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Montana Sky by Nora Roberts

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: N/A
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 448 Pages, 8786 Locations
Formats: Paperback, Kindle

A Classic By Roberts

The death of her father took Willa Mercy by surprise - he hadn't even told her he was sick. Finding out that the cold man who she'd tried her entire life to please had left a will that took away the home she'd grown up in and the ranch she'd worked on for her entire life and split it between herself and two half-sisters she'd never even met, demanding that to get anything, they all had to live together on Mercy ranch for a year, is a betrayal that she can't even process. Then, still reeling from that affront, Willa stumbles across the butchered carcass of one of her cattle. And the only animal who would do something like that...is man. As three strangers struggle with each other and the legacy of the unbending, frigid man who was their father, a psychotic killer stalks Mercy and threatens them all.

It was 1997 when I first read Montana Sky. I'd never read anything quite like it, and it turned me on to the exquisite blend of romance and suspense and mystery that Roberts is so acclaimed at writing. Since then, I've read almost every book Roberts has published, regardless of genre.

Montana Sky is, at its core, a story about the bonds of family - those shared through blood and those born and nurtured through affection, dedication, and love. Three sisters first meet, then spark off each other as they start to know each other, eventually like each other...mostly, then love each other - unquestionably. As those tentative family bonds are laid, so too are the bonds with three impressive men who love them. It's heartwarming and horrifying at turns, and despite its age, has a timelessness that keeps it from feeling dated. It's still one of my favorites of Roberts, despite having a few issues with it as a whole.

It's quite long, first of all, and despite Roberts using that length to develop every aspect of the plot sufficiently, I still felt like there were some parts that could have been trimmed down and streamlined in the plot and in the narrative. A few superfluous scenes bogged down the pacing from time to time. I would have also preferred to have Willa and Ben be the sole romance, as the relationships between Adam and Lily and Tess and Nate were quite clearly not the focus of the story and weren't given enough room to really expand into three dimensions, either. And despite the fact that Willa and Ben's relationship is the backbone of the romantic aspects in the book, the conclusion of that relationship arc felt a little less satisfying than those of Lily and Tess and their loves. That's personal preference and opinion, of course.

Despite those few issues, Montana Sky is a compelling, sweeping saga - still a compelling and sweeping saga, actually, and is rich and decadent with the benefits of Roberts' lyricism of prose and her unparalleled ability to draw a reader into the scenes of the book so completely that you can smell the snow on the mountain peaks after a blizzard and feel the trickle of sweat down your spine when the characters are stringing the fences. I loved revisiting this book after so many years and so many fond Roberts' memories.

A caution to sensitive readers: there are scenes that dip into the deranged psychosis of a killer's mind and detail the savagery of his crimes - not to gruesome levels (though that's subjective), but definitely far more than just glossing over them. This is not simply a contemporary romance and does have brutally dark edges more commonly found in romantic suspense or thrillers. It may be too graphic in some places for some readers.

Armed & Magical by Lisa Shearin

Genre: Fantasy
Series: Raine Benares, Book 2
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 304 Pages, 6185 Locations
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle

Armed & Magical (Raine Benares, Book 2)
When It Raines It Pours

Raine Benares is on the Isle of Mid with hope that the powerful mages there will be able to free her from the Saghred's insidious influence. Since arriving she's been kept under constant surveillance and protection, Paladin Mychael's Guardians keeping her in their sights and within reach. When an assassination attempt forces her hand and displays her magical potential to allies and enemies alike, Raine becomes a political pawn and an even bigger target. Then spellsingers start to disappear and Raine discovers that a malevolent force is working to take control of the Saghred, and what protections and shields are in place may not be enough to stop it - especially when the soul-stealing rock seems to want to be used by every nefarious elf or goblin in the land.

The further I read into the Raine Benares series, the more I love Raine and her family and friends. There's something about her dry wit, her sarcasm and tongue-in-cheek humor, her willingness to risk her life - and her soul - for the people she cares about (and their willingness to do the same for her), and the likelihood that trouble will not only find her, it'll give her a big sloppy kiss and try to lift her wallet, too, that keeps me reading and wanting more. The characters are definitely the driving force of the series for me. There's a subtle romantic triangle - and I normally hate those, but it works well here, and Shearin keeps it from being a mess of angst and drama. Instead it serves to flesh out and add character dimension to Raine, Mychael, and Tam, and adds an emotional component to each of their personalities that is very appealing.

In the first book, Magic Lost, Trouble Found, I initially had some trouble warming up to the 'voice' of Raine and feeling connected with the story. Shearin writes the series from Raine's first person POV, and it's a lot heavier on narration than dialogue, so it took me awhile to get used to the limited emotional expression in the narrative and Raine's no nonsense personality. Once I did, however, that first book really worked for me, and that same sense of personality transferred very well to this book, with an added layer of emotional expression and intensity in Raine that I felt was missing in the previous book.

I wasn't as enamored with the plot of the story in Armed & Magical, however. It started quick and strong, but following an early action sequence that got the book off with a bang, it got bogged down a bit with excessive exposition, then segued into less adventuresome investigation and some political stuff that dragged for me. At several points, I could tell my attention was wandering from what was going on around Raine, and I didn't have that problem with the first book. I really liked the broadened understanding of the world and the societal structure, though, and I love the mix of fantasy and modern colloquialisms that pepper the dialogue and narrative. It gives the series a sense of hip freshness and a unique bent in the genre.

The conflict with the antagonist and the story surrounding it felt a little lackluster to me, though, coming together a bit too conveniently. And perhaps it's nothing more than perception, but it felt too close in nature to the plot of the previous book for my tastes - at least in broad-stroke generalities. Also, where I felt the danger to Raine and friends in the last book was gripping and intense through the whole of that story, in this one there were peaks and valleys, and even the most dangerous scenes seemed less visceral than the entire last quarter of the first book. For me, it made the flow of this story seem a bit choppier and less fluid, and the ending slightly anticlimactic.

There were a few points in the narrative that felt repetitive - one in particular that stuck out as being word-for-word duplication of a previous passage. I wasn't quite sure if it was a purposeful tool on the author's part to drive a point home, but regardless, the aspects of the narrative that felt repetitive - as well as the one that more than felt it - added to the drag in the narration through the middle of the book. I also have a tiny issue with how many times Raine mentions or draws on the fact that she's a Benares and speaks so often as to the many and varied reasons that's important for her or significant to her actions. I was well versed in that by the end of the first book and feel that point has been driven in a little too hard by now.

Despite being slightly less enamored with the plot and conflict of Armed & Magical, I'm completely committed to this series and look forward to spending more time with Raine and her family and friends. They really are the most thrilling and fun aspects of this series and I can't wait to see how things progress from here for all of them.

Raine Benares Series:
Magic Lost, Trouble Found (Raine Benares, Book 1)Armed & Magical (Raine Benares, Book 2)The Trouble with Demons (Raine Benares, Book 3)Bewitched & Betrayed (Raine Benares, Book 4)

Special Delivery by Heidi Cullinan

Genre: LGBT - M/M Erotica Romance
Series: N/A
Rating: 2 Stars
Length: 300 Pages, 6196 Locations
Formats: PaperbackKindle

Special Delivery
Well Written, But...

At twenty-one, Sam Keller is little more than a confused boy, shamed by sexual needs he doesn't understand but driven by them regardless. He's known he's gay since he was ten, had a supportive and loving mother accepting him for it, but his mother died of cancer four years ago and his life since then hasn't been easy. Saddled with restrictive relatives and a provincial town without much for a gay man to do to spread his sexual wings, he yearns for more than a loving relationship with a man, aches to be used and dominated, and that yearning makes him feel dirty and stupid and wrong. But it doesn't stop it.

He runs across Mitch Tedsoe in the alley behind his Aunt and Uncle's pharmacy. Mitch is a trucker with a great body and as the older man flirts with Sam, all Sam wants to do is go into Mitch's truck and do whatever the man wants him to. So he does. And it's exactly what Sam needs. The repercussions from that tryst, however, goad Sam into running away with Mitch and they travel across country.

What began as a tryst turns into the most significant relationship of Sam and Mitch's life and Sam eventually thrives under Mitch's careful handling. The cold truth, however, is that no matter how long and delightful the vacation, it always ends. And accepting yourself, respecting your needs is wonderful...but all for naught if it's not accompanied with growing up in the process. Will Sam's desire to be the man that he wants to be destroy the bond between two men made for each other? Thousands of miles on the road can't answer that question.

Special Delivery is a well written, complex tale of growth and discovery, self acceptance and exploration, with characters and situations that are believable and honest - sometimes brutally so. The fluidity of Cullinan's narrative and the depth of character pathos and conflict was compelling, and the dialogue realistic. I was drawn into Sam's head and felt so much for him throughout the story - to the point I was uncomfortable with it - but I acknowledge the skill it takes to draw readers in like that, and admire it.

I did have a couple of issues and found a few inconsistencies in the background and plot (e.g. Sam's mother has been dead four years, but he tells Randy it was three late in the book) and one or two things that didn't make sense (e.g. Mitch tells Sam he knows middle-aged men who fuss less than he does, and in context, it should have been 'more than'). I had a bigger problem with Mitch mentioning more than once that Sam reminds him of Randy...but never with any context...and Sam and Randy are about as diametrically opposed as two characters can be, so in retrospect, each mention felt more like authorial manipulation than organic plot development. A heavy-handed author's tool to introduce an impending conflict, heighten the emotional response to it, and further muck up the sexual quagmire between them all. Despite those issues, this story was overall technically well written.

I had bigger problems with the story itself.

I realized quickly that this book is definitely one I'd categorize as an erotica romance - the sex was a huge part of the story, and an even bigger part of Sam's identity. There was a lot of it. I'm perfectly okay with that - heck, I like that. What I'm not so okay with, however, was the nature of the sex in Special Delivery and the vicious cycle of emotional damage it was reflecting.

I'm actively aware of the many vibrant, varied colors in the kinky-sex rainbow, and everyone is entitled to whichever and however many colors turn them on. I embrace mine and I hope you embrace yours. The flip side to that yummy coin is less rosy, but just as important - everyone has their own line where hot sexy fun crosses into uncomfortable, painful (emotionally or physically), or just flat-out wrong for them. Sexual humiliation and shame cross my lines. I don't find either sexy or titillating, and am quickly turned off by both.

Sam spent so much of this book expressing the craving for humiliation and then feeling shame for his sexual needs and acts that the sex through most of the book was very off-putting for me and made Sam seem younger and far more damaged than in any way adventurous when he's on the road with Mitch. I found it exceptionally disturbing and it made me very uncomfortable, robbing me of any enjoyment of what would have been exceptionally delicious, well written kinky sex. More importantly, it shattered my ability to enjoy in any way, shape, or form the romance aspects of the plot. And this part of the book offended me: "Subordinate. Submissive. Someone who wanted people to do things to him, to shame him, to punish him." (K.Location 4891) That excerpt and the surrounding paragraph seemed foster a stereotype that being a submissive is synonymous with wanting to be hurt and/or humiliated or is in any way shameful. That is blatantly untrue. It can be those things, some submissives do want/need those things, but it doesn't have to be any of them.

I want to make this clear: it was not the sexual acts in and of themselves with which I had a problem. I found nothing too hard core in any of them - kinky, yes...maybe even a little bent...but in the right hands, none of the acts described were particularly extreme, and none of them humiliating or shameful to enjoy on their own merits. My huge sense of discomfort with the sexual scenes in this book come solely from the emotional response and emotional motivation of the lead character.

Perhaps had their been a better balance in the written sex scenes. As the reader, you know early on that Sam wants both a loving relationship and to be used like a whore. He admits exactly that to himself. He gets involved with a man who recognizes and respects the importance of boundaries and exploration, and revels in his lover's debauchery - it's the perfect relationship for Sam...but that darn shame kept haunting him long into his trip with Mitch.

Even after Sam had embraced his love of kink, accepted himself, freed his inhibitions, and dropped the shame (though still driven by his need for some poorly defined internal humiliation), it was far too late in the book to allow for sufficient time to revel in the difference. And not once did we get a well written, detailed sex scene that wasn't about the kink - they existed...they were mentioned...but were glossed over in passing ("we made epic love all night"), leaving the sum of the sexuality far too one-sided for my tastes. So on top of the lines that were crossed by the humiliation and shame, there was no balance to the tone of the sex and very limited foundation for the romance that came together by the end.

I almost fell over when I read the conclusion, in fact. It was nice and all, but it seemed completely out of left field. I was left wondering how Mitch and Sam would balance their emotional and physical relationship...because nothing in the story gave us any clue in that regard. Far too much went unsaid between them through the whole book about what they mean to each other (I've developed a real loathing of scenes and conversations heavy in subtext because I can never seem to grasp what's trying to be said or what it all means - and there were lots of them in this book). To put it succinctly, though this book was technically well-written, it got nowhere close to my preferences for a romance (even an erotic romance) and crossed too many of my lines for me to enjoy it.

On a side note, I feel the product description of this book on Amazon.com was misleading and should have provided readers a more comprehensive picture of the scope of the sexuality included in the story. I have absolutely no idea of the responsible party for that, so it didn't affect my rating...but I can tell you if I had known beforehand, I would have avoided this story. I want to be entertained when I read...especially when I read a supposedly light HEA romance, not uncomfortable.

Queen of Shadows by Dianne Sylvan

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Shadow World, Book 1
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Length: 400 Pages, 5964 Locations
Formats: Paperback, Kindle

Queen of Shadows (A Novel of the Shadow World)
Fantastic Urban Fantasy Debut

She is an incredibly strong empath who can use music to manipulate others' emotions - and get relief from the press of them, but the stress of her combined talents are quickly tearing Miranda Grey apart. Her psyche can't handle the strain. She's cut herself off from people, unable to meet anyone's eyes for fear of seeing too much of the darkness in their hearts, unable to touch anyone for fear of being bombarded by all their dirty little secrets. She keeps her head down and tries not to attract any attention when she's not on stage performing. That's why she didn't see the men as they followed her down the street after a gig late one night. And when they pulled her into that dark alley, hard rain pounding down on Austin as if the city were weeping for her fate, she never even had time to scream.

One of the most powerful vampires in the country, David Solomon is Prime of the Southern United States. He's also a techno geek with a Ph.D. from MIT, an addiction to ice cream...and a growing problem with insurgents, vampires chafing under the no-kill rule of his territory, among other grievances. When he first saw Miranda standing in line at a local mart, he could sense her power. He could sense her crumbling mental state. Then he went to the club and listened to her sing and realized the scope of her skills, but before he could step in to offer assistance with her deteriorating mental health, he was called away by his security team.

The next time he saw her, she was little more than human refuse in that alley - brutally beaten, raped, and almost dead. Just barely more alive than the men she had snuffed out with the sheer force of emotion she wields.

So begins the journey of Miranda and David, two extraordinary...people...whose destinies overlap and intertwine. So begins the Shadow World series, and an incredible urban fantasy series premiere. Original, imaginative, unique, Queen of Shadows is a breath of fresh air in the ofttimes stale genre, and is practically an homage to classic UF with characters who are gifted but flawed, broken, unsure, and struggle with their own demons just as vehemently as they struggle with outside forces.

Told with a flowing, descriptive narrative and vibrant, quick dialogue, this book fleshes out the world of the series and the characters involved with just the right blend of need-to-know-now and wait-to-see-how-this-develops that enhances but never overwhelms the simple but powerful plot. Three dimensional primary and secondary characters who run the gamut from quirky to endearing to a little terrifying ground the story and imbue it with a visceral sense of significance that made me care about their fates - care about them. Made me want to keep reading about them.

I loved Miranda and adored David. While there is definitely a romance between them in this book, the true nature of the story is their journey as individuals, she the victim who needs to find a way to live in this world and he the top predator who needs to find balance between who he is and what he is. With the backdrop of the threat to his territory and the danger to Miranda, their odd friendship and growing emotional connection made for compelling reading as they each travel their paths.

Miranda is far from perfect, and at times very far from strong and independent - someone who occasionally takes the easier, more self destructive way out, and Sylvan allows us to see the goodness in her, the yearning for a normalcy she'll never truly have, and the steel in her spine that will help her become who she's going to become. She crafts Miranda's gifts and curses, strengths and weaknesses, and leaves her ultimately sympathetic and likable...and respectable...without sacrificing her very organic development given her circumstances. Her failures and her triumphs are keenly felt, and it's handled with an aplomb that adds realism and believability.

David is a brilliant character, and I thoroughly enjoyed Sylvan's take on his personality, as well as the vampire mythos and culture incorporated into her world (Twenty-first century vamps! Yay!). The dialogue between him and Miranda and him and his Elite second was saturated with the spectrum of emotions that by nature he as Prime and as a vampire over three centuries old keeps contained. I can't wait to see how he develops as the series progresses.

There are delightful touches of humor in the book that I appreciate, and subtle touches of wit and sarcasm, as so much of this book is more on the dark and serious side. Man's inhumanity to man and...well...vampire's inhumanity to man and vampire both are in unflinching display here, but gentled by the tenderness of affection and humor, the overall picture is far less grim and much more entertaining. I like bleak and tragic as much as the next girl, but it's not to my personal preference for reading entertainment. This book had a nice balance.

Reading Queen of Shadows, it would be easy to see how this could be classified more as a paranormal romance than UF, but it is, actually, urban fantasy, and Sylvan will be continuing the series with Miranda and David as central characters, so there is no traditional HEA. Personally, I find that to be to the benefit of the book, which wouldn't have rated quite so high for me had it been intended as a romance. Too much of the book was centered around David and Miranda individually and independent of each other for me to have fully embraced it as PNR. I can wholeheartedly embrace it as urban fantasy, however.

There were one or two spots that I thought the pace of the plot got a little slow, but nothing so bad that I was overly bothered by it. I do wish that there had been a few things done differently - and almost all are impossible to expound on without seriously spoiling the plot. It's probably safe to say I wish there had been a bit more written out about the character growth for Miranda when she was in her new apartment in Austin. That whole time was seen in bits and pieces and mostly glossed over and summarized and I think it would have been nice to see it in a more real-time fashion. So too the evolution of feelings David had for Miranda. Those issues speak more towards my personal preferences, not criticisms, but I do prefer to see those sorts of transitions written out to better enjoy the transitional stages of character and relationship growth.

Despite that, there's so very much to like about this book that it's one of my favorites of the year and one of my happiest finds. It's going to be a very, very long wait until the second book in the series, which isn't going to be out until sometime in the summer of 2011. Like Miranda, I may actually pine until I get my hands on that book. I'm trying to control those sorts of thoughts with the reality that there is a second book in the series. It helps. A little. Maybe I should try some Ben & Jerry's, too. Works for David.

Believe in Me by Crystal Jordan

Genre: Erotic Paranormal Romance
Series: Unbelievable, Book 2
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 1110 Locations
Formats: Kindle

Believe in Me: Unbelievable, Book 2
Sizzling Short Story

Getting soul mates together is tough work, and for guardian angel Tori Chambers, it's also been long and unfruitful on this case. She's been stuck in the roll of town gossip for a year - geriatric town gossip, at that, and it's getting as old as her appearance to humans. Regardless, her client the fireman is interested in his soul mate, but she's not having any of it and her guardian angel is getting exactly nowhere. It isn't surprising, really, when that angel is replaced. No, that's not surprising at all. What is surprising is the identity of the guardian angel who takes over the reluctant client's case.


The one man - angel - she'd hoped never to see again after he betrayed her over one hundred years ago during the fight for Texas independence. The man she'd loved with all her heart. Her soul mate. But a century ago, he broke her heart and then he died. So did she. She still's as wildly attracted to him as ever, but refuses to trust him with her heart ever again. And Jericho refuses to let her keep it from him. He's a guardian angel of soul mates and getting them together is what he does. When it comes to Tori, it's never been more important to succeed at his job.

Crystal Jordan has a gift for penning nifty stories with a tight plot and a nice balance of character development and exposition, delivering them with a smooth narrative and realistic dialogue, liberally adding delicious helpings of mouth-watering sex, and imbuing it all with a depth of emotion that's startling and impressive given the erotica theme and the length of the story, which in this case is definitely that of a short story as opposed to novella. I enjoyed the guardian angel theme in this series, and I was impressed with the characters' history. It added nice depth to their relationship and maximized the potential for its development. Jordan continues to impress me and reading her stories always provides entertainment. This story may have been shorter in length than If You Believe: Unbelievable, Book 1, but I think it had better balance between the characters and definitely packed more of an emotional wallop.

In fact, my only complaint with the story is one I'm becoming familiar with in relation to stories by Jordan - I wish they were longer, but only because I don't want them to end. Personally, I hope there's more to come in this sensual, sexy, emotional series. One word of caution for sensitive readers: this story contains sexual scenes of anal penetration and light bondage.

Shadow Bound by Erin Kellison

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Shadow, Book 1
Rating: 5 Stars
Length: 322 Pages, 5103 Locations
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle

Shadow Bound
Dark, Delicious Paranormal/Fantasy Romance

Twenty-six years ago, the fae known as Death stepped through the veil between Shadow and loved a woman incandescent of soul, breaking the laws of Shadow to do so and setting into motion events with far reaching repercussion. Chaos has spread like a stain across the country ever since, spawning soul-eating and immortal wraiths with voracious appetites. That's not all that was spawned that night, however.

At twenty-six, Dr. Talia O'Brien has always known she's different, not quite normal, otherworldly, and has yearned for nothing more than peace. Brilliant she may be but fear of her differences keep her insulated from humanity, until a knock on the door and the death of her roommate stripped the blinders from her eyes and forced her to realize there were creatures out there that were hunting for her, and they were even less normal than she was.

Adam Thorne is intensely motivated to find out as much as he can about the wraiths, desperate to discover the way to kill them. Six years ago he watched his older brother Jacob attack and eat his mother, then his father, and only luck prevented Jacob from consuming him too. Since then he's kept the creature that used to be his brother contained in the bowels of the Segue research facility as Adam does everything in his power to find a way to kill him. With only a word...a name - Shadowman - as a clue to stopping the wraiths in general and his brother in particular, he stumbles across a doctoral dissertation on near death experience that gives him the first - the only - other mention of Shadowman he's ever seen. A dissertation by Dr. Talia O' Brien.

Talia's on the run from horrifying monsters, physically and mentally spent when Adam finds her and brings her back to Segue, saving her life. She doesn't trust him. She's not sure what's going on. She doesn't even know the full extent of her powers or why she has them. All she knows is that Adam is a beacon of hope and his cause, while motivated by an unhealthy, if understandable, obsession, may be the only way for Talia to survive what she realizes instinctively is a coming war.

With a breakneck pace and slick, tight plot that is deliciously original and unique, Kellison has jettisoned herself into the ranks of the upper echelon of paranormal romance series. The narrative is smooth, balanced and lyrical of prose and at times and gritty and coarse, drawing the reader along and perfectly setting the tone for each scene, adding an intangible layer of excellence to this sophisticated, polished story.

Talia and Adam are complex characters, flawed and complicated, and often at cross purposes in their motivations, but their interactions are pure, rich, meaty entertainment and I absolutely love the disciplined and deftly crafted development of their characters. Their evolution as individuals and together as a pair felt organic to the story, each step carefully executed, imbuing each of them with depth and personality that makes them shine.

I loved it. I loved everything about it. I loved the plot, which was fresh and well told. I loved the narrative, with the smooth writing style that added the invaluable tone to the plot, enhancing the reading experience. I loved the characters, heroes and villains and everything in between, which supplied the story with such fantastic emotion and a true sense of threat and sacrifice. And romance.

I loved it. Unqualified. One of my favorite reads all year. Read it now, and if you're a Kindle owner or eBook reader, download the second in the series, Shadow Fall, while it's being offered as a free read.

Marked by Elisabeth Naughton

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Eternal Guardians, Book 1
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 336 Pages, 5285 Locations
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle

Marked (Eternal Guardians)
It's Greek To Me

Theron is an Argonaut - their leader, in fact. The Argonauts are a group of warriors and guardians of the people of Argolea, a kingdom created by Zeus in a dimension separate from ours for the descendants of the original Argonauts, seven demigods who sailed with Jason on the quest for the Golden Fleece.

For almost two hundred years Theron has been a loyal warrior for crown and country, fighting the eternal fight against the daemons who continue to threaten the Argoleans when they cross the portal to our dimension. When Isadora, the king's heir and Theron's bride-to-be (a duty, not a love match) sneaks through the portal, Theron spends days searching for her, only to find her in a human strip club called XScream. Daemons are hot on their heels, however, and Theron just gets Isadora to safety before he's forced to fight for his life against them.

Acacia 'Casey' Simopolous works part time as a waitress at XScream, trying to make ends meet and keep afloat the bookstore her grandmother left her. Cutting out early on a bad night, headache pounding in her head, Casey's horrified to stumble across a scene out of a nightmare. Several...things...attacking something - no...someone. Not just anyone, either, but the Greek-god gorgeous man who'd run into her - literally - while she was waiting tables during her shift. He was now down on the pavement, bleeding, maybe dying. Only her fast intervention can save him, but in so doing, Casey takes the first steps down a path of destiny and destruction that will forever change her world.

While the Greek god mythology and/or the theme of a group of  uber-alpha male warriors fighting the good fight has been well-worn in series like Kenyon's Dark-Hunters, Showalter's Lords of the Underworld, Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood, and more, both the a theme and the mythology are well suited for the paranormal romance genre when done well, and generally I enjoy them booth very much. Unfortunately, despite a few new twists to the standard and characters that I enjoyed, I wasn't sold on Marked.

I struggled to get into the story. The beginning felt very slow to me, and I was over a third of the way in before the action picked up and pieces started fitting together. Throughout the book, the shifting POV provided the opportunity for a nicely layered plot with converging plot threads getting introduced and simultaneously developed, but I felt the evolution of the relationship between Casey and Theron was shortchanged in the trade off. And the transitions in those POV changes disrupted the flow of the romance, so I was unable to really connect with it on an emotional level.

Plus, as much as I liked Casey throughout, and eventually liked Theron (I wasn't sold on him at first - his unemotional duty-first attitude with a side order of arrogant human-bigoted booty call put me off), too much of what little time they did have together was Theron telling Casey what to do, squabbling with her, or saving her and not enough was them actually working together or dealing with each other as equals. My preferences for a romantic pairing lay in the latter.

I liked the idea of seeing the beginnings of an impending war. In all those other series I mentioned, the series starts with the group of warriors already embroiled (sometimes for millennia) in the battle against the FOE (Forces of Evil). I also really enjoyed the idea of the Argonauts' one true mate being almost a curse more than a blessing thanks to Hera. That's a new way to look at it, for sure.

There were things, however, with which I had some major issues. Plot holes and contradictions were pretty grievous and plentiful. Some small, some not so small. And I was left with way more questions than I had answers for by the end. There were also inconsistencies in character development and action that jarred me out of the story time and again. I'll mention a couple of the ones that bothered me the most, but separately to prevent spoiling those who prefer not to be. The truth is, though, it's not the specifics of my issues that matter. Agree or disagree with them as you will. The significant point is that the story, for whatever reason, wasn't strong enough to relegate my issues to petty grievances or annoyances, and instead seriously impacted my enjoyment of a book in a genre and with a theme and mythology that I'm predisposed to liking.

Like I said, though, there were good points. I give credit to the author for the undertaking of starting a war, and there hasn't been a group of uber-alpha male warriors yet I didn't enjoy on some level. I wonder, though, if this particular book and the overall series would've benefited from a different approach. I can't say that I'm invested enough to continue with the next book in the series, Entwined. The Argonaut featured isn't the character I was hoping for. I may wait until the next one is out and read the second and third back to back. I am interested in Nick's story, and Orpheus, as well, and thought both of those characters were intriguing, so I do hope both of them get their own books. For now, I'll wait and see.

~*~*~ Warning: Spoilers for Marked ahead! ~*~*~

Some Issues/Holes/Contradictions/Questions:
  • In the beginning, Isadora was desperate to find Casey, went to great lengths to do so, and tells Theron that she needs her. Later Isadora is doing everything she can to keep Casey away from her and sells her soul to spare her. It was established that Isadora knew from the start of the story what the prophecy said...knew what the consequences would be. So why would she ever try to find her like she did in the beginning? 
  • The basic premise of the prophecy seemed flawed. For three thousand years through however many generations that is, the big bad has been preventing the prophecy from coming true (that's a pretty depressing success rate for the bad guys)...so this time, when the king knew who the Chosen One was, knew where she was, why leave her there? He was willing to sacrifice her at the age of twenty-seven but didn't hedge his bets by coaxing her to Argolea before then so the daemons couldn't get her? As reprehensible as the king is for so very many things, it doesn't make tactical sense to let the big bad continue to amass an army when he could very well have assured the Chosen One was under his control and guaranteed the prophecy's fruition. He obviously wasn't motivated by love of either child, so I had to wonder why he didn't take matters into his own hands far sooner.
  • Nick feels the daemons coming when they attacked at the bookstore, but apparently not when they attacked Theron just outside the strip club Nick was sitting in, despite his obvious intent to protect Casey.
  • There were constantly vacillating levels of illness and weakness in both Isadora and Casey depending on the situation. Isadora in particular is introduced in the book with weakness and illness so severe that Theron has to carry her. She quivers in front of other Argonauts and can't stop trembling. Yet the plot needs to progress, she races around, slamming into guards, skirting around Olympus and Tartarus making deals and offering sacrifices. Casey isn't much better for the very fact that she's supposed to be decreasing in vivacity at the same time as her other half but has never seemed quite so affected as Isadora. Until there needs to be a choked up moment of realization of her mortality. God, I know I sound jaded, but too much seemed way too convenient.
  • Why was Nick doing the whole stalker gig on Casey? He had no knowledge of the prophecy, or her lineage, so if it was just because she was Misos, wouldn't it have been less time consuming to just tell her what she was?
  • Why did Dana refer to Nick as Casey's secret admirer and seem genuinely perplexed by his hanging around when Dana was the one doing the nasty with Nick and obviously had been for awhile?
  • What is the difference between the Argoleans and Misos? Argoleans are a diluted race of demigods, and quoting Isadora, most are at least half human. Misos are...a diluted race of demigods, most are about half human. So what the heck is the difference? The level of dilution?? A kingdom ruled by a crown who views a slightly different dilution level as justification for the spilled milk of Misos' genocide in their three thousand year struggle against the daemons on our side of the portal with no help from the Argolean or Argonaut forces is so reprehensible to me that it makes his race ultimately unsympathetic. They may be descended from the original heroes...but it's been one hell of a deep descent.

Compromising Positions by Jenna Bayley-Burke

Genre: Contemporary Romance
Series: N/A
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 248 Pages, 5175 Locations
Formats: Paperback, Kindle

Compromising Positions
Sparks Fly When The Unstoppable Meets The Immovable

Sophie Delphino may be young and sexually inexperienced, but after spending so much of her life taking care of infirm parents, stepping in for her sister as a possible birth surrogate, then again when her sister's high risk pregnancy forced her to step down as the manager of the health club that she and Sophie co-own, she's more than experienced in doing what needs to be done with no complaint. In fact, Sophie has a history of sacrificing for others. When it comes to David Strong, however, Sophie refuses to sacrifice. She focuses her considerable will and irrepressible personality on David, the star of her sexual fantasies for a decade, and when the fantasy of David becomes the reality of a good man, she realizes that only by being true to her own needs will they have a chance for happiness together.

A spunky, determined heroine and a flawed, slightly damaged but generous hero are the prime components of this charming and fun contemporary romance. Bayley-Burke has created two characters who complement each other in and out of the bedroom, and with a smooth narrative and witty dialog ripe with playful banter, offers up a touching and triumphant romance.

I wasn't totally sold with lady's man David at first, whose rigid dating rules and lifetime goals and plans seemed a little too shallow and pretentious for my tastes, but as his true character was revealed and his past uncovered, he becomes more and more sympathetic a character and more endearing for it. Sophie, on the other hand, started out as endearing and became a strong, independent character with her wide-eyed enthusiasm, her honesty, and her selflessness. She was under-appreciated by her family for her repeated sacrifices, and I wasn't at all fond of her sister or brother-in-law because of it, but it was so refreshing to have a female lead in a contemporary romance that I liked at all, let alone one I liked as much as I did Sophie. It's been awhile since I could make that claim.

I had a couple of issues with the story, but no real problems, and most of those issues are preference-based. I would've truly enjoyed Sophie's brother-in-law getting a bit of a comeuppance for his casual disregard of all the ways Sophie has assisted him and her sister over the years - almost every aspect of his life had her helping hands on it and his sense of entitlement and ambivalence about her sacrifices seemed disrespectful and a little reprehensible - especially as he's taken credit at work for things she's done. I wish there had been a moment where David and he went toe to toe on that and called him on it in a more detailed fashion than the one scene that sort of brushed over some of that.

I thought there were some transitional issues at a couple of points in the plot, where the story went a bit too quickly from lighthearted romp in tone to far more serious in nature then back again, with things such as embezzlement, robbery, and vasectomies interspersed with humor and sizzling sexuality. I enjoyed both aspects of the plot, and definitely appreciated how much of David's character was explained as the story progressed within the parameters of so many points of that plot, but the transitions seemed a little abrupt for my tastes at times.

There just isn't much else I felt critical of in this delightful romance. It's definitely one of the most entertaining contemporary romances I've read lately, and I want to give special kudos to Bayley-Burke for one of the most romantic and emotional conclusions I've read in a good long while. I felt for these characters, and always appreciate an author who can engage my emotions for their characters. I'll definitely be checking out more titles by Bayley-Burke and look forward to reading more of her work.

No Strings Attached by Alison Kent

Genre: Contemporary Romance, Harlequin Blaze
Series: www.gIRL-gEAR.com, Book 2
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 256 Pages, 3504 Locations
Formats: PaperbackKindle

No Strings Attached (www.gIRL-gEAR.com, Book 2)
Maybe I Should Have Read The First One

Chloe Zuniga's job as one of the VPs for gIRL gEAR is on the line. Sydney Ford, the company's CEO, is tired of Chloe's different-date-a-day social life and locker room potty mouth threatening the image of the company, especially as several prime events are slated in coming weeks to elevate the company into the next tier. To put forth the impression of cleaning up her act, Chloe turns to sports-loving Eric Haydon for help. As sexy as he finds Chloe, however, experience with her makes him more than wary, and in return for acting as her escort for the three events for her company, he's demanding three wishes in trade. He figures he should get something out of the deal, after all. If that something is more time spent with the delectable Chloe on his terms, then he's all for it. Neither one anticipated just how life-altering three little favors could be.

I kept wondering as I read Kent's No Strings Attached if I would have had a different opinion of the story had I read the first in the series. It's a stand-alone book, sure, but it lacked quite a bit of exposition and subtext. I felt Chloe and Eric's scavenger hunt history was well explained, but I have no idea why he wasn't returning her calls at the beginning or what his less than gung ho reaction to her was based upon. I never felt like I had a firm grasp on Chloe's past with the company to give her such a lousy reputation, and I felt like the friendships she has with her gIRL gEAR pals were more important than the book explains. I have no idea why Annabelle Lee is called Poe and she's an active secondary character, so she was around enough to keep me wondering. I was left feeling like I was always just a step off in my grasp of the world Kent's created and the characters inhabiting it.

As a reader, that put me in a position to have to accept - or not, depending - at face value the situation as Kent laid it out in this book, with all the motivations and behaviors and emotional responses as written. Much of that wasn't a problem for me at all, but there were a few things I had trouble with to start and I'm afraid it made me more critical of the book as a whole because of it.

Maybe I'm asking too much of a Harlequin Blaze - that's certainly possible - but there was little about Chloe's character that I found consistent in her development. Her family history scarred her, but while she clearly stated she dated so many duds in her quest for Cary Grant, when one falls into her lap she can't push him away and keep him at arms length fast enough. She's also pretty wretched to Eric, who is, in fact, doing her a favor - and even his 'wishes' turn out to provide her with pleasure, so repeated instances of churlish behavior and attitude on her part didn't make her very sympathetic. Or appealing. I couldn't figure, besides her body, why he loved her. Eric was pleasant enough - though towards the end he seemed like a bit of a doormat - but the relationship never really worked for me as it lacked the give-and-take that I prefer in a developing relationship.

The jumpy narrative and seemingly random plot points didn't help, either. Gaps in time were spanned between events that Chloe and Eric attended and the narrative didn't dwell much on the between times, and with no warning a week or more passed in the story timeline. It made keeping up with the evolution of the relationship a little confusing and felt very choppy at times. Throw in a surprise appearance by Chloe's eldest brother, who shows up out of nowhere and suddenly starts spouting off about family skeletons and life-changing truths, and several parts of the story seemed awkward and heavy-handed as a result.

Now, despite all that, Kent excelled at the sharp, quick, and witty dialogue between Chloe and Eric, and definitely kindled the blaze of the sexual relationship quite nicely. Their sparring in and out of the bedroom...um...not that they were limited to the bedroom, by any means...was the high point of the story and provided, once I'd resigned myself to the issues I had, a sexy, slightly shallow but mostly harmless reading experience. From a technical standpoint, there are a few pluses as well. While the narrative did jump forward in time with no warning and was pitted with inexplicable plot point bombs, it's written with a sophistication on a technical level and what's there flows smoothly as a result, highlighting the dialogue to its best effect.

I may not feel motivated to go back to the first book in the series, All Tied Up, nor continue with the series with Bound to Happen, but I can't say I disliked No Strings Attached, either. I've read other titles by Alison Kent, though, and this one wasn't my favorite.

Ratings Guide

Here is a rundown of what the star ratings mean to me! It's not a perfect system, so you may see me add in a .5 star here and there if my impression of the book falls somewhere between these:

5 Stars - Loved it
4 Stars - Liked it
3 Stars - It's okay
2 Stars - Didn't like it
1 Star - Hated it

2014 Challenge

2014 Reading Challenge

2014 Reading Challenge
Tracy has read 22 books toward her goal of 175 books.


Tracy's bookshelf: read

Zero at the BoneHead Over HeelsLord of the WolfynIn Total SurrenderA Win-Win PropositionNorth of Need

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