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Ashes of Angels by Michele Hauf

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Of Angels and Demons, Book 3
Line: Harlequin Nocturne
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 288 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Harlequin via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.
Note: This book includes the novella The Ninja Vampire's Girl, Book 2.5 of the Of Angels and Demons series.




Intriguing World, But The Characters...


Cassandra Stevens is a muse, a mortal woman who is marked from birth to be a mate for the Fallen. That may sound romantic; it's anything but. When lust-crazed Fallen find their muse they are mindless and fierce, demonic in their intent on raping and impregnating their female regardless of the muse's wishes. Then, when they impregnate the women, what is birthed is a monster of horrific proportions, a flesh- and blood-hungry nephilim that will consume everything in its path.

Her grandmother had warned her, taught her, prepared her, and Cassandra has spent her life training and learning to protect herself, because one thing Cassandra has always known, her Fallen would find her. And she had no intention of being a homicidal baby's mama.

For all that preparation, Cassandra wasn't ready when she felt the mark on her wrist start to tingle, then glow, as she was dancing in a club with a sexy stranger. To her growing horror, the wait was over. Samandirial has been summoned from Below and  has come for her.

He's only been on Earth for a day, and after a quick walkabout, he's in Berlin with an intensity of purpose unlike any other Fallen. He has no intention of raping and impregnating the delectable Cassandra, not that he doesn't desire her, because he does - above all others - but he wants one thing even more than that: Above. When he'd been spit out of Below and called to Earth by the vampires, Samandirial knew they were planning to start the sort of battle that could lead to an apocalypse. If he stops them, he may finally have a chance at redemption and forgiveness. He may finally be able to go home. It is everything that ever mattered to him.

And he needs the help of his muse, the one person guaranteed to distrust him the most.

~*~
It was quite clear from the start of this book that it was an installment of a previously established series. That can often be a problem for me, especially in shorter novels, where the dearth of sufficient exposition seems common when making room for character introduction and relationship development. That wasn't a large issue for me with this book. I didn't feel I had any trouble catching on to the world that Hauf created. In fact, I enjoyed that world, though I'm weary of the large upsurge of angels in fiction lately. They're not my favorite paranormal creature. Still, in this book, their history and the mythos surrounding the multiple supernatural races was intriguing. Hauf did a nice job conceptualizing the rolls of the muses, Fallen, vampires, and the rest, weaving together their purposes and motivations into a cohesive whole supported by the story.

My problems lay in the execution of that story.

The characters were wildly inconsistent. Cassandra's initial distrust of Sam made sense given her history, but the too fast, lust-induced about-face, while necessary for the romance, didn't make sense because of that same history. She trained for years in preparation for Sam's arrival, was supposed to be an accomplished fighter and a real hard ass, but came across as a giggling, blushing, tittering twit far too often for my tastes as soon as she stopped fearing Sam. e.g. A nephalim is raging around destroying Berlin and she and her sister take a time out for a slumber party complete with hand holding and lover comparison sex talk. Really??

Oh, and speaking of Sam...

Cupcake? Bunny?? Seriously?!

He's supposed to be an ages-old Fallen who's been spending most of the past few thousand years Below. Have some self respect, man. It's hard to get lusty and appreciative of a male romantic lead who strikes me more like a nerdy puppy with a nipping habit than a warrior Fallen intent on redemption and regaining Above at all costs. He also spends one day on Earth and is suddenly spouting the slang and lingo of an average twelve-year old (when he's not sounding all stiff and proper), knows everything there is to know about the history he's missed, can speak every language, and is up on all the cultural references...right up until it's more convenient for the story if he isn't. Sam's numerous inconsistencies boggled my mind.

So did the apparent and oft-mentioned glass heart of his. Talk about your less-than-sturdy containment. I was not happy with that aspect of his physiology.

Besides the characters, the narrative caused me a few moments of grief, as well. The prose was fairly pedestrian, descriptive scenes and action passages lacked sophistication and variety, and the dialogue had some rough spots that failed in achieving a natural, organic conversational flow. There were brights spots, too, of course, and a few scenes that made me chuckle or things that made me smile. It wasn't all bad.

There was this snippet of conversation between Sam and Cassandra, in fact, that made me grin:

"You need any help, Sam?"
[...] Sam swung the halo across a vampire's throat, reducing his opponent to ash. "Oh, hey, Cassandra. Just making some new friends."
"I can see that."
"I've got everything under control."
"So I should have saved the one you tossed at me for you?"
"Did I toss a vampire at you? That was rude."

I do wish I'd taken the advice of the author given at the beginning and read The Ninja Vampire's Girl first. It was short, but it offered a few nice glimpses of the world that was created for the series. It also reflected some of the same problems I had with the main story. The good news is that you can dive into this book even if you haven't read the preceding books in the series. Less rosy is my lack of desire to go back and find out where this series began, nor do I have plans to continue with it from here. It was just a bit too lacking in sophistication, maturity, and polish for my personal taste.

Ripping the Bodice by Inara Lavey

Genre: Contemporary Romance
Series: N/A
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 246 Pages, 2828 Locations
Formats: Paperback, Kindle



Kept Picturing Raphael as Fabio - Scary


When her boyfriend calls at the last minute and blows off the vacation she was so looking forward to, Cassandra Devon quickly reevaluates both the relationship and her plans. She dumps the boyfriend, packs her bags, grabs a bunch of the classic books she loves - wildly adventurous and swashbuckling romances that never fail to sweep her away from her average life - and heads to San Diego to meet up with her best friend Valerie. Nothing would please her more than to spend a couple of weeks of fun, friendship, and relaxation. And, of course, reading. Lots and lots of reading.

When she gets off the plane and hooks up with Valerie, she comes face to face with the ruggedly handsome but perfectly annoying Connor, the best friend and business partner of Val's cousin Raphael. He's everything Cassandra would never go for in a man. Raphael, on the other hand, is just what she's looking for. He's all things swarthy and genteel, and so gorgeous he looks like he just stepped off the cover of one of her beloved bodice rippers. And she's thrilled when Raphael seems to be equally interested in her.

In fact, Cassandra would be contentedly planning her HEA with Raphael if it wasn't for the odious Connor. Not only is he rude, he's got boundary issues - the sort that have him waltzing into her room when she's in the bath, then not having the decency to respect her privacy when she gets out. Then he's all with the kissing and sparring, challenging her at every turn, getting her blood up. The fiend.

The longer her vacation continues, the more Connor gets under her skin, until she's practically spitting at him every time he shows up...which is all the time. Problem is, all that conflict has Cassandra questioning her own preferences. Could it be that the hero-type she thought she wanted can't hold a candle to the bad boy she can't help but need? Or is Cassandra's HEA destined to never escape the pages of a book?

~*~
After the past couple of books I've read left me yearning for some romantic comedy, I needed Lavey's Ripping the Bodice to cleanse my reading palate and lighten my spirits. It was partially successful in that it's a relatively harmless and humorous romance that made me chuckle out loud in a few places, but it didn't appeal quite as much as I was hoping. I can't say the fault lies with the story, exactly. It's just, as I was reading, I realized I'm not a big fan of bodice rippers. That was a problem because I had a hard time relating to the character who seemed to turn nearly every moment of her life into a scene from one.

Instead of being amused by the tongue-in-cheek, exaggerated fantasy life of Cassandra, I was overwhelmed by the number of times the book slipped into italics and flounced around with long scenes of purple prose and over-indulgent scenarios. A few here and there with much shorter length would have been sufficient to make the point and keep the pace of the contemporary romance development from floundering. Not to mention that the scenes took page space from the much-needed character definition and plot development. As a result, too much of the book failed to dip beneath surface issues and conflicts and remained two-dimensional.

That was a shame, because there really wasn't anything wrong with what was there outside of Cassandra's dream world. The characters were likable, Cassandra was quirky with a hint of snarky steel that I enjoyed, and there was genuine chemistry between Connor and Cassandra from early into the book. I can't ask for too much more than that. But that's exactly what I feel I got...too much more than that.

I didn't mind the predictability of the plot. I wasn't expecting any new ground in romance fiction to be laid with the book so the fact that a reader can see the end coming from a fair distance away didn't bother me. The irony is that the parts of the book that went awry for me were the unexpected parts; the dream sequences, if you will, that didn't appeal. By the end of the book it felt like I'd skimmed a good half of its content to avoid the escalating fiction-within-fiction scenes. As a general rule, that's not a good way to feel satisfactorily entertained.

Midnight Fear by Leslie Tentler

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: Chasing Evil Trilogy, Book 2
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 432 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Mira Books publisher Harlequin via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.




Solid, Surprising, and Chilling


Two years ago, serial killer Joshua Cahill was convicted of raping, torturing, and killing six young women. The case was brutal on FBI Special Agent Reid Novak, but for one young woman who bore a startling physical resemblance to the killer's victims, it altered her life forever. She is the reason Joshua's reign of terror ended. She provided the evidence of his heinous crimes to Agent Novak.

In the furor following his trial, her father died, her mother suffered a mental breakdown, her fiancé left her, and she gave up her position as a Virginia socialite to flee from the harsh media spotlight. The woman's name is Caitlyn Cahill. She's Joshua's sister.

Now a new threat stalks the streets of Washington D.C., a killer with a macabre but familiar signature. Reid Novak is called in despite still being on medical leave leave to consult with his partner Special Agent Mitch Tierney at a scene of grim horror. It doesn't take long for Reid and Mitch to identify exactly what they have on their hands, a copycat of the nightmare case and killer that still haunted their dreams, Joshua Cahill.

A copycat who may intend to honor Cahill with a most grisly prize: his sister Caitlyn's corpse.

~*~
Tentler's sophomore effort evidences her increasing talent and gives her a firm footing in the romantic suspense genre. For all that I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in her trilogy, Midnight Caller (review here), Midnight Fear is more tightly plotted and evenly paced, secondary and ancillary characters were offered a more significant amount of development, and the ancillary plot threads were a bit more expansive but more seamlessly woven into the overall. All were points I'd hoped to see from this promising new author as her trilogy progressed.

I was surprised and a little confused by the absence of crossover characters or storyline from the first book to this one. The series is advertised as a trilogy so I'm not exactly sure why there wasn't at least some connecting thread between them. The only one I could see is the FBI's Violent Crimes Unit. Both Trevor Rivette (Midnight Caller) and Reid are FBI agents with the VCU, but that's a slight connection at best. While the lack of a better one makes each book easy to read as a stand-alone, there's also nothing to point to and say, "I've got to keep reading this series because I have to find out what happens next!"

I enjoyed this book slightly more than its predecessor, which is a good thing, I think. The suspense threads worked a bit better for me here, were more tense and suspenseful, and I didn't get the slight sense of over-reaching contrivance I got in places in the first one. Nor, thank goodness, did the moments of protagonist stupidity that hampered the first book trend over to this one. I liked Reid and Caitlyn quite a lot, and I can't say the same about both Trevor (who I liked) and Rain (who I wasn't as fond of) in Midnight Caller.

Special props to Tentler for two very important things: I was surprised by the identity of the killer, and I didn't figure it out until Tentler started to drop the more obvious hints. I can't tell you how rare that is for me, and what a pleasant surprise when it happens. Even nicer (if you can call it that), the identity of the killer made sense to me in a sick, dark sort of way, instead of being too impossible/unlikely to believe. I appreciated that Tentler seemed to make a conscious effort to tie the threads all together.

The romance between Reid and Caitlyn was well done and felt organic to the characters and their situation. It was as low key and subdued as Reid and Caitlyn were in their lives and with their struggles. That fit perfectly with the tone of the book and the external conflict, but it was a little too low key and subdued for my personal taste to really thrill to it. My preferences lean a bit more towards the passion and intensity end of romance and I felt like there were a few places where the relationship between Reid and Caitlyn could have heated up a little and still remained true to the story and the characters.

If Tentler keeps firing on all cylinders like she is here, she's got a long and wildly successful career in front of her. Her characters are real people with real problems outside the main arc of the conflict. They have realistic emotional reactions and deal with things in a way that reflects a wide spectrum of human responses. In short, I believe them, more so in this book than the last, but I do believe them. I can't wait to see what comes next. Hopefully it will be something that ties the trilogy together for me more securely than just an FBI Violent Crimes Unit.

Chasing Evil Trilogy:

Tell Me More by Janet Mullany

Genre: Erotic Fiction
Series: N/A
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 352 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Spice Books publisher Harlequin via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.
Warning: This book contains explicit scenes of a graphic sexual nature and is not suitable for all readers. Given my opinion of certain sections of the book, portions of this review are not suitable for all readers, either.


Too Much And Not Nearly Enough

Late night on-air radio personality Jo Hutchinson has feelings for a man she's never met. He calls into her show and talks to her, has for months now, and the openness and honesty in those talks form the bonds of a deep connection, until her life on and off air seems to revolve around those calls. She doesn't even know his name, yet as time goes on, he becomes her world.

At his prompting, maybe even his genteel urging, Jo slips into a world of sexual expression and fantasy the likes of which she'd never known. She gives herself over to it in wild abandon, and all with one thought: telling Mr. D every erotic detail for their mutual sexual satisfaction, as their conversations are as sexually stimulating as her physical encounters. Sometimes more so.

As her journey into the world of fantasy pulls her further and further away from the life and friends she's known, Jo slowly starts to realize that there is a sinister side to sexuality, a more dangerous side, and her Mr. D. has been keeping secrets from her as he manipulated her into situations that proved untenable. It isn't until Jo tries to distance herself from the Association, a fancy name for the sex club she joined, that she starts to realize that life outside her fantasies has something in its favor. Most notably the good looking, slightly geeky Patrick Delaney, who reminds Jo just what it means to connect to someone in reality.

Walking away from the dark side is never without its risks, however, and is nowhere near as clean a break as she'd hoped. Her past haunts her, people from it harass her, and none of them want to let her go. Least of all the duplicitous Mr. D.
~*~
In an ideal world, I'd read a book, review it, then start the next one in my obscenely large pile of TBRs. I do not live in an ideal world. For Tell Me More, though, that turns out to be a good thing, because if I had reviewed this book upon finishing it, this would be a much different review with a much lower rating. I've calmed down about it now, but the last quarter of this book had the unfortunate result of pissing me off more than any book I've read in recent...and not-so-recent memory.

For the first seventy percent of it, I was quite entertained by the quirky character of Jo and the utterly enchanting Patrick. There's a lot of sex in the book; even for an erotic romance, there's a hell of a lot of sex, but the scenes are well-written and though explicit, they didn't seem crass or overly gratuitous. What impressed me most about the book, however, was that when I looked beyond the sex, I found a surprisingly complex and darkly tragic tale of a woman with a deep-seated and long-standing fear of emotional intimacy and the road she travels as she sublimates for that with increasingly wild sexual intimacy following the breakup of a long-term relationship.

This is a woman who reflects on the moments of her emotional withdrawal from her ex-boyfriend long before their breakup, who refuses to find out Mr. D.'s name or meet him in person, even after he asks, who freezes up and walks away from a swinger sex scene when she catches a glimpse of emotion between two of the characters, who withdraws and withholds from the man who genuinely loves her, and who royally bollockses up her relationship with him in the single most heinously stupid and cruel way at the most unforgivable time. Jo is one flawed, messed up character, and I thought that made both her and her story interesting...to a point.

Also surprising considering the flagrant sexuality, the narrative has a lovely tongue-in-cheek, naughty humor that flirts with, but doesn't cross over into raunchy. Jo, for all her flaws, is a funny girl, and through shifting points of view that include first person from her perspective, there are plenty of opportunities to be entertained by that alone. Patrick is also a very affable, quick-witted chap who is quite easy to love as he recovers from the dissolution of his marriage and starts falling for Jo.

For the first almost three-quarters of this book, I was drawn in and fascinated by the story. Even the parts that made me a little uncomfortable (e.g. the sex club) seemed more a portent of impending conflict and a reflection of Jo's intimacy issues than were in any way an annoyance. Then the book hit the seventy percent mark, Jo popped a whole bottle of Stupid pills, became an idiot, a liar, and a cheating whore with no redeeming traits whatsoever, and then boo-hoo'd her way into the record books as one of the most repugnant creatures I've ever had the misfortune to experience in fiction.

To make that craptastic pile of shit even worse, the story stopped making sense, dropped every single plot thread that could have provided some measure of understanding, lost what modicum of good taste it possessed, and careened into wretched, unforgivable melodramatic angst with all the enthusiasm of an alcoholic at an open bar.

I started this book thinking it was an erotic romance. If that was the intent, it failed utterly for me on all fronts. There was nothing sufficiently redemptive or explanatory in the final chapters of the book to forgive Jo's unpardonable actions, and what I read in no way resembled a satisfying HEA. It is only when I look at this book through the lens of erotic fiction that I can be more objective and appreciate the first three quarters of it. Appreciating anything about the final quarter, though, is beyond me even then.

By His Majesty's Grace by Jennifer Blake

Genre: Historical Romance
Series: The Three Graces, Book 1
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 384 Pages
Formats: Mass Market PaperbackKindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Mira Books publisher Harlequin via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



Little Too Heavy on the History

Lady Isabel Milton was not pleased when the Tudor king Henry VII gave her hand to Earl Randall Braesford for his loyalty to the crown. The notorious curse of the Three Graces of Graydon has finally failed to keep her free of the odious shackles of marriage, and to make matters worse, Braesford has no social standing. He's little more than a farmer and is, to put it mildly, beneath her.

The fact that he is put together rather well - a true warrior in form - yet seems to possess a gentility and honor that far exceeds his peers, does not alter the fact that Isabel doesn't want to marry him or anyone. She yearns to remain free, independent in her decisions and pursuits, and a husband would deem her little more than breeding chattel. That's exactly why she concocted that ridiculous curse of the Three Graces years ago. To save her and her two sisters from just the sort of situation that Isabel now finds herself.

How was she supposed to know that Braesford wouldn't fear the curse; would willingly...actually...more than willingly, take her as wife?

No sooner had she suffered through their initial meeting and interminable dinner, dreading the night to follow all the while, than several of the king's soldiers arrive at Braesford on a grim mission. Upon order of King Henry VII, Earl Rand Braesford is commanded to return with them to Westminster Palace to answer to the king on a charge of murder. Not an average murder, either, Isabel is horrified to hear, but the purposeful and brutal killing of an innocent newborn rumored to be the king's illegitimate daughter.

And so the curse of the Three Graces lives on.

Caught between horror and relief, Lady Isabel, commanded to return to Westminster with Rand, has freedom almost in her grasp. The king will likely imprison him in the Tower, then hang him. Except...she didn't really want him dead, just didn't want to be married to him. And the more she thought about the nature of the crime and Rand's bearing and honor, the more she doubted he could possibly have done such a vile thing.

And Lady Isabel, being both intelligent and crafty, not to mention intractable, becomes determined that it would do her no good at all to be known as the wife of a child killer, so she absolutely must determine his innocence. It really is the only logical thing to do...it certainly has nothing to do with the possibility that her feelings are softening towards the man who is now her husband. Certainly not.

But as elements of the crime come to light and the conspiracy seems to deepen and darken, the path to murder takes a horrifying turn, for while she is quite certain that Rand did not do this thing, it is entirely possible...and starting to look more probable...that the king did. And if that's the case, neither Rand nor Isabel are likely to make it out of Westminster Palace alive.
~*~
Fans of historically accurate historic romance should take note of By His Majesty's Grace, the first book of Jennifer Blake's The Three Graces trilogy. The dialogue read with a significant measure of authenticity and the plot felt genuine to the time period and the characters. The story was liberally enhanced with historical fact, but creative license was also based on a strong foundation of history. Blake took the time to set up and thoroughly explain what was a very complex political and socioeconomic climate.

There is a double edge on that particular sword, though. There was so much history provided in such detail - especially in the first half of the book - that it felt, at times, like I was back in my AP European History class. And I wasn't crazy about my AP European History class. Not only did I feel the history bogged down the flow of the story, but it came at the expense of the fictional aspects, including character and plot development.

Still, I did enjoy the story. It was full of twists and turns; some I saw coming, others I didn't. And I did appreciate the authenticity of it, though some of that realism leached a bit of the romanticism away from the book. Medieval England was not exactly a happy place, especially for women.

Speaking of women. Any minor-to-middling issue I had with the overabundance of historical information in the book was utterly eclipsed by how unappealing I found Isabel's character for the first half of the book. In fact, it wasn't until the moment when she gave him her favor that I could even tolerate her, and longer still before I finally became fond of her. She still wasn't a warm, easy going sort, but she was intelligent, stubborn, and determined, and I did like those aspects when she focused her indomitable will on helping Rand instead of getting rid of him. I just wish her attitude had improved much quicker than it did.

The notable difference between Rand's feelings for Isabel and the lack of same in her for him was a little sad and depressing for far too long before slowly changing. The flip side of that is that once she did start warming to Rand, Isabel's development was believably gradual and smooth. Despite that, there were moments, like when Rand was excited to complete Isabel's rooms at Braesford Hall before she arrived, only to be disappointed when she didn't acknowledge his efforts, or his embarrassment at his lack of nobility when he overhears her saying he's nobody...that made me sad for him. He was completely sympathetic, more than a little endearing, and - when combined with his inherent sensuality - it made him truly stand head and shoulders above many a romance hero.

I wish there had been a little less focus on history and a little more on fiction, and I wish Isabel's character hadn't been so unlikable for so long. The rest of the book, especially Sir Randall Braesford, was solid, well-told entertainment and provided a nice stepping-off point for The Three Graces.

Never Cry Wolf by Cynthia Eden

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: N/A
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 352 Pages, 5011 Locations
Formats: Paperback, Kindle




Wish I'd Read Immortal Danger First

After the brutal slaying of a close friend, Sarah King knows her only hope of staying alive is to secure the protection of the strongest alpha wolf in California, Lucas Simone. To get him to agree, however, is going to take a hell of a lot more than batted eyelashes and a "pretty please with sugar on top" plea. When she finally gets to him, sees him in person, the full meaning of the old adage of being caught between a rock and a hard place becomes painfully clear. Lucas exudes a raw sexuality that hits Sarah hard, makes her want and yearn, but he looks just as forbidding...if slightly less insane...as the one from whom Sarah is trying to hide.

As a wolf, the wildest, most powerful, and often least mentally stable of all the shifter breeds of Other, Lucas is just as likely to hunt her as to help her. She's willing to trade information to secure his help, information about a rouge wolf encroaching on Lukas' territory. She hopes it's enough to warrant protection, because she has plenty of other information she plans to keep from him, secrets that would garner no sympathy - nor mercy, for that matter - from the intense wolf. Instead, they could go a long way to securing her death sentence, because just as it is clear to Sarah that Lucas wants her, there is no doubt in Sarah's mind what he'll do to her if he finds out that not even the danger posed by a wolf bent on killing him and taking his pack compares to the risk of Sarah herself.

Some people say the truth will set you free. Sarah figures those people haven't had the hot breath of a feral wolf shifter wafting over the tender flesh at their throats...or felt the blazing passion of a possessive, clawed hand sliding over the bare skin at their hip.

~*~

I've been enjoying Cynthia Eden's books for several years and particularly like the paranormal world she's created that encompasses the Midnight Trilogy and Night Watch series. It's a solid, well-developed, fully rounded-out world that includes all manner of beastie, called Other, living alongside humanity. One of the nicest things about that world is the familiarity it breeds, makes it easy to connect to the characters and get into the plot of a book, even across different series, without a lot of exposition dragging down the narrative. It's just a quirk of my nature that, despite that, I like to know where a book I read falls within existing series.

Never Cry Wolf gave me a bit of a problem in that area. Conflicting information between a few different sites had me confused, but from the websites of Eden and the publisher, it seems Never Cry Wolf exists in the world of the Others, with closer ties to the Night Watch series than the Midnight Trilogy, but it seems to be more a followup of the book Immortal Danger, another novel that is loosely connected to Night Watch but not actually a part of that series. Characters introduced in Immortal Danger are featured in Never Cry Wolf, including one of the protagonists, Lucas Simone, and several points of the plot of Immortal Danger served as backstory in Never Cry Wolf. I think this book read well enough as a stand-alone, but I think I would've appreciated the latter half of the book more had I read Immortal Danger first.

In typical Eden style, Lucas and Sarah are strong romantic leads, their relationship marked by lots of lusty yearning and plenty of intense emotion. It started hot and ramped up quick, and was peppered with the sort of heated back-and-forth dialogue that Eden does so well. It always seems part story development, part character foreplay and it's one of my favorite aspects of Eden's books.

The plot was entertaining, and I especially enjoyed the first half, but the external conflict got a little muddy at about the halfway point. I wasn't thrilled with the plot threads that sprang from the introduction of the voodoo priestess and felt the story got a little out of control from that point on. I didn't dislike it, but it's not as cohesive as others I've read from Eden. Everything was a little too much. Sarah had a few too many secrets, there were a few too many attempted plot twists - and not all of them were completely successful. There were also a few too many coincidences, a few too many suspicious connections between secondary and ancillary characters... It just wasn't as clean and tight as it could have been.

Still, the chemistry between the characters was intense, the characters themselves were well developed and likable, and - again, typical Eden - both the male and female protagonist are strong, independent characters who can hold their own. Sarah's physical strength doesn't match Lucas', of course, but she's got her own strengths and Eden never once let her need for Lucas' protection make it seem like Sarah was some weak damsel in distress. I still wish I'd read Immortal Danger before this one. I think it would have helped me with the characters that had obviously been previously introduced. Though this book wasn't my favorite by Eden, I'm still a fan, and I plan to give Immortal Danger a read soon. Not only do I want to get more detail on the threads that got mentioned here as backstory, but I liked the vampire and her fire breather and look forward to a closer look at their story.

Inside by Brenda Novak

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: Bulletproof, Book 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 448 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Harlequin imprint Mira Books via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



I Fell Hard for Virgil

Virgil Skinner served a fourteen year prison sentence for a murder he didn't commit. He was eighteen when he went in - little more than a child. He quickly learned to do what he needed to do to survive. 

Full exoneration is all well and good, if fourteen years overdue, and walking away from the pen is all Virgil ever wanted, but he knows - knows - what will happen to him on the outside, what will happen to his sister and her two children if he doesn't do something, because he has no intention of sticking with the gang he hooked up with inside. They were a means to an end and that part of his life is over. That being said, he has no intention of turning on them. He'd given his oaths and he'd stand by them. Virgil knew that wouldn't stop the gang from hunting down him and anyone he cares about as soon as it became clear he was out of more than just prison.

That's why he agreed to the deal with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, why no sooner had he been set free from one hellhole that he agreed to go willingly into another, to the notorious Pelican Bay. A maximum security prison from hell in northern California, Virgil agrees to go in undercover, jumping in with the gang there and acting as a snitch for the CDCR. He's doing so - and would do far more - for no other reason than to protect his sister and her kids. He would take any risk, do whatever he had to do, if he could just keep his sister, his niece, and his nephew safe.

He hadn't expected Peyton Adams, Chief Deputy Warden of Pelican Bay and vocal opponent of this undercover operation. What surprised him is that the passionate, idealistic woman thought the op too dangerous for him. She was concerned she wouldn't be able to protect him when he went in. She's right, but he doesn't care about that. And Peyton's worry for his safety, or the way she looks at him like a man instead of an ex-con...well, he couldn't let himself care about any of that. No matter how good it feels. Because if he lets himself care, he'll do something far more dangerous than anything he's ever done before...he'll start dreaming a woman like Peyton could ever want to be with a man like him.

~*~

For my first foray into books by Brenda Novak, I think I found a great starting place. I enjoyed her writing style and appreciated the research that she put into capturing the lingo and life in a prison. It added an air of authenticity to many of the characters and to aspects of the plot. The story had depth and the various threads and external conflicts were woven together nicely, creating a cohesive, captivating narrative that started strong with two appealing main characters.

I have to admit, though, Virgil was the brightest spot of it all for me. I loved him. Novak created an utterly sympathetic character, the proverbial tragic hero, and imbued him with a sense of tarnished nobility. He's a realist to the point of pessimism, yet he shows glimpses of naked yearning and hope for a future he tries desperately not to need. It's heartbreaking at times, and watching him do what he had to do despite it all garnered respect.

Peyton was a solid female lead. I'm hard on them, I know; finicky with my preferences. In Peyton, though, Novak created an intelligent, competent woman who had her life well in hand. I enjoyed her. She didn't have the same spark or story presence that Virgil had, but she complimented him nicely.

Novak showed off quite an aplomb for creating characters that a reader can easily love or hate, depending on their roles. Her secondary characters were realistic and three dimensional. I'm afraid I have to admit, Virgil wasn't the sole focus of my reader-crush. I started two-timing him as soon as Pretty Boy was introduced into the story. Tacky and shallow, I know, but still, I would have loved seeing even more of him and I hope he's a character that will pop up in later books.

For all that the book was deftly and expertly executed and the characters entertaining, I wasn't crazy about the end of the book. After the careful, well-paced, diversely-plotted build up of the external conflict and the organic development of the romance, I didn't feel the resolution of the book did either justice. The epilogue, while tying up enough loose ends to at least appease me in reference to the external plot, wasn't enough to make up for the lack of relationship development between Peyton and Virgil between the final scene of the book and the epilogue. I felt a little gypped on the romance in that regard. I was also a little disappointed by the lack of apparent gain for Virgil's stint undercover. With everything that was risked and sacrificed in the big picture, I would have liked to have seen more benefit defray all that cost.

Even with those minor issues, Inside was a very solid, entertaining series debut. It certainly had it's fair share of action, plenty of suspense, a romance that was both heartwarming and seductive, and characters to root for (or despise when necessary). Not a bad introduction to an author with whom I wasn't previously familiar. Not bad at all.

Falling Hard by J.K. Coi

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: N/A
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 83,000 Words
Formats: Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Carina Press via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.


Dark Paranormal Romance With Wings

Music is a dark passion for rock musician Gabriel Gunn, as well as his vehicle for emotional expression. It reflects the rage and pain that stains his soul after a life of tragedy, horror, and pain.

But not everything is misery for the rocker. His band just closed out a wildly successful tour with their best performance to date and he's looking forward to a couple weeks of rest and relaxation as he leaves the venue with his best friend and band manager David. In that moment, Gabriel was feeling pretty good with the world in general.

The moment was fleeting.

Before Gabriel could wrap his mind around just how quickly his life had turned to hell yet again, he and David stumble onto an incomprehensible scene of shattered glass and blood, the dead stare of the murdered driver haunting them both. Then life took an even more twisted, surreal turn when a figure separated from the shadows and drew a bloodied sword. David fell under the blade and Gabriel was run through trying to defend him. Just before he passed out, Gabriel saw her. A woman he'd noticed backstage during the concert. As his world went dark and his blood spread in a widening pool around him, she engaged the fiend that had attacked them. Like a stained snapshot, she was the last thing he saw - her hair like moonbeam, her sword like silver fire...her wings...her wings...

Guardian angels are a myth. Angels, in fact, didn't much care for humanity, considering them as little more than the usurpers of a realm and planet that the angels wanted for themselves. Despite that, Amelia had guarded one man since birth, using her angelic abilities to protect and hide him both from others of her kind and from himself. It was an emotionless task, as Angels had long ago given up emotion. At least it was supposed to be.

Amelia, however, had been in the human realm for too long without the angel song that fed her soul and kept her alive. And kept her emotions bound. Still she remained with Gabriel after chasing off his foe. Guarding him, watching him, feeling for him. He was her charge and she failed him, humans dying for her mistake. It is not one she would be repeating. It wasn't only her life depending on her continued success, either. If by some chance what is inside Gabriel is released, it will start another angelic war.

What she hasn't told Gabriel, though, is a secret that could change everything, a truth that could destroy even the last vestiges of hope. For what is rising inside Gabriel is a force of evil unmatched in both their realm's. Gabriel Gunn holds inside himself the soul of Lucifer. His fate is sealed, his options are limited to two: die to guarantee that Lucifer's soul doesn't rise, or lose his soul to Lucifer's ascension then die.

Either way, life definitely sucked.

~*~

While I've enjoyed my share of dark paranormal romance, I have to admit, Coi's Falling Hard didn't thrill me as much as I'd hoped it would. I had a very hard time feeling any sort of connection to the lead characters, the world building was well-developed but grim, the main threads of the plot seemed limited and lacked depth, and the tone of the story lacked the glimmers of hope or redemption that make dark themed tales appealing or satisfying reading for me.

The hero Gabriel was so angst-ridden and filled with rage that he didn't invite much sympathy, despite his history. I considered him more of an anti-hero, but the story didn't fully support that label, either, so I just couldn't seem to invest in his plight. Amelia was slightly more appealing as the angel who had been tasked with guarding Gabriel since his birth. As a warrior she was strong and coldly competent, as a female who was experiencing emotion for the first time in millennium she was less appealing to me. My oft-mentioned prejudice against weak female characters got stirred a few times by several scenes in which Amelia came off as a naive ingenue type when viewed against the jaded carnality of Gabriel. It didn't work for me.

The story vaguely reminded me of the start of Adrian Phoenix's dark urban fantasy series, The Maker's Song, though more in tone and a few minor similarities in the main characters than in plot or world building. Falling Hard has the same sense of grim inevitability, and the lead characters in both are dark anti-hero types with tons of baggage, with romantic leads who are warriors intent on protecting them, but neither the plot nor the world of this book have as many secondary and ancillary plot threads to add depth to the story, nor is the book as heavily populated by secondary and ancillary characters as Phoenix's.

When I finished the novel I checked the author's website to see if I could determine if Falling Hard was a stand-alone book or a series debut but the results weren't conclusive. I felt vaguely uncomfortable and conflicted by the book's ending. For me, it offered no redemption, little happiness, and too few overall positives, and I wasn't thrilled with the culmination of Gabriel's character. If this is a series debut, some of that would be forgivable, even understandable, because I expect characters to expand and evolve and their stories to become more complex as a series progresses. It doesn't bother me as much if those aspects are a bit rough at the start. Not knowing forces me to view it as a stand-alone, and in that regard, neither the characters and their romance, nor the external conflict and resolution were enough to fully engage and entertain me.

Viper's Kiss by Shannon Curtis

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: McCormack Security Agency, Book 1
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 53,000 Words
Formats: Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Carina Press Via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.

Strained My Willing Suspension of Disbelief


Maggie Kincaid isn't having a good week. She's been forced to disguise herself as an old woman to sneak past a throng of fans just to get to her library job at the University of Washington. They're not her fans, per se, though they don't know that. It's just her rotten luck that a woman bearing enough resemblance to Maggie to be her doppelganger posed nude as Miss April Hotrod in a popular...and apparently well-circulated calendar.

Her mother certainly wasn't amused.

Little did Maggie know that the abject mortification caused by the...um...lovely Ms. Kandy Karamel (there was a website, too) would actually be the highlight of her week. It went steadily and horrifyingly downhill from there.

Arrested, witness to double homicide, kidnapped, almost murdered, forced to nearly kill in self defense, kidnapped again, held in custody by a gorgeous security agent she could just lick up like sweet cream (that part's not so bad), condemned for espionage, almost killed - again...and again, accused of treason, and more. Some days it just doesn't pay to get out of bed. Except for that whole gorgeous security agent thing. The big jerk may think she's the most obvious and stupid spy in history, but he's got one fine form.

Said big jerk Luke Fletcher is convinced he's finally apprehended one of the world's most notorious spies, code name: Viper. They have Viper on tape murdering a man and stealing highly classified and sensitive materials that could be used against the country and the men and women who fight for it. Luke's seen the tapes. Studied them. And has no doubt Maggie Kincaid is the cold-blooded, murdering spy he's been tracking. Even her own laptop shows quite clearly that she was the one who hacked into the classified files prior to the theft. Every single scrap of evidence points directly at the delicious...er...devious Maggie.

And all the protests that spring from that hot, wet, gorgeous mouth of hers...a mouth he could easily and happily imagine around his...um...weapon of mass destruction...won't save her ass....that tight, luscious ass of hers... Uh, yeah - he's focused and single-minded in his determination to bring Maggie Kincaid down. By any means necessary.

~*~

I have ultimate respect for authors and the effort they put into writing stories they hope their readers will enjoy, and I do my best to remain true to that respect in my reviews. I always keep in mind that I'm reviewing books, not authors, not other reviews/reviewers and/or their opinions. Books. Still, sometimes I have to wonder what an author was thinking when I read something that really strains my ability to maintain a willing suspension of disbelief. Unfortunately, that's the case here.

It's not that Curtis isn't a decent author, or that the book showed a lack of skill. In fact, most of Viper's Kiss is a fast-moving, action-packed, lusty, wild ride. It's skewed heavily towards the lighter, more humorous end of the romantic suspense sub-genre, of course, and there were parts that felt like farce - fun on the surface, not a lot of depth beneath. But that's fine - it's not always to my personal tastes, maybe, but I recognized it for what it was and could accept that. Obviously so, or I wouldn't have considered this a three star book.

No, my problems came not so much from the execution of the story, but from the concept behind it. There were just too many coincidences, too many clichés, too many bad ideas. Does the world really need one more security/bodyguard/protection company staffed by ex-Special Forces military types? They're as ubiquitous as paranormals in New Orleans. Hell, I've read books where the paranormals in New Orleans were the ex-Special Forces military-type security agents. It's been done before.

I'm sorry to say it's been done better. Aspects of this book were very ill-defined. It was never made clear just what sort of security agency would send out agents to track down spies and get smack in the middle of an investigation that included the brutal murder of two police officers without once having to answer to the cops. Or even come face-to-face with one. That's FBI-level stuff at the very least, CIA more likely, not a group with a questionable agenda and undefined government connections, one who seems to be roughly akin to highly skilled bounty hunters but who acts like Fed. One with agents, I have to say, who are really bad at their jobs.

I mean, seriously, the egregiously large number of things that should have been verified and investigated before detaining a U.S. citizen and accusing her of murder and treason were fairly astounding. Not to mention how quickly and often a rank amateur gave three decorated military men the slip. The sheer implausibility of it all was more than I could bear.

I need a book to be at least vaguely believable to enjoy it. Maybe that's odd, given my reading preferences, but even the most wildly fantastical world ruled by the wickedest mystical elements has to make sense within its own mythos to work for me. Viper's Kiss wasn't badly written, nor was the story devoid of high points. For me, though, there were just way too many things that prevented me from maintaining a willing suspension of disbelief.

The Cypress House by Michael Koryta

Genre: Supernatural Thriller
Series: N/A
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Length: 448 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Little, Brown, and Company via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.


The Cypress House
A Hurricane-Force Story

Arlen Wagner is content with his life. A taciturn man, he spends his days as a construction laborer with the Civilian Conservation Corps and often instructs young men new to the Corps in the trade. Given the deepening woes of the Great Depression, he's relieved to have steady work. Now, at his friend Paul Brickhill's urging, he's on a train and heading to a camp in the Florida Keys to work on building a roadway that will connect the islands of the Keys to each other and to the mainland.

Problem is, for all that Arlen is a content, taciturn man, he's by no means a normal man. Arlen sees dead people. Before they're dead. So when he opens his eyes after a brief rest and sees a skeletal hand holding the cards of a card player nearby, his stomach clenches. The real fear doesn't sink in, though, until he looks around and realizes the full scope of the impending horror. Everyone in that passenger car is doomed. Some are skeletal, some have the smoke of death in place of their eyes, but it all means one thing. They are all going to die.

As much as he tries, he can only convince Paul not to re-board the train at their next stop. The rest of the doomed men taunt Arlen and leave them both in an abandoned station in the middle of Florida's sweltering east coast. Arlen knows that he saved Paul's life. Saved his own life. That is fact. But seeing a prelude of death is the extent of Arlen's abilities. He doesn't have a clue what getting off that train means, has no hint of the path on which his rescue has set them. Then they accept a ride from a stranger. They travel across the state to the Gulf Coast. And for the first time, they see The Cypress House.

Not even a man who sees death coming could possibly be prepared for the Cypress House - its secrets, its horrors...and its bitter truths. Their first night's stay, they live through a hurricane, never once suspecting that surviving nature's fury would be the easiest part of their sojourn at that house of death.

I didn't know quite what I was getting into when I started Koryta's The Cypress House. I was expecting a horror novel, actually, with those aspects tied to the house. I suppose, in a way, that's not too far from the truth, yet it doesn't come close to encompassing the full nature of this complex, grim, and bitterly poignant tale.

To me, the story seems more akin to a supernatural thriller than horror. It's definitely not the sort of book I normally read. I am not a fan of depression-era fiction. I tend to find it...well...depressing. Imagine my surprise, then, when I started reading and found myself utterly and completely captivated by the writing, the characters, and the story before I even got finished with the first chapter. By the end of the book I was left feeling wrung out and deeply affected by this compelling tale. The Cypress House is haunting, not haunted, and I loved it.

Set on the west central coast of Florida in 1935, an era when the country is crippled by the depression, Koryta's sparse and stylized narrative mirrors a sense of gritty hopelessness and desolate despair that must have been felt by so many of the time. His main character Arlen represents the less-is-more philosophy of characterization. He doesn't say all that much, certainly doesn't emote all that much, and I kept picturing him as a reserved but intense Viggo Mortensen type. No flash, all substance.

Contained power, damaged by life, capable, unbreakable...like a craggy rock with a stained soul, Arlen was, to me, a very poetic character. Noble in an era when nobility didn't pay, loyal and protective, which certainly earned no more. Flawed, for sure, and haunted by his past just as certainly as he's tormented by his ability. He is also completely sympathetic for the very fact that he expects no sympathy. Arlen Wagner, in fact, expects nothing.

Paul, on the other hand, was a lively one; the energetic, sometimes naive, hopeful one. Brilliant, but goofy with it. Idealistic and unbeaten by life - untried by life - he was an odd companion for Arlen, yet he was also the perfect compliment to the quietly intense man. I felt for him from the start, because the atmospheric chill of inevitability that permeated the book just forced me to realize very quickly that his innocence would suffer...as innocence too often does.

I don't want to expound on the story too much other than to say I found it gripping. Depressing at times, action-packed at others, it was a grim tale of corruption, lawlessness, and greed - a subversive triumvirate that breeds a malignancy that masquerades as power. But The Cypress House also dared to give readers a glimpse of hope and even love, and a battle against tyranny and oppression.

I thought the pacing through most of the book was fantastic. There was just a few places in the middle, before the full scope of the plot was revealed and so many secrets were still being kept, that I felt the narrative dragged a little. The intensity of the rest of the story kept that from being too big a detraction. There were truly gut-wrenching scenes in this book, and there were certainly many that were tension-filled. So many, in fact, that I admit, it didn't always make for an easy read. Entertaining, yes. Satisfying, yes. Easy...no.

In the end, I think I'll remember The Cypress House as a gritty, realistic tale about an ordinary man with an extraordinary ability, a quiet man who accepts life exactly as it is and calmly shoulders on...right up until that one final line is crossed, until he realizes that some battles can't - and shouldn't be - avoided. Some wars do need to be waged. Some things, some people, in fact, are worth more than fighting for, they're worth dying for. And love lingers.

Blaze of Memory by Nalini Singh

Genre: Paranormal Romance; Alternate Universe; Futuristic
Series: Psy/Changeling, Book 7
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 400 Pages, 5483 Locations
Formats: PaperbackKindle






Blaze Didn't Quite Reach Full Conflagration


She was dumped at his doorstep like so much garbage after having been nearly tortured and starved to death. She has no memory of who she is, but Devraj Santos knows exactly what she is. She's Psy. That means one thing for the leader of the Shine Foundation: she's the enemy. For the man, though, it means something far different. She is his.

Deeply traumatized by the brutality inflicted on her by her captor, Psy scientist Ekaterina is dead. Her heart still beats, her mind still works...mostly, but she is not who she once was. She knows she's dangerous, knows that the Psy counselor Ming did heinous things to her, but she doesn't remember exactly what those things are. All she knows with any measure of certainty is that who she was is dead. Now she's Katya. And she's deeply concerned that the longer she remains both patient and captive of the enigmatic and dual-natured Dev Santos, the larger a threat she poses to him and his people, the Forgotten.

Dev's not stupid. He doesn't doubt Katya is a perfect Trojan horse. There is no other explanation that makes sense. And the Forgotten have to be too careful to risk letting the Psy female know any valuable intel. She may not know she's a weapon, but she's the most deadly sort there is, because the longer Dev is responsible for her, the more resolute he becomes about keeping her, despite knowing that the deadly sleeper agent Katya has become will be prodded into awakening and making her move. To kill him.

Gah, I hate to say this, but Blaze of Memory is my least favorite of the first seven books in the Psy/Changeling series. It wasn't an issue of liking the characters. I liked Dev and Katya just fine. They struck me as pretty standard lead characters for the series, nothing exceptional that made them stand out like some of my favs, but nothing annoying that detracted, either.

My problems with the book weren't the characters. It was pretty much everything else.

I'm a huge fan of this series and of Singh's writing style. She writes some of the most emotionally powerful and complex paranormal romance out there today. Her Psy/Changeling world is rich, vibrant, and darkly realistic given the futuristic timeline and alternate earth history. Her plots in this series have been nicely layered and full of depth. Such was the case in this book. But for the first time I felt the layers didn't slide together as seamlessly as I'm used to from previous books.

The romance plot thread seemed oddly stunted, maybe because of Katya's amnesia, maybe Dev's reticence, but for whatever reason, I didn't quite buy into the depth of emotion that was supposed to exist between them at the end of the book, and their storyline seemed overburdened by the threat of what was done to Katya. The risk she posed got a bit belabored and, as it was the main conflict in the relationship, it limited the depth of that plot line.

By this seventh book, I was hoping for more series arc progression, or some resolution on a few of the secondary and ancillary threads. Instead, this book gave some fresh insight into the original break between the Psy and the Forgotten and continued to add development to the Psy Council threads. What was suspect to me was the odd lack of setup for Katya's torture and the disregard Ming seemed to have for both his "weapon" and the agenda he had for her once he'd had her dropped at Dev's. That never tracked for me given what a precise tactician Ming is. We also got a few more scenes with the notorious Psy rebel, Ghost, various Council machinations, and instead of anything being drawn to conclusion, new threads were added.

In previous books the various threads wove together to add weight and significance to the romantic plotline, but I didn't get that in this one. Instead, all the secondary and ancillary plot points seemed forced, crammed into the book between scenes with Dev and Katya, pulling attention away from them. And instead of fitting together tightly or transitioning seamlessly, it was like looking at a jagged jigsaw puzzle where none of the pieces quite met.

The strength and quality of a series is certainly not predicated on one book. That's a good thing in the case of Blaze of Memory. And for the record, while I may not have liked this one as much as the others, we're still talking about Singh, here. She's one of the best in the genre. Even though this one didn't thrill me, it was still a complex read that added layers to the continuing struggle between the races. I wouldn't have wanted to miss it. I'm glad I didn't. I just hope the next one is a bit more cohesive, that it starts tying up one or two of the ancillary threads, and that the romantic relationship is given the same sort of depth and attention that we got from the best of the previous novels.

Psy/Changeling Series:



Catch Me by Lorelie Brown

Genre: Historical Romance
Series: N/A
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 77,000 Words
Formats: Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Carina Press via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.

Catch Me
Wickedly Wonderful Western Historical

There's nothing Maggie Bullock wouldn't do to save her father's life. That's why she walked into the bank in Fresh Springs, Arizona. The first time was to beg bank owner Willheim Masterson for a loan to provide the money for her father's medical care. The second was to take what that slimy bastard wouldn't give her, despite the years of loyal friendship between Masterson and her father. With nothing but a gun and determination the twenty-two-year-old robbed the bank.

Dean Collier didn't much like Masterson when he offered him the bounty on Maggie Bullock, but Dean figures he doesn't have to like the man. He needs the job that Masterson is offering in exchange for catching Bullock. It may just be his last shot at redemption. And really, how hard could it be to catch a woman who fancied herself a bank robber?

Turns out that was the wrong question. Catching Maggie wasn't a problem at all. She took the money straight to her father's medical care facility in Texas, just as he thought she would. Holding onto her once he caught the little hellcat, on the other hand, may just be the death of him. And the long journey back to Fresh Springs once he has the beautiful, stubborn, willful woman in hand could very well send him to hell - or offer him a heaven he'd never anticipated.

This nifty historical romance was a lot more fun than I was anticipating. I'm usually not too keen on books set in the west, nor am I an avid historical romance reader, but Brown kept me entertained with two characters who were very likable. Maggie is right up my alley for heroines. She was feisty, wily, passionate about her beliefs, and willing to do anything for those she loves. She robs a bank in the Arizona Territory in 1882 - that takes some major stones. Then she makes it from Arizona to the sanitarium in Texas where her father was being tended, alone in the back country and in a time period where that couldn't have been easy. She had a truly indomitable spirit that I admired and I found very sympathetic.

Dean was a bit of the tortured hero, complex and broody. He's lived through hell and carries around a lot of emotional baggage. As a bounty hunter, the blood of men are on his hands, but it's the weight of failure and a line he crossed that stains his soul. One of the things that Brown did particularly well with his character is create a man who not only desperately needed a woman like Maggie in his life, but one who could really appreciate Maggie's nature without stifling it. The two fit very well together and it made for very fun reading.

Aside from the chemistry and suitability between the lead characters, Brown also provided a well-paced plot that had quite a lot of action and just enough humor to keep it interesting. The storyline could have dragged for me, or felt very two dimensional on the long ride back to Arizona, but the addition Dean's brother and a few ancillary characters kept that from happening. My only preference would have been for more of Masterson's shenanigans to have been sprinkled a little more liberally throughout the book to add more of the external conflict to the plot, because that part did seem a little overbalanced at the beginning and end of the book and too much of the relationship conflict rested solely on whether or not Dean would do his sworn duty.

I don't think Catch Me is going to offer readers much in the way of surprises in either plot or characters, but it definitely offers steady, solid storytelling and characters who were genuinely made for each other. I can't speak on the authenticity of the historical era, but it certainly felt genuine, and there were some nice touches and details in scenery and action that seemed like the real deal. The language struck me as a bit more modern than I would have expected in some places, but again, I have no clue if the terminology in question was historically accurate or not. It's not an issue that concerns me too much one way or the other, so it wasn't a detractor.

I'd love to read more from Brown, especially to get a peak at what made Dean's brother tick. I liked him a lot and there was definitely a lot of untold story in his character's history. And if he gets a book, I hope we get another glimpse at Dean and Maggie in it. I fell for them pretty hard and would love to see how their lives progress.

Unforgotten

I remember. I respect. I mourn.

September 11, 2001

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Dark Awakening by Kendra Leigh Castle

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Dark Dynasties, Book 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 368 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Grand Central Publishing via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.

Dark Awakening (Dark Dynasties, Book 1)
A Dark New World

Vampire. Shapeshifter. They call him a gutterblood. It's not a cozy endearment. Tynan MacGillivray is of the Cait Sith bloodline of vampires. He is considered low class, his kind used as servants and weapons by the vampire aristocracy. Or slaves. Ty's loyalty lies with the queen of the Ptolemy bloodline, the most prestigious of them all. He is Queen Arsinöe's weapon. And he's very good at it.

For eight months he's been hunting through the country, on a quest for the queen. The mighty Ptolemy bloodline is desperate for a Seer, for a human with the ability to divine from whence the threat to their line was coming, because someone was using an ancient curse to slaughter them, and the queen is deadly in her determination to save her people. Tynan is just as determined, having chosen this manner of servitude over two hundred years ago, when the choice had been simple. Perish in the muck of poverty and disease or serve in style. He serves.

And after eight months, he finally found what he was looking for. A Seer. A human woman who has the ability to save the line he served. He finds Lily Quinn...and gets slammed in the gut by an attraction that is as intense as it is unwanted. This task was supposed to be simple, but from the moment he catches Lily's scent nothing about it stays that way. It isn't until Tynan notices a shimmering mark on her sensitive skin, then sees exactly what Lily is capable of doing, that he realizes just how distant the idea of "simple" has become.

He has found in Lily more than a Seer. He's found an enigma, a puzzle, and clues to a truth that will cause a paradigm shift the likes of which will reverberate through not only his people, but through all members of all the bloodlines. All vampires.

Not everyone wants that enigma to be unraveled. Someone, in fact, is quite willing to kill them both to silence them. Keeping Lily alive may be the most dangerous job he's ever had, but the longer Ty spends in her company, the sharper the blade of truth twists in his chest, because even keeping her alive doesn't mean he can let her go. There is still his duty to fulfill. And his honor on the line. Regardless of the importance of the life in the balance.

It was the story of her time with Ty: moments of bliss, hours of irritation, and the occasional life-threatening event.

Books like this series debut by Kendra Leigh Castle offer me some of my favorite reading entertainment. It's not just that it's a paranormal romance, which is the sub-genre I read most frequently and enjoy the most, though of course that plays a part. More, though, is that Dark Awakening provides readers a very nice blend of the favored familiarity of the sub-genre, some tantalizing and darkly decadent originality in the world building, and an appealingly fresh voice in the storytelling. That rare mix of positives is what separates books and series I like from those I go out of my way to make sure I follow and read.

It doesn't even have to be a perfect book. In truth, Dark Awakening wasn't a perfect book for me. As the hero of the book, Ty was a tad broody for my tastes, and there was a grim acceptance of his station in life that I didn't find appealing and I believe it persisted for far too long. I also felt the evolution of the plot threads of Lily's origins and her place in the world was, at times, a little slow to progress in lieu of the attention given to the romance plotline.

It figured that she'd finally met the perfect man for her, and he turned out to be a cat-shifting vampire with issues.

The book's positives, though, have a much longer list. The world was very well-conceived and fleshed out for a series debut. The mythos had a lot of unique aspects that excited me. Both main characters were strong, even if I preferred Lily and her feisty personality a little more than the often too-serious Ty. Secondary and ancillary characters added to the world, the plot, and the main characters' lives. Some, like Damian, were even wonderfully twisted. He was a mostly bad, definitely self-interested Cait Sith with a teeny thread of honor still left in him. I adore complicated characters like that.

The narrative and the story were also big positives for Dark Awakening. I enjoy Castle's writing style. It's slick and polished, has moments of humor and tragedy, and it snagged my emotions effortlessly, keeping me invested in the lives of the characters and the world that their destinies may very well remake. The underlying plot threads that highlight the class inequities in the vampire bloodlines and the archaic political and social structure were fascinating and definitely sparked my interest.

With this book, Castle has ensured that I'll follow her Dark Dynasties series. I'm not sure just yet how I feel about the slated hero for the next book, Jaden. He struck me as a damaged and broken character in this book. A male who had once been playful and suave, but who now bears scars on his skin and soul. Given how Tynan was in this book, I have a sneaking suspicion that Castle will keep to the dark, brooding hero type given Jaden. I'll definitely be waiting to see how that goes, and I'm very interested in seeing where the author plans to take the dark dynasties from here.

The First Victim by J.B. Lynn

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: N/A
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 72,000 Words
Formats: Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Carina Press via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.




A Terror that Spans Time


Emily Watson grew up in a small town and for the first sixteen years of her life she was a normal girl doing normal girl things. She had a best friend, she liked a boy, she was sometimes frustrated by her parents. Normal. Until one sunny autumn day, when she was abducted by a sick monster as she hurried along the path from the lake to her lakeside house.

After that, after three interminable days of being held captive, being beaten and molested, nothing was normal for Emily ever again. Her abductor was never caught.

She fled Lakeside Acres as soon as she could, her hometown having become a source of terror that haunted her even fifteen years after her abduction. She had thought there wasn't anything that could force her back there, but when her old childhood friend Bailey O'Neil, now a Lakeside Acres police deputy, calls to inform her that her father has been in a horrible accident and her young sister needs her, she's left with little choice. No matter how contentious her relationship with her dad, she cares about her sister and can't let her own neurosis keep her from taking care of the teenager.

No sooner is Emily back in town then the creepy "Welcome Back Emily" messages start showing up everywhere she goes. Then she finds the body of a murdered girl dumped on the property of her family home and her nightmares turn to terror. The murdered girl is a friend of her baby sister's, a victim of a serial killer the FBI have been tracking for years. Not even the arrival of the FBI, called in by Bailey, makes Emily feel safe. She's being targeted, tormented by a past that haunts her day and night.

The only time she feels any safety at all is when Bailey is near. The were best friends as children, and as adolescents - before her abduction - she was wildly infatuated with him. Now, as adults, the hunger for the man is still there, but the terror is snapping at her heels and a monster has her in his sights. Emily is painfully aware that giving in to one may very well mean falling prey to the other.

My reading preferences in the romantic suspense sub-genre leans towards exactly this kind of psychological thriller that features the sort of hunt for a serial killer that Lynn has created here with The First Victim (we'll...um...just ignore what that may imply about the state of my psyche). I've read a lot of them, and this book holds up fairly well against some true gut-wrenchers. The suspense and thriller aspects of the plot were handled well and created then maintained a level of tension and atmosphere throughout the book, offering glimpses of a sadist's twisted desires without letting the reader know who wears the face of a madman.

I also appreciated the depth in the plot, the question about old loyalties and emotions, the mystery surrounding the destruction of Emily's family and the people it affected, as well as some angst generated by Bailey's family problems. There were enough secondary and ancillary threads to keep the book from feeling one-note, but they didn't overwhelm the narrative or bog down the pacing. In that regard it was a solid, disturbing read with enough meat on its bones to entertain all the way through.

There were some clichéd moments, like the uncharged cell phone, or the crazy lady that every small town has, the one no one listens to but should, but those annoyances were balanced out by some subtle foreshadowing and a few dramatic plot twists that took me by surprise. I liked most of the characters quite a lot, and Lynn maintained a satisfying pragmatic approach to the plot threads outside the primary threat of the serial killer that added a layer of realism to the story. I had a couple of issues, though, and both of them were fairly large.

I never warmed up to Emily. I tried. I really did. I just didn't find her sympathetic. The visceral fear that crippled her so long after her abduction, locking her down and ruling her actions...well, that just struck me as weakness. What happened to her was horrifying, yes, and they never caught the guy who abducted and molested her, nor did she get much parental support after the fact - and that's tragic. Still, she's alive, and she's an adult now and as such, is responsible for herself. I would have had more respect for her as a character if she hadn't perpetuated her victimization by allowing fear to rule her when she got back to her hometown.

I loved the rest of the characters, though, especially Bailey. I would have preferred more character development in the FBI guys. I liked them a lot. They felt very organic and they seemed to have the sort of backstory that alludes to a previous novel, which I enjoyed because they felt like very robust and nicely established characters, but I wish they'd been allotted a larger presence in the book.

The other major issue came late in the book, when the plot took an odd twist as it started to build towards the climax. I'm loathe to mention any specific details given the nature and timing of my issues, so instead I'll just say there was one thing that made me say, "Oh, come on. How did that get there?" and that was quickly followed by another that had me thinking, "You're just going to sit there? Really?? Wow, that's...unwise and remarkably unproductive."

Fortunately, after that somewhat contrived bobble, the action ratcheted up again and raced towards a very satisfying climax and dénouement.

I liked the story of The First Victim. I think it was told quite well. I just wish my prejudices against weak female leads hadn't hamstrung me so severely when it came to Emily's character, and the bobble with the plot late in the book hadn't been so glaring to me. I'll definitely keep my eye on Lynn though, because I really enjoyed several important aspects of this story and the other characters she created in it. I look forward to trying more of her work.

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.
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Zero at the BoneHead Over HeelsLord of the WolfynIn Total SurrenderA Win-Win PropositionNorth of Need

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