Camp Effigy – A Ghost Story by I A M Watson

Camp Effigy – A Ghost Story by I A M Watson
Publisher: Regenesis Press
Genre: Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.), Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal, Contemporary
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

“Rule number one: no one is to leave designated camper areas for any reason. You will not leave camp without permission. Do not attempt it. And stay clear of locked doors and anything marked as off-limits.”

Camp Effigy is an unusual summer camp destination to say the least. As they pass through the foreboding gates of Hopewell Manor, Dahlia, Serena, and Aria anticipate a bootcamp for troubled girls (and boy, are they troubled). It doesn’t help that the surrounding camp is built on ancient burial grounds deep in some very haunted woods. Strange things happen quickly, leaving our heroines to band together as unlikely friends and fight for their lives at the place where the land of the living and the dead meet and merge. Everything goes off the rails when the campers discover that their own family secrets may tie them to the hauntings that threaten their lives, and that only they hold the key to solving a cold case from 1851.

Every kid breaks a minor rule or two while at summer camp, right?

The horror elements of the storyline were delightfully scary. I shuddered my way through the ones that involved bodies of water and the various entities that can sometimes be found lurking in their depths. They reminded me a little of the various urban legends that are sometimes told around the campfire on warm nights when the looming darkness just past the edge of where flickering flames can cast their light makes every spooky sentence feel bigger and more ominous than it seems during the day. This is a good pick for middle grade or older readers who enjoy being frightened without being grossed out.

There was strong character development for all three protagonists. I enjoyed seeing how Aria, Serena, and Dahlia got to know each other better and worked together to solve the mystery of what was really happening at Camp Effigy. What made this even more impressive was that the author managed to pull it off in a fast-paced novel that didn’t leave a lot of space for long conversations. Much of what I learned about them happened while they were on the run or exploring parts of the camp they had been clearly told were off-limits to them. This gave everything a strong sense of urgency that made it impossible for me to stop reading.

I grinned as Dahlia, Serena, and Aria figured out how they were connected to the cold case from 1851. It was a clever way to tie the present closely to the past and give the characters understandable motives for behaving the way that they did. While I was already enjoying this tale before these details were revealed, I became even more excited to see how it ended once such crucial information about all three girls was revealed.

Camp Effigy: A Ghost Story was the perfect summer read.

Murder at Sea Oats Beach by Karen C. Whalen

Murder at Sea Oats Beach by Karen C. Whalen
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Breanna Hart is volunteering at the animal shelter and living her best life in a North Carolina beach town, but that changes when the police chief is found dead under mysterious circumstances inside the cage of her favorite dog. Everyone has the dog tagged as the murderer, even the handsome police officer in charge of the investigation, and the pooch is put on the euthanasia list. In spite of being new in town and dealing with both a social phobia and a secret, will Breanna be able to solve the crime and prove the dog’s innocence? Will she be able to find his forever home so she can embrace the salty seaside life and find a forever home for herself?

Innocent until proven guilty should apply to dogs, too!

Breanna was a memorable and relatable protagonist. Her compassion for others instantly endeared me to her. It was interesting to see how her flaws influenced the decisions she made. Specifically, her impulsiveness was both a great way to push the plot forward and an impediment to her goals depending on the scene. I also appreciated how much effort was put into describing how social anxiety affected every facet of her life. This isn’t a mental illness I’ve seen mentioned very often in fiction, but Ms. Whalen struck a chord with how accurately and sympathetically she wrote about it.

I would have liked to see the mystery play a bigger role in how the storyline rolled out. There was so much attention paid to everything else that was going on that it took longer than I would have preferred for Breanna to start investigating what really happened to the police chief. Mysterious deaths aren’t common in small, quiet towns, so I was expecting the characters to react more strongly to such a turn of events.

Small town politics can be complex and frustrating, especially for newcomers. I enjoyed this deep dive into what it can be like to move to a new place and try to join an insular community. Breanna was completely unprepared for the nuances of it all, and I nodded along as she slowly realized just how much she had to learn about the friends and neighbors she was still beginning to get to know.

Murder at Sea Oats Beach was a playful summer read.

Kent and Katcha by Larry and Rosemary Mild

Kent and Katcha by Larry and Rosemary Mild
Publisher: Magic Island Literary Works
Genre: Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Romance, Historical, Fiction
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Lavender

Larry and Rosemary Mild breach the deeper cover and higher intrigue to bring you a fictional novel full of spy-craft, espionage, and adventure drawn from Larry’s former association with real agents and their spook agencies.

The year is 1992. The Soviet Union has collapsed, but danger persists. Young Kent Brukner, a freshly trained American spy, arrives in Moscow for a high-risk mission: to infiltrate and compromise a Russian Federation Army facility. Under an alias, in a military uniform, he plies his skills—unprepared for the brutal confrontations and irrational consequences.

Kent meets the innocent and passionate Katcha, daughter of a British expatriate and a Russian dissident. Together the lovers embark on a near-impossible journey, beginning in the foothills of the Ural Mountains. Stalked by the evil Major Dmitri Federov, they must escape from St. Petersburg to Helsinki, Finland, or face life in a Russian prison.

This novel is a marvelous throwback to the early nineteen nineties, shortly after the end of the Cold War. Kent is an engaging character, an American spy, whose background is fleshed out enough for us to understand who he is and what his motivations are. The Russians capture him and throw him in prison. The situation seems hopeless.

Then, in a surprising turn of events, he manages to escape. Every step of his hopeful journey towards freedom is filled with tension. One thing after another threatens him along the path, and readers will worry for his safety. He meets an interesting lady during this time, Katcha, whose mother proposes an intriguing possibility for the young couple. It is so dangerous, so filled with a likely tragic end, and Kent only agrees with hesitation. Now, his risk has doubled. Can he and Katcha possibly survive the scrutiny and perseverance of the Russians going after him?

This book is a page-turner. The pace moves quickly but not too quickly. There is time for emotional introspection. The setting is convincingly drawn, taking readers into the era and place with ease.

This is an entertaining vintage novel readers of espionage tales with a bit of romance thrown in are sure to enjoy.

Earth’s Final Chapter Winning Collection 2020 by Martha Everitt, Jim Horlock, Jackary Salem, Victoria Clapton

Earth’s Final Chapter Winning Collection 2020 by Martha Everitt, Jim Horlock, Jackary Salem, Victoria Clapton
Publisher: Endless Ink Publishing House
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

A collection of winning stories set in the Earth’s Final Chapter series, part of Volume 1. 2020 contest winners.

Curiosity is a gift that not everyone is given.

Riss needed to go on a raid outside the safety of his city in “The Wilding” to find medicine for his ill uncle. I enjoyed the slow but steady world building in this tale. It was also interesting to meet a protagonist who was not curious about the world outside of his gated community and who was so reluctant to explore it. That isn’t a common personality trait in the science fiction genre, but it made for some fantastic plot twists as he adjusted to the many dangers waiting for him.

The thought of eternal life was all Rezag needed to convince him and his crew to risk their lives searching for the witch who knew how to grant it in “Ever-Life.” He was such a violent and unpredictable character that it took me a while to adjust to him, but I was intrigued by the glimpses of his past that explained why he was so ruthless and gave examples of times he had shown mercy to others. Complexity made reading more enjoyable, and I would have happily kept learning about the high-risk choices his crew made.

I struggled with the world building in “Lungs Full of Water.” As interesting as it was to see how Grant survived a pirate attack that killed everyone else in his crew and should have claimed his life as well, I had so many unanswered questions about how magical powers work in this world that it was difficult to remain focused on the plot. This was still a good story, but I did find myself wishing it had been explained more clearly.

In order to keep the last remnants of Irish culture alive, Muireann had to journey to a place she’d only heard about in fairy tales in “Intertwined.” The plot twists in this story were numerous and kept me guessing. I smiled as she shared the clever tricks her small village had come up with in order to survive against steep odds and with no outside assistance. She was a brave protagonist who I was pleased to get to know.

Earth’s Final Chapter Winning Collection 2020 was imaginative.

Obedience by Isabella Jordan

Obedience by Isabella Jordan
Publisher: Changeling Press
Genre: Contemporary, Erotic Romance, Paranormal, Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Rating: 3 stars
Reviewed by Fern

A princess with a problem… Meela must marry a prince from another planet in order to ensure the security of her people. Trouble is Meela’s known to be a bit feisty, and sometimes that gets her into trouble. It’s bad enough she has no say in who she’ll marry. Worse still, the queen places an obedience curse on Meela to thwart her errant ways. As a result of the curse, Meela finds herself in plenty of predicaments not exactly fit for a princess. But what’s a princess to do when two gorgeous hunks come along and place sensual demands on her Meela’s not sure she can — or even wants to — deny?

Meela might be a feisty princess, but she knows she has to marry a prince for the good of her people. But when the Queen puts an obedience curse on her to curb her feisty ways the magic has some unexpected consequences.

I found this to be a fun and rather sassy short story. I thought the twist in the tale about the Obedience curse was a stroke of genius and I really enjoyed the slant to the story as a whole. The first chapter really setup the situation Meela had found herself in – and both the good and bad aspects to the queen’s curse – and all the sexy shenanigans rolling in from those consequences was a fun delight to read.

I thought the author showed a good balance between Meela being unable to refuse a command and having the curse force her to obey, but equally not pushing past the ilne of non-consent. I do admit that while the ending felt just a little cliched to me, it was very satisfying, and I feel most readers should be very happy with the twist.

Sexy and fun, this is a quick read I feel many readers will enjoy.

Past Tense: A Matt Moulton Mystery by Michael Amedeo

Past Tense: A Matt Moulton Mystery by Michael Amedeo
Publisher: Level Best Books
Genre: Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Romance, Historical
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

As America races toward the supposedly bright new decade of the 1950s, disillusioned white private dick, Matt Moulton finds himself faltering in the dark. Should he serve an amnesiac client whose recovering memories of paid murder intensify his own wartime guilt as an assassin? Should he risk endangering the person he loves, a beautiful black woman, for information on that case and an apparently related one? Does he imagine he can save her and himself from the corruption, the intolerance, and the apathy that linger in that violent nation’s shadows?

Taking place in a misty, sulky San Francisco, “Past Tense” appeals to readers who love their thrillers hardboiled. It brings pulp fiction back from the past, but here, the genre seems more modern and yet more noir-like than ever before.

Good murderers cover their tracks. Can a good detective foil the murderer’s plans before too many more people die?

The main storyline was fast-paced and interesting. I enjoyed taking note of the clues Matt found and trying to figure out why so many people connected to this case kept turning up dead. There was plenty of fodder for the imagination here, and my attention remained strong from the first scene to the last one.

I would have liked to see more character development in this novella, especially when it came to Matt. He was an intelligent but often conflicted protagonist. Learning more about his past and how it had shaped his personality would have made it easier for me to connect to him. I also found myself wishing he had shared more information about his feelings for Gina as she seemed to occupy many of his thoughts when he wasn’t focused on work. Exploring that relationship in more depth would have been a good way to showcase more of who Matt was when he wasn’t attempting to solve cases.

Speaking of Gina, I loved the romantic subplot between her and Matt. There were definitely sparks to be seen every time she showed up in his life. I appreciated how clearly they communicated their feelings to each other and found myself wishing they could find a way to overcome the racial prejudices of the late 1940s that were such a huge obstacle for them. My fingers are crossed that readers will get more opportunities to get to know her later on in this series as she seemed to be a level-headed and kind woman.

Past Tense: A Matt Moulton Mystery kept me guessing.

Fated Love by Sean Michael

Fated Love by Sean Michael
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Contemporary, Erotic Romance, LGBTQ
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Fern

Love doesn’t always get a second chance.

Ten years ago, Sunny Morgen waved goodbye to his boyfriend Jack at the airport, never expecting to see him again. Since then, he’s focused on learning a trade and raising his daughter as best he can. He never would have guessed that fate would bring Jack back into his life.

Jack Johnston hated leaving Sunny for a job on the west coast, but he couldn’t afford to turn it down. Ten years later finds him back in Ottawa, retired, with a three-year-old daughter in tow, and a new lease on life. The last thing he expects when he opens the door to meet his potential new baby-sitter and her father is Sunny.

Now that fate has brought them back together again, will Jack and Sunny reclaim the love they gave up?

Ten years ago, Sunny said farewell to his boyfriend Jack at the airport. While sad, neither man ever expected to see the other again and they’ve both focused on their lives, careers, and later each raising their own daughter. Only now Jack finds himself back in Ottawa and utterly shocked when he opens the door expecting to find a potential babysitter only to find himself once again in Sunny’s orbit. Now that fate has brought the two men back together can they make it work?

This is a fun and short story that would be great as a quick and sexy read. With the two characters knowing each other well – albeit from a decade ago – there wasn’t the usual feel of insta-love that can sometimes ring untrue. Jack and Sunny had left each other on good terms, their lives just moving in different directions, and so the fact they reconnected so quickly and became intimate almost immediately didn’t strike me as unrealistic.

I must admit I would have preferred a little more length to this story – seeing how Jack and Sunny managed to work together and build their relationship, but this is still a lovely snippet showing the two men getting back together and it leaves off on a very positive and hopeful note with the two men clearly interested in rebuilding the relationship they had each let go of.

For a quick, sexy and enjoyable read this is a good story and one I will likely reread.

American Daughters by Piper Huguley

American Daughters by Piper Huguley
Publisher: William Morrow
Genre: Historical, Fiction
Rating: 3 stars
Reviewed by Ginger

In the vein of America’s First Daughter, Piper Huguley’s historical novel delves into the remarkable friendship of Portia Washington and Alice Roosevelt, the daughters of educator Booker T. Washington and President Teddy Roosevelt.

At the turn of the twentieth century, in a time of great change, two women—separated by societal status and culture but bound by their expected roles as the daughters of famed statesmen—forged a lifelong friendship.

Portia Washington’s father Booker T. Washington was formerly enslaved and spent his life championing the empowerment of Black Americans through his school, known popularly as Tuskegee Institute, as well as his political connections. Dedicated to her father’s values, Portia contributed by teaching and performing spirituals and classical music. But a marriage to a controlling and jealous husband made fulfilling her dreams much more difficult.

When Theodore Roosevelt assumed the presidency, his eldest daughter Alice Roosevelt joined him in the White House. To try to win her father’s approval, she eagerly jumped in to help him succeed, but Alice’s political savvy and nonconformist behavior alienated as well as intrigued his opponents and allies. When she married a congressman, she carved out her own agendas and continued espousing women’s rights and progressive causes.

Brought together in the wake of their fathers’ friendship, these bright and fascinating women helped each other struggle through marriages, pregnancies, and political upheaval, supporting each other throughout their lives.

A provocative historical novel and revealing portrait, Piper Huguley’s American Daughters vividly brings to life two passionate and vital women who nurtured a friendship that transcended politics and race over a century ago.

This is an inspiring story about two women who form an unexpected friendship that transcends their different social statuses, politics, and race. It showcases historical figures that we are familiar with, such as Portia Washington the daughter of the famous educator, Booker T. Washington, and Alice Roosevelt, the President of the United States at the time, Teddy Roosevelt. The journey of these two women is a testament to their resilience and the power of friendship.

I enjoyed reading and learning about the strengths and resilience of the two fascinating women in the book. The author did a fantastic job of crafting a tale that navigated the life and friendship of Portia and Alice. It was interesting to see how their bond exceeded wealth, privilege, race, and cultural background – from their start as “Good Daughters” to their eventual “Liberation” as individuals. As I read, I saw that they were both women of intelligence, determination, and hope. Their differences were obvious but the similarities to me are what drew them together, and the bond formed from there is what forged their relationship that lasted over a century.

The book alternates between the voices of Portia and Alice. I could not help but be drawn to their strong but lady-like characteristics. Their historical significance is one to notice as it shows their influential relevance as they navigated their famous title of American daughters during their roles as wives, mothers, and women facing various relevant life issues that many of which still apply today.

Portia’s husband, Sid Pittman, was a source of trouble that I knew Portia should have avoided. Although I could sympathize with his internal struggle as his father-in-law, Mr. Washington, mentioned to his daughter, Portia about the challenges that men of color in an industry where “Negro men have never gotten to do before.” I am sure that with Booker T. Washington as his father-in-law, Sid was held to a high standard and expectations were set higher than he could achieve. However, it was difficult to understand why he channeled his anger towards damaging the spirit and minds of those who loved him. As for Alice, she is supporting her husband, Nick, during his political career as he is up to become the next Speaker of the House, and a surprise adds more excitement to her unconventional marriage of convenience.

I was glad to read American Daughters, but it did not captivate me as much as I expected. I found some slow spells of dialogue that made the story longer than necessary. Additionally, I did not think ahead of how the book would end, and I felt that all I read about was what the two ladies going through. I wanted more details of the ending that matched the energy of the earlier parts of the book. The book ended leaving me with only the assumption of how their lives would unfold after the last big reveal.

Portia and Alice were remarkable women who encountered many challenges throughout their lives. They always had each other to rely on, which was inspiring to read about. My takeaway from the book is that their beginning not only benefited them and that “motherless children must stick together” but it also changed the narrative for their daughters and their bond is a testament that will live on. This was an interesting story.

The Price Of Lemon Cake by Jennifer Ashley

The Price of Lemon Cake by Jennifer Ashley
Publisher: JA/AG Publishing
Genre: Historical, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller
Rating: 3 stars
Reviewed by Fern

When Kat Holloway approaches Lady Bobby Perry and Judith Townsend to help her discover what a young aristo is getting up to in a gentleman’s club, Bobby quickly accepts, coaxing a promise of Mrs. Holloway’s stupendous lemon cake in return.

But the investigation quickly turns into more than a simple spy mission, forcing Judith to confront a painful part her past. Both Judith and Bobby must bring their own unique skills to help Kat solve the tricky and dangerous problem.

Kat Holloway turns to her two friends Lady Bobby Perry and Judith Townsend to help her. Bobby goes into a club incognito to discover if one young man is being led astray by his brother, but instead Bobby and Judith discover a few painful secrets Judith had thought was locked in her past. Will the price of Kay Holloway’s lemon cake be enough to cover this cost?

This is the second short story in this Upstairs/Downstairs series that I have read, and I must admit I enjoyed it. Set in the late 1880s I found the historical setting to be slightly romanticized but still quite believable. I also found the plot to be a lot of fun – but a small amount of disbelief really did need to be suspended. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy the story.

Despite this story being billed as part of the Kat Holloway series I was surprised but pleased this really had a lot more to do with Kat’s two friends, Bobby and Judith. Obviously, the plot couldn’t be too convoluted due to the short nature of the story, but I was very pleased with the two interweaving storylines and the way they were neatly tied up at the end. I was also glad that readers didn’t need to be familiar with the main book series – I, personally, have not read any of the full-length novels in this series – to enjoy and fully comprehend what’s happening.

For a quick introduction to the world and some of the characters this is an excellent short story. I enjoyed it and am intrigued enough to give one of the main novels a try.

Hero In Waiting by Andrew Grey

Hero In Waiting by Andrew Grey
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Contemporary, Erotic Romance, LGBTQ
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Fern

Wells Barnaby is in danger and he doesn’t even know it. After leaving the Marines, he came to live with his sister and is helping to care for his niece. When a threat from his past rears up, it puts them all in danger… and brings the one who got away back into his life.

Miller Washington served with Wells, and the two men shared an attraction that neither of them acknowledged. When Miller learns that an old enemy is on the loose and that he may come after Wells, he makes a beeline to help. But he doesn’t expect repressed desire to blaze back to life.

Between renewed attraction and an enemy who will stop at nothing to get even, Wells and Miller must navigate the heat of passion too strong for either of them to contain while not letting their guard down, in order to protect Wells’s family and their second chance.

Wells and Miller served together for many years together in the Marines. Now they’re both out and have gone their separate ways – Wells eventually back to his sister to help take care of his five-year-old niece, Giselle, and after travelling around aimlessly Miller ended up working in security. When an old enemy negotiates for his release, Miller tracks Wells down to warn him – they’re both on the same hit list now and Wells family in particular are in great danger. Can these two men finally find their way to acting on their mutual attraction?

I’m always a sucker for the returned veteran style of story and this book ticked every box for me. The chemistry between Wells and Miller sizzles right from the first page and I was really pleased that they didn’t just fall into insta-lust or jump right into bed there and then. There was plenty of friendship and trust between them from their years serving together and Miller in particular didn’t want to change that. I could also appreciate that while Wells clearly was attracted to and wanted more with Miller, with a killer lunatic hunting them down Wells’ focus was very much on his sister and niece’s protection.

I thought the author did a really good job to balance the steamy romance between the men and the main plotline. Both had a strong focus in the book, but I was pleased in particular the the plot didn’t feel shoved in there or just tacked on to make the book appear more rounded. A good amount of time and effort had gone into writing these sections of the book and that showed. This helped me really feel invested in the story as a whole and not just the sexy scenes between the two men. I cared about their relationship as a whole and the mini-family they were growing and building between them. The action and conflict with their mutual enemy added a good amount of tension and helped the story not feel too soppy or rose-tinted.

With interesting and realistic characters that I felt quite invested in and a solid plot that I felt was very well handled this was a good book. I am eagerly waiting for the next to come along.