Book Review: The Keeper by Susan Woods Fisher

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Julia Lapp is going to marry Paul Fisher. They have been engaged for over two years and the time has finally come. But when Paul tells Julia that he wants to postpone the wedding for the second time her heartbreak is only surpassed by her anger. She knows exactly who has influenced Paul: The Bee Man.

He comes to their county every year, bringing his bees with him. He rents them out to farmers to help pollinate their crops and is in high demand, but he always makes time for the Lapp family and tends to spend most of his time with them.

When he arrives, Julia plans to give him a piece of her mind but the truth is that she needs the Bee Man, a.k.a Rome Troyer. Her father’s heart is weak and grows weaker each day. She and her younger siblings cannot run the farm alone. She needs Rome’s help.

Rome is more than happy to help the Lapp family. And he is truly sorry for the hurt he has caused Julia. He even consents to help make Paul jealous enough to whisk his bride down the aisle. But the longer he spends with Julia, the more he realizes he doesn’t want Paul to be the one to marry her. He wants to be the one to hold her hand for the rest of his life. He wants to be more than just the Bee Man. He wants to be a keeper.

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I have an affinity for Amish Romances, and Susan Woods Fisher rarely lets me down. However, there was a subplot in this one that made me undeniably uncomfortable.

The main storyline between Julia and Rome was a classic fake relationship trope and it worked, though it was painfully slow in coming. But in order to help keep things running at the farm, Julia’s uncle enlists the help of a housekeeper and caretaker for her father. The woman is harsh, but in true happily ever after fashion ends up becoming a loved part of the family.

Except that she incessantly fat-shames Julia’s middle sister. She actually refers to her as “the overfed one” several times in the story to her face. And while I’m sure it is supposed to be a good thing that the two of them bond and help the young girl discover her natural talents, never once–not a single time–is any apology ever made for fat-shaming her.

This young girl is so ashamed of herself that she sneaks food and cries in her room because she doesn’t look like her sisters. She laments her place in the family, the community, and life itself. And yet, this person who comes in the home and uproots her role not to mention her sense of normalcy and then name calls and further shames her is somehow seen as a mentor.

The main plot between Julia and Rome was cute enough, but in the end, the subplot left me angry and uncomfortable.

Book Review: Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

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The Big Water came. The world changed. The monsters returned. This is the Sixth World.

Maggie Hoskie is a Diné, or Navajo, monster hunter. And the reservation where she grew up is now Dinétah, a land surrounded by walls on each side to keep out those would try to colonize the land all over again. But sometimes what’s inside the walls is enough to give you nightmares.

Her mentor, a living legend who broke Maggie’s heart, abandoned her almost two years ago without another thought. She’s been hiding out, trying to put the pieces of her life back together. Unfortunately, the monsters don’t care that she’s experiencing emotional turmoil and when one of them abducts a little girl, Maggie knows what she has to do.

What Maggie finds when she tracks the little girl down is a lot of scary questions that need answers. The kind of monster she is tracking is one she has seen before–the kind that took her family from her. But this type of monster is made and someone is controlling it, and she needs to know who.

With the help of a handsome and charismatic medicine man named Kai, Maggie sets off to find the one responsible and do what she does best–kill them. But she’s up against more than just monsters. Witches, legends, and a meddling Coyote could mean she’s finally found a fight she can’t win. And if she doesn’t, the world will end. Again.

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It was hard to write that summary because no matter what I said I couldn’t do the story justice. It’s also really difficult to write coherently when I’m this excited. I’m going to take a deep breath and try not to oversell this one for you.

Deep breath. Okay. I’m ready.

This is the best thing I’ve read this year.

Let’s start with some of the things I liked. I say “some” because if I listed them all, this post would be encyclopedic in length.

I like Fantasy novels that incorporate mythology into the storyline. The trouble is, so many of the stories have been done to death. This is the first Fantasy I’ve read that uses Navajo, or more accurately Diné, mythology as its base and it was awesome. It was new (to me), it was gripping, and it sucked me in so much that now I’m counting down to April of 2019 so I can read the sequel.

Maggie is both strong and vulnerable in all the best ways. And by best I mean relatable. She knows she can kick butt, but she’s not great with people. She’s been burned and is afraid of letting people in because they might break her heart, or she might break them. But she doesn’t let that fear hold her back from her calling. With a custom grip shotgun that uses corn pollen bullets and a Böker hunting knife, she lays waste to the things that go bump in the night. I also love her sense of humor.

The supporting cast is lovable, flawed, and full of depth. It wouldn’t shock me at all if fanfiction involving Tah or Clive starting popping up in the near future. And Maggie isn’t the only woman who can hold her own. Grace and her daughter Rissa are smart, capable women who nobody would ever dare call damsels.

Clan powers. They’re super cool.

Okay, now that it’s getting harder and harder to rein in the gushing, let me talk about a couple of things I didn’t like.

When Maggie first begins to track the monster, she has flashbacks to when another monster hurt her. She has already mentioned that sometimes humans are the worst monsters of all. For a moment, I was afraid the flashback was going to allude to some sort of sexual assault. The kind that makes me put a book down. Luckily, I was so determined to read this book that I’d been excited about since I first saw the blurb go up on Goodreads that I kept going and discovered it was a flashback of a trauma, but not one of a sexual nature. However, if this easily triggers you, please be careful in the first couple of chapters while she hunts for the little girl and her captor.

The relationship that Maggie has with her mentor is understandable based on her backstory, but when you finally meet him he bears the stench of an abuser. Emotionally and in at least one specific instance physically, though they were in a fighting ring at the time. I concede that this may be because of who he is in Diné mythology, and since I know so little about him I didn’t know to expect it. In any case, be aware that there is an emotionally abusive relationship on the page. It is not a romanticized one, but it is there.

Those were my sticking points.

Part of me really wants to see this one made into a movie if for nothing else than to watch the scene where Clive helps Maggie get ready for The Shalimar. Also, I now solidly believe that mocassins are superior footwear for monster slayers. I want to see more of that.

If you’ve been seeing this book mentioned on social media or on Goodreads, but weren’t really sure if you should give it a shot, I encourage you to go for it.

Book Review: Short-Straw Bride by Karen Witemeyer

I read a book (not this one) last week that I should have DNF’d. I didn’t. I had nightmares. A lot of them. I was not okay. This is why some of us who review books provide trigger warnings if we can.

To be honest, I cannot review that book. I could tell you about the well-developed characters and the way trauma was handled in the book, but I can’t bring myself to think that hard about certain plot elements right now. Maybe soon. Maybe never. I’m sorry.

After I finished that book, I needed a palate cleanser. Actually, I needed three, but I started with this one.

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Meredith Hayes knows that people trespass on Archer land at their own peril. The Archer men have secluded themselves for over a decade, ever since their father died, and do not take kindly to strangers. But Meredith also knows that Travis Archer, the eldest, has a kind and compassionate side because he helped her when she most needed it. So when she overhears a plot to burn them off their ranch, forcing them to sell the land, she feels she owes it to Travis to warn him.

Meredith arrives in time to warn the boys, but not without consequence. Suffering from a kick to the head by a fire-frightened mule, she is cared for by the Archers while she recovers. The only problem is that society doesn’t care why she was without a chaperone in a house full of men, her reputation is shattered and her guardian will not allow her to come home because of it. There is only one thing to restore her good name–she must marry an Archer.

Travis is the eldest and the only one who has known Meredith more than the three days it has been since she arrived with her warning. When he and his brothers draw straws to see who will marry her, he makes sure he’s the one who ends up with the short straw. It’s his responsibility, that’s all–or so he tells himself.

But the Archers aren’t in the clear yet. Someone still wants their land and will go to great lengths to get it. Travis and Meredith both want to protect the Archer ranch, but their desire to protect each other scares them far more than any villain ever could. Meredith knows that Travis feels responsible for her, but what she wants is to be more than just a short-straw bride.

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This book was pretty cute on the whole. It was a clean, Christian Romance. If any of those words make you cringe, move on. For me, it was a good book to follow the One That Shall Not Be Reviewed. I enjoyed it, but it isn’t perfect, so I’ll still give you my usual breakdown.

First, the things I liked.

It was a clean read. After the “other book”, I needed that. Romance needed to be sweet and good again.

It’s a period piece set in post Civil War Texas, but it doesn’t pretend that the population of Texas was monochromatic or fair. There is a counterpoint to this coming, so don’t do a happy dance just yet.

Meredith has a disability that stems from a physical trauma in her childhood. While there are characters (never her love interest) who call her names, she is not written as a weaker character or one who laments her injury. It’s not a lot, and there are times that I don’t like the way it’s addressed, but there are so few main characters with any sort of physical disability that I have to appreciate this one.

The dog doesn’t die. The horses don’t die. I know it’s a stupid thing, but I needed this book to be a happy one. And any book that has an animal companion bite the dust is not a happy book. Where the Red Fern Grows almost undid me as a child.

Now, for the other side of the coin.

The non-white characters are few and all serve the same trope-y purpose. They are the hardworking mentor types with very little presence apart from that. So while I’m glad that there is no “white savior”-ness to the story, the old stereotypes are still present.

Also, there is only one type of non-white character. There is a settlement of Black “freedmen”, but there is no evidence in this Texas town of a Latinx population or a Native one. I find that improbable at best and erasure at worst. I don’t think it was intentional on part of the author to do so, but I think by pointing it out in books like this, perhaps more authors will be more intentional about inclusivity.

Meredith is treated as weaker by some of the characters because of her disability. It grated on my nerves, but I think that was intentional. Still, I point it out because if that is going to be upsetting to anyone, I’d like for you to know going in.

It is not at all thematic in the book, but there are a couple of lines in different chapters that had the echo of fat-shaming. It annoyed me more than offended me and it was fleeting, but it was there.

All in all, I still thought it was cute. And it was a good palate cleanser. Though, to be honest, I followed it up with two more for which reviews are coming. Seriously, that one book messed me up and I needed a chance to recover from it. Especially since I needed to be ready for the debut of Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse that came out this week. You’ll be happy to know that I’m all through with my palate cleansing and was able to dive into ToL on the day of its debut. I’ll be reviewing that in a future post as well.

Book Review: Hounded (Iron Druid Chronicles #1) by Kevin Hearne

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Atticus O’Sullivan leads a simple life. He runs an occult bookshop in Arizona where he sells specialty teas and is mostly sought out by local college kids who want to know if any of his special herbs are actually weed. At home, he is kept company by his Irish Wolfhound and an aging Irish widow from down the street. It’s a quiet existence for someone who still looks young enough to be in college alongside his clientele, but it’s all a deception.

Atticus is an anglicized name he took long ago. He’s actually twenty-one centuries old, and the last living Druid in existence. A fact that still irks one particular Irish deity to no end. And that deity, Aenghus Og, is about to catch up to him. Aenghus wants a mystical sword that Atticus is hiding, one that would give him untold power and a chance to take over his entire pantheon. Atticus has no choice but to protect the sword. But he can’t do it alone.

The druid must call upon his friends–his werewolf and vampire attorney team, a bartender possessed by a Hindu witch, and the Chooser of the Slain–to help him face his nemesis. Their two millennia dance has been fun, but enough is enough. Atticus knows that this time it’s him or Aenghus Og, and he’s not ready to die just yet.

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I had a fabulous time reading this book. It was such a fun read that in an effort not to oversell it, I’m going to have to start with the things I didn’t like.

Most of the characters are of Irish, Polish, or Scandinavian origin, so even though they’re hanging out in Arizona, there is an overabundance of European white people. Even the Hindu witch has possessed a red-headed white girl. The cast is mostly monochromatic.

I’m sure that in over 2,000 years, Atticus has learned to work it, but over half the women he meets want to bed him. It started to be more comical than sexy. To be clear, I wasn’t upset about this, I just gave it an eye roll here and there. It was still worth the laughter.

There is more than one possession in the book, and I’ll have to be vague here to keep from spoiling anything, but one of them made me feel terrible for the possessee (is that a word?). The situation tried to be smoothed out, but there was only so much that Atticus could do. I didn’t like it, but it added a depth of character for Atticus. He’s not an altruistic hero. He’s more of a gray area type of main character, and it makes him more interesting.

So there were upsides to a few of the things I wasn’t crazy about. Now to the things I enjoyed.

The humor in this book is sprinkled through in such a way, that I never really stopped giggling. Even though heavy stuff was discussed, I never felt weighed down by it. I don’t need a palate cleanser book to help me recover from the gravity of it all. It was funny in all the right ways.

Oberon. The Irish Wolfhound is more than a companion animal, he’s a great character. He might actually be my favorite character. If someone bought me the stuffed Oberon from Kevin Hearne’s website, I wouldn’t complain.

The widow. She’s amazing. I hope there is more of her in books to come. If she dies at some point in the series, don’t tell me yet. I don’t think my heart could take it. Seriously, if it happens I will straight up ugly cry.

The battle scenes are not drawn out in ridiculous ways. The majority of fights in books and film are way too long compared to the average length of a fight in real life. But in Hounded, I never felt that the battles were unrealistic in length. Also, there is more mental maneuvering at play here. I loved that. Some of the battles are those of wit. My favorite kind.

Also, since I’ve been pretty open on my blog before that I’m a Christian, I’d like to add one more. I appreciate the way my religion is acknowledged by Atticus. It is not my deity that he doesn’t care for, it’s the people (we, the followers) who are the problem. I actually couldn’t agree more on that point.

There are other things I could gush over, but spoilers. I loved this book. I can’t wait to read the next one in the series. Beyond that, I’m signing up for Kevin Hearne’s newsletter and will eagerly look for more of his work to devour.

Highly recommend.

 

Book Review: The Rogue Retrieval by Dan Koboldt

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Quinn Bradley is a Vegas magician. His dream in life is to headline at a casino on the strip and he’s finally got a shot to make the big time–until a powerful and mysterious corporation blocks him out. They want him to themselves, to go through a secret portal into another world and impersonate a guild magician in order to retrieve a rogue official. The problem is that in this new world, magicians aren’t illusionists, but wield real power and the penalty for impersonating one is death.

Quinn goes through the portal with the others on the mission, but things go wrong from the start. A dragon attack, a pack of wild dogs, a closed portal, loss of communication with the company on the other side, and a trap waiting for them, and that’s just the first day. They chase a ghost through groups of mercenaries and highwaymen only to find the rogue official is already three steps ahead. And Quinn pays the price when the magicians guild captures him.

In a strange and fortuitous turn of events, the magician who captures Quinn senses a spark of true magic in him. Instead of immediate execution, the guild gets to see what Quinn has to offer. If he can convince them he’s more than just razzle-dazzle he gets to keep his life, but he needs to do so before another group of rogues kills his comrades and destroys the portal, locking him in this strange world forever.

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This was a good book. The characters were well-developed. Some plot points were predictable, but they were done with flair. I would recommend it to a lot of the readers I know. It didn’t quite grasp me the way I hoped it would, but I can’t put my finger on why.

First, the things I liked about the book.

Genre-bending. Is it Fantasy? Is it is Science Fiction? The truth is this story sports a little of both and I love that.

A cast that isn’t lily white or without distinctive character voices. There were two characters with similar voices, but they were still distinctive enough not to be confused. I like when characters aren’t cardboard cutouts of each other just taking up space in the background. I cared about each character’s struggles.

There were unanswered questions that didn’t make the novel into something that couldn’t stand alone, but left enough room so that the sequels (it is the first in a series) make sense and already have a pull.

Not everyone magically survives battles, wars, or thugs and those that do aren’t unscathed emotionally. It feels more real when the characters have scars.

Now for the things I wasn’t so keen on.

The admiration Chaudri has for Holt and the questions about their relationship allude to a workplace romance. I dislike the colleague romance tropes. It’s just not my thing. To be fair, it seems pretty one-sided and not like an abuse of power.

I like romantic subplots and there was one here, but it was an afterthought. That is a plus for a lot of readers. More power to you.

That’s pretty much it. It has a lot going for it, and I suspect if I read it on a different week than I did (I was busy and distracted) I’d have loved it instantly. And truthfully, I care enough about the characters that I’m still interested in the sequels. So when I say it didn’t grip me, don’t let that turn you off. I stand by my first statement. It’s a good book.

Book Review: Prophecy by Lea Kirk

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When an alien race attacks Earth and decimates the population, Alexandra Bock is caught in the crossfire. Captured and locked up with a small group of survivors intended for sale on the intergalactic slave market, she comes face to face with her least favorite thing–more aliens.

Gryf Helyg is part of the Matiran Guardian Fleet that has protected Earth for millennia. Betrayed by one of his own, Gryf is captured in the defeat of the fleet and is locked up with the very people he failed to protect–Earthlings.

Alexandra and Gryf get off to a rocky start, but it soon becomes apparent that their connection is more than tangential. They are each one half of a twelve-thousand-year-old prophecy about the protection, or destruction, of both Earth and Matir. To fulfill the prophecy the two have to bond their souls, forever tying their lives and their fates together. Gryf would do anything to protect Earth, but Alexandra quickly realizes more than her planet is on the line. Their bond could be a blessing to both their people, but it could also break her heart.

If Alexandra can overcome her fear and Gryf can maintain a level head, the two of them could save both their planets. If not, both of their races will be annihilated. But no pressure or anything.

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I love a good sci-fi romance. This book had all of the parts of the equation. Aliens, both good and bad. Rescue missions. Intergalactic stakes. A heroine with bite. But each fell just a little bit short.

The book felt more like a season of a television show than a book. About every three chapters a problem was solved in a very episodic fashion, and with the breaks in between the story was choppy. There was potential, and of course, the story isn’t a Thriller, so the characters have to have a chance to react, but these characters begin a tryst on the outer border of their safe zone while the Watch looks on. They don’t take the threat seriously enough. I have seen this advice given to writers, so I think the intentions were good, but I don’t think the advice was applied to the book’s best advantage.

The Matirans are altruistic in the desire to protect Earth without anything in return. There is no trade, no tax, nothing from Earth–the planet doesn’t even know they exist. There is some weak DNA link from thousands of years ago, but it’s a weak argument for millennia of military resources and maneuvers, so the backstory and premise for their presence are weak.

Also, *Trigger Warning* one of the antagonists is a sexual predator. He impregnates a fifteen-year-old girl. He carves his initials in his victims’ skin to mark them as his possessions. He doesn’t make a lot of appearances, but it’s enough. It definitely affected my overall impression and opinion of the story.

As for our heroine, her bite was muzzled early on and she gives the reins to the Matirans without much fight. She also convinces her new extraterrestrial friends that their tradition of letting the woman make the first move in a relationship isn’t attractive to Earth women.

Your mileage may vary. Maybe this is up your alley. I won’t judge. But it wasn’t my cup of tea.

And to be clear, I’m not saying the author isn’t talented. Her concept for the story was intriguing, in the end, I just thought it could have been executed better, and perhaps without some of the more problematic elements.

Book Review: Leaving Oxford by Janet W. Ferguson

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A year ago, Sarah Beth LeClair was a rising star in her advertising firm in LA, living in Malibu, and living with her doctor boyfriend. But then the accident happened. After that, the freeways, the memories, and the ghosts of LA were too much and Sarah Beth moved back home to Oxford, MS.

Still an advertising prodigy, she’s gainfully employed, but Sarah Beth has a secret. Her anxiety about driving on a highway is so debilitating that she can’t leave Oxford. When she gets outside the city limits, she has a panic attack. So she doesn’t leave.

Oxford is also home to the University of Mississippi, or Ole Miss, and the cutest offensive coordinator of any football team in history. Jess McCoy’s career is on the rise, too. Ever since he decimated his shoulder playing college ball and realized he couldn’t play pro, he’s wanted to coach in the NFL. And the opportunity is right around the corner.

The only problem for Jess is that he meets the beautiful and captivating Sarah Beth and begins to have feelings for her that he’s never experienced before. Suddenly, the thought of leaving Oxford isn’t quite as appealing as it was before…

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Real talk: a year ago I would have loved and adored most of this book (I would have still had a bone to pick, but more on that later). I wanted to love it now. I’m from Mississippi. Ole Miss is the rival to my own alma mater, but I could let that go for the sake of a cute, clean, Christian romance set in my home state. But it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Sigh.

There are several things it had going for it. It had a fun meet cute. It was clean. It was Christian based fiction, which I know is not a pull for a lot of people, but I’m a Christian and I like it. Football. Mississippi. A ridiculous and adorable dog.

A year ago the only thing that would have gotten on my nerves was some of what she wrote about coaching. My family is heavily involved in college sports. In the acknowledgments, Ferguson thanks former members of the Ole Miss coaching staff, so I know she at least asked a few questions. However, there were some inaccuracies that the average reader might not have noticed. Because college athletics were a part of the livelihood of my home for many years, I noticed.

Still, I could have gotten over that. Most people, even hardcore college football fans in Mississippi would have skimmed over it without much thought. I could swallow that. And a year ago, I might have. But after studying crafting and editing blogs and learning to look beyond my own perspective, there are some other things that don’t quite work for me.

Some of the dialogue feels stilted or in the wrong character voice. It’s a small thing, but it happens in several places and suggests an editing issue. And it’s not the only one.

Oxford, MS has never been this white. Is it possible that Sarah Beth’s social circle and the staff she interacts with at Ole Miss, and her office building in LA are all (except one Latino man) white? Yes, it’s possible. But when she writes about Oxford, she talks about driving through or around different areas of town and never acknowledges any character, and I mean anyone who is Black. That’s hard to swallow. The population of Mississippi is nearly 40% Black. That number gets higher in certain areas of the state. The university staff as a whole is about 30% Black. So to write a book set entirely in Oxford, Mississippi and not have a single Black character is at best incomplete. And neither the author nor anyone in the editing and publishing process seemed to notice.

I don’t have anxiety. Sarah Beth’s reluctance to accept her diagnosis and her struggle regarding using prescribed medications could be true to form. I don’t know. But the author’s treatment of diversity makes me think that a sensitivity reader should probably have been called in for this too.

I’m not trying to rip Ms. Ferguson apart. I’m saying that this book had potential, but fell short. It still has some cute scenes. I loved her line about how Mississippians feel about North Carolina and the return zinger. But I feel like this reads more like a manuscript draft than a polished and published novel.