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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Stallions at Burnt Rock

Stallions at Burnt Rock (West Texas Sunrise Book #1): A Novel           

Review of Stallions at Burnt Rock by Paul Bagdon

Overview from Lee Morgan dreams of raising the ideal ranch horse-one that has speed, stamina, and heart. On her Texas spread near the town of Burnt Rock, the high-spirited woman heads her own horse ranch operation. It's an unusual occupation for a female in the 1870s, but as an expert horsewoman and a crack shot with a rifle, she's quite adept at taking care of herself.
Determined to gain fame for her fine horses, Lee agrees to enter her magnificent coal-black stallion in a match race, never dreaming she's about to set into motion a string of events that will threaten herself, her ranch, and her friend-town marshall, Ben Flood. As gamblers, gunslingers, and shysters descend on Burnt Rock to bet on the now-famous race, Lee comes face-to-face with sinister men who seek to destroy her plans. Her true courage and strong faith shine through when she embarks on the most thrilling ride of her life.
The first in a series of western novels, Stallions at Burnt Rock is a masterfully spun tale of a strong, virtuous heroine. It will captivate romance novel enthusiasts as well as fans of westerns and adventure.

My Review:

Lee Morgan, a young woman living in Texas in the late 1800’s, is an oddity for her time. She runs a horse ranch where she dreams of breeding the perfect ranch horse.

This book is also an oddity, a Western with little graphic violence, no profanity, a female protagonist and minimal shooting.

The plot was a little slow getting starting. It seemed like the beginning served mostly as an introduction to our main character, her staff and friends, and her horses. When Lee hesitantly agrees with her old friend and fellow horse breeder, Jonas, to conduct a horse race that pits their best stallions against each other in an effort to attract buyers for their horses, things start to pick up.

The promise of a race seems to attract all kinds of low-life's, gamblers, and even murderers to Burnt Rock. Soon Lee’s friend Marshal Ben Flood is in over his head trying to talk Lee into being more cautious and keeping the rest of the town safe.

When Jonas is killed, Lee wonders whether or not it would be best to just cancel the race. But Ben convinces her that it is too late. With her trust in God leading her on, she hopes to get her horse Slick across the finish line and the gamblers out of town before anything worse happens.

So the story did get better. We had a little more excitement and lots of horses. In fact, the novel seems to center mostly around the horses and the sinister plot that got Jonas killed. There is a hint of romance though.

The characters were a little off to me somehow. I liked the marshal but the others somehow didn’t seem quite right. Lee seemed a little too perfect for me. The only mistake she seems to make is trusting people too much and that seemed odd to me.

I like the fact that is a clean story but it seemed a little long to me, despite having only 136 pages. I would recommend this one if you really like horses a lot or are looking for short, clean Western to read. Otherwise, it might not be that interesting. On the plus side, it was free for the e-reader on both Amazon and Barnes & Noble’s website the last time I checked.

Contains: some violence

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Persona Non Grata

Persona Non Grata (Gaius Petreius Ruso Series #3)       

Review of Persona Non Grata by Ruth Downie

Overview from "When a mysterious note arrives in the mail consisting only of the words "come home," Gaius Petreius Ruso is forced to give up his career as a military doctor in Britannia and head back to his family in Gaul." "But all is not well on the home front. No one will admit to having sent for him, and his companion Tilla is neither expected nor welcome. With the family teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and the town's leading politician, Gabinius Fuscus, breathing down his neck, it's hard to imagine an unhappier reunion. That is, until Severus, the family's chief creditor, winds up dead, and the real trouble begins." Plunged unwillingly into the investigation, and struggling to help his family's financial situation, Ruso is entrusted with the welfare of the household. But no one seems able to stop meddling in his affairs, and with the pressure mounting, Ruso will have to count on his wits, his girlfriend, and perhaps - for once in his life - a little good fortune.

My Review:

This week’s story takes us back all the way to the Roman Empire during the reign of Emperor Hadrian. It is a murder mystery with a doctor in the Legion stationed in Britannia as the protagonist and detective. Ruso is his name.

His partner in crime solving is a young British lady named Tilla. I wasn’t exactly clear on their relationship but we are told that at some point Ruso bought Tilla from some other owner yet she seems remarkably independent for a slave, even at one point during the novel, leaving to go off with a stranger so I am guessing that she might no longer be a slave to him or at least a slave who is given a lot of freedom. She still refers to him as “Medicus.”

Our story opens with Ruso hurting his leg in attempt to save a young local boy. Right after that, he receives a mysterious letter, presumably from his brother that simply reads, “Urgent. Come home.”

He manages to get leave to do just that. But that’s when his real troubles begin.

He finds his family deep in debt, a debt that is likely to go to court and prove the ruin of them all. While his brother Lucius denies having ever sent the message and to top it off the guy he owes money to (Severus) dies from an apparent poisoning. His last words are, “The b***** has poisoned me.”

Ruso suspects that the woman Severus is referring to is his wife, Ruso’s ex, Claudia but who will believe him. He owed the man a lot of money and the fact that they were reaching an agreement to settle the debt before it went to court was a moot point since there were no witnesses to their conversation. Now he must find the killer on his own before the inevitable investigator arrives from Rome and his convicted of murder.

The verdict on this one is overwhelmingly positive. I like the main characters, both Tilla and Ruso. I am now hoping to go back and read the first two books so that I can discover how they met and learn more about the nature of their relationship. I did have a little bit of difficulty with Marcia, Ruso’s spoiled sister but I did like the way he handled her which made him all the more likeable to me.

The reference to the followers of Christos and his teaches as well as the popular misconceptions Romans of this time period had about Christianity were intriguing. All in all, I think the authors’ coverage of this religion was more than fair.

I also found the story itself compelling. I always wondered how they would have investigated a crime like this during the Roman period. And having the would-be detective as a suspect made his motivation to find the killer seem all the more believable.

Contains: some foul language

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Shadows Wake

Shadows Wake       

Review of Shadows Wake by Robyn LaRue

Overview from Gold Hill is a peaceful place with a dark secret and forgotten calling. In ancient times, a native tribe trapped evil inside the mountain. That prison is now weakened, and the tribal blood line responsible for its maintenance is dangerously diluted. One girl and her friends are all that stand between the mountain demon and the outside world.
Lillian, a social outcast with secrets of her own, will learn about love, friendship, and loyalty, but can she save Gold Hill and all she holds dear?
And if she does, can she then save herself?
Shadows Wake is a coming of age story with supernatural elements and is set in historical 1952.

My Review:

Once again I will review a lesser known author after at least two weeks of interviewing NYT Best-Selling Authors. I came across Robyn LaRue, author of Shadows Wake, on Twitter, the same way I have met at least one other author whose work I have reviewed on this blog. I am not really sure exactly how we met but I wanted to explain that as well as get the whole self-disclosure thing out of the way.

Ms. LaRue gave me a copy of her book for review on this blog and I believe it is her first. Her genre is the Thriller genre which is interesting but not my favorite so imagine my surprise when I start reading only to find out that it takes place in 1952. Thus it could also be considered Historical Fiction which is my favorite. And I really like the way she combines it.

Lillian, a young teenager with a bad reputation, is our main character. She lives in Northern California and is not well-liked in town but not because of anything she’s actually done. It is her family name that provides her with her undeserved reputation. That and the fact that she lives above a bar with her uncle since her parents are both dead and her grandfather is in prison.

Lately Lillian’s life has been changing in ways that she can’t entirely understand.  A bear dies near the famous mine/mountain and Lillian is determined to tag along with some other students to find out what exactly is going on up there.

Along the way, she manages to make friends with one of the town’s most popular girls and two other guys. They decide to meet at the mountain to try to see if it might be the thing that is causing all the nightmares they have been having as well as figure out if it is the reason for the angst and anger among the townsfolk.

The story has its set of twists and turns but most of them are different from the ones I am used to seeing in thrillers. The evil lies beneath the surface of the mountain. There are some scary characters but we get the sense that the mountain is behind their behavior and perhaps there is not some kind of sinister plot to sell the land cheap or murder someone who is standing in someone else’s way. But what is this evil?

I can only suggest that you read it for yourself to find out. I don’t like to give spoilers in my reviews, especially those with a mystery so I won’t tell you what it is. But it is definitely worth reading. The characters are well-drawn, the writing is good, and the story is not what you’d expect. Plus, I loved reading more about life in the 1950’s and did I mention that it is overall a good, clean read? Well, it is.

Contains: some violence

Saturday, September 6, 2014

China Dolls

China Dolls                

Review of China Dolls by Lisa See

Overview from It’s 1938 in San Francisco: a world’s fair is preparing to open on Treasure Island, a war is brewing overseas, and the city is alive with possibilities. Grace, Helen, and Ruby, three young women from very different backgrounds, meet by chance at the exclusive and glamorous Forbidden City nightclub. Grace Lee, an American-born Chinese girl, has fled the Midwest with nothing but heartache, talent, and a pair of dancing shoes. Helen Fong lives with her extended family in Chinatown, where her traditional parents insist that she guard her reputation like a piece of jade. The stunning Ruby Tom challenges the boundaries of convention at every turn with her defiant attitude and no-holds-barred ambition.

The girls become fast friends, relying on one another through unexpected challenges and shifting fortunes. When their dark secrets are exposed and the invisible thread of fate binds them even tighter, they find the strength and resilience to reach for their dreams. But after the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, paranoia and suspicion threaten to destroy their lives, and a shocking act of betrayal changes everything.

My Review:

Lisa See’s China Dolls was something I wanted to read ever since its first release. The setting is San Francisco, just a few years before the start of World War II. Three girls stumble into a nightclub just outside of Chinatown cleverly named “The Forbidden City.”

Grace is run away from the Midwest who goes to San Francisco to escape an abusive father and cruel “Occidentals” as well as to follow her dream to become a dancer. Shortly after her arrival, she meets up with Helen, a traditional Chinese girl. Grace drags her along on her audition where they meet up with Ruby. Thus begins their life-long friendship, if you can call it that.

I hesitate to call it that because it does seem like any friendship that I have ever experienced. And most friends I know of who have treated each other the way that these three do usually don’t remain friends very long. I realize that this is the cutthroat world of show business but I have to admit that the behavior of Ruby and Helen in particular left me think of that old saying. “With friends like these, who needs enemies?”

Grace was the character I identified with most though she can be thoughtless and insensitive at times. Yes, she shouldn’t have forgotten them the way she did but for the most part her ignorance stemmed from her lack of street smarts and her friends refusal to let her know how badly she had hurt them.

The girls each carry their own secrets close to their hearts and appear equally unwilling to share them with the other two girls. This seemed odd to me since they were supposed to be best friends. If you can’t share your secrets with your best friend, who can you share them with?

They struggle through the war and the ugly prejudices that were directed at them, in many cases, by their own customers as well as by the U.S. government and the jealousies of their fellow performers.

They vow not to let a man come between them yet one does. They promise to look out for each other, yet on occasion they can’t seem to resist stabbing each other in the back. Will they hold their friendship together in the end? To find out, read the book.

I liked it well enough yet besides the backstabbing there were other things I didn’t like about the book. The sexual content was more explicit than I remembered reading in See’s previous books (such as Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy) and of course I loved the characters in those other two books so much more.

The detail about the time period was extensive at some points such as the details about all of the laws regarding Japanese Americans and the laws that prohibited Caucasians marrying Asians. Yet later in the story when such marriages occur that involve some of the main characters we are not told how this is suddenly possible. I assume the law must have been revoked later but I don’t know for sure and wouldn’t that be just as important for the characters later in the novel as earlier?

Anyway, I will leave it for the rest of the readers to judge for themselves whether they agree or not. Feel free to let me know what you think.

Contains: sexuality, profanity, war violence