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Big Bad Beast by Shelly Laurenston

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Pride Series, Book 6
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 320 Pages, 4342 Locations
Formats: Paperback, Kindle

Big Bad Beast
Kicking Off Project: Wolf-Wolf

The rich, cultured, and gorgeous Ulrich Van Holtz has the singular ability to keep a lot of different balls in the air as he smoothly juggles them all. Between the wildly successful restaurants and business investments, the hockey team he owns and serves as goalie, the properties he manages, and his position in the Group as a team supervisor, Ric is definitely skilled at multitasking. The moment he laid eyes on Dee-Ann Smith, the deadliest she-wolf in the country (and probably several other countries as well), he truly appreciated all those balls for what they were: intensive, hands-on training. And it would take every single bit of that training, every skill, all of his many talents, and every single ounce of his canny intellect to achieve his new life goal: making her his.

He's a Van Holtz. Failure is not an option.

Dee-Ann Smith is a cold killer. A ruthless, massive she-wolf, she enjoyed her years in the shifter-populated Unit, and now she's out, she likes the combination of freedom and license to kill that she gets working for the Group. She's the deadly ghost who can slip past any defense, slide into anyplace she wants, and do it all in a blink with nary a sound. Scarred, yellow-eyed, and genuinely disinterested in anything remotely resembling social etiquette, she'll never be pretty, but she's the one wolf you want ferreting out information and mowing down anything in your path.

For months the Group has had her working on blowing apart the hybrid pit fighting rings that threaten the lives of hybrids and risk discovery of their kind to full human masses. After a major coup in Ursus County, Ric's cousin Van, the Group's powerful director, sifts through the fallout and points Ric and Dee in the direction of one of their own, someone with the deepest of deep pockets betraying their kind and threatening their secrets. Following the money to catch a genocidal killer has never been so dangerous or risked so much.

Rounding out a plot arc that started developing in The Mane Squeeze two books ago, and giving the much-loved Ric and the...uh...less loved, more feared Dee-Ann a chance at their forever home, Shelly Laurenston has given this bawdy, crass, hilarious series a new (final? - god, I hope not!) chapter that will delight fans and make them cheer. As a huge fan of the series, I've been both looking forward to and slightly leery of this book, as neither Ric nor Dee-Ann have been favorite characters of mine, but I had ultimate faith in Laurenston's unique and powerful talent to draw me in and make me smile (I hated the thought of a whole book about Blayne at first, too, but now I adore her and her book). In several ways, she did make me smile, in others, and for the first time in any book I've read by Laurenston or her nom de plume G.A. Aiken, I wasn't totally drawn into or captivated by the story and had some big issues with plot, continuity of character, and romantic development.

Before anyone starts throwing rotten fruit at my head for my blasphemy, I want to explain that I love this series. Love. It. And I loved the Magnus Pack series. I loved Hunting Season: The Gathering, Book 1 (and keep hoping to see that series continue). I love Aiken's Dragon Kin series. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Laurenston/Aiken's writing style, the mix of humor, sex, humor, blood, the occasional dismemberment, sex, humor, and romance just totally does it for me. Period. And there were definitely several parts that I enjoyed in this book, and my three star rating is more a representation of how I felt about it in comparison to the other books in the series than any declaration that I thought this book was just okay, but in the interest of complete honesty, I can't say that Big Bad Beast totally worked for me.

The inclusive scenes did. I adored the Fourth of July weekend party at Ric's new property. I loved how much a part of the book so many beloved and familiar faces were. And I absolutely adored getting a refresher on some of the funniest reading moments of my life. Nothing makes me laugh faster and/or harder than Lock palming Mitch and Bren as he goes about his day not realizing he has them in his clutches. Nothing tickles me more than reading about Blayne manipulating...well...everyone. Few things make me smile like Mace's egocentric world view and his issues with his progeny. Or seeing Angelina use her fashionista talents as a force of good. Or seeing Gwen go Philly on someone's ass. And I could go on and on. There were so many old friends that were an integral part of this book and those were, to me, the best parts.

Unfortunately, that's part of the problem.

There was very little romance development in the one relationship that I was sure would've taken a few armies and a core of engineers to make work. It happened so fast and was so subtle in the build up that the "I love you" moment was almost anticlimactic. At first they weren't together...and then they were...and then there was luuuuuv.. And some other unrelated stuff happened before, during, and after. Yeah, that's an oversimplification, but that's really the feeling I got about the romance plot threads of the book. It wasn't bad, please don't misunderstand, but it just wasn't the sort of wacky, dangerous, just-as-likely-to-lead-to-bloodshed-as-sexual-calisthenics, emotional roller coaster we've seen in every single other book in the series, and the roller coasters are always my favorite rides at the theme parks.

I liked Ric. I liked Dee. I liked them together. Meh.

The two other major plot threads also seemed underdeveloped and felt lacking to me. The antipathy between Ric and his father has been mentioned and alluded to for a couple of books now and had awesome plot potential, but was oddly underutilized and fizzled out without much development or even much reaction from Ric himself. The hyrbrid pit-fighting thread naturally played a bigger part, and I did enjoy seeing Dee join forces with Dez and Cella Malone as they worked the crimes, but the investigative parts were anemic (though points for the very funny trip to the hyenas) and the story took an odd turn at the end that felt unsupported by previous events and lacked sufficient build up to make it as emotionally powerful as it could have been.

Again, please don't think I'm complaining or saying I hated the book. I'm not, and I didn't. But compared to the first five books, the most recent two in particular (Gwen/Lock, Blayne/Bo), this book just wasn't nearly as funny, touching, quirky, romantic, or sexy to me, it didn't seem as well developed around the main romantic pair, and there wasn't as much actual meat to the non-romantic plot threads to make the book seem as layered and richly developed. Instead, and in part because I loved the scenes with all those old friends, this book ended up seeming more like a long and complex epilogue to previous books in both this series and the Magnus Pack series instead of a solid addition to an existing series that stands well on its own merits.

And...uh...the fact that I can hear Blayne's voice in my head yelling, "Someone's Ms. No Fun!" is just disturbing. Um...yeah.

Lover Awakened by J.R. Ward

PhotobucketGenre: Paranormal Romance; Urban Fantasy Romance
Series: Black Dagger Brotherhood, Book 3
Rating: 5 Stars
Length: 434 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle

Lover Awakened (Black Dagger Brotherhood, Book 3)
And Then There Was Zsadist

His past will make you weep. His face will make you cringe. His presence will make you tremble as his glare strokes icy tendrils of fear down your spine and shoves terror into your gut to clamp down and twist. He is one monstrous mountain of sadistic attitude and murderous instinct honed blade-sharp.

He is Zsadist. And it's his turn.

At this point I think it only fair to warn you that if you're looking for an objective review of Lover Awakened that is full of the typical (for me) sort of plot synopsis and qualitative insight into character, plot, and story...well...not this time, I'm afraid. When it comes to Z and Bella's story, "objective" flies out the window and all that's left is a sore but full heart, a sick but hopeful clench in the gut, and a lot of soggy tissues. Oh, yeah, and some awe. A lot of awe, actually.

I'm a fan of the Black Dagger Brotherhood series, and I loved the book that kicked it all off, Dark Lover, but when we're talking about the book that includes the story of Zsadist and his relationship with Bella, we're talking a whole other level of fandom. One that is rabid, devout, and unwavering. It is my favorite book in the series, it is centered around my favorite Brother, and it features my favorite female of worth in that world. And that's understating my feelings.

The combination of Z's brutal past, his vicious present, and his complete and utter helplessness against Bella's tender pursuits just flat-out touched me in a way that has stuck with me in the five years since I first read it. The reminder on this reread was a little breathtaking. The path these two must walk, the trials and tribulations they go through, are poignant and crushing and god...so devastating. And the attention to detail given to Z in particular, as well as the reactions of everyone around him towards him, were a little astounding in their realism and believability. I was and am forever in awe of Ward for that reason alone.

And just between you and me, the first time I read Z referring to his genitalia as "it"...and the moment he looked up at Bella from his cowering spot in a frigid shower after rubbing his skin raw and bloody because he thought he was unclean...broke my heart all those years ago, and it did it again just as intensely this time around.  He was so raw, so primal, so unflinchingly deadly...and yet so lost and helpless - I'm still astounded at how completely believable he was despite...or maybe because of...that dichotomy.

I loved him. I loved him like any avid reader loves a deeply complex, utterly ruined character who finds his own twisted path to redemption, slogging through a quagmire of misery, loss, and torment to grasp for a triumph as he defines it. And frankly, I thought it was brilliant that while Bella was definitely the motivation and the core of Z's changes, she didn't have a direct hand in many of those changes. Z did that himself. And that I respected and admired. Loved Bella, too, by the way, as she was definitely the absolutely perfect match for Z and also an interesting character with tons of internal strength in her own right.

Yeah, yeah, there were other characters (lots of them) and other plot lines (tons, really) and a bunch of really gut-wrenching developments (Ward is not easy on her characters, but damn, that female can write). Don't care. In this case, and only in this case, it is all about Z for me...okay, and a little about Z and Bella together.

When making plans to reread what I'd read so far in the series before continuing the saga with Lover Mine, I knew that I was going to have to pause for a break after reading Z's story again. I remember feeling shaken after the first time I read it, and being glad that I had a few months before Butch's book came out. I hadn't really expected to feel just as, if not a bit more shaken by it this time around. I'm not going to wait months to continue with the next book, but I am going to take a short break, just to let things settle a bit in my mind and prepare myself for the rest.

I'd say it's sort of like...a respectful pause to honor the accomplishments of Z and Bella...but that would sound a bit too far down the tracks to Crazy Town so I won't. Even if I think it once or twice.

Lover Eternal by J.R. Ward

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Black Dagger Brotherhood, Book 2
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 441 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle

Lover Eternal (Black Dagger Brotherhood, Book 2)
Rhage, Rhage Against the Dying of the Light

He's the brother with the biggest monkey on his back. Or...you know...raging, slavering monster. Whichever.

Cursed by the Scribe Virgin to bear the beast for 200 years, the brother Rhage is forced to keep himself level or risk transforming into eight feet of teeth, claws, and mindless slaughter. He uses sex, lots and lots of sex, and fighting to keep himself even-keeled as he counts down the days until he's free. The best of the Brotherhood at hand-to-hand combat and as good looking as a fallen angel, his brothers envy his way with the ladies even as they respect his mad skills and fear his beast of burden.

No one, not even those he calls brothers, have the first clue that with each shallow, meaningless coupling, each flash of the beast, his soul is dying by degrees, leaving him teetering on the brink of despair and starved for the peace of genuine emotional connection. Then one night, as he lurches through the underground hallways, nearly blind from a recent transformation, he hears a sweet, dulcet-toned voice and feels a wave of calm the likes of which he hasn't felt since well before the night he was cursed.

He has to find the woman who has that voice, woo her, and keep her forever.

Full human Mary Luce, a warrior in her own right, though her battles are waged on a different battlefield, doesn't understand why her friend and neighbor Bella would hook her up on a blind date with someone as stunningly gorgeous as Hal, and she sure doesn't trust the man when he ignores every gorgeous woman blatantly throwing themselves at him. She's well aware of her physical limitations.

And his showing up at her house, well, that's just weird. So she does everything she can think of to push him away, until a surprise attack from lessers puts her life in danger and pulls her into a world of vampires and warriors. But it sure can't be any more deadly than the specter of the big C that is stalking her. And as a vampire is bonding to her despite her best intentions and she feels herself falling for him, devastating news puts a chilling end date to their relationship.

The second book in the Black Dagger Brotherhood series sparks a plethora of plot threads and introduces us to characters that are destined to become series favorites. The world is fleshed out more, we spend some more time with the Scribe Virgin (now I'm sure I don't like her), get a closer look at some of those nasty, baby powder-smelling lessers, and once again enjoy a balanced blend of urban fantasy and paranormal romance. In that regard, Lover Eternal was just as fully satisfying at the first book in the series.

But I noticed some things that got on my nerves a little in this one, so I stopped to wonder why. I realized that as much as I liked Rhage, he was a little slow on the uptake about his beast's reaction to Mary, and you'd think the brothers would've thought up a better way (or any at all, really) of dealing with his curse after over a hundred years of it. And on a personal level, I loathed something Rhage did after he'd moved Mary into his room at the Brotherhood, but was even more disturbed by Mary's reaction to it. And speaking of...

I wasn't as fond of Mary as I was of Rhage, and couldn't seem to warm up to her until well into the book when she finally started letting Rhage in a little. From the moment she had a little face-to-face with beastie boy, she totally won me over, but there was a lot of book before that and some of the parts that included her were a bit of a struggle.

By the way, what's the deal with the Omega? I could've sworn there was a better explanation or more of an imposing presence from him from my memories of the first time through the first two books of the series. This time around, though, he seems more like a faceless, anonymous bully than the force of all evil against the vampires. And I totally don't get why he hasn't recruited a much larger and more competent army.

To be fair, the lessers really aren't the driving force for my admiration of this book or the series, and they certainly aren't the reason I read either. The Brothers are. And their females. And their world. And the layered, blended, intricate plots. So far, really, so good. With the second book of the series done and the third (hint: my favorite) just inches from my grasp, we're just getting started. Hop on for the ride.

Dark Lover by J.R. Ward

PhotobucketGenre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Black Dagger Brotherhood, Book 1
Rating: 5 Stars
Length: 393 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle

Dark Lover (Black Dagger Brotherhood, Book 1)
With a Roar and a Kiss, It Began

He is the last of his kind, the only full blood vampire left alive on the planet, and he is the leader of a small brotherhood of warriors who protect his threatened race from extinction at the hands of an unholy and de-souled army of lessers. He is Wrath, the biggest, baddest mother you never want to meet in a dark alley. He is the Blind King, but he is a king who refuses to rule.

Beth is a half-vampire, half-human female on the cusp of a transition into a creature she doesn't know exists. An orphan who was raised in foster homes, she is unprepared for the dark abyss of truth that will open its gaping maw at her feet and threaten to devour her. Only Wrath can save her, only Wrath can teach her of her people...only Wrath can love her.

Because he says so.

It is the book that spawned a popularity surge in a literary subgenre, that created a firestorm of fans and spun a thousand writers into similar directions. Long before Kindle, before I became a mindless, book-consuming beast, I picked up a red book in a dark bookstore with a racy title and fell into a world I had only heard rumblings of before. And I was lost.

It wasn't the vampires or other paranormal aspects - read them before. It wasn't the romance - come on, I live for romance and always have. It was the unique and utterly satisfying blend of paranormal romance and urban fantasy. It was the brothers themselves; those damned and damaged warriors each bearing the weight of their own personal crosses with honor and death and sex and booze and pulse-searing rap. It was the brilliant world and the complex, layered plots, too, but mostly it was the intensity of the emotions that each brother garnered just by being.

And it all started with Dark Lover.

I'm not going to sit here and attempt to write what I consider a typical review. I'm not going to go on and on about what the story was about, what worked, what didn't. I'm not going to hash out plot points or discuss story arcs. It's been done by people far more capable than I. All I'm going to say is that for me, Dark Lover is one of those books that transcends reading entertainment and becomes something tangible, something that makes willing suspension of disbelief seem nothing more than a trite catchphrase because there is no disbelief.

It started with this book and regardless of where the series has gone since, regardless of where it has yet to go, this book is the one book that I'll never criticize or critique. I'm just so glad I read it all those years ago, and am happy to have read it again.

It changed...everything.

Hearts in Darkness by Laura Kaye

Genre: Contemporary Romance
Series: N/A
Rating: 5 Stars
Length: 2354 Locations
Formats: Kindle

Hearts In Darkness
Passionate and Tender Novella

As a forensic accountant who has Friday night plans that include nothing more exciting than a bottle of wine and her couch to cap a hopelessly bad day, Makenna James was desperate for that helping hand that was holding the elevator for her as she struggled with her bags in her rush to get out of the building. She didn't even get a chance to look at the Good Samaritan who was so patient before the elevator jerked to a stop and they were pitched into utter darkness. Perfect way to end a perfectly crappy day, that's for sure. In fact, the thought makes her laugh.

The laughter of the put-together redhead he had waited on was the only thing that kept Caden Greyson from tripping over into the panic attack that always hit him when he was caught in enclosed places in the dark, a phobia deeply instilled after a horrific childhood trauma. All he caught before the lights went out was the sweep of hair and a tight bottom, so he didn't even know what she looked like, but if he was going to make it out of the elevator sane and whole, he was going to have to depend on her soothing voice and inherent kindness.

Two strangers alone in the dark, needing the other to get through a trying time, and finding that when the superficial preconceptions that are the pitfalls of physical appearance is stripped away, all that's left is the heart of the person. And that heart can be just what you never knew you so desperately needed.

Short, sweet, and so very sexy, this novella by Laura Kaye was passionate, emotional, and satisfying. In a rather stunning way, I was captivated by these two characters as they reached out in the darkness and bared their souls. It's a simple story, really, but told with such poignancy and honesty that it touched me on an emotional level long before it heated up and thrilled me on a different level entirely.

The whole story felt truly, wonderfully genuine, and I loved how Makenna and Caden learned each other, how Makenna was the one who had to calm the troubled Caden, how his insecurities were just as apparent, not to mention deeper and more prevalent, than hers. That was a nice role reversal, and yet it didn't diminish the significance of Makenna's own insecurities. I especially like how simple yet almost profound it seemed that Caden's fears were raw in the dark, but Makenna's rushed forward after the lights came back on. That spoke to me as a surprisingly spot-on acknowledgement of one of the many intrinsic differences between men and women.

The sensuality and sexuality truly made this novella shine. It's been quite a long time...if ever...that I've read sex scenes that were just as emotionally moving as it was physically passionate. I freely admit I'm greedy. I wish this story had been longer. I just adored Caden and Makenna together and would really have loved spending more time with them. The ending though, was as poetic and hopeful as it was perfect for a conclusion. It capped a truly spectacular reading experience that just made me hungry for more of Laura Kaye's work. I'll be watching and eagerly waiting for more!

Dragon Child by LJ DeLeon

Genre: Fantasy/Paranormal Romance
Series: Warriors for Light, Book 2
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 5987 Locations
Formats: Kindle

Dragon Child (Warriors For Light, Book 2)
Wereleopards, and Dragons, and Fae! Oh, My!

Switched at birth with the daughter of the Fae Queen Graciela, the struggling Moira, who has always felt more like a warrior yearning for battle than a Court Lady, is grief-stricken when her spying uncovers the truth: she is not the Fae princess she always thought she was, and her "mother" the Queen has known the truth all her life. As if that deception isn't enough to shake her to her foundations, Moira not only doesn't know who she is, but as the war between Light and Darkness continues to build and rage in Earth, and her uncanny but confusing gifts of becoming invisible and fighting with sword and fire start to become more and more apparent, not knowing what she is troubles her even more.

Well...that and the disturbing and traitorous reaction that her body has whenever she catches the scent of wereleopard Major Steve Taylor...like she wants to stretch out and lick him when he gets close enough. And that's just not acceptable. She's tricked her mother...and just about everyone else...to get a taste of freedom from her home in Otherworld and join Steve in the quest of finding the queen's birth daughter and two granddaughters, and she's not about to let some odd sexual yearning turn her from her path.

Steve doesn't know what it is about Moira that makes his inner cat purr, but he's got a mission that doesn't allow for keeping time with kids who think they're warriors, no matter that said kid smells like...like...well, like his...and is over a hundred to his mere forty years. He's got to find and terminate an evil dark mage, former senator and current head of the Humans First hate group, Carlson, then he's promised to coordinate the search for the Fae queen's missing progeny. All in a day's work for a warrior fighting to save Earth and Otherworld from the Dark Lord.

But good Goddess, the purring!!

One headstrong, independent, and very wily...whatever she is...and one stubborn, controlling, alpha-of-all-alphas wereleopard together on the path of warriors and battles for the Goddess and Light? Oh yeah...someone's gonna lose an eye, or at least a heart or two.

Picking up shortly after the events of Warrior's Rise (Warriors For Light, Book 1), LJ DeLeon has catapulted herself and her series over the dangerous pitfall of the sophomore slump and created a story that was tighter and more cohesive, with a greater sophistication and polish, better editing, and all around stronger writing technique. With characters familiar from their introduction in the first book and the groundwork and worldbuilding that was set up there, I wouldn't suggest missing Warrior's Rise. In my opinion, it's not quite as strong a book, but there isn't much in the way of exposition in Dragon Child, and not much put into reaffirming the events that have come before. New readers might feel a little lost and a lot of the emotional impact of this book would be missed. In fact, Dragon Child hits the ground running and expects the reader to keep up in the same fast-paced and slickly dangerous style familiar from its predecessor, while managing to be an all-around better, more entertaining read that worked very well in so many different ways.

The heart of that leap in my esteem comes from Moira and Steve. I loved them. Especially Moira. She embodies just about every single one of my preferences for female characters. She's strong, independent, smart, sly and wily, and while she may not know what she is, she definitely knows what she wants and what she doesn't, and fights for it, standing up for herself, her needs, and the needs of the people and beliefs that matter to her. I admired her as an individual and was very impressed that DeLeon managed to perfectly blend ferocity, sensuality, and a strong code of honor with tendrils of uncertainty and sheltered naivety that fit perfectly for Moira's backstory and character. I thoroughly enjoyed her.

I also loved Steve, though I'm far less picky about my male lead characters and I had already liked him from the first book. Still, he added a dimension of light humor and a ton of alpha-male idiocy (always fun for a laugh when pitted against a truly strong female) that was missing in the first book, and as that sort of thing always makes me grin, I found myself captivated and enchanted with him and the relationship between him and Moira. And not for nothing, but there were some smoking hot sex scenes in this book that were extremely well written and totally sexy.

Maybe it was the fact that so much of the groundwork had already been laid, but I loved how the plot arc of the war between Light and Dark was more a subplot in this book. The narrower focus of finding and ending the evil senator (redundant, I know) kept the plot more tightly contained and allowed for a much stronger romance plotline to evolve throughout the book. That, too, is much more my preference than the too-quickly formed relationship that Deva and Padraig had in the first book.

That was another source of appreciation for me, as well, because while the book had a narrower focus, the plot still maintained a satisfying depth with the various plot threads and layers, most notably the continuing evolution of Sabina that I so admired in Warrior's Rise. I found myself doubly impressed, because that sort of tightening of the plot often leads to a shallower, less satisfying read, and that wasn't the case at all here.

There were still a few issues - far fewer than the previous book, of course. There were some pacing issues and abrupt bursts of development in the first few chapters of the book, where Moira goes from sheltered princess to warrior woman in mere pages. I was a little jarred by the characterizations of Moira and Graciela in the first chapters, too, because they didn't resemble the characters introduced in the first book, and character inconsistency between books is a pet peeve of mine. Graciela, in particular, who seemed the epitome of poised Fae monarch in Warrior's Rise was virtually unrecognizable at the start of this book.

The book isn't about Graciela, though, and I liked Moira so much in this book she was an improvement over the glimpse of her I had in the previous one, so that helped.

One of the few issues that exist in both books is the tendency towards almost too-easy resolutions to some issues or too-convenient information falling into place at just the right time. In the first book, that happened all too frequently just about every time the very present Goddess of Light helped or guided Deva. It got on my nerves then. In this book the situations were different and it wasn't as glaring or noticeable, but it did happen occasionally. Another issue in this book was the too-quick about face that Steve had about not wanting a mate, then wanting Moira.

And again, none of those issues could take much away from the compelling story. Once into the book, it was almost like I was driven to finish, and my investment in the story and the characters had a grip on me that wouldn't let go until I read all the way through to the end...missing several hours of sleep in the process. All for a good cause, I say, as I not only completely and thoroughly enjoyed this book, but have now become a bit addicted to the series. The third book is due out in May, if what I read at the end of this book is correct, and frankly, with some of the nifty new developments and twists in this book, I can't wait to get my hands on it.

I'm hooked.

Disclosure: This book was provided to me free of charge by the author for the purpose of an honest review. All ratings, thoughts, comments, and opinions are my own. Getting me hooked on the series, though, is totally the author's fault.

The Mountains Bow Down by Sibella Giorello

Genre: Thriller/Suspense
Series: Raleigh Harmon, Book 4
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 369 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle

The Mountains Bow Down (A Raleigh Harmon Novel)
Solid Suspense in a Phenomenal Setting

FBI Special Agent Raleigh Harmon needed this vacation, but she sure didn't need to get stuck on a ship with 2,000 other people invading her personal space. She's nearly desperate to get into the Alaskan port of Ketchikan and take a hike in the most beautiful landscape she will likely ever see, finding rocks and minerals to add to her collection in this geologist's paradise. Then a trio of deep, bellowing sounds shatters the air and further wrecks her already stressful vacation; three long, deep horn blasts that signal the ship's return to sea. At their mercy, Raleigh watches her hopes for some time alone disappear just as fast as the Ketchikan coastline.

Before she has time to grieve the lost opportunity, the body of a woman presumed lost overboard is found hanging from the side of the ship, and despite the cruise line's official leap to a label of suicide, Raleigh's forensic experience is telling her that there are too many inconsistencies, too many problems with the scene and the evidence to assume the woman's death was anything but murder.

What had been intended as a family vacation with her ailing mother, her aunt, and her aunt's best friend has turned into a high-profile homicide investigation of the producer of the Hollywood film production that had hired her aunt to provide some spiritual assistance to the cast and crew. And as the ship returns to its scheduled route, Raleigh has to deal with the grim knowledge that though the suspect pool is limited to the crew and passengers, the secrets and lies swarming around the crime go deeper than the ocean on which they sail. And she has until the end of the cruise to solve the case before the murderer disembarks and disappears forever.

With a sweeping panorama painted by the words of a true authorial artist and a layered plot of mystery, family crisis, personal challenge, and tests of faith, Sibella Giorello brings readers into the life of Raleigh Harmon and delivers a solid mystery that was thoroughly entertaining. This is the first book I've read by Giorello, and I don't intend it to be my last, and frankly, that surprises me. For several reasons, some of which are personal, I'm not a fan of Christian fiction and I tend to avoid it, but I received this book for free through Goodreads First Reads program before I realized it was Christian fiction.

To be completely honest, it was only out of a sense of obligation to rate and review it as part of that program that made me pick it up once I'd received it. Also to be completely honest, it was the first page that hooked me, and all the subsequent pages that kept me captivated, enthralled, and impressed.

I'm more than a little in love with both Giorello's writing style and her characters, who were all so wonderfully three dimensional and real. Raleigh is a character with the most interesting flaws, but she's also strong, fiercely intelligent, and dedicated to a job that occasionally tries her faith and pushes her into compromising her ethics. Her mother's mental illness weighs on her heart and the actions she takes to protect her mother...and herself...aren't always honest, but she owns them. She's occasionally surly, judgmental, and a bit hot tempered, and she's not exactly dealing with her fiance in the most emotionally mature ways, but she's got the admirable ability to look into herself and acknowledge her flaws. Even when she's not necessarily so willing to work on rectifying them. I found her refreshingly easy to relate to and completely sympathetic as a heroine, despite some differences in ideology. In fact, I just flat-out liked her. And I loved, loved, loved Jack.

I'm guessing Raleigh has had a few contentious run ins with Special Agent Jack Stephanson in previous books, because their chemistry had a weight and feel of history to it that speaks loudly of previous development. As I have every intention of continuing this series, I can only hope their relationship continues, because I'm a romantic at heart and I think Jack's much better suited for Raleigh than her childhood sweetheart, no matter how nice a guy he may or may not be. Maybe I'm biased because I started the series here, but the synchronicity between Jack and Raleigh is totally entertaining and made a good story even better. I was particularly happy with Jack in that he adds some touches of levity to the story, lighting up the occasionally too-serious Raleigh, and providing the opportunity for some wonderful witty repartee.

Admittedly, geology, rocks, and minerals aren't really my thing, so there were points in the story when my mind started to wander or the story dragged a bit when Raleigh was hitting the geological high points, and I do wish the suspense and mystery aspects of the plot had come with a few more suspenseful moments. I was deeply moved, though, by Raleigh's struggles with a mother who sees her as a villain, and sympathized with the feelings a child has when she realizes that she's been thrust into the role of being a parent for a parent. I was also deeply grateful that while Raleigh's faith was evident in places throughout the book, it was also quite obviously personal and subtle woven into everyday aspects of her life, seeming more genuine for it, and thankfully, totally lacking in proselytism.

I'm ever so glad to have made the mistake that brought me the gift of Giorello's deft and accomplished storytelling and got me hooked on Raleigh Harmon and her series of crime solving mysteries. I am thoroughly and anxiously looking forward to finding out what comes next for Raleigh, her family, her fiance, and of course, Jack.

Disclosure: This book was received for free through Goodreads First Reads for the purpose of an honest rating. All ratings, comments, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this review are my own.

An Unforgettable Lady by J.R. Ward as Jessica Bird

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: N/A
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Length: 314 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle

Hard to Put Down, Harder to Forget

Billionaire heiress Countess von Sherone is the epitome of class and taste, a shining star of the upper echelon of Manhattan's elite. That's Grace's public persona. On a more personal front, she's a bit of a contradiction. Genuine and kind, down to earth and generous, she touches the lives of the people who know her, but she often feels like she lives a life of least resistance, following the groundwork laid by a powerful father and a coldly imperious mother. But more and more glimmers of independence have been popping up since her father's sudden death a month ago. She separated from her overbearing husband and filed for divorce, she's taken on the naysayers on the board of the philanthropic Foundation she now runs, and, when faced with the horror of the vicious murders of two of her friends, she hires the top man in the field of personal protection, John Smith.

On paper, he is a man who doesn't exist, but the scars on his body tell a gritty tale of combat and survival under the worst of circumstances. Once a decorated Ranger and covert ops specialist, the man now known as John Smith is as goal oriented and single minded as anyone can be. His job is to protect the countess, and he will do so, regardless of the fact that the woman makes his blood boil and pulse pound. No matter that her scent and touch drive him mad with a hunger only she can satisfy. He doesn't sleep with clients, and if his personal code isn't enough, just knowing how out of his league she is should act like the chilliest of cold showers.

That it doesn't is a source of frustration and fury in him. That he needs her so much is a weakness he can't afford if he wants to keep her alive. A madman is stalking the movers and shakers in her inner circle and he refuses to allow him to claim Grace as a victim. Even if the first person he needs to protect her from is himself.

Okay, I admit it, I have a weakness for alpha males in romance. I like the urbane male characters well enough, but it's the growly, snarly, surly, overprotective, jealous as hell, I'm-denying-my-feelings-for-your-own-good types that really make my heart ache when they tumble headlong into the one situation they can't handle without an amusing amount of sheer idiocy: love. And if you're familiar with J.R.Ward's BDB series, you know exactly the type of alpha male heroes I'm talking about. John Smith is the closest I've come to that sort of hero in the books of Jessica Bird, Ward's nom de plume for contemporary romance.

Loved. Him. And the nice thing was, I really liked Grace, too. She was a strong female lead with a lot of heart, an encouraging amount of spitfire, and a deep well of self respect, even under stressful circumstances. I especially appreciated her journey as she stepped out from under the eaves of familial responsibility and obligations concerning public appearance and finalized the important steps of grasping for her full independence. Together they sparked an inferno off each other, but individually, they were complex and layered characters in their own right and were both very likable for it.

Thankfully, they were also front and center of the book, with few extraneous plot threads muddying up the evolution of their relationship. Lately the romances I've read have been a little light on the actual romantic development, with a distressingly convoluted amount of subplots and superfluous distractions, so it was nice to spend some time with a more old school, quintessential romance storyline for a change.

Not that there weren't subplots and depth in the plot arc of the book. There were. The suspense aspects were widely scattered through the book, taking a second seat to the romance and to the character development. In some books that would be a problem, but as these characters were set up as protector and protected, away from the active crime investigation, it would've felt peculiar if it had a larger role. I even questioned some of the believability of Smith being so clearly kept in the loop of the ongoing serial murder investigation by the lead investigator on the case. I'm not sure that was particularly believable, regardless of Smith's background and his current position.

I do wish that some of the other plot threads, like the tense relationship between mother and daughter, the end of Grace's marriage, and especially the introduction of Callie, had been given a wider berth for development, because there were times when the we-can't/we-shouldn't/we-will sexual and emotional angst between John and Grace got a bit repetitive and drawn out about midway through the book. I would have appreciated something plot-driven to focus on to help move the story along a little quicker through that without the same-argument/different-room feeling in a couple of places. And there was one scene late in the book that didn't work for me at all in which Grace slips out of her condo and goes for a run by herself. I just couldn't see Grace doing that given the increased danger so it seemed a bit contrived and came across to me as a pretty heavy-handed way to introduce a new character and subsequent plot twist and create a major conflict between Grace and John.

Honestly, though, all of that was fairly minor when held up against all the good stuff, and didn't do much in the way of hampering my full and complete enjoyment of this nifty little romantic suspense so well-flavored with contemporary romance. This is a re-release of an earlier publication by J.R.Ward as Jessica Bird, and I've had the pleasure of reading many of the books she's released as Bird. This one is definitely the first one I've read with such easy-to-see similarity between John Smith and some of the more fearsome Brothers of BDB. If you like your male romantic leads as heart-poundingly alpha as I do, you definitely shouldn't forget An Unforgettable Lady.

Fire Burn and Cauldron Bubble by H.P. Mallory

Genre: Light/Comedic Urban Fantasy
Series: Jolie Wilkins Series, Book 1
Rating: 1 Star
Length:  304 Pages, 6392 Locations
Formats: Paperback, Kindle

Fire Burn and Cauldron Bubble, a Paranormal Romance (Jolie Wilkins Series, Book #1)
Burned and Bubbled My Patience

Jolie Wilkins had been content with her little life, running a shop in L.A. with her best friend Christa and using her abilities to read auras and glimpse futures to provide the business that supported them both. Then she saw the ghost - her first, actually, and soon after her life didn't resemble anything she recognized.

That wasn't the ghost's fault, at least not directly. It was more the influence of one ultra-sexy warlock Rand Balfour, who sent the ghost to Jolie as a test of her powers. And then told her she was a witch. A powerful one. She didn't believe it, of course, but when she brought the ghost back from the dead - purely by accident, really - she knew her life was forever changed. And she had Rand to thank, so to speak, for it.

Unfortunately, Jolie's gift paints a big target on her back and soon a power hungry witch of age and skill tries to coerce Jolie into her service as she gathers forces to lead a charge to become Queen of the Underworld, and only Rand stands between the powerful Bella and the timid Jolie. She has to rely on the warlock to teach her, employ her to keep her safe, and to move her from Bella's territory to his own in England. And while her previously neat little life spins wildly out of control and her attraction to Rand grows into heated intensity, Jolie struggles to get a handle on the use of her powers, as they may be the only thing that will save her from the myriad of things that go bump in the night...creatures all who seem to be out to use her as a pawn in a deadly game of war and supremacy.

Despite my appreciation for the concept of this story and the many positive reviews on several different sites, I was horribly disappointed in this book. It plucked at so many of my reading anathemas that I could have danced to the cacophony of dislikes. The heroine - and I use the term loosely - is an insipid, immature, shallow chit who cares more about how hot a guy is...even as he's holding her prisoner after she's vein-raped by a monster...than about character. She's got zero self esteem and her backbone is roughly the consistency of cold porridge. And she consistently puts herself into dangerous situations out of ignorance, pride, vanity, or idiocy. Then wonders how she could have been so stupid. Ugh.

The hero, Rand, wasn't as offensive, but his constant waffling over the boundaries he needs to maintain because he's Jolie's employer was the cornerstone of his character development and that got old even before he explained them. He wants her so very much but he won't take her - yadda, yadda, yadda. Of course, his moral fortitude doesn't preclude him acting like a jealous wanker when Jolie dates a werewolf. Still, at least he maintained an appearance of maturity.

Unlike Jolie, who while dating Trent (the werewolf), practically has a nervous breakdown and gets jealous to the point of hyperventilation of her own best friend during a double date because her BFF is so gorgeous and Trent is nice to her, so of course that means he's more into Christa than he is Jolie. Um...yeah...on the second date. And I feel compelled to mention that nearly all the male characters, including the warlock, the werewolf, a vampire, and a fairy King kept telling Jolie what a gorgeous creature she was and how they all wanted to bed her - even the ones who wanted to eat her afterward. This was not only extremely annoying in its own right, but it kept me wondering why Jolie kept comparing herself so unfavorably with Christa throughout the book.

Then again, why her BFF is included as a secondary character to begin with boggled my mind, as rarely have I read as vapid and useless a character appendage as Christa.  So no, with maybe the exception of Sinjin, the characters didn't work for me at all.

Neither, unfortunately, did the plot. It would have, I think, had the subplot about the brewing conflict between Bella and Rand and the growing alliances of both been a larger part of the story. But it remained a subplot, and instead over sixty percent of the book focused on Jolie's emotionally immature actions and reactions to the changes in her life while not actually expounding on those changes.

Even after she moves to England and starts to train her magic we see her life through chapter-long vignettes of social dates and angsty confrontations between her and Rand; the same angsty confrontations again and again about whether they will or won't have sex and what it would or wouldn't mean. And the transitions between those vignettes are choppy and lack explanation and definition. One chapter she dates Trent. Another she double dates with him and Christa and another werewolf. There's a chapter in which she meets other werewolves who've fled Bella and moved to England. Then Trent dumps her - which we're told of after the fact while Jolie and Christa are getting ready for girls night to tie one on. It was all so disjointed and segmented it didn't read like a smoothly developing narrative building towards a satisfying conclusion at all.

There's more than one reason for that, too. It didn't actually have a conclusion. No, it just cut off after a conflict that was ancillary to the main conflict of the impending war subplot. I would call it a cliffhanger...but the preceding action hadn't climbed nearly so high as to warrant an actual cliff. Perhaps a hill-hanger. Ant hill. And normally I loathe cliffhangers. This one didn't bother me so much (I was sorta just glad it was over), though it did further cap my disappointment.

To be honest, I did find the last third of the book more palatable than the first two-thirds. The narrative smoothed out quite a bit and the story started to delve a little more deeply into the characters actions as they were happening instead of that choppy vignette style. And the plot threads were more centrally focused around Bella's antics and nastiness instead of Jolie's romance angst. There were even some relatively pleasant surprises sprinkled here and there. It was too little too late for me, and Jolie wasn't redeemed nearly enough for my tastes to really improve my overall opinion, despite her evidence-bereft proclamation to the contrary, but at least I stopped wanting to shatter my Kindle against a wall.

I know this book has achieved quite a lot of popularity and garnered much praise, but there were just too many of my personal dislikes running rampant in this one. These things happen. I wish H.P. Mallory all the luck in the world with her series and hope future books continue to entertain. For me, though, there was too little payoff for the investment of time and money and too little about the story that was even tolerable. I also want to caution those who are expecting a paranormal romance, as it claims to be on the cover, because that is not the impression I got as I was reading, nor was it how it seemed upon completion. There may be a romantic resolution for Jolie and Rand one day, but that day was not seen in this book.

High Noon by Nora Roberts

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: N/A
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Length: 496 Pages
Formats: HardcoverPaperback, Kindle, Audiobook CD

Fine Southern Suspense

In the sultry Savannah heat, a patient killer stalks his prey, intent on taking everything from the one woman who took everything from him.

Savannah-Chatham police lieutenant and hostage negotiator Phoebe MacNamara spent part of her Saint Patrick's Day talking a suicidal bartender down off a ledge, while bar owner Duncan Swift looks on in equal parts fear and appreciation for the take-charge woman. When her quick thinking and steely nerves save the day, Duncan feels her start to worm her way into his mind and stick there. Intrigued and enchanted, he decides to give her a little wiggle room before he looks her up and sees if that sticking thing is significant.

When Swift shows up at her precinct house, Phoebe is both confused and a little ruffled. Being maneuvered into agreeing to meet the attractive man for a drink, though, makes her realize what a smooth operator he is. The woman in her appreciates that, especially when combined with his dimple and a very fine posterior. Her personal life being what it is, though, as a single mother of a precocious seven year old and a guardian, of sorts, for her agoraphobic mother, combined with the way her professional life tends to impact that personal life, Phoebe is determined to not get involved, no matter how good looking he is, or how pleasant his company.

Duncan has other ideas.

Before she can really sort out what she's going to do about the man, Phoebe is brutally attacked and sexually assaulted in the stairwell of her police precinct, and her unwillingness to traumatize her complicated family leaves her with little choice but to rely on Duncan for a place to come to terms with her attack. It's as he's helping her deal - no pushing, no manipulating, no overprotecting, just helping - that she starts to realize that the heavy burden of responsibility is easier to bear with him beside her. She doesn't want to look too closely at that feeling.

She can't help but find herself turning to Duncan again and again, though, as mysterious and vaguely threatening things start happening around her house, and a matter at work blows up in her face. Soon her whole family is drawn into a dangerous game with a sadistic killer intent on punishing Phoebe for something only a twisted mind and an evil heart could dream up. Terror rises like waves of heat off the pavement as the summer sun beats down on Savannah, and Phoebe will need all the support Duncan can offer to make it out of this with her family safe and the public protected from a madman intent on taking them all with him.

The preeminent romance novelist Nora Roberts brings another strong, thorough romantic suspense to her readers with High Noon, a book that captures the feel of the historic Savannah and some of its inhabitants with typical Roberts aplomb while delivering a taut suspense that will chill and thrill. Truly gifted with an ability to imbue her characters with believability and depth, Roberts introduces us to the proud and able Phoebe MacNamara, a strong woman, excellent at her job, who has been the true emotional head of her family since a trauma they suffered when she was only twelve. She is now as she was then, the glue that holds it all together, the strength that they all count on, and the courage on which they have come to depend.

Phoebe is the true core of this novel, and Roberts graces us with an up close and personal look at the woman and her life. Her strengths and weaknesses are spread out over a bed of lyrical prose colored with the south and the warm vitality of the places and characters around her. And it's a style of writing that I find very satisfying when I'm in the mood to read some solid character-driven story.

Duncan is a charmer, but took more of a secondary character role in the book, and that may bother some readers who favor the romance of a book over the suspense. He was well developed and thoroughly incorporated into the story and into Phoebe's life as the story progresses, and their relationship developed with all of the organic and realistic emotional evolution that I've come to expect from any Roberts book, but he is not as central a focus as Phoebe is, especially towards the latter half of the book.

The suspense plot threads were extremely well woven into the overall novel, starting ever so slowly and gradually building only after the characters and their lives and the romance aspects had been well laid and thoroughly fleshed out. Those readers anxious for the suspense to kick off from the start are going to have to be a bit patient for the payoff, but when those threads start to take a greater and greater focus in the book, it truly explodes across the pages and leaves some rather disturbing carnage in its wake. And the lesser plot threads, romance, and sundry lesser conflicts definitely entertain before the big show truly gets rocking.

I do have one complaint, and it's something that transcends this book; I've noticed it in several of the more currently published Roberts books I've read recently. For whatever reason, over the last few years there's been a stylistic change in how Roberts writes dialogue and it's starting to get on my nerves.

She writes beautifully descriptive and lyrical prose, and offers narratives that brilliantly capture scenery and characters, fleshing them out and defining them with such a sense of realism that it feels like these places and people are fond haunts and close friends within moments of their introduction. And yet the dialogue between the characters has been reduced to truncated sentences and abbreviated grammar. This is especially glaring in scenes where there is a lengthy conversation between characters, without much action surrounding it. It makes the dialogue feel choppy, abrupt, and glib, and robs it of a natural conversational flow. People just don't talk in that manner. In this book especially, set in the Deep South where people never say in five words what can be said in fifteen, and culture demands much in the way of stylistic speech patterns, it was jarring and often dischordant.

I hope that's a stylistic change that will be rectified some day, because it's become the one glaring black mark on the works of an author I've adored for decades.

I suppose I could also say that I thought the ending of this book was rather abrupt, or I wish more had been offered to round out, further develop, or conclude some of the plot threads (e.g. Essie's agoraphobia), but truly, that's also part and parcel of what makes Roberts' novels seem like true slice-of-life moments. Like these characters were living their lives and dealing with all the minutia of everything from foibles to finery in a real and believable fashion long before you started reading about them, and will continue along as they have been doing long after you're finished reading about them. It's another of Roberts' gifts.

And really, Roberts has so very many gifts when it comes to writing. Between the lovable characters, the complex and layered plots, and the realistic scenery, it's hard to argue that Roberts is not only prolific, but a master of her craft. And neither the small quibbles and minor complaints, nor the larger concern over a stylistic change, can take away the fact that whenever I'm in the mood for a sure-bet book, one I know, without looking and regardless of the blurb on the back cover, will satisfy most if not all of my happy-reader requirements, I reach for a Roberts book. Every time.

Where There's a Will by Katriena Knights

Genre: Contemporary Romance
Series: N/A
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 288 Pages, 4945 Locations
Formats: Paperback, Kindle

Where There's a Will
The Beauty of Scotland Abounds

Chloe Sullivan arrived in Scotland to see to the provisions of her great-uncle's will. When she finds out that Uncle Fergus had some very unique and ludicrous ideas on what she had to do to inherit the castle, land, and the home he left, Chloe is incredulous. She has to marry a Scot to take possession of the property or see the land go up for auction - to anyone willing to pay if she leaves before a month is out, but if she stays the month, the property will stay in local hands. As she had come to Scotland with the idea of getting rid of her inheritance and returning to the States as expediently as possible, the codicil and one month deadline doesn't make her happy.

The longer she stays, though, the stronger she feels a connection to the land. For the first time in memory, Chloe feels that she truly belongs somewhere. Even knowing she has to go back, has to return to her own country, she can't help but feel a part of something much bigger than she - the often brutal but always magical history of a land so full of unconquered people and places. She just never figured Scotland would so irrevocably sink into her soul. And she certainly didn't know what to do when the handsome local Malcom MacTavish, friend, guide, and co-conspirator, just as irrevocably sinks into her heart.

With such a sweeping and romantic backdrop, Katriena Knights had a great vehicle to showcase a genuine gift for some lyrical description in the narrative and an appreciation for the history and flavor of the country of Scotland. One of my favorite things about Where There's a Will is that it felt like a very genuine representation of the country and an accurate glimpse of some of the beauty and history imbued in every rolling hill and sprig of heather.

The romance itself was formulaic, but that's never particularly bothered me in contemporary romance. One of the draws of romance makes some formula almost a necessity. What did bother me is that within that formula was a conflict that was egregiously predictable and felt contrived when viewed against earlier character and plot development. Following the conflict was an equally predictable resolution that, for me, felt a little lacking. As a result, the romance didn't end on as high a note as I was hoping.

The characters were likable, if low on complexity. Chloe was pretty cut and dried as far as characters go. I think Knights did a particularly good job slowly imbuing her with an appreciation for Scotland as the story developed around her. It felt very organic, and really provided a nice vehicle for the reader to get a pleasant overview of the country and a glimpse into why it's such a magical place for so many. Her feelings for Malcom and their relationship also developed in a realistic and natural-feeling timeframe and didn't feel rushed or pushed. Malcom had some emotional baggage that added a bit more character depth than was given to Chloe, but it was a little underused in some parts, over extended in others, and neither character was really all that deep.

I have to admit, there was really only one thing that I found truly objectionable about the book. I got to the point where I hated the Scottish characters' dialogue, which was written as it would be spoken with an overwhelming burr, and all the Scottish colloquialisms and terminology. I don't know that I've ever read a contemporary romance so heavily laden with ayes, nays, dinnaes, wouldnaes, kens, ye'res, 'twoulds, and much, much, much more. The combination of the written accents and the terminology used kept giving the dialogue the feel of a historical romance and left me scrambling to interpret passages in the narrative - and not always feeling successful at it. It was distracting and, strictly in my opinion, a bit overdone.

Neither the plot nor any other aspect of the book had much in the way of depth. That's not really a complaint, though. There is definitely a place for simple, sweet, and relatively uncomplicated romance. And simple, sweet, and relatively uncomplicated sums up my feelings for Where There's a Will. It was well written, with passages of sweeping lyricism and a sense of cultural and historical authenticity. It had characters who were pleasant to spend time with, and while the romance stuck to a common formula, and the conflict of the romance left me feeling dissatisfied, it was a nice enough read and an easy way to spend some time.

Warriors Rise by LJ DeLeon

Genre: Fantasy Romance
Series: Warriors for Light, Book 1
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 6418 Locations
Formats: Kindle

Warrior's Rise (Warriors For Light, Book 1)
Ambitious Series Debut

In the opening salvo of the impending Great War, a war that could scour Earth and Otherworld of all life, the Dark Lord prepares to release his demonic hoard from the Abyss and set them upon the planet to destroy everything in their path. The Goddess of the Light has touched half fae, half human Deva Morgan, calling her to duty as the Caidh Arm and awakening in her the power and abilities that come with being the Goddess' Holy Weapon. By her side is the emissary of the Queen of Otherworld, the fae warrior prince Padraig. He was sent to both protect and train the Caidh Arm as her powers start to manifest and the forces of darkness try to hunt her down. He becomes her heart, her home, and her soul. Around them are an elite team of military supernaturals, magicks, and a gargoyle. They are her family.

Together this small band will rise up to unite the worlds and all its peoples in an effort to triumph over the evil of the Dark Lord. Not all of them will survive, some have been compromised, and as legions of warriors are drawn forth into the fray, it is Deva alone who must stand as the paladin for forces human, supernatural, and divine.

Ambitious and far-reaching, Warrior's Rise is an appealing story of love and war, faith and courage, and it entertained on several levels. The concept for the story was impressive. Compelling and complex, there were a lot of layers to the plot, and the shifting viewpoints between the Light and the Dark provided balance and added some interesting plot twists to the whole. Both Deva (eventually) and Padraig were strong lead characters and I loved their relationship. Their scenes together as they deepened their bond, and those with Padraig's family, were some of my absolute favorites in the book.

There were, however, execution problems, and I had some issues that hampered my full appreciation of story. The writing mechanics weren't always the greatest. Awkward grammar and several typos disrupted the narrative flow in several places, and a few repetitive concepts, themes, and thoughts got hammered out far more than necessary. Those are all pretty big issues for me in most cases, but I have to admit, I found myself so absorbed in what was going on in the story that it was less 'total deal-breaker' and more 'noticeable but relatively easy to ignore.'

The larger problem for me is the very scope of the story arc. Ambition is a double edged sword in this case, for while there is a lot that happens in the book, and a multitude of different species, groups, and creatures involved in those happenings, much in the way of description and explanation, world building and mythos creation, fell to the wayside to make room for it all. Secondary and ancillary characters had little to no individuality or character definition, conflicts rose and fell in abbreviated fashion, and emotions were glossed over or relegated to a bare minimum.

The first third of the book took the biggest hit in this area, and the initial trek of the team from the bar to the Goddess' Sanctuary was often confusing and muddled, with inconsistency in time passage. I never had a clear idea from whence they came on their trip across the country, but it sure did seem to take them a darned long time getting to where they were going, with sudden inexplicable jumps in the timeline in some places, and attention to daily developments in others. Yet while they were traveling, the daily battles and subsequent fall out left no room to get to know the characters or their world, or build up much fondness for them. That was a problem because it lessened the significance of the lives lost along the way. I never felt connected to them.

Too, the massive paradigm shift that occurs to the world's population was accompanied by a tremendous amount of external activity in a stunningly brief amount of time. I found it difficult to maintain a willing suspension of disbelief in the face of such sweeping change for Earth as it was portrayed here.

Then Deva and her group of warriors got to where they would make their stand and run the war. The book settled soon after, smoothed out, and started to add in those juicy plot threads about Sabina and the Dark Lord, as well as allowing Deva and Padraig's relationship time to breathe and expand. From that point on, I started to like the book more and more. There were still some problems, but the backdrop had finally come into focus for me and things were better able to spread out and develop along some intriguing pathways.

And as the book really started to take off, I started to notice some cool things about the plot, the action, and the characters. There were moments of pure sophisticated storytelling, and I was left admiring the imagination and the creativity of the author in several places. There were fun times that touched my heart and made me smile. There were surprises that tantalized, and foreshadowing of future events in the series that hold lots of promise.

I was particularly impressed with the dialogue. While the narrative had issues previously mentioned, DeLeon has an obvious gift for writing natural, conversational dialogue that always felt very organic to her characters and their situations. Not once at any point did the dialogue come across as stilted, unrealistic, or out of place. And when there was time given to descriptive passages, scene setting, or action, they were also handled with deft skill, painting enough for a picture to form in my head but not so much that I felt weighed down by it.

I do wish the book had kept to a narrower focus, and had taken advantage of the room that provided to more fully develop the world with fewer types of creatures, fewer characters, and a tighter plot. I think it may have set up a stronger platform for this book as well as laid firmer foundation for future installments. That being said, I still liked the book, and am pleased to have read it.

Disclosure: This book was provided to me by the author for the purpose of an honest review. All ratings, thoughts, comments, and opinions in this review are my own.

First Grave on the Right by Darynda Jones

PhotobucketGenre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Charley Davidson, Book 1
Rating: 5 Stars
Length: 320 Pages, 6154 Locations
Formats: Hardcover, PaperbackKindle

First Grave on the Right
Now That's What I Call a Secret Admirer

Charlotte "Charley" Davidson isn't like other people. She sees the dead. Oh, sure, we've heard that before. Even had the oft-parodied catch phrase drilled into our heads. Truth is, seeing the dead isn't really what makes Charley so very different from everyone else. That's really just part and parcel of being the grim reaper, the one in all the world who leads those souls to the light and helps them cross over through her. For the dead, she's sort of like a well advertised (and sparkly) supernatural toll both without the Speedy Pass. Still, that's not what makes Charley so very, very different from every other person on the planet - dead or alive.

Though, admittedly, it does help.

Charley is a bit of an overachiever. She works as a PI for both the lively and the pulse-challenged (live people pay better), helps her uncle as a consultant for the Albuquerque, NM police department (the dead are better at telling her who killed them), and when needed, even pulls a tap or ten for her dad, formerly with the APD and now owner of his own bar/restaurant next door to Charley's apartment. Plus there's that grim reaper gig. Sort of goes without saying that Charley doesn't have much of a social life.

But that is exactly what makes Charley so very different from everyone else everywhere else, because she does have a secret - and potentially deadly - admirer who may or may not be the terrifying guardian Big Bad who has saved her life time and time again since she was four years old. An entity of unimaginable power that sends all of Charley's neurons and synapses into nearly orgiastic delight when it isn't scaring the bejesus out of her. It...he...calls her Dutch. And has since the day she was born. She remembers.

Welcome to the wild, wacky world of Charley Davidson, PI/grim reaper. She's got a new case courtesy of three dead - and chatty - lawyers who were shot down in the same night, and she's got her first clue into the mysterious dream man who has been lighting up her nights for the past month with scorching hot dream sex that feels all too real upon awakening. If she can survive the answers to either...or both...mysteries she may just get a good night's sleep. Then again...sleep is so overrated.

Don't look now, but Darynda Jones has managed to do what so many others have failed to do: create an utterly unique cross-genre hybrid story that is as hilarious as it is well written, as complexly plotted as it is well-cast, as totally satisfying emotionally as it is intellectually...and as light and comedic as it is dark and haunting and tragic. To be honest, I didn't even know it was possible. Now that I've seen it has, I want more. Lots and lots more.

With the sort of sophisticated polish that most debut novels only hope to achieve, Jones has birthed a heroine who is both intrinsically human and utterly foreign and kicked off a series that has grit, humor, danger, and hope. Charley is the delightful mass of contradictions that reflects the myriad of layers in the book. Bearing the scars of a childhood that had its happiness, its sorrow, its crippling disappointment, and its terrifying trauma, she's very alone in many ways. Yet she has a father and uncle who care about her almost more than she will allow. She shows the world her sarcastic face as she shields herself from the slings and arrows of prejudice and fear, but bears the weight of responsibility for a supernatural calling she doesn't totally understand. She's got a best friend she'd do anything for, but hates to think of burdening that best friend with the truth of her existence.

She's brilliant, and she's flighty, and she has the attention span of a demented gnat. She's completely awesome and I love her. Love. Her. Love her, love the story, love the author. And Reyes? Come on...do you really need to ask? Though I have to admit, I've also got the warm fuzzies for Garrett.

First Grave on the Right is stunningly and intelligently written. The wit and humor on the surface keeps the darkness beneath from becoming overwhelming, even when truly bad things are revealed. The plot is a meaty, layered, two-prong attack on the senses. The world building and character definition was subtly and artistically woven into an action- and emotion-packed thrill ride of mystery, suspicion, and danger. And the plot twists? Woah. Just...woah.

For fans of urban fantasy, or chick lit comedies, or paranormal romance, or romantic suspense, or mysteries, or thrillers...well, this is a must read. Period. And believe me, I do not say that about many books. To anyone. Ever.

For the cost-conscious and the patient, the mass market paperback format will be available on November 29, 2011. I made the mistake (if you can call it that) of reading the Kindle sample I downloaded after the book was recommended to me (thank you, thank you, thank you, Cat!!), and it was pretty much all over for me after that. As it turns out, I'm neither as patient nor as principled as I thought I was. I couldn't wait that long, and I bought the Kindle version even though it's more expensive than the currently advertised cost of the trade paperback. I'm sure I'll eventually feel really, really bad about that, as I promised myself long ago that was something I'd never do.

Eh...it was totally worth it. Just like I'm sure it'll be worth it for the sequel, Second Grave on the Left, when it's available on August 16th. I'll do penance later.

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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