Monday, January 23, 2017

Review: The Return by Erin Knightley

The Return (Sunnybell #2)
By: Erin Knightley
Publisher: BookShots


Mack McLeroy's star was quickly rising in the professional rodeo circuit until a horrific fall from a bull nearly killed him. Faced with the loss of income and sponsorships, and unsure if he'll even be able to recover sufficiently to return to competition, Mack returns home to Sunnybell, Texas. If he can convince his old high school girlfriend, Ashley Montoya, to use her influence as the niece of his biggest sponsor to save his gig, he might just be able to salvage his dreams of rodeo fame. The only thing he didn't count on was Ashley's ability to hold a grudge...

Following the humiliation of discovering her boyfriend Mack cheating on her, Ashley Montoya was forced to set aside her teenage heartbreak and grow up fast when she became her ALS-stricken mother's primary caregiver. Despite the intervening years she was not ready to forgive Mack when he showed up on her doorstep asking for a favor, until the spark of an idea resurrects her long-cherished dream of becoming a competitive barrel racer. She'll help Mack with his sponsorship woes but only if he'll first use his contacts to help establish her career on the professional rodeo circuit. What neither counted on was the enforced proximity reawakening feelings each though long buried, calling into question the hard-fought dreams each holds dear.

Last year I read Learning to Ride, the first Sunnybell novella and Knightley's first foray into contemporary romance. While I enjoyed it, I had some issues with the unhappy career woman trope and the hook-up between the hero and heroine which felt forced, lacking the characterization I'd come to expect from Knightley's historicals. The Return is a much stronger and more enjoyable contemporary offering. If Knightley continues to pen contemporaries of this ilk I'll happily follow this line of her career trajectory with interest.

I love a good second chances romance, and Ashley and Mack are well drawn characters, sketched with Knightley's trademark warmth and nuance. I did feel that their ages were somewhat deceptive -- Ashley and Mack have each lived a LOT of life for early twentysomethings, and their respective voices often translated older and more world weary than their actual ages on the page. That minor issue aside, is a much stronger contemporary offering from Knightley. There is history in this romance, believable romantic tension, and organic conflict, making this short offering an entertaining, satisfying way in which to while away a few hours. While I suspect I'll always gravitate towards Knightley's historicals first, she's proving to be increasingly adept at penning enjoyable contemporaries, and I look forward to seeing this series continue.

About the book:

With beating hearts and bated breath...

Ashley Montoya was in love with Mack McLeroy in high school--until he broke her heart. When an accident brings him back home to Sunnybell to recover, Ashley's determined to avoid him, but Mack can't stay away. And the more she's with him, the more she can't help but to fall into his embrace...

BookShots Flames
  • Original romances presented by JAMES PATTERSON
  • Novels you can devour in a few hours
  • Impossible to stop reading

Friday, January 20, 2017

Review: At Your Request by Jen Turano

At Your Request (Apart From the Crowd #0.5)
By: Jen Turano
Publisher: Bethany House
ASIN: B01HC1252A


Wilhelmina Radcliff once had all of New York society at her feet, her future glittering with promise. But when her father's unscrupulous business partner lost the family fortune, Wilhelmina went from social darling to wallflower, forced to seek employment as a social secretary to help keep her family afloat. When Edgar Wanamaker, once her closest friend -- and her first proposal of marriage -- appears at a ball where she is employed by the hostess, Wilhelmina is mortified. With the assistance of a few fellow wallflowers she attempts to avoid the utter humiliation of facing the one who got away. But when Edgar convinces her to give him a few moments of her time, for the sake of their once close friendship, a spark of hope rekindles in Wilhelmina's heart. Could it be that an outcast wallflower didn't miss her first, best chance at love after all?

At Your Request marks another reading first for me this year, as it is my first foray into Jen Turano's fiction. As the set up to her new Apart From the Crowd series, Wilhelmina and company's stories promise to be a clean read alternative for those who might otherwise enjoy mainstream historical romance authors such as Lisa Kleypas or Julia Quinn. I loved how Turano set up the premise of the series, as the wallflowers break social barriers and bond over their shared social ostracization. I'm also a sucker for second chance romances, and while the brief length of this novella limits reader engagement in Wilhelmina and Edgar's story, even from this brief sample it is abundantly clear that Turano is capable of telling a charming tale with warmth and humor.

Those looking for historicals with historical depth will not find that here, for At Your Request is essentially a Hallmark romantic comedy with rudimentary historical trappings for color. The dialogue lacks spark or the flavor of historical authenticity, overly formal and often clunky. That said, I believe Turano fills a unique niche within the historical fiction market, bringing humor and a contemporary sensibility to her writing that possesses great potential, leaving me curious to sample Turano's full-length fiction. The first book in the Apart From the Crowd series, Behind the Scenes, releases in April, and follows the budding romance introduced here between Wilhelmina's fellow wallflower, Permilia Griswold, and department store owner Asher Rutherford. I really enjoyed Permilia's character, and her spark-filled introduction to Asher reminded me of Mr. Selfridge -- so I am already invested in their story. At Your Request was the perfect introduction (at long last!) to Turano's lite historical romantic comedies. While not without issues, I enjoyed this sample and am curious to see how Turano's humor and heart translate to a full-length work.

About the book:

After her father lost the family fortune, Wilhelmina was cast out of the fashionable set and banished to the wallflower section. She is mortified when her friend Edgar returns to society for the first time since she rejected his proposal. Ashamed of her fall from grace, she tries to avoid him, but is there still hope for their friendship--or something more?

Monday, January 16, 2017

Review: The Warrior's Seal by Ronie Kendig

The Warrior's Seal (The Tox Files #0.5)
By: Ronie Kendig
Publisher: Bethany House


Cole "Tox" Russell and his Special Forces team were sent to Nigeria to fight Boko Haram. But when the US Ambassador contacts them with the news that VIPs have gone missing in country, the team's mission takes a drastic turn. The VIPs in question are none other than the President and First Lady of the United States, who Cole's brother just happens to be running against in a hotly contested election campaign. When the team arrives at the site of the abduction, they discover that a deadly toxin has been unleashed on the villagers, a trail of destruction that follows the terrorists' use of an ancient artifact known as the Mace of Subjugation.

Archaeologist Tzivia Khalon knows all about the mace's bloody history, but she's more concerned with assisting her mentor in getting the artifact safely loaned to Syria for the swearing-in of the new president -- and safely returned to their university. When the weapon (and her mentor) go missing, Tzivia finds herself drawn into Tox's investigation as her antiquities expertise makes her a valuable asset as Tox's team faces a foe that believes in the legendary powers of the priceless artifact. Everything Tzivia and Tox thought they knew is called into question as the mace's influence ripples through their mission to save a president -- a mission rapidly spiralling out of control.

The Warrior's Seal is my first introduction to Ronie Kendig's writing (yes, finally!). I've long been familiar with her work as I've heard friends rave about her fast-paced novels, but my gigantic to-be-read pile always got in the way -- until her first release through one of my favorite publishing houses downloaded to my Kindle. I expected action and suspense, and on that score Kendig delivers in spades. But what I didn't expect was  the historical/supernatural twist with the introduction of the mace and its impact on current geo-political events. The thirteenth-century prologue starring Tox's Templar Knight predecessor felt forced -- while an interesting concept the Crusades-era action felt rushed and detached when compared to the meticulously constructed Special Forces operation play-by-plays to come.

While some may find the combination of heart-stopping action with a dash of the supernatural to strain credulity, I have high hopes that in a full-length novel the blending of these two disparate genres will come to feel even more seamless. This is a thoroughly entertaining introduction to Kendig's writing and one of the better series intro novellas that I've read, featuring well-developed characters, high-stakes action, and a series set up that calls to mind 24 in its heyday. I cannot wait to see how Kendig develops Tox and his team, and particularly how Tzivia's archaeological endeavors are woven into the narrative. This is an entertaining way to lose an hour or two,  and as the novella is free on most e-book platforms, the risk is little while the payoff of being introduced to one who promises to fast become a favorite suspense author is priceless.

About the book:

A Special Forces team is thrust into a war with the past to save the president after an artifact unleashes a deadly toxin.

Special Forces operative Cole "Tox" Russell and his team are tasked in a search-and-rescue--the U.S. president has been kidnapped during a goodwill tour. The mission nosedives when an ancient biblical artifact and a deadly toxin wipe out villages. Tox must stop the terrorists and the toxin to save the president.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Review: Passenger by Alexandra Bracken

Passenger (Passenger #1)
By: Alexandra Bracken
Publisher: Hyperion
ISBN: 978-148471577-2


A gifted violinist, Etta Spencer has spent most of her sheltered life honing her talent and preparing for her debut, the first step being a performance at an exclusive fundraising gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rattled by a confrontation between her mother Rose, and Alice, her beloved instructor, Etta's nerves are shot when she takes the stage, her performance shattered by an inexplicable, incessant, clamoring noise. Following the sound of terrifying screams, Etta finds herself pushed through a shimmering portal by a girl she's never met, waking from her performance-induced panic to a hellish, all too real conflict. Thrust into the eighteenth century, Etta finds herself the unwilling travel companion to her mysterious kidnapper, and heir to a startling family legacy of danger and secrets the like of which she'd never suspected.

For Etta has inherited her mother's ability to travel through passages around the world into other times -- always the same date, but to different countries and time periods. As she quickly learns, those with her "gift," known as travelers, are dying out, and her familial heritage has made her a valuable commodity to Cyrus Ironwood, the ruthless head of the most powerful remaining traveling family. As a descendant of the Linden family, Cyrus wants to leverage Etta's naivete in order to force her to find and turn over her family's greatest asset, a powerful astrolabe that would give its bearer the limitless, unchecked power to rewrite history. 

Partnering with Cyrus's estranged, illegitimate grandson, former slave-turned-privateer Nicholas Carter, Etta flees through time, determined to foil Ironwood's plans and save her captive mother. But as she begins to experience the wonders and dangers of her family's incredible heritage, Etta realizes that the life she's always thought she wanted may be smaller than she'd ever realized. With all of time suddenly at her fingertips and a dashing, protective sailor with secrets of his own at her side, Etta resolves to foil Ironwood's machinations, and do more than simply pass through life and passively accept her fate. But tampering with the laws of time is a dangerous game, and the consequences of one misstep could forever alter not only her life in irrevocable ways, but the lives of all those she holds dear.

Passenger has been on my radar since I first read the raving review posted on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books shortly following its release last year. Thank GOODNESS my to-be-read pile is continually growing, as if I'd read this book last January and had to wait the ENTIRETY of 2016 for its sequel, it is highly questionable whether or not I would have survived the wait. This book this book THIS BOOK. This book is everything I ever wanted and never knew I needed in a time travel-romance-adventure. This book has everything -- EVERYTHING! -- romance, suspense, history, time travel, compelling characters, non-stop action, and does it all so well.

With Passenger, Alexandra Bracken has accomplished the exceptional feat of leaving me with nothing but raves for this gem of a novel. This is the rare novel that not only entertains (and that's putting it mildly, as this book is a non-stop page-turner) but enlightens and challenges a reader's perceptions of how history is viewed. Within the framework of this fantastical world, Bracken manages to deliver a timely treatise on race relations and perceptions through time that never feels forced or inauthentic. Nicholas and Etta's blossoming romance explores the societal ramifications and challenges of their potential relationship in a wholly organic, engaging fashion.  As a modern woman thrust into eras where she is viewed as a commodity and not an equal, Etta is forced to confront through her attraction to Nicholas the prejudices and privileges bestowed upon her by the rights of her time that she's always been able to take for granted.

This is a story begging to be made into a film, as from its opening pages it took hold of my imagination and wouldn't let go. Bracken pens her tale with a break-neck pace and a cinematic flair. Setting aside the inventive concept and the delicious, heart-stopping romance, my favorite aspect of this book has to be that it is a coming-of-age story that isn't. This is a coming-of-age -- or perhaps a more accurate description would coming-into-one's-own -- story that defies the stereotypes. For while Etta begins as a sheltered teenager, her focus and dedication to her music has, in many respects, left her better prepared for her role as a traveler than she would be were she already a more worldly-wise, typical teenager, less driven to succeed. And while her blossoming romance with Nicholas unfolds relatively quickly, Bracken gives it an extra weight and authenticity by forcing both Etta and Nicholas to confront not only their respective worldviews but the historical and societal ramifications throughout history of any potential relationship.

Passenger is a novel to savor, as in the days since completing the final pages I've found my mind often returning to Bracken's gloriously realized world. I loved seeing history unfold through Nicholas and Etta's eyes, as I could not imagine a more intrepid or better-suited pair of time travelers (the one notable exception being, of course, a certain mad man in a blue box). Theirs is a relationship of true equals, their romance all the headier for their partnership based not simply on physical attraction but a true marriage of intellectual and emotional compatibility. Though I must admit I'm somewhat loathe to start Wayfarer as I know it is the final chapter in this thrilling journey, here Bracken has crafted a world I cannot wait to return to and one I foresee revisiting often. Nicholas and Etta have joined the rarified company of characters so real, vibrant, and compelling they've carved a niche for themselves in my bookish heart.

About the book:

In one devastating night, violin prodigy Etta Spencer loses everything she knows and loves. Thrust into an unfamiliar world by a stranger with a dangerous agenda, Etta is certain of only one thing: she has traveled not just miles but years from home. And she's inherited a legacy she knows nothing about from a family whose existence she's never heard of. Until now.

Nicholas Carter is content with his life at sea, free from the Ironwoods -- a powerful family in the colonies -- and the servitude he's known at their hands. But with the arrival of an unusual passenger on his ship comes the insistent pull of the past that he can't escape and the family that won't let him go so easily. Now the Ironwoods are searching for a stolen object of untold value, one they believe only Etta, Nicholas's passenger, can find. In order to protect her, he must ensure she brings it back to them -- whether she wants to or not.

Together, Etta and Nicholas embark on a perilous journey across centuries and continents, piecing together clues left behind by the traveler who will do anything to keep the object out of the Ironwoods' grasp. But as they get closer to the truth of their search, and the deadly game the Ironwoods are playing, treacherous forces threaten to separate Etta not only from Nicholas but from her path home...forever.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Review: Catalyst by James Luceno

Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel
By: James Luceno
Publisher: Del Rey
ISBN: 978-0-345-51149-2


Spoiler alert: As this novel is a prequel to the recently-released Rogue One film, this review may contain movie spoilers!

Long before Jyn Erso led a ragtag band of rebels on a dangerous mission to steal the plans to the Death Star, her parents Galen and Lyra found themselves unwittingly caught up in Palpatine's plans to develop a monstrous weapon the like of which the galaxy had never seen -- one capable of crushing resistance -- and hope -- in a single, well-aimed beam of laser fire. As the Clone Wars wind to a close, Galen Erso, one of the Republic's most brilliant minds and an authority on energy research, is more interested in furthering his efforts to make affordable, sustainable, crystal-powered energy available to all rather than in the political machinations reshaping the galaxy outside his lab. As both he and Lyra prepare for the birth of their first child, their shared determination to foil all attempts to convince Galen to turn the potential of his altruistic research toward weaponization bring them afoul of Separatist forces.

When rescued by Orson, Galen's old school chum, the Ersos find themselves drawn back to Coruscant and deep into the heart of the newly-minted Emperor's efforts to coalesce the Empire's power. Krennic is convinced that lying within Galen's brilliant mind is the key to realizing the Emperor's desire to see a game-changing superweapon brought to life, making the Empire's reach -- and Orson's career potential -- unstoppable. But as Galen and Lyra soon learn the cost of doing business with the Empire may exact a cost neither is willing their fledgling family to pay -- but extracting themselves from the Empire's grip will require an act of well-timed rebellion that could cost them everything.

After seeing Rogue One opening weekend, I immediately started the prequel which, thanks to the holidays, took me far long to read than expected. James Luceno is well-versed in Star Wars lore given his previous releases, and this novel is no exception. Media tie-in novels often have a generally poor reputation when it comes to quality, but here Luceno delivers a meticulously executed treatise on the war between conscience versus expediency and compromise. Much like the characters introduced in Rogue One, Catalyst bridges the events between Revenge of the Sith and Rogue One by shining  a light on the regular men and women who found themselves fighting for their lives and freedom while the Republic and its Jedi guardians fell beneath the bootheel of a rising Empire determined to crush any and all opposition.

The first half of the narrative felt a tick sluggish in comparison to its conclusion, but the setup and insight it provided into Galen's character and the crisis of conscience he faces that sets the course of his daughter's life makes the payoff worthwhile. I'll be the first to confess that when the Star Wars expanded universe re-set I was disappointed, as the original expanded universe novels so wholly enriched my love of the world and characters of the films. In spite of some pacing issues, here Luceno delivers exactly what I crave in a Star Wars novel -- a character-driven tale where rebels refuse to buckle to oppression despite the overwhelming odds, one that honors the films while making the epic on-screen, on-going struggle of good versus evil even more intimate and real.

Watching Rogue One I wasn't invested in Galen's character except as to how his absence, and the choices he made, impacted Jyn's arc, even though Mads Mikkelson (SWOON) made the most of his relatively brief screentime. However, Luceno took the angst with which Mikkelson imbued his performance and translates it to the page, giving Galen a noble pathos and completing his transformation into a tragic hero of the Rebellion. The kyber crystals at the heart of Galen's energy research aren't simply a breakthrough to powering the Death Star, but a perversion of the Force, a once a critical part of the methodology used by the Jedi (powering their lightsabers) to maintain order and balance in the galaxy. While Galen's research motives were pure, in researching the power and potential of the kyber crystals he dabbled in a power far beyond his ken.

The revelation that the fearsome power of the Death Star was made possible by the perversion of an item held sacred by the Jedi is a heartbreaking twist in the Star Wars saga that frankly, I didn't see coming -- but I absolutely adored. Galen's growing horror as he realizes that his single-minded fascination with his research and the limitless possibilities of the kybers could come to stand for everything he and the Jedi abhorred broke my heart. But there's sad sort of poetic symmetry in this revelation, humanizing the conflict, a stark reminder that the thinnest of threads separates Empire and Rebellion, for they are truly two sides of the same coin. The potential for good or evil exists equally within each party, while it is the choices that define and delineate the two sides of this classic conflict between dark and light, oppression and hope.

Catalyst is an extremely worthwhile entry in the new Star Wars canon, expanding on events within the films and adding depth and heart to this world I've loved to lose myself within for over two decades. I hope that this Rogue One era in the Star Wars universe heralds a new chapter in the on-going saga focusing on the "smaller," but no less important individuals, that played galaxy-changing roles, often on the periphery of the main action, often without credit, but no less deserving of their moment in the spotlight than a Leia or Luke or Han or Rey. The perfect case in point is Luceno's conflicted smuggler with a heart of gold, Has Obitt (and I'm not just saying that because I have a weakness for dashing smugglers who remind me of Han Solo, no, not at allll... *wink*).

Luceno has delivered an intelligent, methodically unspooled, game-changing chapter that fits nicely within my favorite era of the Star Wars universe -- the period leading up to and encompassing the original trilogy. He knows how this world works and how it should feel and delivers on all fronts. And after this tantalizing glimpse into his characterization of the infamous Grand Moff Tarkin, I'm determined to go back and read his novel focusing on the rise of Tarkin's career at the first opportunity. I sincerely hope that this still-relatively new era of Star Wars publishing continues to make room within its release lists for entertaining, thought-provoking novels of this ilk that sit between the big-screen spectacles as worthy epic miniseries chapters in the on-going story. (I know 2017 has just started but seriously is it time for Episode VIII to release yet?)

About the book:

War is tearing the galaxy apart. For years the Republic and the Separatists have battled across the stars, each building more and more deadly technology in an attempt to win the war. As a member of Chancellor Palpatine's top secret Death Star project, Orson Krennic is determined to develop a superweapon before their enemies can. And an old friend of Krennic's, the brilliant scientist Galen Erso, could be the key.

Galen's energy-focused research has captured the attention of both Krennic and his foes, making the scientist a crucial pawn in the galactic conflict. But after Krennic rescues Galen, his wife, Lyra, and their young daughter, Jyn, from Separatist kidnappers, the Erso family is deeply in Krennic's debt. Krennic then offers Galen an extraordinary opportunity: to continue his scientific studies with every resource put utterly at his disposal. While Galen and Lyra believe that his energy research will be used in purely altruistic ways, Krennic has other plans that will finally make the Death Star a reality. Trapped in their benefactor's tightening grasp, the Ersos must untangle Krennic's web of deception to save themselves and the galaxy itself.