Review: Saved by the Spell by Erin Johnson

You know when you’re trying to find something to read and you just have vague keywords in your brain? That was part of what led me to this book. The other part was google tracking my ads and Facebook consistently throwing it in my path as if to say “hey you’ve been googling WITCHY COZY MYSTERY for a solid week maybe try this out” and reader, for better or worse, I finally did.

Saved by the Spell is a prequel to a new series, Magic Market Mysteries, set in the world of an existing series that Johnson writes, Spells & Caramels. I’m a big lover and supporter of new and self-publishing authors, especially in the cozy mystery world, so even though my blog is tiny and I don’t tag authors in meh to boo reviews, I am going to be super gentle in this review on the offest of off chances Johnson ever sees it.

This book wasn’t for me. It felt like it should be, but it just never clicked. I don’t recall at this point even what my objections were, so it wasn’t anything #problematic or grievously wrong, it just didn’t land for me. That might not be the case for you! Johnson did make the protagonist a male which I thought was cool because we rarely see that in cozy mysteries. She also worked with a familiar, workable formula of making it a school-based mystery as her character does a bit of a Harry Potter/21 Jump Street mashup. Also he has a dog by the end of it which is also always a plus.

If you’re interested in giving it a read and seeing how you feel about it yourself, I’m not entirely sure how to do so. I snagged it from a Facebook advertisement where I believe I got a link to my email to read it for free (reviewer’s first ARC?). If you want to read a cozy mystery series with paranormal aspects to it set in an oceanside place, go to Erin Johnson’s amazon page and enjoy!

Review: Night of the Wolves by Shannon Drake

First things first – Night of the Wolves sounds like it should be a werewolf book but it is in fact a vampire hunting book. In its defense, the series is literally called “Vampire Hunters” but if you’re going to present yourself as a paranormal romance and put wolf in the title there are going to be hopes raised. Ok, now that’s out of the way.

This is a hybrid of books I rarely read: paranormal romance and western times romance. This is actually perhaps my first western romance book (though I don’t feel I’ll have had a good intro to the subgenre til I get a purely western romance under my belt) so there were a lot of things to complicate this reading for me. But let’s start with a synopsis.

Alexandra Gordon, the heroine, has visions that lead her back to her father’s home in Victory, Texas to hunt for his murderer. There she meets mysterious and sexy lawman Cody Fox, a veteran of the Civil War. Vampires attack, all is not what it seems, yadda yadda you get where this is going.

Folks, this book has Problems. First of all, the Native American characters are staggeringly stereotypical complete with feathers. I got real Tigerlily a la Peter Pan vibes from their portrayal in the book and it was squicky. Also the black caretaker of Alexandra’s place gives off a real “Mammy” archetype vibe in how she is written which was rough. Also rough is the discussion of the Civil War talking about how it was the most heinous thing ever and no one should ever get beyond their disagreements to that extent.

You know what’s worse than the Civil War?

Slavery.

No punchline, just facts.

I wasn’t invested in the romance but part of that was because I kept getting distracted looking for werewolves and wincing over the more problematic aspects of the book. Also it was published in 2009 so for those who may be believers in defending a book with Product of Its Time (I am not one of them – a post for another day), this book doesn’t get that pass either.

I kind of appreciated that vampires were (mostly) villains in the book because while I was an enthusiastic participant in the mid to late 00’s vampire craze, Dracula is one of my favorite books and I sometimes miss vampires being bad guys instead of just sexy sad people. In the end, I could have gone without reading this book and don’t intend to continue the series. It did make me want to read an example of a good western romance and a good paranormal romance, either combined or in separate genres, so if anyone has good recommendations please let me know!

Review: The Duchess Deal by Tessa Dare

Tessa Dare was an author I approached cautiously. Not because I had heard bad things, the opposite in fact. I had heard her praises sung so loudly for so long that I didn’t know where to begin in her catalog and had that tiny fear that for some reason her work wouldn’t resonate for me and I would be the odd one out. I can’t speak for everyone who will read her, but this did not turn out to be the case for me.

The Duchess Deal is the first of her Girl Meets Duke series. A quick snapshot of the synopsis is a Duke (Ash, short for Ashbury) comes back from war horribly scarred and self-conscious and he has to marry to secure an heir. He has been recently spurned by his former fiancee so time is of the essence. Enter Emma Gladstone, wearing the wedding dress she crafted for his fiancee, demanding payment. He offers her a marriage instead and, spurred by her own financial need and the desire to help protect her unmarried pregnant friend, she accepts.

The story is some parts Beauty and the Beast, some parts the Phantom of the Opera, all parts good. Dare has a talent for creating interesting side characters, in this novel this not only includes the staff at the manor who are desperately trying to make the two fall in love, but also the small group of ladies who take Emma into their fold. Each of them have quirks and talents that are charming and I would read books based on each of their lives, romantic or not.

Ash is a broodier hero than I tend to enjoy but Dare wrote him in a way that it worked for me, especially when he goes to lengths such as blindfolds to keep his wife from seeing his scars which he is sure will make her fall out of love with him. I think part of what works for Dare is she presents common conflicts but gives them enough background and development that they’re understandable. In another book if a character’s sole hangup was that their spouse would hate their scars I would be a little annoyed because at a certain point you have to just face that. Dare provides Ash with some background that makes that fear very reasonable.

Also, neither of the protagonists are virgins, which I appreciated. I have no problem with a virgin hero (see my review of The Duchess War), but I find it a little easy and played out when a heroine is automatically a virgin in a romance. People have been having sex in or out of marriage since the dawn of time and I just like that being recognized.

I haven’t read the other two in the series yet but I think I will add them to my 2020 reading goal next to Brazen and the Beast by Sarah MacLean and Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel.

Review: The Adventure Zone Murder on the Rockport Limited by Clint McElroy, Griffin McElroy, Travis McElroy, Justin McElroy, and Carey Pietsch

This is the sequel to The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins graphic novel. This series takes the reader through the arcs from the Balance campaign in The Adventure Zone podcast.

Quick review cuz it’s kind of a gimme that I would love this one. Murder on the Rockport Limited was my favorite Balance arc and I enjoyed how they translated it from podcast to graphic novel. The characters look right, the dialogue is fun, and it hit the moments I remembered and loved. Special shoutout for the introduction of Angus, Boy Detective.

If you’re interested in picking it up I’d start with the first because it gives important background information but then definitely go ahead and read this one as well. I eagerly look forward to the third in the series, Petals to the Metal, and plan to preorder it soon.

Review: The Governess Affair by Courtney Milan

Trigger Warning: Rape

Oh hey, the Brothers Sinister! What a surprise!

The Governess Affair is actually the prequel novella that provides background on book two’s hero, Oliver’s parents. Robert (from The Duchess War) has a half-brother named Oliver whose biological father was Robert’s odious father (also Robert but henceforth referred to as The Duke ) and Serena Barton, a governess he sexually assaulted. Oliver’s true father, Hugo Marshall, originally works for The Duke in cleaning up problems. Serena becomes a problem for The Duke when she begins to show up, visibly pregnant, and sit by his offices until her demands are met to provide for their child. Hugo is tasked with getting rid of her (nonviolently – this is romance, not true crime) but struggles with his own ambitions and this woman who has been grievously injured.

Milan is able to take on a very difficult subject and still craft a love story that feels real and well-deserved for both. Even better, it sets up a relationship that will give the child resulting in this assault a family that genuinely loves him. Although Oliver’s birthright (or lack thereof) is a source of conflict for the character going forward what is never in conflict is whether he was loved or appreciated. Oliver was able to grow up in a family that loved him, devoid of resentment.

I also appreciate that Milan did not just use sexual assault as a throwaway tragic backstory for her hero. She gave the character who was assaulted an identity and her own agency and happiness. That is done very rarely despite the fairly prevalent use of sexual assault in entertainment nowadays and was very refreshing.

Big surprise, if it won’t be triggering for you, I think you guys should read this book! I believe this is the last Brothers Sinister book review I have this year so if you’ve been getting tired of them, don’t worry. We move onto other things now, for better and worse.

Review: A Broom of One’s Own by Nancy Peacock

I think I picked up A Broom of One’s Own at a library or local bookstore sale because it sounded interesting and was short and at this point in the year I was very far behind in my reading challenge for the year and needed something quick. The book is a brief memoir by author Nancy Peacock on what it’s like to publish a book, have it go over well, and then still end up needing to get a job to maintain your life. It’s an interesting perspective from a voice we don’t get often – the voice of the published but not prolific author.

Peacock’s profession is also interesting as she works as a housecleaner, a profession which gave her quite a few stories just from her experiences cleaning people’s homes. She also talks about some personal losses that occurred through this period of time.

I won’t lie to you all, I don’t remember it incredibly well but I do remember feeling an odd sense of melancholy. Maybe because of the different human experiences she shares. Maybe because of the reality that publishing a novel doesn’t change your life like the fairytale Cinderella stories make you want to believe. Maybe because it kept reminding me how messy my house is and how much I should clean it.

In any case, it was an interesting read and helped kickstart me back into reading after a slump. I haven’t checked out any of Peacock’s works yet. Maybe that will be a goal for next year.

Review: The Duchess War by Courtney Milan

The book that launched my love of romance is finally here!

I originally read this book last year after the episode from Heaving Bosoms. I had been listening to the podcast as an amused observer without actually reading romance, not out of a sense of superiority but mostly because I felt intimidated. Romance is such a big genre with so many possible ways to start and I didn’t feel like I could navigate it on my own so I just enjoyed their recaps until this episode where I thought the book sounded good enough that I had to read it for myself.

The Duchess War is set in Victorian England and the first in the Brothers Sinister series. Robert Blaisdell is a handsome Duke who runs into Minnie Lane, a faux wallflower, while hiding out from a social event. Robert has been anonymously spreading seditious handbills encouraging workers to unionize because he is desperately trying to clean up the horrible mess his father left. Minnie is trying to escape her past with a new identity and stands accused of passing out the handbills. The two face off and as secrets are revealed and motives come out, the characters fall in love.

One of the things that I appreciate about Milan’s work is her brilliant use of banter between characters. Robert and Minnie sass each other in ways that are amusing but never mean-spirited. The respect the characters feel for each other are evident throughout. They both accept each other where they are but also encourage and help each other to grow. Neither character is perfect but even as mistakes are made you root for them instead of just getting aggravated at them. Also, top notch sex scenes and *drumroll* A VIRGIN DUKE!

After years of rapscallion, wanton dukes we get a virgin duke! And a believable (and not comedically cringy) first time! Followed by communication and improvement!

*chef’s kiss*

When I said that Milan is the author I recommend without reservations, this is the specific book because it is the start of the series and a genuinely good story on its own.

Review: The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan

This is another third book in a series and another series that I collect!

The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan is a beautiful story of a rake and a scientist and growing beyond the facades you build to protect yourself.

Sebastian Malheur is a rakish playboy and, more scandalously, a scientist who specializes in genetics. In the Victorian era this is considered especially brazen because it references reproduction. If there’s one thing worse than a male scientist it is a female scientist which is why Sebastian actually a front for his childhood friend Violet’s research. In truth she is the scientist and he is just the way for her to communicate her findings. It’s an intriguing twist on a nom de plume and offers an interesting conflict for the characters when Sebastian announces that he will no longer play along with her charade. His reasons are understandable, as is her anger and fear over his choice. I always feel that the best conflicts are ones where there’s no one clear right or wrong person but rather a situation where both people are responding reasonably based on their experience and circumstances and finding a way through it will require growth and courage on both people’s parts.

Another conflict is that Sebastian, for all of his philandering and raking about, has been in love with Violet for years. Meanwhile Violet, believing herself undesirable and also just plain too busy with her work, has survived a horrible marriage and has sworn off romantic relationships with people both for her heart and her body’s safety.

Quick note – If you may be triggered by discussions of domestic violence and miscarriage, please skip past this book or make sure you’re in a good place mentally before reading. It isn’t gratuitous by any means but Violet’s experiences are treated with the correct amount of solemnity and her grief may be especially hard for people who can relate to her circumstance.

The challenges these characters have faced, in their personal lives and with each other, makes their Happily Ever After all the more satisfying. I also appreciated that the HEA for Violet includes recognition and professional happiness just as much as romantic happiness. Milan does a brilliant job of ensuring that each of her characters have lives outside of their relationships while still making the romance a driving force of the plot. Every book in this series would be interesting enough to read without the romance just based on the characters and their challenges, but the romance doesn’t feel unnecessary or forced. Courtney Milan is an author whose books have yet to disappoint and is one of the few authors I automatically and without reservations recommend when people are dipping into the Romance genre.

I will be writing a review for two more of the books in this series (including the first one) coming up so look for more Milan gushing then!

Review: Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions by Amy Stewart

This book is actually the third in the Kopp Sisters series of historical fiction based on an actual person. Amy Stewart’s series starts with Girl Waits With Gun and follows the life of Constance Kopp, the first female Sheriff in the United States of America.

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The basic premise is that Constance Kopp stood up to people no one else would, won the respect of the Sheriff of New Jersey and began working with him despite objections from many, many people and society in 1914 in general. This book, Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions, is a bit different from the first two.

In this book, Stewart brings in the issue of sexist policies in early 20th century laws. Kopp is brought in to help with two different young women who are arrested for, essentially, being “unladylike” aka sleeping with men while unmarried, being accused to staying out too late and dancing, etc. There are two different kinds of women who Kopp helps. The first is legitimately a “good girl” even by society’s standards. The second is guilty of all the things she is accused of and Kopp struggles to help her avoid a life in a sanitarium for troubled girls.

Quick note – I’m calling them women but if memory serves (I read this book sometime in August I think), they are technically teenagers, but I believe legal adults. In any case they were in that odd stage of womanhood where they could be infantilized and/or sexualized and/or just married off to make babies.

While Constance deals with the sexism she faces systemically and professionally, we get more of her younger sister Fleurette’s life as she runs off to join a traveling dance troupe. This character has shown a lot of growth without sacrificing the parts of her that make her a unique voice that stands out from her more stoic and hardened sisters. The middle Kopp sister, Norma, is still more of a background character but I hope to hear more about her in the future books.

It’s not very common for me to start a series and then commit to buying every book in the series that comes out but when I see that a new one has been published it’s an automatic buy, or at the very least an automatic add to wishlist. I love a good historical fiction, especially when featuring a female historical figure I hadn’t heard of before, and this series is two for two.

Review: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

This was another book club read! July’s genre was Cyberpunk and of the options presented we chose Autonomous by Annalee Newitz.

This was the first (and so far only) cyberpunk novel I’ve read and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I’m still not sure how I feel about the novel but I’ll do my best to suss it out as I go here. Another quick note is that this is also the first novel by a nonbinary author I’ve ever read (to the best of my knowledge). I mention that here because representation is important and so no one tries to correct my use of “they” when I reference the author.

Falling back on the Amazon synopsis for this one:

“Earth, 2144. Jack is an anti-patent scientist turned drug pirate, traversing the world in a submarine as a pharmaceutical Robin Hood, fabricating cheap scrips for poor people who can’t otherwise afford them. But her latest drug hack has left a trail of lethal overdoses as people become addicted to their work, doing repetitive tasks until they become unsafe or insane.

Hot on her trail, an unlikely pair: Eliasz, a brooding military agent, and his robotic partner, Paladin. As they race to stop information about the sinister origins of Jack’s drug from getting out, they begin to form an uncommonly close bond that neither of them fully understand.

And underlying it all is one fundamental question: Is freedom possible in a culture where everything, even people, can be owned?”

The overall genre has never interested me but this synopsis did because the question of autonomy, what is it and who can have it, etc., is one that intrigues the moody philosopher in me. I also enjoy a Robin Hood angle anytime, in space or earth. The book takes on some very big concepts beyond autonomy.

One prevalent issue is that of patents and freedom of information. I appreciated the way Newitz recognized this topic’s nuances. It would have been easy for them to push Jack as an uncomplicated hero and being anti-patent as a clear, moral victory. However, they acknowledge the issues that can come from unchecked patent freedom including the costs if medications aren’t peer reviewed and checked for side effects. A distinct difference between Jack and the anti-patent people and the patent companies is that Jack feels remorse and tries to make things better whereas the patent companies are truly soulless, faceless corporations that don’t care about human cost as much as literal, financial cost. I also appreciated the discussion of productivity and quality of life. I think pretty much everyone in the book club was concerned by how wistful we were at the idea of a medication that makes you incredibly productive and happy about it. But that also isn’t something we could easily discount as evil because there will always be people who have to take on these jobs no one else wants and if there is something that can make it easier for them, is it cruel to deprive them of it? Then again, if they are always content, won’t that lead to further human rights violations because there won’t even be the pressure of people raising issues over the conditions they work in.

As I said, Newitz does a great job of presenting these issues without pushing the reader too hard in either direction. They just present a set of societal concerns and let their characters work in this world, their choices shaped by their unique values and goals.

At times, perhaps because of my unfamiliarity with the genre, I felt that the language grew needlessly complicated and “techy” as though the author were trying to really hammer home that this is a Sci Fi Futuristic Setting. At the same time the actual changes or signs of futurism in the novel were fairly realistic.

Perhaps the true main character is the robot Paladin. The discussion surrounding gender identity was just as prevalent as the discussion surrounding autonomy with this character. Newitz makes it clear that robots are genderless and that even the gender or sex of the brain that is used in their development does not implant a gender on the robot themselves. Paladin is very clear about this with their partner, Eliasz, and yet when Paladin discovers that their brain was from a woman, Eliasz uses this information as a justification for the sexual feelings he is having for Paladin. Paladin chooses to use female pronouns at this point because she sees that it helps Eliasz feel better and she feels drawn to Eliasz so she is willing to live with that label. This is an especially poignant and somewhat distressing choice based on the gender identity of the author. I wondered as I read it if the author was sharing some real life experience there from past relationships and what was expected from them.

The relationship between Paladin and Eliasz is a difficult one. First of all it’s difficult because Eliasz is a bigoted prick whose tragic backstory is some children saw him on his knees by a robot and accused him of being a “f****t” and now he is hyper afraid of people thinking he’s gay.

Side Note: I took real issue with the use of the F-slur. Both because it’s an ugly word but also because surely in the future there would be a slur specific to fucking robots.

The relationship between Eliasz and Paladin is very much the story of one man projecting desire and even gender identity onto a character so it fulfills his needs and justifies his choices. Paladin never rejects the advances or the identity, but they also very clearly go along with it for Eliasz’s sake. In their very relationship, Paladin is stripped of autonomy. In the end Eliasz buys Paladin to set her/them free but I couldn’t help but read this as a man buying his partner for himself. This might be too harsh but I just couldn’t get on board with the relationship, nor could I decide where Newitz landed on it.

There is a lot of interesting plot material in here including run-ins with other robots who have very strong, clear opinions on autonomy and Jack’s plotline is also interesting. In the end, as I write this review, I think I enjoyed the book more than I realized at the time. I appreciate that it still has me thinking about it and that Newitz was able to avoid infodumping which would have been easy based on the worldbuilding they developed alone. There is also a couple of side characters I find fascinating and would have read an entire book about but I hope you’ll find out more about them if you pick up the book yourself.