Review: The Second Life of Nathan Jones by David Atkinson

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When one wrong step – and the poor timing of the number 19 bus – send Nathan Jones to the Edinburgh morgue his story should have ended…but then he went and woke up.  

Returned to real life Nathan finds a wife disappointed that he’s miraculously returned from the dead and an unshakeable attraction for mortuary technician Kat – the woman who brought him back to life, in more ways than one. 

Now, as his world implodes and Kat leads him down an unexpected path, Nathan somehow finds himself having the time of his second life…

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Source: NetGalley and HarperImpulse          Rating: 4½/5 stars

Nathan Jones isn’t leading what most would call a stellar, totally fulfilling life, but it’s better than no life at all.  Oh, Nathan knows his marriage is rubbish and his wife is a cow, but his daughters are delightful and being with them means everything to Nathan.  Things aren’t perfect amongst the living but waking up in a morgue is even worse.  Just ask Nathan Jones.

Kat’s never met a real zombie, but Nathan Jones seems to be just that, a real, live returned from the dead kind of zombie, but don’t call him that.  Nathan Jones is also immensely attractive and from the moment she meets him, Kat is intrigued by the man who returned from the dead.  Getting to know Nathan Jones isn’t going to be easy, but nothing worth it in this life is easy.  Against the advice of her best friend, Kat sets upon a course that will bring her the greatest pleasure and the greatest heartbreak she has ever known in her life.

Nathan Jones thought dying and returning from the dead was the worst thing he was going to face in his, well, life.  As it turns out, the worst thing he must face is the prospect of his wife leaving him and taking his beloved daughters with him.  If it weren’t for Kat and her plan to know Nathan Jones, he would be completely alone and totally lost.  Kat is unlike anyone Nathan Jones has ever met.  She’s Goth (not punk!), wildly inappropriate, kind, generous, and the most delightfully weird person Nathan Jones has ever known.  If Kat thinks it, she says it, if she enjoys it, she does it, and if she wants it, she goes for it.  For Nathan Jones, Kat is a bit a refreshing, a breath of fresh air in a life (and death) that had otherwise become tolerable, at best. 

Kat completely understands the mess she is getting herself into.  Nathan Jones doesn’t come with baggage; he comes with a cargo plane filled with baggage.  He’s not technically divorced, his girls are a consideration, and there is always the possibility he doesn’t actually like Kat.  In short order, the last bit is answered, a trip to the zoo goes a long way in smoothing the path with the girls, and the first is just a volcano waiting to erupt.  Yes, Kat is absolutely insane to even consider becoming involved with Nathan Jones, but something about him screams special and worth it, so Kat soldiers on. 

The time Kat has with Nathan Jones is both exhilarating and turbulent.  Nathan Joens’ wife has no intention of going away quietly into the night; in fact, Nathan Jones’ wife has every intention of living up to her reputation as a cow and looks to make life miserable for everyone, Kat included.  As the cow’s plans unfold, both Kat and Nathan Jones are brought to the lowest point of their respective lives.  Nathan Jones is on the verge of losing his girls for good and Kat is as heartbroken as she every could have imagined.  With no real hope left, the two part ways and hope there comes a day when the pain isn’t quite so potent.

The Bottom Line:  The Second Life of Nathan Jones is one of those books whose Goodreads star rating totally baffles me.  I found this book to be smartly written, wickedly funny, and appropriately emotional.  This isn’t just the story of Nathan Jones and his miraculous return from the dead, it’s the story of a group of people, some incredibly broken and misguided, crashing into one another and trying to make the best of it all.  Every character is clear and full, the plot is a train wreck in the best possible way, and I simply couldn’t put this book down.  This really is an emotional roller coaster of a ride that is tempered with a good bit of dark humor, sarcasm, witty banter, awkward moments, and a few naughty bits thrown in for good measure!  In all, a fine read.

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Review: Out of the Picture: A Shepherd Sisters Mystery by Tracy Gardner

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Savanna Shepherd is a former art authenticator—someone who can tell a forgery from the real thing. She’s got a talent for spotting secrets hiding in plain sight.

In the wake of a painful breakup, she moves back to her idyllic hometown on the banks of Lake Michigan. At least she’s close to her sisters again, and she’s enjoying her new job as a grade school art teacher.

Savanna even rediscovers her creative soul when an old family friend hires her to paint a mural. But sad and strange incidents occur at the woman’s mansion, compelling Savanna to investigate. With a little help from her sisters—and from Aidan, the intriguing town doctor—will she be able to figure out what’s wrong with this picture?

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Source: NetGalley and Hallmark Publishing          Rating: 4/5 stars

As the old saying goes, you can’t ever go home, but Savanna Shepherd is determined to be the exception to that rule.  After leaving the big city, her feckless fiancé, and her prestigious job as an art authenticator, Savanna is back home and settling in nicely.  She’s secured a job as an elementary art teacher, she is living with her sister, and slowly melding back into life in her beloved hometown. 

One of the first orders of business for Savanna upon settling in is reconnecting with her grandmother-of-the-heart, Caroline Carson.  From childhood, Caroline has held a special place in the Shepherd sister’s lives and hearts.  Seeing Caroline again is a special pleasure for Savanna and while she intended it to be a short visit to reconnect with an old friend, it turns into something far, far greater.

As Savanna reenters Caroline’s life, she discovers her dear friend is renovating her historic home, thinning out her impressive and vast art collection, and gearing up for her 90th birthday celebration.  To that end, Caroline enlists Savanna’s help in the form of a lovely seascape mural to match the view out her sitting room window.  With a new job, a new project, and a new life, Savanna is excited to get started, but almost immediately, that excitement is tempered by worry.  Caroline, at 89-years-old is in remarkable shape, but her heart is acting a bit wonky which has led to some in-home testing and the presence of her personal physician, Dr. Aidan Gallager. 

Though Caroline convinces Savanna the tests are nothing to be worried about, a series of events unfolds that only compounds Savanna’s worry.  Following the sudden and unexpected death of one of Caroline’s dear friends, Savanna, Caroline, and Dr. Gallager all begin to wonder and worry.  As the days and weeks leading up to the party unfold, more troubling events unfold in Caroline’s home that leads Savanna and company to believe there’s a very bad person out to harm Caroline, if not kill her.  Though Caroline doesn’t want to believe it to be true, the evidence is mounting up the more questions that are asked and answers that are uncovered.  If Savanna and company can’t figure out the truth of the situation soon, Caroline just may not make it to her 90th birthday bash.

The Bottom Line:  You know what’s awesome when it’s combined?  Hallmark Publishing and the cozy mystery genre!  The Shepherd sisters are all quite delightful, each with their own distinct and lovely personalities, their parents are a wonderful support system, and the town itself is comfortable and perfect for the story and characters.  The plot involves on of my favorite topics, art, and plays with a cast of characters that are easy to like, easy to root for, and fun to read about.  With three sisters, I see a solid and entertaining trilogy in my future!

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Review: The Spice King (Book #1: Hope and Glory Series) by Elizabeth Camden

43838042Gray Delacroix has dedicated his life to building an acclaimed global spice empire, but it has come at a cost. Resolved to salvage his family before they spiral out of control, he returns to his ancestral home for good after years of traveling the world. 

As a junior botanist for the Smithsonian, Annabelle Larkin has been charged with the impossible task of gaining access to the notoriously private Delacroix plant collection. If she fails, she will be out of a job and the family farm in Kansas will go under. She has no idea that in gaining entrance to the Delacroix world, she will unwittingly step into a web of dangerous political intrigue far beyond her experience. 

Unable to deny her attraction to the reclusive business tycoon, Annabelle will be forced to choose between her heart and loyalty to her country. Can Gray and Annabelle find a way through the storm of scandal without destroying the family Gray is fighting to save?

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Source: NetGalley and Bethany House Publishers          Rating: 4½/5 stars

Annabelle Larkin’s family has sacrificed everything so she and her sister, Elaine can spread their wings and live a life far beyond the confines of their failing Kansas farm.  The Larkin girls have both been to college and if they play their cards right, life in their new home of Washington D.C. can and will exceed everyone’s expectations.  Though both women are thrilled to be living in the city, life isn’t without its challenges.

Annabelle’s sister is blind and her presence in D.C. is meant to help her live a real life, a life beyond her limitations.  Elaine spends her days volunteering at the national library where she works with the Braille collection and helps fellow blind people advance their own reading skills.  Elaine’s life hasn’t been easy, but helping others brings her comfort and allows her to live a life she is proud to call her own.  However, her life isn’t perfect and without Annabelle, Elaine’s newfound freedom would not be possible.  Annabelle spends her days working as an assistant botanist at the Smithsonian and if she wants her job to continue, she must impress her bosses.

Annabelle’s ultimate goal in life is to help her family bring their farm back to prosperity and that means learning all she can about wheat and crop production.  To continue toward that goal and keeping her sister safe and happy, Annabelle must keep her job at the Smithsonian, but as a woman working in the late 19th century, that isn’t going to be easy.  Her bosses have a very specific agenda and that agenda includes Annabelle gaining access to the plant and spice collection of one of the world’s most reclusive and private men, Gray Delacroix.  Gray’s collection of rare and special plants would be a boon to the Smithsonian collection and Annabelle has been tasked with gaining access to, if not cuttings and samples from the tremendous collection.

Gray Delacroix has spent his life travelling the world collecting the most exotic plants and spices.  His family’s fortune is based on he and his father’s hard work and focused determination to bring only the best spices back to America and make them commercially available.  Gray is highly protective of his work and believes only he and his family can provide the best products in the industry.  To Gray’s thinking, organizations like the Smithsonian and Department of Agriculture only want to exploit his efforts and give away for free what he and his family have worked hard to build.  To Gray’s mind, Annabelle Larkin is just the latest volley in the ongoing struggle between Gray and the US government. 

Or, is she . . . . .

Annabelle Larkin is the only woman who has ever made Gray think seriously about settling down and being more than a powerful and successful businessman.  Annabelle is knowledgeable, honest, clear in her intentions, and truly interested in what Gray has accomplished.  Her love of plants and desire to learn is rivaled only by Gray’s and that is something he has never found.  In the shortest of time span’s Gray decides to court Annabelle and work towards building a life and family with her.  Gray has every intention of helping Annabelle secure her future and support her sister and parents.  Just as everything seems to be falling into place for both Gray and Annabelle, their lives are turned upside down following the arrest of Gray’s brother for treason.  What unfolds in the wake of the arrest is a story of betrayal, lies, plans, shady business dealings, and the desire to do the right thing even in the face of heartbreak.

The Bottom Line: I was somewhat on the fence when I requested this book from NetGalley and I certainly should not have been.  The Spice King is a bit outside my normal historical fiction comfort zone, but I am quite glad to have stepped outside the zone.  I found this book to be complex, complicated, informative, and absolutely engrossing.  I spent one very late night reading this book cover to cover and regret nothing.  This story could have been dead dull if it weren’t for the robust characters telling the story.  Annabelle is a quiet storm who holds fast to beliefs and loyalties no matter the personal cost.  Gray is a surly, stubborn, reclusive man hell-bent on protecting his family no matter the personal cost.  There are so many plots and sub-plots going on in this book, but Camden weaves them all together brilliantly and creates a truly excellent read.  This book has a bit of everything including well-rounded and interesting characters, a solid and very real historical setting, and a story that weaves in and out in the most wonderful ways.  Elizabeth Camden is a force to be reckoned with in the historical fiction genre and I look forward to her next offering.

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Review: Across a Broken Shore by Amy Trueblood

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The last thing eighteen-year-old Wilhelmina “Willa” MacCarthy wants is to be a nun. It’s 1936, and as the only daughter amongst four sons, her Irish–Catholic family is counting on her to take her vows—but Willa’s found another calling. Each day she sneaks away to help Doctor Katherine Winston in her medical clinic in San Francisco’s Richmond District. 

Keeping secrets from her family only becomes more complicated when Willa agrees to help the doctor at a field hospital near the new bridge being built over the Golden Gate. Willa thinks she can handle her new chaotic life, but as she draws closer to a dashing young ironworker and risks grow at the bridge, she discovers that hiding from what she truly wants may be her biggest lie of all.

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Source: NetGalley and Flux          Rating: 5/5 stars

Willa McCarthy has known for much of her life that her life is not her own.  As the only daughter of a large Irish-Catholic family, it is Willa’s duty and responsibility to honor the family by taking vows to become a nun.  What’s more, even if Willa wanted to escape her duty and responsibility, her family has made it clear, that isn’t an option and certainly not the actions of a good girl. 

For Willa, the prospect of taking vows and living out the remainder of her life trapped inside a convent is nothing short of a prison sentence.  Though Willa believes in God, she knows He hasn’t called her to service as a nun.  What’s more, Willa truly believes her calling is to medicine, but to travel that road would not only disappoint her parents but likely see her shunned by her family.  Since she encountered her first medical textbook, Willa has been fascinated with the subject and spends every available moment not just reading the text, but studying, learning, and memorizing.  To become a doctor would require tremendous sacrifice, time, effort, and money, and Willa just isn’t sure those options are available to her.

Dr. Katherine Winston isn’t your average doctor.  Above all else, she is a woman working in a predominately male world and struggles each and every day to be accepted among her peers.  She has fought tooth and nail, at great personal cost for her position and her practice and she isn’t going to let it all slip away.  Meeting Willa and seeing her enthusiasm for medicine bolsters Dr. Winston and encourages her to ask Willa to work alongside her as an apprentice of sorts.  Though working with Dr. Winston will require no small amount of lies and deceptions, Willa is thrilled with the opportunity.  As Dr. Winston believes in a teaching by doing method, it isn’t long before Willa is up to her elbows in all manner of illnesses and injuries.  The work is exhilarating and exhausting but ever so worth it every time a patient leaves the practice feeling better. 

Each day with Dr. Winston is a gift Willa feels has a very short life expectancy.  Willa is so very torn between two worlds, her work with Dr. Winston and her duty and responsibility as a member of her family.  To work with Dr. Winston means Willa is making a difference in the world, but it also means she is constantly and consistently lying to her family, hiding from them a vital part of her existence.  As it happens, Willa’s secret doesn’t remain so for long.  As a part of her work with Dr. Winston, Willa is often called to the small clinic set up for injuries incurred while work on the Golden Gate Bridge is being completed.  The work is exciting, often dangerous, and always comes with the risk of Willa being found out by brothers who work on the bridge.  As with working in the clinic, the risk is well worth the reward and every day, every incident, every injury teaches Willa something more about medicine and where her heart truly lies. 

The Bottom Line:  Historical fiction has long been a favored genre for me, and this book certainly fit the bill.  I make a habit of reading the author’s notes when the genre is historical fiction and I was glad to read just how much of this book is based on reality.  Every character, even the purely fictional characters, read as perfectly authentic and real.  The setting is brilliantly described yet not so much that the landscape and setting take over the story.  From beginning to end there is a very real sense of dread and danger, dread that Willa will be found out and danger from the bridge building to the consequences of Willa’s actions. Enhancing the truly fascinating medical side of the story is the very real family and romantic situations Willa finds herself a part of.  This story really does have something for everyone and is an excellent example of what historical fiction should be.  I have high hopes for Amy Trueblood and look forward to her next historical offering.

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Mini-Review: Death on the Page (Book #2: Castle Bookshop Mystery) by Essie Lang

46365900. sy475 There are a thousand stories in New York’s scenic Thousand Islands, and Bayside Books co-owner Shelby Cox stocks them all. But lately, the Blye Island bookseller’s life is more about investigation than inventory. True-crime writer Savannah Page caps off two successful signings at Bayside Books with a night in Blye Castle. She’s there to research Joe Cabana, a colorful Prohibition-era mobster who owned the castle–until he was found dead in the island Grotto.

But crime becomes all too true for Savannah. Her body turns up the next morning, in a secret passage at the bottom of the stairs. The last thing Shelby Cox wants is to sleuth another murder, but she’s intrigued about how a killer could have reached the island after hours. She’s not at a lack for suspects either. It could have been anyone from Savannah’s fiancé, Liam Kennelly, who argued with her the evening before, to island caretaker Matthew Kessler, recently cleared of his wife’s murder. Can Shelby keep regular store hours, elude the police chief, and assemble the clues into a hard-bound case without getting permanently shelved?

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Source: NetGalley and Crooked Lane Books          Rating: 3/5 stars

The Bottom Line:  In an effort to be fair to the author and to accept that the first book in a new series isn’t always the best, I went for round two of the Castle Bookshop Mystery series.  Unfortunately, I didn’t find much more in this installment of the series than I did in the first.  The setting/locale is still idyllic and beautifully described, but the characters still fall woefully short and the plot was only moderately more interesting than in the first book.  My greatest issue with this book is going to have to be the characters: Shelby is still rather flat, her aunt and her aunt’s best friend are cold, at best, and the police chief is just completely off-putting.  Though the men and a few of the minor female characters are slightly better, they just aren’t enough to keep me coming back to this series.  Sad as it is, there are just too many books and too little time to continue to devote time and effort to a series that just doesn’t totally enthrall me.

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Mini-Review: Trouble on the Books (Book #1: Castle Bookshop Mystery) by Essie Lang

42248352. sy475 Shelby Cox never intended to become a bookseller, so when the former editor returns to her hometown of Alexandria Bay, nestled in upstate New York’s breathtaking Thousand Islands region, to take over her aunt’s bookstore, she has no idea what to expect. To her amazement, she discovers that she now owns a fifty-percent share in Bayside Books, and will also run the store’s second location in the majestic castle on nearby Blye Island. 

But just as Shelby is gearing up for the start of the tourist season, the Castle volunteer coordinator is found murdered in the nearby Grotto. Castle caretaker Matthew Kessler is suspect number one, but Shelby thinks the killing may be connected to an earlier era, when violence among Prohibition-era smugglers was rampant in the region. As Shelby launches her own investigation, handsome and unnerving Special Agent Zack Griffin of the Coast Guard Investigative Services tries to quell her smuggling theory and keep her safe. But Shelby is determined to summon all her savvy as a book editor to plot the murder—and find the killer before he strikes again—in Trouble on the Books, Essie Lang’s clever and captivating series debut.

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Source: Purchase          Rating: 2½/5 stars

The Bottom Line:  I think the thing I enjoyed most about this book is the setting.  It’s hard to dislike a setting that involves a lovely island locale, and old castle, and a couple bookstores.  I wish as much thought and effort had gone into the plot and the characters as was put into the setting.  In truth, it is the description of the setting(s) which is very clear and interesting that kept me reading this book more than the plot and characters.  I found the plot to be somewhat flat and many of the characters to be unrealistic and ill-defined.  In general, cozy mysteries, especially those involving a bookshop keep me hooked and speed-reading, but the failures in the characters and plot had me plodding through this book and it took me an extended amount of time to get through it.  With that being said, I always take into account the first-in-a-series status of a book and feel I should give the series, especially one in such a lovely location a second chance.

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Review: Shall We Dance? (Book #1: The Dance With Me Series) by Shelley Shepard Gray

48361060. sy475 At twenty-seven, Shannon Murphy has just discovered that she has two sisters she never knew. Now, through Shannon’s loving persistence, the three of them are moving in together above her dance studio in Bridgeport. Shannon is excited to make a home with her sisters and to grow her budding business. Then she meets her newest client—he has all the right muscles, a perfect smile, and a lot of attitude. Will Shannon be able to keep things professional with this charming stranger? 

Dylan Lange has a lot on his mind. He’s just been assigned a new partner at his job with the Bridgeport Police, and while he’s busy striving to protect and serve his town, he’s also trying to keep his baby sister out of harm’s way while she heals from her own trauma. And on top of everything else, he’s gone and lost a bet with his buddies, forcing him to take dance lessons. But when he walks into the dance studio to meet his instructor, a young and beautiful brunette with a sweet southern drawl is the last person he expected to find.

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Source: NetGalley and Blackstone Publishing          Rating: 4/5 stars

Shannon Murphy is embarking on a tremendous new journey, a chapter in her life she never expected, but is, nevertheless, extremely excited about.  Her two sisters, whom she only recently discovered are moving in with her and she’s opening her own dance studio.  Given enough time to think about it all, Shannon may just crack from the nerves, but there’s no more time to think about it and it’s time for the adventure to begin!

Within moments of meeting her sisters Shannon is certain she made the right choice when she invited them to the move to the sleepy little town of Bridgeport.  One is a tall, nerdy, gorgeous model and the other tough, no nonsense police officer.  Their skills and interests are varied, but they have three very important things in common, they want to know one another, build a life together, and not even one of them can cook.  In addition to her new roommates, Shannon also has a new business to run.  As a former competitive dancer, Shannon is beyond her competition days, but not nearly over her dancing days.  With a variety of class and private lessons, Shannon is thrilled to be dancing for pleasure rather than points. 

Dylan Lange isn’t a big fan of losing, especially when the result is having to take dance lessons to satisfy the terms of the lost bet.  Dylan has no intention of working any harder than he must in order to settle his bet, and then he meets Shannon Murphy.  Shannon is fiery and beautiful and dedicated to dance and has no interest in teaching someone who doesn’t want to learn.  What’s more, she isn’t afraid to kick Dylan out and that intrigues him.  After an attitude adjustment and an introduction do-over, Dylan is not only ready to get down to business but to become better acquainted with Shannon Murphy.

In betwixt and between dancing lessons, life moves along and much of that life for Dylan includes looking after his sister who is still recovering from a brutal assault several years ago.  Though the interceding years have been very hard, Dylan’s sister is finally coming through and finding herself again.  To that end, she meets Shannon and her sisters and within a hot minute she becomes a member of the group.  What’s more, once the sisters discover the stellar cooking abilities of Dylan’s sister, she becomes a valued and beloved member of the group. 

As so often happens in life, just as everything seems to be going well, the bottom falls out.  In this case, the bottom falls out for Dylan and his sister.  Just as she was getting her life back, the past comes screaming back causing her to somewhat regress and her brother to absolutely lose his mind.  As events play out, Shannon and Dylan draw closer to one another, Shannon and her sisters draw closer to Dylan’s sister, and Dylan’s sister proves to everyone, including herself that she won’t be ruled by her past not fear.

The Bottom Line:  I am always, always going to be drawn to books about dancing and dancers and this one sure did deliver.  Shall We Dance is a true super-sweet romance with all the feels thrown in for good measure.  At its core, this book is all about love, support, friendship, loyalty, and what it takes to be a family.  This is a super easy read filled with fine characters, a good plot, and loads of room for more books to come.  I’m all in on this one and look forward to the next installment.

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