Random Reviews

I keep a file called Book Notes for Posts in my reviews and articles Scrivener project, and now and then it fills up with thoughts on totally unrelated books. Time to clean it out, so here are a few random reviews.


between-home-heartbreakWho is Eldorado Jane? The heroine of Jacqui Nelson’s Between Home & Heartbreak (second in her Gambling Hearts series) is the star of Calhoun’s Wild West Show, but is she also Jane Dority, who disappeared as a child eighteen years ago after Gypson’s Medicine Show visited the tiny town of Juniper Flats, Texas? She says she is, and she’s laying claim to the Dority homestead.


But Lewis Adams, Jane’s childhood friend and current owner of the Dority property, doesn’t believe her. She seems to have Jane’s memories, but she doesn’t have Jane’s eyes. But she does know horses, and Lewis needs help with the herd he’s contracted to train for the Texas Rangers.


The bet Eldora and Lewis make for ownership of the homestead turns out to be the least of their worries, as deception, blackmail, old enemies, and even the weather combine to thwart their plans.


Readers of Nelson’s Old West adventures first met Lewis in Between Love and Lies. Also reappearing from that novel are Noah and Sadie Ballantyne and a few other unexpected visitors. Between Home and Heartbreak is a very satisfying follow up to Between Love and Lies. You don’t have to read them in order, but why not?


Susan M. Boyer’s Lowcountry Book Club is the fifth entry in the Liz Talbot Mystery series, and just as good as its predecessors. This time Liz and Nate, back from their honeymoon, are investigating the murder of a locallowcountry-book-club socialite/volunteer who seems to have been loved by everyone around her, including the husband accused of pushing her over the balcony (and possibly another man—but who?). With the help of her ghostly friend Colleen, Liz narrows down the suspect list and discovers just how much turmoil can develop in a very prestigious Book Club.


As always, the city of Charleston and the island community of Stella Maris contribute essential aspects to the story and Liz’ family members make cameo appearances. I’ve enjoyed this series from Henery Press since it began with Lowcountry Boil—worth reading in order.


I’ve loved Elaine Viets’ Dead End Jobs series from the beginning, and The Art of the-art-of-murderMurder is an excellent entry. Helen doesn’t actually have to work a terrible job in this one (although Phil does time as a condo security guard), but she does join a painting class (for which she has no aptitude at all) to solve the murder of one of the students. Margery is back, of course, as well as Peggy and the parrots, Thumbs the cat, and Valerie the reporter. Definitely a fun read.


For science fiction written in 1968, The Goblin Reservation holds up fairly well. I read pretty much all of Clifford Simak’s work back a few decades ago, although I didn’t remember this one. It involves a man who has accidentally been duplicated in a transporter accident (shades of Star Trek), a genetically the-goblin-reservationdesigned pet saber-tooth tiger, a Neanderthal time traveler named Alley Oop, William Shakespeare (who insists he never wrote anything), a Ghost who doesn’t know whose ghost he is, transport reminiscent of Heinlein’s “The Roads Must Roll,” and of course goblins, fairies, and trolls. Set, by the way, in Wisconsin about five hundred years in the future, with mention of phones but not of computers. A fun, rather nostalgic reminder of classic science fiction.


The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins, has been on the best seller lists for more than a year the-girl-on-the-trainnow, and I understand why. I’m not a fan of first person present tense narration, and there are three such narrators in the book, all of them undependable. The characters spend the entire book lying, cheating, and fantasizing. Terrible secrets are revealed and hearts are broken. This is not a feel-good book. But it is fascinating and difficult to put down, and I recommend it.

Recent Reading: Western Romance

Two Western American romances, both set largely in brothels (not the most romantic of settings!): very different books, but I enjoyed both.

Between Love & LiesJacqui Nelson’s Between Love & Lies is the first in her new Gambling Hearts series, set in the wild cow town of Dodge City. After her small farm is destroyed by a cattle drive, Sadie Sullivan finds herself working at the Northern Star saloon, sold into servitude there by her alcoholic father, just before he took off with all their money. Sadie has avoided prostitution by faking syphilis, but the medicine of the day may be killing her instead. She’s not about to give up, though—she has a mission to accomplish.

It was Noah Ballantyne’s cattle that wrecked the Sullivan farm, and Noah has been haunted by worry for Sadie ever since. When he drives another herd north from his Texas ranch, he’s determined to find out what has happened to her. When he does, his guilt keeps him in Dodge, determined to rescue Sadie from the brothel, not realizing that his good intentions threaten to upset all her plans.

Nelson does a great job with her western setting, filling it with interesting characters (including Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp!), the action is exciting, and the romance is deep and moving, as Sadie learns she may have found a man she can trust.


 I read and enjoyed a number of Margaret Brownley’s light-hearted historical romances years ago. More recently she has been writing for the inspirational market, not my subgenre of choice, but I couldn’t resist Petticoat Detective—she had me at “female Pinkerton detective.” I don’t know how many writers could pull off a humorous inspirational historical romance set in a brothel, but Brownley has done a fine job of it.

Petticoat DetectiveWhen Pinkerton Agent Jennifer Layne arrives at Miss Lillian’s Parlor House and Fine Boots in Goodman, Kansas, hoping to follow a lead involving one of the ladies of the house, Miss Lillian mistakes her for a “fancy lady” seeking work. The next thing Jennifer knows, she is undercover, and underdressed, as Amy Gardner, and worse, nearly witness to a murder.

When ex-Texas Ranger Tom Colton arrives at Miss Lillian’s, he is looking for the same prostitute, known as Rose, who may have been engaged to his late brother.

Tom wants to know if his brother was murdered. Amy wants to know if he was the Gunnysack Bandit, the man she’s tracking. And they soon realize they both want to know more about each other. But that’s hopeless. Tom is an upright rancher who could never fall for a hooker, and Amy is an independent Pinkerton detective with no interest in settling down.

Petticoat Detective is funny, suspenseful, and gently inspirational without being preachy. If you enjoy sweet western romance, give it a try.

Romance in the Old West

Between Heaven & HellHannah, the heroine of Jacqui Nelson’s Between Heaven & Hell, can’t remember her last name. When she was a child she watched from beneath a bramble bush as her parents were killed and her home burned to the ground by rogue militiamen. Rescued by a band of Osage Indians who call her Blue Sky, Hannah finds herself a decade later on the run from Eagle Feather, the warrior she once called brother. Desperate to travel west, she applies for a scout position with a wagon train about to leave Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, for far-off California.

Paden Callahan, a former Texas Ranger who lost his wife to a Comanche raid, has taken on the job of wagon master as a favor to his father-in-law, General Sherwood. He’d much rather be back at his new home in Oregon, building his lumber business. Hiring a female scout may be unthinkable (after all, it’s 1850), but keeping the man she would replace, a drunken boor named Dawson, is an even worse prospect.

Paden’s caution is not unjustified. With both Eagle Feather and Dawson seeking vengeance against Hannah, she may be a danger to the wagon train. But Paden is harboring secrets of his own, and an enemy from his past is waiting at Fort Laramie.

Nelson paints a believable and moving picture of the hardships of the mid-nineteenth century, as settlers leave precious possessions behind to lighten their wagons and bury lost loved ones along the side of the trail. While Hannah and Paden do their best for the wagon train, they are drawn to each other and begin to imagine a future together. But with so many forces working to keep them apart, can they make that dream a reality?Between Love & Lies

Jacqui Nelson is also the author of the novella Adella’s Enemy, in the Romance and Rails anthology Passion’s Prize, and the forthcoming Between Love & Lies, set in Dodge City.

Rails & Romance: Passion’s Prize

One day last July at the RWA Conference in Atlanta, I wandered into the very crowded room where two thousand (mostly) women had gathered for lunch and a keynote address.  I found a table with a couple of empty chairs and found myself sitting next to a writer called E.E. Burke.  I’d never met Elisabeth Burke before, but we soon discovered a shared love of Hell on Wheels and American historical romance.  Elisabeth told me that she and two other writers (all three of them Golden Heart finalists), Jacqui Nelson and Jennifer Jakes, would soon release an ebook, Passion’s Prize, Passion's Prizecontaining three related short novels set during the post-Civil War construction of the Katy Railroad.  I downloaded it as soon as it was available (the three parts are also available separately, but if you are interested, you’ll enjoy them all).

Adella’s Enemy, by Jacqui Nelson, opens the collection with the story of Adella Willows, photographer and one-time Rebel spy, who has come West seeking vengeance for the death of her brother in a Yankee POW camp.  She blames the man behind the Katy, and if she can derail the Katy, figuratively or literally, she’ll have her revenge.  But she didn’t figure on falling for the Irish railroad foreman, Cormac McGrady.

In Eden’s Sin, by Jennifer Jakes, we meet Eden Gabrielli, a brothel owner in the railroad town, and U.S. Army Major Sinclair Bradford.  The investigation of a rape committed by a railroad worker brings them together, but the secrets of their pasts, blackmail in the present, and the future of the railroad may drive them apart.

E.E. Burke wraps up the book with Kate’s Outlaw.  Kate Parsons is the daughter, and only heir, of the Katy’s owner, but she has yet to prove her worth to her father as more than someone to be married off to a male successor.  When she is accidentally kidnapped by Jake Colson, a Cherokee bent on stopping the railroad’s path through the Indian Territory, she finds unexpected passion for both her captor and his cause.  But can she save both the railroad and Jake?

A brief epilog reconnects our three heroines, who each appear in the others’ stories, and sets the stage for the next volume, E.E. Burke’s Her Bodyguard.  That one’s waiting on my Kindle, and I’ll be looking forward to more books in the Steam: Romance and Rails series.

Passion's Prize 3

Life in a Cave

It was raining when I woke up this morning, but that was fine with me.  I mowed the lawn yesterday, did some shopping and some laundry, and I was all ready for a nice day  at home.  I had plans.  A newsletter column to write, a scene to finish for my critique group meeting tomorrow evening, chapter business to take care of, a week’s email to sort through (all the ones I’d saved because I really wanted to read them–later), and my personal bookkeeping.  All tasks involving the computer.

I knew there had been storms across the Houston area over night, although if we had thunder here it didn’t wake me.  The news reported widespread power outages, mostly to the north and southwest of Houston.  I live southeast of the city, near Galveston Bay.  There was almost an inch in my rain gauge, but it had just about stopped when I went out to get my newspaper at 9:15.  I was halfway down the driveway when I heard the BOOM of a transformer blowing.  Sure enough, there went my electricity.  Lights, computer, TV.

It was a gray, overcast morning, and the house was dark, even at 9:15.    Sunday is the one morning I usually make scrambled eggs for breakfast–not today.  Cereal, milk, and blackberries, then.  There wasn’t enough light to read the paper I’d just retrieved.

I’m pretty sure the fancy new electric meter on the back of my house is supposed to report outages to the power company, but it won’t tell me when to expect the lights to come back on, so after a few minutes I called it in.  The recorded voice had no idea when the outage would be fixed, so I settled down with my cereal, a lantern, and my Kindle, which has a small, Adella's Enemyalmost adequate light built into its cover, and finished reading “Adella’s Enemy,” by Jacqui Nelson (if you’re a fan of Hell on Wheels or American-set historical romance, you’ll enjoy this novella about love and sabotage on the rails, available by itself or with two companion novellas in Passion’s Prize).

No sign of light by 11:15, and the recorded voice at the power company (this is why I keep one old phone that plugs into the wall–my nice cordless system doesn’t work without electricity) still couldn’t tell me when it would be fixed.  I couldn’t do anything on the computer, couldn’t even do the remaining laundry, and it was still too dark to write comfortably with pen and paper.  Lunch looked pretty iffy, too, without the microwave.

So off I went, in search of civilization.  My car went on auto-pilot and took me to Half-Price Books, a place I really should avoid, where I bought a 2014 DogShaming.com calendar and a book (there’s a surprise) of short stories by an author I admire, Connie Willis.  On to Target for a few things, and then a nice (and hot!) lunch at Panda Express.  I had my Kindle along, of course, and started on the next Romance and Rails novella, “Eden’s Sin,” by Jennifer Jakes.  Then I picked up a few things at the grocery store and headed home, hoping to find light–and a working computer.

When I got home, about 1:45, the light was on in my kitchen window and the garage lit up when I pulled in.  The TV was on, the computer came to life when I hit its switch, and Nutmeg demanded her lunch.

It only takes a few hours without electricity to make one see one’s home as a cave with windows.  Even at night: I sleep with the radio and the ceiling fan on, not to mention, most of the year, air conditioning or heat.  It looks like most of my plans for today will carry over to tomorrow, but my laundry is churning away, I’m in touch with the world through my computer and the Channel 13 evening news, I’ll have a hot dinner tonight (or maybe a salad, but I have the choice), and I have plenty of light to read.  And, heaven knows, plenty of books!



Railroads and Romance

Last summer when the second season of Hell on Wheels ended with the murder of Lily Bell, the destruction of the town, and the well-deserved but possibly unsuccessful hanging of the odious Swede, I was shocked and heart-broken by the loss of Lily and wondered if I’d be able to watch the show again.  By the time the third season started last night, I was eager for its return.

The first two episodes, “Big Bad Wolf” and “Eminent Domain,” did not disappoint me.  (If you’d like a full recap, visit TV.com or the AMC site.)  Still wrapped in animal skins after a winter spent dodging hallucinations and wolves on the site of the burnt out town, Cullen collects Elam in Omaha and drags him to New York City.  After a bath, a barber, and a good tailor, Cullen faces down the board of the Credit Mobilier and talks his way back into the position of Chief Engineer of the Union Pacific, snatching the job away from the son-in-law of a crony of the imprisoned but far from powerless Durant.

By the second episode, the moving town of Hell on Wheels is back at work.  Eva has delivered a baby girl (even she may not be sure who the little one’s father is, but Elam doesn’t care).  Ruth is setting up her church and giving Cullen advice, the McGinnis brothers, Mickey and Sean (who is in way over his head) are back, and Elam is not too pleased to be working for a new police chief.  Meanwhile, back in New York, Durant is out of prison and determined to take back the railroad.

I was delighted to see a new character appear, Louise Ellison, by her own description “neither a lady nor a whore,” but something Hell on Wheels hasn’t seen before, a reporter for a New York City newspaper, determined to see all sides of the town and the railroad, an outsider with her own viewpoint.

Hell on Wheels being the show it is, there are a couple of deaths, a moral dilemma or two for Cullen, and the promise of complications to come.  Not to mention those AMC promotional photos proving that the Swede will be back.  You didn’t really believe he’d drowned, did you?  I didn’t.

Passion's PrizeIf you’d like stories of railroad building and tough-minded women with guaranteed happy endings, you’re looking for a romance, and I have a suggestion to offer, in fact three in one volume.  Passion’s Prize, a new anthology by three prize-winning authors, kicks off the Steam! Romance and Rails series.  “Adella’s Enemy,” by Jacqui Nelson, pairs a former rebel spy with a railroad foreman.  The heroine of “Eden’s Sin,” by Jennifer Jakes, is a madam (yep, that kind of madam) who needs help from an Army major.  And “Kate’s Outlaw,” by E.E. Burke, features a railroad heiress caught up in a land dispute with the Cherokee.

Whether there will ever be a happy ending for Cullen Bohannon remains an unanswered question, but I have no doubt his journey will continue to fascinate me.