Sunday, July 29, 2012

SEA CHANGE by Karen White

Paperback, 416 pages
Published June 5th 2012 by NAL Trade 
Genre: romantic suspense novel, mystery, women's fiction
Rating: 5 stars plus

After a whirlwind romance with child psychologist Matthew Frazier,  newly-wed Ava Whalen, thirty-five years old midwife from Antioch, moves in her husband’s ancestral home on the lovely St. Simons Island off the coast of Georgia. While trying to adjust to the new environment  and to her new life as a married woman, she stumbles across secrets and ghosts that have deep roots in the past (about a century) and grave repercussions in the present. Not only she finds out that her husband has been previously married to another midwife, that he is a widower and that his former wife’s family believes him to be somehow responsible for their daughter’s  accidental death.   She also experiences a strong and inexplicable sense of connection with her husband’s family history and first wife Adrienne.
Matthew’s attempts to conceal and destroy  every remaining trace of Adrienne from their home, fuel Ava’s suspicions , but it will be Matthew himself, despite his  reluctancy and secretive attitude, to ultimately  enable  Ava to fulfill her destiny. With his help she will unveil her elusive past and  unlock the secrets that link her  to Matthew’s ancestor  Pamela Frazier, a midwife who fell victim of her jealous sister’s schemes and died tragically, leaving behind her beloved husband, Geoffry Frazier, and their son.

Sea Change is one of the best books I have read in years. It warmed my heart and tugged at all the emotional strings that a piece of literary fiction can possibly tug at. So good I didn't want it to end. Narrated from three different points of view (Ava’s, her mother’s Gloria, and Pamela’s), this engrossing tale of love ‘lost and regained’  unfolds on multiple chronological shifts between 2011 and 1812. Despite the multi-layered narrative style, I never felt thrown off-balance: the switches between narrating voices and the swaying of their memories felt natural like the gentle rolling of the sea waves...the sea, ever silent protagonist and backdrop of the Frazier family’s tragedies.
Karen White’s writing style has a distinctive lyrical quality. I utterly enjoyed the Southern setting with all the charm of an island with a strong historical identity. White’s rich prose and detailed descriptions are very powerful and evocative: the vivid descriptions of Matthew’s ancestral home, the island’s unique flora, the cemetery, the lighthouse, create a solid bridge  between written words and  visual images.
This heart-pounding mystery provided a very insightful analysis of family dynamics ( the delicate bond and trust issues between  newly-wed husband and wife, the complexity of a mother-daughter conflictual love, jealousy and antagonism between sisters) and for their depth and poignancy they appealed to me and got me misty-eyed even more than the paranormal twist of the storyline.
Of all the characters, the one that troubled me the most is Ava’s husband, Matthew. It felt to me like he was the weakest link in the story, although he turns out to be the one who holds the keys (literally and figuratively) of the secret doors that our characters will need to open, in order to shed light on the past and be able to move on. I cannot quite understand why he goes to such lengths to hide the real motivations behind his secretive behavior, when he could have and should have been open with Ava from the start.  My guess is that the author used this character and his lack of transparency mainly to enhance the suspense element of the story. Some of his choices remain questionable for me, questionable and forgivable like many human behaviours are when love is at stake and we are not willing to take chances.  What he demands of his wife is a huge leap of faith and luckily for him, Ava is a great character, with a heart twice the size of Georgia and the guts of somebody who’s willing to take chances for the sake of what she loves the most. As for Gloria, Ava’s mother’s, her inner conflicts touched the cords of my heart…as a mother I cannot but understand and sympathize with her.
Despite the very imaginative foundation of this book (karma and reincarnation themes), the storyline is very fetching and the suspension-of-disbelief not difficult to reach at all: emotions and feelings are so well rendered that the entire narration wrenched my heart and swept me off my feet.  Love for her husband and son is what brings Pamela to death and what will bring her back in Ava’s life a century later. Love is what brings Gloria and Matthew to hide some truths in order to protect Ava. In the end, love seems to be the great motivator, the engine behind questionable, courageous, and fateful decisions, able to cheat death and defy time in an endless alternation of ends and beginnings.

Friday, July 27, 2012


Kindle edition, 348 pages
Self-published July 18, 2012
Genre: contemporary romance novel, romantic suspense
Rating: 5 stars 

Six months after the suspicious boat explosion that killed  her mother and step-brother, emergency physician Cassandra Christo decides to take a temporary leave from her job in San Diego and return to her deceased mother’s estate in Baya, Mexico. Once her beloved childhood home, now the estate is run by her ruthless step-father, Saul Flores, and what Cassie plans to do is to collect evidence of his illicit use of estate funds and involvement in an illegal business, in order to evict him.
 On her way from the US to Mexico, she walks into a human smuggling ring: a truck full of Mexican women headed toward the US border lays overturned on the side of the highway. After taking care of few injured women, Cassie escapes the enraged smugglers and manages to alert the US authorities about her gruesome discovery. Back at the family estate she meets  Saul’s head of security, Rio Santana, the same man who stood next to her and comforted her at the cemetery during the heart-wrenching  funerals of her mother and step-brother.
For months after that first meeting, Cassie has treasured and cherished the memory of that kind man, the unfocused memory of an emotion more than the exact recollection of his face. She has no idea that the feeling of immediate emotional connection she experienced then was mutual: since that funeral, Cassie has been haunting Rio’s dreams and sustaining him with the warm and sweet memory of their embrace. What Cassie also ignores is that Rio is an undercover CIA agent on a mission to gain  Saul’s absolute trust as his chief security guy, and tear down his smuggling organization.
Despite the undeniable chemistry and emotional connection between them,  Cassie and Rio will not be free to reveal their feelings right away: hidden truths, conflicting signals, and misunderstandings will ricochet across a tight string of pulse-pounding events, keeping our lead couple engaged in a   heart-melting “lovers-to-enemies-to-lovers” dance.
 Not only Cassie has to drag around  a huge burden of grief, sense of dislocation, and lack of closure after the sudden and suspicious death of her beloved ones; she also carries the physical and emotional scars of another traumatic experience, the attempted rape and attempted murder at the hands of a man she trusted.  Opening her heart to Rio, a man apparently close and loyal to her despicable step-dad, triggers a huge internal conflict in our gutsy but vulnerable Cassie, opening painful wounds and unresolved emotional issues. On his side, Rio’s internal struggle between his deep feelings for Cassie and the risk of exposing them to certain death in a highly dangerous situation adds to his personal baggage of grief and family tragedies. Their relationship will grow and intensify on a conflictual path, swinging between moments of weak-in-the-knees romance and heart-wrenching misunderstandings.
In this light, Joan Swan's masterful use of sexual tension and love scenes is an extremely powerful writing tool in the advancement of the plot and character building. In one of the steamiest scenes, Cassie and Rio will ultimately let their guards down , abandoning themselves in each other’s arms just to raise issues about their mutual trust and plunge Cassie into a huge feeling of discomfort. She is deeply and emotionally involved with a man she doesn’t really know, hopefully an ally, more likely an enemy.
Sometimes we have to make a huge leap of faith between love and trust, and our characters will hang onto every possible strand of hope, even in the midst of danger and death, in order to heal their wounded  souls and protect each other.
For this and for many other reasons, this well-crafted romantic suspense novel deserves 5 shining stars.  What I love the most about Joan Swan's books is that they start with a boom and from there it's an escalation, with all kinds of plot twist-and-turns and emotional roller-coasters in the middle. The first few pages into the book and I’m already breathless…seriously breathtaking opening lines describing Cassie's night ride to Mexico, fiery  sparks of sexual tension flying between her and Rio from the get-go, poignant is the author's insight into the current and tragic calamity of illegal immigration and human trafficking.
The lead couple is made of likable and believable characters: Cassie with her spunky personality, her snappy tongue, and yet endearing in her vulnerability and deep sense of justice; Rio with his self-confidence, secretive attitude, and “hard shell” when it comes to his undercover mission, but soft in his core when his deep feelings and protective instinct for Cassie are involved.  Absolutely enjoyable are their gritty dialogues and the charming setting of Mexican beaches, extra steamy are the love scenes…reading through them is like opening a jar of spiced honey. The romantic element is very strong and delicious, but it's perfectly embedded in a pulse-pounding plot that escalates  from deceit within Cassie’s family to the social evils of rival gangs, illegal immigration, and terrorism. The flow of emotions and events is always seamless and consistent.
Apparently the popular myth claiming that lightning cannot strike the same place twice doesn't apply to consistently talented author Joan Swan. After FEVER’s acclaimed success, the triple RWA® Golden Heart finalist delivers another solid suspense novel with that perfect balance of gripping action and sensuous romance that may just become her distinguished hallmark.

This is the review of a complimentary e-copy kindly provided by the author in return for an honest opinion.

Sunday, July 15, 2012


THE SUMMONS: A GOBLIN KING PREQUEL (Shadowlands #0.5) by Shona Husk

Kindle Edition, 20 pages
Published (first published August 1st 2011) 
Genre: paranormal romance short story, fantasy
Rating: 5 stars

This short story was a very nice treat and a great set up for 2 great full length novels to come. As I said in my review of Kiss of the Goblin Prince (Shadowlands #2), each installment of this highly imaginative paranormal romance series by talented author Shona Husk can be read as a stand-alone novel, but it can be fully appreciated if read in order.
In this prequel we get to know how Roan and Eliza, the main characters of The Goblin King ( Shadowlands  #1)  meet for the first time.  Roan  is a Celtic king turned into a heartless goblin by a curse that had destroyed his people. He lives in The Shadowlands, a desolated realm populated and ruled by greedy monsters obsessed with gold: the Goblins. Roan visits the Fixed Realm (our world) at will, using people’s dreams and nightmares, but with his ugly goblin looks and an empty and cold spot where his heart used to be, he would rather hide in the darkness and  dismiss  the summons of those humans. Until Eliza, a 16 years old girl from the XXI century, a girl who grew up believing in fairy tales, summons him when she is in danger, and he just cannot resists her call.

Her mother had said always be careful what you wish for as she’d told stories about a man who’d been cursed for loving gold and had been given a heart of gold as punishment. Damned to be goblin, now he was forced to answer other people’s wishes. She closed her eyes. She had to answer hers. “I wish the Goblin King would take me away from here.”

To save her from an overzealous suitor, Roan answers Eliza’s call and takes her in a place of light and life (the Summerland) where he can show himself in his original human appearance without scaring her.  Something about Liza’s strikes some cords in his soul, making him wish to be remembered as a man, not as a greedy monster, rekindling his humanity and his desire to go back to his true kind and honorable self.

“Where I go the Shadowland follows. I bring darkness, death, and despair. I rule land made of dust and famine. My subjects are goblins who’d eat you alive. Do not summon me again for next time I may not return you.”

But when they part their ways to return to their realms, Roan and Eliza will not forget about each other. He saw in Eliza something worthier than gold, and she saw in Roan a man who needed to be saved.
Highly recommended as an introductory read to The Goblin King (Shadowlands #1). 

Saturday, July 14, 2012


KISS OF THE GOBLIN PRINCE (Shadowlands #2) by Shona Husk

Mass Market Paperback, 338 pages
Published May 1st 2012 by Sourcebooks Casablanca 
Genre: paranormal romance novel, fantasy
Rating : 5 stars

From now on Shona Husk will always hold a pole position in my gargantuan TBR list: I fell in love with the fertile imagination, fluid prose, and introspective sensitivity of this Australian paranormal, fantasy novels author.  My only regret, if any, is that I should have started my journey through this captivating Shadowlands series with  the novella  ”The Summons: A Goblin King Prequel” and the  first full length installment “The Goblin King”, in order to fully appreciate the fairy-tale world structure  that holds together  The Shadowlands (a desolate land populated by the heartless Goblins), The Fixed Realm (our world), and The Birch Foundation (a mysterious organization that facilitates the transition between these two worlds). Reading the series in this order would have certainly helped me to understand from the start the main characters’s backstories, the role played by the secondary characters, and the  connections existing between them. These introductory readings add to the enjoyment of a book that can be read as a stand-alone, anyway, without  loosing any of its alluring qualities.

Amanda Coulter is a young widow who has given up on happiness after the sudden death of her husband.  She works as a youth counselor at the local high-school and her daughter, Brigit, is affected by severe asthma. At the wedding of her sister-in-law Eliza, Amanda meets the enigmatic and fascinating Dai King.  Sparks of attraction fly immediately between them. Dai is Eliza’s husband’s brother. He’s apparently a normal young man, a Welsh scholar, world traveler, and an expert of  ancient civilizations and dead languages. In reality, Dai is a Celtic Prince, as old as our civilization, a man who has been spending the past 2,000 years fighting against Romans, Druids, and Goblins, before breaking a curse and being reintegrated in the XXI century Fixed Realm (our world) as a free human, like his brother Roan.

Dai is physically and emotionally scarred: in order to protect his younger sister Mave from the perverse attentions of the Roman General Claudius, he had to endure Claudius’ vicious tortures and abuses.   Dai was eventually cursed by the King Goblin and held captive for centuries in the Shadowlands, only to endure more unspeakable acts of violence from the Goblins and to be turned into a goblin himself.  He used to be a mage, a man endowed with magical healing powers, but now that his curse is broken and he is back in the Fixed Realm, he is straggling with his new identity provided by The Birch Foundation and a deep sense of dislocation.  In the transition  between worlds he had to leave behind most of his treasures, but what   bothers him the most is that he cannot get a hold of that wealth of knowledge he has accumulated over the centuries:  all his books about magic are being retained by The Birch Foundation and without them he feels like he cannot recall his magical powers. 

The  Shadowlands series fictional worlds are built on the assumption that our universe is ruled by magic and held together by invisible strings: Dai and his brother Roan are able to control them in order to manipulate the fabric that makes the world. I like the way Shona Husk opens her slow-paced narration describing the chemistry and the bond existing from the start between Dai and Amanda. They are both initially unaware of the magical golden threads connecting their souls;  although drawn to each other, they’re both very tentative at the beginning of the story and they will keep being hesitant for a good part of it. The emotional baggage made of sorrow, secrets, family tragedies, and responsabilities they both have to carry is too heavy for them to be rid of it and yield to emotions and desire, let alone love, no matter how bad they both need it.  Dai has been “out of touch with the world for too long…to obsessed  with the dead and obsolete.” Amanda can perfectly relate to his emotions, because she has been holding on her deceased husband’s memory  for years, without being able to move on  and look forward to another love relationship.

They are both very likable characters: the tortured and troubled soul Dai, the calm and caring counselor Amanda. It seems to be like a very good characters combination, perfect material for a sweeping and soulful romance.  Dai’s numerous scars make him insecure: he’s afraid Amanda will loath him and reject him because of them. The dark secrets of his real identity and his past hold him from revealing his feelings for her, although the attraction is slowly consuming him.  The biggest obstacle  standing in the way is in his chest in the form of talons clutched around his heart,  a magical grip placed there by the evil King Goblin as a reminder of the evil Dai has been a victim of and a perpetrator. Forgiveness is the only remedy that could set him free, but he is still prisoner of his resentment: the hideous tortures he has suffered for centuries fuel his hate and give strength to the King Goblin’s grip. Dai’s decision  to remain celibate and avoid any kind of physical  touch with other creatures poses an interesting challenge to his attraction for Amanda, but it also helps to build up an intoxicating and heart-melting sexual tension between them. They seek physical contact every time they meet, they haunt each other’s dreams, they leave each other breathless with stolen kisses and caresses, they hold hands interlacing their fingers in a promise of scorching sensuality, without abandoning themselves to a complete enjoyment. Every time they seem to be ready to get closer and open their hearts, their past stands in the way and breaks the momentum, prolonging that sweet torture up to the last chapters of the novel, when the barriers will   finally break down  and the two lovers will find an extremely gratifying release. As a whole, action and major developments are pushed at the end and my feeling is that the author aims to set up the scene for the sequel rather than advance the plot of this installment. The Kiss of The Goblin Prince mainly focuses on Dai’s and Amanda’s quest towards emotional freedom and self-forgiveness, in a pattern of healing that will involve also Amanda’s daughter. I really appreciate this introspective tone and character development versus an action-driven storyline.

I personally loved the way Shona Husk uses the idea of the invisible threads to describe the different kinds of connection existing between characters and their world: gold strings binding Dai and Amanda, gray and thin strings connecting Dai and The Shadowlands, colorful and numerous strings connecting Amanda and her ill daughter Brigit, loose and pale strings connecting Dai to his brother Roan, fine as spider silk the strings connecting Dai to Brigit. Shona Husk  did a great job building Dai’s and Amanda’s characters, painting them with the brushes of her rich and sensuous prose and the great emotional impact of her narrative style. I simply loved Husk’s description of Dai as a man in pieces  like an image reflected in a broken mirror,  a  dislocated man who needs to borrow a life in the same way he needs to borrow furniture in order to start all over again and  live in a different world, a man who has been studying hundreds of dead languages for century, but who will remain speechless in front of the woman he loves. I loved the fact he is a book hoarder, spending a good part of the story in the search of his magic books, when the real magic is in his own body (written all over with tattoos and undecipherable spells just like a book) and in his love for Amanda.