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By Grace Possessed by Jennifer Blake

Genre: Historical Romance
Series: The Three Graces, Book 2
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 400 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.



More Balanced than His Majesty's


Compromising position or not, King Henry VII's ward or not, Lady Catherine Milton has accepted the word of Ross Dunbar, himself the son of a Scottish laird and current enforced guest...of a sort...to the Tudor king. He swears his loyalty is to his own king and his obligation to his own people. He swears he has no wish to be commanded to take a Sassenach bride. He swears he shall tell King Henry VII that very thing when the inevitable summons comes. He did, after all, spend the night with Lady Catherine. Not for any impure purpose, of course. He had, in fact, saved her from capture by outlaws. The result of that rescue, however, was the loss of their horses and a night stuck in wintry woods during a storm, nothing but a a hastily made shelter and a bonfire standing between them and a tragic, frozen end.

In other words, positive ruination of her good reputation unless he wed her.

Lady Catherine has no more desire to be wed to Dunbar than Dunbar does to have her as wife. In truth, even less. Second sister of the notorious Three Graces and as such protected from an unsuitable match by the curse that befalls anyone who is given her hand in marriage without the benefit of love, Lady Catherine is quite adamant in making sure her hand is not given to Dunbar. He's a rather fetching man, for sure, but he rescued her and shouldn't have to die for the deed.

King Henry VII gives no credence to curses, and he is a wily monarch intent on securing his tenuous reign against a new threat that has cropped up. Though it has been mere months since the last attempt to dethrone him, another uprising is brewing and a detente between Scotland's King James and himself would do nothing but serve. Henry VII commands their betrothal. Dunbar and Lady Catherine can do no more than grimly accept, their understanding of their roles as pawns quite clear to them both.

It is in part because Dunbar so appeals to her that Lady Catherine is so vexed. She doesn't wish him to fall victim to the curse. Yet when an unhappily spurned suitor and enemy to her betrothed turns his frustrations against crown and county as well as Catherine's own well being, it becomes clear that the curse may only be one of very many potential thorns in the rose bed of Ross Dunbar's continued existence.

~*~

After the complex medieval history lesson that was By His Majesty's Grace, the first book in Blake's The Three Graces trilogy, I debated continuing the series. I was and still am very impressed with the research that went into that book and the authenticity it lent to the series, but felt the balance between history and fiction was too skewed towards the nonfictional elements for me to really embrace it. Obviously, I finally decided to try the second book, hoping the fiction elements had been improved while maintaining the authenticity and legitimacy of the historical setting in the story of the second Grace sister, Lady Catherine.

I was quite happy to see that they had, and the book had a romantic plot arc that was far more satisfying to me than the one in the previous novel. For that reason, I found By Grace Possessed to be a more entertaining romantic read.

What I realized, though, is historically accurate medieval romances may not be my cuppa. I find the rigid constraints and grim reality for the position of women, as well as the lack of control the noble women had in their own futures and lives, to be counterproductive to romance. Is it realistic that both Lady Catherine's wishes and Ross Dunbar's loyalties would be utterly ignored in favor of a new king's political machinations? Absolutely. It just isn't an atmosphere that breeds or sustains romantic notions for me, and not even Blake's adept writing could quite convince me that love was a powerful motivator in the book.

I was thrilled that Dunbar and Cate weren't as personally close to, or as deeply involved with Henry VII as Isabel and Rand, and enjoyed the character of Cate more than I did Isabel (though I liked Dunbar just as much as I enjoyed Rand). The threat of Lord Trilborn seemed a bit close in theme and events to the conflict generated by Isabel's stepbrother in the first book, but I think the whole of the external conflict was better developed and incorporated in the storyline of this book, so the similarities were noted, not begrudged.

Unfortunately, I quickly became fed up with the repeated referrals to the dreaded curse and the way such a silly superstition affected Lady Catherine's thoughts and feelings. I had hoped that she'd be more sensible. I had also seriously hoped that Blake would ease off on repetitious mentioning of it. I was disappointed on both counts. I'm tired of the curse, which in the previous book readers learned was concocted by Lady Isabel to protect herself and her younger sisters from being made pawns to men's ambitions. I do not understand why the sisters have now glommed onto the curse as if the coincidences of its intended purposes are truly proof of its existence. And I don't like that they have.

That being said, I did have moments of pure pleasure as I enjoyed Lady Catherine and her Scottish laird-to-be, Ross Duncan. They were strong characters, and Catherine had a bit more fire to her blood than even Isabel did. That, along with my deep respect and appreciation for the work Blake put into nailing the historical accuracy and tone of the series, was why I found this one as entertaining as I did.

The Three Graces Series:

Bear, Otter, & the Kid by T.J. Klune

Genre: LGBT - M/M Contemporary Romance
Series: N/A
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 350 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Dreamspinner Press via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.





Packs a Hell of an Emotional Punch


The day before Derrick "Bear" McKenna's eighteenth birthday, his mother gave him the sort of birthday present from which Bear may never recover. A letter. Saying goodbye.

When he wakes up on his birthday he is sick with fear and anger and loss. He's just a kid himself, really, but suddenly he is the sole parental figure for his exceptional six-year-old brother, Tyson, aka the Kid. His college fund is gone right along with his plans for the future, and he is left to figure out how to take care of the Kid with the exactly $137.50 (of his own money) his mother was...kind enough...to leave for them.

Desperate and near crazed with the horror of it all, Bear reaches out to the one person he trusts more than anyone, the one who means more to him than anyone, even more than his best friend Creed and his girlfriend Anna, though he never, ever examines those feelings. And when Bear, mired in depression and desperation and soaked to the gills in booze, reaches out to Creed's older brother Otter and Otter comes to his aid, Bear steps over a line he isn't capable of even recognizing, let alone being comfortable with.

And he loses everything that matters...again...because of it. Everything except the Kid.

For three years Bear and the Kid are on their own. While the time passes, Creed goes off to college, Bear gets a promotion at the grocery store where he and Anna work, the Kid becomes truly terrifying with his intelligence, and things settle into a routine. Some days are good. Some days aren't. Life moves on. Then suddenly, on the same day Creed flies home for his summer break, another friend long gone returns. After three long, painful, bitter years, Otter is home.

And life for Bear will never be the same again. Whether it'll be better...or far, far worse...only time will tell.

~*~

There's a ton of things to like about Klune's debut, Bear, Otter, & the Kid, not the least of which is it's a hell of an emotional roller coaster that slammed into my heart with the force of a major detonation. With main characters named Bear, Otter, and the Kid, along with some rather unique stylistic choices in the narrative, there's almost a fairy tale quality about the book - but it's definitely more towards the Grimm side of fairy tales. Not that there isn't humor, in fact, there were parts that made me chuckle out loud, but there is quite a lot of less-than-pleasant reality, too, as Bear struggles to raise both himself and his little brother as his life and his identity are put through the wringer.

As far as the characters go, I. Loved. The Kid. Loved him. He was my favorite character of the book by far. In fact, for all the thousands of books I've read in my life, for all the millions of characters that have flitted through my consciousness, only to pass out of my mind to make room for the next crowd, the Kid made a place for himself right near the top of the heap. And I was also very fond of Otter, who I appreciated both for his decisions - even when they were impossible and painful - and for his open, generous, loving heart.

But Bear... God, Bear... There were times I just wanted to drown him in that ocean of his and move on. He was just a little too...stuck in his head...all the time, over everything, and it made for some frustrating reading. So much of the melodramatic angst of the book could have been avoided if he'd just manned up and spoken up or spoken out. Would it have been as powerfully emotional a read? No, but I would've felt better about his mental state and his emotional maturity.

In all honesty, I had difficulty viewing Bear as a strong lead character in a successful romance because of his age and his personality and it's pretty much the sole reason I couldn't rate the book with a full complement of stars. Even very close to the end of the book Bear still struck me as needy and judgmental, prickly and defensive, terrified and hostile. And I am not a fan of hypocrisy in any form, so Bear's reaction to Creed and Anna really bothered me. It was totally realistic and believable, don't get me wrong, but I'm no larger a fan of hypocrisy in my fiction than I am of it in my life, and it tends to bother me whenever I encounter it.

I very much enjoyed the loose format, fluid timeline, and more stream-of-consciousness narrative, but I wasn't a fan of the first person, present tense POV. It had the unfortunate result of highlighting all my issues with getting stuck in Bear's head. That being said, the plot was well conceived and executed and the pacing of the emotional ups and downs was consistent throughout the book

A few plot threads confused me a little, there were a couple of times I wasn't sure exactly what the significance or impact a scene was really suppose to have, or was unable to glean the meaning in the subtext while the characters seemed to be doing so. A few balls were dropped, a few scenes didn't make sense, or lacked some believability. Nothing too major, really.

One thing that bothered me was the ease in which the characters blatantly mentioned some fairly crass and graphic things in Mrs. Paquinn's presence. I was hard pressed to believe a bunch of barely-adults would freely talk that way in the presence of the senior citizen who watched Ty. She was portrayed as a pretty wily old broad, but even still, including an elderly lady and a nine-year-old boy in a frank sexual discussion in which both fisting and spanking was mentioned was - and still is - more than vaguely horrifying.

There were also several plot threads that were left unresolved or those which could have been better developed to add a bit of depth and dimension to the plot. The whole mother thing, while providing several gut-wrenching scenes that were successfully horrific and emotionally traumatizing, didn't make a lot of sense in the big picture of the story. Without readers being given a reason for her to show up, an explanation of how she knew what she knew, or having anything relating to her presence tied into the rest of the story, it ended up seeming more like a plot contrivance than an organic evolution to the events of the story.

As an epic emotional journey that rips out your guts and leaves your shattered heart pattering weakly in your chest, Bear, Otter, & the Kid was wildly, crazily successful. I felt like my emotions had been through a natural disaster when this book was done. I'm pretty sure my soul would've looked like a tornado-ravaged town if I could've taken its picture. It may not have been a perfect book, but it was so powerful on an emotional level that despite the issues I mentioned, I ended up feeling both deeply moved and glad I had read it. Heck, even if the book had nothing more going for it than the Kid (which isn't the case by any means), it still would've been a right good time.

And I have to say it again. Loved. The Kid.

The Game of Love by Jeanette Murray

Genre: Contemporary Romance
Series: N/A
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Length: 85,000 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.



Fun, Feisty, Sweet, and Sexy


Former professional tennis player Christina St. James doesn't have an idyllic past. Raised by emotionally stunted and controlling parents who withheld love and demanded perfection from their less-than-perfect tennis-playing daughter, she was ripe pickings for the sort of emotionally abusive bastard that was her NHL star goalie ex-boyfriend. Getting away from him was one thing. Building herself back up into someone who could look herself in the mirror without flinching was another thing altogether. She did it, though - even if remembering her past with her ex still gives her rough moments.

Now she's got a new job at a local high school. She's to coach their tennis team and teach math. She's got big plans for the previously mediocre team and she's excited to get started...right up until her plans slam her head first into God's gift to the athletic department - former NFL player and current football team head coach Brett "The Wall" Wallace. Over six feet of chauvinistic, football-or-nothing, egomaniacal muscle and smarmy toothpaste-commercial smile. Chris has every intention of knocking the big boy off his pedestal if he tries to stand in her way.

Brett Wallace thoroughly enjoys the view of the new tennis coach. Long, lithe, and lean in all the right places, the woman is a walking dose of hormone therapy. Pity about the attitude and the mouth on her, though. No man should have to put up with that, especially Brett, who had his fill of pro-hos after the number his ex-wife did on his heart and his wallet. Still, she was awful nice to look at...and he was going to have to work with the shrew to figure out a couple of sticky sports financing situations, so he may as well try to be nice. Charming even.

Only that doesn't go over so well and the sparks fly fast and hot. It isn't until the school's athletic director forces the issue that they are even capable of being in the same room together without wounding each other. That turns out to be a good thing, though, because it doesn't take Brett long to realize he may have initially misjudged Chris and failed to credit her with the talent and grit she displays with her team. In fact, there are several things about the sexy tennis coach that definitely make him want to field that ball and rush for the end zone. Problem is, Chris isn't interested in inviting another jock into her life or her heart. She barely survived the first one.

The whistle just may have blown on any potential relationship between Chris and Brett before either of them really have a chance to face off on the gridiron of love.

~*~

Gridiron of love? Seriously? I can't believe I actually typed that. Eh, well, it's fitting - if ridiculously trite, so you'll have to forgive me. Truth is, this book tickled me to no end. Not only was the enemies-to-lovers theme well-developed and executed, but the characters were absolutely perfect for each other...after a few initial rough spots.

As far as sports-themed contemporary romances go, this was a little more high school and less major league, but I still enjoyed the way these two coaches dealt with their teams, their lives, and each other. This book just really worked for me. I thought the humor was great, the primary characters complex enough - and occasionally hard-headed enough - to be both charming and believable, and the secondary characters fit nicely with both of the main characters, accentuating their individuality and helping define their lives outside the scope of the romantic plot arc. I find that aids in main character depth and complexity and helps flesh them out.

Admittedly, there were times when Chris annoyed me. Especially at the beginning, where her militant stance against professional sports jocks in general and school sponsored, football-flavored favoritism in particular seemed a bit too harsh, and in drips and drabs throughout the book, when her mommy and daddy issues combined with the ex-boyfriend issues and made her a little crazy. There were also times when Brett's lack of trust and his mindless acceptance of some Very Bad Lies made me want to spike him in the end zone. Still, he had a sort of sweet, clueless charm and aw-shucks demeanor that really appealed to me, so despite the few moments of frustration, I liked him a lot.

And I loved them together.

Murray offers up a fun blend of likable characters, witty banter, tongue-in-cheek humor, and physical chemistry that really revved my reading motor. And I totally give props to her for creating a male character capable of apologizing and compromising when he knows he's been a total tool. How cool is that?!

The romance is more character-driven than plot-driven, and there were a few fairly predictable plot points along the way. That being said, I found this book to be a thoroughly entertaining light read that either had me sweetly melting with a big sappy grin on my face or chuckling/laughing out loud at the characters and their antics. By now it should be fairly clear to anyone familiar with my reviews that if a book can make me chuckle or laugh out loud as this one did, I'm a happy, happy camper. This one did. I am.

Quotables:
It wasn't a hardship to watch her tight bottom swing as she turned into a neighborhood of new townhouses. But, with her in an outfit that left so little to the imagination, he had to wonder where she stored the pitchfork.

It was true what they said. The Y chromosome really was just a damaged X.

"Men are completely ignorant of what will set a woman off. Oh, I'm sure you didn't say anything mean-spirited or with malicious intentions—"
He held back a wince at that. Thanks, Mom.
"—but you're a male. And God put men on this earth with a taste for shoe leather."

Her mouth didn't get the schedule of events, apparently, because it felt so full of cotton no words would fit. So she nodded like an idiot. Yes, dazzle him with your witty nodding. That'll do the trick.

No, hell probably has better transportation. I bet that handbasket is in good working order.

In Seconds by Brenda Novak

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: Bulletproof, Book 2
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 400 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.



More Suspense Than Romance


Four years ago, Laurel Hodges' brother was exonerated and released from prison after serving fourteen years hard time for a crime he did not commit. The relief and hope she'd harbored for a future with the brother she loved didn't last beyond the first attempt on her life. The Crew saw to that. A vicious gang with a long reach, her brother Virgil had joined them out of necessity when he was in prison. They weren't exactly amenable to his leaving it when he got out. They've been trying to kill him, her, and her two children ever since.

When the last attempt by The Crew forced her to separate from her brother and his new family two years ago, she started over yet again, this time as Vivian Stewart. She selected the town of Pineview, Montana because of its low crime rate, seclusion, and small town nature.

For two years she's lead that small town life and felt safe. Her handsome neighbor Myles King is the sheriff of Pineview, and has asked her out several times, but she's always declined. She can'd afford to get too close to anyone, be too honest with anyone, especially the single father and cop next door. That is the sentence that she serves now, and will have to serve for as long as The Crew keeps her and her loved ones in its sights.

It is a sentence she's mostly resigned herself to in order to keep her children safe, to stay alive. And when she hears of the murder of a man from town, Laurel fears that it is a sentence that has - unfortunately - been commuted. The Crew has a long, long reach. And they might have reached out and caught her once more.

~*~

I hate to say this, but I had some trouble with this second book in the Bulletproof series. I enjoyed the characters of the first one quite a lot, especially Virgil, and had been looking forward to his sister's book, but I ended up feeling a little disconcerted by the four year time span between books, and had a hard time reconciling the budding relationship between Rex, aka Pretty Boy, and Laurel that closed out the last book with the apparently painful breakup of the long-term relationship they had before she came to Pineview. That made it difficult to downshift and accept Myles as the romantic lead in this one. Maybe it also had a hand in the difficulty I had warming up to Laurel, too. I'm not sure.

I know I wasn't crazy about her. I think she was believable and realistic as a character, but she didn't strike me as being all that bright, and I had significant trouble with several of her life decisions. I still have to give Novak credit, though. She writes realistic and believable characters, even though one of them frustrated the heck out of me. Just because I didn't favor one of them doesn't mean they aren't well written.

In Laurel's case, it was an issue of too many conflicting had-it-beens, those moments where you put yourself in the characters place and think, had it been you, would you have said/done/acted the same as he/she did. In most cases with Laurel, the answer wasn't just no, it was an emphatic hell no. It started early - I would never have chosen a small town (where everyone knows your secrets and if they don't, they dig or shun until they do) with no cell phone tower (a disposable cell would've made things so much easier) to try to hide - and it persisted throughout the book.

Novak writes solid suspense imbued with an increasingly intense sense of impending doom. There's no argument there. I thoroughly enjoyed those threads in this book. I just wasn't totally sold on the premise for the suspense threads, and had some problems completely buying into a disabled thug like Ink being in a position to escape jail, whether or not he had help. Despite the plausibility of the premise, the execution was spot on - completely chilling in parts, actually - and I found myself really enjoying both the ever increasing tension and the way Myles handled himself as he was investigating and as he got closer to Laurel.

I was pretty confused about something, though, and wondered if I missed some part of the story. Rex fills in Myles about what's really going on just before he heads back to New York, and Myles is concerned about how to tell Laurel he knows. Next he sees Laurel, though, there's no confrontation about it and she treats Myles like he's always known the truth. I'm still not sure if that was an accidental plot contradiction or if I just missed something somewhere.

Regardless of the issues I had, I enjoyed the suspense and the characters of the story. My biggest problem, actually, and the largest reason this book wasn't as appealing to me as the first, was the lack of satisfying development in the romance arc. There was acknowledged attraction on both sides relatively early, but beyond a single night of lust satisfaction, there was next to no evolution of a romance between Laurel and Myles until I was over 70% into the book. And that was just too late to give either the romance arc or the characters enough time to be satisfactorily developed alongside the suspense.

I have to admit, I was heartened by the fact that the third book returns to Pineview and delves into a case surrounding Laurel's best friend. Not only am I hoping to see more of Laurel and Myles to get some sense of resolution and completion to their HEA, as well as see how they merge their families, but it'll be nice to get away from The Crew and their threats. That thread was starting to feel very worn by the end of this book.

I can't help but hope, though, that we haven't seen the last of Rex. He's been a favored character of mine since he dropped into the first book and my heart broke a little for him in this one. He's a bit of a dark and tortured soul, and I keep hoping he'll find the peace and love he deserves. It just seems he's got a lot of demons yet to vanquish before that happens. I hope Novak lets us see him gets his own HEA at some point.

Bulletproof Series:

The Dragon Who Loved Me by G.A. Aiken


Genre: Fantasy Romance
Series: Dragon Kin, Book 5
Rating: 5 Stars
Length: 383 Pages
Formats: PaperbackKindle


Photobucket


The Fearless and The Abhorrent


For five long years the war has been waged against the Irons of the west, the alliance between the Southland Fire Breathers, the Northland Lightnings, and the Mad Queen Annwyl the Bloody holding strong against a force of almost unimaginable numbers. For five years mates have been apart, children have grown, life has slogged on. And everyone, frankly, is tired of it.

Ragnar the Cunning is the master strategist of the dragon forces, and he's got a plan underway to finally bring an end to the war, but not before some choice intelligence drops in his lap (courtesy of his love's...skill...at torturing) that could change the course of battle and break this vicious stalemate. The safety of Annwyl and Fearghus' twins and Briec and Talaith's youngest daughter are at stake, and the choice of whom to trust with that information, who to send to secure them, is one that could affect not just the war, but the lives of everyone in two different kingdoms.

The plan starts simple, Keita and Ren will travel to the childrens' sides and secure them, their safety across a war-torn land assured by Rhona the Fearless, a highly skilled Cadwaladr dragoness soldier in the Queen's army, and Vigholf the Abhorrent, brother to Ragnar and second of the Olgeirsson Horde of Northern Lightnings, who is determined...in that totally chauvanistic and not the least oblivious way he has...to protect the weak female warrior on her cute little trek.

Rhona calls him Commander Pest. Vigholf calls her The Babysitter. She hates him. He watches her. And their epic journey starts here.

~*~
"I'm a dragon, my lady. Dragons don't become martyrs. We create them."
There are books that I adore, authors that I follow rabidly, series that I love, and a myriad combinations of all three. Then there is G.A. Aiken. Or Shelly Laurenston, as she is otherwise known. Regardless of the name on the book jacket, over the course of all her published works Aiken/Laurenston has - hands down - given me the most entertaining reading of my long, long experience.

In short, her books make me happy.

I'm not talking about whether or not I liked, loved, or was ambivalent about an individual book's content or characters, I'm talking an overall feeling of general happiness when I read them. It goes beyond appreciating technical writing skill or how creative and imaginative the world. It's not just about how well a series is fleshed out or how lovable the characters are that inhabit that world. It's even more than the fact that every one of the featured female characters in her books are all brutally strong (physically, mentally, or both), independent women who are more than capable of taking care of themselves - something I'm known to favor. Of course that all plays a significant part. How could it not? But it's also in large part the way Aiken/Laurenston thinks and relates those thoughts in her books; the humor - the bawdy, rowdy, bloody fun of it all, and yes, even the moments of drama and angst, that combines with the rest to put her books head and shoulders above other reads.

There's just something about the Dragon Kin series...and the series/books she writes as Laurenston...that intrinsically appeal on every level, even if (as in the most recent book in the Pride series), the stories or characters aren't always my favorites in their respective series. I just think of these books differently than others I've read, feel differently about them. Bluntly put, I'm a fan. A huge, huge fan.

That being said, The Dragon Who Loved Me is one of my favorites in the Dragon Kin series. Not because of Rhona and Vigholf, really, though they are adorable, perfectly matched, and a lot of fun as individuals and as a couple. In truth, their relationship evolution was one of the more peaceful and easy I've read by Aiken/Laurenston, and the characters themselves are a bit more low-key than the royal dragon contingent so the romance story arc lacked a little of the intensity of the other pairings. In this book, though, it's the scope, the depth, and breadth of the surrounding story, as well as the feeling of seamless reconnection to previously featured/introduced characters who I've long since loved that worked so well for me here.

Everyone's back, and I applaud the attention to detail and continuity that Aiken/Laurenston maintains as the war plods on, battles get fought, lives are saved...and lost, and characters and relationships tested. It's fairly amazing, actually, just how huge and complex this book is as far as plot and pacing and characters. Definitely the most dynamic and multi-layered I've seen in the series so far, though perhaps not the most emotionally powerful. It certainly didn't turn me into the blubbering mess I was during What A Dragon Should Know, the third book of the series (and I thank hell for that, because I'm quite happy never to go through that again). It is the mark of an accomplished author that so very many characters and such divergent plot threads were woven together into such a rich and satisfying tapestry of reading entertainment. I loved it.

Maybe the humor that Aiken/Laurenston brings to the table isn't for everyone. It's certainly bawdy and crass and no-holds-barred. So is the sexuality in her books. Hell, so are the lives of her characters and many of the characters themselves. The books also tend to be bloody with the occasional pillage and plunder and more than occasionally a dismemberment...or ten. I can't fault those for whom that may not appeal. Maybe it says something about me that I find it so very appealing. Don't really care, actually, because there's no other author I've ever been able to come close to saying this about (though I for sure wouldn't mind a legion of them): Whether it's G.A. Aiken's Dragon Kin series or Shelly Laurenston's various series/books, her books make me happy.

And I like being happy. A lot.

Quotables:
"Right now she hates me. That is a form of caring, which could easily, with some skill, turn to love and eventually adoration."
"My mum was right. You are thick as two planks."

"The beauty of Mum is that she never gets bored. She can kill and kill for days at a time without ever feeling boredom. I think that's a foreign word to her. Like rational. Or caring."

"So what are you going to do? Wander around all evening bleeding like a stuck cow until you pass out and die and we're forced to quickly burn your remains so the stink of your corpse won't bother the children?"
"Your concern for my well-being overwhelms me, Sergeant." 

"You are, however, surprisingly light of touch."
"Pardon?"
"The way you're holding my hand. I always thought you'd be more of a mauler. Like a diseased wolf chewing the knuckles off me fist."
"That's very nice."
"Not really."
"I was being sarcastic." 

"I'm irresistible."
"I've been resisting you for five years."
"Because you're stubborn and unreasonable. I thought we already established that." 

"Your cold, inflexible heart makes me burn to be inside you."
"Charmer." 
Dragon Kin Series:


How a Cowboy Stole Her Heart by Donna Alward

Genre: Contemporary Romance
Series: N/A
Line: Harlequin Romance
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 192 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.





Easy and Sweet


A year of Megan Briggs' life has passed, a year away from her family and friends, living in Calgary to be close to the doctors as she fought the cancer that took her breast and damaged her self image. She went through the treatments, the pain, the sickness, and the loss on her own. And it left more than physical scars.

Now Megan has returned, ready to pick up her responsibilities and help her family as they struggle with the ranch in a bad economy. She has a plan, and dreams. What she doesn't have is a way to convince her family she is healthy and well enough to do her part. And that is starting to get on nerves frayed by returning to a small hometown feeling less a woman than she was when she left.

Clay Gregory knew Megan was back but the echoes of the horrible things he said to his best friend's little sister before she took off for treatment still haunt him. It had been fear, he knew, that had goaded him into taunting her decision to leave home, fear of losing one of the most important people in his life like he lost his father. But she beat the cancer...for now...and she's back. He knows he owes her an apology. He doesn't know how he can afford trusting that she won't get sick again. And he has no idea what to say to her when he sees her again, shoveling out a stall on a brisk morning.

Megan thought she was over her childhood crush, thought that a year away from Clay would've tamed the need for him she'd had as a child, or that surviving cancer would have built up her resistance. But one stilted conversation later and she realized that some things were immutable. Her body isn't one of them. It no longer matters that he will always have her heart, she would never force her damaged body on him, even if she didn't know full well that her cancer would always be a sore subject between them. Some things just aren't meant to be.

But when an opportunity arises to show Clay that she is no longer the little kid he calls Squirt, Megan pushes aside her worry about her scarred and ravaged body and the concern over what Clay is able to handle and seizes it with both hands. It's a decision that will change everything for them both - forever.

~*~
This slightly too-sweet romance offers one of my favorite themes in the genre, the friends-to-lovers theme, but in this case that wasn't the big draw for me. Instead, I found myself enjoying the depth and layers of conflict that Megan's cancer cause in the evolution of the relationship between her and Clay. It posed psychological and traumatic physical ramifications of the disease and treatment that was realistic, and as October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, timely.

I wish those aspects had been even further developed, though. Megan was very young to be struck by the disease and I wish some mention had been made that addressed that or that her age had been a point of contention given all she lost. In fact, I don't recall if her age was even broached or if it was, how old Megan is or was when she was diagnosed. The book starts with her back from the treatment, so much is assumed about her remission and the future outlook, but never clearly stated.

Still, I credit Alward with the realism and genuine concern that Megan reflected as a woman who required a full mastectomy of one breast. Clay's issues as someone who lost a family member to cancer also felt genuine and added a sense of tragic realism to his backstory and character development that appealed.

The issues that I did have with the book didn't have anything to do with the disease or its aftereffects. It was the romance storyline and the character development beyond that which is touched by cancer that gave me some doubts. What had begun as a pleasant, if not largely complicated romance, got a bit turned about and fell victim to cliché. I've read so very many Cinderella-story romances in which the hero gets a look at the tomboy all gussied up like the sexy woman she is and realizes she's his destiny that scenes like that have started to leave me cold. It wasn't a bad scene as far as it goes, I'm just no longer a fan of them in general. That's personal reading preference, though, not a condemnation of the author's choice to include it as the fulcrum of relationship evolution.

What turned me off more than that, really, was a sequence of events later in the book in which Clay acted horribly, knew and admitted he was at fault to his aunt, said he was going to apologize, yet waited days for Megan to come to him before even attempting to do so. On the heels of that is an instance in which Megan calls quits to what's going on between them, then blames him for accepting her at her word. I loathe that sort of hypocrisy in life and in fiction.

My issues with the book being what they are, most of the things that bothered me are strictly subjective. Overall I came away thinking it was a sweet romance that touched on some serious and relevant issues. It didn't do enough to wow me, had a few too many preference-based issues for me to truly like it, but too few to actually dislike it. It was okay, and it had more meat on it's story bones than I was expecting. I particularly appreciate the issue of breast cancer and how it was addressed.

Lord of Rage by Jill Monroe

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Royal House of Shadows, Book 2
Line: Harlequin Nocturne
Rating: 3.5 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.



Goldilocks and the Big Bad Bear


Survive. Avenge.

Once upon a time, in a land of magic and all manner of beastie, there lived a pampered but restless princess. Though resigned to duty, her dreams are her own, and those dreams are filled with a man who make her pulse pound and her blood heat. Then, one horrible night, the sweetest of dreams is interrupted by the terrifying sounds of battle. A siege is being laid on the castle, an evil sorcerer laying claim to the kingdom of Elden.  Princess Breena races to save her younger siblings, then tries to make it to her parents to aid in battle.

When she finally makes it to the throne room, a dire situation becomes so very much worse. Her parents have been captured and tortured, bleeding out on the thrones they're secured to. The princess, wild with despair and fear, can only watch as they struggle to touch, ignoring their surroundings, ignoring everything but their dying intent to save their children and exact vengeance. Their power surges up, fast and fierce, and they cast it out to their children. Fueled by fury, terror, and their own innate magic, the spell is like a raging inferno. It picks her up and sweeps her away, body and mind, casting her out of the castle, beyond the lands of the kingdom, and stripping her mind of her memories. She has exactly two things with her, all that's left of her heritage. One is a gift given to her and her siblings when she was a child, an engraved watch that she wears around her neck...the other a dark compulsion that burns deep inside her.

Survive. Avenge.

Once upon a time, in a land of magic and all manner of beastie, a powerful and proud people known as the Ursa were viciously attacked by creatures wearing the colors of a supposed ally. All but one newly matured warrior and his two younger brothers perished. The three were the last of their kind.

Ursa warrior Osborn never knew why Elden attacked them. For years the rage and hunger for revenge robbed Osborn of his honor and he turned to mercenary work to slake the beserker's hunger for death, until he was a shadow of the proud warrior he'd once been. Out of concern for the future of his two young brothers, Osborn retreated from the world of killing-for-hire and sequestered his broken family deep in the land of the bears who are his heritage. His days are full of work, his nights are full of passionate dreams of a woman who is the only source of peace he knows. His life, though, is still filled with the bitter need for revenge.

Survive. Avenge.

A lost princess with no memory of her past stumbles into the empty cottage of a broken warrior and his two brothers. Nearly starved, she gulps down their porridge, exhausted, she falls into one of their beds. And in that instant, it was...just right. When Osborn comes home, though, his warrior instincts flare and he follows the scent of an intruder. In his room he is startled and intensely moved when he recognizes the slumbering enchantress from his many, many dreams.

After all, somebody is sleeping in his bed...and she's still there.

~*~
This second book of the multi-author Royal House of Shadows series offered a far more concrete connection to the fairy tale on which it was loosely based. In fact, it wasn't until this book that I became aware that the first installment by Gena Showalter, Lord of the Vampires, was a mystically imbued off-shoot of Alice in Wonderland...or maybe Through the Looking Glass...I'm not really sure, though in retrospect I can see the similarity to Showalter's work in both of them. Regardless, the idea was for the series to provide mystical twists on classic fairy tales and Monroe did a nice job of it.

With the unique Ursa and berserker mythology Monroe introduced, the insight into the castle's siege, and the careful consideration given to the romantic development throughout, I had high hopes for this book. The storyline of Lord of Rage was far more cohesive and easily comprehensible than Showalter's, in my opinion. It didn't have the plot holes or weakly defined backstory of that novel. In that regard, this book was a far better read for me.

That being said, I still found myself frustrated by the too-abrupt external conflict and feeling short changed by the hasty resolution. Maybe I'm hoping for too much from a Harlequin Nocturne limited to under 300 pages, and if that's the case, than the fault lies in me, not in the book. I still would have been happy to have a chapter or two trimmed from the time Breena and Oswald were at his cabin in exchange for a better developed - and therefore more threatening - final conflict. Still, what's there is great strides beyond the confusing and ill-defined elements of the first book.

Lord of the Vampires wasn't without its strong points. Showalter rarely writes a character I don't like, and I was truly enamored with Nicolai and Jane. They seemed a bit more visceral and easier to relate to than Monroe's Breena and Oswald, with a few more personal foibles and issues, as well as charms and appeal, that left a larger impression on me than our hero and heroine in this book.

There's nothing really wrong with Breena and Oswald, but I can't say that there was much to their character definition nor their backstory that made them particularly notable to me, either. Oswald had a bit more internal angst than Breena did, as a result of his race, his history, and the raising of his brothers, but either could have just as easily been lead characters in any historical romance without the paranormal elements. Point of fact, this book read quite a bit like a historical romance to me, even more so than a paranormal. That's not a criticism, just an observation.

I still like the concept of this series, and I'm still very interested in how the arc of the series will play out over the next two books. I hope that the Blood Sorcerer gets what's coming to him, because the universal truth through both of these first two books in this series is that he is one very bad dude. One who needs a healthy dose of being heartily vanquished. In as painful a manner as possible. Here's hoping the next two books in the series see that come to fruition.

Royal House of Shadows Series:

Blood Rock by Anthony Francis

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Skindancer, Book 2
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 298 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Bell Bridge Books via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



Just a Little Too Much


Dakota Frost may be the best magical tattooist in the Southeast (and she is - just ask her), but turns out that doesn't amount to much when you're struggling to get your kid into school. Sure, parents do that sort of thing all the time, but not many of their children have the same sort of special needs. Special needs befitting a weretiger with a full body tattoo, tail, and ears...and a mouth on her that would make a sailor on leave blush. And Dakota may be far left of center herself, but she's determined to get Cinnamon - the young street girl formerly called Stray who Frost is in the process of adopting - the schooling she needs. In some ways, at least according to Cinnamon, Dakota is positively square.

Dakota just considers it good parenting skills.

Before their appointment at the next school on the list, though, a chilling call comes in from a close family friend and pseudo uncle, also known as Atlanta PD's Detective Andre Rand. Normally all kinds of smooth, Rand sounds out of sorts and freaked out, and he urges Dakota to hurry across town and meet him at Oakland Cemetery. Even though both his tone and the request concern Dakota as she and Cinnamon hurry over there, nothing could have possibly prepared her for what she would see once she arrives: a friend, the vampire Revenance, slowly being crucified by the magical graffiti that is bursting from a wall in the cemetery, writhing and curling around him, pulling him apart with tendrils of malignant, magically-infused, spray painted topiary.

If being utterly helpless against a source of magic she's never seen before and watching a friend die ugly because of that helplessness wasn't enough, Dakota learns Rev's death isn't the only trouble. Vampires and weres have disappeared and the writhing, deadly graffiti is popping up all over Atlanta's Edgeworlder areas, those areas frequented by the magic practitioners or magical creatures of the city. After Revenance, it would seem rather incontrovertible that those things are connected.

Denizens of Atlanta's magical community are under siege and Dakota may be the only one able to stop it, for while she hasn't the first clue about graffiti art, her tattoos are her power, and that combination of art and magic may be similar enough to help her stop whomever is responsible for the growing genocide before the city runs red - not from the graffiti art on the walls and buildings...but from the rivers of blood pouring through the streets.

~*~
It's been well over a year since I read the first book in the Skindancer series, Frost Moon [review here]. I normally try to reread early books in a series before reading newer releases, but time is tight right now so I decided to rely on the exposition in the narrative of Blood Rock to refresh my memory. That can often be hit-or-miss in books, but it worked out fine in this case. Francis reminds readers of important things from the previous book as it relates to the plot or characters in this one, and he does so in a natural, organic-to-the-story manner that would be enough to inform even new readers without overwhelming or bogging down the pace of the story. I appreciated that.

The first book made me a big fan of the world that Francis created for the series and characters who populate that world. I enjoyed revisiting them in this one. I like Dakota Frost quite a lot, she's smart but fallible and for all that she's great at what she does, she's not some all-powerful megawitch. There are consequences to her actions, limits to her power, and both the consequences and the limits can and often do exact a high price from her and her friends and loved ones. It's one of the most appealing aspects of the series for me...even if it doesn't always make for fun times around Little Five Points.

I'm loathe to seem gender-biased here, but there's a different feel - a slightly different tone - to urban fantasy featuring a female protagonist as written by a male author. I enjoy those nuanced differences on occasion. Of course, as there's only one other ongoing urban fantasy series I read that has the same male author/female protag situation, 'on occasion' is the most I could get anyway. Still, the differences are even more delineated with a female protagonist, and it seems to add more weight to the inherent differences in style across authors' gender lines. I enjoy it.

I can't say, though, that I enjoyed the whole of this book as much as its predecessor. I struggled with the story on a few different levels. The threat of the killer graffiti didn't really work for me for some reason. I couldn't relate to it and it seemed a less tangible threat than the one we see in the first book. And there were points in Dakota's investigation into the source of the graffiti and the core of its magic that I felt my mind wandering. Graffiti - however magically devilish - just seemed like a bunch of urban scrawl to me. The big reveal at the end about the perpetrator/s came out of nowhere and the conflict resolution that engendered seemed a little anti-climactic.

Oddly enough, one of my other issues is that nothing at all went right for Dakota in this book. That certainly can make for a rich and complex multi-layered plot, but in this book I actually got to a point where it felt like I couldn't turn a page without some other, possibly unrelated badness going splat all over her life. I found myself feeling a little depressed by it all on her behalf.

From what I've seen so far between the two books, Francis tends to pack his plots with a lot of action. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but in this case there's never really much room for a reader to catch a breath and very rarely any time to fully develop a scene's intended emotional impact before the narrative races along to the next calamity. That cheated the story out of the sort of expression of emotional response and consequence that would have served a couple of very significant plot points very well.. A tighter grip on the plot and a few less plot threads may have allowed for the remaining points to reach a more satisfying stage of development and resolution that was lacking.

I do truly enjoy the world and characters that Francis has created in this series, and there just can't be enough emphasis placed on how nice it is to get that slightly different flavor of writing from a male author. For me though, this book wasn't as entertaining as the first. Still action-packed, though, still conflict-laden, and it still...always...has Dakota Frost, the best magical tattooist in the Southeast. That's definitely enough to keep me looking out for the next book.

The Skindancer Series:

   

Shades of Gray by Brooke McKinley

Genre: LGBT - M/M Romantic Suspense
Series: N/A
Rating: 5 Stars
Length: 310 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC was provided to me by Dreamspinner Press via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.


Photobucket


Fantastic


The FBI isn't known for being an agency of free thinkers and sympathetic humanitarians. They are the top dogs in the overcrowded junkyard that is this nation's quagmire of crime and punishment. They serve with prejudice and without compassion against those who break the law. The belief is simple: either you are law-abiding, and therefore have no cause to worry about their existence, or you are not...and worry is the least of your problems.

For years, Agent Miller Sutton had been firmly entrenched in that black-and-white world as the prototypical Feeb. It was only recently that the whispers of doubt in his mind had grown to murmurs, that conscience twinged when once it had been quietly quiescent. Now, though he fought against seeing it and questioned its validity, there was a blur at the edges of his black and white world, and in that blur, a clawing, crawling, ever-widening strip of gray.

In that strip is Danny Butler.

There is just something about the insouciant man that affects Miller in ways that are as uncomfortable and unwanted as they are inescapable. He had been watching him for six months, knew his habits inside and out, and was all set to flip him against his drug cartel boss, Hinestroza. But Miller still had questions about Danny, questions that were impossible to ask without opening himself up to a far too dangerous internal debate over why he needed those questions answered.

His job, which he clung to fiercely, was to flip Danny and use him. Promise him safety, promise him protection, promise him a life, but force him to risk everything and go against one of the most coldly vicious crime bosses in the world. This time, though, some spark in Danny that makes him who he is turns the lies and promises to hot ash on Miller's tongue. And that's why this time, when the inevitable happens and Hinestroza catches wind of Danny's betrayal, Miller steps up and whisks him away, setting him up in a safe house and guarding the man himself until Hinestroza can be caught.

Danny is a thug...a mid-level drug runner...a criminal...gay...and he's the most compelling man Miller has ever met. Danny's life choices may be suspect, but the inherent honesty in which he lives in his skin - embracing all those shades of gray which scare Miller so very badly - is a seductive draw that the shaky Miller can't seem to escape. Even if he wanted to.

Miller's job is to keep Danny alive. He had no idea that it was Danny who would offer Miller the first opportunity he'd ever had to truly live. One thing is certain, protective custody has never been so dangerous...for either of them.

~*~
Every once in a while - far less frequently than I would like - a book sets itself apart and speaks to me a little more intently than others, affects me a bit more deeply, stays with me a little longer, echoes life's truisms a little more keenly. In those instances, the combination of quality storytelling, story, character, and meaning all come together to elevate a book to the highest level of my esteem. Shades of Gray is one of those books.

McKinley's powerfully written prose struck a brilliant balance of stark lyricism and gritty realism and the many-tentacled monster that was the plotline served up enough action and suspense to double as a summer blockbuster. At the core, though, were two men at a painful and dangerous crossroads, each needing something from the other, each loathe to depend on the other for those needs. Their search and eventual success in finding mutual ground was littered with the sort of gripping, character-driven drama and emotional detritus that leaves a long and lasting impression.

In a word, it was...perfect.

Miller's struggles with his identity and his sexuality were painful and poignant, and Danny's torment over his past and the grim acceptance of his present were heartrending and bitterly honest. Together these two characters were a powerhouse of personality and conflicted, conflicting desires. Their character evolution through the events of the story and the development of their relationship as those events start to spiral into deeper and more dangerous waters is some of the most darkly entertaining fiction I've read recently.

I credit McKinley for the adept manner in which she kept the lives of Miller and Danny real while carefully navigating the pitfalls of hopelessness, despair, loss, anger, and a myriad of other ghosts that haunted both their souls. There was by no means a calm and easy trip to a pat HEA for these characters. It was painful, it demanded its sacrifices, and it was certainly not without a high cost for both of them.

I'll remember it as my favorite novel in the genre that I've read to date.

In Shades of Gray I found a rare treasure in gay romance, exceptional quality fiction that tells a phenomenal story. One that doesn't simply seek to titillate with the sex, but that truly captivates with the emotional journey. Gritty, poignant, starkly real, and at times brutal, it was a harrowing but ultimately triumphant odyssey that was a joy to read. I loved it.

Deadly Obsession by Katie Reus

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: N/A
Rating: 1 Star
Length: 80,000 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.



Too Many Ills and Imps


Lilly Carmichael left Hudson Bay shortly after high school graduation ten years ago. Her leaving was a persistent source of pain and confusion to Braden Donnelly. He just couldn't understand what had gone so wrong with her, or why she'd run and never once been back. He had loved her. He'd thought she loved him. They had been planning a future together just days before her abrupt departure. Even ten years later, he still hadn't come to terms with losing her.

But ten years is a long time. Lilly is an NSA agent who is just a year beyond an overseas undercover assignment that put her life in serious danger and ended with her brutal torture at the hands of terrorists. She bears the physical and emotional scars of a nightmare most couldn't comprehend. Braden is still a hometown boy, but he's sheriff of Hudson Bay now, and he's spent the last year dealing with more than just small town crime. He's had the brutal slayings of several women to deal with, the most recent victim erasing all doubt that somehow, for some reason, a vicious serial killer was targeting women with whom Braden had a personal connection.

Then Lilly's aunt dies and Lilly returns to Hudson Bay for the first time in a decade.

Braden knew seeing Lilly again would be difficult, but he hadn't come close to comprehending the full scope of the effect her return would have on him, his life, or the case he was working. Not long after she's back in town it becomes tragically clear that Braden was wrong. He isn't the primary focus of a serial killer's sick games. Lilly is. And the killer is obviously tired of waiting for his intended target to come to him...so he's taking the game to her.

Over Braden's dead body if necessary.

~*~
I struggled hard with this romantic suspense by Reus. My initial impression of Deadly Obsession wasn't bad. It started out as a fairly standard read for the genre. I liked the premise, and the killer's initial introduction was suitably horrifying. Then the story started to dig in and expand and I started tripping over some pretty big ills and imps.

Ills and imps - the illogicals, the implausibles, and the improbables that make maintaining a willing suspension of disbelief impossible for me as a reader. Too many ills and imps and the whole book could be ruined for me. Unfortunately, in this book, there were far too many ills and imps, and they seemed even worse when taken in concert with a veritable Molotov cocktail of awful actions and decisions that surrounded Lilly's behavior leading up to and including the final conflict and big reveal.

I started to get nervous very early into the book, when Lilly too-quickly chalked up the masked man she saw at her window as a PTSD-induced hallucination. The first time she sees him she's unaware of the murders that have been going on, so I wrote that one off, but after she finds out that not only is there a killer on the loose, but he's targeting women who are connected to Braden, I could no longer forgive her failure to mention it. The justification she used as a reason to keep quiet was a combination of misplaced pride and illogical assumption that really rubbed me wrong. None of the other brutally raped and slaughtered women reported being stalked beforehand, so of course she was just seeing things.

I'm no NSA undercover agent with a degree in criminology, but even I know that a killer's stalking rituals can change when he's escalating, as can his MO, or if one victim has a different significance to him than others. There are a myriad of factors. Disregarding every single one of them doesn't lend credibility to the characters' actions, intellect, or competence. And both Braden's and Lilly's propensity to assume facts based on illogical supposition throughout the whole book didn't help the matter.

And the problems had just begun. Lilly was included in the active investigation and was shown critical evidence long before readers had been made aware that she was in any way qualified or had any background in criminology and after it had been made very clear that everyone thought she was nothing more than an NSA analyst.

I have no idea what an NSA agent is trained to do, neither what someone in that position would be qualified to handle on domestic soil nor what her experience would need to be to become an undercover agent, so the way Braden included her in the investigation seemed wildly inappropriate and unlawful. Having crime scene technicians who know her as nothing more than an NSA analyst ask for her input as a fresh pair of eyes at both an autopsy and a crime scene struck me as so implausible that the investigative aspects of the story seemed ridiculous.

The relationship plot threads weren't able to help the limping serial killer plot threads, either. The characters were two dimensional at best, their development centering around the current events and a past angst that was cloaked in secrecy for far too long for my tastes. And considering that past was ten years prior to the events of the story, the constant mentions of it throughout the book were repetitive and very overwritten, limiting other important character development. I have no idea what Lilly and Braden are like as individuals beyond the trauma of their current situation. Not addressing that in any way limits their relationship to physical lust and the emotional immaturity of the teenagers they were when they were last together. I didn't find that appealing.

What's ironic is that despite every one of the ills, imps, and other assorted issues with story content, not all of which I've mentioned here out of concern for the length of this review, I still wasn't totally unhappy with the story. Like I mentioned, I liked the concept of the plot and the bad guy was a really, really bad guy - which is the sort of villain I favor. I also thought his identity was both a very nice surprise (uh...relative to the plot, not that he was in any way nice as a character) and very well conceived and executed in the book.

What killed it for me completely, though, were Lilly's actions leading up to the final conflict and big reveal. She showed off a level of stupidity that made B-movie slasher victims look like card-carrying members of Mensa. Word to the wise, do not slip away from police, letting no one know where you are, to go off on your own in the dead of night to hunt a serial killer who wants nothing more than to make you his next mutilated and violated corpse. And if you're galactically stupid enough to do that, absolutely do not take a rifle with you, then leave it leaning against a tree, fully loaded, while you go on without it. This may come as a shock, but as it turns out, that tends to end badly.

There just wasn't anything that could save this book for me after that. It's a shame, though, because I have no complaints with Reus' writing mechanics nor her ability to conceive of vicious psychopaths and portray them with elegant cruelty. Unfortunately, the things that tripped up Deadly Obsession for me were the building blocks of the story, the story elements and threads that connected them, not the manner in which that story was told.

Animal Magnetism by Jill Shalvis

Genre: Contemporary Romance
Series: Animal Magnetism, Book 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 304 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle


What I Needed, When I Needed It


Family obligation could be a pain, but Brady Miller could no longer ignore his brothers' cajoling, bribes, and pleas to get him back to Sunshine, Idaho, the small town in which they had shared a foster home when they were teens. His brothers - maybe not by blood, but in his heart - call Sunshine home. Brady doesn't. In fact, Brady doesn't call anyplace home. He goes where he wants and does what he wants, and so long as he's got a helicopter to fly and places no sane man would consider flying it, he's as content as any man could hope to expect.

Still, those brothers of his nagged for years, and then they started to play dirty. Return to Sunshine and get his hands on a sweet chopper they had picked up to help them with their veterinarian clinic. That's the only reason he finally let himself be dragged back to Sunshine. He's not there to stay. He never, ever stays. Anywhere.

He can't say his first trip back in more years than he could count is going particularly well, though. Not after his truck is rear-ended while harmlessly parked at the convenience store. And he hasn't even made it to his brothers' clinic yet.

Lilah Young is mortified by the accident and more than a little concerned. Money is particularly tight right now. She could barely afford to feed herself, so paying for the damage wasn't going to be easy.

At least the guy whose truck she hit seems fairly understanding and unfazed by the box of puppies, baby potbelly pig, and leashed duck that tries to make a break for it when she gets out of her Jeep. He's a tall, rangy, handsome man, for sure, and his looks alone definitely perk up Lilah's pulse. Living in a small town like Sunshine meant most men in town were her life-long friends, but Brady Miller wasn't the sort who looked liked he had female friends...just satisfied lovers. Very well satisfied lovers.

No reason not to act on mutual attraction that she could see. Besides, Brady wasn't going to be around long enough to threaten her heart and she could use the sort of threat to her body a man like him could provide.

Something about Lilah appeals to Brady deep inside, to an area that feels suspiciously close to his heart, and her enthusiasm for a short term relationship is better than he expected. Though...she could have looked a little less content with the idea of him leaving in a month. And he isn't fond of all the male attention she draws in this small town of hers...still...it's for the best that she not get too attached to him. It wasn't like he was going to be around for long.

And really, there's nothing wrong with just enjoying their inherent animal magnetism.

~*~
Ever start reading a book and feel like both your mind and body relaxes as you get into it? Or...uh...is that just me? Well, whether you have or not (or if I need therapy or not), it's a great feeling. Sometimes I go looking for that feeling, using it as sort of a mental palate cleanser between books of darker or more intense themes. There are a few authors I consider a fairly sure bet for those sorts of reads - the light, sexy reads that I know, even before I start, will at least have a smooth story without a lot of emotional ups and downs, then provide a gushingly happy ending.

Jill Shalvis has become one of my go-to authors for this sort of read. I love her characters and find her stories fun and easy to read. There is always great chemistry between the male and female leads, and each has just enough depth and internal conflict to keep the characters three dimensional and interesting but minus the angst and emotional torture that some authors are so good at inflicting on their characters. Those can be compelling, absolutely, and I love angst and emotional torture as much as the next gal, but sometimes I just want...well...high calorie, high octane brain candy.

Animal Magnetism is what I call some delicious brain candy.

And, okay, I have to admit, I have a particular weakness for books that feature male characters who get exactly what they want (or have always wanted before), then get disgruntled when they find out it's not as satisfying as they thought it would be. Brady knew he was leaving from the start and is totally on board with Lilah's short term relationship suggestion...then, as the story progresses, he gets a little surlier every time she seems so calm and unconcerned whenever the subject of his leaving comes up. Stuff like that amuses me every time.

The story was the sort of quirky, light fun that sets Shalvis apart as a favorite of mine, and I thoroughly enjoyed the menagerie of pets we see in it. I easily related to Lilah's career and issues with fostering animals, and there is something I find inherently appealing about a helpless guy falling for a silly little dog. I'm a total sucker for animals in general, and in books they are a great source of emotional connection for me, so of course the backdrop of the vet clinic and the boarding kennels were a big hit. All combined, the story arc and setting really worked for me, more so even than several of the other Shalvis stories I've read.

I did have a couple of issues of various severity, one a major continuity conflict. On one page just prior to chapter nine, Lilah was holding Twinkles, then set him down, and another dog, Lucky, sniffed him and curled up with him. Less than two pages later, at the start chapter nine, the dog was back in her arms and Brady took him from her and set him down, then snapped his fingers at Lucky for him to join the pup. It was a fairly blatant error in the narrative and it snapped me right out of the story.

There was also a distressing amount of missing quotation marks in the Kindle version I read. It made it difficult to follow the affected conversations or know when it had started. If I was reading an ARC I wouldn't mention it, assuming it was something that would be caught before release, but I read the published Kindle version. The blatant continuity conflict should have been caught in an editing phase and the missing quotation marks should have been fixed before commercial release.

Those issues don't take away from the fact that I've been needing to just relax with a book, to not have to think too hard, or suss out subtle plot points, or worry about context and meaning. I wanted some sexy banter, hot and likable characters, a few sizzling sex scenes, a conflict that wasn't too conflicting, and a sure-bet happy ending. I can't express how happy I am that I got exactly that from this fun - and a little furry - book.

Getting exactly what you want in a book exactly when you need it the most? Priceless.

Quotables:
You look fantastic today. I especially love the sarcasm and attitude you're wearing.

Is that your favorite question, 'why'?.
Yes. Right after "Are the donuts two-for-one today?"

Kindling the Moon by Jenn Bennett

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Arcadia Bell, Book 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 384 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle



UF Series Debut Kindles Brightly

Two weeks. Fourteen days. That's how long Arcadia Bell has to live unless her parents turn themselves in to the rival occult order that holds them responsible for the brutal murders of several of their top occultists seven years ago, serial murders known as the Black Lodge slayings. Now that they've been caught on video surveillance, thus proving they're alive and their deaths had been staged, the Luxe Order is intent on bringing them to heel and making them pay. And her cover is blown right along with theirs.

Seven years spent hiding. Seven years spent away from her parents. Alone in a way that most people can't imagine. Arcadia Bell...though that's not her real name...managed as best any young magician could between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. She carved out a life, however transient, and even made friends (not that they know who she really is). She opened a demon-friendly bar with one of those friends, practicing her magic on patrons when necessary as she serves as both bartender and de facto bouncer. She dated - occasionally, ate, shopped, practiced her craft...lived.

Seven years of that life, gone in an instant...and strung out on an excruciating two-week deadline.

Difference is, now Arcadia is an adult, and she's always been a bit different than other magicians. The circumstances of her birth set her apart that way. She has no plans to go gentle into that good night without a healthy dose of raging against the dying of the light first. In short, she plans to prove that her parents were not responsible for the crimes they've been accused of committing. Even if she has to track down the murderous demon who was used as the weapon, summon him from the Æthyric plane, bind him, and force him to bear true witness to whomever actually wielded him as such all those years ago.

Of course, that plan could - and probably will - get her killed long before the deadline is up. Still...it's a plan.

~*~
Welcome to the wild world of Arcadia Bell, gifted magician, skilled bartender, and two-tone haired hedgehog owner. Settle back, kick your feet up, and prepare to be entertained as Cady, with the help of the delicious but taciturn Earthbound demonologist Lon Butler, works to piece together the clues from the mother of all cold cases and identify the demon who killed three people before Cady is sent to her death in her parents' stead. It's gonna be a heck of a ride.

Bennett has created an exciting new world of demons and occultist magicians, fleshed it out nicely and explained it in such a way that didn't make my head feel like it was going to explode! I can't sufficiently express just how wonderful and rare that is. I don't normally do too well with books that heavily feature the woo-woo magic. It's not that I dislike the books, it's just...no matter how "clearly" spells, incantations, and magical rules are explained, I struggle to understand/picture it. I swear, it's like I have a magic comprehension disability or something.

I can't say I got every bit of magical world building that Bennett explained here, but I got most of it, and felt comfortable with it. That's a nice change.

She also created Cady Bell, series star. I liked her. Maybe she didn't wow me or instantly make me fall in love with her, but she was definitely a very nice blend of self-sufficient and competent magician, and quirky, sometimes emotionally awkward young woman. She's hip...with a pinch of nerd and a dollop of bad ass thrown into the mix. I think I'm really going to like seeing how her character progresses through this series.

Lon Butler was a bit of an enigma to me. Earthbound demon, single father, and a bit stoic and cautious by nature, he was an interesting character. It's weird, but I'm not completely sure how I feel for him as the romantic interest and Caty's partner in investigation. Famous photographer by trade, demonologist by design, he blew a little hot and cold for me, and like Cady, I had some trouble reading his intentions and emotions. I think that was on purpose, though, so I don't think I can really complain. I will say, the scene with Lon and Cady on the plane was one of my favorites in the book. I just loved him expounding on the instances he had thought he'd made his feelings and intentions for Cady known.

Okay...I'm going to damn myself but good here, but I have to admit I feel a little odd about the difference in their ages. Sure, give me a 2,000 year-old vampire and a twenty-something young thing finding their forever love and I'm fine and dandy, but a forty-two-year-old man (Earthbound, whatever) dating a twenty-five-year-old woman gives me a bit of a squig? Seriously? I'm disappointed in myself on this one, trust me. You'd think age difference would matter not at all to a PNR/UF lover - hell, that's what I thought, myself. Still, something about the difference in their ages and experiences (which reminds me...I'm a little tired of the ubiquitous demon/vampire/werewolf sex club, thanks) and a few of Lon's life choices (concerning aforementioned sex club) didn't sit completely comfortably with me.

I intend to get over it, though, because I love, love, love Lon's son Jupe and I want him to be a part of the series for a long, long time.

Kindling the Moon is definitely one of the more exciting and entertaining urban fantasy series debuts I've read recently. Bennett writes an easily readable narrative (even for someone suffering from MCD - magical comprehension disability) and has a strong grasp on her characters. The world is fresh, the plot was meaty and had quite a few surprises (one in particular was a real doozy), and the characters are likable, with an aura of character longevity that bodes well for future books. I'm looking forward to seeing what comes next for them all.

Turn It Up by Inez Kelley

Genre: Contemporary Romance
Series: N/A
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 85,000 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.



Sexy and Substantial Story

Late night radio shock jock Charlie Pierce, known publicly as sex queen radio personality Honeypot, has been best friends with Dr. Bastien Talbot for years. She trusts him implicitly and loves him in a way that is safe and comfortable within the boundaries of their friendship. The nights he joins her on air for their thrice weekly Dr. Hot and the Honeypot show, discussing sundry sexual issues and answering sex questions from callers, are her favorite nights at work.

He's everything to her. Knows her like no other. He's a part of her heart and soul. Until he ruins everything when he admits that he's been in love with her for over a year, wants more than their friendship, and asks her to marry him.

Bastien hadn't meant to blurt his feelings out to Charlie like he had. That doesn't mean he wasn't dead serious about his intentions. She's more than his best friend, she's his heart's home, and he wants her as his wife. For all their years of friendship, though, Bastien knows Charlie inside and out and knows that she's absolutely terrified by the idea of love. Sex, sure, no problem, Charlie heartily embraces her sexuality, but his best friend has intimacy issues a mile long and even the thought of love sends her running.

Now that he's come clean to her he has no intention of backing off, no matter how much more comfortable Charlie would be if he did. He refuses to lose his best friend, and he has no intention of cheating them both out of the love he knows they both deserve. So he lays down the gauntlet. No sex with her - though his body's dying for it - until she agrees to marry him. Not to be outdone, Charlie has a counter proposal: he forgets his proposal if she can seduce him into having sex with her before he can get her to say yes.

A doctor intent on forever against a sexpot determined for right now, with a live radio audience weighing in on both sides. Let the games begin, but first things first. Turn it up!

~*~
Chock full of sexy banter, wickedly hot chemistry, and the endearing and enduring caring of genuine friendship, Turn It Up was a heck of a fun read. Both characters were likable, but I have to admit, I fell hard for Bastien, who was about as adorable and sexy and intent a character as I've read lately. Kelley did a great job with the evolving relationship between Bastien and Charlie, and kept the plot zipping along with the help of their radio show and the sizzling battle of their conflicting goals.

Two things in particular impressed me and elevated this book to a level above a sexy but simple romp of mindless fun. The first was the quality and genuineness of the friendship between the lead characters. These weren't two characters who claimed to be best friends despite actions that seemed to prove just the opposite. Their history and their friendship was believable and real in a way that's not often captured well on page. They knew each other as only the very best friends ever do - embracing the strengths, weaknesses, flaws, and all, and the story stayed very true to that, even through the inevitable conflicts, internal and external. I found their relationship as friends just as appealing and interesting to read about as their journey to more.

The other thing that caught and held my attention was the surprising amount of depth and poignant truism that was reflected in Charlie's intimacy issues. I've read several books recently where deep-seated fear of commitment has been the heroine's bailiwick, and I've often found myself getting annoyed at the shallowness of the issue as it's been developed. That wasn't the case here. Kelley not only laid a solid foundation for Charlie's issues, she was rock solid on every aspect of them, from where they originated to how they occasionally dictated Charlie's behavior, to the grip they held on her heart even as her head protested.

Admittedly, it wasn't always a pretty picture, and there were times when I wanted to give Charlie a little bit of a shake, but it was so realistic and believable, to the point where some of her actions and the motivations behind them hurt my heart when I read them. I never felt Charlie slipped into the realm of unsympathetic as has happened all too often with other characters purporting similar issues.

Besides offering nice counterpoints to the lighter points of the story, both of those things added depth and sincerity to the book, as well as a certain amount of emotional significance, that I hadn't expected but definitely appreciated.

I did wish the plot threads with Bastien's brother had been expanded and woven into the arc of the book in a more thorough fashion. There was room for much more development with the conflicted and complex musical genius brother who bears scars from his past, and not only would I have liked that on its own merits, that development could also have aided Bastien's character. As much as I loved Bastien, I have to admit there were moments when he tread dangerously close to being a little too perfect as a man and a romantic lead. Adding a more robust plotline, however ancillary, that touched even more on his brother's issues and how he and Bastien related to each other would have been nice to scruff up Bastien's character a little.

There was one point in the story that wasn't as strong as the rest and caused me some problems. The major relationship conflict between the main characters (and just about every romance novel has one) was a little odd and didn't sit well with me. Bastien's decisions and actions didn't seem quite organic to his character given his previous development and Charlie's reactions to the situation seemed disproportionate and childish in the face of the conflict. Admittedly, part of the problem is my lack of fondness for major relationship conflicts based on a lack of communication between the main characters. They frustrate me because they could so easily be non-issues if dealt with maturely. As a result, the conflict and subsequent resolution here seem a bit contrived.

Thankfully, none of that was severe enough or dragged out so long that it ruined my overall impression of the book or the author. Turn It Up was a unique blend of sexy fun and substantial story that both appealed to me and impressed me for what it offered. I enjoyed this one a lot.

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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