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The Vampire Shrink (Kismet Knight, Ph.D., Vampire Psychologist, Book 1) by Lynda Hilburn

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Kismet Knight, Ph.D., Vampire Psychologist, Book 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: Novel
Formats: Paperback, Kindle

The Vampire Shrink (Kismet Knight, Vampire Psychologist series)
Even the Undead Have Issues!

Kismet Knight, Ph.D., is a relatively successful psychologist leading a relatively average life in Denver. Her practice is strong, even if her love life's been more drought than flood for the past two years. She's a modern woman, self aware and logical, and while she may not be the most open minded of people, she definitely has a sense of personal humor that - when combined with her clinical mind - serve her well in her profession. When a teen-aged client comes into her office, forced into therapy by the classic misunderstanding parents, and starts spouting off about vampires and the desire to be undead and going all starry-eyed at the mention of the vampire master she met, Devereux, Kismet starts seeing a potential new avenue for therapy that could lead to a book deal in her publish-or-perish profession - NOT fanged, blood drinking fiends from beyond the grave. Soon there are disappearances and odd encounters with perversely sexy men (one of which is the aforementioned Devereux) waking up in a coffin surrounded by corpses, and a trail of death between New York and Denver that brings a sexy FBI Special Agent into her sphere and threatens Kismet's continued existence. No matter how firmly she clings to her logic and lack of belief in fanged creatures that go bump in the night, Kismet is thrust into the vampire underworld and realizes, albeit belatedly, that the undead have issues too - and they're so much more deadly than human's. 

The Vampire Shrink is a great read. I really enjoyed the story and I will be forever grateful to Lynda Hilburn for writing a psychologist character that actually sounds and acts like a psychologist. I recently completed a trilogy by a different author that didn't manage that feat and that very lack was one of my criticisms of the entire trilogy. Instead, The Vampire Shrink didn't disappoint me in that regard, and in fact, one of the major plot threads of this book was the pleasantly realistic portrayal of a psychologist - an educated and learned individual, secure in her understanding of the human mind and all its vagaries - that was being forced into situation after situation that demanded acknowledgment that the world was a lot more complicated than she'd previously thought. And it was very well done, if a bit frustrating at times. I certainly felt the plot moved along quickly and the conflicts were many and varied, so it was a very satisfying read from that perspective. I also found this book to be unique for the very reason that the main plot seemed to be Kismet's introduction to and emergence into the vampire world, as the other plot threads and conflicts seemed to revolve around that central theme instead of visa verse. There was quite a lot going on in The Vampire Shrink, including murders, protection rituals, and sexy men and vamps with lots of appeal, but as the book is told quite convincingly by Kismet in first person POV, it is understandable that her development was the primary focus of the book and the rest of the happenings supported that development. 

There were a few aspects of the book that prevented me from totally loving it, though. I have to admit, I wasn't used to a book in which the protagonist steadfastly refused to believe in the existence of anything supernatural for almost the entire first half (46% for you Kindle readers). That was a little disconcerting, actually, and I found Kismet's tenacity to be a bit trying. I tried to weigh that against the knowledge that she IS a psychologist who deals with patients who have varying degrees of issues and some of those degrees include psychopathy and delusion, so it did make sort of a macabre sense that she'd be so stubbornly resistant to just leap onto the belief train, but towards the end, when the evidence of the truth REALLY started stacking up, I think even the most rational person would have to cave before Kismet did, so that was a bit of a problem for me. 

I also don't believe that Kismet's unusual fascination with the opposite sex - a fascination that bordered on nearly obsession when EVERY male she met was measured as a potential lover - was satisfactorily explained. I think I caught the explanation - that Bryce had mind-mojo'd her and changed her brain waves - and that they fell more into line with the sexuality of the vampire race, but I don't think it was very well delineated and would have preferred it have been given a bit more attention for my own tastes. And speaking of Bryce...the big conflict at the end of the book was a bit abrupt - both in its inception and its conclusion, and there were some things thrown into it that left me scratching my head a little. Again, that's a danger in a book where the goings on around the POV character haven't directly included that character in those goings on...if that makes sense. To be more specific (while trying desperately not to include spoilers), the vampire war and struggle for power doesn't really impact or include Kismet directly during the book, but she's pulled into it at the end because of her connection with Devereux. As a result, the conflict at the end, which was all about that struggle for power, sort of forced Kismet into the center of it without any real story build up about why she was a part of it all. And not to complain, but when did Kismet start seeing things in mirrors? That made no sense to me at all. The whole of that final conflict seemed a bit odd to me as a result. The only other issue I had that's worth mentioning was the lack of sufficient explanation or follow up with the psychic Kismet met early on. I would have enjoyed more than a cursory mention later, but as it was written, that felt more like an unresolved plot point. It could be resolved or addressed in a later book, we'll see. 

It sounds like I didn't like the book as much as I did, and I don't want to leave anyone with that impression, because as a whole, The Vampire Shrink had a lot of good points and I found it to be a compelling and interesting read. I will definitely be continuing the series.

Along Came A Demon by Linda Welch

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Whisperings, Volume 1
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Length: Novella
Formats: PaperbackKindle

Along Came A Demon: Whisperings (Volume 1)
Fantastic Urban Fantasy Novella

First in a new urban fantasy series, Along Came a Demon introduces Tiff (don't call her Tiffany) Banks and the world she and her friends inhabit with a smooth, first person POV narrative, and a tightly compact plot that fits about as well as anyone could hope for in its limiting novella-length book. I have to give credit where it's due; Linda Welch did an excellent job maintaining the intrigue and tension in this bare-bones plot and didn't skimp on developing Tiff as she did so. There was a more noticeable fall off in the character development of the characters around Tiff, but with a story of this length, something has to be compromised, the question is only which aspect of telling a complete story will feel the most squeeze from that compromise. 

Tiff sees dead people - well...some dead people, anyway. Anyone who died a violent or surprised death usually sticks around the area they were killed vainly hoping for someone to see, hear, and interact with them. And Tiff does it. She's sort of a psychic, she supposes, but she's never really put a label on what she can do any more than she knows why she can do it. She also sees demons, as if the whole dead victim thing wasn't bad enough. They're not exactly the classic fire and brimstone type demons, but they are certainly working with their own playbook, and Tiff both fears them and avoids them as much as possible. Unfortunately, the cop she's shackled with while she tries to find an abducted child, is one of THEM and she trusts him just about as far as she can throw him. And he's really big. And heavy. 

Very nicely done novella, and honestly, one of the most complete story arcs I've read in a book of this length. Yeah, there were some points that didn't get wrapped up neatly and a lot of questions I had left to ask, as well as things that didn't make TOTAL sense given the shortness of time given to explain them, but overall I'm very pleasantly surprised by this title. The only significant criticism for the title is twofold, the first being the odd sexual/emotional relationship development between Tiff and Royal. Frankly, I wouldn't have minded that being left out of the story entirely and instead just alluded to until the first full length novel had been done. That wasn't the case and I muddled through it, but it wasn't my favorite aspect of the book and I found it very discordant with the flow of the rest. I know it's difficult to successfully nurture a romance in so short a novella, but it's been done before and done well. 

The second drawback was the wrap up at the end. Again due to the length of the novella in combination with the intricacies of the non-relationship plot, the author seemed to run out of room to write long before she ran out of story to tell, so the last chapter and epilogue seemed forced and abrupt and not organic to the story line. Along Came a Demon wasn't flawless, as you can see, but it's definitely one I'd recommend to fans of the UF and paranormal romance genres. The issues I have mentioned held back a perfect score, but I feel comfortable with a 4.5 star rating and am very much looking forward to the second book in the series. Nicely done!

Golden Eyes by Maya Banks

Genre: Erotic Paranormal Romance
Series: N/A
Formats: Kindle

Golden Eyes4 Stars
Erotic Paranormal Prequel

Aliyah Carter is being hunted by poachers, hunters that are a part of a smuggling ring that brings African predators to the mountains of Colorado and releasing them to be slaughtered. Snatched in her cheetah form six months ago, the shifter Aliyah is racing for her life when an arrow pierces her flank. She manages to evade the poachers but is found by Duncan Kennedy, local sheriff, who is quite surprised to find a cheetah in his mountains, let alone one so grievously wounded. When one of the poachers sneaks up on Duncan while he's trying to aid the wounded feline, he's rescued by the surprising actions of the cheetah, and manages to get the large cat back to his cabin. But the surprises are just beginning when the top predator he leaves in his mudroom - arrow still sticking out of her flank - turns into a gorgeous female...with an arrow sticking out of her thigh. The world as Duncan knew it has changed forever, and Aliyah, feline to female and gorgeous with it, claws her way into Duncan's heart, then his bed. But the threat to her life and the threat to Duncan's mountain may tear them apart forever. 

This short novella is a bit light on world building and character development, but the narrative is smooth and the plot quick-moving. The big game poaching is a relevant topic in this day and age and I liked that subject being addressed. I wish there had been a bit more care given to the development of the emotional relationship between Duncan and Aliyah, and that it had been given as much attention as the sexual relationship. I'm familiar with erotic paranormal romances, and prefer that their be a better balance between the sexuality and the emotion. That is the only complaint I had about this nifty little prequel to Maya Banks' Amber Eyes.

The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie by Jennifer Ashley

Genre: Historical Romance
Series: Highland Pleasures, Book 1

Rating: 5 Stars
Formats: Mass Market PaperbackKindle

The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie (Leisure Historical Romance)
Compelling

I picked up The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie strictly on the merits of the reviews (Amazon.com) and my enjoyment of the first of Jennifer Ashley's Shifters Unbound series, Pride Mates (Shifters Unbound), despite not being a huge follower or fan of historical romances. I'm so very pleased that the reviews definitely did this book justice, because it was fantastic. 

What was most compelling about
The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie was the indomitable spirit of heroine Beth Ackerley and the nearly feral dedication of Lord Ian Mackenzie. Both characters are misfits in the time they live and the positions they hold, and yet so perfectly matched. The wounded and tormented Ian with his autism, a condition that in 1881 would have been so grievously mishandled as mislabeled as madness, a flawed but proud and dedicated soul, and one who is both smart and sly when needs be. And just as delightfully stubborn as his Beth, the woman he sees true value in, despite her questionable heritage and former marriage. Their relationship is darkly seductive and their story is both heartfelt and enchanting. 

With a nearly flawless narrative - and that's saying something because it had to be difficult to maintain the character of Ian - and a plot that includes mystery, intrigue, and family betrayal, the
The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie was a totally engrossing read that I found impossible to put down. Ashley has penned a truly vibrant world with depth and care and populated it with interesting characters - primary, secondary, and ancillary - that were very human in their relations...it even had what every historical romance seems to have - at least one smarmy little bastard that is all about society and nothing about standards. Ian dealt quite nicely with him, though. 

I loved this book - and I'm very surprised that I loved it as much as I did. I'll be rereading
The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie, I'm sure, and revisiting some of my favorite characters in any romance novel. Very, very well done.

Immortalis: Carpe Noctem (Book 1) by Katie Salidas

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Immortalis, Book 1
Formats: PaperbackKindle 

Immortalis Carpe Noctem1.5 Stars
Carpe Espresso ~ You'll Need It

I wanted to like this first book in Katie Salidas' Immortalis series. I'm a huge fan of vampire fiction and I do so love to feed my addiction. Unfortunately, Immortalis: Carpe Noctem was lacking in too many areas to engender any enjoyment from this read. 

Alyssa is brutally attacked and almost raped on the campus of UNLV as she walks home alone late one night (sensitive readers beware - the attack was very descriptive and detailed with it's brutality). She's saved...in a manner of speaking...by the taciturn Lysander who is forced to turn her when her attackers left her too close to death to survive as a mortal. Being born into the immortal life isn't easy on her, and if that isn't enough, two different and equally deadly factions are out to get her - Lysander's former mate and self proclaimed leader of the vampires (who's still in a snit a millennia old that Lysander left her), and a deadly fanatical religious sect that's determined to erase all immortals from the planet and has now set their sights on Las Vegas. 

I wish I could say the plot was unique or Salidas' take on vampire mythos was compelling. I can't. In point of fact, anyone who favors fanged fiction - from urban fantasy to gothic to paranormal romance - has seen all or a part of the plot and mythos more than once. There is one point in particular that is relatively new or at least not quite so retread but it is in no way sympathetic or appealing. Some of the rest was just plain bizarre. 

Alyssa is immature, whiney, and overburdened by a ridiculous black vs. white morality. She makes stupid choices and she pays for them...only to make them again. She spent most of the book bemoaning her inability and unwillingness to be what she is. I find that tedious in a character after a point. Lysander was a peculiar mix of stoic to the point of rigid automaton and nearly feral with flashes of intense emotion that were startling for their misplacement and irregular occurrence. Any and all development of the relationship between them felt far more like the author's wishes instead of the character's desires and read as clinical and devoid of any lasting affection or emotion until the very end, and by then, I just didn't care enough to be bothered. 

The vampire mythos had some potential as it was developing, but it came to a crashing, unsatisfying end with the miasma of missed opportunities and lack of logic that stripped me of any willing suspension of disbelief and made me repeatedly question, "Why?" That's never a good thing, but in this case in particular, having that question answered thoroughly and completely was necessary to engender any sympathy at all for these characters. If it's a spoiler, I apologize, but part of Salidas' mythos in this series includes vampires actually killing their prey - almost every time. While I would say that this is a rather unusual need in vampire fiction of late, the very absence of any good reason why that has to be true, and a couple of conflicting pieces of evidence that would push for it not being true, makes it very difficult to buy into the necessity. And if, as a reader, I don't buy into the need for vampires to kill their prey every time, then when they do...well...that's not exactly an endearing trait. It's almost impossible to like these characters because of that. 

I respect an author's decision to create the mythos as he/she sees fit, but I don't have to like it - or read it - if there hasn't been enough provided to explain and make the characters likable over and above their murder rate. Not to mention - even if the more aged vamps only have to kill once a week...that's fifty-two kills a year. If your city has...lets say only 20 vampires old enough to go a week between killings...that's 1,040 murders and disappearances a year if they're all old vamps. Every year. One newbie who has to feed every day, or even a slightly less newbie who has to feed every two or three days...can you say astronomical body count?? Someone's eventually going to notice several hundred missing persons a year, no matter how many are dregs of society (and not every vamp kills only the humans who may need killing). Given the vast number of books and series that I enjoy which embrace the gray area of morality, with characters that have brutal and bloody pasts and presents, I can say with authority that I'm not squeamish or particularly caring for humanity as a whole when the story supports it. There was an utter lack of common sense or grasp of the "big picture" here. 

And if the plot wasn't anemic enough, the mythos as lacking in credibility, or the characters limpid enough, the actual mechanics of the writing were just awful. Salidas is far too fond of commas and misplaces them with reckless abandon. The sacrifice of sentence structure does nothing to help the already stilted narrative and clunky dialogue, either. I can understand Lysander talking like he's a couple of thousand years old - that's fine - but the rest of the narrative and dialogue needed a lot of work, to the point that I don't think Lysander's method of speech was actually intended, given everyone spoke similarly. Also, the writing style in this book was as strictly utilitarian as Lysander's decor, and poorly done on top of that. It lacks polish and is in desperate need of at least an editor for grammatical mistakes, if not story issues. For an independent publisher or an author self publishing, I'd suggest a reader's circle - beta readers who will tell it straight. Much could have been salvaged with a few nips, tucks, and edits. 

As a general rule, I tend to be a little forgiving about the mechanics of writing if the story is compelling or the characters are interesting, even more forgiving of the story being cliched if the characters are great and the mechanics are good, but in Immortalis: Carpe Noctem there was an unfortunate trifecta of badness that left little to be enamored with. Ultimately, this was an unsatisfying and disappointing read. 

Also, at the end of this book there was a sneak peak of the second in the series, Immortalis: Hunters & Prey. Upon reading it and seeing glimpses of the same sort of issues I had with this book, I will not be continuing with this series.

Grey's Awakening by Cameron Dane

Genre: LGBT - M/M Contemporary Romance
Series: N/A
Rating: 5 Stars
Length: 3014 Locations
Formats: Kindle

Grey's Awakening
Grey and Sirus Make This Wonderful

Greyson Cole and Sirus Wilder - two complicated men with their share of flaws and peccadilloes, and deeply sensuous sides. They're perfect for each other, even though when they meet, they're both convinced of exactly the opposite. On a break from the press of romance and all the hearts and flowers that abound around Valentines Day, Grey flees his very successful business and takes the first vacation he's taken in...well...forever, heading up to the cabin he purchased in the mountains. A cabin he'd never actually been to before. Upon arrival, he's surprised by the dripping wet and nearly naked body of one Sirus Wilder, a large, gorgeous man who's friends with Grey's sister and is staying at the cabin until his own has its water restored. 

Grey is a buttoned up, rigid man who keeps his feelings to himself...when he actually has them, and Sirus is on a break from romance after his last long term relationship ended very badly and painfully. One scorns all things love-flavored, the other tends to too quickly attach more emotion to a relationship than is warranted. Neither wants anything to do with the other. They rub each other the wrong way...right up until they start rubbing each other the right way. Desire rears its head, but the limits Grey puts on himself and on the parameters of the relationship are rigid. If he could just figure out why the longer he is with Sirus, the less those limits seem to keep his emotions restrained. And damned if Grey isn't getting more and more comfortable with the idea that a fling could be something far more terrifying and complicated. 

I absolutely loved these flawed, emotionally stunted characters. Greyson with his morning rituals and quirky rigidity and Sirus with his stunning art and free spirit but hampered by a stubborn likelihood to be an all or nothing sort and issues with his mother. I've read several of Cameron Dane's M/M romances and have to say, Grey's Awakening is my favorite so far. The characters are so likable, even when they're a bit crotchety and hard headed. And there's no doubt that when together, the very air smolders. The innate sexuality and carnal celebration that is Grey's and Sirus' physical relationship is smokin' hot and deliciously erotic. 

I admit, there's a lot of sex in this book - more than I would normally credit a M/M contemporary romance, more like what I'd classify as erotica. That is in no way a complaint. I loved the journey of their love and the sexuality was definitely a part of Grey's necessary development. Yes, I would have loved seeing more of their journey. I would have enjoyed a wider role for Sirus' issues with his mother and his odd reaction to selling his art, with Grey's issues with relationships and his type A personality. All of that could have been given more page time. The plot thread with Noah could have been more fully fleshed out. The sex could have been spaced out a bit more through all of that and been more of an assist to the growing relationship than the core of it as it was depicted here...and yet, that's not how Dane wrote it. Reviewing what IS there I can tell you I loved it for what it is...and Grey's Awakening definitely had some of the most emotionally erotic sex scenes I've read in any romance book. Very powerful and very good. I loved it.

Forbidden: The Sacrifice (Book 1) by Samantha Sommersby

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Forbidden, Book 1
Formats: Kindle

Forbidden: The Sacrifice (Book 1)4 Stars
No Sacrifice Needed To Enjoy This One!

The most important question I have when looking at the mix of reviews for this Kindle freebie on Amazon.com is this: Did we all read the same book?? It's good for everyone to have their own opinion, but facts are facts, and classifying this as an all-sex-no-plot book is quite inaccurate. The first sex scene doesn't even occur until the 50% mark (on Kindle) and there are only three sex scenes that are described at all, one of which is mostly glossed over. It bothers me when a book is trashed by reviews that incorrectly represent the published material. Is Forbidden: The Sacrifice perfect? No. In my opinion it's quite good (I'll clarify in a moment), but in no way - and this is not opinion - is it a sex-filled smut book with no plot. 

At thirty-five, Doctor Wesley Atherton is a successful psychiatrist living and working a comfortable, steady life in London. Katherine is a twenty-four year old American who is staying with a family friend in London during her fashion internship when Wes, rather literally, first bumps into her on the Tube. Practical to the point of having been mortally embarrassed by his bohemian parents, Wes had never believed in love at first sight (or second or third sight, actually). He had, however, always firmly believed in recognizing what he wanted in life and working to get it, so when he gets his first glimpse of Katherine's beautiful green eyes and sees that almost precocious smile, Wes does everything humanly possible to convince her that sharing a life with him is what she needs to do - and even though Katherine is engaged to another, Wes is determined to woo her. 

One evening, following an outing that Wes certainly considers a date, even if Katherine doesn't, their Tube ride comes to a crashing, deadly end, and Wes and Katherine are thrust into Death's awareness - and he's none too happy to have a victim escape his clutches. With the help of a psychic, a spy, and a butler, Wes and Katherine have to embrace a world far more complex and dangerous than they'd previously believed, and hope that the bonds of love that are so new but so deep between them will be enough to save them all. 

Forbidden: The Sacrifice is actually a nifty little story with a quirky cast of characters and a plot that moves along nicely, once it starts moving. I was totally enamored with Wes and thought he made an excellent protagonist. It's actually been awhile since I've read a book I'd classify as paranormal romance-ish with a male lead and told in first person POV, so if he hadn't been so appealing, amusing, witty, and self-deprecating, this book really could've gone bad for me fast. Fortunately, he was all those things, as well as determined, intelligent, charming, and very much committed to his Katherine. I liked him very much. 

Unfortunately, and as is often the case with first person POV, the rest of the characters weren't fleshed out as well as they could have been, though I don't really have any major complaints about the level of development in the secondary characters Jennifer, Will, and Charles. The POV just makes it too hard to develop secondary characters fully. At least the history between Wes and Charles and the professional relationship between Wes and Jennifer helped define and flesh out their characters enough to work in the story (Charles in particular). The only real complaint I had with character development was, unfortunately, Katherine. As the female lead, I would've liked to have seen quite a bit more development and dimension given to her personality and what was there was not always appealing. She was a bit too wishy-washy for me - insecure, afraid, and doubting one minute, determined, strong, and certain the next, with no clear rhyme or reason in the vacillation, and she was never written as a fight-by-his-side sort of female. She was pushed into rooms and hidden behind doors. Protected. I can understand Wes' need to do that, but I'm a bit too much of a feminist to accept Katherine's willingness to allow it. That IS personal opinion and preference, though, and others may not feel the same. 

I liked the plot and I loved that it was centered in London. I had a few issues with the pacing, though, and a minor complaint about the opening chapters. The story starts with an out of sequence event, the Tube crash, and because of the nature of the crash, the narrative (Wes' perspective) is disjointed and choppy - confused and wounded. While it's completely understandable that it would be that way given what's just happened to him and to Katherine, because we don't know either of them yet, it's a little jarring and takes a bit of perseverance to wade through with any sense of feeling for these characters we've just met. I wish the story had been told in a more linear fashion starting with the meeting of the lead characters, so that when the crash occurred, we had a baseline understanding of Wes in particular and some empathy for his fear about Katherine's plight. 

Perseverance, however, does pay off in this instance, and once the story pushes beyond the crash the plot really starts to zing along and Wes turns out to be vastly entertaining as he tells his story. The paranormal aspects of the book are slowly added until the intensity and danger reaches a tense fruition. Again, I have another personal opinion/preference. I wish those paranormal aspects had started to sneak in a bit sooner and built a bit faster. I don't think the plot was slow, but I do think that the pacing could've been improved by spending less time with Wes being oblivious and doubtful of the mounting paranormal events around him and more time on the climax to the story, which I personally thought felt a wee bit rushed and a bit confusing for that rush. As a result, I thought the climax was a little less powerful and lacked the impact it could've had, given the gravity of the thing. 

Circling back around to the sex topic, I feel the need to elucidate my opinion. While the sex scenes weren't overabundant in this book, I will admit, the sex is described graphically. Wes uses adult language and isn't real into flowery euphemisms. In fact, he uses colorful, sometimes coarse language all through the book, and while most is British slang, if you're up on the slang from across the pond, you'll know just how colorful and coarse it is. In my opinion, however - and this is very important to me - the sex scenes develop as a natural, healthy progression of the emotional situation the characters are in at the time, as opposed to gratuitous sex for no other reason than to titillate readers. Hey, I'm all for a bit of fun titillation, but I like to leave the gratuitous kind for when I'm in the mood for erotica romance. This isn't that. I found the sex to be neither overly explicit nor overdone. Take that as you will, as I admit I prefer the sex scenes in my books to be as adult and freely passionate as I prefer sex to be. 

For a free read, this book is far more than I expected. Considering some of the other ratings and reviews, it's WAY better than I'd hoped. As the start of a paranormal romance series, it definitely has potential and has insured that I will be actually paying for the second book in the series. This was the first book I'd read by Samantha Sommersby. It won't be the last.

Hunting Season (The Gathering, Book 1) by Shelly Laurenston

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: The Gathering, Book 1
Formats: PaperbackKindle

Hunting Season (The Gathering)5 Stars
Another Hit for Laurenston

I swear, I worship at the alter of Shelly Laurenston's writing talent. I just finished Hunting Season for the second time...in fact, I just finished rereading all of the books I have that she's authored, alternating with a new book in between, because I had gotten into a reading slump, picking books that were highly rated but I wasn't liking very much. Returning to the Magnus Pack, or reviewing the Pride stories, or spending time with my favorites - the Dragon Kin Series (which she pens under the name G.A. Aiken), is much akin to a cool sherbet between courses of a too-heavy meal. Definitely a delicious palate cleanser. 

Hunting Season, the first in The Gathering series, is no exception. I just adore Laurenston's writing style. I love the mythos she creates and the way the series' overlap characters in the same wonderful, wacky world. I loved the originality of the story here, with the bawdy, beautiful, culturally diverse Crows - a group of woman...with a bit extra - that fight for their goddess Skuld in an effort to maintain the balance of good and evil, and their male counterparts, the Ravens - winged Viking warriors for the god Odin. And I absolutely adore seeing these two groups mingle. There is some real originality in the mythos in this series, and I'm totally jonesing for book two to come out to get my next fix. 

I can't say enough about the characters Laurenston creates, either. Her males define the term "alpha" and her females are powerful, intelligent, and deliciously self sufficient. In Hunting Season, Neecy Lawrence is second in command of the Crows and a more dedicated, vicious warrior for Skuld has rarely been seen, but Neecy has a lot of layers and quite a bit of baggage from a past that left her dead before being chosen by Skuld. That's not that unusual, though, as all Skuld's warrior women died first. What's great about Neecy is that she's not just a total badass, she's also a well published and revered Ph.D. with degrees from several prestigious schools and a day job that sees one Dr. Denise Lawrence lecturing to college history students. She's one of my favorite of all of Laurenston's characters in all her series, actually, because I think the blend of tough bitch and brainiac is particularly appealing. And Willhelm Yager, the head of the Ravens, is certainly no slouch either - he's sexy as hell and such a wicked computer geek. And he kills bad guys too. What's not to love? 

One of the best things about Hunting Season is the role reversal. Will is desperately and completely in love with Neecy. Neecy is deeply disturbed and uncomfortable with his attentions. She may want him...but she sure doesn't want to be with him. The hoops Will jumps through to try to make Neecy his are at turns hilarious and endearing. By far these two are just flat-out awesome together. 

Laurenston has really outdone herself here with world building, pacing, complexity of plot and diversity and depth of characters, and of course, trademark Laurenston - bawdy and crass sexuality blended brilliantly with a physical humor that is unmatched and not to be missed. Whenever I need to laugh a lot and maybe tear up a little...whenever I yearn for a sure-fire awesome read that makes me feel for the characters and their lives, I reach for Laurenston. You should, too. No one does what she does as well as she does it.

Dark Harvest (Kismet Knight, Ph.D., Vampire Psychologist, Book 2) by Lynda Hilburn

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Kismet Knight, Ph.D., Vampire Psychologist
Formats: PaperbackKindle 

Dark Harvest (Kismet Knight, Vampire Psychologist series)1 Star
What Just Happened?

I can't begin to tell you how much trepidation I feel about submitting this review. I have to admit, I almost didn't. It's difficult being the only one who so greatly dislikes something most everyone else loved (see Amazon.com reviews), but I really didn't like Dark Harvest, and no amount of wishing can change that fact. I was hugely disappointed because I really liked The Vampire Shrink (Kismet Knight, Vampire Psychologist series) (4 stars for that one). Perhaps that colored my reaction to Dark Harvest, the crushed expectation leaving me feeling even more negative about this one than I would've been if I hadn't liked the first one so much. 

Set five months after the events in The Vampire Shrink, Kismet's fame as the vampire psychologist has grown. She splits her practice between the living and the life-challenged and Dark Harvest opens with her being interviewed by a Denver radio shock jock on a local station. While she's trying to ignore the wretched little cretin's disgusting habits, a call comes in that sets Kismet's senses to tingling and puts fear in heart, a call from a force of vampiric evil so old it defies understanding. The low, seductive voice informs her that there's a new player in town, and the Slayer is going to get what he's come for, and have an uberspecial dance with the fair Kismet as well. The kind of dance that will leave her mind shattered and her body trembling for more. Soon Kismet is feeling strange and behaving stranger, and her vampire boyfriend Devereux is doing everything he thinks necessary to protect and defend her...in as high-handed and superior a fashion as he can. The discord and danger escalate until Kismet is hardly recognizable even to herself and the danger eons old does more than start knocking on the door...it starts obliterating the doors completely. 

I have to say, don't think the book was badly written, nor do I have any criticism for the author's ability in general. I actually think Hilburn has a very nice way of writing lyrically descriptive scenes that add beautiful color and life to the background of her books (the way she describes the mountains in Colorado brings them to vivid focus). I also admire her ability to write the psychologist aspects of her lead character in a very comprehensive fashion. In truth, the things that I so thoroughly detested about Dark Harvest are more personal preference/opinion based issues, and that's actually why I finally decided to submit this review, even though I know I'll be the wee little minority whisper in a cacophony of praise. 

The first major problem I had with the book was that the plot seemed a little too similar to its predecessor while lacking the complexity and layers that the first had. Again we have a psychopathic vampire (with issues) who is leaving a trail of bloody corpses (and some not-so-bloody enigmas) in his wake, and again that psychotic fiend has set his sights on Kismet. Much horror and terror and some weird sexual behavior ensues. Because that aspect of the plot seemed so similar to the first book but in this case lacked the appeal of the mystery and the character of the FBI profiler that added some interesting dimensions to the first book and Kismet's development, I felt the plot in Dark Harvest was significantly less compelling. 

That was the first major problem, but it wasn't the biggest. What put the largest and most unforgivable nail in this book's coffin was the portrayal and development of Kismet. I'm probably going to get a little rant-y here but I'm going to try not to be too spoiler-y... I loathed Kismet through approximately the first 70% (Kindle) of this book. And I don't mean a little. I loathed her a lot. Just about every single one of my personal bugaboos about female leads in urban fantasy was trod all over with reckless abandon in the first three quarters of this book. She wasn't the overly cautions and cerebral psychologist slowly delving into a wide, dark new world we met in The Vampire Shrink. In Dark Harvest she became a vapid, bitchy, hormone happy, idiotic victim whose level of stubbornness and stupidity catapulted her from sympathetic to ultimately killable, as far as I'm concerned. And while I know she was under a particularly evil influence through most of the book, I didn't feel it made her character any less contemptible, because even before the amusement park, her criticisms of the metaphorical chest thumping and knuckle dragging of the ultimately controlling Devereux were completely inconsistent and contradictory to her hair-brained willingness to allow an absolute stranger manipulate her into several potentially life threatening situations. And over a cup of coffee, said stranger, the reporter Maxie, was her new BFF. Um...yeah. That certainly felt like organic character development - NOT! 

After five months dealing with her vampire hottie, Kismet still hasn't wrapped her mind around the undead world. She resents that an 800 year old non-human may have a better grasp of the potential dangers in her new life but does nothing to try to expand her understanding of that new life. Sure, Devereux's commanding demeanor was a little off-putting, but she's an adult and a therapist on top of that...why wouldn't she more firmly address that aspect of his personality in the five months they've been together? Instead they argue again and again about whether or not she's his mate, and allude to their relationship as abusive. And they resolve all their problems with...oh...wait...they don't actually really even address their problems. And they sure as heck don't resolve them. They have lots of fun monkey sex, instead. In fact, through both books, Devereux's character isn't exactly what I would call well developed. His penis is...but he's not. 

I detested how seriously stupid Kismet behaved in relation to...well...everything, but particularly Maxie (and that plot thread was grotesquely predictable). Both under the evil vamp's influence and on her own, Kismet's character ran the gamut of bad character traits, seeming at turns self-absorbed, obtuse, inappropriately wanton (my life's being threatened, I doubt I'm gonna be focusing on the big happy), judgmental, willfully ignorant (about the vamp world, anyway), and a right stubborn bitch. I have no clue why Devereux loves her. 

There were so many missed opportunities in this book. I would've loved some world building, to give readers a better idea of Hilburn's vampire mythos, and the mythos of the larger world around the vamps. A plot that was a little more varied and had a bit more depth would've been nice, too. I would also have preferred much more attention given to developing the relationship between Kismet and Devereux. Hell, I would've preferred any development. There was sex, and there was the big D telling Kismet what he was going to do to keep her safe. There wasn't much else. Of course, I would've been thrilled if Kismet hadn't seemed like such a waste of space and time through most of this book. Lots of missed opportunities. 

I know it's been awhile, but back in October of last year their was mention of a third book, Blood Therapy, that is in development. I don't know if that's still the case, as I have seen nothing to indicate such on Hilburn's website, but regardless, I'm not entirely sure at this point as to whether I'd even choose to continue this series if there are more books forthcoming. I really liked the first book, but I disliked the second to such a degree that I feel a bit reluctant to give the series another go. And as I already know I'm in the minority with this review, I don't know how I'd be able to judge with any level of certainty whether the third would be to my taste even with reviews. I guess it's a moot point for the moment. We'll see.

Hallowed Circle (Persephone Alcmedi, Book 2)

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Persephone Alcmedi
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle 

Hallowed Circle (Persephone Alcmedi, Book 2)5 Stars
Magically Delicious 

Set just a handful of weeks following the events of Vicious Circle (Persephone Alcmedi, Book 1), the book that introduces the reader to Robertson's world of witches, waeres, vamps, and fairies, Persephone Alcmedi is back to stir up some magic. The justice-loving, solitary witch and earnest granddaughter of Demeter, guardian of Beverley, and witch-of-Johnny's-dreams hasn't yet fully dealt with nor truly understands the ramifications of a vampire stain forced on her by Menessos and a mythical position of power given to her by her goddess, Hecate. She'd better learn to deal quickly, though, as she's been called to enter the Excimium, a witch-lead competition to determine who will be the next High Priestess of the Cleveland Coven...a position formally held by the notorious and now missing Vivian Duncan - missing because Persephone herself turned her over to the vampire Menessos for the crimes of murder and betrayal. But Persephone sure can't explain that...nor can she bow out of the invitation, though she has no desire to be HPS.  

Forced to compete...and forced to do her best or lose respect among the elders when her calling as Lustrata is disclosed...Persephone is trapped into service, but the competition teaches her more than she thought it would about her own soul and the lengths she will go to do the right thing for the right reasons. As if her daily trials aren't enough - raising the recently orphaned Beverley, taking care of her aging yet still cantankerous grandmother, yearning for the puppy dog eyes and sexy-as-hell bod of the rocker and waere Johnny, and learning to protect herself and her loved ones from dangers known and unknown - the competition might just end up killing her - and that's if she's lucky. Life as the Lustrata is no one's idea of a picnic but Persephone will do as she's always done - fight the good fight.

Of course, that's also what got her into this mess to begin with...

I liked Vicious Circle quite a bit, but I have to say, I loved Hallowed Circle. With a complex plot that was rich with magic and a much more in-depth, studied exploration of the world in which Persephone inhabits, I was well and truly impressed with the mythos and the attention to minutest detail Robertson created here. There were parts that could've truly dragged for me, because a lot of time is spent on the magic and rituals of witches, and that's not normally something I enjoy reading about, but between the way the book was broken up and Roberston's sublime writing style, it kept my interest high and my fascination fully engaged.

We get a much more comprehensive grasp of Persephone's character, as well, and while I wasn't always fond of her in the first book, I definitely loved the direction her character took here. It's so rewarding seeing a strong leading character with a few quirks, foibles, and flaws truly start to embrace who she is, and Robertson writes that particularly well. It's refreshing to read a character who deals more in black and whites than gray areas, when so very many of the urban fantasies out there nowadays seem to be all about the gray. I found it a nice change that Persephone's life starts to skid out of control whenever she's thrust into an issue she tries to keep to the grays, and only truly triumphs when she deals with the world in very black and white ways.

Ironically, that comment is a complete contradiction to some I've made in other reviews, when I felt a character needed to understand living life in between the black and white to truly gain any level of maturity (and needed maturity to be tolerated), but Persephone is definitely a different breed of heroine...one that necessitates a definitive and clear passion for doing the right things for the right reasons to weigh the just and unjust. While a character that noble could possibly become a little too white-knight-ish to sustain any level of complexity, Persephone's own very human insecurities, doubts, and passions keep her from tripping into holier-than-thou territory.

Also back are Demeter, Persephone's grandmother, and Beverley, her ward, and of course the mysterious waerewolf Johnny, who's got a few secrets of his own left to reveal. Not to be forgotten, of course, the vampire Menessos is still up to his manipulative tricks, though more subtly and with a bit less explanation than in the previous novel. Most of these secondary characters we met in Vicious Circle continue to be fleshed out into very pleasing, three dimensional characters, even though more of the focus of Hallowed Circle is about Persephone's growth and personal challenges than the previous novel. A few of the more ancillary characters don't have such a large roll here, though, and while I missed them, there are others who were introduced that I quite enjoyed spending time with.

I was thrilled to see a much broader tapestry of conflict and danger and characterization included in Hallowed Circle; it was a very well-rounded and thorough novel. I think it is a much stronger installment and a much better read than Vicious Circle, but I would suggest anyone new to the series start there, because while things are explained perfectly well in Hallowed Circle to let new readers know what went before, Vicious Circle is still a good book and the experience of meeting all the characters who play a part in Persephone's life is truly priceless. It helps to appreciate the nuances and subtleties of what goes on in Hallowed Circle.

I'm chomping at the bit to get my hands on Fatal Circle, the next book in the series, due out at the end of June. In it I hope we see more from Menessos and get the same sort of widened view of vampire life like we did to a small degree with the waere's here. I think the triangle of power and dedication and need between Persephone, Johnny, and Menessos has been a fascinating evolution and I can't wait to read more.

Forbidden: The Ascension (Book 2) by Samantha Sommersby

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Forbidden, Book 2
Formats: Kindle

Forbidden: The Ascension (book 2)3.5 Stars
The Revolution Begins 

The second book in Samantha Sommersby's Forbidden series is quite a bit different than the first, Forbidden: The Sacrifice (Book 1), even though it does further develop Sommersby's unique world and introduces us to more of the immortals in that world. In Forbidden: The Ascension we meet Byron Renfield, nearly four hundred year old vampire and treasurer of sorts to the powerful vampire elite, the Dominie. When a human woman shows up on Byron's island retreat during a deep mourning for the loss of his sister, Byron is instantly enthralled by her, falling in love with the scrappy American psychologist Violet Deeds almost immediately. But to love her, to claim her, breaks all the rules that Byron was ever taught as a member of the Dominie. Despite knowing that he gives up his immortality to have her, Byron can't stop himself from wanting, needing, and finally claiming the fiery beauty. That one bite, however, starts Byron and his mate on a path of redemption and renewal not just for them, but for the entire vampire race. The time for revolution is at hand. 

Again written in first person POV with Byron as the narrator, I found him to be just as charming as Wes was in the previous novel, though perhaps lacking a bit in Wes' sardonic humor. There was still humor to be had, though, especially between Byron and his vampire consort and ex-lover Rita. This particular book was a bit odd in the way it flows, though. The first half deals almost exclusively with the abrupt and carnal beginning of the relationship between Ren (Byron) and Violet, reading more like romantica (erotic romance) with very flimsy narrative concerning world building and character development, in particular Violet's, and very explicit sexual narrative that encompassed most of the plot for the first half. 

It isn't until Ren and Violet have relocated to America that the second half of the book starts to really pick up, and the overall arc of vampire revolution starts to really take hold. That, I believe, was for me the more appealing part of the book, but that's simply a personal preference instead of a complaint. I found the romance between Ren and Violet to be a bit rushed and perfunctory, and because that thread was so heavy in the first part of the book and not nearly as prevalent in the second, the two parts seemed a bit unbalanced to me. 

That being said, it's a bit doubly disappointing because I really admire Sommersby's mythos here - I love the idea behind vampires and the religious dogma that has really stifled the whole race and left them suffering under the self serving rule of the ultimate narcissist, Cain. Yes, that Cain. The first vampire. While I have read other books that have offered up that possibility for the origins of the vampire race, I enjoyed how Sommersby did it here. The widening focus of the plot, the shift from romantica to revolution, became a fun, meaty read and I think this book really could've been truly exceptional had the two parts been more cohesively melded into one thorough story. As it was, the time it took to set up the relationship between Ren and Violet limited the amount of time dealing with the burgeoning revolution and that left me feeling a bit short changed. 

What was there, though, was a nice read. I enjoyed getting to see Wes, Jennifer, Stanley, and Will again, and though I think I missed something between book one and book two of this series - maybe a short story published in an anthology that explained Jennifer and Stanley's marriage and their continued involvement in the paranormal? - I did end up enjoying this book a bit more than I expected to after the first few chapters. I look forward to continuing on with the series.

Candy Houses (Grimm's Circle, Book 1) by Shiloh Walker

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Grimm's Circle, Book 1
Formats: Kindle

Candy Houses (Grimm's Circle, book 1)4 Stars
A Gem More Grim than Grimm

The Grimm brothers have nothing on Shiloh Walker, who tells a mean tale. Literally. This grim twist on Grimm is original, unique, and interesting, and Walker has penned another dark, rich novella to start an exciting new series. So much urban fantasy and paranormal romance is based around the idea that there's always a kernel of truth in all folk lore and fairy tales, and Walker not only embraces that ideology, she slams into it, tackles it to the ground, and hog ties it until it does her bidding! 

In Candy Houses, Greta and Rip are known to children everywhere as Gretel of Hansel and Gretel fame, and Rip as in Van Winkle, but neither one of the fairy tales and folk lore that surround them do more than glimmer at the truth. Greta, as she prefers to be called now, and Rip, didn't get anything resembling a happily ever after like the stories say. They got an immortal upgrade and were given wings, becoming a member of the Grimm, a group of guardian angels that are here to help humanity and save them from the myriad of dangers from other realms, demons, and other assorted nasties. Their wings are more metaphorical than actual, of course, but their skill is unmatched, and they're very hard to kill. They have to be. It's a dark, often lonely, deadly life that takes its toll on its warriors. 

Greta and Rip worked together about a hundred years ago and after a night of passion that rocked both their worlds, Greta fled, and hasn't been able to stop thinking of Rip ever since. And Rip knows that he may not survive another encounter with Greta, the woman he loved and lost after far too brief a time all those years ago. Could the fact that they've ended up in the same city at the same time, fighting what turns out to be the same fight be a good omen for them both? Perhaps Happily Ever After isn't out of the question after all? 

Candy Houses manages to develop both Greta's and Rip's characters with a surprising level of depth and complexity as well as provide a truly taut and tense plot that moves quickly even as it offers a lot of world building and mythos creation to start this series. I'm impressed again at Walker's ability to use what length allowed in her novellas to provide such a full reading experience, and I think the twist on the fairy tale idea is brilliant. 

The only caveat (IMO) was the final conflict at the end. With all the development and mythos explanation, Candy Houses is still limited to a novella length story, and there seems to have been a sacrifice made. There were motivations and explanations that didn't get explained, and the conflict with Big Bad ended up being a lot of hype with little hazard. It was a little of a letdown. Still, points for everything Walker manages to accomplish in this nifty little novella and I've already downloaded No Prince Charming: Grimm's Circle, Book 2 so I can continue with these dark and delicious fairy tales.

The One I Want by Nancy Warren

Genre: Contemporary Romance
Series: N/A
Formats: PaperbackKindle

The One I Want3 Stars
Didn't Offer Much of What I Wanted

Flighty and irresponsible Londoner Chloe Flynt, party girl extraordinaire, goes through engagements like she goes through career paths...quickly, expensively, and without the first clue as to what she really wants. She's broken off three of them, but as she's never finished anything she's ever started, at least she's consistent. When her parents are unwilling and unable to financially support one more of Chloe's ill-planned endeavors, she takes off to the USA and the great state of Texas, ending up in Austin and living right next door to ubersexy landlord and all around drool-worthy Matthew Tanner. Tanner, though, has a girlfriend...even if he hides from her in Chloe's house...and Chloe has commitment issues miles wide. Fortunately, with Chloe's new business, the Breakup Artist, where people hire Chloe to break up with their significant...and not so significant others, those commitment issues actually serve her well. But will she stick to this career? Can she stick to anything? No...seriously, can she stick to Matt? She'd LOVE that. Ah, well, only time - and a lot of messy relationship terminations - will tell.

The One I Want is a decent light read. It certainly wasn't your prototypical contemporary romance. In The One I Want the two lead characters, Chloe and Matt, are neither afforded the most character and relationship development nor are they the most sympathetic of characters in the book. In fact, between the shoplifting bank teller, Stephanie, the rough-biker-looking undercover cop with a wounded dove complex, Rafe, and the so-uptight-she-squeaks psychologist Deborah, secondary characters get more development and story than the leads do. The good news is that it's a smooth narrative told with a quickly moving, if a bit thin plot that really allows a full body of characters to interact in quirky and often fun ways. The bad news is...I wanted to see the relationship with Chloe and Matthew develop...and to have them at least in the same room together for more than a few moments at a time was very rare. While all manner of time and effort was given to Stephanie and her issues, and the burgeoning relationship with Rafe, as well as the evolution of Deborah's character and the relationship between her and her love interest, we don't really get to see much more than sassy sparring between Chloe and Matt until the last 20% of the book. As foreplay, that's fine...but when the focus of the book does finally shift to them, the narrative takes a weird turn and becomes a little disjointed and jumpy - skipping ahead in time after quick flashes of scenes, giving me the feeling I was reading the Cliffs Notes version of an entire relationship condensed down to startling brevity.

When I add that disappointment to the fact that I never really warmed up to Chloe, who I found to be remarkably superficial and a bit too much of a princess to really appreciate, and thought the entire vapid concept of The Breakup Artist was tragically unkind and potentially dangerous, no matter how it was handled to seriously downplay that aspect, I ended up feeling like the book as a whole was okay, but too many things prevented me from really enjoying it - especially towards the end, which sticks with a reader the most.  

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

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2014 Reading Challenge

2014 Reading Challenge
Tracy has read 22 books toward her goal of 175 books.
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Zero at the BoneHead Over HeelsLord of the WolfynIn Total SurrenderA Win-Win PropositionNorth of Need

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