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Kelsey's Song by Lanie Kincaid

Genre: Contemporary Romance
Series: The Wilder Books, Book 1
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Formats: Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided by Griffyn Ink via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.




Brought Love Back Into Romance


There are few things as piercing to the eardrums as a screaming five-year-old in a store, and at the wails, single mother Kelsey Conklin sized up the situation with a studied gaze. One mortified, over-his-head-and-drowning-fast father, one furious little girl. She sympathized, having been there herself a time or two, and she did what she could to help the situation, shamelessly using her own two children as buffers, distractions, and a bit of emotional manipulation.

Hey...mothers do what they have to do.

Being rescued by a lovely woman with two remarkably well-behaved children in tow during one of the most horrifying...but during the last little while, embarrassingly familiar moments of his twenty-nine years is the first truly good thing to happen to J.D. Hewlitt's life in days. His daughter, a child he didn't even know existed a month ago, hates him. His life as a struggling musician is in shambles. His band is teetering on the brink of collapse and financial ruin, and the other members are not adjusting well to his new time constraints. Clothes shopping for a child he is starting to fear may be part demon is just the last in a long string of things that aren't going well for him.

Until Kelsey.

And maybe things are turning a corner for him, because when he gets back to the new apartment he's leased for him and daughter Andie, he notices that his store savior is a neighbor. And as they exchange pleasantries Kelsey once again is there to provide much needed help with Andie. But he's not just a taker. J.D.'s totally willing to help Kelsey out whenever she needs him for anything he can provide.

Hey...fathers do what they have to do.

From those humble and panicked beginnings springs the most important friendship that either Kelsey or J.D. had ever dreamed could exist. But when friendship deepens and affection grows to something sweeter, the lives their friendship allowed them to build for themselves may be exactly what cripples any hope of exploring the true depths of their feelings for each other.

~*~

Lovely. Just an absolutely lovely read.

I wasn't even halfway through this pleasantly surprising book when I realized two things: I was enthralled by the characters and their lives in every facet on every page, and there is a subtle but amazing difference between a romance novel and a love story. Kelsey's Song is definitely a love story. A warm, wonderful, touching love story.

I can't remember the last romance novel I read that introduced the main characters to each other, thoroughly and completely developed their relationship into fantastic friendship over a believable span of time, then proceeded to fully evolve that friendship into a deep love in a completely realistic manner (with highs and lows), all while introducing and developing non-relationship plot threads that were engrossing in their own right. And I can't begin to tell you how rewarding I found it to experience that sort of encompassing tale.

This isn't a book that treats lust and love as nothing more than interchangeable descriptors, or predetermines the requisite first sex scene must fall between the 48% and 52% mark of the book, thereby cramming whatever story is necessary to get the characters to that point into that first half of the book, regardless of fit. Instead, Kelsey's Song is a rich, fully-nuanced emotional treat for fans of sweeping love stories...who have the patience to wait and savor them.

Kelsey and J.D. were simply adorable, with an enchanting mix of strengths and insecurities, and their kids were wonderful. I even liked J.D.'s band mates. Kincaid drew all her characters together and judiciously used them to highlight and enhance Kelsey's and J.D.'s burgeoning relationship as well as aspects of their individual lives and personalities outside the boundaries of the romance. I loved it.

Not that it's a perfect book. I'm not saying that. Personally, I thought the whole of the story could have benefited from a bit more stringent an editing process. Nothing so bad, really, just a bit of tightening up and trimming off here and there. It also struck me as a bit too thorough in some aspects, too sparse in others.

I loved the steady, sedate pace of the book as friendship blossomed, then grew into the the unspoken love between Kelsey and J.D., but the secondary characters - J.D.'s band mates in particular - were a little two dimensional. Likable, absolutely, but without a lot of depth and a little stereotypical in their roles. I also wouldn't have minded a more comprehensive understanding of Kelsey's and J.D.'s past. Both were brushed upon several times but never really given the attention some of the threads were begging for, and I still have some issues and unanswered questions, especially about Kelsey's brother Andy.

I was a little disappointed in the inevitable relationship conflict when it arose. It was fairly predictable - but more than that, the predictability was compounded by a frustrating lack of communication and a few too many moments of the characters jumping to the worst possible conclusions at the worst popular times. It also served as the only time I thought the book felt a little clichéd or "traditional" for the genre.

For me, though, those issues took little away from the best parts of this book, and most of them were wee little things anyway; meta-issues, if you will, rather than the full-sized, displeasure-causing sort. I enjoyed this book far too much to truly feel critical about the small stuff that niggled me.

One more thing... The book cover is...unfortunate...and in no way what I consider an accurate representation of the quality of the book's content or scope of the emotional satisfaction to be found in the story it covers. I could count on one hand the number of times I've commented on cover art in a review, but if you're like me and can be put off by a cover that has no visual appeal, I hope in this case it can be overlooked. It would be truly unfortunate to miss a great read because of the wrapping.

**Amendment 12/2/11: I've replaced the former book cover artwork with the new cover art recently released by the publisher! The previous paragraph was in reference to the original cover art. Thank you very much to talented author Lanie Kincaid for contacting me to let me know of the publisher's change.

PreView by Alanna Coca

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: N/A
Rating: 2.5 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.



Cracks Exposed Upon Reflection


Ryann Phillips doesn't dream. Not like other people do, anyway. For as long as she can remember, her nights have been a doorway to her psychic visions. Some of the things she sees are mundane, some are heartbreaking. Most she can do absolutely nothing about. She's an architect, after all, not a god. Still, she has used her abilities for good and she does help when she can.

Unfortunately, she doesn't know how to find, let alone help, the woman she'd seen in her most recent vision, a woman named Victoria who will be murdered in a spray of blood in the slick elevator of an unknown office building.

Knowing her vision will come to pass puts a weight of helpless dread on her heart...or it does until a shocked Ryann catches a glimpse of Victoria leaving a coffee shop near Ryann's office. Trailing the woman to her posh law office and trying to explain the danger to her wasn't the most embarrassing experience of Ryann's life, but it was close. It went both better and worse than she'd feared. Better, because Victoria seemed to take her seriously and believe her. Worse because she calls into her office a fellow lawyer in the firm she works for, a man named Trevor Kearney, and holds Ryann's vision up as proof that the husband Victoria is in the middle of quite acrimoniously divorcing is, in fact, trying to kill her.

Trevor, openly skeptical though hotly attracted to sexy architect and self-proclaimed psychic Ryann, isn't so quick to jump on the woo-woo bandwagon. Humoring the woman to get a chance to get closer to her, though, was well within his skill set. And he had mad skills. Skills that are shot to hell when he's forced to acknowledge that Ryann's...ability may be on the level and the threat to his client may not only be real...it may also bring a murderer far too close to the one woman he can't help but need to protect - with his life if necessary.

~*~

Just between you, me, and the lampshade, I'm an over-thinker. I try to keep that juicy bit of gossip on the down-low to avoid those pesky I-told-you-so's from friends and family, though, so don't spread it around. It's true, though. I over-think and over-analyze all the time. In fact, I'm one of those people who can enjoy a book, or elements of a book, as I'm reading it, but when I'm finished I tend to sit back and think about what I read, often dissecting it to poor little pieces. Sometimes that reflection even changes my initial opinion of a book if some of the plot elements collapse when viewed through the lens of hindsight, or if, when looked at as a whole, the book doesn't maintain its cohesion. That's exactly the problem I had with this book, despite Coca's original storyline, unique concept, and ability to weave an entertaining tale.

I was completely on board with the suspense elements, enjoying them immensely, until the end. The Bad Guy's actions were suitably shocking and disturbing in all the right places, and there was quite a nice plot twist towards the end I hadn't seen coming. When I thought back to the whole of the story, though, I wasn't able to fully understand the Bad Guy's motivation or sufficiently reconcile the behaviors taken considering the identity of the Bad Guy and the facts provided as the climax of the book was unveiled. As a result, the entire suspense thread suffered a severe blow in plausibility and believability, albeit in retrospect.

Unfortunately, it wasn't just the suspense elements that gave me problems, and not all my issues were gathered up in hindsight. As much as I liked Ryann's character and enjoyed the romance plotine later in the book, I had some serious initial issues with Trevor as the male romantic lead, not the least of which was that he was a complete troglodyte.

I'm all for alpha males. Love them, in fact. There's a line, though, between alpha male and domineering asshole, and unfortunately - both for Trevor and for my reading enjoyment - he crossed it. I don't care how frustrated a man gets with a woman, forcing her into a sexual situation that she is uncomfortable with is my definition of sexual assault. Breaking into a woman's home when she refuses - as it is her right to do - to take your calls or listen to an explanation that could be summed up in two words in a phone call (leave a message, jackass), is my definition of criminal trespassing and treads dangerously close to stalking. Saying things like, "I can't wait to show you off," or deciding for the little woman what she will or won't like, is just...well...icky. And so last century.

None of that worked for me, and it's a testament to Coca's skill as an author that I was at least able to enjoy the romantic resolution and feel good about the conclusion of the romantic plot thread despite those rather egregious stumbles.

It wasn't enough to really satisfy me, or warm me to the whole of the book, but that enjoyment goes hand in hand with a suspense thread that, while going through it, did have appeal. I wish the Bad Guy had clearer motivations and more intelligent, comprehensible behavior, because the writing style of the book definitely had its high points. As I said, most of my issues with the suspense only came to mind in hindsight, so I was fully invested in those threads while reading. There is simply a pleasing blend of style and substance that pops up in the book in enough places to pique my interest in more of Coca's work, even if this one wasn't a total hit with me.

To Adam With Love by Adrienne Wilder

Genre: LGBT - M/M Paranormal Romance
Series: Gray Zone, Book 1
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 230 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.




Dark Fiction Too Grim For Me


When there's nothing left in your life and nowhere to go before you become something other than human, you return to the Gray Zone, a broken, hopeless place that forms an uneasy boundary between the humanity in Atlanta and the Dens of the Kin. Adam has returned to the Gray Zone after five years away, his needs such that he has little choice but to face the memories and ghosts of his complicated and traumatic childhood.

As he approaches the change that will transform him into a Kin/human hybrid known as Lesser-Bred, his hungers for sex and blood have sharpened beyond the point of him being safe among humans. Though he's been away a long time, he can't help but hope that the one source of comfort he had as a child is still around, a young boy who had been both his best friend and his first love. The young human raised by Kin to be food was a nearly feral child who didn't know what love was, but he'd claimed Adam as his own so very long ago. Like Adam, that boy would now be on the cusp of manhood. That boy named Ean.

Ean had grieved for his Adam, the Kin Batu having told him that his boy had died five years ago. Now there is a new man in the house Adam had once lived in, and he smells like memories and yearning and a need Ean doesn't understand. Coming face to face with the interloper kindled the sort of joy that Ean hadn't known existed. His Adam hadn't died as he'd been told. His Adam had come home. And Adam needed Ean in ways that Ean was more than familiar with and more than willing to satisfy. There's nothing Ean wouldn't give, wouldn't be, to ease Adam's transformation. Even if the cost is his life.

Ean may not know love, but more than anyone, he understands sacrifice, and for his Adam, no price is too steep.

~*~

Every once in awhile I come across a book that confounds me, disturbs me, or just generally makes it difficult to rate. To Adam With Love is one of those books. As much as I appreciate the occasional darker, edgier romance, especially when coupled with paranormal elements, too much of the world and mythos created here by Wilder crossed that hard-to-define line between dark and edgy and grim and hopeless for me to be able to say I liked it, and there were a few too many story-related issues for me to fully embrace it on an artistic level.

It was certainly imaginative and original. It had sultry, sexy moments and reflected a genuine, believable sense of the innocence of youth and the otherness of the Kin in well-written flashbacks of the shared childhood history of Ean and Adam. I found it almost compulsively compelling in that regard, as the ever-present sense of impending doom was too visceral to tear my gaze away for long lest I miss a crucial piece of this complex, complicated story. I can even say with all honesty that I easily understand why this book would be wildly popular among fans of darker fiction.

Yet I can't say I liked it.

As much as I appreciated the Glossary at the beginning, I felt there was a noted overuse of the italicized words from the Glossary in the narrative. Part of my problem with that is simply how my mind works and remembers things. I pick up and understand more when terminology that is created for the world and mythos for a story is explained and defined in contextual situations. Not only does that help flesh out the world and define the parameters of the story for me, but having to flip to the front to refresh my memory as the story progresses interrupts the flow of the narrative and pulls me out of the story.

I also had some problems with some of the plot threads. There were too many questions posed either directly or indirectly that went unanswered, and the romance arc that had been strong from the start ended up going a little awry for me at the end. The world and the characters were a little too dark and foreign for my personal taste, and I thought the mythos was hard to follow - in part because of the problems I had with the terminology. The sexuality included in the book and the descriptions of Kin feeding pushed at my comfort levels a little, and the romance didn't offer enough of an HEA for me to balance out the emotional trauma the characters suffered throughout the book. I also never really felt Adam or Ean had matured into adults or had advanced beyond the development levels seen in the many flashbacks.

That probably sounds like a lot of negatives, but in all fairness I can't help but admit that for all of that, something about this book was genuinely captivating. Both the story and the characters have stuck with me days after I finished reading their tale. I wish a few things had been different, or had shaken out with a less grim existence for Lesser-Born and their food. I couldn't help but feel a bit hopeless about the Gray Zone and its inhabitants, the Kin and the Dens. That's just not a comfortable feeling to have at the end of my romance reads and it definitely affected my overall impression of this dark and edgy book.

Hellbent by Cherie Priest

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Cheshire Red Reports, Book 2
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 352 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Spectra publisher Random House Publishing Group via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



A Kinder, Gentler Red - Sorta


What a difference a day...or a few months...make!

Months after surviving a too-close brush with a subversive government operation gone private, vampire thief Raylene Pendle's life is nearly unrecognizable from the solitary, neurotic one she had been living.

Well...at least it's not solitary any more. The neurosis is part and parcel.

In the interim, she's set herself up in a sweet little warehouse not far from her old stomping ground and renovated the top floors as living space for herself, the two kids she's finally admitted she kind of adopted, and of course, blind vampire Ian Scott. They've become a family...of a sort. Add in frequent visits from ex-Navy SEAL drag queen Adrian deJesus, and they're practically Rockwellian.

Between what was taken from her in the aftermath of her last big case (which she's been slowly stealing back, of course) and what she's spent on renovations, Raylene is far from financially flush. She needs the obscene fee she could get for the target her job pimp Horace offers her. She should've known that things wouldn't go smoothly, but she couldn't have guessed that Ian's past and his lingering connections to his House would get inexorably intertwined with her quest to liberate some magical bacula, or that she'd end up back in Atlanta with Adrian, doing everything she could do to investigate a vampire's suspicious death while making sure she and her friend don't end up just like him.

More than her future depends on what she discovers. More than a paycheck, however lucrative, lies in the balance. This time, it's the family she's made that is at risk. This time, it's oh so personal.

~*~

Back to back Raylene doubled my pleasure and my fun. I'm a big fan of her dry wit and rambling, detail-rich internal monologue. An internal monologue which turns out to be very beneficial for the book's exposition, too, because Raylene's tongue-in-cheek retrospective of preceding development and character introduction was quick, slick, and full of detail without burdening the plot or slowing down the pace. New readers could comfortably jump into the series with this book story-wise, but personally, I think Raylene's unique mindscape is something that shouldn't be missed and I'd recommend starting with the first book for that reason alone.

Speaking of Raylene, she seemed more personable in this book. She's always been a strong character quite able to carry the series on her small but vamp-strong shoulders, she just seems a little more caring in this one. Still quirky, still steeped in shades of gray as far as humans go, still wonderfully and humorously neurotic, but her emotional attachment to Ian, Adrian, and the kids - as well as her growing collection of strays - make her easier to relate to than she was in the first book. Her relationship with Adrian in particular is wildly entertaining. I love them together...and, frankly, prefer Adrian to Ian for any small romantic leanings.

I preferred the plot in this book, too. The bacula jokes got a little old and the plot threads surrounding their theft were more of an interesting distraction than a driving force in the story, but I loved the trip to Atlanta and the closer look at the House there, as well as a deeper understanding of vampire House politics. It helps flesh out the world that Raylene lives in and provided an element I felt was missing from the first story.

The style of writing and the exuberant individuality of the main character are the biggest draws to the series for me, but the stories provide solid, thorough, and layered entertainment. I'm particularly pleased with the evolution provided to Raylene's character and the mirrored evolution in her life and lifestyle. She's fun to spend some quality reading time with, and I hope to continue to do so in future books.

Quotables:
I don't like raccoons. They look...shifty, with their little burglar masks and everything. Also, they carry rabies. Can I catch rabies? Probably not. All the same, it sounds gruesome - and I think we all know that cute, fuzzy woodland creatures are not to be trusted on general principle.

The Cheshire Red Reports Series:

    

Bloodshot by Cherie Priest

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: The Cheshire Red Reports, Book 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 384 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle





Red's All Shades of Gray


Insular, paranoid, cautious to the extreme, vampire Raylene Pendle isn't happy when a potential client contacts her at her home. Still, the client's pitch is intriguing and it's not often Raylene works for another of her kind. She tends to avoid other vampires. Meeting Ian Scott and getting the details on the job he wants done is more than just rare, it turns out to be more horrifying than she could have ever anticipated.

Coming face to face with a blind vampire and finding out that the government was responsible, having abducted and experimented on him years ago, stirs every one of Raylene's deepest, darkest fears. There's nothing that scares an immortal more than the idea of an eternity with a debilitating disability like blindness. She hadn't even known it was possible. And Uncle Sam knows vampires exist...and has captured them? Oh yeah, that's a world of bad news.

Ian didn't go to the tremendous risk of tracking her down simply to scare her, though, nor did he look her up for her stellar wit and irresistible charm. Mostly because she has none. No, he contacted her because of her reputation. Raylene may be an incurable neurotic with OCD issues, but she is also an exceptional thief. World renowned, actually, and wanted by countries all over the world. And when you're a blind vampire who needs the medical files from a now defunct government-funded project so Top Secret it hardly even existed when it was in full operation, you want the very best. And Ian has to have those files to have any hope of getting his sight back.

The case will take Raylene from her home base in Seattle to the sultry streets of Atlanta, from the brutal cold of the northern Midwest to the brutally political Washington, D.C. Then her own warehouse storage space is compromised and groups of strange men in black...maybe even the Men in Black...start showing up everywhere she goes. Raylene realizes she's in the middle of something much bigger than she's ever dealt with before...and what started as nothing more than a challenging job with a lucrative paycheck has become very, very personal.

~*~
I try to be pleasant, but I'm not very good at it. The best I can usually pull off is "professional if somewhat chilly." It's not ideal, no. But it beats "awkward and bitchy."
~*~

This exciting series debut was a lot of fun. The characters are fresh and the story unique. That alone is a wonderful rarity. What set this book apart for me, though, what made me really excited as I was reading, was Raylene. I sorta loved her.

That's a good thing, too, because you have to if you're going to like the book. Told in her first person point of view, the narrative is a meandering, digression-rich cornucopia of delicious internal monologue and random witticisms padding a plot that, if I'm honest, didn't really do much for me. I never quite connected with the Big Brother badness and mystery surrounding the experimentation on vamps and other species. And the resolution of that particular plot thread left me with more questions than the story answered.

Fortunately for me, there was more to the book than conflict concerning the government's questionable scientific explorations, and Raylene was a big enough delight that I thoroughly enjoyed the read. I loved her moral ambiguity, her rampant neurosis, her ambivalence about the kids squatting in her building, and especially her friendship with the ex-Seal drag queen Adrian. I loved seeing her evolve from the very solitary thief to the vampire with a growing circle of people who matter to her.

She has no conscience when it comes to killing or feeding. She's a vampire, that's part of the whole gig. Doesn't mean she's an indiscriminate killer, though. She's old enough that she doesn't have to feed often and she's content with that.

Touchy-feely she is not. Nurturing she is not. She's honest with herself - the good, the bad, and the batshit crazy. She's also funny, with a dark, me-first sense of humor that blends nicely with a wry self-effacing humor. The combination appealed to me. And man, she tells an intensely thorough tale. I loved the conversational stream-of-consciousness narrative, don't get me wrong, but even I felt it could have been a little bit tighter and gone a little lighter on the superfluous detail. The pacing of the book suffered a bit in places when she started to ramble on inconsequential details.

I'll say this, though, by the end of the book, readers have a very intimate and three dimensional picture of Raylene as a character. That worked very nicely for me, but honestly, it may not work for everyone. Personally, I think the book rests on Raylene's shoulders. Like her, like the book. And I did.

Quotables:
I rigged the door with a cheap alarm that would give me time to...I don't know, panic and cry, if anyone tried to bust in.
~*~
"Do they know?"
"Know what?"
"About your car," she whistled quietly between her teeth.
"Not unless they're magically tracking me by the pixie dust that spills out of my ass."
~*~
Whoever was on my tail already knew enough about me to cramp my night, and while I'm usually the very soul of discretion, every now and again a girl has to tear loose and run like the devil knows her name.

Because he does. And he has a serial number with which he'd like to replace it.
~*~
"Are you still apologizing to the dead people?"
"No," I told him.
"Because it sounds like that's what you're doing."
"Shut up."
~*~
They already knew we were coming. We needed to act before they knew we'd arrived.

Hold Me by Betsy Horvath

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: N/A
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 105,000 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.



Surprised Me...In All Kinds of Good Ways


With a cover that is obviously and spectacularly blown, FBI agent Luc Vasco is forced to run for his life from the mob family he'd been investigating. And that strategic...if slightly panicked...retreat isn't going so well. Luc's already had to ditch the sweet Vette he was driving, then crashing, and he's hobbled by the ankle he wrenched when he jumped out a window. He just doesn't have all that many options left. Well...less than not all that many. One. He has exactly one option.

The Chevy Nova loudly sputtering at the nearest stoplight.

Katie McCabe's life isn't going so hot right now. It hasn't for several months, actually. Not since she caught her fiancé doing push ups on his desk in his office...with his hot supervisor spotting him from her position underneath him. She may have swept the cheating bastard out of her life...um...literally...but she lost her job at the company over the incident. Apparently taking a broom to his bare ass is considered more indiscreet than his infidelity. Who knew?

She's waiting at a stoplight, her beloved but ancient Nova giving her a bit of trouble, when the door to the passenger side is jerked open and a strange man dumps himself into the seat beside her. It isn't until the bullets start flying, though, and the man starts shouting at her to drive, that Katie realizes that she had been wrong about one very important detail. Her life hadn't, in fact, hit rock bottom. It couldn't have, as it's obviously still in a rapid free fall - with gunfire, car chases, and strange men claiming to be federal agents tossed in for that extra bit of terminal velocity!

Not that she's freaking out or anything!!

Then she finds out that not only is the man chasing them the son of a notorious mob boss, he is a known psychopath, and in saving Luc's life and embarrassing the psycho in front of the cops by just defending herself, she's put herself squarely on his Needs To Be Brutally Killed list and is no longer safe to live her crappy little life. Nope, now she has to live a crappy, life-threateningly dangerous life.

Because that is so much better!

She just can't handle one more thing going wrong right now. Not one.

Pity, then, that Luc has a few secrets he's refrained from telling her, even as he sets out to keep her safe, because when she finds out who he really is and how they're connected, he's fairly certain the tempestuous woman is going to try to finish the job the mob started.

~*~

I have to admit, when I picked up this book, my expectations weren't high. I had a fairly open mind about it, but the mention of the mob in the book summary didn't thrill me. I'm not a fan of mob-related fiction. I am, though, quite happy to say that I hadn't even finished the prologue before it was clear that this book was not going to be like anything else I've read recently. Three chapters later and I realized that I had become quickly and thoroughly enchanted.

Yeah, yeah, mob related...peripherally, anyway. Didn't give me a problem. And sure, technically its a book that has a suspenseful plotline. Right. Didn't pay much attention to that, though, either. At least not at first. I was too busy being totally enamored by Katie and Luc as characters and falling in love with their quirky charms and the mix of sobriety and humor that is their wacky, rocky relationship.

First, the man has a castle that intimidates him a little. Come on, that's priceless! And Katie is a total firecracker. She's quick-witted, sharp-tongued, and feisty as hell...though I wouldn't ask her for directions to the corner store if I were you. She tends to blow up emotionally, then calms down and logics things out in a way that I found very appealing...and, okay, more than a little familiar. And the picture Luc carries in his pocket - and the meaning behind it - gave me all sorts of happy sighs of sappy romantic contentment.

I loved them together. Their characters and the arc of their relationship throughout the book is what made it shine so spectacularly. But even without them there were a lot of good things. Katie's mother was an interesting secondary character, and Némes stole every scene he was in. David was wonderful and there is lots of untold story around Melanie, too, and the list goes on.

There is actually quite a lot ground covered in the book, and not all of it was comedic. Some of it was realistically sober and sad, some dark and disturbing, and even some sickly upsetting. To be honest, the whole psycho mob son plot thread never really came together for me. The suspense was a nice enough backdrop, sure, and it provided some thrills and chills, but it was a bit inconsistent and didn't blend all that well with other aspects of the book. It also gave some room for Katie to tread over the line into some thoughtlessly dangerous actions that I would consider stupid in any other book. In this case the stupidity was slightly alleviated by the lighter tone of the surrounding narrative. It was more like a dramedy in places than serious suspense that inspires a true sense of danger.

It was entertaining, though. Very entertaining. I was caught totally by surprise by this one, and happily so. Now I'm left with a desperate hope that this book segues into a series featuring some of the secondary characters we met here. Némes and Melanie both would be perfect as main characters in their own books (either individually or together). There was tons of stuff throughout the book practically begging for further development, and I refuse to believe that there will be no better resolution to the issue with Katie's parents. I want more of all of it. Please?

Dangerous Race by Dee J. Adams

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: Adrenaline Highs, Book 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 295 Pages
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.





Romantic Suspense Puts the Pedal to the Metal


Tracey Bradshaw was only nineteen when she learned that, at a whim, life can explode into shards of agony and loss...and in the briefest of instants a bright future can be ripped away from you forever.

She was doing what she loved, what she was born to do, and making a name for herself in the male-dominated racing world. Breaking track records left and right during her practices for an upcoming race, she was high on life, lucky in love with the man of her dreams, and had a future that looked like the brightest of stars. Until someone threw oil on the track she was circling at over two hundred miles an hour. Until her tires ran over that oil. Until she slid into an uncontrolled spin and slammed into the wall. Until her car disintegrated around her and her body was ravaged by steel and speed and brutal impact.

It took three long, grueling years to heal...as much as she ever would...from the massive injuries she suffered that day and another year before she was back at the track that so drastically altered her life. Intent on conquering the race that almost saw her death, she and her crew were running hell bent through the qualifying and practice rounds, everything working with the slick speed of a well-oiled machine. But the nightmare wasn't over for Tracey, and that lesson learned four years ago almost to the day reared its head for a refresher course.

Her crew chief and surrogate uncle dies under suspicious circumstances and before she knows it, she's faced with the fact that someone wants her out of commission at best, at worst, dead. With mere days before the biggest race of her career and still reeling from grief, Tracey has a new crew chief thrust upon her and her team. Mac Reynolds is bullheaded, opinionated, and wrong about how to run a race, and Tracey goes toe to toe with the man on almost every detail. She may be forced to suffer him, but she sure as hell doesn't plan to do it silently.

She knows the world is watching. She knows someone is intent on making sure she never races again. That's not enough to make Tracey quit. Nothing is. Not even a man who is too good looking to be trusted, too obstinate to be liked...and too seductive to be ignored.

~*~

Taking high octane romance and suspense to a whole other level, Adams goes green flag with a prologue that left me shaken and a story that both thrilled and chilled.

I loved the characters, especially Tracey (something I don't say often about the female leads). I couldn't help but adore her for her career choice and the strength and unflinching determination she showed on every single page. She wasn't perfect, but her imperfections shaped her into a realistically flawed and still slightly broken heroine who was ultimately sympathetic. Stubborn, prideful, and waspish at times, she was also fiercely devoted to those she cared about and had enough soft spots to smooth out the tomboy rough edges a little. I was thrilled with her as a character.

Mac was a slightly more traditional male romantic lead, with few surprises to his character, but I appreciated how Adams wrote and incorporated into that character his own weaknesses and flaws, and I especially appreciated that the man knew he was himself a little broken. His respect for Tracey was just a tiny bit tinted with envy and jealously and again I thought it was a particularly realistic and sympathetic portrayal of his character given defined history.

The sparks that fly between Tracey and Mac as they snipe and gripe at each other hide a deliciously banked sexuality that fought to erupt from them every time they butted heads. Which they did. All the time. Their relationship had the air of an enemies-to-lovers theme, though they were never really enemies, per se, but that aspect sure appealed to me.

What totally impressed me, and what made me hungry for more from Adams, was the crafty and deft hand she used on the racing elements of her story. I don't even like car racing but I'd be hard pressed living in the Daytona state not to at least catch snippets and hear things about it. Not enough to be an expert by any means, but enough to feel comfortable in saying Adams caught the spirit of racing from the perspectives of the pit, the track, and the stands with such casual ease that I forgot I wasn't a fan of the sport and not only enjoyed, but felt included in the world she created for her characters. Very nicely done.

I wasn't nearly as pleased with the secondary romance plot thread and never warmed to the storyline of Tracey's sister or her sister's friend. There was a disconnect for me somewhere in that thread and I was left feeling that some of the author's intention for that thread didn't quite make it to the page in a clear enough way for me to grasp it. Whether the sister's motivations and character development were kept murky for the sake of the suspense or the thread wasn't as developed as it should have been, I don't know, but the story would have been better for me if there had been a more clearly defined relationship evolution between her and Tracey and better transitions between the shifts in focus.

The main romance in the book worked slightly better for me than the suspense, which I felt stumbled a bit around the big reveal. Not enough to disappoint, but just enough to dim my enthusiasm a touch. Still, for a book surrounding a sport I don't favor and a world that is mostly foreign to me, Adams hit so many high notes that I was completely and thoroughly entertained by the read. I can't wait for the next in her Adrenaline Highs series and can only wish it would be out sooner than 2012. Like now. Now would be good.

Mark of the Sylph by Rosalie Lario

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Demons of Infernum, Book 2
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 268 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Entangled Publishing, LLC via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.




Lighter Tone of the Series Has Appeal


It was an accident, really. He didn't mean to kidnap the woman! He just wanted to talk to her, convince her to help him. Taeg had no idea the gorgeous Maya Flores would go all Buffy on his ass and try to slice and dice him. Hell, he hadn't even known until just recently that she could see through the glamour that he and his demon brethren use to blend with humanity in this dimension.

But that's also why he needs her so badly. College student and librarian Maya has a very, very special gift. A shockingly rare gift. And she may just be the key to his redemption. Um...well...unless she gets lucky and kills him first. And she's trying really hard.

Maya has known about the existence of demons for a long time, hating them all with righteous fury since the night two of them invaded her family's home. Back then she was just a terrified child hiding in the shadows, hearing every scream, every sick, slickly wet sound as they devoured her parents and sister. But she's not a child any longer. Now she's a vanquish-first, ask-questions-never sort of woman, so when the demon who calls himself Taeg Meyers follows her as she's leaving her job one evening, spouting some sort of nonsense about wanting to talk and needing her help, she goes after him like the evil fiend he is.

Only to end up knocked out and kidnapped, tied to his bed and at his mercy. And when the evil, monstrous demon has her in his clutches, he forces her to...to...well...to rethink her prejudices and feel an unwanted attraction, because Taeg is nothing - nothing - like she'd expected. But trust a demon? Help a demon??

Maya didn't even know if she was capable of doing so, let alone willing. No matter whose future is riding on it.

~*~

I have a particular fondness for a touch of humor in my reading, and in that regard, Lario's second book in the Demons of Infernum series worked well for me. Half-demon Taeg is a hoot, and while his character is perhaps a bit more stereotypical than individual, being the stud muffin, frat boy type with the ladies but a bit of a screw up with an over-inflated sense of responsibility when he compares himself to his überalpha older brother Keegan (Blood of the Demon), he's got a wicked streak that made me chuckle.

Maya was just as enjoyable in a lot of ways. Her willful persistence in labeling all demons as evil monsters who must die got old long before her tune changed, but she was a stronger, more independent female lead than Brynn was in the first book. Her past holds a horror that still haunts her, and one that meshed fairly well with the lighter tone of the book. It added a dimension and honed the darker edges to painful sharpness.

The external plot conflict didn't appeal to me as much as the characters did. Something about a half-demon searching for a mythical sword pushed me a bit outside my ability to willingly sustain disbelief. Maybe it's crazy, but I can accept that Taeg and his demon-hunting bounty hunter brothers are from another dimension and each brother is mixed with a different mythical race, I can accept that full-human Maya has the ability to see through glamour and has managed to off a few demons in her time, I can even accept that the end goal is to destroy the Book of the Dead, a plot thread carried over from the first book, but throw Arthurian legend on top of all that and it muddies the waters too much for me to buy it.

Hey, I never said I was without my idiosyncrasies.

My enjoyment of the humor and characters in this book was slightly offset by those weaker external plot threads that never quite made me feel a growing sense of impending doom or increasing tension prior to conflict resolution. Overall, the story seemed small somehow in comparison to the plot potential inherent in demon bounty hunters from another dimension. I am curious, though, as to where Lario is going to take this series next. If the appeal of the characters becomes the standard and a little more depth and complexity is added to the plots in the future books, this series could really start clicking for me.

Demons of Infernum Series:

   

Archangel's Blade by Nalini Singh

Genre: Urban Fantasy Romance
Series: Guild Hunter, Book 4
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 348 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle



Dark, Seductive, and Powerfully Emotional


He is not a good man. At nearly a millennium in age, the vampire Dmitri is not a man at all, but a cold and conscienceless killer who lost his soul long ago and who now walks a razor's edge between being the sharpest weapon for the Archangel Raphael...and being a monster. And the sanguine seduction of the monster grows ever stronger.

More than capable of controlling Raphael's New York City territory for the Archangel in his absence, he places a call to the hunter's Guild when the decapitated head of a very new vampire is plucked from the Hudson. The vampire isn't one of Raphael's and the tattooed markings on the face look vaguely like a language of some sort. One that Dmitri doesn't recognize. Requesting assistance from the Guild is only logical given their resources.

The first scent of acrid fear and gritty determination he catches from Guild hunter Honor St. Nicholas, however, punches through his logic and rakes talons along his predatory need for blood and sex. The instant want of her is manageable, barely, and the seductive games he intends to play with her are those that he has honed over the centuries. Except Honor is damaged. Traumatized after two months of vampire-inflicted brutality that smacks hard against every single one of Dmitri's very few lines. She is unable to accept even the most casual of touches from him without an instant fear response that has him dodging her blades.

The rage that erupts in him like a volcano of furious reckoning at the knowledge that the torturing rapists still live is eclipsed only by a cold and deadly certainty that they will not be doing so for long. He is a monster unleashed and he is the thing that other monsters fear.

Honor's damaged soul stirs him in fascinating ways, disturbing ways, as they work together to solve the mystery of the too-young vampire deaths and investigate the grievous crime perpetrated against her. Memories long, long buried are like echoing footsteps along the path they follow towards not one, but two of the world's worst evildoers. They are awakening parts of Dmitri's soul he'd thought excised by the brutal selfishness of a master predator dead for centuries. Those memories may draw him back from the edge of true madness or they may just hasten his descent into blood and death. And much to Dmitri's surprise, he realizes that it is one human woman who will tip the balance either way...either by loving him...or betraying a past she couldn't possibly know.

~*~

I have to admit, not even my love for Singh's writing was enough to make me rush to read this latest addition to my beloved Guild Hunter series. I was aware that there would be a reincarnation theme in the plot and I am not in any way a fan of that theme. I haven't read one yet that didn't, to varying degrees, seem to devalue the current life of the character who is or has a reincarnated soul. In the worst cases, the disregard of a character's present individuality has also been an issue. For that reason I try to avoid the theme.

Avoiding Singh, however, is an impossibility. I just dig her work too much. But I admit, I delayed.

And I also admit, for almost all of the book I was kicking myself for that delay, because I was both pleasantly surprised and more than a little elated at how deft and crafty Singh was in addressing and dealing with that theme. It wasn't until the very end that I felt the familiar twinges of dislike and it was only related to one scene. I can live with that...though I do wish that one scene had been different. The power of the writing and the almost effortless emotional firestorm the book generates made up for it, though. I love Singh's characters and the keenly brilliant world she's created for them.

I'm probably one of the minority who has never particularly liked Dmitri. I haven't since his unrelenting negativity about Elena became common knowledge. That being said, I don't have to like a character to love a character, and both Dmitri's complexity and the dangerous line he walks between monster and man has held me enthralled on a visceral intellectual level. In short, he's fascinating, and I have nothing but admiration for how Singh so masterfully maintained his utter lack of humanity even as she was crafting his very sympathetic history.

The chemistry between Dmitri and Honor burned at the fingers holding my Kindle as I was reading and I thoroughly admired Honor's strength in the face of abominable defilement. She was sharp, bright, and had a core of decency that soothed the sharp edges of Dmitri's almost sociopathic nature...until the story served to blunt much of that sociopathy and Dmitri's darkness started to wane just a touch. I enjoyed them together very much, even though I felt a lack of the dark humor that so charmed me in the relationship evolution between Raphael and Elena.

This may sound odd, but I don't really read either of Singh's highly popular series for the story being told so much as for the characters and the depth of emotion found in every one of her books. I do, obviously, still pay attention to those stories. Some appeal to me more than others. This one fell about middle ground for me. I found it more cohesive and less strained than the previous book in the series, Archangel's Consort, but not as thorough and well-developed as the second book, Archangel's Kiss.

Flashbacks were handled well, and the plot thread concerning the search for the monsters responsible for Honor's torture - as well as her slow and painful recovery - was very well done, though I thought it ended on a slightly anticlimactic note. I also felt the plot thread dealing with the dead newbie vamps and all subsequent issues took on a too-ancillary role and wasn't a significant factor in the book until too close to the end to have much impact. The timing of that particular crisis, as well, at a time when Honor was perfectly situated to come into the picture in Dmitri's life, raised my eyebrow a bit. I couldn't help but feel that after nearly ten centuries to stew, Kallistos' actions were awfully convenient in stirring up Dmitri's past. That sort of convenience made that plotline feel contrived to me.

Despite the plot of the book not being completely successful for me and my dislike of the reincarnation theme, I thoroughly enjoyed Archangel's Blade and consider it a solid addition to the series. And I didn't even like Dmitri all that much. I can only imagine how much fun I'm going to have with some of the characters I'm either truly fond of, like Bluebell, or utterly fascinated by, like Aodhan. I have no doubt there is going to be just as much truly spectacular reading entertainment to be had as the series progresses as there has been to date.

Guild Hunter Series:

  
 


Deep Disclosure by Dee Davis

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: A-Tac, Book 4
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 368 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Forever publisher Grand Central Publishing via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



High Octane Action


She didn't know what a normal life was, being born while her family was on the run after her father's job with a top secret government project long ago blew up in his face. Alexis Markham, of course not her real name, has lived a lifetime in the shadows, staying as far off the grid as possible. Especially after that night when she was seventeen, the night her family's house blew up with her parents and older brother inside. She's been on her own ever since, her only connection to her tragic past being one old family friend who just got out of prison.

Then he, too, is killed and her identity compromised. Just like that, Alexis Markham's life is under fire. She is forced to acknowledge that whatever her father did to bring the wrath of the government down upon her head long after his death, they won't stop pursuing her until she's as dead as the rest of her family.

Former A-Tac deep cover operative Tucker Flynn is no longer too high on the idea being retired from the dangerous job in which he excelled. In short he's bored, cranky, and not a little surly about the inactivity. Or he was until his late morning coffee ritual turned into a truly explosive experience.

One of the lucky ones, Tucker was able to drag himself out of the rubble of what had been his preferred coffee shop with nothing worse than ringing ears and a few cuts and bruises. The bomb had been under the table of an older man he had seen sitting in the back and almost took Tucker out as well, but what really made him suspicious was the beautiful young woman he'd watched argue with the victim before storming out in a huff.

He didn't know if she responsible for the bomb. He had no idea who she was or where she went. And Tucker had no idea just what he'd landed smack in the middle of. In fact, Tucker knew only two things: he would find her...and he was no longer bored.

~*~

Never let it be said that Davis can't write pulse-pounding action. The pace of the plot starts fast, the story hits hard, and there is little in the way of down time before the final page. I was struck several times as I was reading by the thought of just how easy it was to imagine this book made into a summer blockbuster movie. One of those bullets-flying, car-crashing, life-on-the-line thrillers that would draw in the masses.

It was also very much like a summer action blockbuster in that it didn't exactly stay close to realism - for all the bullets flying, bombs exploding, and cars chasing there didn't seem to be many cops, firemen, or other emergency personnel around. Not even any nosy neighbors despite the populated urban areas of some of the scenes. Maybe I'm weird for noticing, but some of it was so obvious and incomprehensible in its absence that it pulled me out of the story, like when a massive shootout at a residence doesn't draw any police scrutiny and the house isn't a crime scene when the owner returns...only to engage in another shootout.

Davis did a great job setting up Alexis as a completely sympathetic heroine. I could easily empathize with her solitude, loneliness, and fear, but enjoyed her strength and willingness to jump in and help her situation in the face of dire threats and dangers. Tucker, too, was a solid action hero-type male lead. He played the truth fast and loose, true, but was a good guy even with some murky motivations. They worked well together.

What I wasn't completely sold on was the romance thread. With such a fast plot, there just wasn't enough time or attention given to the relationship evolution for me to really embrace and enjoy the intended chemistry between them. I also wasn't convinced that Tucker had truly resolved his issues with his past relationship before he suddenly was claiming deep emotion for Alexis. The lack of development in the romance just didn't provide the necessary evolution of Tucker's emotions for me to really believe in their HEA.

I haven't read previous books in the series, so it's entirely possible that I would've understood more about the enemies of A-Tac and been more engaged in the danger they possessed as they moved in the background of the narrative. That lack didn't prevent me from enjoying the primary external conflict of Alexis' storyline, but I think I missed a lot of the significance of the characters working against them all. It's just a feeling I got while I was reading.

The resolution to the primary external conflict was jerky and abrupt, and the end was heavily laden with an emotional resolution between Alexis and Tucker that I don't think was supported by the story. I can't fault the action that pounded throughout the book, though.

The action is top notch, the plot had a few issues, the story lacked some plausibility, and the romance didn't work for me. All in all, the book had its good points and its less good points, but for me it all boils down to this: a romantic suspense can only work for me when both the romance and the suspense work, or if one is so superlative that I'm more forgiving of any lack in the other. This one didn't quite fall into either category. Part of that is probably the fact that I haven't read the preceding books in the series. A small part. The rest is what it is.

Sand & Water by Shae Connor

Genre: LGBT - M/M Contemporary Romance
Series: N/A
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 250 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.



Sweet, But Too Simple


Widower John McConnell still grieves the love of his life, the woman he was lucky enough to marry but lost during the birth of their daughter. Five years has given him some perspective, though, and he's just as likely to wake up smiling from memories as he is to wake up aching with loss - which is a major improvement - and there's no doubt their daughter is a source of joy to him. After the first year, a dark time John would prefer to forget, he hasn't given thought to any sort of social life, his focus on raising his daughter and surviving his loss.

Life goes on, though, and grief eases eventually. One day John looks over at the uncle of his daughter's best friend, a handsome young man named Bryan Simmons, and feels a mix of desire and tenderness stir for the first time since he buried his wife. John has always known he wasn't totally straight - he'd dated a man before he met his wife - so it wasn't an issue of gender, but there was a sadness behind Bryan's eyes that John didn't understand. One he would be willing to help ease if Byran would take a chance on an older widower who may or may not have it in him to love again.

 ~*~

Though Sand & Water is a simple, sweet romance with a lovely setting and pleasant characters, it didn't do enough for me to set itself apart or make itself particularly memorable, and there were a few issues that bothered me. I felt a little overwhelmed by the superfluous detail in the narrative. It dragged down the pace of the story until it waddled along in places, moving slower than the turtles Bethy favored. I would have preferred more depth in the character definition and plot instead of the minute detail given to the characters' thoughts and actions.

I also thought story execution was lacking in sophistication, most notably in the beginning, which felt awkward and unnatural during the initial introduction of John and Bryan. Dialogue was stilted and odd and I had a hard time imagining any conversation between two strangers going that way, regardless of gender or sexuality. On a brighter note, the dialogue issues didn't continue, though a lack of sophistication in concept as well as design continue to plague the book throughout.

There was a noted lack of genuine conflict, either personal or relationship, that made the plot seem very one-note, and little was provided to flesh out either character. By the time either John or Bryan's history came up it became the sole source of potential relationship conflict, but without much given to really develop any of the fallout from the past, the rush to resolution washed out the emotional impact of some potentially significant backstory. I was also disappointed that none of the more timely issues and questions about how a relationship between John and Bryan would work were addressed or given more than a passing and nebulous nod.

My overall impression of the book was one of apathy. I can't say I disliked it, but there wasn't much given to me to really enjoy, either. Certainly nothing of significant merit was truly hashed out in this book, and what few personal issues the characters had were mostly addressed out of the reader's view or glossed over quickly. There was a lot of potential in both characters and story, but it went unrealized. I would have liked some genuine meat being added to the anemic plot and much more character definition provided to all of them. What's there isn't bad so much as it is mostly inconsequential and, unfortunately, forgettable.

One Night in London by Caroline Linden

Genre: Historical Romance
Series: The Truth About the Duke, Book 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 384 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Avon Books publisher HarperCollins via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.




And a Lovely Night It Is


The Duke of Durham is dead but his secret didn't have the good grace to die with him. Both the nature of the secret and the unknown identity of the person blackmailing him because of it made it necessary he burden his three sons with a horrible truth, but with only two of the three to bear witness as his time grew ever-shorter, he had only the time to apologize to his middle and youngest sons before he slipped into senseless ramblings, then a quiet death.

It was his solicitor who was left with the untenable duty of informing the stalwart middle son Edward and his younger brother Gerard just what their father was begging forgiveness for. And the secret is horrible. Their mother had not, as they had always thought, been their father's first and only wife. In truth and long ago he had married a young woman on a whim, a youthful folly really. That folly was quickly realized and they parted...but did nothing to dissolve their union. The horrible, terrible, scandalous truth is that the Duke of Durham may, in fact, have been a bigamist, his sons illegitimate and ineligible for their father's fortune and title.

Edward knew the responsibility to investigate and clear up this matter would fall mostly on his shoulders. His elder brother never addressed a problem that couldn't be solved by either bedding women or drinking to excess, and his younger solved all his problems with a mind on fighting and warfare. It was up to Edward to find a solicitor who would champion their cause and do it discreetly.

No sooner had Lady Francesca Gordon finally found a solicitor willing to take on the custody case for her niece than that solicitor was called away and his assistant was suddenly feeding her a line that he was no longer available. Incensed and more than a little frantic, she followed the solicitor to his newest and obviously more important client to give him or her a piece of her mind. Only slightly disturbed by the realization that it was the Duke's residence her wayward solicitor had raced to, she let her fury and her fear bolster her into a confrontation with a mirthless lump of a man over the theft of her last hope.

Though the confrontation went no better than she expected, Lady Francesca read the scandal rags the next day and realized why her solicitor was pulled away with such alacrity. When she realized that she might be just the woman the stiff and solemn Edward de Lacey needed to smooth the jagged edges of a vicious scandal, she felt hope that just maybe a trade would set things to right.

Francesca couldn't possibly have dreamed that the longer she spent with Edward the more irresistible he would become. Or that no one but her niece could ever come close to being more dear. Regardless of the consequences of class, standing, or scandal.

~*~

I love when a historical romance both feels authentic and features a unique and strong female lead. Linden did a great job of it here. Part of Francesca's ability to maintain her independence comes from her being a widow and of lower social class than Edward, but regardless of the reason, I was happy with the result. In fact, there were several things that made me very happy about this charming book.

It's one of the rare instances that I felt fonder of the female lead than the male. There's nothing at all wrong with Edward by any means, I liked him just fine, but Francesca was a feisty, passionate woman who knew how to take care of herself and see to her own needs. Smart, quirky, manipulative when necessary, kind, and hot-tempered if provoked, she also lived a life that pleased her just fine, doing what she wanted when she wanted. She was a conflagration that Edward...steady, staid, dependable Edward...desperately needed.

Together they made a charming, likable couple and their relationship made it worth the slow start of the plot and my inconsistent interest in the custody issues and the Duke's scandal. For that wavering interest, I still thoroughly appreciated this book for some unexpected and surprising twists and turns. I love that there were several things that just didn't work out for the characters, or didn't go as well as they hoped. That's a touch of realism I can relate to. There were also a couple of particularly nice role reversals in the romantic thread that I enjoyed very much. All told, those unexpected moments and disappointments, the role reversals and the compromises characters were forced to make kept the plot fresh and pleasantly surprising. 

Well-paced, solid of plot, with a few harsh realities that were real gems and populated with enjoyable characters, this first book in The Truth About the Duke series bodes well for subsequent books. I also have to say, meeting both the eldest and youngest of the de Lacey brothers through the course of the book hooked me on finding out more about the rake and the warrior, even if it's just to see them fall for their perfectly suited females when they meet them. I'm very much looking forward to continuing with this series.

Don't Mess With Texas by Christie Craig

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: Hotter In Texas, Book 1
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 464 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Forever publisher Grand Central Publishing via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.





Wasn't Totally Sold


She didn't do it. Nikki Hunt didn't kill her ex-husband. Sure she was angry at him. And, okay, she may have been overheard - twice - saying something about killing him. He ditched her during a dinner that he had invited her to and stiffed her on the check! And the only reason she was meeting him to begin with was her wretched financial situation. She couldn't afford a candy bar, let alone a five star meal, so yes, she may have muttered under her breath about offing the jerk and those mutters may have been overheard. It isn't like she would ever actually do it. Hell, she didn't even use kill traps on mice!

Try convincing the cops of that, though.

Okay, the facts that his dead body was crammed into her trunk and she was the listed beneficiary for his life insurance were a mite damning, but she didn't do it!

When Dallas O'Conner was a cop, he was set up and did time in prison before his name was cleared. Now he and his two best friends, also former cops sent to prison along with him, are private investigators. It shouldn't be at all surprising that they specialize in investigating cases for the unjustly accused.

Stumbling onto a murder scene with his homicide detective brother Tony and coming face to face with a shaken Nikki was a coincidence. Being puked all over while he was talking to her was just bad luck...that his partners would be tormenting him over forever. Still, he believes her when she says she didn't kill her ex, and there are too many suspicious things going on around her that have to be connected to his murder. In fact, not only is he positive Nikki Hunt didn't kill her ex-husband, he's pretty sure she's in danger from whomever did.

Speaking of pretty... When she's not projectile vomiting all over him, Nikki is definitely all kinds of that, and soon it becomes more than just a job to keep her fine behind out of prison...it may just be his reason for being.

~*~

It didn't take me too long into this latest Craig book to realize I was going to be in the minority with my review. Don't Mess With Texas is certainly classic Craig. It's romantic suspense with plenty of humor and instant, sizzling chemistry between likable characters. It reads easy, with a fast pace and some nice depth of plot provided by a couple of strong ancillary storylines, including a secondary romance thread that had a lot of appeal. Yet despite all that goodness, I had some problems with it.

As much as I enjoyed Nikki and Dallas, they're fairly interchangeable with all the other Craig romantic lead characters I've read: macho manly man gets a rise from weaker female lead who needs a man to help her out/protect her from whatever danger she's gotten herself into. Nothing there to dislike, really, but I prefer a bit more strength and independence in my female lead characters and more equality in the gender roles.

I also wasn't sold on why Dallas' brother Tony was so set on Nikki as the most likely suspect, especially after tallying up the events that occur the night of the murder. Not to mention the doubt caused by sheer logistics and scene evidence. It never seemed feasible, even initially, that the petite Nikki could kill, then physically dump her larger ex into her trunk given her size and without getting any blood on the clothes she was wearing, be cagey enough to ditch the murder weapon, then scream when she "discovered" the body, drawing instant police attention. The ills and imps of that threw off my ability to fully embrace the core of the plot concept.

Beyond that, I struggled with the development of the romance arc throughout the book. Most of the relationship conflict was the result of a lack of communication - not a favorite theme of mine - and there was a lot of waffling from chapter to chapter by both characters regarding the depth of their feelings for each other and the importance of the relationship to each of them. That was especially troublesome in this case, where the characters have known each other for too short a span of time to warrant a relationship longevity issue.

I wish that the secondary plotline between Tony and LeeAnn had been given more room for development. It was one of the high points of the book for me and had a lot of story potential that I would have enjoyed seeing expanded.

Unfortunately, there's something else that's been bothering me about the last few books I've read by Craig, an issue that has had an impact on my rating of this book and my willingness to read others by Craig. This is the sixth romantic suspense I've read by Craig and out of those six books, four of them have included material and/or characters disdaining homosexuality, or using gay stereotypes as punchlines or to infuse humor into various situations. This seeming trend disturbs me on a personal level and fosters an impression of a lack of sensitivity awareness that makes me uncomfortable. In a day and age where children are killing themselves because they're traumatized or hopeless because of their sexuality, macho men threatened by pink couches sort of loses comedic appeal for me. This sort of humor no more appeals to me than racial humor.

I wanted to settle back and enjoy this book for it's lighter-toned suspense and humor, for the hallmark Texas settings and manly men, for the quick and easy read that's pure pleasure. And honestly, even with one or two of the exceptions I mentioned, there were pleasant stretches in which I was able to do so. Craig writes entertaining books. The problems I had with this one may have tarnished the gold for me, but I'm the first one to say that I know I'll be in the vast minority.

My Lunatic Life by Sharon Sala

Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Series: Lunatic Life, Book 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 156 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.




Not My Normal Cuppa, But...


Starting at a new school for senior year is no easy thing, but at least Tara Luna has a lot of experience with new schools. Her Uncle Pat, Tara's guardian since her parents' death years ago, is a throwback to hippie days, a free spirit with wanderlust in his soul. New schools were old hat to Tara. Still, she wasn't exactly looking forward to what she knew was coming.

Fortunately Tara, who wouldn't mind being a normal girl but had long since given up that particular pipe dream, at least knew she had the...undying...support of her two best friends. Sure, they were the ghosts of a long-dead young man and woman who had watched out for Tara as long as she could remember, but what with that whole beggars/choosers thing, she couldn't really complain. And maybe their new home and her new school wouldn't be so bad.

Stumbling into a dark and draining spirit in the kitchen of their new rental home and drawing the taunting scorn of a trio of popular cheerleaders on the first day of classes seems to provide all evidence to the contrary, however. On the bright side, there's a cute guy in a couple of her classes and he's been nice to her right from the start. If he knew she's a psychic who can see and speak to ghosts he'd think she's insane, but still.

Her life is crazy, that's for sure, but Tara is used to it, such as it is. But the dark spirit haunting their new home turns out to be the murdered ghost of a former resident and one of the cheerless cheerleaders goes missing one afternoon after school. Suddenly crazy would be an improvement on Tara's lunatic life, and her abilities, not to mention her protective poltergeists, may be the only things that can help Tara solve one murder and prevent another.

~*~

Young Adult fiction isn't my forte. I don't read much of it, and when I do, it's more the sort of stuff that is intended to appeal to adults as well. This one isn't quite complex enough to do that, yet I couldn't help but be entertained by the spunky, forthright Tara and the charming secondary characters, in particular bad-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold Flynn and ghosts Millicent and Henry.

This isn't a YA novel oozing teen angst and relationship drama, a fact that I heartily appreciate. There are many very popular vehicles for that fiction, but I'm not a fan and I try to avoid it. This book is more akin to a paranormal Nancy Drew mystery, really, and that was part of what I liked about it. I certainly don't have the experience to compare it to much of anything else out there, but I found myself smiling throughout the book and really enjoying Tara's personality as she dealt with a new school, making new friends, and trying to do the right thing for the dead and not-yet-dead. I don't know that it was all that realistic or true-to-life on a character level, and there were a few parts...and characters...that even I recognized as being a bit too good to be true, but there were also a few - very brief - moments in which the all-too-real darker side of life was on display.

It was mostly a simple, sweet, fun tale about a psychic girl who struggles with life and tries to do the right thing. There was a bit of mystery, a bit of spookiness, and a bit of grim horror. It isn't terribly complex, it isn't some sweeping epic, but it is entertaining, and it is definitely enough to have me wondering how Tara is going to solve the crime of DeeDee's murder and what her lunatic life is going to look like now. I'm surprised...pleasantly surprised...to say that I'm interested in finding out.

The Stranger You Seek by Amanda Kyle Williams

Genre: Thriller/Suspense
Series: Keye Street, Book 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 304 Pages
Formats: Hardcover, Kindle, Paperback (Available for Pre-Order)
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Bantam publisher Random House Publishing Group via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



Seek And Ye Shall Find...A Gripping Read


As the heat of an Atlanta summer grips the lungs and rakes the skin with its searing, humid, punishing talons, a chilling crime robs a child of a mother in the basest, cruelest of ways. Death stalks city streets and a conscienceless killer saunters through the shadows of its wake, leaving nothing but broken bodies, grief, and blood.

Ex-FBI profiler Keye Street doesn't work these kind of cases anymore. Not since her addiction to the bottle torpedoed her career and a stint in rehab did away with most of the rest of her life, husband included. Now she makes her money the old fashion way, as a diversified licensed private investigator, handling everything from corporate investigations to unfaithful spouses to bail jumping. Whatever pays the bills and keeps her mind off her persistent, unrelenting thirst.

It isn't until her best friend and Atlanta Police Department lieutenant Aaron Rauser gets a taunting, insidious letter from the killer that Keye is asked to lend her expertise to the kind of case she trained for, learned for, excelled at before alcoholism triumphed over her in such grand and uncontested style. Sheer force of will and gritty determination keeps her dry, but the lure of deciphering the clues and digging deep into a killer's maniacal intent to rain slaughter down on innocents ups the ante.

Dodging professional landmines and tap dancing around protocol and procedure is easy. Finding a killer who leaves no clues and has no apparent pattern, even as the body count rises...that may actually be the death of her. If the strain of the investigation doesn't tip her back into a bottle first.

~*~

I love psychological thrillers. I love southern mysteries. I prefer my heroines to be strong as steel but flawed, smart but human - foibles and sins and fears and insecurities and everything else all rolled up into a fallible, sympathetic package. Having each of those loves and preferences wrapped up in an exquisitely crafted tale of murder and humanity and struggle and heat...woah. Happy reader here!

It's all about Keye Street. What a fabulous combination of flaws, peccadilloes, and keen intellect she is. Brash, a little intense and fearless, a little broken and self destructive, a little irreverent and corny, a little snarky, she's just a great heroine. With a narrative that's told from her first person point of view, this book depended on her being a solid heroine. Williams knocked it out of the park for me. I loved her. I can't wait to revisit her quirky internal monologue and view of the world around her. Even the moments when she was a bit too human, a bit too flawed to be totally likable, she was still very realistic and utterly believable. Hands down she's the best female lead in the Thriller/Suspense genre I've read all year.

And then there was the story she's living. Parts are chilling psychological thriller, parts charming southern mystery, parts are pulse-pounding action and suspense. It's all around satisfying. Williams' writing paints just as keen and sharp a picture of Atlanta and life in the south for a woman of mixed heritage, traumatic childhood, and painful past as she does of malignant sociopathy and murder. The subtle foreshadowing and deft control of meager clues in the search to discover a killer's identity and motivations were damn impressive, especially at the end of the book when, looking back, I had a clearer picture of how all the pieces fit together.

One aspect of the book in particular was either brilliantly premeditated or phenomenally coincidental - I still don't know if I was imagining it or if it was intended, actually - but I'm loathe to detail it and risk spoiling any aspect of the conclusion. The flip side is that I'm equally loathe to detail the two issues I had with the story that kept me from fully loving it in its entirety. Conundrum.

As delicately and as ambiguously as I can, I'll say this: there was an abrupt change in the relationship between Keye and Rauser. While I liked that change, I can't say it felt organic to the characters at that point in the story. The groundwork was actually skewed a little in the opposite direction, so it took me by surprise. Beyond that, the events that immediately follow that surprise were such that it made me feel like that change in relationship was a bit contrived to maximize emotional impact.

The second issue, and the larger of the two, I can say even less about without being too revealing. All I feel comfortable saying is that an aspect of the big reveal was very disappointing to me because it seemed to contradict information (arguably suspect and incomplete, I admit) gleaned from a lifetime of fascination with true crime documentaries, crime solving shows, and armchair psychoanalysis of aberrant psychology. I'm not saying that there is a contradiction, just that what I read conflicts with what I believed true about the depths of depravity mankind is capable of sinking to in similar circumstances.

Even with those issues, though, this book was a hell of a fun ride. I thoroughly enjoyed Keye Street and her band of merry accomplices (aka secondary and ancillary characters) and can't wait to read more about her, see how she continues to deal with her demons and the changes her life has gone through. Combined with Williams' ability to fold the Deep South up into a novel like a juicy, ripe peach and the devastatingly wicked way she pulls the flap back on the psycho murder box of crazy, I can only imagine where Keye's life is going to take her next. Can't wait for the ride.

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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