Cryptid Bits by Jess Simms

Cryptid Bits by Jess Simms
Publisher: Last-Picked Books
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal, Contemporary
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Cryptids. At the movies and at the bar, cryptids. In china shops and running for office, cryptids. Cryptids, cryptids everywhere.

Mythical beings need to earn a living, too!

The world building was incredible. Getting glimpses of so many different residents, notable spots, and moments in time in this neighborhood gave me a well-rounded understanding of what it would be like to visit The Fairy District if it were a real place. If the author ever decides to write a sequel, I’d love to dive even more deeply into the many different species that call this area home and how they are being affected by human gentrification.

I would have loved to see more character development. Meeting the characters was a memorable experience, but there was never a lot of time to get to know most of them better due to how brief each section was and how many different folks there were to meet. Louise, a local mortician, was one such creature that I wish I could have had more time with as she seemed to have a fascinating life as an undertaker. This pattern was the only thing holding me back from choosing a full five-star review.

Some of this flash fiction was written in the style of online news articles or reviews of different businesses. What made these pieces even more unique were the comments included by various members of the community and visitors who had strong opinions about the event, business, or topic being discussed. I loved the originality of these sections, especially when it came to the many types of feedback that can be shared in such places. A kind commenter might be immediately followed by someone who had a harsher perspective, but the variety of it all made it feel incredibly realistic.

Cryptid Bits was delightfully creative. I can’t wait to read more from this author.

Breakout by Richard Stark

Breakout by Richard Stark
Publisher: The University Of Chicago Press
Genre: Contemporary, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Fern

With Parker locked up and about to be unmasked, Breakout follows his Houdini-like escape from prison with a team of convicts. But when a new heist and new dangers—con artists, snitches, busybodies, eccentrics, and cops—loom among the dark alleys and old stone buildings of the big city to which they’ve fled, Parker soon learns that not all prisons have bars.

When a rope-in caused a pharmaceutical heist to go sour, Parker finds himself locked up. Segregated away from his two – far more reliable – co-conspirators Parker needs some luck and careful planning to select his next crew. A crew which will help him break out of the prison they all currently find themselves situated in. Can Parker turn his luck around?

I have enjoyed each and every novel in this series so far and I was thrilled that this book was no exception. Like all the other novels, this caper of Parker’s is written in a quite gritty, lean and hard-boiled manner – the story pared back to the basic essentials. And what a joy it is to find such a lean style of heist adventure. Absolutely none of the previous books are needed to be read to thoroughly enjoy this. I admit I adore this series and am glad to know all the history, but in this world of heists and criminals not much of a connection or history is needed between any of the characters really.

The plot itself is fairly simple, but I do love how Stark winds it all together and creates this vivid landscape with just the bare essentials. It’s a real talent and it’s a key element in all the Parker novels. I also really love how even though the characters work together, and there is a certain amount of loyalty there, at heart they are all individuals working toward a common goal or a shared venture. That dichotomy – separate and discreet people working cohesively together but at the same time each an island to themselves – is a real pleasure to read.

While the theme is fairly hard – there is no glossing over this is a bunch of criminals performing criminal acts – it still manages to be fairly clear and without much emotional baggage to weigh it down. There is no titillation or instability to the crimes and no glorifying or dwelling on the violence. And in many respects, I find that makes reading about it easier and nowhere near as heavy as it could be.

A classic hard-boiled style of heist novel, this is an excellent read and part of a larger series I absolutely love.

Beyond Mortal Bounds – Memoir of a Ghost by Gina Easton

Beyond Mortal Bounds – Memoir of a Ghost by Gina Easton
Publisher: Touch Point Press
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal, Romance, Contemporary, Historical
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Heather Radcliffe, a successful author, is approached by Fiona, a ghost, to write Fiona’s memoir. What follows is a tale of love, betrayal, madness and the quest for atonement. It is the story of two women—one living, one dead—and the man they both love . . . and the issue of love’s ability to endure beyond death itself.

Death is the beginning, not the end.

The dialogue was smooth and believable. Often I could tell who was speaking before I finished the sentence because of how uniquely the two main characters were written. As much as they had in common, there were important differences between them that influenced how they spoke. It takes a lot of work to pull something like this off, so I must acknowledge the effort there and share my gratitude for it. This is the sort of flourish in a story that makes reading even more enjoyable than it already is.

I was surprised by how quickly Heather believed the ghosts who approached her for help. As much as I liked her innocent and trusting personality, there were times when I wondered why she didn’t make any efforts to verify what she was told and only spent a small amount of time trying to protect herself from anything in the spirit world that might try to attach itself to her. There was one scene that described a ritual she went through after talking to spirits in order to discourage them from sticking around. This reader was fascinated by that process and wished that the protagonist had spent more time describing it as well as taking additional precautions to protect herself from spirits she was still getting to know.

Some of the most memorable moments in my opinion were the ones that explored Heather’s previous lifetimes and how they helped to explain why her personality clicked so well with certain people she met in her most recent body. Reincarnation is an interesting explanation for why this happens, especially when it is explored in fiction that shows how those individuals knew each other in previous lives and why their fates have remained so tightly entwined. This is a trope I’m always happy to discover in books, and I thought Ms. Easton made good use of it here.

Beyond Mortal Bounds: Memoir of a Ghost was satisfying.

The Succubus’s Prize by Katee Robert

The Succubus’s Prize by Katee Robert
Publisher: Trinkets and Tales LLC
Genre: Erotic Romance, LGBTQ, Paranormal, Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Dicentra

Belladonna was born wrong. At least that’s what her parents, religious community, and even her beloved sister believe. Walking away from the church hasn’t helped her come to terms with her purpose in life, and when her sister is diagnosed with cancer, Belladonna has nowhere to turn…until a demon offers her a deal.

After agreeing, nothing is like she expects. There’s no fiery hell to speak of. Her soul seems to still be her own. All she’s required to do is serve. When she’s auctioned off to Rusalka, a powerful and ruthless succubus, her confusion only grows. Rusalka surprises her at every turn, even refusing to allow Belladonna to bear a child that would benefit the entirety of their territory.

Rusalka has sacrificed everything for their people. There are no lengths they won’t go to as leader…but they see something of themself in Belladonna, a familiarity that tempts beyond anything they could have dreamed. They want to keep her.

But if Belladonna can’t release her shame and step into a future where she’s living for herself instead of in service to others… Things may be over even before they begin.

I will basically read any romance books that Katee Robert writes with a fantasy element at this point, so it was a no-brainer that I picked up The Succubus’s Prize (fourth book in the A Deal with a Demon series) as soon as it was released through Kindle Unlimited. While the book maintains the author’s trademark spice and romance, she also does a great job bringing deep emotional scenes into such a short story.

If you’ve been following the series, you’ll know that bargainer demon Azazel brought five human women to the demon realm to be auctioned off to each territory’s leader in the hopes of brokering peace throughout the realm. A disclaimer for those who might not have followed the series: all of the humans made their deals of sound mind, got things out of the deal, and have protections in place such that they cannot be harmed by the respective territory leader. Some of the choices were random, however things worked a little differently for Rusalka, leader of the succubi and incubi as Azazel basically said you need to pick this specific human (Belladonna). Belladonna has been traumatized in the past, and Azazel felt that the succubi powers of sensing emotions would be the best fit to help her (compared to those of the gargoyles, kraken, or dragons). Despite that advantage, the two of them have a lot to work through before they can make true headway in the relationship (and hopefully have a child to strengthen the territory in the future).

Prior to the release of the book, the author made it clear on social media that the book deals with a lot of religious trauma. Belladonna was raised to believe she was bad because she was queer, and that she was only of value if she was of use to others. Even the deal Belladonna made that brought her to the demon realm was a sacrifice in service of someone else. Rusalka and the others in the Insomnior Court worked hard to gently get Belladonna to be more comfortable in expressing what she wants and coming out of the indoctrination her family overwhelmed her with. They also gave her the space to make sure what she was saying was what she wanted, even if they were unsure about it themselves. There were definitely some uncomfortable moments, but as a reader it was a great experience to get to see Belladonna’s journey of healing and growth. Things do feel like they end a bit abruptly given the length of the book, but I loved the epilogue and I hope we get to see more of these characters in the future.

If you’re looking for a quick monster romance book you can finish in an afternoon, this would be a great choice for you. However, if you’re looking for a longer romance tale, complete with extensive worldbuilding and more in-depth character development you might be better served looking at another title on the author’s backlist instead. We got more glimpses of Azazel and their relationship with Eve, so I’m super excited for when the final installment in the series The Demon’s Queen will come out in 2025.

Mrs. Holloway’s Christmas Pudding by Jennifer Ashley

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

December 1882

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sinister Sort by L.M. Harper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Loving Georgia Caldwell by Victoria Chatham

*Loving Georgia Caldwell by Victoria Chatham
Publisher: BWL Publishing, Inc.
Genre: Contemporary, Romance
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Larkspur

Professional football was Ty Harding’s life. Injury and age ended it. Now what? Returning to the family ranch after two decades to decide his future, he finds it in crisis. His mother needs help, and Ty’s ranching skills are rusty. His only recourse is his high school sweetheart, who runs the adjoining property.

Georgia Caldwell manages her thriving spread and competes in team cattle penning. She has little room for anything more, especially an injured football hero. She only agrees to give Ty Harding a crash course in Ranching 101 because of what they once had.

Ty is captivated by the strong woman Georgia has become. Is her busy life the reason she keeps her distance from him, or is it something else? Could whatever she is hiding keep them apart, or can Ty become the man Georgia needs for them to rekindle what they once had?

This is a small town story with a lot of heart. The characters are realistic, vulnerable and easy to connect with.

Ty is a former football player trying to figure out what his life without football looks like. He returns home and wonders if he can still fit into small town life. Even though many things have changed, Ty still finds himself attracted to Georgia, his former girlfriend. Since Ty has left, Georgia has learned to be tough and work hard. She knows how to take care of herself and has made sacrifices to help others.

I enjoyed reading Ty and Georgia’s story and I thought they were perfect for each other. The story is engaging and I was happy Ty and Georgia had a chance to be together again because they deserve to be happy.

Raven’s Song by Angela Knight

Raven’s Song by Angela Knight
Publisher: Changeling Press
Genre: Contemporary, Erotic Romance, Paranormal
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Fern

Raven Garland is a rock star with a voice that is literally magical. She’s also got a serious problem: she’s being stalked by her ex. Ewan Bradley’s magical abilities and powerful father make him a deadly threat, forcing her to hire a seductive bodyguard with powers of his own. Nate Carter can use his Primo magic to increase his physical strength to superhuman levels — and he needs every bit of that power to keep Raven alive. Besides her nasty ex, there’s the lethal costar with anger issues and a mystical link to a bulletproof tiger.

To make matters worse, Nate is slowly falling in love with his client. The passion seems mutual, but Raven’s love affairs have a notoriously short shelf life. For all his strength, Nate doesn’t think he can take becoming her latest fling. Raven wants her handsome bodyguard as far more than a temporary lover, but how can she convince him to trust her when he knows her magical voice can make him believe whatever she wants? Nate knows in real life, the good guy doesn’t always get the girl.

Raven Garland has a voice that is literally magical. Her only problem is she’s being stalked by her ex who is a powerful talent. And with a lethal co-start and other assorted problems on her plate Raven knows she can’t handle it all on her own. So Raven has hired a magical bodyguard – Nate Carter – and he will need every ounce of his superhuman skills to keep her safe. But Nate isn’t sure there’s anything he can do to protect his heart around the seductive rock star.

I found this to be an interesting paranormal story set in a creative magical alternate reality. While I haven’t previously read any of this authors books set in this world, I found it fairly easy to understand the various magical powers and follow along with the story-telling. Personally, I found I didn’t need to read anything else previously written in this universe – I thought the author did a good job of explaining everything – but I could understand if some readers needed a moment to follow along.

I was really impressed that this erotic romance had a solid and complicated plot. I enjoyed the fact that Raven and Nate didn’t simply give in to their feelings for each other immediately and jump into bed. I also appreciated this wasn’t a case of insta-lust, the two of them having worked together for a while before when the book starts. And while sure, there’s plenty of steamy sex and chemistry between the two main characters, I didn’t feel this detracted at all from the plot or the layers to the story itself. I thought the author did a really good job of balancing this book focusing equally on the growing romance, chemistry and plot. While I did feel the pace of the story was a little slow in sections overall, I thought the whole book moved along at a good clip and I definitely feel this should retain most readers attention throughout.

Readers looking for a different, interesting and magical world style of paranormal story should find this book really fits the bill. While there are other books set in this world this can easily be picked up by itself and this is an author, I’d certainly be happy to read more from. Recommended.

Midnight Ruin by Katee Robert

Midnight Ruin by Katee Robert
Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Genre: Erotic Romance, LGBTQ, Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Dicentra

Eurydice Dimitriou has always been the innocent sister, but she’s finally ready to step out of the long shadow cast by her powerful family…and the ex who shattered her heart. Perhaps rough hands on soft skin are exactly what she needs to forget her heartbreak once and for all?

Charon Ariti has been Hades’s right-hand man for years. He’s given everything to the lower city, but now he’s ready to take something for himself. He’s only too happy to give Eurydice a special kind of education…but is her heart really free enough to be claimed?

Orpheus Makos will do whatever it takes to make things right. Once the golden boy of the upper city, he’s now a shadow of his former self. He’ll do anything to get Eurydice back…even if it means she’s not coming into his arms alone. Three hearts. Three futures. Countless ways to get it wrong.

But with enemies slipping through Olympus’s faltering barrier to lay siege on the lower city, a trio of broken hearts will be the least of these would-be lovers’ worries…

Katee Robert’s next book in the Dark Olympus series, Midnight Ruin, was just as good as the previous installments. Focusing on Charon, Eurydice, and Orpheus in another very loose reimagining of the original Greek myths, the book takes place in the lower city (a.k.a. Hades’ domain) with the violence in Olympus coming to a fever pitch.

If you’ve been following along with the series, you’ll know that there are major forces at work trying to destabilize the city (and likely prepare it to be invaded). There is a major reveal in this book regarding who those forces are led by, and they make a major move to challenge the power players in the city (a.k.a. the Thirteen). I’m super excited to see where that goes, and how the eventual climax of the conflict plays out. The worldbuilding of each book in the series has been building off of each other; while the plots of each book are constructed such that one could theoretically read them out of order, I do recommend reading in order for the best experience (especially with the events that have been building since the third book in the series).

I really loved the growth and dynamics between our three main characters. Eurydice, unlike Helen/Ares, has been underestimated and babied her entire life. After Orpheus initially broke her heart with his actions, Charon was the one to help her put the pieces back together. However, neither Eurydice nor Orpheus were ready to give the other up as there were a lot of unresolved feelings there. It ends up becoming a polyamorous triangle where both men are in love with her (and eventually grow to love each other). As a reader, it was really enjoyable to see. And of course, as a reminder for those who may not have read a Katee Robert book before, I do want to warn you that the spiciness rating is very high and there are multiple explicit and intimate lovemaking scenes scattered throughout the book.

Overall, this was another excellent read that’s left me excited for more. After how this book ended, I can’t wait to read Ariadne and the Minotaur’s story in Dark Restraint when it comes out later this year. Audiobook narrators Alex Moorcock and Zara Hampton-Brown did an excellent job once again bringing multiple perspectives to life with the performances. If you love polyamorous love triangles (like the previous one in the series in Wicked Beauty) or any romance influenced by Greek mythology, you’ll enjoy this book.

CONTENT WARNINGS: Violence, Murder, Blood, Guns, Pregnancy (not the heroine/main character), Abortion (not the heroine/main character)

Sleuthing the Klondike by Joan Donaldson-Yarmey

Sleuthing the Klondike by Joan Donaldson-Yarmey
Publisher: BWL, Inc (Books We Love, Inc)
Genre: Historical Mystery/Suspense/Thriller
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Chamomile

Helen Castrel and her lady’s maid, Mattie Lewis, have just arrived in Victoria, British Columbia, from England. Helen hires Detective Baxter Davenport to go with them to Dawson City and help find her brother David, who was sent to Canada as a remittance man ten years ago. Mattie has come along to look after Helen and also because she has her own motive to find David.

The last word the family had from David, he was on his way to the Klondike gold rush at Dawson City. Before they leave Victoria Helen and Baxter discover that a man had been killed the summer before and had never been identified. They wonder if he was David.

But Helen is determined to find her brother alive and the three head north armed with an old photograph and a recent description provided by David’s former landlady. When they arrive in Dawson City, the gold rush is in full swing and they are challenged by deceit, fraud, and danger in their quest to find David.

This one starts off with an interesting twist and pulled me along for an exciting ride! It’s not often that a mystery can keep me guessing until the final pages, but this one does just that!

Helen and Baxter make for an unusual pair, but as the story picks us their teamwork, along with the help of some friends, provides for a wonderful search for the truth. When all hope seems lost, a new clue or twist will put them back on the hunt. I loved meeting the cast in this one and enjoyed the storytelling.

Joan Donaldson-Yarmey is a new author to me, and I’d not heard of the Canadian / Alaskan mystery books that inspired and included this story before picking this one up but love the idea and am so glad I got to read this one!