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Hot Zone by Catherine Mann

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: Elite Force, Book 2
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 352 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Sourcebooks Casablanca publisher Sourcebooks via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.


Earth-Shaking Action and Romance

Waking up buried under several tons of rubble is not Amelia Bailey's idea of a good time, but she survived the earthquake that leveled the hotel she was staying in, so she can hardly complain. Being able to feel, if not see, her new nephew has also survived is even better. So long as she doesn't think about what's left to endure, or panic about not being found, she'll be okay. Relatively speaking.

Amelia had come to the Bahamas with her brother and sister-in-law to act as their lawyer and help facilitate the international adoption of baby Joshua. Now she's trapped, with no idea if her brother and sister-in-law are still alive, and worried that help won't reach her and the baby before they both succumb to the dust, debris, and weight of the world resting precariously above them.

As an Air Force Pararescuman, Master Sergeant Hugh Franco is used to being on the front lines of rescues and natural disasters. Since the death of his wife and daughter five years ago, he's the first to volunteer for the most dangerous, potentially fatal missions. He doesn't do it solely out of a desire to rescue victims, or just to keep other members of his team safe, in particular those with families. He does it because he doesn't care if he survives. He's just marking time until he gets to see his family again. That's all. Anyone he rescues in the meantime is just gravy.

That's why Hugh is crawling through some of the worst debris he's ever seen after one of the rescue dogs signals a live soul in the rubble. When he finds the trapped individual, sees the wary hope in the eyes of the woman he's found, he quickly sets about stabilizing her until his team can free her. Then she tells him about the baby, stuck just beyond where her body lies under a twist of concrete and steel. A baby he knows could not possibly still be alive.

Getting Amelia free is his only concern, but it's not the only problem. When they are finally pulled from the rubble, they emerge into a world of devastation and chaos. Aftershocks threaten the rescue missions, searchers work frantically to save lives, and armed guards struggle to defend against desperate looters. It's as if Armageddon has been unleashed. Then one lone, tiny wail of furious life echoes across the filthy crowd of men and women and Hugh's soul practically shreds, even as it shifts a little inside him.

Joshua is alive, just as Amelia had tried to tell him. And no matter what, for whatever reason this woman and child still live, Hugh can't help but feel compelled to make sure they continue to do so. But natural disasters of this magnitude do more than highlight the best in humanity...they also bring out the worst. The opportunists, the users, and the vilest criminals take advantage when the whole world is looking away.

His self-appointed task isn't over. Not by a long shot. Amelia and Josh may have survived the earthquake, but it will take every ounce of his strength and training to keep them alive when faced with with a human monster working an evil agenda. One who has no compunction about making them all collateral damage.

~*~

It would be impossible to read this story and not be reminded of the earthquake in Haiti, or to think of the number of scenarios that play out during a natural disaster that would so closely resemble the beginning of this book. To imagine with sorrow the number of incidents that don't end nearly as well as it does for Amelia and Joshua. It's a sobering thought, and a powerful way to kick off a book.

This is my first read of Catherine Mann, and if this story is any indication of what's come before, shame on me for the oversight. Action-packed and intense, this military-themed romantic suspense was also uniquely believable and touched on an array of human emotions and human conditions that were realistic, even in such a tragically surreal situation. Despite the larger-than-life heroes, or maybe because of them, getting a gritty view of a horrific rescue mission in less than ideal circumstances was surprisingly moving.

The lead characters, Hugh and Amelia, were fantastic in their roles. Not only did they have excellent chemistry together, each had a backstory and toted around enough baggage to lend their characters depth and dimension. I had no trouble at all understanding exactly where Hugh's frame of mind was at the beginning of the book, and I felt deeply for Amelia's past and the emotional journey she was on during the story.

I liked them, both of them, very much, and because I liked them both so much, it was easy to get swept up in their wild, bumpy ride of survival, endurance, and perseverance.

I'm still sort of up in the air about the ancillary plotlines and shifting character POVs, though. I didn't dislike them, really. I valued seeing the rescue command from Liam's perspective, and getting more information on Amelia's brother's history, as well as seeing how things fell into place with his wife. Those elements did make me feel I'd missed some previous story development and setup, though, and I'm not sure either thread was as fleshed out as needed to give them a true presence and significance in the book as a whole. And Liam's thread felt like it was left awkwardly dangling with no resolution whatsoever.

I also wasn't totally sold on the kidnapping/baby ring. I thought the motivations of the Bad Guy was fascinating, and I felt it was an interesting twist in an already horrible situation, but I wasn't convinced by the execution or the actions of the characters involved. If it had been more thoroughly developed and liberally sprinkled throughout the book, maybe, but as it was, it more divided the book in a way that I didn't find completely satisfying, and the resolution of that thread was a bit abrupt.

Amelia's and Hugh's character and relationship evolution were the high points of the book for me, and frankly, those points were very high. I felt their passion; I felt for their pain. And I just flat-out enjoyed reading about them both. For romantic suspense with a hefty side of action-adventure, this book was a huge success for me, and provided many hours of luscious reading entertainment. I have every intention of continuing this series and reading more of Catherine Mann's books.

Dead on the Delta by Stacey Jay

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Annabelle Lee, Book 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 389 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle



A Dark, Dank, Dangerous Delight



A bayou in the Mississippi River Delta isn't the place for a casual explorer. You don't just hike there. Not even with hip waders and industrial-strength bug repellent. There are things there that can hurt you. That can make you bleed. That see you as nothing more than prey on two legs. In fact, there are things there that will tear through a human body like tissue paper and leave it just as broken and tattered as a result.

Poisonous snakes.

Alligators.

Fairies.

Oh yeah, fairies are real. They're just not the sort you want to believe in. Surely not the sort Disney could make money on marketing. They're the piranhas of the Deep South. The Great Whites of the Delta. They are the top predators in the land, people.

And they're very, very hungry.

Living in the south has been complicated since the mutations turned the Fey into human blood-craving buzz saws, the people there sputtering and struggling to hold on in their iron-enclosed cities and towns. Almost everyone with money...who isn't dead yet...has fled to safer territory up north. Annabelle Lee isn't one of them. She makes good money doing as little as possible, working for Fairy Containment and Control in the small, stubborn, proud little town of Donaldsonville, Louisiana. It's not much of a career, certainly doesn't take much energy to do it. And that's exactly how Annabelle prefers it. Plus, she's uniquely qualified for every dirty task her job entails.

Annabelle Lee is one of only five percent of humanity who is immune to the bite of a Fairy. If one were stupid enough or desperate enough to try to bite her, she wouldn't be the one driven insane or killed instantly. Not like almost everyone else.

On the bright side, if you can call it that, the feral fairy population has taken a serious bite, pun intended, out of "normal" crime in D'ville. It's a relatively safe place, even for the brave tourists who can make it inside its protected walls. If someone can't, or doesn't, Annabelle helps out the police when needed, heading into the Bayou to keep the cops who aren't immune from risking their lives unnecessarily.

That's why she's out there that morning sweating in the August heat and humidity. There was a report that someone saw a body in the bayou. That report wasn't enough to prepare Annabelle for what she finds, though. It's just too damn...wrong...tragic...horrifying. Even in this dangerous, scary world, it's just too much.

A little girl. Dead. Her face already a feast for bugs and animals.

It doesn't make sense. Nothing about finding the tiny, broken body makes any sense. The six-year-old shouldn't be dead. And certainly not this kind of dead. See, fairies didn't kill the child. In fact, she doesn't have a fairy bite on her. That means a human did this...this...heinous thing.

And Annabelle Lee, slacker extraordinaire, over-the-borderline alcoholic, emotional wasteland, fairy feces collector...is going to have to help find out who did it.

~*~

In Dead on the Delta, Stacey Jay kicks off a new series with a debut about a coarse, unrefined heroine who could be the poster child for self destruction and her struggles to survive in an edgy, imaginative world with an almost post-apocalyptic feel. I'm a huge fan of dark, fantasy fiction (the fact it's set in the south is an added bonus) and flawed characters, and I'm glad I finally snatched this one off my TBR pile and dove in. It garnered the most excitement I've felt towards a new urban fantasy series in quite some time.

But it wasn't all smooth sailing. As much as I like flawed heroines in particular, Annabelle's character falls a bit more towards the damaged end of the spectrum. And she seems to wallow in it, as if wrapping herself in low expectations, lack of ambition, and remembered misery will shield her from any and all of the truly scary stuff in the world. Like emotional maturity, pride, commitment, and caring. It was difficult - more than difficult - to feel very sympathetic towards her.

It wasn't so much the flagrant boozing, of which there is a lot, but the emotional retardation and the blatant self destruction that wore on me, especially in the first half of the book. Annabelle chooses being irresponsible, irreverent, and shiftless. So long as she can get a drink, take some drugs to sleep, and get a fair amount of sex, she's all good. This is a woman of no ambition and little self interest. Flawed doesn't begin to cover it. And frankly, until readers are given bits and pieces of her past, and we find out more about why she is the way she is, I found her fairly intolerable.

Even after the pieces start to fall into place, it was difficult to like her. If I'm completely honest, I probably would have put the book down if the surrounding story and the world building had not been so strong and gritty, so fascinatingly macabre.

There's a lot going on in the story. The investigation into the little girl's death, an FBI investigation of a huge drug ring (Breeze...made from dried fairy excrement - ICK!), the resultant relationship angst when Annabelle's first love comes to town sporting a shiny-clean FBI badge, and some mysterious and freaky - more freaky than killer fairies, imagine that - encounters with some bad people...who have the disturbing tendency to be invisible. Yup. A lot going on in the story.

And once those elements start to take more of a front-and-center in the narrative, I was able to forget how much I disliked the woman in the middle of it all. Eventually, I stopped disliking her entirely. I still wouldn't say we're bosom buddies at this point, but when the plot-driven story elements started to...well...drive the plot, there were far fewer I'm-a-loser-and-I-like-it vibes from Annabelle. Readers were finally given several solid glimpses of the things she does actually care about. Her friends, the town, they matter to the woman. And that makes her human.

And not for nothing, but Jay can write a hell of a tale. For all my issues with Annabelle, she was pretty damn believable, and the story surrounding her, as well as the many secondary characters, were extremely well-developed and utilized with aplomb. There's much angst, a boatload of regret and pain, more than a little guilt, and a hell of a good time all rolled up with some mind-bending story. It made for a mentally and emotionally raucous read.

By the end of the book, I was so caught up in everything that was going on, the last page actually came as a shock. It couldn't be over! I need answers to all those pesky questions left unanswered! But they're the good kind of unanswered questions. The ones that make for a gut-deep burn to read what happens next, a slow yearning for the next book release. They're the best kinds of questions to have at the end of a book, especially a series debut. It means Jay did it exactly right. I'm hooked on this series, and on Annabelle Lee. I want more.

Sins of the Highlander by Connie Mason with Mia Marlowe

Genre: Historical Romance
Series: N/A
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 352 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Sourcebooks Casablanca publisher Sourcebooks via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.

A Braw Highland Adventure

It was a marriage arranged by her father, one that would benefit both the clan of her family, the Stewarts, and that of her bridegroom, Drummond. That fact did little to ease the mind of Elspeth Stewart, who wouldn't know Laird Lachlan Drummond on sight had she seen him at the Queen's court prior to their impending vows. Elspeth is a dutiful daughter, however, and she has faith in both her father's love for her, and in his judgement about her groom. She has to. That faith is the only thing getting her through her marriage ceremony.

That is to say it was...before the doors of the nave are breached with a rumble of destruction and a huge man on horseback rides down aisle towards her. Watchers cry out in stunned, even horrified surprise, and the name of the interloper is gasped in fear-laden utterances. Mere moments pass between his entrance, in itself a blatant disregard for sacred ground, and the drawing of his broadsword. Less time than that elapses before Mad Rob, the Laird MacLaren, has her betrothed's throat at sword's edge. Before she realizes what's happening, Espeth is pulled up onto the stallion's back, then he is racing out of the kirk, a challenge and a threat left in the wake of his wild abduction.

Gifted with foresight she may be, but Elspeth certainly hadn't seen this coming.

Driven by the demons of grief and hatred, MacLaren makes off with the hell-spawned Drummond's bride-to-be. For too long the murderous Laird has refused to meet him in a one-on-one battle, and Rob, considered mad since his wife's death at Drumond's hand, is not letting such an opportunity as this pass him by. His plan is simple. Steal Elspeth Stewart before her vows to Drummond are complete and force the coward to come after him. He knows his adversary well. He knows exactly what to expect from the vile snake. The only thing Rob hadn't counted on was his unwanted reaction to the fiery hellcat he'd stolen.

For the first time since losing his wife, he is stirred by feelings that seem a betrayal to the woman he had loved - still loves - with all his heart. He's not sure he can live with those feelings, nor with the effects the unconquerable Elspeth has on him as they travel, alone and unchaperoned, towards his lands.

Of course, that all may end up being a moot point considering Drummond's lack of honor. A lack that demands Rob gets Elspeth back to his holding as soon as possible, for the bastard who killed his wife isn't following the simplest of commands or being considerate of his betrothed's life in the slightest. He is racing after them with Elpeth's father and a contingent of warriors from both clans. It doesn't take much to figure out that if Lachlan Drummond finds them before they reach safety, there is no doubt that neither he, nor Elspeth for that matter, will reach any destination besides heaven itself...ever again.

~*~

I have a weakness for Highlanders. Ever since the first time I heard, "I am Duncan McLeod of the clan McLeod," I've been a complete sucker for them. And yes, all Highlander heroes do look like Adrian Paul in my head, regardless of book description (can you blame me?). Heck, even when I was turned off other kinds of historical romance for a few years, I'd still grab a Highland adventure or romance to enjoy now and then. And Sins of the Highlander is right up my alley with both its wild adventure and swoon-worthy romance. Yummy, strong, sexy man in kilt swoops in and snatches feisty, stubborn, smart woman about to marry, then spends the next good while together, mixing it up for my reading enjoyment. Oh, happy day!

Rob and Elspeth were a lot of fun together. Rob, tortured to the point of madness by the love he lost in a most heinous fashion, and Elspeth, stalwart and true and generous with her heart, but also canny and independent of thought and deed. Their initial battles of wit and will were fabulous, and their chemistry made the pages smoke.

Lachlan was a right vile bastard as the antagonist of the piece, too. A true blackguard in every sense, he was perfectly abhorrent when viewed against the good men around him. I have always favored complex villains, ones with some good in them to make their evil deeds interesting, but I admit, a true bastard with no redeeming characteristics whatsoever is sometimes just the thing. Lachlan fit the bill nicely.

He provided a very nice counterpoint to the romance of Rob and Elspeth, and I was happy that Elspeth found out about Lachlan's true nature early enough in the book for her allegiance to sway. It provided for a solid and genuine romantic connection between Rob and Elspeth that felt very organic to their characters and their situation. I was totally enchanted with their journey from the wedding to Rob's castle. But then things went just a little awry for me.

The external conflict of the book, which up to then had been exclusive to the threat of Lachlan and the results of Rob's kidnapping, got a little mired down by the inclusion of a secondary threat. I'm all for complex plotlines and depth of conflict, but I felt the plot started to overreach a bit at that point, to the detriment of the threads of both conflicts and to the romance arc. The story as a whole lost some momentum for me.

I didn't feel there was enough page time given to the additional conflict elements to fully flesh them out or weave them seamlessly into the whole. They took me off guard and seemed a bit forced and awkward because of it. Then, when a satisfying resolution could have saved the day for me, the elements lacked definition and felt rushed instead. The end of the book struck me as being almost perfunctory, and I felt the bad guys didn't get nearly the full measure of comeuppance they deserved after all the trouble they caused.

It's a shame, really, because no matter how fabulous every preceding element in a book may be, it is the end that sticks with me as both a reader and reviewer. Rightly or wrongly, I simply remember the end most clearly, so if the last part of a book doesn't quite match what came before it, the overall impression of the book can suffer. Not enough in this case to detract all that much - don't get me wrong I liked this book very much - but I was loving it completely and without reservation throughout the first three quarters of the narrative. It ended as a slightly more than four star read for me.

Quotables:
"Dinna fear what ye dinna understand. Decide to understand it."

Lure of Song and Magic by Patricia Rice

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: N/A
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Length: 352 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Sourcebooks Casablanca publisher Sourcebooks via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.

A Little Paranormal and A Lot Lovely

Oz may look like the quintessential California surfer boy, but Dylan "Oz" Oswin is a high-powered LA producer with a no holds barred attitude and a grim determination to do whatever it takes to get his son back. Even if that means throwing good sense to the wind and following the breadcrumbs of cryptic text messages sent to him by a mysterious third party as they lead him straight to a former child singing sensation. One who had a huge, destructive, and very public melt down years ago, then completely dropped off the map and hasn't been heard from since.

It's been a year since Donal was taken by the nanny Oz had hired to care for the toddler. He didn't even know if his son still lived. All he knew is that he would turn over every rock on the planet, bully anyone and everyone who could possibly help find him if he has to, do whatever it took, follow weird text messages from a possible lunatic who calls himself the Librarian, but he would find his child. Even if he had to exploit a young recluse to do it.

Phillipa James writes children's books and keeps herself far removed from the public eye. Her life now is as distant from her years as the singing sensation Syrene as she could possibly make it. She is too dangerous to be allowed in public. There is too much risk. She's already killed one person and witnessed the devastating affects her Voice has on the masses. When she sings, it's a siren's call that can't be denied. Even speaking can cause people to do things they wouldn't normally do. She must stay far away from everyone.

Even at the risk of a young boy's life and the sanity of his devastatingly handsome but overbearing father.

Except Oz refuses to take no for an answer and strikes back with information no one but her should know, information that hints at a conspiracy far larger than the kidnapping of a child and more nefarious than even her Voice. Information that seems to connect the kidnapping and her unusual talent, leads to the truth about her origins, and draws Pippa and Oz together in inexplicable ways.

Ways Pippa worries will devastate her when she has to give them up.

~*~

When I started Lure of Song and Magic, I had no idea it was a spin-off of a magical historical romance series, one that brought the families featured in it, Malcolm and Ives, into contemporary times. I like the idea. Even though I haven't read the Magic series, there's something comforting in knowing the characters in Lure of Song and Magic are the descendants of those who found their HEAs in their own books. I guess that accounts for the sense I had in several places in the book that I was reading well-established mythos and story history. It's been around for awhile.

The paranormal elements were more subtle influences in the plot than I'm used to. Beyond the fact that Pippa/Syrene is a young woman with special abilities and those abilities have direct effect on the life she's living and the person she's become, they don't really factor into the plotline of the book until later in the story. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed that. It may have slowed down the pace of the story a bit for me at first, as I was anticipating seeing what she could really do, but I enjoyed the thorough introduction to Oz and Pippa as characters and the slow, steady evolution of their relationship - contentious at first, but entertaining for it, before it warmed with the romance plot threads.

I thought the arc of the plot and the layers built into it were superbly crafted. There was a nice balance between the romance and the external conflicts. Not having experience with the Magic series, some of the threads may have been more of a surprise (pleasantly so) than others familiar with Rice's previous work, and the story left me with questions that the previously initiated may not have, but I like pleasant surprises and I don't mind unanswered questions...so long as they get answered eventually...so it's all good.

My favorite part of the book is something that I find surprisingly rare in romance. Two characters who are truly made for each other. And not just because of the obvious reason, either. Lets face it, Oz wasn't always a nice guy. He was self-absorbed, single-minded, obstinate, and he had entitlement issues. It was his way or the highway all the way. Pippa had her own issues. She was neurotic, a little flaky, had an over-inflated guilt complex, and was as skittish as a three-day-old colt. There were times when she a little mean, too. Just a touch.

Thing is, Oz could bully her all day long and Pippa just ignores it, and Pippa can flake out all she wants, and Oz just rolls right over it. Neither of them were at all bothered by the worst traits in the other. More than that, they needed those traits to achieve their own balance. They fit together perfectly. I can't express how lovely and rare that is, and how much I enjoyed experiencing it as it developed.

The only issue I had with the book, and really, in the grand scheme, it's minor, is that the inevitable crisis point in the relationship between Oz and Pippa seemed a bit abrupt - both as it happened and as it was resolved. After such a slow, steady buildup of all the many threads of character and story as the book progressed, it was pretty jolting to me. Despite that, I thought this was a truly great read. I do hope it's a series, though, or will become one, because if not, there were way too many unanswered questions and unresolved issues. I want more so badly that I'm treating it like it is, even though I couldn't find anything to indicate that was the case in the several places I checked to find out. Fingers crossed.

Blue by Russ Gregory

Genre: LGBT - M/M Romantic Suspense
Series: N/A
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 288 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Bold Strokes Books via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.

Couldn't Put It Down...Eventually

On a hot, Austin night, the crack of a single shot echoes through the city streets and a young man collapses to the gritty concrete, bleeding, writhing in pain...dying. His death is agonizingly slow. He was gay. And he is not the first.

Over twenty years ago a killer hunted his prey along these same city streets. All were young gay men, all were gunned down with a single rifle shot. The killer was never found. And now he's hunting again.

Matt Bell had been in college when he'd taken a bullet all those years ago. He'd survived only because his friends were close and got help to him quickly enough. Since that night, he's lived a life of emotional isolation. Never letting anyone close, never letting anyone in. And he's getting a little tired of himself over it. Especially when he catches a glimpse of an attractive but obviously haunted man in a bar one night. Matt feels inexplicably drawn to the solitary character and for the first time in as long as he can remember, sets out to actively pursue him.

The death of his lover years ago has rendered Thatcher Keeney a veritable recluse, even as the crushing weight of loneliness threatens to suffocate him. When he runs into an attractive man at the grocery store, he feels both awkward and unsure, but he can't deny the zing of...something...that he feels, the first since losing Adam so long ago. Matt is charming, and adorable with his earnestness, and Thatcher can't help but respond.

As the two men start a very jerky, halting dance of attraction, need, and want, they are unaware that the threads that connect them to each other go back far, far longer than either could guess. And then each man gets a phone call that will shake their world and threaten to crash it down around them both.

A cold case, labeled Blue by Austin Police Department's Cold Case Unit, has had some fresh and horrifying activity and the police detective, now Lieutenant, who had originally investigated the crime over two decades ago was informing the survivors that there have been new victims. For Matt, it's a shock. For Thatcher...it's something else entirely. And the potential of their feelings for each other may not survive the fallout of the news. Then again, neither of them may survive the killer, either.

~*~

I wish I could say that Blue was a case of love-at-first-page, but I have to admit, I had to work to get into it. I almost gave up more than once as I pushed through the first few chapters. The many shifts in character point of view in the narrative, the sheer number of characters introduced with no framework to fit them into place, the lack of explanation or much in the way of plotline setup, and the nebulous and shifting timeline all conspired to make the first few chapters of the book both a confusion and a headache. I felt lost for far longer than was comfortable before the story started to fall into place.

The good news is that once it did, I found much to like about Gregory's debut.

Being a visual thinker, I can't help but think of books like this, suspense books, mysteries and the like as big multi-piece puzzles. The more pieces of the puzzle, the more complex the tale. The more complete and "visually appealing" the final picture, the more I like the book. Once all the pieces were assembled in Blue, I have to admit, there were some parts of the picture that were a little muddy, some a bit two dimensional, and in some places the pieces didn't fit together quite as seamlessly as I would have liked. In several of the individual puzzle pieces themselves, however, I found the gold of this story.

Yes, there's an unknown serial killer once again stalking and killing gay men in Austin. The investigative plot threads were fine, if a bit sparse and too light on secondary character definition for my tastes. I enjoyed how Gregory fit together the pieces that were there and thought it made for an entertaining read. I would have liked a bit more of the dots connected than were, though. I had several unanswered questions about the killer, things mentioned in the narrative that went unexplained - like the significance of the lunar calendar, or why the killer shot so many without a change MO given his actual goal - to feel completely satisfied with the suspense.

Matt, though, with his melancholy and his yearning for connection, and Thatcher, still mired in guilt and grief after all those years, were absolutely and completely captivating.

While there are definitely several different character's points of view featured in the book, Matt is the main character, and I totally got him, if you know what I mean. A little clueless, a little haunted, toting around a lot of baggage from being gay and growing up in a conservative family. His past left marks on his soul even as it molded him into the man he became, and I felt for the echoes of loneliness that still plagued him. It was a very genuine portrayal of a character that was sympathetic, believable, three dimensional, and real. And once he started fancying Thatcher, he was even geekily endearing.

Thatcher was more viscerally tormented by his past. With good reason. Losing Adam as he did was...wow. Just gut wrenching. Still, as much as I liked him - and I did a lot - and was just in tears in places as his story was revealed, the disjointed and confusing timeline of events in the book hampered me the most in relation to his past and his character. I just couldn't figure out when things were happening and how long it had been since he'd lost Adam.

It seemed like a really, really long time for the grief to still be so debilitating and devastating. That being said, even though I wasn't able to totally commit to the emotions as they were portrayed, I still felt them and understood (in theory) how utterly the events Thatcher suffered could wreck a person. I felt for Thatcher, mourned Adam with him, and held hope for Matt because Matt and Thatcher need each other very much. That need and that bond between them was fairly awesome to see as it strengthened into a potential relationship.

Not every facet of Blue worked perfectly for me. Not every element was as rich and well developed as I hoped. Not every aspect of the suspense was completely successful. Still, there was a wealth of gut wrenching, powerful emotions captured here, and a lot of solid storytelling that just flat-out touched me, or made me sad, or horrified me, or thrilled me. Maybe it wasn't a perfect puzzle for me once it was assembled, but it was entertaining, and some of those individual pieces were pretty damn awesome, all by themselves.

Quotables:
"So, what do we have?" Griggs asked.
Reed answered. "Total confusion, disconnected nothing, absolute bewilderment. It's an enigma wrapped in a mystery, stuffed in a burrito, and smothered in taco sauce." He smiled. "Sorry, Lieutenant, I'm a little hungry."

Kiss at Your Own Risk by Stephanie Rowe

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Soulfire, Book 1
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 389 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle

Definitely Unique

He is fire, and after a century and a half of the grimmest of tortures at the hands of a black witch with a serious jones-on for males in touch with their feminine side, his escape from her realm at the expense of one of his warrior brethren has Alexander Blaine Underhill III raging like an inferno for revenge. He is intent on returning to the thrice-damned Den of Womanly Pursuits to rescue his comrade, and he's determined to end the life of the witch-bitch who had tortured him since he was four years old. And he's really okay with whichever comes first, so long as they both definitely occur.

Problem is, Blaine can't kill Angelica. Not alone, anyway. She's too powerful, has too much magic. He needs the help of the most deadly creature on the planet. The one person he knows who can kill anything, anyone, no matter how unkillable. He needs a Black Widow.

Trinity Harpswell is so close to achieving her goal. Seven days left and, so long as she doesn't kill again, she'll be forever free of the black widow curse that threatens to turn her into a monster. Compelled to fall in love, then kill the object of her love, she has already succumbed four of the five times she's allotted before it's set in stone. She's determined to not let there be a fifth. How hard can it be to stay out of love with someone for seven short days? It's been almost five years. Seven more days to that important milestone should be a snap.

And then Trinity meets Blaine, who wants her to kill the witch who had made his last century and a half an unmitigated nightmare. Before the warrior left behind gets tortured to death. Which will be long before her time is up, for sure. Shoot. And she was doing so well, too.

He's had the ability to trust in love tortured out of him. She's the epitome of love's demise. It's a match made in hell and it's going to be a bumpy, bumpy ride.

~*~

I honestly don't know if this series debut by Rowe is bizarrely brilliant...or just bizarre. It's definitely action-packed; it's certainly unique. I'd bet it's not for everyone. I'm still not sure it's for me, actually.

The concept is out there, that's for sure. I'm still not sure that the lighter elements of the story or the humor in the narrative worked well for me against the painful truth that these characters have been tortured, experimented on, and devastated by psychological and physical wounds. Had this been more serious in theme, this would have been a freakin' dark book. As it stands, I thought there were some flashes of truly funny bits, but the other elements prevented me from being able to relax into them.

I liked the story, but felt the book was hampered by a huge lack of world-building and character development. I don't mind having a few lingering questions at the end of a series debut, but too much was left without explanation or without clear definition. I have no firm grasp on the paranormal factions in the "real" world, not the first clue the scope or location of the witch's demesne. I don't even know what sort of paranormal - if any - Blaine and Trinity are, exactly. Hell, it wasn't until just now that I realized why Blaine's buds call him Trio. If that was explained in the narrative, I missed it.

It's also possible I'm just more slow-witted than I thought.

For the sheer level of twisted, freaky stuff in storyline and characters, this book would be hard to beat. The cross-stitching Blaine and the love 'em and kill 'em Trinity were quite the pair. There's definitely a part of me that was highly amused at the thought of all those warrior types being force fed a feminine side until it stuck. There just wasn't quite enough of the characters themselves in the book, either in definition or presence. It's far more a plot-driven story than character-driven. Other than the most obvious, I never really felt I knew anything much about either main character. In fact, I learned more details of Angelica's history than I did Blaine's and Trinity's, and even that wasn't really extensive.

That actually caused a bit of a problem for me, because there were things in the book, developments and discoveries and the like, that seemed to contradict previous information given (how'd a guy who'd been locked away since he was four get so good with a motorcycle?). I'm loathe to jump to hasty conclusions about plot holes, but significantly more exposition would have been appreciated for greater clarification. And I'm still not sure how the end of the book goes the way it does given what we'd already knew about Trinity's curse in particular. I was able to sustain disbelief only so far before I started to get a little antsy about the few things that didn't make sense, the myriad of answers I still didn't have, and the larger questions being raised.

The good parts, the strengths of the book, were fabulously weird and wonderfully freaky. I just wish some of the almost four hundred pages had set up the world and characters more thoroughly. I think I'll try the next book, but I have to admit, I may decide that this series is a bit too bizarre for me, even if more of the world is explained.

Quotables:
"It would be a huge honor to have you kill me."
Felicia raised her brow. "You're immortal," she said dryly.
Reina waved her hand. "Semantics. I'll pretend to die."
Felicia's smile warmed. "I like your attitude. Maybe another time."


He let a single flame dance at the end of his index finger. Just a reminder of exactly what he was: a fire warrior (okay, yeah, he'd self-titled, but he figured it was better than cross-stitching girly man).


"You do realize you could put that bullet in my head and I'd be dancing the rumba within about a minute? Guns don't stop me."
She blinked. "You can rumba?"
He scowled. "I just said a bullet to the brain wouldn't hurt me, and you're impressed that I can dance?"


And then he remembered lesson #76.5 from Man Decorum 101: Never tell a smart, pissed-off female what to do. Ask her. Nicely. Preferably with roses in hand.

Radiant Desire by Inara Scott

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: A Handmaid's Seduction, Book 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 248 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Entangled Publishing via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.

A Surprisingly Radiant Read

It was supposed to be an easy task, one that she'd done countless times before as a Handmaid of the Queen of the Fey. In punishment for the perfidy and betrayal of mankind, Kaia Verde and her three Faerie Handmaid sisters are regularly tasked by their Queen to cross over to the human realm. Each then seduce and enchant a man, then leave him humiliated and broken.

This time, though, is different. This time, Queen Zafira has choosen Kaia's target specifically. Kaia just doesn't know why.

The oddities don't end there, either. Kaia, being a Faerie, has always taken her irresistible nature and the power of her Fey glamour for granted. Men, after all, are simple creatures easily led around by their just-as-easily manipulated hormones. It's never not worked. The possibility that she could fail never even occurred to her.

Until she tracks down the elusive real estate mogul Garrett Jameson, finally gets him alone, turns on her Faerie charm...and he completely resists her.

It takes every ounce of her magical compulsion and a good long time to work on Garrett enough to get him back to her hotel room. His resistance intrigues Kaia. His inherent strength and honesty is unique and appealing. And he is dangerously handsome. Even as he finally, finally succumbs to her charms, Kaia realizes one very terrifying fact.

Kaia is just as seduced by Garrett as Garrett is by her. And the pleasure she takes in his arms, the thrills she revels in at his kiss, his touch, go against every single law Queen Zafira has in place for her Handmaids. And when the Queen finds out, there is hell to pay.

Kicked out of Faerie, stripped of her magic, with only twenty American dollars to her name, she's got one chance to get back into the Queen's good graces. She's got to find Garrett - again - and not just seduce him...she's got to make him fall in love with her, then break his heart. Nothing less will satisfy the Queen. Her wings will be stripped. She'll lose her soul, maybe her life.

And she doesn't even know what human love is...or how to engender it in the one man least likely to be happy to see her again.

~*~

I wasn't very far into Radiant Desire when I had it pegged as a highly sexualized mainstream paranormal romance just this side of erotic. That wasn't a problem for me. I enjoy books like that just fine. Thing is, though, pegging it like that puts a certain set of expectations into place. It puts me in a certain frame of mind when I'm reading so I can measure it against others of similar theme to make a qualitative decision.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I read a bit further and realized that I was wrong. It's not the type of book I thought it was. In fact, it's a highly imaginative, unique paranormal/fantasy romance that entertained me with its interesting characters and solid story, and also touched on some sweet and intriguing reminders of just what it means to be human and how important love is in the grand scheme.

I loved Kaia, which is saying something, as her somewhat heartless machinations at the beginning of the book made me very wary. Scott, though, struck the perfect chord with her character and drew out her evolution in a natural, organic manner that never felt contrived or rushed. Kaia became human and sympathetic fairly quickly, but it was her burgeoning understanding of the human condition that made her memorable. She had deep kindness in her, but she also had inner strength and pride that added a layer of fire and class to her personality. I couldn't help but enjoy her.

Garrett was a bit grimmer in character. Suspicious and wary, he was a hard nut to crack, but with his past, his issues were understandable. I can't say I was always thrilled with him, but I did like how helpless he was to fight the powerful impact of Kaia on his life. It wasn't until late in the book, though, that I was able to fully embrace him as the romantic hero of the story.

I thought the story surrounding the romance arc seemed a little stronger and more thoroughly fleshed out than the romantic elements themselves. Kaia's struggles, the threat she's living under, the whole of her situation, and the conflicts between her and Garrett were the driving forces of the book. There wasn't a whole lot written about the relationship between them once it started, as if the focus of the book purposely looked away.

I do wish the ancillary plot threads surrounding Rachel and Ted's relationship had been more expansive. I enjoyed them both and would have liked spending more time with them. That's not a criticism about the overall plot arc, though. It was still thoroughly enjoyable. It even had some twists and surprise developments that took me off-guard. Towards the end of the book, there were a couple of resolutions that seemed a bit abrupt and an epiphany that seemed too neat, but nothing to really dim my enthusiasm for the book.

In fact, it just made me wish the book had been a little longer, that some of the plot points had been explored to their full potential and the denouement had been more comprehensive. But then, I've always freely admitted to being greedy when I like a story. I'm excited to see where this series goes next.

Quotables:
"When people come to the flower shop, you know what they want to say to each other? Two things: I'm sorry, and I love you. That's it. They say it different ways and with different words, but it comes down to the same thing each time. So I think that's what it means to be human. I think it means taking chances and risking getting hurt. I think it means loving and forgiving."

Danger Zone by Dee J. Adams

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: Adrenaline Highs, Book 2
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 114,000 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.

What a Rush!

Being a stunt woman in Hollywood isn't the easiest or most reliable of occupations, but Ellie Morgan has built a solid reputation in her ten-year career. She's good at it. She enjoys it. But her newest gig as stunt double for the star of the movie about female race car driver Trace Bradshaw gave her the first opportunity to get behind the wheel of a race car. And the moment she's in the driver seat, screaming around the track at over a hundred miles an hour, Elle has a moment of perfect clarity. She knows, beyond question, what she was meant to do. She was born to race.

That thrill, that drive to follow a dream newly born but bright with hope, motivates Elle like nothing else. It makes her acknowledge that it's time for a change in her life. And it forces her to accept that to go in this particular direction with her career, she's going to have to tackle one particular demon that's haunted her since childhood.

But not before she wraps up this job, this movie.

Quinn Reynolds is fed up with his brother ducking him and he flew from London to California to tell him so, and to get Mac to finally agree to sell the company the brothers had inherited from their father. Quinn wants out. For two years he's slaved over that company, expanding it into the multi-million dollar industry leader that it is today, but Quinn's done. He's done with London. He's done with the company, and most important, he's done with the race cars they make and the entire sport of car racing. Facts he's more than willing to choke his brother with as soon as he gets him alone, a feat that seems far easier said than done.

Frustrated by his lack of success, desperate to unwind, he chats up a sexy blonde beauty at the bar he and his family had chosen to dine. Doesn't look like his luck is going any better with the fairer sex when she turns out to be the stunt woman doing all the dangerous stunts that his sister-in-law had lived through years ago. A stunt woman he had actually been introduced to that morning...and who had overheard him dish out to the lead actress the same cheesy line he'd just used on her.

So...it's California...where are all those earthquakes when you need the ground to open up and swallow you?

While the dance between a persistent man and a resistant woman heats up, a dark presence observes from the shadows. Plotting, planning, and fueled by rage, his target will have to be eliminated. And if that target can't seem to be more than five feet from the blonde floozy at any given time, he'll off her too. He will not be denied. Regardless of how much blood he has to spill or how many lives he has to take to get what he wants.

~*~

Dee J. Adams is back with another high octane romantic suspense that delivers thrills, chills, and scorching romance! I love her characters, her writing style, the uniqueness of the plots, and the visceral reality she manages to imbue in the descriptions of her books' settings and in her characters' lives. And with this book, she's created one of the most original connecting threads between two books in a series I've ever read. I thought the idea of the main characters meeting on location of the filming of a movie based on the characters and events in the first book was pretty damn ingenious. I loved that!

And since I'm spreading the love, I don't want to skimp on how much I adored Elle and appreciated her very real issues. Adams created the perfect emotional storm in Elle's past, paired it with a learning disorder, and came up with a character both believable and realistic. The emotional impacts of illiteracy and the glimpses of the necessary, labor-intensive work-arounds Elle must incorporate into her daily life to cope with her disability and hide it from the world were brilliant, poignant, and tragic.

Her illiteracy did not, however, define her as a person. Nor was it in any way used to make her seem less a person, not as intelligent, not as worthy. Quite the opposite, actually. I just loved her. She is strong, brutally disciplined, independent, confident...and also vulnerable, dependent, insecure. The sheer scope of her personality and the range of her emotional make-up was impressive.

Honestly, as much as I liked Quinn...eventually...he was a bit dimmer a star than Elle in this book for me. I didn't like him much at first, and had some big concerns with his seeming selfishness. He does show up at a movie set he knows his brother is working at and expects him to sort of drop everything to give him the time of day. That struck me as a bit entitled and immature. But then he started interacting with Elle and either my feelings warmed towards him or he was genuinely changed by his relationship with her, because he ended up being a solid, dependable man in Elle's life...and was both a softy and a real sweetheart. Oh...and sexy. He was definitely all about the sexy.

Together they burned up the pages and their romance sizzled even as it emotionally satisfied.

For all that I liked the plot, which I thought was more streamlined and focused than its predecessor, and thoroughly enjoyed the characters and their relationship, I have to admit, the book started a little slow for me. I was about a quarter of the way in before I felt it really hit its stride. Once it did, I was totally on board for the ride, but the developing pieces of the plot and the initial character introductions seemed a bit clunky for me up until then, and the story started off slightly slower-paced than I would have liked. After the shocking, heart-stopping beginning that was in Adams' debut, this one was far more sedate. A little too sedate.

I also had some trouble with the suspense plot threads in this book, one I didn't have in the previous book. While I felt the action scenes that resulted from the Bad Guys actions were awesome and the emotional impact from the damage BG inflicts was gut-wrenching, he never had much of a presence in the narrative. When he did, he didn't seem terribly effective, at least not in a way that inspired concern, fear, or horror in the lead characters. They didn't even know there was a threat until late in the book. While I suppose there was opportunity for readers to be concerned for the main characters, without the characters themselves being concerned for themselves or knowing of a particular threat, it didn't seem that suspenseful to me.

That issue didn't detract much from the read for me, though. I liked the characters too much, and was too swept up in their romance to care overmuch about it. Elle and Quinn were a delight to my romance-loving heart, and Adams writes hot, sensual sex scenes that burn the pages they grace. When combined with the freshness in the setting and story and the personal issues each of them face, Adams' sophomore effort is another heart-pounding thrill ride of pure reading entertainment.

Adrenaline Highs Series:
 

No Turning Back by Tiffany A. Snow

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: Kathleen Turner, Book 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 392 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: A copy of this book was provided to me by the author for review. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own. Updated 4/4/2012: Author Tiffany A. Snow has secured my permission to use parts of this review in promotional and/or informational capacity including but not limited to the book's synopsis blurb both on the book and at various online retailers.




An Unforgettable Debut

Kathleen Turner has goals. She moved to Indianapolis to start seeing to them, but things aren't going quite as well as she'd hoped. She's a runner for a high-powered law firm in town, not the most prestigious of positions, but it and her part-time bartender gig at least pays the bills. And one of the senior partners is a dreamboat in that obscenely rich, disturbingly good looking, slightly snobbish sort of way.

Before she did a mortifying face plant in his lap during a meeting, she was quite happy ogling him from afar. After that...well...she was more about the avoiding. And hiding under her desk/in her car/etc. when she catches sight of him. Mature, no. More likely to assure she keeps her job, yes.

She's made some friends in the few months she's been in Indy. One of those friends is her neighbor Sheila. Kathleen can't say she's completely comfortable with Sheila's job choice as a high-dollar escort, but she's grown very fond of the woman.

It's the middle of the night when Kathleen is ripped out of a comfortable sleep at the sound of a loud fight coming from Sheila's apartment. As disturbing as that is, it's the ominous sound of silence afterwards that raises the hair on Kathleen's arms and prevents her from falling back to sleep. Slipping from bed with the intention of making sure everything is okay, Kathleen makes it all the way across to her friend's door and knocks.

The door swinging open under her knock is the first sign that something isn't right. Sheila's blood-soaked, throat-slashed body, laid out in her bedroom on sheets still dripping viscous fluid, is the clincher.

Shock and horror are followed quickly by gritty determination when it becomes clear that Sheila's death isn't random, and it isn't the result of a jealous boyfriend. It's the opening gambit in a web of murder, deceit, conspiracy, and fraud that stretches to the law firm for which Kathleen works. Maybe to the very office that Blane Kirk, gorgeous, rich, slightly snobbish Blane Kirk, commands.

And Kathleen Turner, law office runner, may have just become the next target.

~*~

Wow. Okay. This is one hell of a book. The plot is chock full of twists and turns, diabolical in its direction and misdirection, confounding in its conspiracies and conflicts. And it's a whole lotta story crammed into all those pages.

The most confounding aspect of all is how much I thoroughly enjoyed the read, despite several elements that are usually big time deal breakers for me. Some of those are nothing more than personal reading preferences, others are the more significant story elements that severely impacted my willing suspension of disbelief.

All of them added up should have made this book a fail for me. It didn't.

I have no fondness for love triangles, and the one hinted at here was a big problem for me. I am even less enamored of heroines who have every guy in the book panting after them. Especially in this book, where it is established early by Kathleen herself that men like Blane "didn't give me the time of day." All evidence to the contrary on that one, as almost every character with a penis wanted Kathleen. Even the ones who wanted her dead afterwards.

I'm also not a fan of inconsistent characters, I loathe blatant stupidity, and emotional retardation is a close second on the hate-o-meter. Kathleen hits on all those traits more than once.

Then there are the story elements that gave me problems. The building blocks of any read. I know not everyone is as anal as I am about plausibility and logic, but they are major stumbling blocks for me. I was never able to rationalize Kathleen's involvement in the events of the book. She's a runner in a law firm, for pity's sake, and a part-time bartender, not Jason Bourne. Most of the action in the story happens to her because she throws herself into situations she is utterly without the resources or experience to handle.

As the daughter of a cop who purportedly raised Kathleen with a respect for the law (until he died when she was fifteen), she showed a disturbing lack of faith in law enforcement on more than one occasion. On the other hand, the elements of police procedure, thankfully few and brief, were so unrealistic that I couldn't really blame her for that one. The justification for her involvement - that Kathleen knows how overworked and short staffed the police force is, so keeping vital information from them, solving two homicides, and uncovering a massive conspiracy on her own is the better option - is, I'm sorry to say, ludicrous. Kathleen has an unrealistic, over-inflated sense of responsibility to solve the murders of a casual friend and a mere acquaintance. Oh, and it's just bizarre that the mere acquaintance turns to Kathleen for help and hands over vitally sensitive information to her as if she were his last hope (in a very Pelican Brief moment).

She's a law office runner...and a bartender. Part-time. She's a girl from nowhere Indiana who has been in the big city for a handful of months. She's led a sheltered life to date. It just doesn't make sense that she'd be in the positions she gets herself into in this book. And making sense is a big deal for me. Or it always has been, before this book.

This damned book.

This book that broke my brain a little, but wouldn't let me dislike it. The book that, despite everything, was so carefully plotted and ingeniously crafted that I was swept up right along with the nearly criminally incompetent Kathleen. I loved this book. I should've hated it and I loved it. I loved Kathleen. She may not have made sense in the role, but she was gawky, idiotic at times, obstinate, plucky, and dedicated. Daring in the face of danger, timid in the shadow of affection, she didn't trust wisely, she trusted too easily, she was fickle, she was loyal. She was a mess and she got the job done.

I loved her, and more than once I wanted to kill her myself. She was a delightful, frustrating, enchanting, and infuriating contradiction.

The bad boys of crime and punishment, Blane and Kade, were...well...they were something. I was more than a little in awe of how, with such a deft and seemingly effortless hand, Snow kept these two shady characters cloaked in mystery, their motives murky, their intentions unclear. They are such complex, complicated, cunning characters and knowing them brings such fascinating twists and turns and ups and downs. I loved them, too.

The plot-driven aspects of the story were brilliantly executed and richly vibrant with danger, suspense, conspiracy, murder, and mayhem. The narrative was smoothly sophisticated, polished and intelligent. It's no secret that independently published books are hit-and-miss in that regard. This one is a hit. Characters were very well developed and three dimensional, and descriptions were vivid and easy to visualize. There were moments of humor that made me chuckle out loud, tense scenes that had me on the edge of my seat, and disturbing events that pissed me off on the characters' behalf.

This book has driven me a little nuts, actually. I can't help but know - know deep down - that I shouldn't like it. From every other book I've read and all my experience viewing and identifying critical book issues, I should not like this book. Yet I did. I more than liked it. I couldn't put it down. Usually, when the good parts of a book outweigh the less positive points, the blend of both balances out my overall opinion of the read. Not so in this case. No, in this case, the good parts were so darn good, the plot so well done, the characters and their relationships so appealing, that all the less positive and downright confounding parts just didn't matter at all. Damn it.

No Turning Back is a fantastic adventure, and I, for one, can't wait to see what comes next from Tiffany A. Snow. Even if it, too, frustrates me almost as much as it delights me.

Desired by Nicola Cornick

Genre: Historical Romance
Series: Scandalous Women of the Ton, Book 5
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 384 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by HQN Books publisher Harlequin via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.

A Victim of Bad Timing

Dowager Marchioness Teresa Darent leads an absolutely scandalous life. Married three times, each at her own request, she's buried three husbands, amassed a rather large fortune, and spends her time drawing all manner of gossip from the ton. She finds it works quite nicely to keep her real actions and intentions out of public eye and off public lips.

After all, who would believe that a shallow, salacious woman such as she appears to be could be the same woman who spends a good portion of her fortune on philanthropic causes and pens the highly seditious caricatures stirring up such political unrest? Those caricatures calling for social reform were frowned upon by the Home Secretary. He doesn't know who she is, of course, but he's ruthless in his efforts to find the artist known as Jupiter and put him to death for his crimes.

A cause of action that Tess, rather obviously, has every intention of avoiding.

Crawling out the window of a local brothel she's using to hide from the men who'd broken up her most recent political meeting isn't the most calming manner of escape, especially when it isn't as successful an action as she'd hoped. Caught in an incriminating position by the handsome American who recently became Viscount Rothbury, fast talking and faster thinking just barely saves her soul. Still, she's quite the actress, if she does say so herself, and breathes a sigh of relief as she evades the man hired to discover her identity and turn her over to the Home Secretary for her crimes.

That would be catastrophic. Too much rides on her slender shoulders. But when an evil viper slithers his way into her house, spouting disgusting plans to sully her stepdaughter's reputation unless Tess agrees to allow the  fourteen-year-old to marry him, Tess realizes her scandalous ways have wider repercussions than she'd realized. And there is only one thing for her to do to keep her stepdaughter safe. She's going to need a husband number four.

Owen Rothbury is rather captivated by the Marchioness. He has a few suspicions about her, and he doesn't buy her act when he catches her slipping from the bawdy house. She's not nearly the flawless actress she thinks she is. At least not to him. Letting her believe he is completely swayed by her titillating assurances, however, serves his purposes at the moment. And really, he can't argue that matching wits with the woman who, quite obviously, isn't at all the brainless female she plays at is more stimulating than he'd ever imagined. And he wants more.

He wasn't anticipating just how much more he would get when the feisty woman shows up at his home shortly after that auspicious evening and, against all propriety and several licks of good sense, proposes to him the offer of becoming her fourth husband in a marriage of convenience! Owen knows she's hiding something, something more than what lies behind the sudden desire to become a sterling member of society above all reproach.

He's got a few good ideas what her secret is. He'd never anticipated how much fun he'd have sussing it all out...sussing the lovely Tess out. Finding out everything there is to know about her. Frankly, if he has to make her his to do so, well...so be it. And has every intention of being the most inconvenient of convenient husbands. Because first and foremost, he wants Tess with a passion that defies description. Regardless of what she's involved in.

~*~

I've long accepted that jumping into an existing series without reading the previous books is risky. Sometimes it's fine, sometimes it's not, but most times it's somewhere in the middle. Desired is one of the most times.

The primary plot was easy enough to follow, but secondary/ancillary plotlines that carried over from previous books lacked sufficient exposition to draw me into some of the events as they unfolded. That disconnect was most notable in relation to Tom's backstory and his story threads in this book, but not limited to it. Secondary characters also lacked all but the most cursory definition. Had I read the books in which they were featured, that would not likely be a problem, but I haven't. It was.

I thoroughly enjoyed Owen, though. As far as his character and story went, he was both an appealing romantic lead and just a generally honorable male. Smart, savvy, and self-aware, he was my favorite character in the book and his presence as the male lead was a big positive. I was especially fond of how he treated Tess and how he comported himself in her name.

Tess herself was more of a problem. I loved her seditious little heart and felt for her causes. I admired her intelligence and dedication. I was amused at how crafty she was in dealing with the ton and her male admirers. In fact, she was eminently sympathetic and entertaining. Unfortunately, her character's backstory and its long term effects on Tess were so similar to that of Lady Kate Seaton, lead female character in Always a Temptress by Eileen Dreyer that they could - quite literally - be interchangeable. And there was more than a passing similarity to some of the story elements relating to them both. All the way down to the nude artwork.

Had there been a significant break between my reading Always a Temptress and reading Desired, maybe the issue wouldn't be as large a stumbling block, but there was just over a week between each book, with no others in the historical romance genre between them to act as buffer. Compounding that issue is the fact that I felt Kate's evolution following her horrendous past was far more natural, organic to the story and characters, and realistic in the big picture than Tess' was in this book.

Unfortunately, not even my enjoyment of Owen and my appreciation for Tess' intelligence and revolutionary ideologies were enough to hold up against that, and the storyline didn't offer enough to distract me from the similarities to lessen the impact. The overall focus of the story was on the romance, which drew attention to them instead. Other plot elements, from the fallout of Tess' philanthropy and reformation activities to her troubles with the guardianship of her stepchildren, took a back burner or were limited in development.

And not for nothing, but I really wish there had been some sort of confrontation or resolution concerning Tess' sister's behavior. I didn't like her hissy fit after Owen and Tess' announcement was made (it was realistic and believable, sure - doesn't mean I liked it), and her "confession" to Tess had a bit too much satisfied spite in it to forgive her for it without it being addressed. The lack of anything in that area bothered me.

Desired isn't a bad book. It felt historically authentic, there were some particularly nice touches in story and character definition, I enjoyed Owen very much, and Tess as much as I could. It focuses on the romance, so secondary story elements didn't get a lot of page time or resolution, but if it hadn't been for the massive similarities between Tess and Kate from the Dreyer book, I probably would have liked this book more than I did, even without reading the previous books in the series. Given the bad timing, though, this was just an okay read for me.

Once Upon A Kiss by Kate Willoughby

Genre: Erotic Paranormal Romance
Series: Be-Wished, Book 3
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 151 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.

Sexy and Still Going Strong

If she knew then what she knows now, freelance illustrator Olivia Hammond may not be feeling quite so left behind by her two crazy-in-love friends. That's sort of the bitch about hindsight, though, isn't it? And really, who could blame her for scoffing at the possibility of a wish-granting fairy when Davina first showed up to grant her wish back when her wish bracelet had fallen off. She'd thought the little woman was touched in the head, dipping into the fairy dust or something, not an actual fairy.

In truth, Livvy was resigned to it by now. She missed out. It sucks, but so be it. Her best friends Mariah and Paige, both poster women for Happily Ever After, were of different minds on the subject. When they found out that Livvy had missed her shot, they confronted Davina.

It's not that the romance-loving Davina needs convincing, but she's already on shaky ground with the United Wish Federation (a seemingly perpetual condition). She doesn't have enough of her own magic, she can't use UWF's magic. She wishes she could, but she can't help Livvy.

Though...technically there is one other option. It's sometimes a wee bit risky but...it's for a good cause. The best cause. Love.

Famous last words.

Soon Livvy's house is turning into gingerbread, golden eggs are showing up on her property every morning (she's not too upset about that one), and her next door neighbor, an ex-military war veteran who took a bullet in his spine for our country and is now confined to a wheelchair, mysteriously appears - naked and asleep - in a glass coffin in her front yard. Which, coincidentally, is all manner of creepy and more than a little freaky, no matter how good looking he is. Plus he won't wake up until she kisses him.

Getting woken up by the sweet lips of a fine-looking woman is Joe Kimball's idea of a good time. It's been so long he's almost forgotten how much fun a kiss could be. Even one he's, apparently, having in the rain...while he's stretched out in a glass coffin...naked. Uh...okay, well, that's a little psych-eval worthy, for sure. The fact that he can feel the rain on his legs and the cold glass against his skin...and certain parts of his body were giving their own personal salute at the wake up, well...that was a whole other level of holy-shit. He was whole again. And naked. And his neighbor obviously wanted a piece of him.

Hell, if he was dreaming, he'd ride that dream...and his neighbor...all the way to the psych ward. If he wasn't, well...he'd blow up that bridge when he gets to it.

As much as it looks like Livvy is finally getting her chance at her own HEA, and as fabulous it is for Joe to be walking again...and...uh...not walking...it's clear that not all is well with the magic Davina used to grant her wish. Too many fairy tale curiosities are popping up and going a little haywire. And if Livvy remembers correctly - however belatedly - not all fairy tales ended happily...at all.

~*~

I am such a rabid fan of this series, it's almost embarrassing. I love Willoughby's writing style, and the creativity and originality of the series premise has just been awesome. It takes a special sort of talent to put forth erotic novellas/short novels with a paranormal/fantasy bent and not only find the right balance between the sex, the romance, and the story, but to execute it well enough to be felt throughout each tale. With this third installment of her Be-Wished series, Willoughby once again proves she has such a talent in spades!

The plot of this book was a little meatier than the previous two, and Davina and the UWF fairies had a slightly larger role, facts I consider nothing but awesome. Joe's character had a pretty traumatic history, and while it didn't traipse too far down the road to Angst-ville, some of the insecurities and psychological issues born from his past and his condition were very realistically represented in the book. That was a particularly nice touch.

The fairy-tales-run-amok elements in the story also added a new dimension to the tale. It was considerably more comedic than Joe's issues with his paraplegia, which is a good thing. The humorous elements inherent in a house that is suddenly gingerbread or a clutch of golden eggs hidden in the pantry balanced out the more depressing elements of Joe's recounting of his injury and recovery.

There are so many elements of this story and the series overall that Willoughby does so well. The flawless continuity and seemingly effortless flow of world building and exposition is impressive. Character reaction is at least relatively realistic in the face of some pretty wild and fantastical paradigm shifts. Even Joe's moments of being a jerk, and he does have his moments, are believable.

I can't say I was quite as fond of Livvy and Joe as I was of Paige and Adam or Mariah and Tucker. Not really sure why, but while I liked them well enough as characters, especially Livvy, they didn't thrill me as a couple quite like the others did. I also didn't feel their romance was quite as emotionally satisfying as those in the previous stories, but that might be nothing more than the lesser connection I felt for them.

The story, though, was more complex, with some legitimate threat coming from Davina's meddling. That thread of external conflict was resolved a little quickly, but its existence added to the depth of the tale. And by now I'm sure I don't need to mention that Willoughby writes some pretty smokin' hot sex scenes that are positively titillating. Yum!

Three touching, emotional, and fabulously sexual erotic novellas/short novels into the Be-Wished series, and Willoughby is still going strong. Frankly, I just can't wait to see what she comes up with next.


Be-Wished Series:

  

Unraveled by C.J. Barry

Genre: SciFi Romance
Series: Unforgettable, Book 2
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Length: 343 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.

Reaching Critical Mass Has Never Been So Fun!

She is running out of time. Her thirtieth birthday is more than an ordinary milestone for Majj Institute honorary member Tru Van Dye. She has until then to make a significant scientific discovery and secure her Charter or she'll be kicked out of the only home she's ever known. Unlike the rest of the Majj, she isn't at the Institute by virtue of one of the most coveted invitations in the galaxy. Her father was the head administrator of the Institute prior to his death, and she'd been born there.

That fact has kept her segregated, and feeling that her spot hasn't yet been earned put a wall up between her and the rest of the population. Tru's life-long goal is to earn that spot and the acceptance that would come with it, secure her future, and finally be able to pin a full Majj crest on her uniform. It's a goal she's been working on to the exclusion of all else for the past year, and she's willing to risk everything, including sneaking off her planet without proper authorization, to see it through.

She just needs Royce Coburne, known politely as an acquisitions specialist, to help her do it.

Having given up treasure hunting for the space station he's renovating and turning into a luxury space port, Royce is up to his ears in debt and has investors breathing down his neck. That's the only reason he's even willing to hear the offer from the Majj. The amount of money she's offering for his services would keep the creditors at bay until he can get the space port open and money rolling in, but his hatred for the Majj for their role in his sister's death has him yearning to turn it down anyway.

Even though the beautiful but uptight Tru Van Dye stirs his blood in ways he definitely doesn't want to consider.

Together the two reluctant allies will traipse across the galaxy, following clues to the largest cache of art and treasure ever gathered in one place, rumored to be the artistic repository of a long dead civilization. If they find it, Tru will be able to secure her Charter at the Majj Institute and Royce will have enough money to buy out his investors, finish his luxury space port on schedule, and own it outright - with plenty of money to spare.

It's a pity so many people want to see them fail and each leg of the journey is so damn dangerous. They may not live long enough to prove the treasure even exists.

~*~

As much as I hate to say it, I can get a little...not critical, really...more hyper-aware when I'm reading. As a book reviewer, I don't just read for relaxation or enjoyment. I can't if I want to be able to write intelligently about what I've read. I have to focus on story elements, character definition, plot development, etc. so I can gauge the book, weigh and measure it, and formulate comprehensive opinions. Sometimes it's exhausting. Sometimes it can make me a little jaded. Sometimes, I'm sad to say, I even forget. I forget that reading is supposed to be fun.

Then I get lucky and a book like Unraveled comes along and reminds me all over again just how fun reading can be.

I'm not saying it's the best book ever. I'm not saying it doesn't have some critical issues that I could address. I'm saying that despite a few minor issues with the narrative and a couple of things I would've liked to have seen evolve a bit differently, Unraveled delighted me and gave me several enjoyable hours of pure reading fun.

I fell a bit in love with the sheltered but determined Tru. Undeniably intelligent, she's also completely out of her bookish element and a bit over her head with the brash and sexy Royce. Yet she goes toe-to-toe with him every time it matters and bests him far more frequently than he does her...even when she's quaking inside at the confrontation. Her appreciation for all things unique and flawed is not only completely sympathetic, but it pairs her perfectly with the quite flawed hero, a man who takes more risks than an average person could hope to live through, still feels guilt over the loss of his sister, and has a fair amount of angst in him over his humble beginnings.

They had great chemistry, and I was so enchanted with Tru's approach to her full awareness of Royce as a man and Royce's bumbling reactions to it. As a couple they had a fresh and lovely mix of sexy heat and quirky fallibility that really appealed to me. Surrounded as they were by a fast-paced adventurous romp through the galaxy, their romance and their journey just made me smile.

The plot was pretty straightforward. It wasn't hard to figure out where it was going or guess the obstacles it would have to cross to get there. Still, Barry's breezy, quick-witted, sexy narrative zips along at warp speed and fully engaged me from start to finish...and I didn't want it to end. There were just enough external conflicts to keep it interesting, but the focus of the book stays pretty tight to the characters and the plotline reflects that.

It would read perfectly well as a stand-alone for anyone unfamiliar with the first book. There were a few mentions of the characters from book one in the series, and a brief cameo of one of them, but overall, this book is pretty neatly self-contained. That's a particularly good thing in my opinion, because I favored this one over its predecessor quite a lot.

Despite me not having much experience with, or even being a large fan of science fiction romance in general, this book served as an excellent reminder of everything I love most about reading. I had a great time reading it. I don't know if other reviewers are like me and start to get a little too clinical in their approach to reading sometimes. I just know I do. Just as I know that this book served as a very nice remedy for the situation, reminding me of something I needed to remember.

Reading is supposed to be fun. Like Unraveled.

Unforgettable Series:
  

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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