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Eternal Flame by Cynthia Eden

Genre: Paranormal Romantic Suspense
Series: Night Watch, Book 3
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Length: 352 Pages, 6642 Locations
Formats: Paperback, Kindle

Action-Packed and Incendiary

Hybrid demon and Night Watch Hunter Zane Wynter always gets his man...or woman, regardless of race, gender, or...skill set. It's his job as a part of the group of bounty hunters best suited to take down the baddest of the bad, the Others who have gone over the line and hurt and killed innocents. And he's very good at his job.

Rushing into a burning building to catch the murderous vampire he'd been tasked to hunt down, however, puts him face to face with the slight body and wide, pretty eyes of Jana Carter, the vampire's next intended victim. The building comes down around them as he saves her life, but she disappears before he realizes that Jana Carter is no one's pretty little victim. She's an Ignitor, a fire starter wanted in connection with several fires in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. And she's a killer. She's also his next target.

Catching her is the least of Zane's problems, though, when she steps out of the shadows in front of a demon den to warn him about the bloodthirsty mob inside. It was his first clue that not all is what it seems in relation to the Ignitor, but as it seems everyone and their fiendish brother are trying to kill Zane and take Jana alive as soon as he snaps the cuffs on her, it certainly isn't his last.

The FBI wants her dead, some shadowy fanatic group called Perseus wants her back, Jana wants to be left alone, and Zane...the roguish and deadly demon...just wants Jana. Burn baby, burn.

This third foray into the Night Watch series is as jam-packed with action and adventure as the biggest summer movie blockbuster. Fast, fiery, and tons of fun, Cynthia Eden has hit hard with the powerful demon hybrid Zane and the wily and tenacious Jana. I've been a Zane fan since the series started, patiently (well...as patient as I ever am) waiting for his book, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Zane has always struck me as a guy with lots of still water that runs deep beneath the bad boy player image, and that certainly bore out in this book. And I can't tell you how thrilled I was with Jana's character. One of the best I've read in the genre lately, her winsome and harmless appearance and skilled acting make her appear the helpless victim. Her core of molten lava over tensile steel makes her anything but. Her character had depth, complexity, and tons of appeal. Together, Zane and Jana fit perfectly, and I appreciated that Eden actually developed their relationship as the book progressed.

The plot was non-stop, if a little chaotic at times, and there did seem to be a rather large number of megalomaniacs with sanity issues running around for one book. That being said, Eden did a great job creating action that fit well with the characters and developed the plot around who and what they were. As a result, the story felt like a natural evolution of ever-increasing tension, danger, and emotion as the characters react to each situation in which they find themselves.

There wasn't a lot of world building or exposition in this book, but that's common for Eden's style. Readers glean information as they go, instead of getting told the lay of the land with each book. I've read the first two books in this series, as well as the first two books in the Midnight Trilogy, which shares a world and all its mythos with the Night Watch series, so I'm comfortable with the background, but new readers may feel ill-prepared and a bit lost as they dive into the paranormal community here. Eden also isn't a paragon of descriptive passages, so readers who favor having a clear visual of characters and scenery as a story progresses may find it difficult to do so. I would have liked a little more definition given to the locations in the book, so the book had a little more of the southern flavor of Baton Rouge, but it wasn't a serious complaint. There was more than enough action to keep me highly entertained.

I'm a fan of Cynthia Eden's books, but some I've liked some more than others. Eternal Flame is definitely on the list of those I've favored the most. The characters were particularly appealing, the action was high octane, the plot a bit messy at times but definitely layered, and the romance was a full five alarm. Yum.

A Man in a Million by Jessica Bird

Genre: Contemporary Romance
Series: Moorehouse Legacy, Book 4; Silhouette Special Edition
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 256 Pages, 2967 Locations
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle

A Man In A Million (Harlequin Special Edition)
Standard But Successful Romance Fare

French chef and tattooed roughneck Michael "Spike" Moriarty met the woman of his dreams, world class sailor Madeline "Mad" Maguire, when she walked out of his friend's bathroom and straight into his fantasies. She was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen, and way out of his league. He has a lot of darkness in his past, things he's done that he could never change...wouldn't even if he could, but he was well aware his past wasn't likely to bode well for a relationship, even if Mad was interested. Didn't stop him from aching for her, dreaming of her, wanting her.

When Mad asks him to accompany her to her family estate as backup while she deals with her unpleasant half brother and the responsibilities of her trust, he's offended. The gorgeous, rich woman wanted a rough looking thug to twist a bunch of hoity-toity panties. The thought doesn't appeal. He shows up anyway. And when he does, and sees what Mad's family is really about, sees through Mad's wallflower nature to the grace and insecurities that lie beneath that killer body and amazing face, Spike is both glad he had...and terrified. Because in that one weekend, the woman of his dreams became the woman of his heart.

In this fourth book of the Moorehouse Legacy series, Jessica Bird (aka J.R. Ward) tells the story of Spike and Mad with her typical aplomb. It's a solid contemporary romance, and while the plot and characters didn't have quite the complexity and depth of the first three books in the series, and the development of the relationship followed a familiar formula, the likability of the characters makes it a worthy read.

I didn't feel like the non-relationship aspects of the characters stories were quite as comprehensive as I'm used to in this series. Mad's issues with her brother and her own insecurities were well developed and both understandable and sympathetic, but the resolution wasn't as satisfying as I hoped, and I would have enjoyed more story surrounding her half sister. Spike's past was brushed upon a few times, and there was a poignant scene between him and his sister concerning it, but I would have liked to have seen that expanded. Secondary characters were also more briefly featured than I'm used to with Bird's romances.

Regardless, I liked A Man in a Million and Spike in particular. He was a good guy, and I enjoyed his endearing uncertainty and the tenderness and understanding he showed for Mad. I thought Mad was a nice heroine, as well, and I loved the choices she made in her career and how she dealt with her brother and their supermarket empire. She was a little quick to jump to erroneous conclusion when something brushed against her insecurities and past pain, but she's a strong, competent woman with a good head on her shoulders. She had a lot of spine when needed. Together they were a sizzling and sweet couple, and their tale was a quick, satisfying bite of brain candy.

Milrose Munce and the Plague of Toxic Fungus by Douglas Anthony Cooper

Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Series: Milrose Munce, Book 2
Rating: 5 Stars
Length: 4081 Locations
Formats: Kindle

Milrose Munce and the Plague of Toxic Fungus
Great Frivolity...Greater Responsibility

For the seditiously unpopular (among the living, anyway...the dead actually think quite highly of him) Milrose Munce, life couldn't be better. After triumph against an evil guidance counselor (and all around bad chap), he and his girlfriend Arabella are basking in the golden era of goodliness at school, firmly ensconced in their own superiority of all things wickedly weird. But life being what it is, something new and grotesquely horrific is quite literally growing in those not-so-hallowed halls...and in the vents, and across desks and blackboards and even...if they sit still long enough...the students.

This verdant oddity definitely attracts Milrose's attention; he even musters up some mild concern, but his darling Arabella seems peculiarly (which for the girl should make her almost normal in comparison, yet truly doesn't) unfazed by the creeping cornucopia. Then two of the people most dear to Milrose disappear, and more than his concern is mustered.

First, the new and beautiful principal, Caroline Corduroy is suddenly gone from her office, an office that is now completely overrun with flagrant flora, then his soul mate, the reason for every ounce of the happiness in his heart, his Arabella, disappears without a trace...or topiary. Disturbingly heartbreaking, her loss truly incites Milrose's panic and occasional despair, but also births his determination to deflower this current pernicious threat as it spreads through the school.

Milrose, along with his creepy coterie of grotesquely gruesome ghosts (great guys and girls, all...well...except maybe for Percival), must discover the cause of the spreading fungal malignancy and alter its aliveness before Arabella and the almost as wonderful Principal Corduroy are lost forever. Oh, yeah, and saving the school...again...would be nice, too. But mostly Arabella.

Welcome (or welcome back) to the world of Milrose Munce, my favorite overachieving underachiever, and the brilliant - if twisted - mind of author Douglas Anthony Cooper. I love this world. I wouldn't want to live in this world, but I do so enjoy visiting. Cooper has created a masterpiece of the hilariously macabre (again), and once again wowed me with his deliciously sarcastic and frighteningly lovable characters doing significantly sardonic and slightly terrifying things.

As far as heroes go, you can't get much better than the reluctant Milrose, who would much prefer being not at all heroic, but can't seem to help himself. Academically brilliant, he's less than the most intellectually superior in greenery hostage situations, and while I'm sure that says something horrific about the quality of education in public schools in a socially conscious way, I doubt social consciousness has ever been considered as rip-roaring a good time as Milrose's passionate pursuits.

Pursued passionately.

I love this book. I've loved both of them, actually, but this one offered up a more layered and cohesive plot than its predecessor (not that Milrose Munce and the Den of Professional Help wasn't layered or sticky or anything, this one was just more so), and Milrose got a chance to sneak beyond the halls of matriculation in several scenes I thoroughly enjoyed. Arabella's disappearance obviously lessened her appearance in this one, but I loved what Cooper did with some of the ghosts, making their roles more visible in the arc of the conflict than in the previous book.

Frankly, though, I've got to stop reading about Milrose when I'm in public, because the sound effects draw the most peculiar stares. Gaggled giggles, snickering snorts, chuckled chortles and the like come so fast and often that anyone within hearing range thinks I forgot to take my medication this morning. This is a funny, funny book. Galactically funny; universally funny. Not to mention sharply, intelligently funny (which is my favorite kind). It's that humor, along with the unique and original characters and story, which has turned me into such a rabid fan of these books (ignore the slavering, please...it's impolite to stare).

Douglas Anthony Cooper has, in the Milrose Munce exploits, created a reading experience that is simply but sublimely satisfying for me. It happens sometimes (if you're...you know...lottery-lucky). Sometimes you stumble across a book that hits on so many of your happy spots, or appeals on so many levels, or is so stylistically in sync with your reading preferences, that the book resonates with a bizarre sense of intrinsic rightness in your pleasure centers, whistling a jaunty tune as it makes you feel good. For me, that's Milrose Munce (or possibly gastric distress...but my money's on Milrose). Yes, it's a book that points in the YA direction - though I'm not convinced that's the right market. It's perfectly fine for them to read, as far as the material goes, but I actually think I appreciate this more as an adult than I would have when I was young (those many, many, many years ago). Hey, I would have loved it back then, don't get me wrong...I just don't know that I would have appreciated it (or...ahem... possibly understood it) as much as I do now.

Not to be repetitive or anything, but I repeat, I loved this book. Milrose Munce is like...the legitimate but disturbed love child of Encyclopedia Brown and Nancy Drew...if those mystery-solving kids married, got rich on a pyramid scheme, relocated to the Twilight Zone, bought the House on Haunted Hill, munched down on a few of those funny-type mushrooms, and birthed progeny. Then named said progeny Milrose.

Milrose Munce and the Plague of Toxic Fungus is a funny, fast read with characters that are as entertaining as they are gruesome, has a plot that works a little better than it's predecessor but is still weird and occasionally incomprehensible (in the best ways), and is set in a world that's highly unusual. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves their inner sarcastic and wisecracking social outcast (who would probably be beloved by gruesome ghosts).

Some Favorite Quotes:

"Corporal punishment was abominable, yes, but the casual threat of illegal brutality was one of the few things that made life worth living."  ~ The Thoughts of Milrose Munce

"You're a sick man, Milrose Munce."
"Yeah, well, you're dead. Which is like sick to the power of ten."  ~ Hurled Harry and Milrose Munce

"Unhand me, you piteous filth-bedecked excuse for a mild infestation..."  ~ Milrose Munce

"I'm just a kid trying to lead an intelligent, entertaining, useless life."  ~ Milrose Munce

"With great frivolity comes great responsibility."  ~ Cryogenic Kelvin

"I've never felt that way about laws. Let's just ignore them."
"Sure buddy. Start with gravity. Let's see you ignore the law of gravity. As a kind of test case."  ~ Milrose Munce and Cryogenic Kelvin

A caution for Kindle readers: there are several sections of the book that have formatting issues and a typo or two can be found as you read along. Nothing so egregious that it pulled me out of the story, as it was mostly issues with random paragraph indentations, but that may bother some readers more than it did me.

Disclosure: An electronic copy of this book was provided to me by the author for my review. All ratings, comments, thoughts, and opinions are my own.

Cowboy Trouble by Joanne Kennedy

Genre: Light/Comedic Romantic Suspense
Series: N/A
Rating: 2.5 Stars
Length: 416 Pages, 4441 Locations
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle

If It Hadn't Been For Libby...

Fleeing a romance gone wrong and still smarting from the death of her beloved dog, journalist Libby Brown lands in Wyoming to follow a childhood dream to own her own farm. Jaded against men, determined to go it alone, the sheer scope of the landscape scares her a little, but a new job writing for the local paper on top of her soon-to-be booming chicken ranch gives her purpose.

Her neighbor, the tall, sexy cowboy Luke Rawlins gives her pulse a swift kick, but she's so leery of men that she doesn't trust his aw-shucks demeanor. The town sheriff is a total hottie, too, and obviously very interested in the new arrival, but his intensity quickly puts her off. In an effort to keep herself away from temptation and her heart safe from more heartbreak, Libby focuses her journalistic abilities on a cold case of a young girl's disappearance. No sooner does she start asking questions, though, then it becomes clear that however much time has passed, someone is very interested in making sure she doesn't get any answers.

Alone in a town miles away from her previous home, Libby is going to have to choose between the cowboy and the sheriff for help with her work, but the hardest part is going to be protecting her life...and guarding her heart.

This cute, quirky, often amusing cowboy romance started off well with the spirited but reluctant Libby and the sweet and earnest Luke. A weird but charming group of secondary and ancillary characters added some light entertainment, and the subplot of investigation into the missing teenager added some darker tones for balance.

Despite how much I liked Luke, though, and how spunky Libby was in a lot of ways, when it came to the investigation or anything to do with Della's disappearance, Libby lost all appeal. It wasn't the stupidity of some of her actions that sunk her character, though they were egregiously less than smart, and I have a definite prejudice against stupid heroines. More than that, I quickly got fed up with, then thoroughly loathed, her emotional retardation and never-ending, witless vacillation. I pretty much hated how she so easily swallowed every little tidbit of unsupported information that put others in the worst possible light, despite her alleged fondness for those others and her own instincts, as if the concept of trust for her was as implausible as extraterrestrial occupation. Because of that, her character's fears and suspicions bounced around like a caffeine addict on methamphetamine, and were completely unsupported or affected by her own intuitions or knowledge. It was maddening.

Her investigative techniques could have been a real benefit to the suspense and mystery subplot. Instead, she goes from telling a guy she loves him to suspecting him of murder in the space of a few hours because a guy who has given  her the creeps through most of the book and, in fact, almost assaulted her, tells her something that she has no way of even knowing is true. That sort of unsubstantiated emotional waffling was tragically common and totally turned me off. Several times I wished someone would make Libby disappear...and that probably wasn't what the author was going for.

There were a few minor technical issues with the book, as well. The narrative was occasionally choppy and the flow of the story inconsistent in places, but it wasn't horrible. Just something I noticed. I also felt that the balance between the suspense and non-suspense aspects of the story went a little awry in the latter half of the book, when the investigation into Della's disappearance started to take more precedence, but that only bothered me because of how much I enjoyed the relationship between Luke and Libby and was entertained by watching it develop.

What was particularly nice about the book was that their relationship did develop. And it did so at a surprisingly natural pace that felt organic to the characters. It was also based on more than just how hot they thought each other was, or how much they lusted after each other. It's been awhile since I read a book that spent time drawing two characters together as friends first as they get to know each other, then developed the relationship, and this was both refreshing and entertaining as a result.

If only I hadn't had such an intense loathing for Super Sleuth Libby, I would have really enjoyed this book. Joanne Kennedy obviously has plenty of skill at offering up a lightly comedic romance for some simple pleasure reading. With a more intelligent and emotionally steady heroine at the helm, and a few tweaks here and there, Cowboy Trouble could have been a lot of fun for me.

A Word of Caution for Kindle Owners: There were lots of formatting errors - words with extra spaces in the middle of them most notably, but I don't blame the author for that, nor did it affect my rating. It was, however, distracting and kept interrupting the flow of my reading.

The Keepers by Heather Graham

Genre: Paranormal Romantic Suspsense
Series: The Keepers, Book 1; Harlequin Nocturne
Rating: 1 Star
Length: 288 Pages, 4035 Locations
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle

The Keepers (Harlequin Nocturne)
I'm Sorry, But No

As one of the three sisters tasked with keeping the balance between the most populous groups of supernatural beings in New Orleans, Fiona MacDonald's duty as Keeper for the vampires is both a birthright and an honor. Though she's human, the mark of the Keeper imbues her with the power of a vampire and the ability to alter her form as one. Her parents' sacrifice to end a war between the races imbued her with a deep sense of responsibility for her calling and left her to raise her two younger sisters, one the Keeper of shapeshifters, the other, the Keeper for werewolves.

When a young woman's body is found drained of blood, an apparent victim of a vampire, the murder sparks unrest among the supernatural races, and along with NOPD homicide detective and vampire Jagger DeFarge, Fiona takes responsibility for finding and stopping a killer whose actions could spark another war and make humans aware of the magical creatures that share their world.

The body count rises, and Fiona and Jagger are drawn closer together as they race to find the monster slaughtering young, beautiful blonds... Young, beautiful blonds like Fiona and her sisters, actually...

While I've enjoyed many books by Heather Graham, I'm sad to say this isn't one of them. The premise is solid and the concept is pretty interesting: a trilogy about three special sisters written by three separate authors. The prologue was nicely done. It set up the world, framing the history and mythology in lyrical prose and starting the book off on strong footing.

Unfortunately, that was the beginning of the end for me. There were too many things that either weren't explained, were explained poorly, or just didn't work. The narrative, while at times lyrical of prose, was repetitive of content, and the dialogue was both repetitive and florid, often lacking a natural conversational cadence.

The suspense plot thread was weak and ripe with cliche, the romance between the lead characters lacked both foundation and development, and the murder investigation aspects were ghastly, seeming to mostly consist of Jagger walking the streets of New Orleans praying a clue would fall at his feet, holding a press conference for the media, or addressing the paranormal community. During the press conference and meeting with the races, the same questions were asked and the same answers given. Every time. It took three deaths before Jagger even thought to tell the crime scene technician that the three similar nightgowns in which the dead girls were found were a clue and should be tested and traced, for pity's sake! That the tech had to be told that at all is disturbing enough, but three murders in it made the "investigation" seem a bit ludicrous.

After the framework provided by the prologue, there was very little fleshed out about the nature of vampires. Several references were made to Fiona to "change" to vampire, but beyond a few times of going to mist, little was explained or described about that change. Jagger is a vampire, but I have no idea how old he is, and his ability to walk around during the day with sunscreen and shades was never explained.

As lead characters they were very two dimensional, and while I liked Jagger well enough despite it, Fiona was just a pain. Inexperienced I could understand, as she's young, but I have a hard time with stupidity, and her naivety and gauche persistence really bothered me as she wormed her way into the investigation with sleuthing skills...and common sense...that left so much to be desired. It also felt like about eighty percent of her dialogue consisted solely of her proclaiming ad nauseum to everyone remotely connected to the supernatural community and the investigation that she was the Keeper. Apparently it's that thirty billionth time that's the charm.

Secondary characters didn't fare much better, and at least one of Fiona's sisters was darn near unlikable with her oft repeated vampire prejudice...and her oft repeated reason for it. Repetition was definitely a theme throughout the book in every facet. I can't tell you how many times it was stated that it had to be a vampire that was killing the women. It must have been. It had to be! It was a vampire (or possibly a shapeshifter, but most likely not). It was a vampire! Uh...yeah.

Perhaps one of the largest of the larger problems, though, is that Graham spent way too much time telling readers facts that were unsupported by the story. Fiona was as strong as a vampire and able to do her duty, but all evidence pointed to the contrary. Jagger was the best man for the investigation and is a very good cop, despite all evidence to the contrary. There was way too much evidence to the contrary in this book about a myriad of things. And what ever happened to the plot thread of the customer who has danger in her future? That was developed, then dropped, but maybe it'll be developed in one of the other two books.

Too many things went wrong in this book for me, to the point that finishing it was far more a chore than it should have been. It was an unpleasant surprise, really, given my previous experiences with Heather Graham's books. Even knowing that two other authors complete the trilogy started here, I'm leery of continuing this series. Neither of the remaining two sisters struck me as any better than Fiona as they were introduced by Graham. That's a shame, because I did like the premise and the concept very much.

Dead Girls Are Easy by Terri Garey

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Nicki Styx, Book 1
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 384 Pages, 4329 Locations
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle

Dead Girls Are Easy (Nicki Styx, Book 1)
A Surprisingly Complex and Weighty Story

A heart condition killed her. Fortunately for Nicki Styx, the condition wasn't permanent (being dead, I mean...she's stuck with the heart condition), though coming back from the dead isn't as simple as one might think. First, there was the near death experience (NDE) that left Nicki unquestionably changed on a soul-deep level, then there was the ghost of a woman needing a favor. As if those two things weren't enough, sexy ER doctor Joe Bascombe is very interested in her as a patient whose death didn't stick, and intends to use her as a subject for his paper on NDEs. He's also interested in her as a woman, and that's enough to make Nicki tingle in all the right places...until she finds out he's married and thinks his wife is the twin sister she didn't know she had.

Life was significantly easier when the most she had to worry about was being a vintage clothing shop owner with her lifelong friend Evan and having a good time whenever possible. The doctor being married is complicated...but not as bad as it sounds, the ghost of a woman who made a deal with a dark force and brought voodoo to Nicki's door is definitely as bad as it sounds, and Nicki's life doesn't even remotely resemble what it thought it would just a week ago.

Apparently, it took a little death to connect Nicki to all the messiness of life.

With a unique and surprising depth of meaning and importance, Dead Girls Are Easy wasn't even close to what I was expecting, nor is it typical urban fantasy fare. Well written and nicely populated by very realistic and layered characters, what I thought was going to be a comic romp was actually more of a thoughtful observation about a quirky and emotionally closed off woman and how she deals with suddenly having some of those closed doors and windows to soul and psyche forcibly yanked open. The tone stayed a bit lighter with the help of the flamboyant best friend Evan adding a touch of comic relief and a few cutesy relationship moments with the hunky doctor, and it dipped into a more traditional urban fantasy overcoat a time or two as Nicki dealt with the dark specter of a former friend, but beyond that was depth and weight and a serious message or two.

I was particularly impressed with the attention to detail given to both the religious themes and the psychiatric profession and appreciate what seemed to be quite a bit of well researched information. I felt that the religious themes and much of the ideology of the religion and practices of Voodoo were well represented and respected and the psychiatric sessions realistic and believable.

Nicki is a very complicated character. She's tough and brassy on the outside, a flaunter of all things "good girl," with a stylistic flair all her own, but wounded by a past filled with loss and heartache, and more than a little jaded in lots of ways. She's a mess about some things, relationships with people in particular, and she's spent a lot of years keeping best friend Evan as a shield between herself and the rest of humanity - even her customers. She's sometimes selfish, usually stubborn, cynical about some people, and definitely doesn't appreciate what feels like a forced responsibility for the souls of the not so dearly departed. In that, actually, I can't say I blame her. Despite her having traits I usually admire in a character, though, I found her difficult to like, and I can't quite put my finger on why. Maybe because she was a little too real, flawed in ways that I understood a little too well, that it was uncomfortable spending so much time in her head. Maybe that's it.

Unfortunately, and though I have nothing but the utmost appreciation for, and recognition of the intelligence of the book and the way it was written, I can't say I ended up liking the book very much either. Not because I have any criticism for it, because I don't...well, okay, I thought Joe was a little bland and uncomplicated when compared to Nicki (who but Evan wouldn't be?), and Evan was a bit of a stereotype caricature at times, but nothing egregious. They didn't affect my feelings on the book, anyway.

It just wasn't the type of story that I prefer. This is purely and totally subjective, I know, but for me, Dead Girls Are Easy seemed to be, at it's core, a story about Nicki's personal development and growth, her relationship, friendships, etc., and that sort of character-driven book and/or series isn't the style I prefer, especially in the urban fantasy/fantasy genre. Beyond that, I didn't care for Nicki enough to enjoy it despite my preferences, and the plot-driven aspects of the surrounding story just weren't light enough or full of enough action to really keep me entertained throughout. Parts were, don't get me wrong. I loved the parts about the Voodoo, really liked seeing Nicki come face to face with her old flame, and I thought several other scenes were perfectly pleasant and entertaining, but in the end, the character-driven nature of the story and my lack of feeling for the lead character took too much away for me.

Was the book well written? Absolutely. The narrative flowed well, dialogue had a natural conversational cadence, the world building was enough for the purpose of the story, the city of Atlanta (one of my favorites) was well described and its diversity captured well. The main character has flaws but struggles with them, felt real, and has some nice depth. Complex and valid religious and belief-based questions and themes were addressed thoughtfully and respectfully. There was a bit of romance, a bit of terror, and some humorous times. I know, without a shadow of a doubt that this is a very good book that most people will completely and thoroughly enjoy. It just wasn't to my tastes.

Hunted By The Others by Jess Haines

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: H&W Investigations, Book 1
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 352 Pages, 3970 Locations
Formats: Paperback, Kindle

Hunted By The Others
An Ill-Conceived Plot Told Very Well

Private Investigator Shiarra Waynest prefers to stay far away from the supernatural race of Others who made themselves known ten years ago, after 9/11 and the collapse of the Twin Towers. Frankly, they scare her. She even dumped her boyfriend when he revealed, in nearly as surprising and traumatic a way possible, that he was a werewolf (though that had less to do with him turning furry and more to do with him lying to her for months...so she says). Still, fear doesn't pay bills and it doesn't keep her intrepid business afloat, so when a mage from The Circle contacts her and offers her a lucrative amount of money to find an artifact for them, Shia takes the job. Even knowing that she's got to ingratiate herself with vampire mega-mogul Alec D. Royce. Even with the understanding that being in the same room with a vampire, let alone one as powerful and ancient as Royce, makes her shake with sheer, unadulterated terror.

The meeting doesn't go well. It doesn't look like Shiarra's life...which seems to be getting shorter by the moment...is going any better when the mage who hired her is brutally killed by what appears to be a combination of werewolf and vampire butchery, the vampire she's reluctantly dealing with has manipulated her into a contract she couldn't escape from, and members of an extremely militant anti-Other hate group, the self-named White Hats, are breaking into her home and threatening her.

One mostly scared human woman against a full clip of supernatural and human monsters? Yeah...that'll end well.

As you know, life is like a box of chocol....oh...wait...wrong metaphor. Sorry.

A book is like a fine piece of art (I know, not nearly as familiar as the Gump adage, but stick with me). Scenery rendered with careful strokes to create the background, a bit of shading and color to set the tone, characters added in repose, caught in a blink, imbued with vitality through a flick of red on a lip here, a hit of blush on a cheek there, shadows in the eye still there. Brush stroke, patience, canvas, light and darkness, life and its mimicry, merging together to create, in its completion, a masterpiece of talent and tenacity. Words in lieu of acrylics and oils. Paper verses canvas. Yes, a book is very much like a piece of art.

And like that art, regardless of how well it's painted, Dogs Playing Poker is still...well...a painting of dogs. Playing poker.

I was impressed with the brushstrokes, so to speak, of Jess Haines' writing. The way she tells a story appeals to me. I thought there was a pleasing balance of exposition and description, of world-building, the creation of mythos, and the explanation of how the world of Shiarra works. It blended well with the setup of the plot, then its description as it unfolds. It's a gift to be that talented with telling a story, and it's one I admire. Never once did I feel that the world, despite being new in this debut story, overwhelmed the action or characters, or vied for dominance against the developing plotline.

The world created here, the scenery, if you will, felt very well defined and thorough. The creation of the races, while perhaps not unique, was at least explained quickly, concisely, and never dragged down the pacing. There was also a pleasing and satisfying amount of attention given to the framework of race relations in the world and how humans and Others have adapted, how human society bent to allow for it. I'm not saying that I was totally sold on how much was supposedly achieved in a brief decade (that one strained my willing suspension of disbelief a little), but how it was written was very well done.

Unfortunately, the plot didn't match the level of skill with which the story was told.

There was potential there. In fact, I was completely hooked for the first 25% of the book. From the moment Shia caved so quickly to Royce, though, the cracks in the plot started to widen and deepen for me, and Shia started to look less and less like a heroine and more and more like a selfish, reactionary, highly bigoted, dimwitted scaredy cat with few morals and an unhealthy willingness to break whatever law necessary so long as her day isn't inconvenienced. And the ungainly plot stumbled along, lurching from point to awkward point, tumbling into plot holes, riddled with inconsistencies, contradictions, and contrivances.

Sadly, it just didn't make much sense to me, and too many of the characters decisions and actions lacked foundation or logic, too few showed even a glimmer of sense or intelligence.

I can handle some lack of originality in a book. I've never found that to be a serious detractor for me, especially if the common threads are in line with my preferences or favored aspects. I like paranormal and fantasy themed books, so arguing or being overly critical when one series has some similarity to another within those themes seems a bit like pointing to a barn and saying, "Dude...nice barn...but it's red..."

I noticed it's red, but it wasn't so red that I cringed when I saw it, like some bar- um, books and some series, which do more than paint the barn red, they build from the same blueprints and rustle all the animals (do I know how to beat a metaphor to death or what?). Sometimes, it is what it is, and a book about werewolves, vampires, and vampire hunters (or PIs who don't actually do any investigating) is going to look a lot like a bunch of other books with similar character archetypes. As I happen to like books about weres, vamps, and hunters, that's okay with me to a point. It certainly was okay with me in this book.

But the plot has to be better conceived, and no matter how well it's executed, how well written it is from both an artistic and technical standpoint, it has to make sense. All the way through. Otherwise, it's just dogs...playing poker.

I have high hopes that the skill that Haines showed off in her writing style rubs off on her ability to conceive and execute a coherent plot. There's a lot of promise in Shiarra's world, and I hope it's realized. We'll see, I guess, as I purchased the second book in the series, Taken By The Others. Such sophistication and skill in the telling of a story deserves rewarding, but the story itself has to improve if I'll continue the series beyond that.

Flashpoint by Jill Shalvis

Genre: Contemporary Romance
Series: American Heroes - The Firefighters, Book 1; Harlequin Blaze
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 224 Pages, 3016 Locations
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle

Flashpoint (Harlequin Blaze)
Sexy, Sizzling, Sweet

Firefighter Zach Thomas felt the sort of attraction to New Hire Number Seven (also known as EMT Brooke O'Brian), that sparks blazes, and getting the buttoned up beauty to loosen up a little becomes his goal when he's between fires calls. A pretty young woman in town for a six week duty before she moves on seems perfect for the no-strings-allowed Zach. And that thought sticks with him...right up until he gets his first taste of Brooke and realizes with startling, sinking clarity that there's no way that one time only will be enough to put out his fire for her.

In town to settle and sell her recently deceased grandmother's house, footloose and rootless Brooke feels an instant connection to the house and the town of Santa Rey, California, and her first sight of the mouthwatering Zach Thomas leaves her hungry for more. It's not until Brooke finally lets her hair down with the sexy Zach, though, that she realizes that despite the one time only assurance she got from him, the conflagration between them is anything but contained, and for the first time the thought of leaving a town...leaves her cold.

As a serial arsonist ups the stakes and town politics keeps Zach from the investigation, the relationship between he and Brooke starts to burn out of control. If they're not careful, the next fire could flash over them both, leaving their hearts scorched and their lives forever charred in its aftermath.

Hot, fast, and sexy, this Harlequin Blaze by Jill Shalvis burns up the pages, but beneath the heat and the delicious chemistry is enough depth and character definition to satisfy me more than I was anticipating. Zach and Brooke were great together, and despite the shorter length Blaze novel, they were given enough backstory and development to be realistic and sympathetic.

I appreciated the arsonist plot thread, which added a nice layer of suspense, added a pleasant amount of pressure and conflict, and gave the story some balance. It was well conceived and developed nicely as the book progressed. That, along with a few ancillary plot threads surrounding secondary characters added much to this fiery little gem and made it far more robust.

I did feel the ending was a little abrupt and there sure were a lot of plot threads left dangling. I hadn't realized when I first read it that there is a follow-up book by Shalvis, Flashback, that picks up were this one left off, more or less, and features Zach's partner Aidan as the lead male character. Hopefully there are some answers to the many questions that were raised in Flashpoint, because while the romance between Zach and Brooke felt complete, the subplot of the arsonist definitely did not.

There was also quite a bit of repetition in the narrative concerning Brooke's feelings about her grandmother's house and the town. Her previous rootlessness and current growing attachment to the house, the burgeoning feeling of belonging, and the too-oft repeated fact that she's leaving at the end of the job (and we all know what that means) seemed to be on an endless loop that started to become distracting well before the midway point.

The sexual tension between Zach and Brooke, on the other hand, was exquisite as it was slowly brought to a boil and poured out over the pages with steamy intensity. I loved that aspect of the book, and was impressed by Shalvis' ability to stoke the fire, keep it hot and tense, and follow it to its natural, incendiary conclusion without once slipping. Zach and Brooke were total scorching reaching enjoyment for that reason alone. I enjoyed them, and look forward to seeing what Aidan has to offer when it's his turn.

He Loves Lucy by Susan Donovan

Genre: Light/Comedic Romance
Series: N/A
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Length: 352 Pages, 4801 Locations
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle

He Loves Lucy
Eminently Lovable

The challenge may be a marketing scheme intended to promote The Palm Club, a Miami fitness club that marketing executive Lucy Cunningham landed for her firm, but the benefits could be life changing. If she allows herself to be turned into the next local television reality star and willingly puts herself through a year of dieting and training while under public scrutiny, both she and the fitness club's best trainer will be awarded $1,000 for every pound she loses, and with a goal of 100 pounds of total weight loss, the dollar signs and the potential for starting her own marketing firm were too much for Lucy to pass up.

Though the thought of losing the Milk Duds definitely made her waffle a little.

Trainer Theo Redmond knew he had his work cut out for him when the pretty but overweight Lucy showed up at the club for their first meeting and promptly nearly asphyxiated on a piece of candy, but he needed the money to get back into medical school and finally fulfill his life-long dream. Between the fitness club hours, the bouncer side job he does on the weekends, coaching for the Special Olympics, and taking care of his brother Buddy, he doesn't have much in the way of a social life, and won't for the foreseeable future, but making time to train Lucy, help her get into shape, is just the sort of task that makes him feel good about what he does. And Theo is very good at what he does.

They start out as strangers. It starts out as a job, and a quest, and a challenge. But twelve months of grueling work, fastidious dieting, and daily workouts draws Lucy and Theo closer and closer. Despite first impressions, Theo's not the gorgeous but shallow womanizer Lucy thought, but a generous, dedicated, kind and intelligent man (and yeah...gorgeous). Regardless of her starting weight, Lucy is wickedly funny, open to every torture...er...task he sets her on, highly intelligent, and adorable.

She lusted him at first sight. He liked her from the beginning. And now, well... Who doesn't love Lucy?

I sure did. In fact, I loved just about everything about both Lucy and Theo, but Lucy was definitely my favorite of the two. Her acerbic wit, her humor - often self-effacing, and her insecurities were all thoroughly developed and displayed in a very realistic (yet still funny) way that made her intensely sympathetic as a character and more than a little lovable as a person. Theo was a doll, and a truly great guy, but he also had his emotional baggage and past traumas, insecurities, and fears, and that balanced him out nicely and kept him well away from the too-good-too-be-true ledge.

Their story, from beginning to end, was so entertaining, and I truly appreciate a romance that develops over a realistic amount of time and for the right reasons, as opposed to the many lust-driven relationships with a week or less from first sight to wedding bells that I've read in many romance novels lately. Don't get me wrong, there's tons of lust between Lucy and Theo, but their romance was driven just as much by their genuine caring and respect for each other, their compatibility and their emotions, as well as their hormones. I loved that.

And I was very impressed by the aspects of the plot that dealt with Lucy's weight loss, including those daily food journal entries. Donovan dealt with this exceptionally sensitive subject with tons of humor, grace, and keen insights into the minds of the dieting, while managing to promote the necessity of a healthy self image and the importance of the intrinsic combination of both physical and mental health. This isn't a book about a woman losing weight to get a guy. It's really about getting healthy because healthy is better, and while the initial motivation is the challenge and the money, and there's certainly a guy involved, I never got the sense that Lucy was losing weight so Theo would love her - and that's really what set this book apart from just a fun comedy romance.

It was really fun, though.

The main characters were great, the secondary and ancillary characters seemed genuine and were well rounded, adding a nice feeling of fullness to the lives of Lucy and Theo as they interacted with them. There were plenty of subplots that added depth and dimension to the arc of the book, and most of those subplots were fleshed out nicely, or touched upon just enough not to overwhelm the main plot while adding flavor and texture to it.

I could have done without the odd subplot about Lucy's boss, though. I didn't like that at all. It was, for me, the one weak spot of the book, because it was cursorily developed, didn't make a whole lot of sense, and was a little all over the map, and when Lola was tossed into the mix, and I thought something significant would finally develop, it fizzled and went nowhere. It was the only part of the book that didn't seem to fit and is really my only issue with the whole story.

Well that and I don't know of a single post-9/11 airport in this country that lets anyone beyond the security checkpoint without a boarding pass, and I doubt Miami is the exception, but that's just me being really nitpicky.

I loved everything else about this book, even the parts that I knew at some point would be coming given the nature of the plot. Funny, a heck of a lot of fun, sweet and loving, smart, sexy, and poignant, He Loves Lucy hit just about every single one of my happy spots. I enjoyed it immensely.

Now...where did I put my Milk Duds?

Darkness Dawns by Dianne Duvall

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Immortal Guardians, Book 1
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 320 Pages, 6520 Locations
Formats: Paperback, Kindle

Darkness Dawns (Immortal Guardians)
The Good, The Bad, The Familiar

It was not yet dawn when Sarah Bingham stumbled onto a sadistic scene of torture in the woods beyond her house. Without thinking, she took the shovel in her hand and solidly connected with the heads of the two men who had stripped, stabbed, and staked a third man to the ground. Fighting her horror, she manages to free Roland Warbrook and get him back to her house to patch him up a little. She couldn't understand why he didn't want her to call 911 or take him to a hospital, and his explanation was a little hard to believe, but she ceded to his wishes and did the best she could to keep him alive until a friend could bring him supplies and get him out of there.

Shortly after the sun sets, though, danger threatens and a cadre of vampires comes out of the woods, attacking before they can get away. During the horrifying conflict, Sarah sees Roland, the kind and gentle man she'd come to know and like as she tended him during the day, sink his own fangs into one of the monster's necks, and terror the likes of which she's never known galvanizes her into action. She flees the scene of blood and death...running from the vampires, running from Roland...only to plow right into him before passing out in his arms, a plea not to kill her on her lips.

Roland had been cared for by Sarah, had laughed with her and eaten with her. He had no intention of killing her. He isn't a vampire, he's an immortal guardian, and though there are similarities, he doesn't suffer the madness and bloodlust of a vampire. His tragic past has conditioned him against any hope that Sarah will be able to accept those differences, accept him, but as he holds Sarah in his arms and carries her to safety, feeling things he hasn't felt for over nine hundred years, it's his heart that yearns for more with her.

The attacks keep coming and the danger to Sarah rises, and Roland soon realizes that while circumstances have drawn them together, it may ultimately be fate that pulls them apart.

Dianne Duvall has kicked off a new paranormal romance series with Darkness Dawns, and there's a lot to like about this debut book. It's lighter and less grim, filled with characters who are far less tortured or emotionally damaged, than has become so commonplace in several other popular series. Roland and his fellow guardians are surprisingly modern men and women for their...advanced age, and I enjoyed getting significant glimpses of the personalities of several of them as Roland and Sarah interacted with them and in a nifty subplot featuring some of the secondary and ancillary characters.

As the lead romantic pair, I enjoyed Roland and Sarah, though neither were particularly complex characters. Roland was endearing with his antisocial habits, and there were several opportunities for some humorous teasing about how very insular he has been his entire existence. The big bad vamp hunter was also extremely cute in his fumbling attempts to take care of Sarah as their relationship grew. He was obviously a seasoned warrior, and just as obviously completely unseasoned when it came to showing emotion or dealing with a woman. It was sort of adorable at times.

Sarah was slightly more one-note as a pretty, perky woman who is a little too good to be true, with no flaws or emotional baggage to speak of despite the rough childhood she described to Roland. Frankly, though, it was sort of a nice change to have a paranormal romance devoid of the heavy, depressing interpersonal angst that litters so many other series right now. She was a smart, competent, and strong woman who was comfortable in her own skin, adapting quickly to her ever widening knowledge of her world. She may seem a little too Mary Sunshine for some readers, and it's true she isn't the most realistic female lead I've ever read, but I was still fond of her through the book.

The plot wasn't exactly groundbreaking, nor was it very complex, but it moved along well and was told with a clean, unfettered style that I appreciated. The characters and the mythos are going to seem very, very familiar, sometimes uncomfortably so, to anyone who's read Sherrilyn Kenyon's Dark-Hunter series or J.R. Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood series, but Duvall kept Darkness Dawns far lighter in tone and generally much less convoluted than the books in either of those. There weren't any goddesses or angels popping up, either, and that was a plus for me. To be honest, I can accept some similarities in theme if I'm still entertained with the story despite them, and though there was definitely more than "some" similarities, in this case I was still entertained.

I was impressed with Duvall for not answering all the questions about the guardians in this book, and for keeping what information was offered grounded in a fair amount of intelligent science. I liked that the characters and story allowed for the question of how the guardians are different to be answered, while keeping why they are or where they came from a mystery to even the guardians themselves. Duvall definitely didn't overload this debut with a bunch of unnecessary exposition or world building in that regard, and in so doing adroitly sidestepped one of the more common pitfalls of series creation. All too often new series debuts get bogged down that way.

There were a couple of other issues with varying degrees of badness. The getting-to-know-you phase for Roland and Sarah was ripe with cheesy dialogue (when they started to talk about their favorite color and ice cream flavor I actually rolled my eyes) and too-convenient similarities (I can understand why guardians stick to a more organic diet, but Sarah being a organic vegetarian as well was a little too much for me). I would have liked to see that part of the book develop differently.

I was more troubled by the failure to explain why the empath didn't know his friends and minions had and were lying to him. Or how they even could. That bothered me quite a bit, given how significant a part his gift played in the main conflict plot thread and in a pivotal scene with Roland. It was an issue with Sarah, though, that dropped this book down from a solid four star rating.

I don't want to run the risk of spoilers, so I will try this without details. The revelation and explanation concerning Sarah that popped up at the end of the book was fobbed off on the reader with absolutely no previous setup or foreshadowing. As a result, it felt like a horrible plot contrivance that snapped me right out of any willing suspension of disbelief. It was heavy handed and clumsily written (something like this could have easily been subtly touched upon throughout the book), lacked anything resembling foundation, and was far too convenient to be believable.

Still, I can't help but balance that out with the truly wonderful arc of the antagonist in this book. I loved the direction Duvall took with Bastien and felt it was one of the most original aspects of the plot, as well as one of my favorite things about the book as a whole.

I hope that there will be a quick release of the second book in this series, because despite some issues, Duvall hooked me with Darkness Dawns. It may have some flaws, and it's definitely a book that tiptoes a little too close to a couple of other authors' tulips, but I was entertained. And I want more.

It Had To Be You by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Genre: Light/Comedic Romance
Series: Chicago Stars, Book 1
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Length: 384 Pages, 5499 Locations
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, It Had to Be You

It Had to Be You

A surprise amendment to her father's will leaves Manhattan bombshell Phoebe Somerville ownership of the Chicago Stars football team. She thought she's long been disinherited and was thrilled by the will, seeing it as proof that her father did love her after all...until the vicious, controlling codicil gives her one season to win the AFC Championship and demands she stop being such an unrelieved screw up. If she fails, the team will be handed off to her slimy bastard of a cousin, a man who, as a boy, made Phoebe's life miserable. Refusing to give in to her father's manipulations, even in death, she blows off the whole idea and heads off on vacation, submerging herself in the artistic world to which she had fled when her father had betrayed her in the worst way years ago.

Finding the head coach of the Stars in her living room a few days after her return, however, wasn't something she had anticipated. Dan Calebow makes her nervous and strips her of her vaunted control. He's large, intimidating, and forbidding, and something about him does weird things to her stomach. His condescending derision, on the other hand, does something else entirely to her temper.

She's the biggest bimbo that he's ever met, but Phoebe Somerville sure was a looker. Pity that she was so useless as an owner and was technically his boss. He had players with unsigned contracts and a team to coach, he didn't have time to play her games. He needed her back in Chicago immediately. Once there, he could set her up as a brainless figurehead and get on doing the job he loved.

Problem was, Phoebe's anything but brainless, and the bimbo act is a shield she uses to protect herself. After years of insecurity with men, and a childhood of trauma and neglect, she has honed herself into being exactly what she needs to be to get what she wants. It isn't until she returns to Chicago and starts to take up the reins of the team that she realizes she wants to be the one thing her father never thought she could be. A smashing success. If that means she has to kick the patootie of one supercilious head coach, well...surely they make helmets or something for that.

Sparks fly and quips are traded with witty alacrity in this sports romance romp, the first of the Chicago Stars series. With a rather astounding level of character definition and tragic backstory that tugs at the heartstrings, this is a light romance with deep, dark undertones and was doubly satisfying for it. I loved Phoebe. More than that, I admired her. She's a survivor, and while her survival instincts may be dressed up in inappropriate gold lame at times, or wrapped up like a bow on her poodle's topknot, they're exceptionally adept at keeping her afloat. She has a truly tender and kind heart, and her intelligence is keen, especially when she truly starts using it.

Dan was a little harder to peg. He's drawn to Phoebe, but doesn't see much beyond her bodacious bod at first, and there was a sex scene towards the beginning of the book (not with Phoebe) that I found deeply disturbing until his partner was identified. Even after that scene I found his relationship with his ex to be a bit distasteful, and the manner in which he so clinically decides to marry a woman just because she's good with kids didn't enamor him to me, either. I did eventually warm up to him, and he does show a far wider range of emotion and intellect through the book, but it was a bit of a rough start for me with him.

The push-pull between him and Phoebe, though, was straight up, classic, awesome romance fun wrapped around a very complex consortium of character issues and insecurities. I have to give Susan Eliabeth Phillips credit, she created fully realized and very human characters on all levels, including secondary and ancillary characters, that filled up and filled out this book superbly, giving it much more depth and a far more meaty plot than I was anticipating.

There were a few spots that seemed a bit formulaic (it's an HEA romance, though, it wasn't like I wasn't expecting that) and the major relationship conflicts could be seen coming from across the stadium and were, in my opinion, the least elegant aspects of the storyline, but nothing was a major detractor. In fact, it was one of the most satisfying and comprehensive contemporary romances I've read lately.

I was particularly pleased with the subplot about the evolution of the relationship Phoebe has with her half sister, and the nifty ways Dan factored into that. I was also pleasantly surprised with how SEP addressed Phoebe's rape at the age of eighteen, and how realistically that assault was integrated into Phoebe's psyche and personality. The moment that Phoebe shared that trauma with Dan was a very good moment for me in the book, for a lot of reasons that are hard to explain, but touch on my appreciation for honest relationship conversation and trust. And I loved absolutely everything about Dan's actions and reactions to the whole of his knowledge of that rape from that point to the very end.

I did have a few issues with the book. I could have done without the crazy stalker subplot, I feel it did too little to expand or assist in adding insight into Dan's past and it seemed too hokey a plot device at the end to be a credible threat. Snippets throughout the book shined a glaring spotlight on its 1994 original publishing date (O.J. Simpson being mentioned as a sports correspondent, not a defendant was particularly telling). Dan's ex-wife served little purpose beyond being an excuse for a very emotional scene between Dan and Phoebe...and for the total gross out factor of that initial sex scene.

On the other hand, I was highly impressed with the taut play-by-play of the AFC Championship game. It was very well written - informative, tense, emotional, but not so detailed as to make your eyes cross. Admittedly, I'm a rabid football fan, and I have been since childhood. I know football. I even follow my team's off-season personnel and contract stories religiously. It was pretty much guaranteed that I wasn't going to be bored or disinterested with the level of the sports detail in this book. That being said, I'd like to think that I'm objective enough to assure those who aren't football fans that there wasn't a ton of it in the book, and certainly nothing I would consider a major detractor for those who don't like the sport.

It Had to Be You is, at its core, the story of two damaged and emotionally fragile people finding each other in the least likely of places, and realizing that despite appearances and regardless of propriety, they're perfect for each other. And in getting there, it was the Superbowl of delicious, deep, thrilling, emotional journeys, ripe with fully realized and sympathetic characters that resonate with a sense of genuine triumph.

Immortal Warrior by Lisa Hendrix

Genre: Historical Paranormal Romance
Series: Immortal Brotherhood, Book 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 352 Pages, 6373 Locations
Formats: Paperback, Kindle

Immortal Warrior
Rich With History and Character

Sir Ivo de Vassy was once known as the Norse warrior Ivar and he, along with eight fellow warriors, was cursed by the powerful sorceress Cwen when her son was slain in a long-ago battle. Forced to suffer endless days in the form of an eagle, only allowed human form at night, he was made immortal. Now working for the Norman King William, his service to the crown awards him a boon, and feeling the need to settle, even for a little while, and taste a sliver of normalcy for however long it lasts, he requests and is granted land and the title of Lord of Alnwick and is given the granddaughter of the former Lord to wed, Lady of Alnwick, Alaida.

Alaida doesn't much care for the king who imprisoned her grandfather, and she's less pleased with the idea of the political marriage. Duty bound, she follows the letter of the king's law and marries Ivo, but spirited and smart, she rebels in her own way and goes toe to toe with the imposing warrior. Instead of a tyrant and an oaf, however, Ivo proves to be a generous and thoughtful Lord, and Alaida finds herself attracted to her new husband, even though his odd habit of disappearing before the sun rises each day causes her pain and embarassment.

Before Ivo can relish the warming of his new wife's temperament, fellow cursed warrior Ari, by day a man and by night a raven, tells Ivo of the vision he's seen, a vision in which Ivo's progeny bears their curse. No matter how much his body and heart crave his wife, he is damned to never again lie with her as husband or risk getting her with a child that will be just as tortured as he.

What he wants most, he can't have. What he cares about most deeply can never be his. And even as living amongst men threatens his secret, and living with his wife threatens his fortitude, any chance at love may quickly turn to horror and death if Alaida ever finds out the truth of her husband's nature.

Despite the fact that historical romance isn't a preferred genre of mine, I was both impressed and pleased with the genuine feeling of historical accuracy that Lisa Hendrix brought to this series debut. I know little of medieval history, so I can't speak with authority about technical accuracy, but with deft descriptions of the people and the lives they live, the influence and power of the church, the nature of the workings of the homestead, and the substance of the dialogue, Hendrix infused an air of authenticity into Immortal Warrior that I have found severely lacking in other historical-themed books. Frankly, it just felt like Hendrix did a fair amount of research into the nature of medieval life and replicated it well, even as she blended in the magical nature of the characters. From a reader's perspective, I appreciated the attempt, and as someone not intimately familiar with historical accuracy, I found it very successful.

Ivo and Alaida were well formed characters, and Alaida in particular really appealed to me. One of the reasons I tend to stay away from historical romance is that the female protagonists tend to fall into one of two basic categories, either they're too progressive for the era in which they're being written and the book stumbles on technical merits, or they're too simpering/submissive/innocent, and the book stumbles on story merits. I was very impressed with Hendrix for creating a female lead of her era, aware of her duties and her responsibilities, knowledgeable of her restrictions, and still fiery and independent within those rigid strictures, and despite her innocence of men. It was a deft and intelligent bit of writing to maneuver that particular tightrope and I applaud Hendrix for it.

Immortal Warrior is a fast read, quickly paced, and I practically flew through it. Well rounded secondary and ancillary characters supported the story nicely, adding depth, and I very much enjoyed the mythos and backstory for the warriors. Hendrix went so far as to introduce readers to Brand, who spends his days as a bear, and Ari, the nightly raven, and both are appealing enough to instill a desire to see them reach their happily ever after. Smart move, really, and it set this book up nicely as a very strong starting point for what could truly be an impressive and original series.

There were a few minor cliched aspects, and a bit of formula in the developing romance between Ivo and Alaida. I'm pretty tired of romances in which the lack of communication, regardless of the reason, is the sole or major conflict between the romantic pairing. My reading preferences lie elsewhere, and again, is another reason why I tend to stay away from historical romance. The inherent nature of the historical era seems predisposed to communication issues between the man and woman. I would have preferred a more external conflict to drive the plot.

I was slightly disappointed that so little of the eagle was included in the story. Despite Ivo's dual nature, little of his animal side, or of the animal sides of Brand and Ari, were significant to the plot beyond the fact that they exist. When they were included, I found their differences and unique natures fascinating and would have liked to see more. On a brighter note, a very subtly-written ancillary plot thread that featured Brand and the healer Merewyn was appealing on a couple of different levels and I hope that we will see them again in the future.

There was a plot twist that I didn't see coming, and it certainly took me by surprise, but it was also the only part of the book that was more plot-driven than character-driven, so it didn't blend as well as all the other aspects of the story. It teetered a bit over the line into cliche and took a dance with overly convenient plot devices, but to expound on that would provide way too many spoilers and I was taken off guard to such an extent, I'm loathe to ruin that surprise for anyone else. Coupled with what I felt was a slightly odd conclusion that was far too...populated...for my tastes, the book didn't end quite the way I would have preferred.

Between being thoroughly impressed with the genuine historical feel, though, and admiring of the originality and scope of the mythos and backstory, as well as being truly fond of Ivo and Alaida, there was much to enjoy. The characters, various conflicts, and plot threads wove together to create a balanced and emotionally substantial reading experience.

I've purchased the second book in the series, Immortal Outlaw. One of the more tantalizing aspects of this series is the scope of historical times and various eras this series can feature. Given the research and attention to detail Hendrix offered here, I look forward to seeing if Hendrix intends to make use of a wide range of eras and the myriad of opportunities that range provides.

Take a Chance on Me by Susan Donovan

Genre: Light/Comedic Romantic Suspense
Series: N/A
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 352 Pages, 6776 Locations
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle

Boogie Down, Hairy!

Feeling responsible for the murder of his informant, undercover investigator Thomas Tobin took responsibility for the weirdest dog he's ever seen, the mostly bald Chinese Crested named, ironically, Hairy. Unfortunately Hairy's got some big issues, and Thomas can't seem to pawn the trembling, urinating, rat-looking thing off on anyone. To save his sanity, he finally takes Hairy to veterinarian and animal behaviorist Dr. Emma Jenkins, but one look at the lush beauty and the normally dour and forbidding Thomas can't seem to keep his mind out of the kennel. Only problem is, Thomas knows he's got nothing to offer Emma, certainly not what she deserves.

Still recovering from a disastrous marriage that rocked her self esteem, Emma Jenkins doesn't have much faith in her own appeal, though when Thomas Tobin brings Hairy to see her, he proves that at least all her female parts are working just fine. One look at the tall, dark, and brooding man and all her juices more than flow, they do a do-si-do and a quick two step, too. But Thomas has a disturbing habit of not being altogether truthful with her, and he's the master of mixed signals. Frankly, Emma's life would be far less complicated if she just focused on her clinic and raising the daughter of her deceased best friend.

As wounded as he is by a rocky past and a dark life of undercover work, Thomas recognizes a great thing when he sees it. He just has to convince Emma to give him a chance. And maybe Hairy is more than the key to catch a killer, maybe he's the key to winning a woman's heart, as well.

Take a Chance on Me is a cute, quirky romance with lead characters with a surprising amount of depth. They tote around a fair amount of realistic baggage and have a ton of insecurities, their responsibilities aren't always comfortable or easy, and the damage from their past is well represented in their developing relationship. Secondary and ancillary characters are nicely fleshed out, as well, especially LeeLee, who I found to be very genuine and very believable given her past. Hairy the Chinese Crested was a total trip. I loved how he was given his own voice. It could have been easily overdone, but Donovan kept it from tripping over into the absurd.

I wasn't totally on board with the suspense aspects of the plot, but as it wasn't the driving force of the book by any means, it didn't overly affect my impressions. My main issue with it is strictly based on personal preference, anyway, so it's purely subjective. I prefer when antagonists in suspense aren't revealed quite so soon, because it often makes plot twists too easy to spot as they approach, and that was the case here. On the bright side, I found the killer's descent into desperation well written.

The evolution of the relationship between Emma and Thomas was the core of the book, and there were lots of good things there. Not only were the characters given individual identities and a full, rich sense of history and personality on their own terms, they were featured in situations beyond their relationships (more Emma than Thomas, actually), so readers get a very clear idea of what their lives are like outside of the burgeoning romance. That was a nice touch that really appealed to me.

To be honest, though, there was a conflict between Thomas and Emma that really bothered me. Thomas acted in a manner that I found pretty unforgivable and the resolution of that situation didn't really address the core issue. As a result, a pretty egregious lack of trust got glossed over after the melee that followed, and it really bothered me that it was so quickly accepted and forgiven.

That was the only real problem I had with this cute, humorous romance with its suspense subplot. I've enjoyed both Susan Donovan books I've read, and that certainly bodes well for future reading opportunities. And I continue to be very impressed with the dimension and depth provided to primary and secondary characters. For quickly paced, mostly lighthearted, humorous romance with a pleasing amount of sizzle and a pinch of suspense, Donovan is a good bet.

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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