Behind Picketwire by M. Day Hampton

Not your usual love story

This book is going to be complicated to review, for the simple fact that it is too easy to give away spoilers. Indeed, especially towards the end, even the tiniest detail is a spoiler!

But I will start with this – as soon as Red had his fall, this was one of the few times that I wanted to skip to the end, to see what happened to him. I resisted the urge and in many ways I’m glad I did, as the ending is too strong and would have spoilt the rest. Instead, I stuck with it, with Red and the dog(s) (minor spoiler), on their journey through the wilderness.

In some ways, this could be classified as Dystopian – a world where people, law, order, the modern world, has all disappeared. It’s like a One Man and His Dog version of The Land Before Time. There’s just the wilderness, with all of nature as it once was and could be again.

So, considering it all, even before starting, we know that Red has to be in some dream-like state. Is it a coma? Is he already dead? Will he wake up? All those questions are hard to tell, as the book trundles slowly on. And yes, I did find it a slow read. I think probably because for the first part of the book, it did move slowly. It makes it hard in that the only dialogue is between Red and his dog, or random into the wilderness, or memories. Yes, there are many flashbacks, that help us understand Red better as he starts to understand himself better, too, from his childhood to more recent memories. He sees his triumphs, but he also sees his faults, and wonders why he couldn’t have been a better person at the moments when it mattered. He knows that he cared in those moments, yet was unable to show it better. Regrets, yet rediscovering the love that he moves forward to refind.

Not everything goes to plan in the wilderness. When he does finally set off, with such certainty of where he has to go, where he will find his wife again, between disasters and durability, he somehow finds his way forward.

Once you get into the final thirty percent of the book, the ending can be seen coming. Yet, somehow, you still hope for more.

So, we know what happens to Red, right at the end, yet what about Jake? And who was his coyote companion, he named Lady?

Another note is that there are Christian elements throughout, but in such a casual way as to not be overbearing. I appreciate a book that can give insights into someone’s religious, or semi-religious life, without trying to preach to you or force it down your throat (unfortunately I’ve had a few of the bad kind of late). This is pretty safe for anyone, no matter their spiritual- or non-beliefs.

On the whole, this is a book that deserves forbearance. When the emotional moments come, they are overpowering. In between is a journey that is far more than it first seems.

Final rating: ★★★★☆ – Really liked

Before. After. Always. by Morgan Lee Miller

Potential not seen through

I picked this book up as I absolutely loved the previous book I read by this author. And this book had so much potential! The beginning of this book had me hooked yet, somehow along the way, I started to be less engaged. By the end, instead of feeling elated at the immense HEA, I just felt disappointed.

I’m unsure what went wrong. I mean, long-term effects of PTSD is a thing and therapy doesn’t always help with completely taking away the anxiety and panic attacks, although it should help in easing them. Especially after a certain amount of time has passed. Eliza most definitely doesn’t have CPTSD (Complex PTSD), as that, as its name suggest, is a far more severe form of PTSD, caused by years of repeated trauma in childhood. Yet Eliza has never moved on from a severely traumatic event when she was eighteen (now being thirty-one). She’s achieved so much, is accomplished in so many ways, yet part of her is still stuck in the past. It is certainly possible, but for someone who is so strong in other ways, it’s not necessarily a hundred-percent believable. It’s not to say that otherwise strong and accomplished people do not have panic attacks and suffer from anxiety, but long-term PTSD is usually so debilitating that it prevents you from pushing yourself as much as you otherwise would, strong or not.

Then there’s Blake, broken in her own ways, still sore after losing her brother. She just gets on with things, only breaking down at the anniversary of his death. Yet she is still hung up about a bad breakup with a long-term girlfriend, from about the same time ago as Eliza. Blake has had a few short-term flings, but nothing serious in recent years, happy with that even if she does eventually want more. Eliza has barely dated at all since the accident, just going through the motions a few times hoping to find a spark.

How these two come together, through the understanding of loss, is cute. And when they eventually decide to call each other their “girlfriend”, that’s cute too. Yet their strange bout of miscommunication, not understanding each other, that wasn’t. Every relationship goes through it at some point, yet it was the lack of communication between the two that left me banging my head. They’re both stuck in their own world with their own fears, and neither wants to tell the painful truth of why they’re hurt. It takes yet another traumatic event to bring the two back together again.

I guess that parts of the story felt slow. Other parts felt predictable. Then there were little bits of repetition. Tension is good, but even the tense parts didn’t feel tense enough. I still had moments of rooting for both of them, with their slow progress towards going further in their relationship, yet something was still missing. I wish I could be less vague, but sometimes a book just doesn’t click.

All in all, not a bad read, but not as great as I was hoping.

Final rating: ★★★☆☆ – Sort of liked/OK

*I received a free digital ARC via NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*

Dead Silence by Robin Caroll

Christian political suspense

I should have paid more attention when picking this book up, that it was listed as Christian fiction, as I know that I have many problems with that. In fact, this book could also be surmised as “Mother of deaf child works her way back to God through additional trials and tribulations.” Yes, the substory was essentially that, which I felt a little uncomfortable with. It wasn’t too preachy, surprisingly, but as soon as a book goes into that sort of territory, I do hope that it’s not going to go too far.

But the main thing that invited me to read this book was actually the fact that the MC’s son is deaf. Sign language, lip reading, and deafness aren’t huge topics for a mystery suspense, so I liked the idea.

So, anyway, as for the main part of the story itself, we have a single mother, who lost her husband a few years previously, who now loses her difficult mother-in-law. She can sign and lipread, making her great as a court sign-language interpreter. But it also puts her into other difficult territory, when she reads the lips of someone without thinking, who turns out to be planning the murder of her mother-in-law, one of the state senators.

Well, of course, something comes in the way, so she can’t inform anyone, until it’s too late and the FBI are already at her workplace asking her questions. One FBI agent, who’s rude, abrasive, and incompetent. Another who is well meaning, but completely blind to how bad his partner actually is. When a leak puts Elise’s life in danger, all secrets are excruciatingly slowly forced out into the open.

In actual fact, it takes Elise herself, plus the assistance of a reporter who wants to help rather than going for the big money, and her ex-press step-father-in-law and sister-in-law, to crack the case. They somehow, between themselves, manage to uncover things that the FBI hasn’t.

How believable all of that truly is, I’m not quite sure. It was quite a ride, which left me wanting to read further at many points. Although it was pretty frustrating when it was revealed what Liliana (MiL) was actually working on and the penny didn’t even drop as to who the villain actually was. For me, it was blazingly obvious! So with the Christian elements, the FBI incompetence, and the supposedly ‘good sleuthing crew’ missing obvious clues, there were a few head bashing moments.

All of it put together, and it ends up as an OK read instead of a brilliant one. I don’t regret reading it, yet it doesn’t warm me to read any of the author’s other books.

Final rating: ★★★☆☆ – Sort of liked/OK

*I received a free digital ARC via NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*

Pursuing Pandora by Maggie Brown

A not-to-be-missed romance-come-mystery

This book was quite delightful, in so many ways. We have sultry Pandora, who isn’t at all what she seems. Recently burnt Winter, who is happy to finally be able to move on from her controlling ex. Then Winter’s array of family and friends, some who really don’t appear to have her best interests at heart.

Winter ends up meeting Pandora after her aunt cajoles her into going to an upscale nightclub to check on her nephew, who insists he’s going to marry Pandora. Only problem is, instead of disliking her, Winter is attracted to her. As is her best friend, Jessie. Although Winter assumes that Pandora wouldn’t be interested in her, noting all the male attention she gets at the club. Oh how wrong could she be!

So, she gets to know Pandora, whilst setting up a trap for her nephew, unfortunately involving Jessie. Now, will everything go to plan there?

And of course, the intelligent Winter is able to discover some of Pandora’s secrets. Yet whether it will all be too much for both of them, when Pandora finally has to move on, is a secret that I’m not revealing.

Sometimes it’s quite frustrating finding out the details as I go along, rather than them being laid bare from the beginning, yet in this instance, it worked quite well. The only thing I will say that I disliked was how mean both Winter’s aunt and Jessie were to her! Considering how badly Winter was treated by her ex, I had expected better treatment from her family and friends.

Anyway, it’s still a worthwhile read. And also really nice to experience a little bit of Australia as a change!

Final rating: ★★★★☆ – Really liked

*I received a free digital ARC via NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*

The Englisch Daughter by Cindy Woodsmall and Erin Woodsmall

Fighting against the odds

Now this is exactly what I wanted from a religious book – an overview of the religion and culture, without preaching to me (this comment is because of having recently been burnt with that).

I haven’t actually read any Amish books before this, so I didn’t know what to expect at all. I have a vague idea of who they are, from various TV shows, but I didn’t know the difference between the different types of Amish or, indeed, the Mennonites, or even the language they spoke. This book is filled with their version of German, “Pennsylvania Dutch” (which is far more a German dialect and not even related to Dutch!). I actually wish that I had realised that there was a glossary at the back, with a direct translation of the sentences, before I started reading! Although each time, particularly with the children, that they spoke in their form of butchered German, there was an explanation as part of the story.

This is actually quite a heart-warming story. The Amish are highly religious, and opposed to all forms of violence. The women, once married, lose their independence and everything they have belongs to their husband. They are also expected to forgive any transgressions both publicly and easily. All of this, even for the highly religious women, is harder than it sounds. Especially when all the lies and deceit land on their own doorstep.

Yet love truly does conquer all. Through hardship and rebuilding the trust, if love is there, then it can overcome just about anything. The resilience that Jemima shows when she realises that her husband, Roy, has been not only distant, but uncovers that he’s been lying to her, is remarkable. Of course she is angry! Yet her love eventually brings her around once all the lies and deceit are unravelled.

There is a side story here, with Chris, who is going against his religion and culture by fighting, and Abigail, Roy’s sister, who has also gone against her culture by turning down many a potential partner as she prefers being on her own. She doesn’t want to get lost, like she’s seen so many other women do. And even with her connection with Chris, she finds yet another excuse to push him away. Of course, there is a happy ending here as well, which also isn’t hard won.

With the horse farm in the background, to provide an even more traditional setting, things are never as they seem. They fight to keep everything, when everything should be lost. And they do it all with an amazing strength where others would have failed.

All in all, a great and surprising read, that draws you in to another world.

Final rating: ★★★★☆ – Really liked

*I received a free digital ARC via NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*

Love’s Falling Star by B.D. Grayson

Love conquers all

This is not the first book I’ve read by this publisher, and it certainly won’t be the last! I’ve gotten off really lucky with the books from them that I’ve picked up, this one being no exception. And, to add to all that, this is the author’s debut novel! Seriously impressive!

I must say, however, before I start the main part of my review, that I’ve no idea what it’s like to be “in the closet”. As a cis female, it is of course not easy to understand the concept. But books like this certainly help in understanding. The fear of being rejected by peers, of potentially losing your career, losing your friends. But in this story it turns out, there was nothing to fear.

Could Lochlan and Vanessa be any more different? She, the popular Country music star. Vanessa, a med student. It just so happened that they were in the same library at the same time, albeit for different reasons, yet that chance encounter left an impact on both.

For Vanessa, she isn’t a huge fan, yet in that moment she sees the person and not the star. And with her naturally caring attitude, Loc is warmed to her whole person. Yet, it is an impossible attraction, as the star has a career where coming out could completely ruin it. It’s happened before, so of course it will happen to her, too! So that’s how life goes – she puts her career above everything, mostly at the advice of her best friend and manager, Jamie. Yet, in doing so, she risks losing the best thing that may have ever come into her life. And her sanity.

It takes Lochlan accidentally reaching rock bottom to see the truth. But will Vanessa still be there waiting for her when she does do the Country equivalent of the unthinkable?

It is a seriously cute love story. Yeah yeah, there are many like it, but it’s written beautifully. I wasn’t so happy with the ending, really, as it felt a bit dragged out and not as concrete as some of the rest. But all can certainly be forgiven for it being a debut novel. It was one of my quickest reads of the year!

Final rating: ★★★★☆ – Really liked

*I received a free digital ARC via NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*

The Edge of Anything by Nora Shalaway Carpenter

Heart wrenching

This couldn’t be more beautifully told. Although, at the beginning, I was extremely sceptical. I’m not really a volleyball fan, so whilst I appreciated the detail in the story of all the gameplay, it was a bit lost on me. Yet, as the story gathered momentum, the story behind everything grips and doesn’t let go.

Sage, the superstar volleyball player, considered aloof to any outsider. Yet we soon find out that Sage isn’t all she appears to be. When Sage passes out during a match, it’s discovered that she has a heart condition which disqualifies her from playing. For life.

Len, short for Lennon, named after, well, her father is a huge Beatles fan, so should be obvious. She was once an amazing student, set for great heights in photography, yet everyone at school, including her teachers, have noticed she’s changed. The students typically laugh at her for being the weirdo, the odd one out, which just isolates her even more.

Sage is surprisingly sympathetic of Len, even before her diagnosis, yet she doesn’t understand at all. Once Sage receives her diagnosis, Len is the first one to notice that Sage is carrying a heavy burden of sadness. Len is also the only one to not judge, to not push her to be happy. Somehow, through these encounters, each seeks the other out, and develop a tenuous friendship, that may indeed save both of their lives.

As the story develops, all the signs are there of Len’s OCD, yet Sage is the first to truly notice and take an interest in it. Len, of course, in all her confusion, believes it to be something entirely different. The quirks of the condition are handled so well, the panic attacks, the obsessive behaviour. If you understand any of this in any way at all, then you can appreciate fully what Len is going through and how sympathetically it is written.

It’s near the ending when everything breaks lose, when Sage is on the verge of collapse after pushing herself too far, and Len comes to save her. Then Sage helps Len to finally confront what happened that changed everything. My Gods, I truly blubbed when Len was reunited with her sister.

This is a story of friendship beyond the lines, how two seemingly different teenagers meet and form a friendship from the ashes of disaster and devastation. By the time I got to the end, I appreciated, loved, and had a respect for it all.

Final rating: ★★★★★ – Loved it/couldn’t put it down

*I received a free digital ARC via NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*

My Way to You by Catherine Bybee

Glorious

This book is half based on reality, centred around the events of the Californian wildfires of 2016, which the author personally lived through. From an outsider’s point of view, it is impossible to imagine, even when viewing the photos of the event, as it doesn’t give you even a small idea of the heat and ash, or the crazy mudslides afterwards. I haven’t even a clue of what the Californian countryside is like, either. But the author gives such vivid descriptions, that it pulls you in and puts you there at the scene.

Amongst all this craziness and disaster is a young woman, just 25, forced to grow up early after tragically losing her parents and as a result becoming responsible for her younger siblings, and a chance encounter with a Public Works supervisor, who is determined to save her home from impending floods and mudslides. Yes there is a little bit of insta-attraction here, but it takes time for a relationship to slowly develop as Parker slowly eases up on her control and gives in to Colin.

Parker has gotten so used to doing everything on her own, Colin nicknames her “Annie Oakley” as a homage to her gun-wielding independence and steadfastness. Parker quite happily shows herself all woman by nicknaming him in turn “TDH” (aka, “Tall, Dark, and Handsome”). But just because she finds him attractive, doesn’t mean that she’s giving him a single inch of her hard-won control.

Two very independent characters, set amongst a deluge of disasters.

Alongside them all are Parker’s siblings, who are surprisingly well behaved considering their respective ages. Although that is a lot down to Parker, giving up her sibling responsibility in exchange for a parenting one. Then there’s Erin, a frightened young woman who starts to settle and shine as the story moves on. Plus Colin’s ever-loving family, who play a strong side roll.

But despite all the good, there were a couple of disappoints for me. Firstly, it took a while before we learnt about what happened to Parker’s parents, and even that wasn’t a true answer. Then there was Erin, always looking over her shoulder, but nothing ever came of that thread. I was also expecting something more to happen with the strange man who suddenly appeared in their yard.

A story filled with grit and determination that, despite my minor niggles, I really enjoyed.

Final rating: ★★★★☆ – Really liked

*I received a free digital ARC via NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*

The Gamble by Tara Crescent

Plenty of hotness in a second-chance romance with a twist

This is a new reworking of the book Gambling with Gabriella. I hadn’t read this book, so everything inside is completely new to me. I actually read it in pieces, as part of a newsletter release. Not something I’ve actually done before, so I got to submit a couple of corrections, and enjoy the book as each part came out.

Moving onto the story itself, wow does that contain some huge hotness! As my title says, it’s a second-chance romance with a twist – Gabriella had a one-night stand with two hot guys, which was wonderful, but at the time she wasn’t up for anything else. Yet, there they are, still in her mind. And it appears that they can’t stop thinking about her, either.

A complete chance meeting happens as she is given a PR assignment in Atlantic City, and just happens to be staying in the very hotel that these two hot guys, Dominic and Carter, own. With a little bit of awkwardness at first, it’s only a matter of time before these three hook up again. Yet, is it a match for life, or just another night of fun…?

And of course, there are plenty of twists and turns. Carter is at risk of losing the nephew he’s looked after for so long for good. And Gabriella has a nasty secret of her own – she’s gotten herself addicted to underground gambling as a way of earning enough to start her own business, threw all caution to the wind in one night of madness, and ended up seriously in debt.

As each storyline twists and brings our three MCs together, they end up saving each other in more ways than one.

Final rating: ★★★★★ – Loved it/couldn’t put it down

*I received a free digital ARC via the author and am voluntarily leaving a review.*

If I Love You by Tmonique Stephens

From bitter to sweet

A story that starts off with resentment, which we do learn the reasons for as the story moves along, yet resolves in a good way.

Kensley and Noah were once friends, having grown up together, along with her brother. Yet her brother didn’t come back from Afghanistan. Noah did. So when Noah returns to their hometown barely months after her brother’s funeral, he’s the last one that she wants to interact with. Yet, somehow, he’s there at every turn.

Will the truth set Kensley free? Can she forgive Noah?

There is plenty of heat here. Even though the two main characters are most definitely attracted to one another, it takes time for both of them to come to terms with what they have.

Love, loss, intrigue – this book has it all!

Final rating: ★★★★☆ – Really liked

*I received a free digital ARC via Booksprout and am voluntarily leaving a review.*