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The Unforgiven by Joy Nash

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: The Watchers, Book 1
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 336 Pages
Formats: Paperback
Publication Date: 8/2/11

The Unforgiven
A Dark Debut Steeped In Mythos and History

They call themselves Watchers after the angels from whom they descend, but to those who hate and fear them they are called archdemons, abominable, vile beasts who feed on flesh and blood, who manipulate and corrupt the cherished humans around them. They are the bastard children of angels and humans. Abominations to heaven and cursed for it, denied heaven, denied hell. They are the Nephilim.

And it so sucks to be them.

Grouped in clans based on their angel ancestors, they are more than cursed with Oblivion, they are cursed to fight and make war with each other, to be enemies through time, a deep and instinctive hatred that is as much a part of them as their demon forms and hungers. But they can be enslaved. And with such slaves, Clan Azazel has waged a deadly war on ancient rival Clan Samyaza, leaving only a handful alive.

Now Artur Camulus, chieftain of Clan Samyaza and desperate to protect his clan, commands Cade Leucetius to go to an archeological dig in Israel, and in so doing, cross a line of honor and commit a act Samyaza had previously thought anathema. He was to find the dormant Watcher from outclan, a woman unaware of her heritage and sure of her humanity, and see her through her transition, anchor her through the sex that all of their kind need to reach maturity and enslave her and her magics for their own as he does so.

Maddie Durant had survived a malignant tumor in her brain only to become a pawn between forces she didn't believe existed prior to her trip to Israel. Now, as a vigilante faction intent on the death of all demons seems to be allying with one of those they condemn, and a clan war threatens to explode into open violence on the streets, she is both potential savior and helpless victim, and her indomitable spirit draws potential jailer Cade to her in ways he'd never expected, despite the curse that makes them enemies.

The rules are clear, his orders sacrosanct, and yet the heart of a demon may be all that stands between life...and a damnation more devastating than even heaven could imagine.

Joy Nash kicks off this dark, decadent series with a wealth of original mythos and intriguing history that offers fresh breath to a well-worn genre. There is much to appreciate in The Unforgiven, and fans of dark romance and grim fantasy should be thrilled by the groundwork laid here. The plot is thick, rich, and wonderfully diversified, the world extremely well defined, and the characters three dimensional...though not necessarily likable.

With two main antagonists as potential enemies in this debut, Clan Azazel and DAMN, an unfortunate acronym for Demon Annihilators Mutual Network (the human organization intent on wiping demons from the earth), not to mention the persnickety angels and hellfiends, Nash has set the series up with a firm foundation of really hateful bad guys with several complex motivations that her protagonists can fight with wit, wings, and wrath. It was a rather impressive display in a debut novel.

But it was not without it's problems.

To set up the world and define the players, Nash used a shifting focus in a third person point-of-view narrative, breaking up the scenes of the plot arc for Cade and Maddie with scenes focusing on Artur, on Cybele's brother Lucas, even on the chieftain of Clan Azazel, Vaclav Dusek, not to mention many, many scenes from the past, focusing on Maddie's ancestor, Lilith. It painted a uniquely complex and highly stylized picture of the world for the series, but it just didn't allow for any room or rhythm for a true romantic connection between the main characters. In fact, as a reader, I was so overwhelmed by the minutia, by the shifting perspectives, by the abrupt transitions, that I ended up feeling disgruntled on several fronts.

I loathed Artur. I found him utterly unlikable a character, jealous, petty, and small, and if he's supposed to be a good guy, he's got a long, long, freakin' long way to go. Sex - and hey, normally a huge fan - became something disturbing in the book as it was utilized as the anchor for transitioning Nephilim and a method to enslave. In fact, that alone unsettled me to such a degree that the very long (god, it seemed to take forever) transition scene for Maddie was painful in places, not erotic, not something joyous, not even something loving or at all tender. And the need for Gareth to go through transition with Cybele anchoring him actually hurt my heart with its implications.

And don't even get me started on the relationship between Azazel and Lilith. I like to think of myself as being fairly open minded, and I understand that it was several millennia ago, and demons will be demons, but that was disgusting.

I love books in which the good guys have a dark side, and aren't White Hats. I prefer it when they heartily embrace the many shades of gray. But in The Unforgiven, alleged good guys (Artur in particular) were virtually indiscernible from the bad guys in action, history, and thought. It's a dangerous line to tread, because if you can't tell the good from the bad, what's the point?

I feel the same about books with dark themes - I love them, don't get me wrong, but without hope, without a glimmer of something good or positive, the dark becomes despair, and there's no fun in reading that. Cade and Maddie should have provided that glimmer in this book, but because so little of the story dealt with any sort of relationship evolution between them, and there was no explanation of relationships for Watchers to begin with (not even the mate bond was explained, just referred to), it just didn't work out that way. The romance ended up lacking emotion, and Cade and Maddie's feelings felt like dusty footnotes by the end, rather than being actively engaged.

On a conceptual level, the book is fantastic, and it's extremely well written. The depth and imagination involved, the creativity, all of that was undeniably impressive. It's a dark book, with dark characters who have dark and disturbing - and sometimes horrifying tendencies, and do unspeakable things. I can appreciate that on a stylistic level. I think, though, that it overreached for a first book in a series, and was more ambitious than necessary. I was left feeling like too much got crammed into what is, for a series debut, simply the first chapter. 

Disclosure: An ARC was provided by Dorchester Publishing via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.

See Jane Score by Rachel Gibson

Genre: Contemporary Romance; Sports Romance
Series: Chinooks Hockey Team, Book 2
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 384 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback

See Jane Score
Scored With Me

She may be a Seattle Times columnist, but Jane Alcott was surprised when her boss put her on team coverage of the Chinooks, Seattle's NHL hockey team. Surprised, but in need of the money from the extra income, so Jane gritted her teeth and started to cram hockey stats and rules into her head and prepared herself to travel with the team. Just one small problem...the team wanted nothing to do with her and initiated a thorough, if passive (and...uh...eye-opening), shutout and intimidation campaign.

One of the worst was Luc "Lucky" Martineau, decorated goalie and big dollar talent for the Chinooks. Though much of his reputation as one of the baddest bad boys in hockey is a mix of lies and exaggeration, he is walking attitude and pretty upfront about his dislike of Jane's career, her appearance, and her traveling with the team. Every chance he gets he's either riling her up or stirring up his team members to annoy or ignore her.

She thinks Luc's good looks are exceeded only by his arrogance. He thinks her gloomy wardrobe and flat chest are personality flaws. Both would be happy if they never had to speak to the other. Neither can stop thinking about the other. Suddenly road trips are a lot more interesting for both Jane and Luc, and that pesky, inexplicable attraction sparking to life between them is hot enough to melt ice rinks from coast to coast.

Light, breezy, and fun, See Jane Score gave me exactly the sort of reading pleasure I was looking for when I picked it up. Jane and Luc were likable and perfect foils for each other, and Gibson moved the plot along at a lively pace. Sure, there were some predictable elements, some formula that is familiar to the genre, but the make-it-or-break-it points were firmly stacked in the make-it column for me.

I'll admit, I have a weakness for sassy, intelligent spitfires and the men who fall helplessly under their spell. Jane, for all her lack of fashion sense and her pessimistic views towards matters of the heart, didn't back down from a fight, wasn't afraid to speak her mind, and was more than capable of going toe-to-toe with a gorgeous hockey star bigger and stronger than she. I admired her chutzpah, that's for sure. Beyond that, she had an endearing ability to be both vulnerable and dignified that was very appealing.

Luc was the prototypical male's male, with a "friend" in every city and a self confidence that more than bordered arrogance, it crossed wildly into arrogance waving banners of its awesomeness. Behind that, though, in the dark recesses he let no one see, was an aging hockey star who had suffered a near career-ending injury to both knees and had pulled himself back from the edge of pain and pain reliever addiction with sheer stubbornness and determination. Hockey was obviously his life, and he loved his life, but he knew the pain and the work required to live it. And while he was arrogant, and started out seeming very superficial, his vulnerabilities and his confusion - in dealing with a growing attraction for Jane and in raising his teenaged sister, humanized him. I liked him, and I liked Jane, and I loved them together.

I also loved the secondary characters, from Jane's best friend Caroline, to Luc's sister Marie, and of course Darby...poor, hapless Darby. They added a lot of depth to the story and helped round out the main characters' lives beyond hockey and reporting, and the plotlines and threads that included them added depth to the romance story arc. Gibson fleshed the book out nicely with them, and with the more ancillary characters of the other hockey players.

The premise for Jane becoming the team's sports reporter was a little hokey and unbelievable. The woman didn't know sports, let alone hockey, and the idea that other sports reporters at the paper wouldn't have gotten first dibs on the assignment was a little hard to swallow. The end, too, with its predictable conflict between Jane and Luc, gave me some trouble.

I don't mind knowing that the relationship is going to have at least one major conflict that it has to survive to get to the Happily Ever After. I don't even mind, not in this sort of light read, anyway, seeing it coming as soon as the potential for conflict is explained in the story. That's just something I accept as a fan of the genre. What bothered me in this case, though, was when in the story it happened and the manner in which it got resolved.

It came so late in the book, and the core issues that led to it were so quickly glossed over, that the wait for it ended up being more significant than the issue itself. Instead of seeming like a genuine stumbling block that got true issues out in the open and expanded and solidified Luc and Jane's relationship, the conflict was discussed and resolved in what seemed like a mad rush to the book's finish line, just one more plot point to touch on before the end. I ended up feeling a little cheated by it. Some of that was assuaged by a truly lovely epilogue, but only some of it.

See Jane Score is a light romance designed to be fun and sexy, and on that score it definitely delivered. I gobbled it up like the brain candy it was. Yes, I had a couple of issues, but in the end, Gibson gave me exactly what I was hoping for when I started reading. A few hours of escapist fun that didn't make me think too hard (except, of course, about hockey terminology), and made me smile a whole bunch. I enjoyed it immensely.

Hart and Soul by Nica Berry

Genre: LGBT - M/M Fantasy Romance
Series: N/A
Rating: 2 Stars
Length: 2077 Locations
Formats: Kindle

Hart and Soul
Unique Isn't Always a Good Thing

Jennar was five years old when he watched the women of his clan provide the bare minimum of assistance to a pregnant outsider who stumbled into their settlement in the throes of labor. The unknown woman died, but the baby survived. A baby that those women thought should die along with his mother. Jennar was the one who gathered the infant, cleaned him, swaddled him, and named him Niann. He promised the baby he'd protect him even as strong feelings for the tiny child swelled in him.

Orphaned and considered outcast, Niann's life wasn't easy as he grew. He watched and envied the other males of the clan who learned hunting and tracking, who went up the mountain to meet their spirit animals. He was relegated to being little more than the women's fetching boy, stuck with the young even as he reached his majority. Niann wanted to be like Jennar, strong and accepted. He had no idea that his life was set to so drastically change as he transitioned from boy to man, but the clan shaman Heyka had been watching Niann carefully, he and the chieftain knowing what he was, what he would be, and working to keep him segregated from the clan's males until he came into this power. Until he became a Holy One, his spirit animal a powerful Hart deer, destined to provide blessings on the clan through sexual contact.

The machinations of the power hungry Heyka and desperate chieftain yanked Jennar away from Niann before he found out what they were going to do to the young man he so desired. For a year Niann went unprotected in his clan while Jennar had been sent to provide teachings to an ally in the valley. Only when he sensed a growing darkness from a bond he shared with Niann did he manage to make it back to his people, and when he did, he was horrified to realize that Niann's will had been completely subjugated. His mate had been drugged, brainwashed into thinking himself female in a male's body, and repeatedly raped all in the name of duty and higher power.

To save his mate, Jennar must sacrifice everything and take on a powerful shaman crazed by the unquenchable hunger for power and the sick possessiveness of greed.

I have the deepest respect for authors and the work that they put into a book, even if I don't like their stories. I can also say with honesty that I think Berry has skill and an ability to weave a tale. The concept of the story was definitely original, and I appreciated the Native American flavor to the mythology and the culture of the peoples in it. Unfortunately, though, I felt Hart and Soul suffered from perfunctory world building and a plot that was well conceived but bare-boned in execution, and offered little in the way of exposition or explanation.

I had no respect for Jennar, who was a completely ineffective protagonist and failed in every way to do anything at all for Niann. Even after Jennar had received explicit instruction to help Niann when he'd been enslaved, he failed to man up and do what needed doing, his own issues proving to be too hard to get over again and again. As the other romantic lead, Niann spent most of the book as an easily manipulated victim, hungry for the smallest crumbs of affection due to a childhood that, despite his promise, Jennar did nothing to ease. He was easy pickings for a shaman who wanted to pervert his gifts for his own purposes.

Those character issues were significant for me, yet they weren't the biggest problems I had with the book. My biggest problem is what was done to Niann. I could never enjoy, and find particularly distasteful, the systematic brutality inherent in drugging, raping, and holding a person as a sexual slave. That is neither romantic nor erotic for me and its occurrence in this book robbed me of much of my ability to appreciate the story as a whole.

I don't care how convinced Niann was that he was doing his duty as the Holy One, or how much he bought into Heyka's sick assurances, he was being prostituted daily, drugged to the gills, and having his magics stolen from him in the basest, cruelest way - with sex, yes, but also with lies colored to look like concern. To me, this part of the story is no different or less disturbing than reading about a teenaged virgin girl who is slipped a monster dose of Rohypnol, used as the party favor in a huge gang bang, then drugged daily while held captive in a room with the bad guy acting as her pimp and raping her at will. I'm sure that story line exists in some book somewhere, too...but I'd bet it's in the horror section, not erotic romance.

Far lesser concerns included a couple of contradictions in the narrative, e.g., Jennar was described as having slept with a dozen men and women who all say he's distant, then, just a few pages later, he has never lain with a woman. The gender bender plot thread was seriously off-putting, and took the M/M book to a weird place that made me uncomfortable. Oh - and the animal sex...uh...yeah...deer aren't real big on my list of powerful sexual beasts to begin with, but reading about them getting it on was...sort of like watching a really twisted Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom special.

For all these reasons, I wouldn't really recommend Hart and Soul, but I would consider trying another book by the author, because despite some distasteful plot points and direction in this story, there is a framework of decent storytelling behind it all and a potential for some highly original and unique fantasy.

Disclosure: An ARC of this title was received from NetGalley. All ratings, comments, and opinions are my own.

The Devil's Footprints by Amanda Stevens

Genre: Thriller/Suspense
Series: N/A
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 384 Pages, 4744 Locations
Formats: Paperback, Kindle

The Devil's Footprints
A Sultry and Lyrical Horror

The legend tells a tale of a mysterious and bizarre horror. The year was 1922; the place, a small township in Arkansas. It was a frigid night, a night when snow blanketed the ground in a pristine carpet...a night when a man was jerked out of a sound sleep by what he first thought was a gunshot. When the sound came again, icy fingers of fear raked dissonant shudders down his spine and he realized that the loud, metallic noise actually sounded like a heavy footfall...on his roof. As he rushed from his house in the dead of night to investigate, he hurried out into the snow and was aghast to see footprints...of a sort. Easy to identify, impossible to understand, cloven hoof prints were everywhere. Everywhere. On his roof, across his porch, over his yard, down to the river and on the other side...everywhere he looked were the unmistakable signs of something unholy stalking the earth.

Seventy years later, those marks returned on and around the mutilated body of a sixteen-year-old girl. And this was no legend.

Sarah DeLaune was thirteen years old when she stumbled back to her house, covered in her sister's blood, unable to speak of the horror she'd witnessed. In the fourteen years since that monstrous, tragic night, Sarah had lost so much, including her memories of that night, the ability to sleep without drugs that kept nightmares from decimating her soul, and, she feared, her sanity.

Now making a living as a tattoo artist in New Orleans, she was as skilled as she was damaged, heavily scarred by what she'd seen, whatever it was. Then came the night that her ex-boyfriend, homicide detective Sean Kelton, called to ask her to visit the scene of a grisly crime, one that had so many similarities to her sister's murder that there was little doubt the murderer was one and the same.

With one glimpse of the fresh ink scrawled across the victim's back, Sarah is chilled to the marrow. Something, some tiny something in the hideous desecration that had been a young woman brings back a distant shadow of a long gone memory, a sense of old knowledge that almost shoulders its way back to consciousness. With it comes fear and self doubt, and the horrifying realization that there may be one very good reason the memories of her sister's murder are gone.

For fans of dark southern mysteries and thrillers, you can't do much better than The Devil's Footprints. Stevens has penned a stylized narrative that sweetly seeps a Gothic lyricism so poised and powerful that it can rip readers from their coziest reading nooks and thrust them into the humid and verdant Old South with such force that the heady scents of night-blooming jasmine and magnolia waft from the pages of their books. The plot is a wretched, twisted, and well laid reflection of family secrets and childhood disappointments, of psychosis and rage; a haunting, haunted epitaph for long-dead and newly-joined ghosts.

Main characters Sarah and Sean are deeply flawed and more human for those flaws. Complex and conflicted, frustrating and sympathetic at turns, they are ultimately believable, if not always likable. Sarah's traumatic childhood is the impetus for the plot, and there is a lot of meat in that backstory, though told with a miserly hand to keep readers guessing. As the book progresses and truths are slowly and carefully revealed, the tension takes a firmer and firmer grip, drawing into question everything from Sarah's obsession with her sister's murder to the deranged wickedness of ancient evil. This is a totally creepy and thrillingly atmospheric story that didn't disappoint in tone, plot, or pacing. There was just so much done right in this book that it's hard to be objective on the points I most favored.

Not everything totally worked for me, though. Every once in awhile I felt the conflict between Sarah and Sean was a bit too contentious, that it boiled over into the investigation and the hunt for a killer and spawned petulant behavior, most noticeably in Sarah's case. I was also bemused by Michael's backstory. It was interesting, but it had no consequence or bearing on the plot, nor was fleshed out enough to add any weight to his character, so it seemed superfluous.

A couple of other secondary characters, Sean's partner in particular, were sadly underused. Danny LeJeune wasn't even a footnote after the first third of the book. I would have preferred he be utilized more and Michael less, because I had some problems with Michael's lack of patient confidentiality during his meeting with Sean. I would have liked to see the book stick a little closer to a police procedural in some places, so Sean was saved from occasionally seeming like an obsessed loner cop with his own agenda who relied on too-convenient psychiatric insight to solve his crime.

None of those minor complaints, however, detracted from the weighty beauty of the prose or the taut thrill of the horror, nor diminished in any way my appreciation for Stevens' writing style. Between this book and The Restorer, I have become a greedy fan intent on catching up on all the books I've missed. Decadent and delicious, they go down easy and strike deeply, and stand apart from the masses, as proud and stately as the moss-draped live oaks that populate the south...and just as imposing in the dark.

Wild Man Creek by Robyn Carr

Genre: Contemporary Romance
Series: Virgin River, Book 14
Rating: 2 Stars
Length: 368 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle

Wild Man Creek (Virgin River, Book 12)
Unfortunately Unappealing

Jillian Matlock lived for her job as Vice President for Corporate Communications for a software manufacturer. So much so that she had no time or energy for a social life beyond the office. That's why she was dating a coworker and subordinate, even though it was against company policy. She had, in fact, been dating him for months, until she walked into the office one Monday morning and found out that her erstwhile boyfriend wasn't interested in her, he had just been setting her up for a sexual harassment suit that would get him loads of cash and her job.

Forced out of the company she loved and helped build, Jill takes off to lick her wounds and get her head on straight and ends up in the small town of Virgin River, where memories of childhood and a determination to work her way through her issues takes her life in a brand new direction.

Wrapped up in his own problems and still slowly recovering from the helicopter crash that almost killed him, Colin Riordan is in Virgin River to paint and get his body back into shape so he can get back up to the sky he so loves. When he had set up his easel and paints in the empty field he found, his thoughts were focused on the natural light, not bears that would be newly out of hibernation. Those thoughts quickly turned to bears, though, when the bushes started rustling. Thankfully, he'd come prepared and he pulled out the gun he had loaded up for just that contingency.

Instead of a bear, it was Jill, pushing her way thorough dense undergrowth to stare up at him. He almost shot her. It's a good thing he restrained himself, as her light laugh and indomitable spirit draw him to her like a moth to a flame. Soon he can't stop thinking about her, nor she him, but their idyllic summer fling has an expiration date, and when that date hits, he'll be gone. No matter how fond of her he grows or how much she comes to mean to him.

This twelfth book (two novella's make it fourteen titles in all) in Robyn Carr's Virgin River series is my first experience with Carr's books, and despite the wild popularity of the series, I had some issues with this one in both style and content. While the plot was okay conceptually, the narrative had some problems. There was a lot of repetition and readers are told again and again about things ranging from Jill's experience with gardening as a child, to Colin's plans when he leaves, to Jill's plans with the high-end veggies, and more. And when the narrative isn't bogged down with repetition, it's overburdened by excessive exclamation. None of the characters seemed to say or think things, they say! or think! them, as if everyone was either perpetually cheery or consistently emphatic. Not only did that get old quickly for me as a reader, but it stripped away much of the emotional range that rounds out characters, making them seem rather two dimensional and superficial. And exclamations were especially off-putting in Colin's dialogue. That's probably a personal preference, though. I like my big broody men to be big and broody, and the exclamations just seem too darn chippy.

Beyond that, I had a lot of trouble liking either of the main characters. Within pages I knew I was going to have trouble with Jill, not for getting taken in by the jerkwad boyfriend, but for calling him again and again when she learns of his duplicity. The lack of common sense and appalling disregard for dignity really bothered me. I had higher hopes for a woman of obvious intelligence and competence. Thankfully, she improved, but the improvements lead to other issues I'll mention later.

There was also little to recommend Colin as a romantic lead. I found him arrogant, self involved, and abrasive when he dealt with his brother (not that I liked Luke either for how he treated Colin), and so very shallow in all other areas. His constant assertions about getting back to flying didn't make him seem dedicated to me, they made him seem oblivious and ungrateful for his many gifts. And I'm sorry, but when he was thinking about his sexual past I actually shuddered when I read this:
"He had never had a shortage of female company, that's for sure. One of his favorite things was to wash lipstick off his favorite organ in the morning-after shower..."
Seriously? This is the character that is the romantic lead in this contemporary romance? A guy who plans to leave - and reiterates those plans again and again throughout the book - and who not only thinks with his joystick, but devotes favorite pastimes to it? There just wasn't much that could be done after that to redeem his character for me. Not that much was tried. And that leads me to another bone of contention.

There was no growth in the characters and no conflict in the story to spur that growth - either internal emotional conflict or external plot-based conflict. In fact, beyond the issues that drove them to Virgin Creek to begin with, absolutely everything goes exactly their way. Jill decides to start gardening professionally and everything falls into place beautifully. She's rich, and a hard worker, but come on - the lack of any obstacles was boring. And where was the angst over the past? It seemed like once she got to Virgin River and dug around in the dirt a bit she was completely unaffected by what had happened to her.

Then there's Colin. He was horribly scarred physically and almost died in a helicopter crash, was a drug addict for all of a month (uh...yeah) and did time for buying on the street...but he didn't have so much as a single moment of emotional trauma to get over before he got groiny with a woman who might be put off by the scars or his history...and didn't so much as a flinch before he flew again? Really? And he's such a good artist that the first art gallery he goes to agrees to sell his work and he makes over a thousand dollars right away.

Maybe I'm jaded...no, wait, I know I'm jaded, but still...the absolute lack of conflict for the main characters made them and their relationship hard to believe and impossible to relate to. The only significant conflict between them at all ended up being the inevitable parting at the end of the summer, and that wasn't enough for me to hold my attention through the book.

There was one source of conflict in the book (besides Colin leaving), but as it turns out, it didn't involve the main characters at all. There was a subplot with a couple of secondary characters that added a bit of complexity to the plot, but it also served to highlight a tendency for characters to overreact in sometimes sweeping overemotional ways that weren't very appealing. Denny, the young man involved, became a completely different character than he'd been portrayed to that point and I just found it to be a bit too much to be believed.

Without a doubt, the second half of the book was better for me than the first. There was still a lot of exclamation in the narrative, and the story bounced along on the no-personal-struggle highway, but there were some highlights that were nice. I did come to like how Jill and Colin were together as their relationship progressed, and I enjoyed Jill's relationship with her sister when she came to visit. I appreciated the supportive nature that Jill had when talking to Colin about the future, and thought that she handled it better than I would have in that situation. While I never totally warmed up to Colin, it was quite obvious that he was a better person with Jill in his life, and that was also a nice thing to see.

Unfortunately, the few rays of sunshine didn't do enough to warm my reaction to the book any higher than two stars. Carr is obviously wildly successful as an author and with this series in particular. You can't get to twelve books and not have amassed a loyal following. For me, though, this book didn't have enough to keep me interested in the series and it had some things that turned me off the writing style entirely. I was left with very little to no interest in anything else that occurs in and around Virgin River, or to the characters created to be there.

Disclosure: This book was provided to me free of charge through the Amazon.com Vine program for the purpose of an honest review. All thoughts, comments, and ratings are my own.

Whom God Would Destroy by Commander Pants

Genre: Um...well...fiction, for sure, but beyond that...no freakin' clue.
Series: N/A (probably a good thing)
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 316 Pages, 4188 Locations
Formats: Paperback, Kindle

Whom God Would Destroy
Bizarre But Beautifully Blasphemous

Dropping Himself back down to Earth in 1987 at the height of the "Me" decade, the ruler of all things perversely practical jokey (aka God) has a grand scheme...er...enlightened plan...to pull yet another one over on the unsuspecting but far too pitiful masses of humanity. With a New Age store and a bell, he gears up for reaching out and touching many, many people. He finds Oliver.

Oliver is sort of the Everyman of mental health. As an outreach counselor, he's surrounded by the mentally unstable, and in truth, he's often a little befuddled by it all. Until he meets Jeremy (yeah...that'd be God). Then things get a little weird for this mild mannered, innocuous little man.

Take one God, one Everyman, a few functioning neurotics and psychotics, questionable therapy, drugs, sex, and aliens on a quest to either experience the Ultimate Orgasm or kill everyone trying, and you've got one seriously messed up but completely compelling pseudo masterpiece of blasphemous delight.

I was genuinely surprised at how very much I enjoyed this wacky little tale. It's not my normal cuppa, that's for sure. Despite that, I found myself drawn into the story and eerily caught by the antics of the characters. As it turns out, I liked it quite a bit. Oh, I knew I was going to have a special place in my heart for the blasphemy. I do so love a good blaspheme. What I wasn't expecting was a rather remarkably well-told satirical parable.

Credit must be given to the author known by his Commander Pants nom de plume (at least I sincerely hope it's a nom de plume). It's not often that a I find such convincing evidence of a truly gifted storyteller with solid technical writing skills, and certainly not amongst independent authors. The smooth level of sophistication in the characters and the narrative, and a slick but spatter-patterned plot,  imbues this story with a unique freshness that was very appealing.

The plot was bizarre. And twisted. It first snagged, then held my attention with its seemingly random and wacky happenstance. Sure, it danced the rumba over the line between mad brilliance and absurdity more than once, and a few of the plot points seemed a bit unnecessary (I still don't know what the point of Greg's storyline was), but to be fair, it's also entirely possible that I just lack the superlative erudition necessary to fit every one of the pieces together. With a book like this, it's a little hard to tell.

I definitely wouldn't recommend this to those for whom religion is as serious a subject as Big Macs are to the OOklah. For everyone else, though, especially those with a fondness for the freaky and a preference for the peculiar, this is a weird but oddly entertaining bit of blasphemy that I heartily embraced.

Disclaimer: I was provided a copy of this book for free from the author for the purpose of an honest review...though he may have had more nefarious intentions. Like instilling random fast food cravings, a yearning for big hair bands, and a weird aversion to the therapy that I may need after reading this. Regardless, all ratings, thoughts, and feelings expressed in this review are my own.

House of Cards by C.E. Murphy

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: The Negotiator, Book 2
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 448 Pages, 5743 Locations
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle

House of Cards (The Negotiator)
Oh What Tangled Webs

It's been a few months since gargoyle Alban Korund pulled back from New York City lawyer Margrit Knight after exposing her to his world and the Old Races. His intentions were sound; he wanted her safe from the machinations of monsters and he wanted her to have a normal human life with normal human trials and tribulations. The only thing Alban didn't take into account was Margrit's complete disregard for what he wanted for her. The spunky, feisty woman had tasted the magic of the Old Races, and as dangerous as she knew they were, she wanted more.

Margrit ran every night in Central Park, frustrated by the situation but comforted by the knowledge that, though he wouldn't talk to her, her gargoyle was protecting her. In fact, it wasn't through Alban that she was drawn back, inevitable really, to the Old Races. A dragon crimelord and a vampire business mogul, locked in an ages-old battle of one-upmanship, yank her back into their world with meticulous forethought...and maybe even malice, of a sort.

For those two powerful and ancient beings, Margrit is a pawn to be used. For Alban, she's a woman to be loved from afar. When a surprising and abrupt shift in power among the Old Races shakes them to their foundations, however, it is Margrit's very humanity that they will have to rely on to save them all.

This second book in The Negotiator trilogy is so much fun, once it gets going. The first half of the book is a little slow, and I still haven't got much use for Margrit's human life or her human friends and family, but this series totally shines when she's maneuvering her way through the mine fields surrounding the Old Races and negotiating them into submission. There's a delightful plethora of that in the latter part of this book.

I'm totally in love with the world that Murphy has created in this trilogy, and I'm more than a little in love with Janx. Daisani has his own charm, too, but the flamboyant ebullience of the dragon is the most appealing to me. Oh, don't get me wrong, this series belongs to Margrit and Alban, and I love that we got to see Alban working more independently in this book than in the last. As much as I adore him, though, and want nothing but him and Margrit to have a shot at some sort of Happily Ever After, sometimes I want to shake Stoneheart for his slow thinking and stubbornness, and occasionally Margrit's tempestuous personality rubs me the wrong way.

Still, there is a steadfast solidity to Alban's character that is ultimately appealing, and more than a little brilliant from a character standpoint, and I admire Margrit's tenacity and grit, not to mention her intelligence. She is often out of her depth with the Old Races, but she holds her own in ways that consistently manage to surprise all the Old Race characters she deals with on a daily - and nightly basis.

I can't help but really dislike Margrit's roommates - they don't add anything to the series, and I find Cole's judgmental bigotry, and the wretched way he speaks to Margrit (again, actually, as he did it in the first book, too) pretty distasteful. Nor have I ever liked Tony, who has never struck me as anything but close-minded and selfish, and for all his platitudes and the sleepless nights next to Margrit's hospital bed in the previous book, he is forever blind to the core of Margrit's heart and personality.

This is a solid second book in a trilogy, and it straddles the line between Margrit's old life and her new one. I wasn't quite as happy with this installment as I was with the first, it's actually my least favorite of all three of them, but only slightly so. There is a lot of juicy development with the Old Races in this book, and much change for creatures not known for being quick-change artists. I'm thrilled with the trilogy as a whole, love the world and the characters, and am anxious to continue on to the conclusion. I can't wait to see how all the change here impacts the characters in The Negotiator trilogy conclusion, Hands of Flame.

The Negotiator Trilogy:




Heart of Stone (The Negotiator, Book 1) House of Cards (The Negotiator) Hands of Flame

Mine to Possess by Nalini Singh

Genre: Paranormal Romance; Futuristic; Alternate Universe
Series: Psy/Changeling, Book 4
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Length: 352 Pages, 5659 Locations
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle



Made Me Want to Purr


As children, the changeling Clay and human Talin belonged to each other in a way that went beyond friendship. Then their world was shattered by a horrible truth that led to the brutal execution of a man who desperately deserved it. That action, as deserved as it was, tore Clay and Talin apart, put Clay in a cage and sent Talin into foster care across the country. When Clay was finally released, it was with every intention of tracking his Tally down as he'd wordlessly promised even as he was dragged away from her.

When he tried he was told she was dead. A part of him never recovered.

Twenty years later Clay has a darkness in him that goes beyond the normal predatory nature of the leopard changelings of the DarkRiver pack. He rides the sharp edge of rogue, holding on by sheer human will alone, though as he's caught the scent of a ghost on the breeze for the past few months, he's starting to think he's losing even that. Until his ghost steps out of the shadows, fear in her eyes for the adult male who was once a boy who did everything but die for her, and nearly breaks him all over again.

Tormented by the damage inflicted on her as a child and riddled with guilt for the damage she's done to herself as an adult, Talin would never have let Clay know she was still alive if he wasn't the only one who could help her stop the ruthless slaughter of the human children being stolen from the streets. She still has nightmares of what he did to her foster father, still fears him with an irrational terror that belies an understanding of his actions. Despite all that, she still needs him with an intensity that makes that terror seem like nothing.

But Talin knows that the secrets she's kept and the lies she's told have put her and Clay on opposite paths, and she's sickeningly aware that even if he were willing, there's no time left for her to try to bridge the horrible distance between them. Finding the lost children and stopping their murderer has to be enough. Talin has nothing else.

As rich and well told as the preceding books in the Psy-Changelings series, Mine to Possess reaches deeper, finally bringing the human race onto the board of this deadly chess match between the emotionless Psy and the passionate changelings. I love this series for its amazing world building and complex, layered plots - plots that go much further than traditional paranormal romance. Each book adds to the tension as it expands the world, and each draws the reader deeper and deeper into a burgeoning war between the Psy Council and...well...everyone else...even as it offers up an amazingly powerful romantic plot between the male and female leads.

And speaking of those leads, I loved Clay and Talin's story. Their backstory was painful and traumatic, the years separating them causing so much damage, but their journey once they were reunited was powerful. It was nice having two emotional people as the focus from the beginning. I love Sasha and Faith, and Judd is one of my favorite characters in the whole series, but as a change, it was refreshing to have a character like Talin who didn't have Silence to break. Of course, she had her own issues...

If I'm honest, I was a little put off by her at first. Even knowing she's human, even accepting she's not going to be as strong as a changeling or as mentally powerful as a Psy, I was a disappointed in the choices she made and distressed by the pain she inflicted on Clay. Then I gave it some thought and put everything in perspective. She won't ever be my favorite of the female leads, and she didn't have the sort of active role in her own relationship that I admired Brenna so much for in the previous book, but I still think she was written with a near brilliant understanding of the sort of debilitating psychological damage inflicted on a child who suffered the sort of systematic abuse Talin survived. Her personality and her reactions seemed very believable in that context, and her evolution through her reconnection with Clay very organic to both the character and the previously established mythos concerning mate bonds.

Clay was hard to like at the very beginning, too. Understandably, he was less than pleased when Talin reveals some difficult truths to him, and he certainly doesn't handle it well. Sometimes he lashes out at Talin, sometimes he's too busy kicking his own ass, but all of that feeds in perfectly with the darkness in his nature and the tendency towards solitude he's had since he lost Talin the first time. He reminded me a little of Vaughn in the way he sort of herded his Tally back into his arms. It was reminiscent of, but considerably less subtle than, how Vaughn got Faith used to his touch.

In truth, it didn't take long for me to warm up to Clay, with appreciation for Talin coming a little deeper in, but the end result was very positive. Their romance, blended with the other plot threads, was ultimately satisfying in the end.

What really sets this series apart for me is the amazing number of cohesive subplots and the depth in those subplots: concerns over the Psy race's slow degradation, the megalomaniacal Council, the revolution that Ghost is stirring up, various other mysteries and suspense. Singh isn't just widening existing threads, but throwing in delectable new twists and turns with every book. It's a compelling and dastardly habit she has of keeping me slavering for the next in the series. By now I'm very happily addicted to this seductive, original series.


Psy/Changeling Series:

   
   

Heart of Stone by C.E. Murphy

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: The Negotiator, Book 1
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Length: 432 Pages, 5810 Locations
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle

Heart of Stone (The Negotiator)
Start Looking Up

His life is lived in shadows, exiled from his own kind and alone in the world but for her, the woman he protects every night. He doesn't know her name. He doesn't know what she does for a living. He's never broken through the racial boundaries and dared speak to her, his human ward.

Though he wants to. Aches to with a need that grows by the year, by the night.

He is Alban Korund. He is gargoyle.

Most of Margrit Knight's friends joke about her having a death wish, and while those jokes are always half couched in genuine fear for her safety, Margrit knows she's an adrenaline junkie who prefers to run in Central Park every night. As a lawyer for Legal Aid in Manhattan, she doesn't get a lot of free time in the day, but the truth is, no matter how irrational, how dangerous, Margrit is confident to bone-deep levels. Until the night a pale man dressed in a suit far too light for the frigid winter temperatures steps out of the shadows on the path near her and says hello.

Weird, but easily dismissible until Margrit turns on the news at home and sees a witness to a vicious murder in Central Park describe the tall, pale man in a suit as the perpetrator.

As Alban tries again and again to reach out to Margrit to prove his innocence and Margrit gets dragged deeper and deeper into a world she never new existed - a world full of Old Races and predators beyond human comprehension - the two are drawn into the madness of a murderer with a hideous agenda and a horrific connection to an exiled gargoyle.

Long before I started reading C.E. Murphy's The Walker Papers series, I came across this nifty little trilogy and fell in love. In fact, as much as I enjoy The Walker Papers, The Negotiator trilogy remains closer to my heart. I love the world that Murphy created here, love the characters, the story. The Old Races add fresh breath and unique life to the genre, as I sure haven't seen a proliferation of gargoyles in fiction, and even though vampires are one of the Old Races, their history is original and shrouded in the sort of mystery that tantalizes instead of tires.

The characters are three dimensional and real, likable but quirky enough to have their own little foibles that add layers to their personalities. Margrit is a bright, confident woman with a strong moral center, liberal of mind and free speaking. She doesn't give much thought to her safety, true, but she throws herself at injustice with a weight far exceeding her body mass. Her ability to see members of the Old Races as people instead of monsters is laudable, even when her mouth starts to write checks that her body's going to have to cash.

Alban is a rock. Literally and figuratively. And in his character is some truly brilliant writing, because Murphy managed to imbue his personality with both a steadfastness that makes sense, a loneliness that devastates, and a stubbornness that is both humorous and intensely frustrating at turns. Where Margrit is fire, burning intensely bright and racing around willy nilly, he is the calm force of protection at her back. The pairing was odd, unique, and filled with a slow burning romantic tension that was very appealing.

But this isn't a romance. It's an urban fantasy. And if the brutal murder of women in Central Park isn't enough of a mystery to solve, Margrit also finds herself caught between a dragon crime lord and a vampire business mogul as the two play a dangerous game of power and influence as coldly calculating as an extended game of chess with the population of New York City as their pawns.

It's a thrilling book, though it's light on world-ending catastrophe like so many in the genre. Instead it offers up a steadily building conflict and rising tension about the murders and takes the time to really open Margrit's eyes to the reality of the world around her. The vampire wants to own her, the dragon wants to play with her, the gargoyle...well...Alban wants to protect her...mostly from himself. Stubborn male.

The beginning was a little slow. After the initial meeting with Alban, the narrative bogged down a bit with the search for him. And I never found Margrit's human friends as interesting as the supernatural elements of the book. Fortunately, after Alban and Margrit start working together, there is very little human interference.

There were also a few times when Margrit's actions and mouth went a little further than just being strong and confident warranted given the powerful entities surrounding her. A few times where I wanted to shake her for her insouciance. Just a few, though, and nothing to make her unlikable. Just a little foolhardy at times. There were also a handful of times when I wondered why any of the Old Races would bother sparing any thought to Margrit, or bothered dealing with her at all, for all her pesky humanity. Novelty only goes so far, after all. But then I stopped worrying about that and just sat back and enjoyed this remarkably well-written book.

I loved the end, though. I love how everything came together. I love the book. Knowing it's a complete trilogy is also another nice thing, because there's a sense of completion (I have a gift for the obvious)...a sense that whatever happens as you're reading, it's already all been written and you know you won't be left hanging for a new release sometime in the distant future to find out what happens next. Given the number of long-running series I read, that's a surprisingly comforting and satisfying treat. And so is Heart of Stone and The Negotiator trilogy.

The Negotiator Trilogy:


Heart of Stone (The Negotiator) House of Cards (The Negotiator) Hands of Flame

Ratings Guide

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

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

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2014 Reading Challenge

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

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