Book Review: Darker Still

Darker Still Cover

Darker Still: A Novel of Magic Most Foul #1, Leanna Renee Hieber (Sourcebooks fire, 2011)

317 pp. At the time of this review (9/28/17), it holds a 4-star review on Amazon with 115 reviews.

Cover Design, Andrea C. Uver

Gothic Historical; Paranormal YA

Book Obtained By: Purchased from author after talking with her at the spring 2017 Ohioana Book Festival in Columbus, Ohio.

My Chocolate Rating on Scale of 5: 4.0 Ghirardelli Salty Caramels (just shy of perfection)

From the jacket

“I was obsessed.

It was as if he called to me, demanding I reach out and touch the brushstrokes of color swirled onto the canvas. It was the most exquisite portrait I’d ever seen—everything about Lord Denbury was unbelievable… utterly breathtaking and eerily lifelike.

There was a reason for that. Because despite what everyone said, Denbury never had committed suicide. He was alive. Trapped within his golden frame.

I’ve crossed over into his world within the painting, and I’ve seen what dreams haunt him. They haunt me, too. He and I are inextricably linked—bound together to watch the darkness seeping through the gas-lit cobblestone streets of Manhattan. And unless I can free him soon, things will only get Darker Still.”


Darker Still: A Novel of Magic Most Foul #1, Leanna Renee Hieber (Sourcebook Fire, 2011)

Leanna Renee Hieber attended the 2017 Ohioana Book Festival, presenting on a panel as well as having a table in the huge room of more than one hundred authors. I’d meant to go to her panel, then decide if I wanted to buy a book—with so many local choices, and a limited wallet, I wanted to “pay back” to authors presenting when their works fit my reading tastes.

Buildings from turn of the century Manhattan, New York

Fifth Avenue, NY, 1911

But Leanna’s outfit caught my eye two hours before her panel. She’d dressed in a period costume of early nineteen hundreds, trim lines of buttons down the full length dress, white gloves, and ornate twist to her hair, secured with a ribbon. The covers of her books finished hauling me in.  Then she chatted with me about how The Picture of Dorian Grey had played an inspirational role in Darker Still and its sequel. She’d captured my interest—I love hearing other writers talk about their ideas, their process. Then I read the back cover; the first page. I bought the book.

Darker Still is written as the diary (or journal) of Miss Natalie Stewart, a mute teenager in a family with a degree of money to set them above most, but not at the top of the social ladder. True to Hieber’s description that she wanted to give voice and power to the females so often stripped of power in Victorian literature, she empowered Natalie with a keen intellect, curiosity, bravery, daring, and cunning. It could have been “too good to be true,” but Hieber balanced all of that with Natalie’s inability to talk.

From the “Gypsy” collection, turn of the century New York

With word choice and the rhythm of her words, Hieber built a Victorian Manhattan I believed. At times she let the city shine, and at others she painted the darkness, such as of the Five Points region, a perfect setting for the nefarious and occult doings around the painting that had drawn Natalie into its orbit.

The man trapped inside—will he be good or bad? With the horror occurring in the city, and Natalie’s dreams, will this man she’s attracted to prove to be good or bad? Even when I thought I knew, Hieber’s progression had me second-guessing myself.

The deeper into the story, the more the risk. Friendships develop, and rifts occur. All flow organically from the story. I never doubted what Natalie would risk to solve the mystery; but I did doubt friendships, wondering who would prove to be a true friend, and who would betray her.

The dark twists and turns paint that picture of an era where women were to be second class citizens, seen but not heard—all the more obvious with Natalie’s muteness. But lack of voice won’t force Natalie to keep her ideas to herself. Pen, paper, and gestures speak volumes.

If you enjoy horror, a tease of love and romance, the lure of magic, and a character who refuses to let society squash her individualism, grab Darker Still.

Vintage label – public domain



  • Darker Still has been named an ABA Indie Next title
  • The Perilous Prophecy of Guard and Goddess, winner of the 2012 Prism Award for Best Fantasy.

Learn more about Leanna Renee Hieber:

  • 2017 release from Tor Books,
  • at her website
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Book Review: Hold on my Heart

Book Details

Hold on my Heart, Tracy Brogan (Montlake Romance, June 25, 2013)

A woman hugs a man

Book Cover, Montlake Romance

213 pp. At the time of this review (6/12/17), it holds a 4-star review on Barnes & Noble, with only four reviews, and a 4.3-star review on Amazon with 720 reviews.

Genre: Contemporary Romance

Book Obtained By: Author give-away at COFW meeting, November, 2016.

My Chocolate Rating on Scale of 5: 4.5 Ghirardelli Salty Caramels (just shy of perfection)

From the Jacket

To build a future, sometimes you have to tear down the past….

“Chicago event planner Libby Hamilton can turn any bland setting into a dramatic venue—but when she abruptly loses her job, and her fair-weather boyfriend moves to another state, Libby suddenly finds herself back in the tiny town she grew up in. Worse than that, her father wants help transforming an old schoolhouse into a vintage ice cream parlor and Libby must trade in her power suits for power tools.

“Widowed restoration specialist Tom Murphy can rebuild just about anything—except the shattered relationship he shares with his teenaged daughter. Hired by Libby’s father, Tom isn’t interested in sharing the details of his personal life with beautiful, spunky Libby. He just wants to get the job done. But she is tenacious—and sexy—and it doesn’t take long before she breaks down his walls, builds up his hope, and gets a hold on his heart that won’t let go.”


Hold on my Heart, Tracy Brogan (Montlake Romance, 2013)

Tracy Brogan presented a fall 2016 program to Central Ohio Fiction Writers, my local chapter of Romance Writers of America. She’d brought a number of extra copies of her books, including ones in foreign translations. She donated them to the club! New to romance writing, and not yet having decided if I was joining COFW back then (I joined at the end of December, 2016), I hung back until the other members made their selections.

This was one of the books Brogan talked about. She said she imagined what the worst possible way for characters to meet was. She described how Libby had been bicycling; squatting behind a dumpster is involved; and then Tom appears. If you’re going to meet like that, I knew this character needed both a sense of humor and a backbone. She has both, always feeling realistic.

This short, delicious read hits all the right areas for me, regardless of genre:

  • Characters build depth as the story progress.
  • Cast of characters supports the novel and adds subplots to keep me ever hooked as to what’s happening next. The Hamilton family members lead an interesting life.
  • Brogan didn’t head hop: Libby and Tom are the only points of view, and I never wondered when she made a switch: either she did it at chapter breaks or as section breaks, and within one sentence I knew whose point of view I was in.
  • Distinct voices for the characters.
  • Puts me through the range of emotions—one page I’m laughing at the dynamics of the Hamilton family, the next I’m teary-eyed, later I’m crying outright, and later I’m blushing at the romance.
  • I don’t always need an “alpha” hero. I like the wholesome guy next door, and that’s emotionally wounded Tom.
  • While I KNOW a romance typically ends happily, Brogan never gave me that certainty.

Set in a small town that seems to be recovering from harder times, the setup felt authentic as I pictured smaller towns I’ve bicycled through. Hope or despair, the buildings and the people I meet show me where they stand, and Brogan did the same as she painted Monroe.

Even if some of the events in the book seemed totally outlandish, because I’d bought into the Hamilton family as people (think your most dysfunctional Thanksgiving dinner, then see how yours stacks up to one of their dinners, then ultimately their Thanksgiving dinner), I believed the happenings. From cantankerous “Nana” (the grandmother) to Libby’s opinionated two sisters (both with their subplots, and all 3 have delightfully historical names), her father’s life-changing decision to buy the historic building to turn it into an ice cream parlor, and to her mother, long-suffering from her husband’s spontaneous decisions, I believed in this family.

Tom serves as a great contrast for Libby. She’s talkative, into bigger gatherings and organizing things, while he’s reserved, focused on the specific tasks of restoration, and determined to keep their relationship professional. Give it time, though, and watch the magic happen between them.

In chapter twenty, if you’re not crying happy tears, you’ve got a better grip on your emotions than I do. Yup, I invested in most of the characters.

At the end of the novel, when Brogan tied off those sub-plots, she sucker punched me, but I had to forgive her. That raised the stakes, leaving me wondering still more, was she really letting Libby secure a happy ending?

I’ll definitely grab another Tracy Brogan book down the line. So many books, so little time!

Take this book along with you to the beach, read it while waiting in line at a store, or curl up in a comfy chair and settle in. At 213 pages, it’s a fast, fun read. I can’t speak to the audiobook version, but one reviewer wasn’t a fan of the artist chosen for that reading.

What do you like best about romances? If you’ve read Hold on my Heart, what did you think?


Tracy Brogan’s earning accolades right and left:

  • Amazon and Wall Street Journal Bestselling author
  • Three-time Romance Writers of America® RITA award nominee for Best First Book in 2013, and Best Contemporary Romance in 2015 and in 2016
  • Booksellers Best award winner
  • Three-time Golden Quill award winner in both contemporary and historical romance
  • Amazon Publishing Diamond Award

Learn more about Tracy Brogan:

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On Memorial Day, Remember Those Who Served and Died

John Starrett, Veteran of the Revolution

Memorial Day, or Remembrance Day, is the time to remember those who lost their lives while serving our country. Too often, we see this weekend as the beginning of “summer,” when what it represents for military families is the end for someone they loved.

Big cities, small towns, and everything in between, they honor today with parades, members of the VFWs traveling in their cars, on motor cycles, on foot, waving to us. Or maybe it’s like in Gahanna today, where veterans fired their twenty-one gun salute from the bridge overlooking the river. A Gahanna High School band member played taps, while another echoed that taps from a distance.

Missing in Action; Prisoner of War

We shoot our pictures, capturing the moments like the presentation of colors (our flag). I stood too far away to hear what was said, but that twenty-one-gun salute cracked through the air, the muzzles flashing. When the band prepared to march to the cemetery, the service members who gave the salute walked past me, and I thanked them for their service. I wondered which friends they’d give anything to see again.

Presentation of Colors has concluded

I owe who I am, this lover of words, of nature, of the beauty of our country, to my parents who raised me, the school system, my friends. But I am also who I am because of those who fought, foreign and domestic. They paid this price for me without my asking, sacrificing time with their loved ones, the career they intended; they came back whole or scarred, whether visible injuries or not. Too many have come home in a coffin draped with the American flag. I owe every one of them.

On this Memorial Day, please think of those who served and are no longer here. Send a prayer out to them, their families, their descendants.

Those Who Might Not Have Served

Gahanna’s Veterans Memorial

stories we don’t learn in school can be the most telling of the history of war. Was it fought for freedom? To keep power? To wrest power away from a megalomaniac like Hitler? Ironic how in the very fight for freedom, some are denied the chance to serve, as if this country did not belong to them, too. Those denials hint at the way power too often sits on the backs of inequality.

Think about when African Americans and others who were not of Caucasian European origin were finally allowed to defend this country that is their home—World War II. Think about the women who were finally allowed to fly in defense of this country that is their home.

Have you heard of the Tuskegee Airmen? They were an experiment during World War II to determine if African Americans “had the mental and physical capabilities to lead, fly military aircraft, and the courage to fight in war.” (Source, the URL above).

Private First Class Robert Strait

I had heard of the Tuskegee Airmen, but I hadn’t realized a host of military personnel formed it—from the folks who cooked and cleaned to the navigators, parachute riggers, mechanics, all the way up to the pilots; nor had I known it was an experiment. I owe them my freedom as much as I own any other service member.

Then there were the women pilots, not seeing airtime until WWII as well. The attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, caught the United States by surprise. Without enough male pilots to both be in the war and serve in domestic capacities, twenty-eight women aviators took to the sky to deliver aircraft to the flight schools, forming the first female squadron, even as “Rosie the Riviter” encouraged women to work in the factories,

Bricks in the Gahanna Veterans Memorial, Gahanna, Ohio

Pilots Nancy Love and Jacqueline Cochran formed the two programs that eventually became known as the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Their duties expanded, and by war’s end they transported personnel, flight-tested aircraft after they’d been repaired, towed targets, and more. From those 28 women, they grew to a corps that served at more than 120 bases in the states.

But wait, did I mention—they did this all as volunteers? That’s right, they were not recognized as members of the military. In June of 1944, Army Air Forces Commanding General “Hap” Arnold asked Congress to recognize the WASP as members of the US military.

The 1,102 women who served in WASP did not receive that recognition until President Carter in 1977.

On this Memorial Day, I hope you’ll take a moment to bow your head in silence, and thank those who have lost their lives in the pursuit of our freedom.

Leo Starrett, Veteran of WWI

Learn More:

  • To learn nine excellent snippets about the Tuskegee Airmen, visit this link.
  • Visit the Tuskegee National Historic Site in Alabama. It’s part of the National Park Service.
  • Visit the WASP Museum. Read about the WASP in the words of Sarah Byrn Rickman, WASP author and historian.
  • Follow WASP on facebook.
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