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Begin Again

Christy Newton. Crimson Romance, $4.99 e-book (111p) ISBN 978-1-4405-71633

Having lost her husband and child in a tornado, smalltown waitress Maisie Scott tends to avoid personal connections. But when veterinarian Ryan Tucker, new to his practice and to Pleasant Valley, Ind., sits at her counter to enjoy apple pie, Maisie‘s heart skips a beat. Ryan has reservations about starting a new relationship after his fiancé left him, but sees something special in Maisie and determines to gently woo her. In a scant 100 pages, Maisie overcomes her fear of commitment by adopting several animals, going to bed with Ryan, and buying a house, while Ryan deals with possibly having fathered his ex-fiancé's son and caring for his injured best friend. Newton (Stolen Hearts) keeps the story moving at such a brisk pace that despite experiencing character-building life dramas, Ryan and Maisie seem more like sketches than real people. Like cotton candy, this story is sweet but offers little substance. (Aug. 2013)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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A Taste for Scandal

Erin Knightley. Signet Eclipse, $7.99 mass market paperback (336p) ISBN 978-0-451-41347-5

Knightley (More than a Stranger) presents an unconventional light romance with a strong cast of characters but no villains to speak of. Richard Moore, the Earl of Raleigh, boldly tries to save baker Jane Bunting from a ruffian—but the man is Jane's cousin. She thinks the earl is attacking him and hollers for his arrest. The confusion is soon sorted out, and after Jane apologizes for her overreaction and Richard for the damages he's caused, a tentative friendship is forged. Jane shows Richard how sheltered he is as he watches her work hard to keep her shop and secure her brother's future. Richard, who is used to the simpering ladies of the ballroom, is intrigued by Jane and sets out to win her over with teasing. Holding their own as co-stars are the other women in Richard's life: his sisters, his mother, and the young woman his family hopes he marries. His merry, sneaky sister Beatrice has a heart of gold and makes the perfect fairy godmother in this Cinderella story. Family dynamics and loyalty propel the narrative forward. Much like the pastries that play a prominent role in the Richard's courtship of Jane, this romance is rich, savory, and warm. (Dec. 2013)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Mark of the Gladiator

Heidi Belleau and Violetta Vane. Riptide (www.riptidepublishing.com), $7.99 e-book (242p) ISBN 978-1-937551-59-9

When gladiator Anazâr refuses to murder innocents, he is whipped for cowardice and sent to another household to train a group of warriors in this enticing historical romance from Belleau and Vane (The Druid Stone). To Anazâr's surprise, he's soon embroiled in house politics. An assassin is targeting one of the twin brothers living at the house, but Anazâr must figure out which of the two is the true target, and find the person behind the attempts. Can he trust the benign Master who gives nothing away, or the trickster who may use his antics to hide a vulnerable heart? Belleau and Vanedo do an expert job capturing the myriad emotions and loyalties of the main character, romantic and otherwise, and manage to portray him as a generally good guy without making him cloying. The mystery is interesting up to the end, with a twist that satisfies, and a startling climax. (Dec. 2013)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Cursed Moon

Jaye Wells. Orbit, $15 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-0-316-22846-6

The second Prospero's War magical investigation (after Dirty Magic) showcases Wells's skill with character development. When high-profile covens in Babylon are robbed of dangerous illegal potions, Det. Kate Prospero and the Magic Enforcement Agency taskforce are pulled in to investigate. Kate has her personal battles to fight, hiding her recent slip into illegal magic use as well as surviving the chaos that comes from the magic-enhancing blue moon. The search for the thief forces Kate to come to terms with her own troublesome past before her secrets emerge—and possibly destroy her relationships with her partner, her best friend, and her brother. The tension remains high as the story shifts easily among the magical and mundane politics of the investigation, the ongoing work to control the city during the blue moon, and Kate's miserable guilt. (Aug.) H Lick Kylie Scott St. Martin's, $14.99 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-250-05236-0 Scott's first Stage Dive contemporary is a delightful romantic romp. Evelyn Thomas is anticipating a carefully constructed career and life. A weekend birthday bash in Vegas is intended to be a passing indulgence, not a world-shattering event. But then there is David Farris, an uncompromising musician with the good looks and raw charisma his job demands. Can a night that begins with too much tequila and ends with a diamond ring and an Elvis impersonator as officiant really lead to a lasting relationship? This funny rock-and-roll fantasy delivers both sweet romance and steamy passion. Scott wholeheartedly develops hilarious and endearing characters in a love letter to guitar gods and the women who adore them. This whirlwind of excitement is expertly punctuated with moments of tenderness and heartache. The contrasts and conflicts of the glamorous Los Angeles fame culture and the private difficulties of the real world blend effortlessly into a satisfying resolution. (May)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Getaway God

Richard Kadrey. Harper Voyager, $24.99 (400p) ISBN 978-0-06-209461-2

Kadrey delivers another slamming urban fantasy adventure in James "Sandman Slim" Stark's sixth foray. Stark reluctantly associates with the Golden Vigil to investigate a series of murders. As Los Angeles is enveloped in a portentous rainstorm, Stark and his part-time sidekick Candy come face-to-face with the oldest faction in the battle for control of the universe. A patron at the Bamboo House of Dolls bar is killed in magical crossfire, Candy is targeted from all directions, and Stark navigates myriad perils in a concerto of violence and improvisation. The novel is wall-to-wall action, and Stark careens from mayhem to chaos, doing battle with the recently deceased and those who can never die. His choices are anchored in the salvation of a video store, a donut shop, and a woman he can't be sure he knows. Under all the shock and gore, the heart of Sandman Slim still beats to its own delightfully unpredictable pace. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Scorched Earth

Drew Karpyshyn. Del Rey, $15 trade paper (448p) ISBN 978-0-345-54936-5

Karpyshyn's doom-laden spin on myth and magic invigorates ancient archetypes in the second entry of the Chaos Born trilogy. In this painstakingly crafted secondary-world adventure, magic has serious consequences, and good intentions often fail. Carefully realized social and political conflicts reverberate with supernatural menace. Entrapped demigod Daemron's emissaries Orath, the Crawling Twins, and Raven seek mystic talismans—Daemron's sword, the Crown, and the Ring—to open the Legacy, an occult prison. Chaos Born Cassandra flees with the crown, while unlikely savior Keegan dodges demonspawn and fanatical Inquisitors. Alliances teeter as Keegan's uncontrolled use of Chaos magic invites tragedy. Themes of conscience and sacrifice thread through the breathless escapism; these heroes are unsure whether they fight for good or evil. The journey is complicated by unnerving ambiguity, grim imagery, and pessimistic overtones, as if Michael Moorcock's decadence were filtered through J.R.R. Tolkien's heroism. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Love and Ordinary Creatures

Gwyn Hyman Rubio. Ashland Creek (IPS, dist.), $17.95 trade paper (306p) ISBN 978-1-61822-031-8

Packed with florid prose and a conspicuous attempt to illuminate the nature of love and the human condition, this novel by Hyman Rubio (Icy Sparks) falls flat. The protagonist,, a cockatoo named Caruso, is taken from Australia and ends up on the North Carolina coast, where he falls in love with Clarissa, his human caretaker. Conflicts include a rivalry with Clarissa's human love interest and a climactic hurricane. The story is often told second-hand to Caruso in the form of long, formal monologues, not just by one loquacious character but by every person the parrot meets. Although Rubio deserves credit for inventiveness, ultimately Caruso is unsympathetic, his view of love and of his owner as a female to be won and claimed having been shaped by a man who spent his entire life obsessing over unrequited love. As a reflection of humanity, Caruso is unconvincing, and, given the failure of the novel's blatant message there is not enough plot to hold the book together. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Alphabet

Kathy Page. Biblioasis (Consortium, U.S. dist.; PGC, Canadian dist.), $16.95 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-927428-93-1

Page's gritty and illuminating sixth novel, originally published in 2004, and shortlisted for Canada's Governor General's Literary Awards in 2005, follows Simon Austen, a convicted murderer, through a series of inner triumphs and small victories as he makes his way through the British penal system. Fascinating from the first page, readers watch Austen as he learns how to read, becomes a letter writer for his fellow inmates, and "gets into education, big time," eventually earning all his high school credits. He decides to address the issue of his inability to relate to women, on his own at first, by corresponding with various women. His description, in one of those letters, of the events that lead him to strangle his girlfriend sends him into a tailspin as he begins to face the underlying reasons behind the impulsive violent act that has defined his life. He is sent to an intensive therapeutic program that forces him to face many of his most serious issues. The journey Austen makes is primarily an inner one, a slow peeling back of the layers of protection he uses to shut everyone out, including himself. As he starts to let people in, in a series of increasingly authentic interactions, we bear witness to his slow and inspiring transformation. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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A Thousand Forests in One Acorn: An Anthology of Spanish-Language Fiction

Edited by Valerie Miles. Open Letter, $19.95 trade paper (717p) ISBN 978-1-934824-91-7

Miles compiles an impressive anthology of Spanish-language authors' self-submissions. The result, titled after an Emerson quote, is less of a definitive canon than an attempt to "root out the acorn, […] the driving obsession of a writer." Nevertheless, the 28 participating fiction writers represent some of the best of their respective literatures: including Carlos Fuentes (Mexican), Aurora Venturini (Argentinian), Mario Vargas Llosa (Peruvian), and Ramiro Pinilla (Spanish), among many others. Each section consists of a short biography (conveniently marked off by inked page edges), an interview, a selection of the author's choosing, and finally a bibliography of works and awards. Almost all of the selections are literary works of rare, remarkable quality, but the real pleasure is reading them in the context of the interviews. Here, authors explain their submission choice (Alberto Ruy Sánchez calls it "the pain of choosing"); they recount influences (Faulkner makes frequent appearances, as do family members—says Fuentes, "[W]rite […] for your grandmothers wherever they are"); and they discuss everything from writing techniques to fiction's "obligation" to politics. Ordered chronologically by authors' dates of birth, the collection begins with the rich works of the most mature authors, and ends slightly less impressively with younger authors who, though worthwhile, may have yet to write their best pages. With its myriad themes, including class conflict (Esther Tusquets), disillusionment with utopian ideals (Juan Marsé), and instability of identity (Antonio Muñoz Molina), the collection amply rewards both the casual reader and the scholar seeking insight into authors' thought processes. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Forest of Fortune

Jim Ruland. Tyrus (F + W Media, dist.), $24.99 hardcover (288p) ISBN 978-1-4405-7989-9

Ruland brilliantly blends the darkly comedic crime fiction sensibilities of Charles Willeford with creepy paranormal undertones à la Dean Koontz in his addictively readable debut, the chronicle of three hard-luck losers who try to turn their lives around in an Indian-owned casino in a remote region of Southern California. Alice is an Indian slot-tech with a horrific past whose seizures—and ghostly visions—are putting her job, and her sanity, in jeopardy. Lupita is obsessed with playing the slots. She has lost everything of value—namely the trust of her sister—but she knows that the big payday has to be right around the corner. Pemberton is an alcoholic and coke addict whose life is quickly unraveling—he has lost his job in advertising and his fiancée has dumped him. His only hope is to land a job at the casino. The existential angst in this story is palpable, and Ruland is particularly good at describing the casino's customers: "addicts, imbeciles, and thrift-store bimbos." Powered by adept characterization, darkly lyrical prose, and an unexpected but oh-so-perfect ending, this is the literary equivalent of a slot machine jackpot. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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