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Bewitched & Betrayed by Lisa Shearin

Genre: Fantasy
Series: Raine Benares, Book 4
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 384 Pages, 6060 Locations
Formats: Paperback, Kindle

Bewitched & Betrayed (Raine Benares, Book 4)
I Love a Raine Night

Once a Seeker with modest magical talents, Raine Benares is now bonded to a soul-sucking rock known as the Saghred and got both a major power upgrade and a plethora of people out to kill her so they can steal it and use it for their own nefarious purposes. Fortunately, Raine's not dead yet, and neither are the people she cares most about. For Raine, that constitutes a good day. Unfortunately for Raine, that's all that constitutes a good day in the continuing nightmare that is life as the Saghred's bondservant.

Now she's racing around trying to catch the twisted, evil souls that slipped from the Saghred when the Demon Queen managed to open it. The megalomaniacal psychopath Sarad Nukpana is one of those souls, but Raine has a deep, sinking, terrifying suspicion that she won't have to hunt down that monster. She has no doubt he'll be coming after her. When the dessicated corpse of a high ranking elven general is literally dropped at her feet with a message for her from Nukpana, her suspicions are confirmed. And worse, he says everyone she holds dear is next.

Another fun day in the life of Raine Benares.

Bewitched & Betrayed is just as action-packed, just as teeming with lovable characters, just as wild a roller coaster ride as the first three books in the series. Told in first person from Raine's POV, she is the core of the series and I adore her. She's such a feisty, stubborn elf, and despite odds most surely stacked against her, manages to grit her teeth (mostly to stop the screaming), lock her legs (uh...mostly to keep herself from fleeing in terror), and fight back with everything she is and ever will be. The narrative, her internal monologue, is rife with sardonic and self-effacing humor that makes her ever so sympathetic and lends a lot of humor to a seemingly never-ending series of increasingly deadly situations.

She's not fighting alone, though. She's got the elven force of light that is Paladin Mychael Eiliesor, and the seductive darkness that is goblin Tamnais Nathrach, as well as her cousin Phaelan and her bodyguard Vegard, among others. In fact, the longer she's chained to the Saghred, the more genuine friends and allies she realizes she has. That's probably a good thing, because the number of her enemies sure aren't getting any smaller. As secondary and ancillary characters, they're all richly drawn and nicely fleshed out. Even the horrifying ones.

And holy cow, Mychael was given a bunch of fantastic character development in this book. He was included in more of the story than he's been in the previous books (more Mychael is always a good thing) and we get to find out a little about his past. I loved every minute of it. Not to mention how much I adored the resolution of the romantic triangle between Raine, Mychael, and Tam. My hat is off to Lisa Shearin for that, because not only was it finally resolved and done without a lot of needless angst, it was also done with aplomb and in the big picture, genuinely furthered the overall series arc. I love it when that happens.

There are still a few issues, and they've been issues throughout the series. This book suffered a similar excess of exposition as other books in the series. In fact, because both the episodic book plot threads and the overall series arc plot threads are so complex and layered, with each book Raine's "synopsis" segments get longer and longer. Because I've read each book in the series, those sections seriously bog down the pacing, even as they allow for new readers to catch up with what's been going on so far. I'd love to see a far more condensed version of the exposition in future books.

One of the biggest issues I had with the previous books was far less prevalent in this book. Repetition in the narrative has been a complaint of mine since the first book in the series, Magic Lost, Trouble Found. Information and phrasing in the narrative was oft repeated throughout the books. There's still some of that, but to a far lesser degree. And while Raine of course mentions being a Benares and all that implies more than once, it seemed much less frequent than in previous books.

A few other big positives for this book were the resolution of a few of the dangling plot threads, the introduction of a couple of intriguing new characters, and some absolutely delicious series arc plot progression. I felt at the end of the last book, The Trouble with Demons, that Raine and Co. weren't any better off at the end of it than they were at the beginning, and the problems just kept on getting deeper and deeper. In this book, though the problems are far, far from over, the characters have scored a few key victories and everyone seems to be ready to continue the fight more positively and proactively. It's like the gloves are off and the growing anti-Saghred and anti-Nukpana force is ready to not only up the game a notch, but blow their opponent right off the board.

Personally, I can't wait to see what comes next. Thankfully, I won't have to wait long, as Con & Conjure will be available 3/29/11. 

The 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) Con & Conjure (Raine Benares)

Archangel's Consort by Nalini Singh

Genre: Urban Fantasy Romance
Series: Guild Hunter, Book 3
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 352 Pages, 5187 Locations
Formats: Paperback, Kindle

Phenomenal Romance, But The Plot...

They survived Uram and fell in love. They survived Lijuan and deepened a bond the likes of which makes even an archangel a little mortal. Now, back in New York following the events of Archangel's Kiss, Guild Hunter and newly angel-Made Elena and her archangel consort Raphael feel the effects of an unimaginable force rising from Sleep. As an archangel eons older than even the unearthly Lijuan, Raphael's mother Caliane is a being that has the sort of power beyond the imaginings of even the oldest of the Cadre of Ten...and a madness to match.

Fierce natural disasters and bizarre weather patterns roar wildly across the surface of the planet and vampires and angels start acting erratic and homicidal as the Ancient slowly starts to regain consciousness after a millennium of Sleep. When she wakes, not even the combined force of every angel and archangel, Made and human in the world will be able to make her pause...let alone stop her.

And Mommy Dearest seems to be focusing her still slumberous attention on her son...and his newly Made consort with a still-mortal heart.

Picking up where Archangel's Kiss left off, Nalini Singh continues the epic romance of Elena and Raphael and broadens their lives as they return to a more normal modus operandi after her recuperation in the Refuge. It was great seeing Elena return to her Guild Hunting, even the little bit we see here, and Raphael is ever so potent as the Archangel of New York, holding the reins of North America from his aerie in Archangel Tower.

Their relationship is masterfully and powerfully written, and Singh has adeptly kept Elena and Raphael as individual and unique as they each deserve to be even as their bonds deepen. The depth of emotion between them is gripping, yet the stubborn, fiercely independent Guild Hunter and the commanding, utterly autocratic archangel are in full force. That Singh maintains the inherent nature in both these incredible characters while bringing together their hearts and souls says much about her skill as an author.

Actually, Singh has really set herself apart with the complexity and depth in all her characters, from the most primary to the ancillary and everyone in between. I have a tremendous fondness for Raphael's Seven, each with their own stories that are often alluded to but never explained, with Dmitri and Illium being obvious favorites...though I have to admit an almost obsessive curiosity about the icily ethereal Aodhan. Each of Singh's characters are fiercely compelling in their own right, and so fully realized that they seem to step out of the pages and breathe deep. Since the beginning, that gift remains one of the driving forces of my interest in this layered and complex series.

Unfortunately, this third book disappointed in ways that neither Angels' Blood (one of my favorite reads in 2009) nor Archangel's Kiss (one of my favorite reads in 2010) did, and most of those disappointments are centered around the plot. After the first two books, I think I got spoiled. Singh had an exquisite, layered, deadly plot arc in both books, with multiple plot threads beyond the main characters and their relationship. There was such a fluid definition in them that the first book lead seamlessly into the second, building threat and danger to ferocious intensity, culminating in the conclusion that left Bejing a wasteland.

So much of that wonderful depth and complexity was missing in Archangel's Consort that the plot aspects of the book were intensely disappointing. Don't get me wrong, I love this series and these characters with unimpeachable devotion. That's fact. But when I look at this book and compare it to the previous two, I had some major issues. Not the least of which was that the major conflict of this book, the build up to the awakening of the Ancient, went largely unresolved by the end, and what resolution there was ended up being tragically anticlimactic. Over eighty percent of the book was full of impending doom, and yet it ended with a bit of a whimper. And where the previous books had those layers I mentioned in the plot, this book suffered from a very limited and abrupt issue with the Archangel Neha that never really went anywhere, and some gruesome but ultimately half-hearted pot-stirring by a character for which that stirring, given the ending of the last book, seemed totally against character.

And not to be unsympathetic or anything, but by three books in, I'm a little over the depth of Elena's trauma over her childhood. It was grievously horrendous, yes. And I understand that something about being angel-Made and the year in which she was in a coma recovering from her fall has stirred that all up again and made the losses and trauma screamingly fresh. Still, each book has had so much of it that it gets to be a bit much for me, and when coupled with Elena's loathsome family, Jeffrey in particular, I end up wishing Elena would just get over it all and let Raphael kill the bastard - preferably in a long, painful manner. I just hope there's some measure of emotional resolution coming in the future.

Then there's the sex. Believe me, I'm stunned that I felt this way, but for me, there was too much of it and not enough of anything else. Not enough of the Seven, not enough of a comprehensive and layered plot, not enough realized threat, danger, or damage...nothing. It seemed like every time Elena and Raphael were in the same room they were getting groiny, and believe me, I'm all about loving the groiny, but with this rich and tasty a world, and this epic a cast of characters, I'd have happily given up a few of those sex scenes to get more development in other areas (except the one in which my two favorite angels danced  - I'll keep that one, thanks).

This is such a fantastic series. The world is so unique and deliciously detailed. The creativity of the mythos and history amazes me. The characters are breathtaking in their reality and intensity, even as they heartily embrace their fantastical natures. I love this world and the people in it, and I highly recommend this entire series for fans of the genre. That is unequivocal. But in this case, and hopefully only this case, the story could have been better.

The Guild Hunter Series:

Bitter Night by Diana Pharaoh Francis

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Horngate Witches, Book 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 400 Pages, 5148 Locations
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle

Bitter Night: A Horngate Witches Book
Strong and Unique UF Series Opener

Thirty years ago, she thought a hangover was the worst that could happen when she went out with her college roommate for a girls night out. She was so very, very wrong. Enslaved and stripped of her humanity, she was turned into a being that is infinitely harder to kill but contained and constrained through magic, spelled by compulsion to protect and defend the young woman she thought was her friend. Max has been struggling against that enforced slavery ever since, even as she has risen to the position of Shadowblade Prime, leader of the night warriors and counterpoint to the Sunspears, who battle and protect her old college roommate, the witch Giselle, during the day.

Resentful and full of rage even now, and always waiting for an opportunity to slip her gilded leash and kill the witch who holds it, she is still Giselle's most powerful and effective weapon, first line of defense and offense. It isn't until beings of godlike power, the Guardians, declare war on humanity in an effort to bring back and balance the magic on earth, calling on witches and their warriors to be their army, that Max starts to realize that beyond the hatred she has for Giselle is a sense of responsibility and concern for her fellow Blades and Spears, and a sense of home in Giselle's territory, Horngate. The Guardians may be knocking on their door, but Giselle has no intention of answering, and for once, Max and her oldest enemy are of like minds. With a growing group of people she's just now realizing are friends, Max will stand against the Guardians in their attempt to decimate Horngate or bow Giselle to their will.

War is coming, but in all wars, there is always a first battle, and Max stands at the front of the line to fight it.

Diana Pharaoh Francis kicks off her action packed Horngate Witches series with a complex, complicated lead character and a wealth of unique and original world building and mythos. Max is a real treat. Her years since being forced into becoming a Shadowblade have honed her into a steely force of dangerous will, a female of death, and she skates the line of feral self destruction. She's sarcastic, wicked, wild, and has a dark sense of humor. She's ruled by a fierce code of honor and is dedicated to those in her charge. Her relationship with Giselle, however, is a fascinating dichotomy and, for me, one of the biggest draws of the book. I've not read anything quite like it before.

Once close friends, Max now openly loathes Giselle and often tells the witch of her intention to kill her. Giselle has tortured Max and done unspeakable things to her, yet she's not exactly a despot, and her territory is full of people who serve and protect her willingly. And as much as Max dislikes Giselle, she acknowledges her inherent strength and willingness to protect her people. It is a complicated, sometimes odd relationship with a wealth of development potential.

The plot is also nicely layered, with a conflict and its subsequent fall out between witches Giselle and a real nasty piece of work, Selange, as one of the major plot threads. It worked nicely as both a lead in and a compliment to the wider, apparent series arc of the battle against the Guardians.

The pace is break-neck, and the action fierce and brutal. Francis' characters can and do take a lot of punishment. There is not an overwhelming depth to the world yet, and Francis tends to describe more than explain, so there's a lot left unknown, but that didn't lessen my enjoyment of the read.

I had a couple of issues that did, though. While I really enjoyed Max, I had a problem with Alexander. I liked him well enough, I just didn't think he was as strong a character as he should have been given his position. It weakened the parts of the story in which he was featured. There was an odd old world feel to his speech and actions, which was fine, I guess, but it didn't always blend well with Max's more contemporary nature. And I'm not sure I totally bought into the building blocks of the romantic relationship between him and Max. It read more like I was being told that there was a romantic connection than experiencing it evolve naturally through the story.

I also had an issue with the sometimes overwhelming amount of description. I wish there had been a more even distribution between description and explanation. Knowing which road the characters were taking on the trip from here to there and getting a clear picture of all manner of landmarks and scenery encountered isn't as important to me as having a greater understanding of the world at large and the people who inhabit it. Secondary character development in particular suffered because of it. In that regard, the narrative occasionally bogged down but still left many, many questions unanswered.

Even with those issues, though, I'm excited about this series. Max is a great character and her relationship with Giselle was fantastic reading. I'm perfectly okay with some unanswered questions as the series unfolds, and will wait to see how the world continues to develop in future books, but I do hope that Alexander is written with a bit more strength if he's going to continue to be a romantic interest of Max's. I love that the female is the leader in their relationship, it's a nice role reversal, but there needs to be some tweaking for me to really get on board with it. Generally speaking, though, this is a good, strong urban fantasy series and despite a few issues, it offers up non-stop action and a heroine who won't quit.

The Bite Before Christmas by Heidi Betts

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: N/A
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 352 Pages, 4216 Locations; Anthology
Formats: Paperback, Kindle

The Bite Before Christmas
Nice Set of PNR Holiday Novellas

All I Vant for Christmas: Connor Drake's deepest holiday wish is an old fashioned Christmas the likes of which he fondly remembers from his humanity, full of family and love. His reluctant and recalcitrant younger brother and sister, however, can hardly be bothered. As a favor for her good friend, vampire matchmaker Angelina Ricci sends him Jillian Parker, a young...and human...event coordinator starting to make a name for herself. Jillian understands intellectually that vampires aren't the bloodthirsty monsters of books and movies, but working for one, being in his house, makes her decidedly nervous...the fact that Connor is gorgeous, intelligent, kind, and gorgeous (it bears repeating), makes her feel something else entirely.

With Jillian, Connor may get a much happier holiday than he'd ever dreamed, but only if the young woman can become comfortable with his vampire nature.

A Vampire in Her Stocking: Vampire Vivian Harrison is heartbroken when her boss Sean Spicer tells her he's dying. She's been in love with him for years. The announcement spurs her into wild waters and before she knows it, she and Sean have shared a single desperate moment of passion. The gaping loss following their time together threatens to crush her, until one evening, an unconscious and bow-wrapped Sean Spicer shows up on her couch, sporting a couple of fang marks on his neck and a new undead status...with a card from best friend Angelina Ricci, matchmaker and meddler, wishing her a Merry Christmas.

He never knew she was a vampire; she had no doubt he didn't want to be one. He may be the best present she's ever received, but Vivian has no illusions that Sean will have any interest in decking her halls when he finds out what's happened to him.

It's a Wonderful Bite: Despite the holiday cheer and comfortable life, despite the love of her long time lover Ian, matchmaker Angelina Ricci felt a yearning for more, for the tinsel on the tree, so to speak. As friends around her have found their mates (thanks to her), she feels an odd sort of need to have Ian take their relationship to a new level. But the vampire cop isn't exactly a hearts and romance sort of guy, and he's got no use for human traditions like marriage.

Waking up on Christmas morning is a shock, though, when Angelina realizes that she's stuck in a nightmare. She's human, and so is Ian. They're partners...but not in life. They're cop partners and Ian is married with children - he's someone else's husband, someone else's father. She's his lover on the side. And from all indications, that was her own fault. When their job...and she shudders at the thought...puts Ian's life in the gravest danger at the fangs of a group of rogue vampires, Angelina has to rely on skills limited by her human shell to save them both. Hoping all the while that the horrific nightmare will soon be over.

These three heartwarming and solid novellas are loosely connected through the character of Angelina Ricci, and Heidi Betts has done a good job instilling her romances with holiday warmth and a sensual heat. Betts is deft with character definition and does reasonably well providing three complete, satisfying stories with a limiting length. None are terribly complex in plot, nor are the characters overly complicated, but they don't have to be to be lightly entertaining and romantic.

The second title, A Vampire in Her Stocking, was my least favorite of the three. I didn't like the beginning and it took me a long time to warm up to Vivian, who I found to be a bit whiney and drippy, and Sean, who I thought was a bit thoughtless in his treatment of Vivian. Still, it was the first title, All I Vant for Christmas, that I felt was the least complete within its own pages, ending rather abruptly with several questions and plot threads dangling, though there were some very pleasing resolution and wrap up provided in exposition in the final story.

I enjoyed this set of holiday PNR romances. Each story had a very unique flavor and the plots were different enough to provide genuine variety, even with the thread of loose connection through them all. Overall, I found myself impressed with Betts, who I'd not read before, and interested in what she could create within the broader scope of a full length novel. She showed off a nice talent for plot creation and pacing, smooth narrative, sensual romance, and heated sexuality that would really shine in a longer-length format.

Get a Clue by Jill Shalvis

Genre: Light/Comedic Romantic Suspense
Series: N/A
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 320 Pages, 4957 Locations
Formats: Paperback, Kindle

And You Thought YOU Were Having a Bad Day

She was left at the alter (again), and is now on her honeymoon with no groom. She's wet, freezing cold, stuck in a strange place, caught in a storm the likes of which hasn't been seen in centuries, with no electricity (she's afraid of the dark), no luggage (got lost in transit), a naked man in her shower (okay, so that's not exactly a bad thing), and all she's got as a flashlight is a glow in the dark vibrator that was part of the honeymoon package the exclusive rental home provided. To say that Breanne Mooreland is having a bad day would instantly vault you to the top of the Understatement of the Year Awards.

And then there's that dead body...

A reservation glitch put ex-cop Cooper Scott in the honeymoon suite at an exclusive rental home. He was minding his own business, taking a shower to ward off the chill of the storm, preparing for a week of skiing and snow bunnies while he tries to get his head on straight and his life back together. Turning around after bending to pick up the soap, however, brought him face to blushing face with a gorgeous woman holding a vibrator in her hand. A gorgeous woman obviously staring at all his many and varied assets. Well, he's had worse initial meetings.

But then there's that dead body...

Truthfully, both their vacations have turned into a hellish nightmare, but no amount of fear or tension can prevent the attraction that burns between Breanne and Cooper. The problem is, Breanne doesn't believe in love any more, and all Cooper wants is something real. Figuring out how a body got dead before the condition spreads may be easier than convincing the delectable Breanne to give him a shot with her heart.

Get A Clue gets off to a bit of a rough start, focusing on how sucky Breanne's life is at the moment, and how scared she is about...well...everything. It made me wonder why she'd decided to go to the mountain retreat by herself to begin with if everything was going to make her so flighty and frantic. She got on my nerves pretty quickly and stayed there through most of the book. Her character seemed defined by her issues instead of by her personality, so she came off as more of a high strung damsel in distress than I prefer for my female leads.

Once the body was discovered, the plot turned from situational comedy to a more tense suspense, and the change didn't totally work for me, again because Breanne kept up this push-pull relationship with the one man who she's sure isn't responsible for the dead body. I couldn't figure out what Cooper found so appealing about her. Romances don't work for me if I can't understand why one of the two involved is falling for the other.

In contrast, Cooper was a solid male lead, and unlike Breanne, he made a good transition between the lighter, comedic first few chapters to wary concern when the body was discovered. His cop nature flipped on and it was a smooth switch, enhancing his protective nature to pleasant results. Secondary characters served more as red herrings and objects of suspicion, and weren't afforded much in the way of development, but what was there wasn't objectionable. I liked the cook Shelly and the butler Dante. Their ancillary romance was cute.

While the book started out shaky for me, I ended up being really pleased with the ending. I was concerned how it was going to play out, but the resolution to the suspense was satisfying, including a plot twist that I hadn't anticipated, and Breanne did eventually evolve into a decent romantic lead. In the end I felt Get A Clue was a bit uneven, but I like Shalvis' writing style and overall enjoyed the book. And many of Breanne's e-journal notes (kicking off each chapter) gave me more than a few chuckles.

Exclusively Yours by Shannon Stacey

Genre: Contemporary Romance
Series: Kowalski Family, Book 1
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 4056 Locations
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle

Not Wild About Keri

They were high school sweethearts, but when Keri Daniels shook off their small New Hampshire hometown after graduation and headed for the bright lights of L.A., it broke Joe Kowalski's heart. In the eighteen years since, he's still the standard to which other men are measured, but the highly paid entertainment reporter is a California girl now and has been for a long time. Memories of Joe are fond, but she's always been more interested in her career than in sentimental romance. And if it weren't for her bulldog of an editor, memories of him would be all she'd ever have to worry about.

Unfortunately, Joe Kowalski is now a best-selling and extremely reclusive author and Keri's editor has found out that Keri and Joe were an item way back in the day. Now Keri's job depends on her getting an exclusive interview...with the one man in the world least likely to be thrilled with the idea.

When Joe finds out that Keri is back in town, asking around for his phone number (gotta love the small town grape vine), he knows instantly why she's trying to find him. He's been dodging her editor for years, and has been expecting the day to come when she'd find out that he and Keri had a past. But Keri is his past and Joe has no intention of giving her an interview.

Problem is, when they meet for dinner so he can tell her that, he instead finds himself proposing a ludicrous challenge to his old flame. If she comes on a family camping trip with him and his parents, brothers, sister, and all their respective spouses and kids, he'll answer one question a day for every day she participates in family functions.

She can't say no, she's loathe to say yes, and her future is now dependent on her past.

There was quite a lot to like in this book by Shannon Stacey. There was a fair amount of humor, as city girl Keri gets stuck in the wilds of New England surrounded by people who have plenty of reasons to be less than forgiving for ditching Joe all those years ago. Lots of room for hijinks there. But instead of sticking with the comedic tone throughout, there were also several deeper, more serious issues touched upon. Rocky marriages, separation and divorce, single parenthood, and alcoholism were spread across main and secondary characters and they were all handled believably and realistically. It added a nice dimension to the story.

I enjoyed the secondary characters, and I loved Joe. I never warmed up to Keri. I get that she's all about the city life now, but she grew up in the same town with Joe, just a couple hours from the campground where she meets up with the Kowalski clan. I would have thought she'd at least be vaguely familiar with the general area and natural environment, even if it's on an strictly academic level. And okay, I admit it, I felt the way she left Joe all those years ago made her a little unsympathetic. And I was never totally clear on her motive for leaving in the first place. Did she leave because of an identity issue? Did she leave for a career? I thought it was one, then the other was brought up, so I was never really sure. From a plotting standpoint, she never really wavered on her intent to return to L.A., even late in the book, so hooking up with Joe seemed a little shallow on her end. It was clear that Joe still loved her - always had, always would - so the seemingly one-sided nature of their reacquaintance was slightly off-putting.  

Even when I look beyond that, I had a problem with her. She's supposed to be a savvy, intelligent reporter with several years experience and a job riding on the outcome of the interview and can't come up with one single probing question given the parameters Joe dictated. They weren't that limiting, or shouldn't have been for someone who knows how to be a reporter. It made it difficult to maintain a willing suspension of disbelief, and it wasted what could have been an opportunity to establish more of Joe's character in an interesting way.

I wanted to like her more, because I truly did love Joe and enjoyed every other aspect of the book. There was a lot of entertainment offered, and much of it had more depth than I'd anticipated, balanced nicely with humor. To be a completely successful romance for me, though, I have to like both the protagonists, and in Keri's case, I just didn't. Still, this was my first experience with Shannon Stacey's books and I enjoyed it enough to try some of her other titles. I look forward to them.

From the First by Jessica Bird

Genre: Contemporary Romance
Series: Moorehouse Legacy, Book 3; Silhouette Special Edition
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 256 Pages, 2933 Locations
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle

From The First (Harlequin Special Edition)
The Power of Guilt and Redemption

Alex Moorehouse has loved her from the moment he first laid eyes on her, and the guilt of that forbidden love, desperate and intense, pushed him into staying as far away from Cassandra Cutler as possible. She was his best friend's wife. Well...she used to be. Before Alex and Reese had been on the boat that got caught in a hurricane. Alex survived - barely - with a crushed leg that required a titanium implant and months of physical therapy. Reese didn't. He went overboard and was lost to the monstrous waves and high winds.

Alex blamed himself. If he hadn't wanted Reese's wife so deeply, so irrevocably, maybe...just maybe he would've been able to hold on to Reese long enough to drag him back on the boat. Maybe some part of Alex wanted Reese gone. Maybe Alex killed him.

The once proud and unflappable captain has come home to the old family house, White Caps, now a Bed & Breakfast run by his sister and her new husband. He's been recuperating for months. Taking stock of his life. Well...mostly getting drunk and pushing away every member of his family and every one of his friends. He's been acting like a sullen, spoiled boy and he knows it, so when a chance meeting with Cassandra wakes him up to a few harsh realities, Alex starts to get himself back together. His goal: get as far away from the woman now heading the reconstruction of White Caps as possible. Get back to the sea that is in his soul. Forget Cassandra once and for all.

Cassandra Cutler hadn't seen Alex in a long time. She knows he hates her, has felt his antipathy and disdain for years. She's never understood what she ever did to make him loathe her so much. Now that her husband Reese is dead, she carries her own guilt about his loss, but knows she can never share it with Alex. She can't ever share anything with Alex. And if sometimes, in the deepest recesses of her heart, she yearns to, well, that's just her tough luck. And Cassandra knows all about tough luck.

Two people, one badly broken, the other struggling to survive, are on a collision course that will either heal their wounds, or rip their souls to shreds.

Once again Jessica Bird (J.R. Ward) has created a solid romance with flawed and, to various degrees, broken characters. If you're familiar with the Moorehouse Legacy series, you've met both Alex and Cassandra in the previous books, and Ward...er...Bird did a nice job laying the groundwork for her main characters in those books. Alex hasn't been the most sympathetic of them, to be fair. He's surly, standoffish, and his self pity has hardly been appealing. The way he left his two sisters in the lurch when his parents died ten years ago did nothing to endear him to me. I've long thought him selfish and self absorbed.

And honestly, though much of this book, my opinion didn't improve much, though Bird did add some nicer, more family-friendly aspects to his character. Cassandra, on the other hand, I've liked since the beginning, and was quite pleased to see her character evolve from what I'd originally thought was a classy, worldly socialite into a classy, worldly woman who married for a wide range of reasons but at her roots is a successful contractor and renovations expert. The additional facets of her character rounded her out and gave her an added depth. I admit, I prefer strong, competent women who know their minds and hearts and are willing to put themselves out there. Cassandra is, and does.

The plot is fairly easy to see coming a mile down the road, and doesn't offer up much in the way of surprises, but I have no problem with that, given the formulaic nature of contemporary romance. And frankly, Bird/Ward's strengths lean towards character creation and definition. The problem with this book, though, is because of Alex's nature, he isn't going to be a very sympathetic character, nor is his redemption that noticeable unless you've read the first two books in the series and see the whole arc of his development. I'd recommend the first two books, Beauty and the Black Sheep and His Comfort and Joy anyway, as I enjoyed them both, but definitely suggest you read them first if you're interested in From the First.

Shadowfever by Karen Marie Moning

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Fever, Book 5
Rating: 5 Stars
Length: 512 Pages, 10903 Locations
Formats: Hardcover, Kindle, Mass Market Paperback (coming 8/30/2011)

Que Sera, Sera...

Sidhe-Seer Mac Lane is stuck in the Silvers, her dead protector beast at her feet and this time, this time she may not survive the grief. She's lost the one person - the final person - the only person who she just now realizes she won't live without. Choices, Mac...it's all about choices. And Mac 5.0 is born.

This sleeker, smarter, far deadlier MacKayla Lane is released on Dublin as the search for the Sinsar Dubh and the race to save the world rockets towards its final chapters. Through grief, through loss, through torture and pain, through rebirth, with questions - endless questions - and difficult, unbelievable, inconceivable answers, this epic battle between gigantic forces teeters on the fulcrum of the sheer determination of one young woman and the monstrous forces impacting her.

Five books. One epic journey. And a conclusion that satisfies beyond my wildest dreams.

I don't know that I have the words to express my impressions of Shadowfever on its own merits, and I don't know that I should even try, because for me, this isn't about a book, it's about the story that takes place over the arc of all of the books. It's about MacKayla Lane, who I haven't always liked, as she evolves from the bubble-headed Amateur Sleuth Barbie, self absorbed and overly entitled, to Mac Lane-O'Connor, weapon for revenge for her sister's murder and to hell with the world at large, to my favorite incarnation: Just Mac. It's about growing up, making choices, and fighting the good fight. It's about deciding, and acknowledging, who you are and what you really want - and then going out with both hands and grabbing it by the short and curlies until it's yours.

It's about life, and responsibility, and love, and hate, and good, and most definitely evil. It's about a book that can unmake the world and the people who join together to fight for that world. It's about picking up the pieces and finding joy in the cracks. It's about stasis. And change.

It's about life, death, and everything - absolutely everything in the shadows between.

With an indescribable quality of writing, imaginative world building and creation that leaves me in awe, and characters that go beyond three dimensional to that iconic fourth dimension that jettisons them from the page, Karen Marie Moning has created an unforgettable, intensely layered story that will forever hold a place in my heart as one of the best in the genre - ever. And she's done it brilliantly.

I'm so glad I went back and re-read the first four books before I started this one, because the depth and texture of the overall experience, fresh in my mind, is something I wouldn't trade for anything. I am, quite simply put, humbled by the breadth and scope of the intricacies and delicacies of the tale, and I'm still shaking at some of the more in-your-face truths and truisms. Moning created this world, this broken, flawed, wrong world, filled it with all the darkness, light, danger, hope, threat, life, debauchery, laughter, murder, rebirth, chaos, and love, and gave it to her readers to embrace. And she did it with exquisite aplomb.

When I force myself to take a critical look at the book, examine the pieces and the construction and ignore the heady weight of the story, I can muster some more objective commentary. I freely admit the series in general and this book in particular could have been trimmed a bit here and there. There were times throughout the series when the pacing of the narrative dragged from superlative information dumping, when it crossed that deadly line between brilliant creation and mental overload and the mythos got truly overwhelming. And yeah, twist my arm, I think that the answers to at least some of the questions introduced at the very beginning could've been better seeded throughout the series, instead of slamming them all into this book. It might have made the first four books a bit less frustrating at times. But maybe that would've taken away from some of the intensity of their reveal. I don't know.

And if I'm to be completely honest, I wasn't always fond of Mac. In fact, through most of the series - including this book - I didn't like her. I found her immature and purposely obtuse and willfully oblivious, even as late as the middle of this book. Occasionally, she just flat out got on my nerves. I don't know that I would confidently say that I believe her character being the woman I could realistically see the mighty and mysterious Jericho Z. Barrons wanting. But hey, the heart wants what the heart wants, and there are certainly too few rainbows in the Z's past.

One true complaint, though, one genuine pea under the princess's bed: Dani. I wasn't a huge fan of her POV in the previous book, but I liked her character and the development that she was afforded. Everything about her in this book, though, I found jarring and unlikable and ultimately, inconsequential. Even her dialogue seemed off. I couldn't wrap my head around why she was in any of the scenes, and didn't like it when she was. I kept expecting there to be some tie-in, some connection to her past, some answers for her tragic childhood, some excuse for her existence. I didn't find any beyond one bizarre thread that came out of nowhere and was never resolved.

But even with that, even with the other minor issues, I loved this book and thank Karen Marie Moning from the bottom of my book-loving heart for giving us this series, these characters, and this wild and wicked, and sometimes wonderfully horrifying world that is the Fever series. I don't know where that world goes from here. Frankly, I don't care. If waiting the seemingly interminable wait for Shadowfever taught me one thing, it's confidence in Moning as an author and as a purveyor of sheer reading entertainment. I'll keep to the lights until she gives us more. Of whatever it is she's going to give us next.

The Fever Series:
Darkfever (Fever Series, Book 1) Bloodfever: The Fever Series (A Mackayla Lane Novel) Faefever: The Fever Series Dreamfever: The Fever Series

And its stunning conclusion...

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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