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Sweet as Honey

Jennifer Beckstrand. Kensington/Zebra, $7.99 mass market (352p) ISBN 978-1-4201-4020-0

Beckstrand (Huckleberry Hearts) opens a series in her Wisconsin Amish setting with a “wonderful-gute” novel that celebrates women’s resourceful strength and pluck, rewarding the good-hearted who keep close to the spirit (if not the letter) of traditional values over those who are concerned with maintaining appearances but fail at human connection. The three Christner sisters live with their protective aunt Bitzi, whose sarcastic vocal prayers and habit of wearing earrings—a holdover from her Englisch days—break all protocol. They make a modest living through the hard work of keeping bees. Dan Kanagy returns from a trip full of teasing words for his longtime crush, Lily Christner, but his kindness and enthusiasm for helping with hive chores, mousetraps, and buggy rides are in notable contrast to the behavior of her fiancé, stingy, selfish, and judgmental Paul Glick, who is mostly concerned with grooming Lily to be a modest wife. Beckstrand humorously displays the awkwardness and immaturity of her young protagonists while uplifting them, and though readers will have a good idea of where the story is going, its unfolding is delightfully sweet. As a bonus, the beekeeping details are accurate, and Beckstrand includes some tasty recipes. Agent: Mary Sue Seymour, Seymour Agency. (July)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Frostbite

Joshua Bader. City Owl, $13.95 trade paper (250p) ISBN 978-0-9862516-9-6

Debut author Bader introduces readers to the Modern Knights series with an extremely impressive first novel of delicious urban fantasy with just a hint of romance. Colin Fisher, wizard, is a Harvard dropout who’s become a wanderer, searching for answers regarding his fiancée’s disappearance years ago. He and his car, Dorothy, have been traversing the present-day United States, but now he feels obligated to head home to Colorado to see his dying, estranged father one last time. His plans, however, have a way of abruptly changing, and Colin’s agenda is disrupted when he finds a body in Oklahoma that’s missing its heart. This fantastical thrill ride is filled with perfectly timed pop-culture references, stunning plot twists, and the snarky (and sometimes offensive) stylings of Colin’s inner voice. Along the way he finds a job as the personal wizard for a man who embodies the sneaky evil of corporate homogeneity, and he begins dating Veruca, his boss’s pink-wearing personal assassin. Readers who have wearied of depictions of religion clashing with magic will be delighted that Colin is a devoutly Catholic wizard who’s as comfortable attending Mass as reading from The Necronomicon. Well-researched and creatively presented humor and action perfectly blend with moral quandaries in this outstanding debut. (July)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Malafemmena

Louisa Ermelino. Sarabande (Consortium, dist.), $15.95 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-1-941411-29-2

Ermelino (The Black Madonna), reviews director at PW, offers a collection of arresting short stories that call to mind the work of Lucia Berlin in their sparse realism and humor, as well as their fine attention to the often-harsh details of women’s lives. “Where It Belongs,” in which old-world Italian traditions surrounding childbirth and death frame a stark portrait of a young woman’s life rocked by the violence of men, is a fitting opening story for a volume titled after the popular Italian song that speaks of a woman loved, hated, and regarded as less than virtuous. In the haunting “Six and Five,” Santino marries because he wants “the good things in life” and to have sex “regular,” but the girl isn’t from the neighborhood, and just enough is revealed to let us know that Santino’s choice is a disappointment to him. In “The Baby,” a decades-spanning story involving Robin and Christina, a pair of close friends, there’s a pregnancy, a sojourn in countries where their foreignness is palpable, and the sense that there is often a truth in memory, and in the telling of stories, that feels truer than what happened. Birth and death, love and friendship, drugs and violence, home and abroad: the stories’ themes are elemental and affecting, lingering in the mind like parables or myths sketching something vital, sad, and true. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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A Great Reckoning

Louise Penny. Minotaur, $28.99 (400p) ISBN 978-1-250-02213-4

The lyrical 12th entry (after 2015’s The Nature of the Beast) in bestseller Penny’s remarkable series, which has won multiple Agatha awards, finds former Chief Insp. Armand Gamache coming out of retirement to clean up the corrupt Süreté Academy du Québec. When an old map is found hidden in the wall of a bistro in Three Pines, the remote village in which Gamache and his wife live, the locals treat it as only an interesting artifact. But Gamache uses the mystery of the map’s origin to engage the interest of four cadets at the academy who are in particular danger of going astray. When someone fatally shoots Serge Leduc, a sadistic, manipulative professor, a copy of the map is found in Leduc’s bedside table, and suspicion falls on the four cadets and Gamache himself. As the story unfolds, a web of connections, past and present, comes to light. This complex novel deals with universal themes of compassion, weakness in the face of temptation, forgiveness, and the danger of falling into despair and cynicism over apparently insurmountable evils. Author tour. Agent: Teresa Chris, Teresa Chris Literary Agency. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Blue Columbine

Jennifer Rodewald. Rooted Publishing, $13.99 trade paper (412p) ISBN 978-0-692-45111-3

Childhood friends Jamie Carson and Andy Harris have lived divergent lives, but, now in their 30s, the two have returned to their Colorado roots and encounter each other in the meadow where they once played as children. Jamie, an earth science teacher and amateur nature photographer, has maintained a deep relationship with God. Meanwhile, Andy, a defense attorney, has lost all respect for religion. He prefers to drown “his troubles in the anesthetizing effect of drink and the pleasures of a pretty and willing woman.” Yet, for all their differences, a strong connection remains. Melissa, Jamie’s housemate, and Ryan, who pursues a romantic relationship with Jamie, serve as strong supporting characters, providing friendship, a sounding board, and spiritual guidance. Rodewald (Reclaimed) deftly portrays the downward spiral of alcoholism and the complexities of maintaining a relationship with someone addicted to the bottle. Jamie struggles to be Andy’s friend through the tough times, and her deeper feelings serve only to cause her pain. A subplot involving intelligent design versus evolution seems out of place in the story, although it does serve to show the way Andy has changed, both intellectually and spiritually. The characters are all impressively multifaceted, engaging with complex emotional strains and difficult issues of allegiance. In her second novel of Christian romance, Rodewald proves to be a formidable new voice.(BookLife)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ

Carol Wallace. Tyndale, $15.99 trade paper (425p) ISBN 978-1-4964-1105-1

When Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince alive during Jesus Christ’s lifetime, is wrongly accused of attempting to assassinate the Roman governor of Jerusalem by his childhood friend Messala, the Romans enslave him and capture his mother and sister. While working in the galley of a battleship, Ben-Hur saves the life of a Roman tribune, Arrius, who decides to adopt the former prince, change his name to Young Arrius, take him to Rome, and train the boy in the Roman ways, including the popular sport of chariot racing. While searching for what may have happened to his family, Ben-Hur takes advantage of an opportunity to challenge Messala to a chariot race. After establishing himself as a fierce competitor, Ben-Hur is persuaded to train an army that will support the rightful king of the Jews—who some believe to be a man from Nazareth. Unbeknownst to Ben-Hur, the true savior has different plans. Wallace (To Marry an English Lord)—the great-great-granddaughter of the author of the original Ben-Hur, Lew Wallace—has done a fine job of revising the text for modern readers. The narrative assumes some Biblical knowledge, as Ben-Hur comes into contact with characters from well-known Bible stories, including a wise man and Jesus himself. Patches of awkward dialogue contrast the lyrical, cinematic descriptions of Ben-Hur’s struggles and triumphs. The epic novel, spanning about 12 years of Ben-Hur’s life, will be relished not only by fans of Christian fiction, but any reader who craves historical accounts of high adventure, action, and drama. (July)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Long Journey to Jake Palmer

James Rubart. Thomas Nelson, $15.99 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-1-40168-613-0

Jake Palmer feels he is on a dead-end road. A corporate trainer who teaches others that everyone is a bottle with a blank label, Jake actually suspects that his own label says he’s not enough. After a physical confrontation at a gas station in Washington state leaves Jake severely burned and his marriage begins to deteriorate, Jake slowly succumbs to self-deprecation and depression. Although his heart isn’t in it, he agrees to join his friends for an annual summer gathering at a lake house. Though he has helped his friends a lot with their own lives, Jake is bitter and no longer trusts God due to the accident that changed his life forever. While leaving a disastrous business trip in Chicago on an airplane, Jake meets straight-talking Leonard, who had snuck into his motivational lecture. In the course of the ride, Leonard persuades Jake to start afresh this year at Willow Lake, where local legend has it that a corridor at the end of the lake is a portal leading to the heart’s desire. Entwined nicely with Jake’s work concerning personal reflection and self-knowledge, the concept quickly takes over the story’s momentum. Rubart’s (The Five Times I Met Myself) style is candid and unobtrusive, making it easy to visualize the beauty and peace of the lake house. Key themes of forgiveness, rebirth, and emotional healing emerge organically through Jake’s struggles. Rubart will leave readers inspired to ponder what the label is on their bottle.(Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Pleasure Device

Regina Kammer. Viridium, $3.99 e-book (265p) ISBN 978-0-9910166-4-8

Kammer (Hadrian and Sabina: A Love Story) starts her Victorian-era Harwell Heirs erotica series with a lighthearted, medical-themed story centering on the electric vibrator, popular as an in-office remedy for female “hysteria.” Dr. Julius Christopher, wanting to experiment in detail with the device, takes in lusty servant Grace Danby and hires on young colleague Dr. Nicholas Ramsay, the protégé of his former lover, Lady Foxley-Graham. Nicholas and Helena Phillips become smitten with each other during the festivities of London’s social season. Julius realizes he’d rather experiment on a virgin than on experienced Grace; Helena’s mother, Lady Sophia, is addicted to him and his machine, so he manipulates her into promising to give him Helena. Though Kammer focuses on the female orgasm, her story is heavily filtered through the male gaze; the women describe their responses only when the men ask, and although it’s made clear that the women either already know how to masturbate or are trained by the doctors, readers are rarely privy to interesting solo sessions. This is cookie-cutter fluff without enough over-the-top villainy to carry off the humor of the setup. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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With No Regrets

Julie N. Ford. White Star, $16.95 trade paper (340p) ISBN 978-1-939203-65-6

Listing heavily toward the women’s fiction side of the romance genre, Ford deftly portrays 40-year-old Finley Harrison’s gradual recovery from the shock of divorce. After 20 years with her philandering husband, Roy, Finnie’s venture into solo life in present-day Nashville forces this picture of Southern womanhood (antebellum accent mandatory) to evolve into 21st-century personhood, but she’s fighting it tooth and nail. Married Finnie was so obsessed with appearances that the only thing worse than catching Roy in flagrante delicto with another woman was finding them thus engaged on her expensive sofa. Once the divorce is finalized, Finnie is pushed by longtime friend Cathyanne to leave her comfort zone—which means going on dates. Cathyanne sets her up with Josh, a 31-year-old hottie; Finnie is also drawn to next-door neighbor Quinton. Cathyanne doesn’t care which one Finnie chooses, so long as she sets aside her suffocating Southern-belle decorum and vows to live with no regrets. Readers who love stories of women finding their truths will enjoy Ford’s spot-on portrayal of midlife change, friendship, and romance. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Tough Luck Hero

Maisy Yates. Harlequin, $7.99 mass market (384p) ISBN 978-0-373-78981-8

In Yates’s strained ninth contemporary set in Copper Ridge, Ore. (after One Night Charmer), mayoral candidate Lydia Carpenter drunkenly creates a scandal that could ruin her chances for election. When she attends a wedding where the bride fails to appear, Lydia runs off to Las Vegas with the groom, Colton West, in an effort to spare him the humiliation. They awaken the following morning to find out that they got married, have consummated the union, and texted the happy news to their closest friends. What they already knew is that they hate each other. By now the reader will be wondering why people who despise each other nonetheless eloped; this is never satisfactorily explained. Colton has been responsible for his family since his older brother took off years earlier, and his father’s infidelity provided him with a half-brother. He doesn’t want to add more shame to the well-known family name, and of course Lydia has her political ambitions to consider. In an attempt to avoid more gossip, Lydia and Colton agree to stay married until after the election, their pretense opening the door to something real. The townspeople’s easy acceptance of the marriage is as unbelievable as the gradually revealed reason for the protagonists’ initial mutual dislike. (July)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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