Hard to Die – A review

A review of Hard to Die by Andra Watkins Like so much of the nation, the Hamilton: An American Musical soundtrack dominates my playlists. Working from home means music often fills the space left quiet from the lack of co-workers, and I’ve listened to the Hamilton soundtrack more times than I could count.

I should be embarrassed to say I’ve learned a lot about history from the musical retelling of Alexander Hamilton’s life, but I’m too grateful to feel truly embarrassed. At least I’m learning now. Certain lyrics resonate on different days, but I often return to the simplicity of “Who Tells Your Story”:

Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?

History books take shape through the hands of those still living, and it’s often those who are lost who aren’t fully fleshed out, though their narratives may be just as powerful as the ones who live.

Hard to Die, a novel by Andra Watkins, tells of Theodosia Burr (yes, the daughter to whom Aaron Burr sings on Hamilton). Theodosia dies young, and Watkins gives us glimpses of her life as she imagines an afterlife in which Theodosia still lives, an afterlife in which Theodosia must complete a mission to move out of the in-between state in which she remains.

Alive but not, Theodosia has control over how she’s remembered only if she’s able to complete her mission — helping a living soul navigate a crucial crossroads in their lives. If she fails, she’ll simply fade from history’s pages, as though she’d never lived at all.

Theodosia’s mission involves Richard the handsome spy-turned-soldier who just wants to escape into normalcy. Unfortunately, leaving the spy network in which he was entrenched might not be as easy as Richard expected, even from the hallowed walls of West Point. Richard encounters someone from his past, someone with a deadly connection to Theodosia.

As each of the players circles the others, unsure of who to trust, Theodosia and Richard find themselves drawn to each other. The specter of suspicion lingers, and neither can decide how much of themselves they can reveal without endangering both of their lives.

Readers of Watkins’ other books will be pleased to see a cameo from a beloved character, and by the end of the novel, threads weave together to highlight Watkins impeccable plotting skills.

Truthfully, I’m unsure how much of Theodosia’s story comes from history’s annals and how much comes from Watkins’ fertile imagination. The story races along without demanding a history degree, and I believe Watkins’ take on the afterlife will enthrall many readers.

Read more about Hard to Die on Watkins’ author page.

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Elemental Awakening – A review

Elemental Awakening a Mandy Dawson book

Writing groups can be funny things.

I chat with mine daily, and that means ideas get tossed around, drafted, tightened, fretted over, and fawned over. And sometimes those ideas grow into something more than a story in our minds.

Elemental Awakening came to life at the hands of Mandy Dawson, and I loved reading the novel that develops an entire world — and promises more to the story Dawson begins in her first novel.

I want to be friends with Helen Browning, the midwife main character who finds her life upended when her touch brings a long-trapped soul back to the realm of the mortal world. She’s tough, sassy, and lovely, like so many heroines, but she’s also stubborn and a little flawed, and those traits are the ones that draw me to her and her story.

Helen has been drawn to the ancient statue called Sarlic, since she saw a photo as a child, but she never expects to unearth what she does when she crosses a museum barrier for a single touch. When her fingertips break the shackles of an ancient curse, she needs to come to terms with the truth about her connection to Luke, her role in a war she doesn’t understand, and the secrets about some of the people she’s loved her entire life.

Despite the supernatural elements in the story, Helen and Luke’s relationship feels refreshingly down-to-earth. Helen’s reluctance to sacrifice her sense of self for the pull of a new-to-her love will resonate with every woman who’s tried to integrate a relationship into a life that seems pretty full already. I found myself rooting for Helen and Luke as a couple, but rooting for them on her terms, despite the undoubtable pull and power he holds over her — for better or for worse.

As Helen and Luke struggle to find a balance between the ancient forces that hurled them together and the life Helen has built for herself in the present time, a battle brews around them. Helen isn’t the only one dealing with Luke’s awakening, and the powerful evil that overtook him years before is on her way back to finish the job.

Elemental Awakening covers all the bases of an utterly satisfying read: strong characters, a strong plot, and just enough of a conclusion to make the first book in a trilogy feel complete while leaving readers dying to know what happens next. Something to note — and one of the things I admire most in books — is the consummate balance Dawson manages between character motivation and plot. When building an entire mythology, keeping all of plotting and the rules straight while maintaining solid, authentic character development can be a struggle, but Elemental Awakening does it seamlessly.

Dawson might tell you she’s a romance author, but she’s more than that (not that there’s anything wrong with being a romance author). Elemental Awakening, though, is more than a romance story. In it, Dawson shows she’s also a world builder, a mythology maker, and perhaps most importantly, a storyteller. No matter what your favorite reading genre might be, the story in Elemental Awakening will keep you turning the pages until your eyes get gritty with the need for sleep. The only good thing about the book ending is that the story will be continue in Dawson’s second book.

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Killing Jane – A review

Killing Jane review I used to devour crime fiction in marathon reading sessions that lasted long after midnight. I couldn’t sleep without knowing what happened and why, and then some nights I couldn’t sleep because I’d finished. I’d read with my feet tucked under me, flicking on lights in a path as I hurried to my bedroom. I had my favorites (Kay Scarpetta, the protagonist created by Patricia Cornwell, for one), and I bought or checked out new books with abandon.

I hesitated to accept Killing Jane by Stacy Green for review, in part because the genre hasn’t interested me in a way it once did. I’ve shied away from those stories, inundated with their real-life versions in the news. The book’s synopsis intrigued me, though, particularly the historical connection to Jack the Ripper, so I dove into the story.

Killing Jane didn’t disappoint. I sped through the story, drawn to the characters and the plot in the all-consuming way I remembered from my Kay Scarpetta days. Erin Prince’s stint as a DC homicide detective is fresh, and her inexperience and self-doubt interfere with her instincts at times, making her character just flawed enough to escape the advantages of her illustrious family name.

Like the infamous Jack the Ripper crimes, Bonnie Archer’s murder reeks of scandal. Despite the seedy details revealed as the story progresses — including pornography and sexual abuse — I never felt Green sensationalized or romanticized the crimes or the criminal perpetrating them.

I don’t know enough about the Jack the Ripper story to know how much of Killing Jane’s suppositions about the killer being a woman are accepted cannon and how much of them are simply sprung from Green’s imagination. Either way, the connection helps move along the story and adds depth without relying too heavily on the historical crimes themselves.

Killing Jane doesn’t shy away from the privilege and nepotism that come with money and connected families in the hierarchy of the D.C. political power structure, and at times that structure helps Prince as she investigates a grisly homicide that just gets grislier as the story progresses. At other times, though, her connections hinder her ability to do her job in the way she wants.

I appreciated that her main relationship is with her twin brother rather than a romantic interest, because the twists and turns weaving throughout Killing Jane are complicated enough without adding the personal conflict of a love interest.

Her relationship with her brother reads easily and naturally, which highlights the slightly awkward chemistry between Prince and her new partner, Beckett. While it’s clear that Prince and Beckett are working in a professional capacity, their lack of communication hurts their investigation at times. For me, their partnership is one of the weakest parts of the book, though it does leave the door open for Green to develop their camaraderie if she chooses to continue Erin Prince’s story in subsequent books.

The plot of Killing Jane reads tightly, which is the cornerstone of crime fiction. I admire the way pieces of the puzzle come together slowly, without using narrative tricks or implausible situations. As Prince and Beckett struggle to figure out how their leads will, in fact, lead them to the killer they seek, the pieces reveal themselves in an authentic way. The ending satisfies, and I would definitely pick up another Erin Prince story, should one arrive.

I received a copy of Killing Jane for consideration for review. All opinions are my own.

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Southern Gothic – A review

southern-gothic In Savannah, Georgia, where ghosts are appreciated and secrets remain hidden in the ground surrounding the city, Meredith Harper wants nothing more than to see her novel, Red Ribbon, nestled on the shelves in her illustrious bookstore. When her favorite author approaches her with an irresistible deal — her plot wrapped in his impeccable prose — she can’t help but accept, no matter how unorthodox his approach seems to be.

As more details about Michael Black and his past collide with Meredith’s present, she finds herself twisted in a web she hadn’t anticipated. Half-truths, manipulation, passion, and obsession make her uneasy, but even a murder charge can’t completely sever the hold he has over her.

The harder Meredith tries to disentangle herself from Michael’s grasp, the more tighter it seems, leaving readers in suspense about her ability to wiggle out of her predicament with her reputation — and her life.

Dale Wiley’s Southern Gothic actually contains two stories: Meredith Harper’s and the novel she drafted, Red Ribbon. Both stories lean heavily on Georgia’s rich and complicated history. When details from the book-within-a-book collide with Meredith’s life, readers see the similarities in the fates of several of the characters.

Wiley’s concept and fast-moving prose make Southern Gothic a quick read, which is generally a great thing for readers of suspense novels. After all, we want to be in suspense, but not for too long! Some of the details about Meredith’s publishing journey seem a little fantastic, even with the backing of her secret benefactor, but Wiley wraps up most of the suspension of disbelief by the end of the story.

I feel like the story shines when Meredith herself is in her element, walking the streets of Savannah or sinking her toes into the sand of Tybee Island. Her motivation and actions seem most true to character when she’s close to home, which leads to the intimate feel of the novel. Setting and location play a large part in both Southern Gothic and Red Ribbon, and Wiley’s details make both seem palpable.

Wiley’s acknowledgments share how he came up with the idea for Southern Gothic, and I enjoyed reading about how the idea came about and how his family helped him to see it through to fruition. Suspense fans will enjoy the novel, and it definitely kept Savannah on my top ten list of U.S. cities I need to visit soon!

I received a copy of Southern Gothic for consideration for review. All opinions are my own.

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