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Men Under the Mistletoe by Josh Lanyon, Harper Fox, Ava March, K.A. Mitchell

Genre: LGBT - M/M Romance; Anthology
Series: N/A
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 116,000 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.

With These Guys, Who Needs a Fireplace?

The fourth of the four holiday novellas I picked out was another fully satisfying read, and looking back - both over this holiday season and the sequence of anthologies - I can't help but wonder anew at the power of this time of year. Regardless of personal faith, beliefs, religion, race, gender, sexuality, or any of the other myriad divisive elements in the world that separate and segregate people from one another, there's something special about this time of year. And judging by the fifteen novellas I've read in these four anthologies, not the least of that something special is the inspiration it inspires; the hope, the love, the forgiveness, and the sense of family.

In this holiday anthology, four powerhouse authors of M/M romance spin their tales in four different sub-genres. Ava March gives us a delightful M/M historical romance. For a touch of the supernatural, Harper Fox tackles a mystical M/M paranormal romance. One of my favorite authors in M/M fiction, Josh Lanyon, offers up a contemporary M/M romance that warms the heart, and K.A. Mitchell, another author I've spent plenty of time enjoying, turns up the thermostat from warm to smoking hot in her roasty toasty M/M erotic romance.

Four authors, four wildly different stories, united by a holiday season and the love and joy it inspires. As this year draws to a close and a new year begins, we try to carry over some of the warmth and kindness that stirs in our hearts around whichever holiday each of us celebrates. These holiday anthologies do their part, because unlike the lights, ornaments, and decorations, they don't have to be boxed up and stored for another eleven or so months. They can be enjoyed all year long.

Happy holidays, Happy New Year, and most of all...happy reading to you throughout 2012.

My True Love Gave To Me
by Ava March
M/M Historical Romance
~* 4 Stars *~
28,000 Words
Buy Title: Kindle

At nineteen, Alexander Norton is in love. While the social obligations of the ton during the holidays are draining, he's excited by the plans he has with his best friend and love, Thomas Bennett. While at school together they had to settle for hidden touches, stolen kisses, and fleeting sexual encounters that did little to really expand either young man's horizons. Now, though, Alexander has convinced Thomas to spend the holiday alone with him at his father's house in the country. For the first time they will be alone together, away from society and all its expectations, regulations, and limitations. They will be free to love each other fully.

The plan was solid. More so, it turns out, than Thomas's spine. Before he even steps foot over the threshold, his fears, insecurities, and issues with his sexuality overwhelm him. He turns tail and leaves Alexander, leaves England. He flees from his desires. He flees from his heart. He flees from himself.

It takes him four years to accept himself, to realize that Alexander is the only person he'll ever truly love...to return home and beg Alexander for forgiveness. But four years may be four years too late.

~*~

This sweet historical romance made me smile. March struck a nice balance between the emotional and the physical aspects of the romance arc, and both Alexander and Thomas were sympathetic, likable characters. I don't have a lot of experience with M/M historical romance. I tend avoid them because I find them a little depressing, regardless of the story. For all the difficulties facing modern gay men and women, an historically accurate view of the regency era offers a far less tolerant landscape.

Still, I couldn't help but feel Alexander's pain and confusion when Thomas walked away from him, any more than I could help feeling his cynicism and derision when he returned. And poor, confused Thomas... The lengths he went to to convince Alexander of his regret and to apologize were impressive. I liked both men, completely understood both men, and thought their story was emotionally intense and very realistic.

I was a little put off by how much of the novella was set in the past before Thomas left, and at first Alexander struck me as a little too exuberant and immature for a man of his years in that era. By the time the story jumped forward, though, it was clear that both main characters were men, not boys. I also thought some of the shifts in the POV later in the novella were a little off-putting. Beyond that, this was a lovely tale, with a lot to recommend it on an emotional level.

Winter Knights
by Harper Fox
M/M Paranormal Romance
~* 3.5 Stars *~
35,000 Words
Buy Title: Kindle

With one of his ever-present migraines pounding in his head, Gavin Lowden struggles to work on his thesis as he waits for his lover to come out to his parents  about being gay, then join him in the Northumberland hotel room he'd rented. He had the holiday planned. This was the weekend he would tell Piers that he loves him. Then the phone rings, and Gavin's Christmas takes a dark and dangerous turn.

After Piers' call and wracked by the misery of his loss, Gavin stumbles from the hotel and heads out to the hills. Disoriented and confused, he ends up lost and banged up at the bottom of a crevasse. Fortunately for him, two rescue workers find him before he dies of exposure or hypothermia. The coincidences are shocking as he's pulled to safety by Art and Lance, so close in spirit to his imaginings of King Arthur and Lancelot.

Reeling from the experience, Gavin is introduced to a whole new world by these two men, and he learns a valuable lesson that he plans to use to convince Piers of his dedication to win him back. He'll have to put his very life on the line to have any hope of convincing Piers that he is completely committed to their future together. Whatever the cost.

~*~

I have to confess, I don't think I did such a hot job on my story summary for this novella. Mostly because there's so much going on in it that it's hard to summarize without giving away too much. Looking back, I'm actually a little stunned at how much was included in the plot. And none of it felt short-changed or glossed over for the expediency, either.

Of the four novellas in this anthology, this one is the most stylistic and artistically written. And I hated the beginning, where the majority of that artistry was in evidence. I can appreciate the skill of the writing, but I got lost in the haze of a nearly hallucinogenic narrative and felt saddled with a fairly unlikable lead character in Gavin. The combination of Gavin's migraine, the drugs he takes to deal with that migraine, his pain over the loss of Piers (which also struck me as a little too similar to the previous novella), and the misty edge of mystical oddities when he goes out to the hill left me feeling like I was trying to read through a bad acid trip. Or at least what I imagine a bad acid trip to be like. It was all a bit too surreal for my tastes.

And the more time I spent with Gavin, the more he seemed like a wanker.

Then something changed, and as if the mists surrounding the fabled Avalon parted, a new clarity warmed the story, pieces came together, the plot dropped a few major surprises on me, Gavin and Piers had a few scenes that made sense, and I was left feeling rather agog at how awesome I thought the second half was. I loved it, in fact. Especially as some rather pertinent aspects of Gavin's character came to light. Nothing was as it seemed at first, that's for sure. Saying more would ruin it.

So I hated the beginning, though I recognized the skill in the writing, and I loved the end. I should also confess that the first two sex scenes didn't sit so well with me. They crossed a couple of my lines relating to casual sex and open relationships. Though in retrospect... And again I can't say more without some major spoilers. Anyway, I ended up going with a little more than an average rating for the whole of it. I can't say the ending rocked my world to such a degree that I didn't mind how much I disliked the beginning, or it assuaged my initial discomfort with the sexuality, but I ended up feeling pretty impressed with how Fox turned it around.

Lone Star
by Josh Lanyon
M/M Contemporary Romance
~* 4 Stars *~
26,000 Words
Buy Title: Kindle

It isn't easy being gay in rural Texas, especially when your dream is to dance ballet. Mitchell Evans knew that intimately. He left his small town at eighteen, after a fight with his boyfriend led straight to an even more physically painful altercation with his father. He hasn't been back since. Not even six months ago when his father was buried. Not until he walked into the dressing room in New York and saw his lover getting serviced by the guest dancer...the female guest dancer...and learned just how oblivious he'd been.

Reeling and feeling lost, needing to reevaluate his life, Mitchell caught the first flight to Texas with the intent of at least dealing with his father's house and possessions. On the road into town, as his mind grows sluggish with exhaustion from the journey, Mitchell is shocked by what looks like a reindeer in the middle of the road. Swerving to avoid impact sends his rental car off the road and into a deadly roll.

He's lucky to survive the accident. When his ex-boyfriend, Texas Ranger Web Eisley, pulls up and steps out of the darkness and back into his life, Mitchell can't help but wonder just what sort of luck it was. Web hadn't been willing to come out of the closet all those years ago. Now he's a Ranger. In Texas. And Mitchell is a celebrated dancer and a rising star. In New York. Mitchell is openly gay. Web...well...Mitchell doesn't know. All Mitchell does know is that coming home for this holiday could either be the best decision he's ever made...or the worst mistake of his life.

~*~

I'm a Lanyon fan and have been for awhile. I love his Adrien English mystery series. When it comes to his writing, I consider him a sure bet. He's never written the sort of stories that reach in and grip my heart, twisting it into a big sloppy pretzel, but he writes solid, dependably entertaining stories that are easy to enjoy. And that pretty much sums up Lone Star. It's a compact and fulfilling contemporary romance with likable characters who are easy to root for. The plot isn't terribly unique or original, but there's enough meat on it to satisfy, and the evolution of the main character, Mitchell, is the driving force of the story.

Mitchell's past is rocky, his feelings for his hometown and the people in it are complex, and not surprisingly, colored by the misconceptions and pain of his angst-filled teen years. His coming to terms with his past, his relationship with Web, his career, his father's death, and his breakup with his live-in boyfriend are more than enough to fill this enjoyable novella to the brim.

I do wish the whole reindeer thing had been a little less subtle and obscure, because I'm still not sure what I was supposed to take from that, but this was a warm journey to a lovely HEA for two great guys who were made for each other. I enjoyed it a lot.

The Christmas Proposition
by K.A. Mitchell
M/M Erotic Romance
~* 4 Stars *~
27,000 Words
Buy Title: Kindle

All Christmas tree farm owner Mel Halner wants this Christmas is to get the hell out of Pennsylvania. He's hours away from getting his wish and already picturing himself on a sunny beach in St. Thomas when his best friend's fiance calls him. The tropical island wedding they had planned, Mel's reason for one fabulous week of vacation away from the farm, is off. The wedding planner was a crook who had taken the money for all the reservations and package deals and disappeared. Including Mel's deposit.

Now not only was Mel not getting out of Epiphany, PA, but he's suddenly hosting the wedding at the farm and putting up some of his best friend's family while watching her turn from a fun, loving young woman into a Bridezilla from hell. And now he'll be coming face to face with millionaire Bryce Campion, the one man Mel hasn't been able to forget, despite the two years that have passed since Bryce left town without a word after an incendiary two-month relationship. Instead of being tanned and relaxed in St. Thomas, he'll be cold and bitter in his own hometown. Not exactly the reunion he was hoping for.

Thankfully, seeing Bryce isn't quite the torment he'd anticipated - quite the opposite, actually, and Mel is surprised to learn a few important truths about the man who makes his body burn and his heart swell. Trusting Bryce with that heart, however, is something that would truly take a Christmas miracle.

~*~

This sizzling erotic romance by Mitchell is a great way to draw this anthology to a close, and it sure did keep me toasty on a cold winter night. It's got plenty of hot sex between two gorgeous men and sometimes that's more than enough. In this case, there's also just enough going on beyond the sex to provide a decent story about the neurotic Mel, the intense Bryce, and Mel's wacky family and friends.

It's fun and flirty, filled with sexy moments, and it has a few serious threads that brush on some of Mel's insecurities, but mostly it's just a light, easy, hot read. Lets just say it stirs up enough open fire to roast more than a few chestnuts and leave it at that.

A Clockwork Christmas by J.K. Coi, P.G. Forte, Stacy Gail, Jenny Schwartz

Genre: Steampunk Romance; Anthology
Series: N/A
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Length: 117,000 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.

Still Feeling The Holiday Spirit

I've been vaguely aware of the steampunk sub-genre for quite some time, but being the massively cool trend-setter that I am (that's irony...or sarcasm...it's sarcastic irony, even), I hadn't dipped my reading toes in those toasty waters before I came across this nifty little anthology. Maybe that lack of experience skewed my opinion. Maybe these four tales aren't an accurate representation of a genre with limitless potential. I don't know. All I do know is I fell headfirst in love with the steampunk romance genre because of this anthology and the stories featured in it.

Of the four holiday anthologies I picked out to read, this one is my favorite. There's something about the worlds created by each author that drew me in. The characters - especially the female protagonists - and their stories struck a chord with me. They are unique; a breath of fresh air. They are an appealing blend of science and fiction, revisionist history, and creativity. Each novella captivated and entertained me. Some I liked more than others, not all I felt were good fits for a holiday anthology, but each one was a pleasure that I fully appreciated.

Crime Wave in a Corset
by Stacy Gail
~* 5 Stars *~
33,000 Words
Buy Title: Kindle

Even master thieves such as Cornelia Peabody make mistakes, a fact that is driven home with painful clarity the night her sanctuary is breached by a very brassed off professor, one Roderick Coddington. Six months ago, Cornelia stole something truly priceless from Roderick's home, the loss of which sent Coddington's family into a tailspin that no amount of money could reverse.

Furious and reeling from loss, Coddington has worked for months on this retribution. He breaks into Cornelia's home, accosts her, and slaps a timepiece on her wrist; a very special time piece. Either Cornelia gets him the property she stole or the timepiece explodes and she dies. She's got seven days. Until Christmas morning. Then...ka-BOOM.

No pressure.

~*~

I loved this novella! I loved everything about it. Cornelia was a joy of a character. She's a strong, independent female with some definite shades-of-gray morals but with a code of personal ethics and a less-than-pleasant personal history that kept her sympathetic. She's smart, cunning, and no-nonsense, and when she's with Coddington, their chemistry sizzles. I enjoyed her immensely and was utterly charmed by her early in the story. Coddington struck me as a cold, ruthless prat at first, but it didn't take long to warm up to him, either, especially when his lust for Cornelia derails his ferocity at every turn and his opinion of her starts to evolve.

The novella has a particularly nice enemies-to-lovers theme in the romance arc. Gail kicks it off fast and furious, then manages to add depth to her characters, widen the scope of their relationship, and add a few twists and turns just to keep in interesting. This was a fully complete-feeling novella that made me want to hunt down more stories by Stacy Gail and read every word. I found her writing style and her storytelling smooth, intelligent, and both easy and pleasant to read. Of the four titles in the anthology, I have to admit, this one was my favorite.

This Winter Heart
by PG Forte
~* 5 Stars *~
30,000 Words
Buy Title: Kindle

It's been eight long years since Ophelia Leonides has seen her husband, and if she had any other choice, she wouldn't be seeking him out now. Problem is, the war didn't end well and she's dangerously close to being destitute and having her son taken from her. Her son...and her husband Dario's son. Her ability to convince him of that fact may be the only thing that keeps them safe and gives them any hope for a future.

Dario is incensed to find out his wife Ophelia has returned. He cast her out long ago for her deceptions and her lies, but most importantly, for the yearning love and heartbreak he felt despite them, despite everything. Now she is back with the one thing that Dario never dreamed possible, his son. There is little doubt the child is his image. What's in doubt is the child's humanity. He is also, after all, his mother's son. Or so the bewitching Ophelia claims.

The bitterness in Dario's heart is just as strong as it ever was, and that bitterness may cost him the only two people left in his life who want nothing more than to love him. It will take a Christmas miracle to air all the grievances and heal wounds that run this deep.

~*~

At times painful and poignant, at times somber and sad, this beautifully written novella speaks of the desperation of love and the painful potential of hope. It draws into question the very definition of life, of soul, and of the ability to feel beyond the boundaries of flesh. Ophelia and Dario have both lost so much, hurt each other so deeply...though admittedly, I felt more sympathy for Ophelia than Dario, who I mostly wanted to bop on the head - repeatedly. With their son between them, the trio made for powerful story.

Dario is a hard and unforgiving man, difficult to like at times, but there are chinks in his armor that make him tolerable before he redeems himself. Ophelia's inner core of strength and compassion are a testament to love and motherhood. She's ultimately sympathetic, even for those who may tend to agree more with Dario's opinions. I didn't think this novella was as entertaining to me personally as the previous one, but the characters and their issues are deeper and richer, the plot is more complex, and it has more emotional impact. I think it's just as good, a solid five star read, but it's very different in tone.

Wanted: One Scoundrel
by Jenny Schwartz
~* 4 Stars *~
26,000 Words
Buy Title: Kindle

Heiress Esme Smith needs a man. Not for so pedestrian a purpose as romance or physical intimacy, but to go where she can't, be what she, for her gender, is barred from being. A voice for suffrage in her colony. Esme is intent on her goals, with a vision for her Australian territory that includes women's rights, aboriginal rights - including the vote for both - and freedom from Britain's greedy tyranny.

But she needs a mouthpiece. A male mouthpiece who can enter the clubs closed to women and put forth her politics, represent her ideals. And convince the population in the meantime. She needs a man.

American Jed Reeve was minding his own business as the ship pulls into port, happy to be in Australia after a long trip from the States. He wasn't expecting to have such a bright beauty as Esme Smith propose such an outlandish partnership before he'd even set foot on her soil, but Jed's more than happy to roll with the punches, as it were. And if partnering with the fiery, politically passionate Esme gives him an opportunity to win her hand as he represents her causes, then he'll consider himself doubly blessed.

~*~

There was much to admire about Schwartz's novella. Though it's slightly outside the realm of what I consider a holiday novella, really, as winter Down Under is in July, I did like how some measure of Christmas revelry was included. I also thoroughly enjoyed the glimpses of colonial Australia provided. I don't often read much with that setting.

I thought the characters were likable, the storyline well developed and thoroughly evolved, and as a woman, I surely sympathized with Esme's political platform. I also enjoyed the thread of suspense woven into the storyline. It added another nuance to the anthology as a whole.

I wasn't as satisfied with the romantic story arc in this one as I was in the two that preceded it. Maybe it was Esme's intent focus on her suffrage movement, but I didn't really feel she was much of an active participant in any developing relationship with Jed. That was a shame, actually, because I liked Jed quite a lot, and I certainly felt his attraction to Esme. That chemistry just seemed a bit too one-sided to thoroughly appeal to me as a part of a satisfying romance. A little more focus on their romance and slightly less on the political jockeying would have elevated this read for me. I liked it, but it fell short of any deeper emotional connection and was my least favorite of the four.

Far From Broken
by JK Coi
~* 4.5 Stars *~
27,000 Words
Buy Title: Kindle

His job got his wife kidnapped. His job got her viciously tortured. His job almost killed her. His job saved her life and changed her forever.

It's been four months since Colonel Jasper Carlisle left his battered and broken wife Callie in the hands of a doctor he believed was her only chance for survival. He left because she wouldn't stop screaming when he was around. He left to hunt down the monsters who broke her. He broke them all. All except the traitor most responsible. Jasper didn't know who that was. Yet. He'd find out.

For now, he was returning to his wife with every intention of taking her home for the holiday.

Rage. Loss. Sorrow. Disgust. Betrayal. Calliandra had been a prima ballerina married to the love of her life once. Now she was something she could hardly comprehend married to a man who had lied to her about who and what he was. Her eye, her hand, both legs from above the knee...gone. Replaced with metal, with machinery, and in her blood the little mechanisms that made her able to use them as she had her own limbs, her own eye...but better. And so very much worse.

Now she's been conscripted into duty for her country, the payment for the technology that's saved - and damned - her. Now Jasper has come, trying to reconnect with her. But she's dead inside. And if he touches her heart, it will shatter. She will shatter. Again.

~*~

Dark and intense, I can't say that this novella is my idea of a warm holiday read. It's got a bit too much blood, torture, and pain to put me in mind of roasted chestnuts and kisses under the mistletoe. That being said, it was a fairly awesome read. I kept thinking the Bionic Woman meets the Napoleonic Wars as I was reading it, but I'm probably dating myself terribly to admit that.

Coi did a great job capturing the painful emotional repercussions of the sort of trauma and healing Callie endured, and the relationship issues between her and her husband as a result were realistic within those parameters. It's a relatively short novella with a whole lot of plot crammed into it, though, so something had to give. In this case, the evolution of Callie's character was a bit disjointed. She started out very withdrawn, struggling with a quagmire of emotional detritus and seeming both unwilling and unable to deal with Jasper, her physical changes, and her new responsibilities. I can't say I blame her for any of that, really, but where I would have enjoyed a more gradual shift in attitude and healing, with a more realistic relationship evolution with her husband, there seemed to be a few small steps of progress preceding an abrupt paradigm shift that seemed too fast and too convenient.

To be honest, though, I didn't mind that so much. The novella became much more enjoyable a read after that shift. Caused a bit of a conundrum, really. And I liked Callie much better at the end than I did at the beginning, as self-pitying heroines don't do much for me, even when they're given as much cause as Callie is.

Still, it's a great novella. Imaginative, dark, and chock full of emotion. I can't say it was a good fit for a holiday anthology. Not unless you like your eggnog with side orders of stabbing, beating, and mutilation, anyway. It was pretty darn impressive despite that, though, and well worth a read.

Holiday Kisses: A Holiday Romance Collection by Shannon Stacey, Jaci Burton, HelenKay Dimon, Alison Kent

Genre: Contemporary Romance, Anthology
Series: N/A
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 313 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.

Keep Your Eye On That Frost Guy...He Nips

Four holiday romance novellas make up this seasonal delight, and they did a nice job of keeping me toasty on a couple of cold winter nights. Metaphorically, anyway, as southern Florida isn't exactly known for its brisk evening temperatures, even in winter.

This anthology didn't have the shared concept that united the three novellas in the previous anthology I read, but I'm perfectly happy without that. This one was a more consistent and entertaining read, each novella offering something for readers. And especially nice, Carina Press offers each of these four titles individually, for those who prefer to pick and choose. I appreciate that, even though in this case, the set together didn't have any that disappointed. For me, this anthology as a whole rated a little higher than four stars.

This Time Next Year
by Alison Kent
~* 4 Stars *~
27,000 Words
Buy Title: Kindle

Brenna Keating curses the misinforming weatherman as the flakes begin to fall in earnest on her slow climb up the mountain to her grandmother's house. Her life is at a crossroads and the thought that this may be the last holiday she spends with her beloved grandmother makes this holiday both intensely bittersweet and vitally important. Her entire focus is on enjoying every single holiday tradition before she goes overseas for a year. She should have spared some focus for the deer that's standing in the middle of the winding, snow-covered road.

Rescuing a woman Dr. Dillon Craig knew could only be Brenna Keating from her wrecked car in the middle of a worsening winter storm was just the first good deed the reclusive doctor would be doing this holiday season. Once they're safely back to his mountain home, he's forced to acknowledge how appealing the young woman is. Not that he has any intention of acting on the attraction. He's got far too many of the sorts of wounds that scar the soul, for one. And he knows she's up here to see her grandmother before leaving the country. Messing with the woman in any way, shape, or form would be courting disaster.

With Christmas just days away and the attraction between them heating up the cabin more effectively than a roaring fire, the love that builds between them may be just the Christmas miracle they both need...and deserve.

~*~

I enjoyed this holiday novella. It was beautifully written, and in places emotionally powerful beyond my expectations. The messages of love, healing, and finding your heart's home aren't limited to holiday stories, but they certainly did fit well.

Brenna and Dillon got involved a little quickly for my taste, and I would have preferred the ending be written out a little differently, but this was a lovely novella with two great characters who had genuine chemistry and a relationship with enough depth to appeal. I enjoyed it quite a lot.

A Rare Gift
by Jaci Burton
~* 3.5 Stars *~
28,000 Words
Buy Title: Kindle

Wyatt Kent has nothing but bad memories and regret from the marriage that ended three years ago. Now he's got to face a construction job contracted by his ex-wife's sister. He'd rather be nailed to the frame of the room addition for day care owner Calliope Andrews than deal with the sheer physical lust the feisty woman inspires in him. And when did the little girl he knew become such a pushy, gorgeous, sexy creature intent on driving him out of his mind...or his pants?

Callie has loved Wyatt since she was a socially awkward college kid, and even she had known that he and her sister were a bad match long before they even tied the knot. It's been three years since the breakup, though, and Wyatt has become a grouchy, grim, stick-in-the-mud. She is just who he needs to give him the love he deserves. And with winter wrapping tight around them, she has every intention of doing just that...just as soon as she convinces him she is nothing like her sister.

~*~

While Burton writes a perfectly cohesive, well-developed novella with believable characters and lots of sizzle, I can't say I was thrilled by every aspect of this one. I have to give credit to Burton, I enjoyed Wyatt and Callie together by the end, and that was pretty impressive considering how much I disliked the premise of Wyatt being previously married to Callie's sister. Which was a lot. I really don't like inter-familial relationships.

I also could have done without the "knocking up" conversation and I would have happily exchanged a sex scene for a more complex and significant confrontation between Wyatt and Cassandra. After three years of the sort of negative emotions that were generated by that divorce, the resolution seemed a little too easy and superficial, even for a novella. Still, the story definitely had it's good points, and I really enjoyed Callie's feisty spirit. This one may not have been my favorite in the bunch, but it was better than okay, even with my issues.

It's Not Christmas Without You
by HelenKay Dimon
~* 4.5 Stars *~
28,000 Words
Buy Title: Kindle

Missing and loving on-again, off-again boyfriend Austin Thomas was never the issue for Carrie Anders. That's why she took her dream job at the museum in D.C. and that's why she made the painful decision not to return to her hometown in West Virginia for the holidays. Even her determination to live her life to the fullest couldn't withstand her heart's desire for Austin when she is with him. He just can't seem to understand how desperate she is to not live a life of regret. To not turn out like her mother.

Austin has always known that he and Carrie were meant for each other. They have the sort of love that lasts a lifetime. All he has to do is remind her of that, which is why he is dragging his brother and a bunch of Christmas trees into D.C., camping out in the vacant lot across from Carrie's apartment, and staying until he can convince her to come home with him. Because one thing he knows, Carrie isn't like his own mother, who walked away from her family without a backward glance and put a career first. She couldn't be. And this Christmas he'll finally convince her of that.

~*~

HelenKay Dimon is a new author for me, and that brings up one of the best things about anthologies...exposure to authors you may not have read before. I loved her breezy, humor-rich writing style and the clever way it lightened the tone of some fairly serious relationship issues. Austin was a wickedly charming guy who was utterly clueless about Carrie's needs, but he sure did try hard. Carrie was equally lovable - if a bit too self-absorbed to the detriment of Austin's issues. I can't say much for their ability to communicate effectively, though.

Dimon managed to tell a lot of story in the space allowed. I especially enjoyed Austin's brother as a secondary character, and the backstory of Austin's issue with alcohol added some nice depth to his character and the overall romance arc. The entire novella had a very complete-story feel to it that is often lacking in stories of this length. I wasn't totally thrilled with the logistics that Austin and Carrie worked out at the end, though. It was a little too nebulous for my HEA-loving heart.

Overall this was a wonderful, fun, and funny novella with charming characters. It touched on enough serious issues to have weight and offered enough holiday-flavored romance to warm up the most Scrooged heart. It's definitely put me on the lookout for more stories by Dimon.

Mistletoe & Margaritas
by Shannon Stacey
~* 5 Stars *~
20,000 Words
Buy Title: Kindle

When Claire Rutledge's husband died two years ago, the grief and guilt would have crippled her if it hadn't been for her husband's best friend, Justin McCormick...now her best friend. In the two years since, they have relied on each other, spent time together, worked together, crashed at each other's homes, doing everything two best friends do. Until Justin shows up in the last place Claire was expecting him...her dreams. The sort of dreams that she hasn't had since her husband died. Hot, sensual dreams that leave her wanting.

He can't do it anymore. Can't be with Claire, see her look at him as a trusted friend when he aches for her so badly, yearns for her so damn much. It's Justin's private shame, his deepest secret. He is in love with his best friend and has been from the moment he saw her...even before she'd gotten married and slipped beyond his reach forever. He is going to have to give her up, because the one thing he can't do is dishonor the memory of the man who trusted him to watch out for her.

If he can get through the holidays, he'll do the right thing and walk away. His resolution gets tested, though, the night of the Christmas party. The night his best friend and the woman he's loved for years looks at him across a crowded room with a glint in her eye that he recognizes for the frequency he's felt it within himself. It's desire. For him. Maybe this holiday will see all his Christmas wishes granted, after all. Maybe.

~*~

Neither the shorter length nor the less complex plot prevented this novella from being my favorite in the bunch. Not only is the friends-to-lovers theme my favorite of the romance tropes, but Stacey imbued this story with some very painful but emotionally honest moments that resonated with a level of realism I appreciated. Both Claire and Justin struck me as earnest and believable, and while their short journey didn't have room for much depth in plot, it packed a punch and carried me right along with the story.

This one made me feel good as I rooted for Claire to embrace her new leash on romantic life, as I watched Justin come to terms with the understanding that being with Claire doesn't make his guilt go away. Though, to be fair, I wanted to bop him on the head a bit for that. Still, I loved when Justin admitted the full scope of his feelings for Claire and let her know just how long he'd loved her. I melted a little at that. I even enjoyed the method Stacey used to get the two crazy kids together for their HEA. Just about everything in this short, sweet novella appealed.

Holiday Hideout by Vicki Lewis Thompson, Jill Shalvis, Julie Kenner

Genre: Contemporary Romance; Anthology
Series: N/A
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 320 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this Harlequin Anthology was provided to me by Harlequin via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.

Home Away From Home For the Holidays

In a cozy cottage overlooking Lake Tahoe, married sociology professors from University of Nevada rekindled the romance in their rocky marriage. It was such a tremendous experience for them that they bought the cottage and rented it out when they weren't using it. After several letters left by thankful renters, the professors noticed a trend.

Rocky relationships were smoothed, new relationships were kindled, and love was a rental agreement away for the lucky couples who spent time at their cabin.

The trend was so fascinatingly obvious the professors couldn't help but test out the wild theory that there was something truly magical about their cabin. So they decided to study the phenomena. And with three holidays fast approaching, there was no time like the present to see if three separate couples could find their forever love in a small cottage by a large lake.

The Thanksgiving Fix
by Vicki Lewis Thompson
~* 3 Stars *~

Beth Tierney has decided she's had enough of her family's matchmaking attempts. Taking control of her life, she's eschewing the family gathering for Thanksgiving and spending time alone at the Lake Tahoe cabin owned by her favorite professor from college. She is a self-sufficient woman who neither needs nor wants a man to fulfill her life and her holiday is going to be all about embracing her single status and focusing on her career.

Handyman Mac McFarland is dreading the trip to his parents house for the holiday. His mother has invited yet another young woman to parade in front of him in the hopes he will finally get married. He's so focused on the impending disaster that he doesn't question the oddness of the phone call he gets from his friend Jillian Vickers. She and her husband are professors at the state university but own a cabin on the lake, and she asks him to go over to the cabin and check on a pipe leak she's worried about.

Mac shows up at the cabin and meets the gorgeous Beth and suddenly all their best intentions are tossed out the window as sparks fly. The heat between them is instant and intense. Two people least interested in being a couple could take coupling to a level that will give them both an entirely new home for the holidays.

The Christmas Set-Up
by Jill Shalvis
~* 4 Stars *~

Architect Jason Monroe doesn't know the meaning of Christmas spirit. He's too busy keeping the family home out of the hands of the bank, running herd on his younger brother, and competing fiercely with brilliant architect Zoe Anders. The beautiful, brilliant Zoe who makes his pulse race as often as she annoys him.

When the senior architect at the firm challenges all the associates to come up with a dazzling design to land a whale of a client and offers a choice promotion as the prize, everyone in the room knows that Jason and Zoe are the two he's really speaking to. They are the best at the firm. Now they'll be pitted against each other far more directly than they ever have before.

As Christmas approaches, neither Jason nor Zoe are having much luck with their designs. Little did either of them know that a few helpful elves...Jason's brother being top mischief-maker...have conspired to push them together over the holiday break. Two brilliant architects stuck in one snow-bound cabin on Lake Tahoe for Christmas. By the end of their stay they'll either have killed each other, or realized that a little bit of collaboration...in all things...is even better than a visit from Ol' St. Nick.

The New Year's Deal
by Julie Kenner
~* 2 Stars *~

Five years ago their dreams and ambition sent college sweethearts Cleo Daire and Josh Goodson in two different directions, ending a relationship that had meant everything to both of them. But they made a deal. They would meet up five years from that dark day to catch up and see if there is still something between them.

Josh loved Cleo but his duty was to his family. Cleo hated seeing Josh subjugate his dreams but wouldn't try to stop him from following his heart, even as hers was broken.

Now it's five years later and Cleo's career is hitting a great stride. Josh's life is over a thousand miles away. She didn't even know if he would remember their promise. He had. It was almost all he thought about lately. Still, regardless of their chemistry or the feelings still swirling between them, the fact remains that she lives on one coast and he on another. And he's still falling in line with the bonds of obligation to his family business.

Still, could the magic of one special cabin strike gold once again? Is five years long enough for them to get another chance, or are they both too caught up in the lives they are living in the present to worry about what could have been in the past?

~*~

I don't read many anthologies. Too often I find the stories uneven and the overall expense not worth the hit-or-miss reading from story to story. Still, I was feeling festive this holiday season and decided to devote some reading time to four of the holiday anthologies that were available. So begins a short jaunt down a frosty lane bedecked with holly and fragrant boughs of pine, twinkling lights, hot chocolate, hot sex, and, of course, love.

The premise for this contemporary romance holiday anthology, the cabin-of-love in Tahoe, connects each of these three seasonal novellas and gives them a sense of cohesion that goes beyond the holiday theme. Authored by three widely popular writers, each story is well written. All three are creative craftsmen when it comes to building their plots and getting their characters together in the limited and limiting space allotted to them in their individual novellas.

For me, though, neither the sense of cohesion nor the quality writing was enough to fully entertain me over the span of the three stories. Jill Shalvis' novella, The Christmas Setup, was my personal favorite, though as she's one of my favorite authors for light romance, that's wasn't a huge surprise. Her novella was a little sweet, a little spicy, and had some humor that made me smile. The first and third books in the anthology didn't have the same amount of appeal, but not because they're poorly written - they're not. The problem I had with each was the literary tropes they featured.

The anthology spans three holidays and the novellas span three separate tropes. Thompson's The Thanksgiving Fix is a lust(love)-at-first-sight story that has the main characters having sex within hours of meeting each other and working out the logistics of happily ever after two days later. That's one of my least favorite tropes in romance fiction because it's so rarely written in a way that I can believe. Maybe I'm a cynic...no, I know I'm a cynic...but I have no faith in the permanence of the relationships in these cases. And color me prudish, but shagging someone you've just met is neither romantic to me nor particularly festive...it does, however, put the 'ho in the Ho-ho-ho.

Shalvis tackles the enemies-to-lovers trope in The Christmas Setup, and that was another element in its favor, because it's one of my favorites in the genre, right behind the friends-to-lovers trope. I wasn't totally thrilled with the conclusion to the story; I wish the job had gone the other way and I would've liked a more detailed picture of the resolution of Jason's financial issues, but I enjoyed this novella quite a lot.

The New Year's Deal features the second-chance romance. Kenner's novella was probably the most expansively developed plot, and I don't have a problem with second-chance romance per se, but I never warmed up to Cleo in this story. She seemed fairly selfish and unbending in the initial breakup between her and Josh and she never really improved for me as the story went along. Plus, second-chance romances don't work so well for me when I actually read the first chance going splat. I find it depressing, and depressing in a holiday novella doesn't exactly keep my chestnuts roasting on an open fire.

Unfortunately, this holiday anthology sort of exemplifies why I don't read many of them. Three great authors whose books I've read and enjoyed, three novellas surrounding three separate holidays, and three popular tropes for the genre, yet I couldn't quite engage with all three stories. Still, there's that whole festive thing, and I've got three more anthologies to go on my journey to a very Merry Christmas.

One Brave Cowboy by Kathleen Eagle

Genre: Contemporary Romance
Series: N/A
Line: Harlequin Special Edition
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 224 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Harlequin Special Edition publisher Harlequin via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.

Has Some Lovely Moments

The Double D Wild Horse Sanctuary is like a beacon of hope slicing through the dark morass of psychological trauma for war veteran Cougar. The sanctuary could help him, give him access to what he needs to try to calm the horrors and ease the ravages of the mental break he'd suffered after serving his tours of duty. It would let him work with horses again. Cougar lived and breathed horses.

He hadn't even turned into the drive of the place, though, when the preternatural sense inside him rose up and collided with a flashback of hell. He slammed his foot on the brake, his truck stopping just before he hit the small boy who had dashed out from the side of the road and gone down in front of him. Once his tremors were under enough control to let him move, he opened the truck door and slid out straight into the lives of a young boy with his own traumatic past, one that's left him deaf and mute, and the boy's mother, whose haunted eyes full of crushing guilt touch a place in Cougar he thought long eradicated by the horrors of war.

Celia Banyon could deal with her ex-husband, as odious as he is, and she can deal with the responsibilities of making ends meet as a single mother. She couldn't deal with the thought of her son suffering anything more because of her. When the man named Cougar - just Cougar - stepped into the barn and into her life, she of course felt the stirrings of attraction, but it was in the gentle kindness he showed her son that Celia saw his heart and soul, his calm compassion, and his many, many wounds. She saw a man who should be lauded as a hero, but who thought of himself as broken.

As they draw closer, as their lives brush against one another in a way that fits so sublimely, Celia will have to convince her brave cowboy that he's more than what he sees in the mirror, more than the nightmares that rip him, screaming and sweating, from sleep. For her, for her son, he is so much more. He could very well be everything.

~*~

This was a gently sweet romance with a few truly wonderful moments. I liked Cougar quite a lot. His PTSD was well-developed in the narrative without overwhelming the whole of his character, and he was a strong romantic lead with the sort of strength of character and quiet intensity that fit well with his role. His self doubt, his struggles with his past, and his concern for his future provided an inner conflict that added depth to his character in the book.

Celia was less appealing to me as the female romantic lead. She fit well as Mark's mother, but the chemistry between her and Cougar felt a little tepid to me. She felt a little tepid to me in general, actually. Scenes that could have illustrated her spirit and strength (which any single mother has in spades, even without raising a child with special needs), instead made her seem too non-confrontational, especially those in which she faced off with her ex. Because of that, she came off more as a shadow than a siren in the romance arena. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, I guess, but it gave her character a submissive feel that I don't care for in my female romantic leads.

My favorite parts of the book were the scenes with Cougar and Mark. Cougar's calm presence and his subtle support of Mark were fantastic. The way he drew him out and helped him find himself was beautiful to read. Mark stole my heart in the book, and he and Cougar made me smile watery smiles.

The writing style gave me some problems. The dialogue between several of the characters seemed oddly truncated at times and lacked a natural conversational flow. The narrative, too, had a few passages that were sparse on explanation or description in some places. Several conversations flew over my head because of it and I had a hard time grasping the full impact of some of the scenes. In them, there seemed to be a lot being said beyond the words and actions, and I've never been easy with that sort of subtext storytelling.

The romance between Celia and Cougar wasn't as effective as I hoped, either. Lack of much chemistry is hard enough to look beyond, but that problem was compounded by what seemed like a startling and sudden escalation in the relationship. The attraction the characters felt for each other didn't get much acknowledgement before the word love was being batted around - even if it was in internal monologue - so it felt like I had to jump gears from first to fourth instead of being drawn along with a naturally evolving relationship.

One Brave Cowboy is definitely a sweet story and it touches on some serious issues in a nice way. I enjoyed the idea of horse therapy and the attention drawn to the struggles of raising a child with special needs. The dashes of culture from the Shoshone and Lakota nations were also nice to see and lent legitimacy to the characters. I wouldn't say the book breaks any new ground in contemporary romance, and I felt both the sanctuary and the horses were underutilized, but despite the issues I had, it was an okay read with some truly wonderful moments.

Shield of Fire by Boone Brux

Genre: Fantasy Romance
Series: Bringer and the Bane, Book 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 311 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was received from the author for review. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.

Ambitious Series Debut Delivers

The hellish embers of a war waged centuries ago are once again being stirred into conflagration. The king of the Bane, a demon who kills humans and subsumes their souls, demands his son Icarus bring him a young woman named Ravyn. Only by taking her soul into him will he have the power to open the Abyss of Souls and command the Army of Souls within it. Only with Ravyn's power will he finally be unstoppable...unconquerable.

He must have Ravyn's soul to wipe the world of the last, persistently lingering traces of the Bringers, a race of people with the ability to destroy the Bane.

Sequestered from the world since birth and raised in an abbey, Ravyn has led a cold, relatively lonely life. Beaten and feared for the force she has inside her, she struggles to control the confusing flares of fire, a power she's been told - convinced - is proof of her inherent wickedness. And until she is faced with true evil, true wickedness, and feels the sting of it on her skin, feels the fire in her rise up to battle it, she is certain in her beliefs.

Being snatched by Icarus, the Bane king's son, however, as she flees a force of insidious corruption within the abbey and slips beyond the relative safety of sanctified ground, makes it clear that things are not as she's always believed. Ravyn smacks face-first into a destiny she could hardly conceive. With the help of the last full-blooded Bringer in the world, Rhys Blackwell, a man who rescues her from Icarus and opens her eyes to her true nature, Ravyn will stand on the precipice of war and serve as the fulcrum for a paradigm shift of world-altering proportions.

As the attraction between man and woman sparks like tinder and rages like wildfire, a proud but forgotten group of warriors will discover long-buried truths that serve to renew their purpose in the coming battle. It must. For if it cannot, if the Bringers falter in their destiny and duty, life - all life - will end and the Bane will rule forevermore.

~*~

If you're fond of series debuts with a lot going on and a hell of an introduction to a complex world, this exciting jump start to the Bringer and the Bane series shouldn't be missed. Set in a fantasy world that looks vaguely like medieval England in social structure, but ripe with the demon Bane and their magically gifted counterparts, Bringers (the demon/angel correlation is both obvious and acknowledged in a nicely concise way in the story), this book offers a lot to readers.

On the surface, it's a fully entertaining fantasy romance/paranormal romance book with two characters, Ravyn and Rhys, who are appealingly strong as the protagonists, and a cast of secondary and ancillary characters who are just flat-out fantastic. For that alone I would have enjoyed the book. It's what lies beneath the surface, though, and what has been woven into the book beside the main romance plot line, that offers the truest flashes of story excellence and the potential for series greatness.

This is a world with more than one face of evil, where those carrying the diluted bloodlines of supernatural protectors have become leaders grown fat off their own superiority, where human factions have questionable agendas and keep dangerous strengths carefully hidden. It's a world that has lost touch with its history, where ancestral knowledge and magic has slipped through the cracks formed by the relentlessness of time; a world so out of touch with reality that most live in a bubble of self-satisfied contentment that is nothing but a chimera, a gaping maw of sharp teeth hidden behind slack complacency. It's a world that needs to wake up, with a small band of protectors who are ready to do the waking and are just now starting to learn how.

The story potential in all that is as limitless and as imaginative as Brux's ability to dream it, conceive it, shape it, and create it.

I also give full credit to Brux for main characters Ravyn and Rhys. Both of them had backgrounds that were nicely fleshed out and their evolution through the book, particularly Ravyn's, was smooth on paper, but reflected a genuine sense of human nature in the back-and-forth confusion of action and reaction one would expect from someone in their situation. In short, they were perfectly plausible.

That's not to say I didn't want to clobber Rhys more than once for his persistent chauvinism and over-inflated hero complex, because I so did, but he is definitely a product of his past and his nature. One of my favorite moments in the book, too, is Ravyn's initial reaction to her first encounter with a horde of Bane following the massive shift in her understanding of herself and the world around her. This innocent, quietly raised young woman reacts swiftly and negatively. This is not the life she wants, being a warrior is not a job she thinks she can do, and she intends to let Rhys go on without her. I loved that.

Hey, don't get me wrong, my preference in heroines may be the sort that kicks ass and doesn't bother taking names, has control of her destiny and her power, and knows herself inside and out, but if you're going to give me one that's led a cloistered, secluded, more than vaguely abusive life from birth, then yeah - Ravyn's reaction fit her frame of mind and her situation at that moment perfectly. Of course, she does change her mind after the initial terror of the battle wears off (wouldn't be much of a book otherwise), and she does have her moments later in the book that are in the general vicinity of ass kicking, but that initial reaction was spot-on proof of some of the touches of awesomeness that this book offers.

I have to admit, I didn't think the romance between Ravyn and Rhys was terribly complex or unique. She's an innocent, he's an over-thinker with a misguided idea of protect-and-serve, and the conflict in the relationship revolves around those two facts. I think the romance was probably the most predictable and pedestrian element of the entire book. Satisfying for a romance lover like myself, with plenty of chemistry and some hot sex, but fairly average for the genre.

Icarus, on the other hand, was nothing close to average in any way, shape, or form. Son of Vile, the Bane king, Icarus was a puzzle wrapped in an enigma. Easy to hate for his crimes, which are, admittedly, expansive and vile (no pun intended), there's still something about him that screams for redemption. He's not like other Bane, and that major plot point is what held me most captivated by this book.

I am a total sucker for redemption threads and anti-heroes. I love them. Give me a flawed, broken character or a bad-guy-does-good and I yearn for their triumph over the darkness that coils through their souls. Icarus embodies all of that and more. Is he a bad guy? Oh, yeah. And the good guys loathe him and want him dead. Are his motives murky and self-serving? Absolutely. All evidence points that way, at least. But there's just something about him that drew my attention and kept it, and every glorious glimmer of the slightest difference between him and other Bane was savored and studied. I loved him. I want more of him. More of the series, certainly, but definitely more of Icarus.

I do feel the need to warn readers about one thing. Shield of Fire may annoy or frustrate those who prefer their books to be wrapped up in a tidy bow at the end. There's no cliff hanger - I hate those - but the only plot thread that truly reaches a conclusion is the romance thread, and even that conclusion left me with a lingering sense that the story between Ravyn and Rhys wasn't quite done being told. I hope that's the case, actually, as Ravyn seems to be a fairly large factor in the war brewing between the Bane and the Bringers and I still have a lot of questions about her past and her identity. But that's exactly my point.

The sheer number of plot threads left dangling at the end of this book make party streamers seem understated. They're everywhere. So, too, are the unanswered questions. Nothing much is really resolved, concluded, discovered, or revealed in this book beyond the most basic elements. No, I'm not complaining. I actually enjoy series that lay down questions and conflicts at the beginning and answer/resolve them throughout the series arc. It doesn't bother me at all that so few of my questions are answered at the end of this book. I know it bugs some readers, though, and I wanted to mention it.

My personal caveat, and I do have one, lies elsewhere. Now that the world has been established, mythos created, characters introduced, and history fleshed out, some of those danglies and unanswereds need to start getting resolved/answered very soon. The appeal of future books in the series will depend on that for me. 

At Grave's End by Jeaniene Frost

Genre: Urban Fantasy Romance
Series: Night Huntress, Book 3
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 352 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle

Cat and Bones... 'Nuf Said

Being notorious has its privileges, but it's not doing much for Cat's job lately. The indiscriminate undead are seeing through even her best disguises and her reputation as the deadly Red Reaper precedes her far and wide. The usual shtick, using herself as bait to bring down the vampires who kill humans, is becoming less and less successful.

Vampire hubby Bones isn't exactly bemoaning his kitten taking a different tack, though. There's only so much groping of his wife a bloke both wildly in love and viciously dangerous can stand before the bloodbaths start. A change in plan may be just what her whole team needs.

Pity the change they adopt doesn't go so well. More of a problem is how the galactic fail leads Cat straight into a painful reunion with dear old dad. And in Cat's world, "painful" means bloody, gaping wounds and torture to the point of death.

As if barely surviving her father Max's not-so-tender ministrations isn't enough, there's an ancient and powerful force of evil backing him, and Cat is little more than collateral damage in the grand scheme. Humbling, really. But humbling is better than the gut churning sense of doom that comes from finding out who is pulling Max's strings...and who her real target is. She's a two thousand year old vampire worshiped as a goddess by her followers and feared as a tyrant by her enemies...in those brief moments before she decimates them all, anyway.

And Bones is next on her to-do list.

~*~

Okay, truth is, if a book's got Cat and Bones in it, I'm a fan. I love them together, I love them individually (Bones especially), I just love them. The stories about their exploits are some of my absolute favorites in the UF/UF Romance subgenres even if there are some books in the series I like more than others.

This one isn't one of my favorites, but it has two things in particular that set it apart from the rest. It's the first book that I felt had a genuine separation from the lingering patina of BtVS-ness I've mentioned in my reviews of the first two books. Other than Bones still reminding me vaguely of a far more mature and seriously bad-ass Spike (that particular trait can linger as long as it wants, as far as I'm concerned), this is the first one where the story and the characters didn't give me BtVS flashbacks. That's a point in its favor, for sure.

The other major point in its favor? Hello, Vlad, great to meet you!

I had some problems, though, with this book.

The concept for the plot was solid and Cat continues to evolve as the main character. There were several developments that I thought were wonderful, decisions she makes and actions she takes that were absolutely perfect for her and for the story. She's grown and matured nicely over the last three books, and that's something I much appreciate. The action is high octane and top notch, as always, and the depth of emotion the story ripped from my heart was distressingly impressive.

The transitions between story elements in this book as the plot progressed and major plot points were revealed, though, seemed very abrupt, making the narrative flow feel jerky and awkward in places. There were one or two times I had to go back and reread passages because it almost seemed like I missed a page between one part of the story and the next. It's disconcerting to be pulled out of the story like that.

Besides that, the Big Bad in this book never really came front-and-center in the story, and she never quite stirred in me the level of dread and fear for a painful, bloody end that would have make her plotline suspenseful. What she did was horrible, the weapons she used terrible, but the weapons inspired more tension than she did as the Big Bad. Who she was never factored for me at all. She may have been the High Priestess of All Things Anathema to her own kind (the sane ones, anyway), but her lack of presence compromised my ability to be see her as a serious threat. And when Mencheres' issues were tossed into the mix concerning her, I lost a little respect for him over how he handled it.

Still, this is such a stellar series. The journey that Cat and Bones are on is such a fantastic combination of sweeping, epic romance and dark, gritty urban fantasy. It's one of a kind; it's a yardstick by which to measure the rest in a crowded field. It's sexy and daring. It's fun. It's a lot of fun. And in the grand scheme, even a book that wasn't quite as smooth or effective as the two books that preceded it is just so damn awesome it shouldn't be missed. Nor, frankly, should this series.

Night Huntress Series:

All In by Kate Willoughby

Genre: Erotic Paranormal Romance
Series: Be-Wished, Book 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 96 Pages
Formats: Kindle
Disclosure: A copy of this book was provided to me by the author for an honest review. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.


A Little Sweet, A Lot Spicy, All Fun

Chocolatier Mariah Hughes barely remembers the night of drunken revelry that led to her and her two best friends making wishes as they tied on wish bracelets during their vacation cruise a year ago, let alone what she'd wished for. Fortunately for her, the United Wish Federation keeps exceptional video records, and when her UWF agent shows up to grant her wish, a disbelieving Mariah is given proof even she can't deny.

That still doesn't mean she remembers her wish.

It's only with her friend's help that her memory is jogged. And when it is, it's hard to believe she'd ever wish for anything else. Six years ago she'd had a magical night with a young guy named I.C. Tucker. It was the best night of her life and Tucker had fueled her hottest fantasies ever since. She would love another chance with the now famous professional poker player.

When her newest client turns out to be the soon-to-be-married bride of Tucker's best friend, and Mariah comes face to face with Tucker again after six long years, Mariah realizes two things. One, the man still draws her on every level, and two...her wish has been granted. And Mariah has no intention of letting the opportunity go to waste.

Problem is, their connection is so intense and her emotions so quickly involved, that having their entire relationship based on nothing but some silly wish - something with a definitive expiration date - no longer appeals. Mariah wants a happily ever after with the man of her dreams...and hottest fantasies. To get that, though, she'll have to do the one thing that may push Tucker away from her forever.

~*~

So this is what you get when you take a little magic and a little chocolate, add a dash of humor and a bunch of hot sex, and stir with a surprising depth of emotional connection. Wow! All In is an erotic PNR novella that thoroughly satisfies.

Lately the most consistent issue I've had with the romances I've been reading is that too many are plenty heavy on the lust but not so big on the deeper interpersonal relationships and downright light on love, with entire relationships based solely on the horizontal...or vertical....or upside down, for the kinksters out there...mambo. And I'm not talking about the erotic romances, either. So to actually read an erotic romance that manages to blend the hot sex with a solid romance between two likable characters quite obviously made for each other was a special treat that I won't soon forget.

There's plenty of hot sex, sure, but I adored how Willoughby had a plausible backstory for her characters that laid the groundwork for the romance that developed, so it didn't feel unrealistically fast when the relationship start getting emotionally significant for the characters. Mariah and Tucker were wonderfully into each other for more than just physical pleasure, and that romance is as sweet as the chocolate delicacies Mariah sells. It's a great balance.

The paranormal elements were fun. Davina was a hoot and she stole every scene she was in. I didn't buy how quickly Mariah wrapped her mind around the whole wish granting thing, though, even with the proof she got (which was awesome in its own right), and I found Tucker's reactions later in the book to be even more of a stretch. Those were minor grievances, however, when compared to the strength of the rest of the story and my appreciation for an erotic romance that gave as much attention to the "romance" as it did the "erotic." I liked this one a lot.

Watch Me Die by Erica Spindler

Genre: Thriller/Suspense
Series: N/A
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 352 Pages
Formats: Hardcover, Kindle, Paperback (Available for Pre-Order)
Disclosure: I received an ARC of this book through the Amazon Vine program at Amazon.com. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.

A Twisted, Taunting Thriller

Six years ago Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast and raged over New Orleans like a furiously spurned lover. The levees that held at bay the water surrounding The Crescent City could only withstand her onslaught for so long before giving way and spewing forth its deadly flood waters. What started as a natural disaster ended up a national catastrophe of biblical proportion.  It left ragged scars across the landscape of the south and soul-deep wounds in the hearts and minds of all it touched.

Some of those wounds have stayed fresh; sharp shards of grief, loss, and guilt persistent in their inexorable ravaging.

Mira Gallier's wounds led her down a path of misery and self-destruction after flood waters swept her husband away. In the six years since, the loss of her idyllic life and the love that lit it are still a solid wall of grief in her heart. Progress has been slow and heavily-laden with therapy, but it's really her work that has kept her sane. Restoring stained glass is what she does, and her cause was newsworthy after Katrina had her way with the historic city. It gives her purpose still, though she's not quite quit of her demons.

Then a priest is killed, a good man who had become a friend to Mira during the restoration of his church's stained glass windows. Windows which were defaced during the crime.

A street preacher who had allegedly accosted Mira in her shop is victim two.

By the third victim, the pattern is clear and Mira is at its center. What the police don't know, what Mira herself starts to question, is whether she is the cause of the vicious crimes spreading like a bloody stain across the city...or the intended target.

~*~

Spindler's newest psychological thriller is my first experience with the author, and I liked what I read. I've got a soft spot for books like this, books that can stand alone but have overlapping secondary characters in a same-world/same-city, loosely connected web. There is a fine line between making a reader feel excluded if they haven't read previous books and drawing them in but letting them know these characters, this world, have existed for a while. Being able to tread that line and stay on the inclusive side of it often sets writers and their series apart for me. Spindler did a good job of it here.

It's also one of the better suspense novels I've read lately that contain a strong thread of police procedural winding through it. Too often those threads can seem dry or clinical, but the vividness of Malone, his cop family, their various partners, significant others, and bosses as characters kept that aspect of the story fresh and intriguing. In fact, the secondary characters in the book were some of the brightest stars, so instead of becoming a bit boring, or slowing the narrative flow, the police procedural threads added layers of complexity and suspense in their own right. I thoroughly enjoyed that.

I have to admit, I wasn't crazy about Mira as a character. I fancy protagonists with flaws and damage, but tend to get annoyed by those who let their flaws and damage make them weak, and I think Mira tread too close to that line throughout the book, and more than once flagrantly crossed it. Too, I wasn't thrilled with the resolution of an ancillary story line featuring Malone's new partner, Bayle. For similar reasons, actually, and to be more specific would force me to include spoilers I'm loathe to include. Suffice it to say, six years is a long time.

I wish Connor had more of a presence in the book and the thread between him and Mira had been beefed up a bit - but I freely admit that's for purely selfish reasons. I liked him.

The main suspense plotline was hearty and nicely fleshed out, with enough twists and turns to hold my interest and cast suspicion over a wide range of motives and suspects. There was even a twist or two that caught me a little by surprise. The identity of the perpetrator wasn't one of them, but that's okay. Whether or not I'm able to suss out the whodunit prior to the Big Reveal is not the basis for my appreciation of thrillers. How the reveal happens and how all the pieces fit together is a far better indicator.

In that regard, what comes most to mind about Watch Me Die is that it is...solid, if not flashy, steady if not wildly pulse-pounding, and entertaining, if not shockingly thrilling. It has some great points, but the characters didn't all work for me and the ending wasn't all that much of a surprise. One or two of the bits and pieces during the conclusion seemed a bit clich├ęd. Overall though, it provided a nice few hours of reading enjoyment and, not to be left unsaid, it served as a necessary reminder of the indomitable spirit of a city and its inhabitants after a tragedy that took so many lives and robbed so many of their homes, their jobs, their loved ones, and their humanity. 

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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Tracy's bookshelf: read

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

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