’ve read the synopsis – it’s the best synopsis I’ve seen in many a day. This last sentence, “As the edges between story and reality blur, a world within a world is created. It’s a place where the old are made young, the damaged are made whole, and anything is possible….” encapsulates the charm, the wit and wonder, and the romance of different levels of love a person can experience. Some loves make you smile, some leave you wistful, some leave you longing for days gone by, and some transcend the physical, making a person better, more content and fulfilled. Love is, or can be, healing. It can transform pain into joy, and can leave a lasting impression, a legacy if you will. This story with the rather long title, The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (And Their Muses), is an unexpected gem that I’m very pleased to have read.

The catalyst for the plot pivots on one person, Cecibel Bringer. She is the sun, and the other characters are the planets and moons who orbit her, and whose influences make the sun that is Cecibel shine brighter and warmer. I honestly can’t get the words out to describe the relationships between her, Olivia, Switch, Alphonse, Sal, Fin, Judi and Richard. The relationships between everyone were delightful, heartwarming and heartbreaking. This novel and the amazing personalities that flavor it kept me flipping the pages and marveling at the humanity of its characters. I cried. I felt. I experienced a myriad of emotions while reading this book. All of that thanks to the writing skills of Ms. DeFino. I mean, the last chapter turned me into a blubbering fool. It was bittersweet, beautiful, touching and a testimony to all the people in the story that worked their magic on Cecibel. It’s a happy ending in its own way. More realistic, I guess, and very well written.

There is romance of a sort within its pages. There’s a story within a story about a romance that was doomed but never died. There is romance from the past that flavors the present, and a gentle romance, like a flower growing in spring, that tender bud that eventually blooms from the love, care, and nurturing it’s given. Cecibel is the flower that blooms in this book.

I’d have to give this novel a spicy rating, not because it’s intended to be a romance in that vein, but because the views into the past showed the characters during some of their passionate interludes with those they loved. Some were wild, like the one between Alfonse and Cornelius – that was a desperate passion, especially since it happened sometime in the 1950s when those types of relationships were frowned upon – and gentler ones from … well, a reader has to make up their own mind whether it was real or imagined, and the kind one expects in a romance story. I didn’t expect to see those particular scenes because of what I’d read up to that point, but for a change, I didn’t find it gratuitous. It was a major plot shift for a certain character. Then there was the story within the story that had the trappings of a typical spicy romance in a Romeo and Juliet-esqe type fashion.

I’m very glad I happened upon this story, that the book blurb grabbed my interest and, although it’s a book I typically would not read, the synopsis had that special something that spoke to me and said give this story a chance. I’m glad I did. I read it in one day and re-read the final chapter at least four times.

If readers enjoy stories that focus on character relationships in all their fallibility, larger-than-life personalities with secrets to hide, wonderful dialogue and a nicely done wrap-up, then please do give The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (And Their Muses) a try. It’s a definite recommendation.

Buzz Kill by David Sosnowski

Buzz Kill by David Sosnowski
Publisher: 47 North
Genre: Contemporary, Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Xeranthemum

Pandora Lynch lives in Alaska with her single dad, an online therapist for Silicon Valley’s brightest and squirreliest. Homeschooled by computer and a self-taught hacker, Pandora is about to enter high school to learn how to be normal. That’s the plan at least.

NorCal runaway George Jedson is a hacker too—one who leaves the systems he attacks working better than before. After being scooped up by a social media giant, will George go legit—or pull off the biggest hack ever? Not even his therapist knows for sure, but maybe the headshrinker’s daughter…

After meeting in cyberspace, the two young hackers combine their passions to conceive a brainchild named BUZZ. Can this baby AI learn to behave, or will it be like its parents and think outside the box?

With a hilarious and deeply empathetic narrative voice, this elegiac and unapologetically irreverent novel is both humorous and tragic without ever taking itself too seriously.

This novel reminded me of a combination of movie inspirations from the Kingsman: The Secret Service, Thanos from the Marvel Universe and I, Robot. The author took real life events that I clearly recall and cleverly and deviously wove them into a disturbingly fascinating ‘what-if’ scenario that is scarily plausible. Not probable, but plausible.

The story focuses on one main character, Pandora, who, through the author’s descriptions, gave me the impression that she looked like a young Linda Moulton Howe, an American investigative journalist I once saw on an episode of Secret of Skinwalker Ranch. That’s the image that came to mind and it stuck with me throughout the story. There is a secondary character, George, who is pivotal player for most of the tale, and Pandora’s dad, Roger. The other influence in Pandora’s life is her grandmother, Gladys. Those handful of people carry the plot and character development to various degrees.

It’s told in third person point of view from mostly Pandora’s side of things, but George’s perspective is told as well. It was interesting to see the author introduce readers to the main characters individually and slowly pull the strings that brought them all together in unexpected ways.

I saw George get built up, then torn down by an unlikely means. Even when you know the downside of something, doesn’t mean it won’t still happen; even when you say no, something happens to make you say ‘yes’. Those are the kinds of mind games that goes on during the course of the book and some made me pause and think while others I wanted to deny and yet quite a few, like I mentioned earlier, reminded me of movie plots and characters I’ve seen before but in no way are copied in the telling of this tale. It’s all unique, and when the direction of the program that George and Pandora starts to gel, fans of the science fiction genre will probably guess where it’s going, but not how it’s going to end. The thing about George’s character that I questioned was his ‘voice’. Supposedly he was a teenager, but as the story continued, I didn’t ‘hear’ the voice of a teenager, no matter how smart he was, he was still supposed to be a kid. He eventually sounded like a fully grown adult, and that kind of threw me.

I looked up the genre of this book because I had a difficult time trying to choose which ones Buzz Kill fell under. One had humor listed. I did not find this book humorous. Maybe some of the dialogue was cute, and the pop culture references made it relevant and interesting, but at no time was I tempted to grin, laugh out loud or chuckle. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I felt more anxious and worried as the story rolled out. I guess that’s called, suspense. The format is not laid out in a typical storytelling format, it took me a good portion of the book’s beginning chapters to get into the author’s rhythm and style.

What ultimately happens fits perfectly into conspiracy theories I’ve heard bandied about over the last ten years or so. Thing is, with all the advances in technology lately, Pandora and George’s thinking and ideas aren’t out of the realm of possibility. I think that’s why this book is effective. It’s not a horror story, but it easily could be.

Buzz Kill isn’t what I was expecting. Nor is it the type of book I typically read. Honestly, I’ve had this book on my TBR pile for a while; I think it’s because I felt I had to be in a certain ‘mood’ to read it. Guess today was that day as I read all 400+ pages in one sitting. There were times I felt overwhelmed from all the computer tech talk and theories and explanations, and underwhelmed with the ending. I expected it to be more impactful, more emotional or at least a bit more realistic considering the mess the prologue alluded to. I mean, the writing itself was well-done, the family dynamics between Pandora, her dad and grandmother were the easiest parts of the book to read, and I think that’s one of the things that kept me turning the pages. I liked Pandora’s character and I really appreciated her relationship with her grandmother and the reasons why she gave her the Furby. I even liked finding out about the true giver of the blue flowers. The book has its good moments.

Buzz Kill was interesting, thought-provoking, and I think more on point now with regards to the advances in artificial intelligence than when the book was first written. That’s the theme that can easily jump from science fiction to science fact. In both scenarios, I agree with the sentiment of the book – it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, and be careful for what you wish for because you may not like the end result. That’s my takeaway from reading this novel. As a cautionary tale, I think this book is well worth reading.

Discovering Rafe by Sara Blackard

Discovering Rafe by Sara Blackard
Stryker Security Force, Book 5
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Contemporary, Romance, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Xeranthemum

Her brother’s best friend has always held her heart. Now that she has his attention, will her happily ever after be ripped away?

Piper Fields finds contentment in managing her cousin’s music career from the safety and anonymity of staying behind the scenes.
Since her parents’ death at barely thirteen, Piper’s fear of losing others has kept her focused on caring for those she loves. Meanwhile, her own dreams have been left backstage. Not that it really mattered anyway. Her dreams were out of reach and so was her brother’s friend, Rafe Malone.

Rafe Malone approached life with a firm desire to safeguard those who couldn’t protect themselves and have fun in the process. That all changed the day a mission for the Army turned south, forcing him to take the life of a child soldier. Now, the jokester mask he wears to hide his pain is put to the test when his best friend’s sister needs his help. No matter how hard he tries to convince himself he shouldn’t taint her with his tarnished soul, her nurturing presence tempts him to break the bro code of staying away from your friend’s sister.

Can Rafe keep Piper safe when the evasive threat turns deadly? Will Piper trust what she’s discovered in Rafe or is it just another childish daydream?

This is another awesome book sure to please romantic suspense readers. Rafe had a stronger role in the last story, Crashing into Jake, because it’s a tag-team setup for Discovering Rafe. In the last story, Chloe and Piper were cousins in trouble from a stalker. In the end, readers found out that Chloe wasn’t the target, Piper was. Discovering Rafe picks up from there. Interestingly enough, this book could still be read as a standalone because the first two chapters recaps what triggered book 4, but this time the hero is Rafe and it’s from his perspective. I really enjoyed the extra details that the author included this time around. It brings the enjoyment factor to a whole other level because I’m getting the whole picture. This time I got to see Piper’s point of view at my favorite bonfire scene from the previous book. It’s just as fun and yet it has a more robust feeling to it because now, I get to see inside Rafe’s head as he sees Piper for the first time in a style of clothes she’d never worn before. The password still is cute, but I got to see a tiny bit more backstory to it, which made me smile.

One of the conflicts is a well-known one – don’t break the bro-code and date or show more than brotherly interest towards your best friend’s little sister. That’s a major no-no, and it’s also one of the rules most fun to break – if done right. I believe Ms. Blackard did it right.

Like I mentioned above, the other conflict is external – the stalker that is after Piper. That’s the major mystery that causes stress, suspense and a great plot mover.

Another thing I liked about this novel, is reading all about Rafe and Piper’s childhood memories and their relationship. It made their romance that much more interesting and heartwarming. Until it wasn’t. Until the very thing Rafe worried about comes to pass. He broke the bro-code and has to face the music. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the stalker is even more tech-savvy than anyone gave him credit for. Readers are in for some intense scenes that, for me, made it almost impossible to put the book aside and go to bed at a decent time. Nope, I lost some serious zzz’s powering through this novel. I couldn’t leave myself with a cliffhanger. Who could sleep wondering if Piper would escape? Would she be rescued? Would they get to her time? Who WAS the stalker? How did he keep finding her? The answers amazed me, floored me and kept me wide awake.

As for whether I like the hero and heroine. Absolutely. Piper is loyal, caring, a bit of a worrywart and always puts other’s needs ahead of her own, including her cousin Chloe. Their relationship is more like best friends than merely cousins. Piper has a guardian-type personality and while that’s good, Rafe recognizes, eventually, that she deserved more. Who’s looking out for Piper? That’s when it solidified for me that they were perfect for each other, that their love was going to be a strong force which in turn brought out the best in each other, for the other. It’s wonderfully romantic, well, between the scenes of sheer terror, excitement, and the great climactic confrontation with the stalker.

I made light of the internal conflict of the bro-code regarding Rafe, but there is a darker issue that plagues the hero. His jokester persona has taken a hit and he’s now using it as a cover to hide behind. It is a serious conflict and I know for a fact that it’s a real thing, that it can haunt a soldier to the point of despair. It’s a bleak reality no matter that it happens in a time of war – it’s killed or be killed – but knowing that fact doesn’t make it any less painful. It’s another reason why I am so very happy that he gets his own happy ever after with Piper. If anyone can help him heal, it’s her. They are awesome together.

There’s a lot more that goes on in the story that I could go on and on about. I do have to mention secondary characters – Derrick. There’s a scene where he reminds Rafe about Hunter and his words of wisdom from the Bible. I haven’t read Hunter’s story but I’m going to. There are so many references to him throughout the series, I feel like I should know him too. Anyway, that scene with Derrick really made an impact on me. The way the author wrote it was powerful and Rafe’s response, even more so.

I simply can’t get enough of this series. Their romances are sweet, almost sensual, and the restraint the heroes and heroines practice even though passion rides them hard at times, shows amazing strength of character. It also makes a lot more sense to me than those other stories out there where, in the middle of do or die crisis situations, somehow the main characters always seem to dive into heavy-duty make out sessions. I don’t need that in my romantic suspense stories, and I’m so glad I discovered Sara Blackard’s books. They have top-notch writing, awesome heroes and heroines, and plots and stories I can really sink my teeth into. The pacing is always spot-on and never once, in any of the books I’ve read so far, have I been tempted to fast-forward. Every chapter, piece of dialogue, action scenes or passages of description and details, worked for me. Even the HEA was awesome. I am a very happy reader.

Crashing into Jake by Sara Blackard

Crashing into Jake by Sara Blackard
Stryker Security Force, Book 4
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Contemporary, Romance, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Xeranthemum

An injured ex-soldier struggling with being a bodyguard. A country music darling with an eerie stalker. Can he resist her allure to get the job done?

All Jake has ever wanted was to serve his country, get married, and raise a family.
When a mission goes wrong, leaving him with a prosthetic leg and raging nightmares, his plans for the future lie shattered like his career. He joins his brothers-in-arms at Stryker Security Force to help protect others, determined to find contentment in his job as a bodyguard — until protecting Chloe Rose makes him long for more.

Chloe Rose dreams of getting her break as the next country music superstar.
Though her parents would rather she buy her way in, Chloe will make it on her own or not at all.
An invitation to a Colorado music festival has Chloe believing her time has finally come. But when frightening messages arrive on her doorstep, she’s forced to hire protection. Jake is an attractive surprise, and sparks fly when he shows up.

Can Chloe trust Jake when the malicious attacks threaten all she’s worked so hard for? Will Jake’s disability keep him from saving Chloe and the love he’s found in her?

I don’t believe I’ve ever read about a heroine who has to deal with celiac disease before. It was eye-opening for those like me who really don’t understand how it affects a person’s life. The one thing about Chloe, and it caused me to respect her character, is that she refused to dwell on what she couldn’t do, but on what she could. It helped that she had her wonderful and supportive cousin, Piper, who is an important secondary character throughout most of the book, at her side. Their relationship was a strong part of why I liked this story so much.

The first chapter delves into Chloe and Piper’s backstory and provides key information for things that happen further on. What tickled my funny bone was the question, “When have I steered you wrong?” and the other person started listing all the crazy things they did, which got me to laugh. It also dogged my memory as to where I heard that phrase before until I remembered, and I laughed all the harder. Cleo from Clifford, the Big Red Dog always said that phrase right before she did indeed steer T-Bone and Clifford into some zany escapade. Gosh, my kids haven’t watched that in years, yet I still remember. And Chloe, in Crashing into Jake, totally had those ‘Cleo’ vibes going when she suggested they have a clothing bonfire. Yeah, that didn’t go quite as planned. *insert snicker*

If Chloe is an unusual heroine, her match is the equally fascinating and unique hero, Jake. If you read the first three stories, then you know that he suffered an injury in his last assignment for the military. Readers don’t have to read the books in order since they are pretty solid as standalones, but for those that have, they’ll remember Jake lost his leg below the knee. His prosthetic doesn’t slow him down, it doesn’t stop him from being perfect hero material, but it does challenge him, and he ends up using the device in a most unusual way. It was pragmatic, but it still made me grin.

The external conflict stems from threatening notes Chloe receives. It creeps them out badly enough that when Piper’s brother calls and they fill him in, the next thing I know, guys from Stryker Security Force are at the girls’ door. That is when the story takes off and the adventure begins. It turns out that both ladies know one of the two men that respond, Rafe. He’s a secondary character in this book, but like Piper, is integral to Chloe and Jake’s story and romance. This is also the point when I realize that this book series is starting to sound like a family community, and it feels nice.

All the chapters afterwards are filled with awesome dialogue between Jake and Chloe, Piper, Rafe, Zeke, and my favorite little princess, Eva. There are balloon rides, an avalanche, and a restaurant scene that showed Jake’s hero side when the ordered food was practically everything that could kill Chloe. That’s when I think the relationship started to change, and Cupid’s little arrow started to have its effect. Then there are the scheduled ‘kissing times’. I’m not about to explain what that means – it would spoil the fun. I was entertained and I enjoyed watching their love grow, until their own internal conflicts mucked it up. Sometimes more communication leads to not enough communication. Leave it to little Eva to stomp her feet and give ‘Uncle Jake’ the what-for when he needed it most.

I enjoyed the romance, the story and all its characters. They’re really growing on me. The affirmation of Jake and Chloe’s love was very public and wonderful. I’m not sharing how that comes to pass. Also, there is an epilogue but it’s more of a teaser into the next book, which, as it turns out, is Rafe’s story. I am extremely curious what I’ll find when I read his book. He’s a jokester, the one that smiles and somehow finds the fun in any situation. But, as in real life, those that laugh the loudest and work the hardest while making it look easy in order to make everyone smile around them, oftentimes are the ones that hide deep pain. As a hook, it’s perfect. You know what I’ll be reading next. As for Crashing into Jake, it’s a great read with a wonderful romance story filled with great character development, camaraderie, dialogue from all the cast members, and a happy ever after ending that satisfies. It’s another keeper to go with the first three books, that’s for sure.