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Risking Trust by Adrienne Giordano

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: Private Protectors, Book 3
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 270 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.



No Risks in Enjoying This One

Once upon a time Roxann Thorgesson trusted Michael Taylor with her heart, until he left her without warning or explanation. It had devastated her. Then he married another woman and she was utterly annihilated. But that was twelve years ago.

Now Roxann is reeling from the sudden death of her father and struggling under the weight of the responsibility that comes from taking control of the second largest newspaper in Chicago. She's over Michael Taylor. Mostly. Now she just loathes him to the depths of her soul.

And yet, in the darkest of nights when she's feeling the most vulnerable, she still wonders...Why?

Roxann is stunned when Michael makes the news in connection with the murder of his wife. Then she's flabbergasted when he shows up in her office. The deal he offers her, however, stops her cold. If she agrees to help him find out who killed his estranged wife, he'll give her paper the exclusive on the story and an all access pass into his life.

Security specialist and business owner Michael Taylor isn't the same person who walked away from Roxann twelve years ago. The one thing that hasn't changed is his regret for past mistakes. Mistakes like leaving Roxann. And marrying Alicia. But now Alicia is dead. Though they had been in the middle of a very acrimonious divorce, and she had destroyed whatever tender feelings he had for her years ago, she still didn't deserve to die like she did.

And he sure as hell hadn't killed her.

The cops aren't looking at anyone but him as a suspect, though, and he needs help. He needs Roxann's resources to help him get answers to some important questions. Michael knows that to find out who killed Alicia they will have to discover why she was killed, and he has neither the contacts nor the freedom from scrutiny to do that on his own.

When their investigation starts to point towards powerful men in powerful positions, Michael starts to worry about Roxann's safety and the risks she's taking to help him. If anything happens to the woman he's never stopped loving, searching for the truth and trying to clear his name may end up being the two biggest mistakes he's ever made.

~*~

Lately it seems I can hardly toss a pebble at the romantic suspense genre and not hit ten series revolving around some sort of security agency employing a wealth of gorgeous and hard-bodied ex-elite military men who moonlight as über-alpha romantic heroes. While I certainly have no complaint about the gorgeous and hard-bodied, I would prefer a bit more variety. Surprisingly, Giordano provided exactly that in this likable combination of second-chance romance and murder mystery, even with the inclusion of the ubiquitous security firm.

Michael and Roxann are both strong and sympathetic characters with genuine chemistry. They have a wealth of emotional baggage that complicates their relationship evolution in lots of fun ways. Both have the sort of depth engendered by weathering the personal tragedies that define them. Both are keenly intelligent and highly competent in their fields.

I loved that Michael is the one in trouble, that he needs Roxann's help instead of Roxann being the direct target as is so often the case in the genre. She has other trials and tribulations whirling around her, putting her into some pretty tight places, but in relation to the murder, it's the investigation she's spearheading that matters more than she does. Maybe I'm splitting hairs about that, but it felt like a nice change from most romantic suspense in which the female lead is the primary target.

I also loved the slow buildup of the romantic elements between her and Michael, and their verbal sparring was a lot of fun. Giordano did a great job actualizing Roxann's complex and conflicting emotions over the loss of her father and Michael's reentry into her life. The grief, the lack of trust, the wariness, and the hurt all made sense to me in most cases. There were one or two times I felt her relationship with Michael had progressed past the point of the knee-jerk accusations Roxann hits him with, but overall her emotions - and his - felt very organic to their past and characters.

The suspense elements and multiple story threads relating to Roxann's job and personal life blended well and the narrative had a nice, steady pace to it. There were even a few plot twists that caught me by surprise. One of them, though, gave me some problems. As much as I enjoyed the investigation, I was disappointed in the identity of the killer. For me, it just seemed like one step too many over the line into excessive tragedy for everyone connected to the case. And very little of the emotional fallout from that reveal got addressed to my satisfaction, a lack which seemed glaring.

If I had to jump into a series at the third book, though, I picked a great series to do it in, because while Risking Trust has been released as the third installment in this series, the story of Michael and Roxann is actually first in the series timeline. That, as it turns out, worked great for me. Not only did it read just fine on its own, but I can go back and start at the beginning of the series and have events still be in chronological order. I enjoyed this book and these characters to such a degree, I may very well do just that.

Break Out by Nina Croft

Genre: SciFi Futuristic Romance
Series: Blood Hunter, Book 1
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 117 Pages
Formats: Paperback
Note: This review is based on the Kindle edition released July 2011. 



Fell A Little Flat For Me

In a universe over a thousand years in our future, the wealthy have achieved immortality and secured their power base by selling it to those who can meet their price. They are the Collective and they rule all they survey.

Well...not all. There are some who eschew both the Collective's laws and their immortality. In fact, when you've already lived a couple of thousand years as a vampire, you don't really need an obscenely expensive shot of radioactive mineral in your veins. And as a top predator in this and every other galaxy, following any law but that of the metaphorical jungle is just...ridiculous.

Rogue pilot and vampire Rico Sanchez is perfectly content chasing his pleasures and taking on the wildest, most dangerous jobs with hedonistic glee. Rico lives for the thrill, and the money, and the blood and sex, as he races across the galaxy in his space cruiser El Cazador. He is a jaded, dangerous risk-taker with an insouciant air and a thirst for the wildest adventures.

He gets a chance at the wildest of them all when Skylar Rossaria contacts Rico's partner for a job that will net them a huge payday. All they have to do is go up against the powerful Collective, steal someone from their most closely guarded containment facility, and get away before either the Collective gets them or the black hole near their destination sucks them into its gravitational field. No problem.

Okay, yes, huge problem, as the chance of surviving until payday is negligible at best, but the delicious Skylar stirs Rico in ways his hungers haven't been stirred in eons. And Rico is all about being stirred. It would be nice if he could trust a word coming out of her mouth, or take the job on face value, but Rico hasn't lived as long as he has doing that. And really, trust is overrated.

The exquisite Skylar has her own agenda, for sure. Rico just doesn't care enough about whatever it is to pass on either the job...or the woman.

~*~

I loved the concept of this story. I don't read a huge amount of futuristic science fiction, but I've read some I like very much, and I do love vampires in my reading. I thought the idea of a two thousand year old vampire getting along in space after being on Earth - a planet that no one else alive still remembers as it's been uninhabitable for so long - was a killer premise.

And there were some very nice touches. I liked the relationship between Rico and his ship's captain, Tannis. While at times contentious, they seemed to have a very genuine friendship. They struck me as two people who had known each other a long time and knew each other very well, often to the point of aggravation, but they trusted each other implicitly. I also liked that the rest of Rico's crew is an odd assortment of intriguing misfits that either he or Tannis have collected over the years.

Despite that and other good points, I still ended up feeling fairly ambivalent about this story. It's shorter than I think it needed to be to include the sort of depth of character and detailed world building that would have better served the tale. I never really cared for Rico or felt he was as nuanced a character as he could have been. Sklyar's personality was muted by the needs of the plotline for a good portion of the book and I had a hard time pinning her down, as well.

The two of them together had sexual chemistry that worked, but it lacked the sort of emotional connection that I need to fully enjoy a romance.

While definitely packed with action, the storyline wasn't as effective as it could have been. The sketchy world-building and obfuscated motives of some of the characters prevented me from being able to grasp the threat on any sort of visceral level. I couldn't quite feel the full emotional impact from the risks the characters take and danger they're in. Without it, the whole story fell a little flat for me.

There were some pleasant surprises, there were even one or two plot twists I didn't see coming. Because of the nature of those surprises as well as a few dangling plot threads that caught my attention, this may very well be one of those books that I remember more fondly upon reflection if the second book in the series appeals. Be that as it may, I do think this book could have been a far more comprehensively satisfying read for me with another fifty or so pages that allowed for a better set up and explanation of the world as well as further fleshing out the characters with some much needed depth and dimension.

Tarnished by Karina Cooper

Genre: Steampunk
Series: The St. Croix Chronicles, Book 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 384 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Avon Books publisher HarperCollins Publishers. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



Tarnished Shines With Gritty Steampunk Fashion

She straddles two worlds, belonging to none. Daughter of an accused madman, Cherry St. Croix was orphaned at a young age, forced by circumstance and a keen instinct for survival into the life of a thief, a circus performer, and an opium addict. At the tender age of nine, she picked her first pocket. By fifteen, she had been pulled out of that life and thrust into another, just as ill-fitting.

Found by her guardian and set adrift in polite society, she awaits the inheritance that is her due as she exists above the drift but on the fringes of London's proper noble class, far above the smog-choked, deadly streets below. To subsidize her meager monthly allowance, one grossly insufficient to feed a habit that allows her to sleep...such a pretty, pretty lie...Cherry dons trousers and blackens her hair, grabs her goggles and respirator, and as the haunting, hunting arms of night embrace her, she slips below the drift and stalks the streets. She is a collector.

Cherry suffers no fools and refuses to be cheated, so when a job falls through and the owner of the note of her collection denies the bounty she's owed, Cherry confronts him. Macajah Hawke, the elegant and imperious ringmaster of below's most affluent den of salacious inequity, The Midnight Menagerie, terrifies her with an odd, biting fear that grips her low in her stomach, but to allow him to brush her off as if she were a child would bring her career to a stuttering stop. Unfortunately, Hawke is unmoved and largely unimpressed, cloaked as he is in a seductive veneer that rattles and frustrates her.

Maybe that's why, when one of the Menagerie's ladies calls to her as she's leaving Hawke's playground of decadent corruption, she agrees to take on the new case, flagrantly opposing Hawke's dominion over his own people. But it's not just childish obstinacy, nor solely the hunger for the opium that she craves that drives her decision. Cherry has seen the papers, knows a monster hunts working girls below the drift, slicing them open and leaving grisly carnage in his wake.

She hadn't known that the monster had hunted Hawke's sweets. That girls from the Menagerie had been slaughtered. And now one of them has braved their master to beg for her help in finding and stopping him. Cherry couldn't turn her away. She was a collector, after all, and collecting things...people...even monsters, is what she does.

It's a pity that Cherry, for all her experience with a life less ordinary, forgot that when you start hunting monsters, they have a tendency to hunt you in return.

~*~

"People are dying, Mr. Hawke."
His shoulders moved, a powerful roll of indifference. "People have that tendency."

Though my experience with steampunk is passing at best, what I've read has appealed. Until Cooper, anyway, because this series debut did a lot more than appeal. Setting the story elements aside for the moment, Cooper's writing is brilliant. Evocative and compelling, descriptive to the point of artistry, Cooper uses words to paint gritty and glaring pictures that expose the corrosive cracks in life both above the drift, where Society reigns, and below, where other, far more in-your-face but no less dangerous dregs of humanity roam.

The narrative seemed an effortless capture of the pulse of both, with the deftest of touches highlighting even more of the similarities between the two than the differences. A cut above may be bloodless, but no less painful than the cuts below. And at least a cut below, widened by sharpened steel instead of waspish tongues, bleeds clean and is honest in its intent. A lesson with which Cherry is well familiar.

At the center of this magically groggy world that Cooper built is the young Cherry, as much a contradiction as the two worlds in which she operates. Part leather-clad warrior woman, intelligent and cunning and phsyically self-possessed, part innocent young miss, part victim and criminal both, she reflects all facets of both worlds in which she lives. Her age, only twenty, is both a boon and a bane in this debut, because while she has the unflagging courage and irrepressible spirit of youth, she is also stubborn, more spoiled than she realizes, and often petulant about it and anything else that doesn't directly go her way.

On one hand she is an experienced collector, someone who has been dragging bounties around for five years, protecting herself in London's seediest streets. On the other, she's a virginal miss without any real experience in a man's world, one of little patience and oblivious to the benefits and necessities of subtle behavior. I found the battle between the two parts of her to be just as compelling...if not more so...than the main plotline of the book.

In fact, I had some problems with the book's plot, which meandered a little to much for me, especially in the middle. Cooper seemed so intent on building her world and fleshing it out, as well as focusing on creating and embellishing the framework for the two faces of Cherry, that the serious threads of external plot conflict often fell to the wayside.

When the storyline started to focus too long on Cherry's role in Society above the drift, including frequent and robust descriptions of hair, clothing, rooms, characters, and the like, I felt my attention waning. For all that the pictures were well painted and the life she led was just as valid as the one below, just as vital to grasping the whole of her character...well...I got a little bored with it. Below the drift was just more interesting to me.

Maybe because Hawke was below the drift. Micajah Hawke. He definitely held my interest. He is just as dual-natured as Cherry herself, but he's in a class all his own. Mysterious, seductive, urbane on one hand, and masculine, hard-working, intensely focused on the other. Unlike Cherry, who often suffers from the perils of her youth, Hawke is in all ways adult. World-wise, jaded, and very, very uncompromising. He is darkness personified, a darkness that both revels in and reviles that which seeks its shadowy embrace.

The relationship, such as it is, between Hawke and Cherry reminded me of the early books in Karen Marie Moning's Fever series, because Micajah Hawke could be Jericho Z. Barrons' equally inscrutable but slightly less immortal brother. And at every single one of Hawke's tight-jawed, "Miss Black" utterances, I heard "Miss Lane" echoing in Barron's deep voice.

Less fortunately, Cherry reminded me of Mac in more ways than one. That's not quite a good thing, because I spent most of the Fever series in various stages of annoyance with Mac's immaturity, even as I loved her fighting nature, and that's exactly the vibe Cherry was throwing off in her own story (though, admittedly, to a much less annoying extent). If, however, Cherry and Hawke have nearly as incendiary a relationship as Moning's characters, well...I'll suck it up just as I did before, because that's one phenomenally bumpy and hellaciously fun ride.

Even with this being a series debut, with my expectations set to accept a certain number of unanswered questions, there were a few too many plot threads left unresolved or characters unexplained for me to be completely satisfied with the story itself. Because of that, my biggest issue with this book is that as a whole, it read more like a prelude or prologue to a series than it did a fully satisfying book that stands on its own merits. While one or two plot threads may have been tied up at the end, many more linger, and those that were tied up weren't really the most intriguing of the lot.

It was, however, exquisitely clever in its conception and beautiful in its construction. The characters are vibrant, complex, and complicated. The world they live in is deceptive and dangerous. For me, this debut just had a little too much focus on the series setup at the expense of story elements for the individual book. If the series progresses with a larger emphasis on story now that a majority of the setup is laid, The St. Croix Chronicles may very well be my next personal reading addiction and Cooper my newest must-read author.

The Stubborn Dead by Natasha Hoar

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Lost Souls, Book 1
Rating: 5 Stars
Length: 67 Pages
Formats: Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided by publisher Carina Press via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.

Short but Substantial Series Debut

Hindsight being what it is, Rachel Miller should have climbed right back on her motorcycle and ridden away as soon as she saw...and felt...the charming house she'd been called to clear of a dangerous spirit. The waves of rage and pain that emanate from the house jar every cell in her body. She had dealt with aggressive spirits before, though, and had plenty of experience in her job with the Order of Rescue Mediums. A wraith is nasty, but doable. Metaphysically speaking, at least.

When she engages the nasty spirit, trying to release it from the home, it doesn't respond like any other wraith Rachel has ever seen or heard of before, drawing into question just what, exactly, she is dealing with. If it's not a wraith, she has no idea what it is, and successfully releasing it just got a whole lot closer to impossible.


She can't just walk away, no harm, no foul, either. Once she actively engages a spirit, she is bound to follow through until either it's gone or she's dead. If she doesn't, she's kicked out of the Order, the repercussions of that so severe that dying by not-wraith may actually be preferable.

As if her situation isn't dire enough, she's got a supernatural mob boss all up in her business and her client is mixed up in something so threatening it forces Rachel to look over her own shoulder. She's definitely had easier jobs. If she can't get rid of whatever is in that house with the oh-so-bad vibes, though, she won't ever have another.

~*~

It's hard for me to believe, but with only about 20,000 words, Hoar created a totally satisfying, thoroughly entertaining urban fantasy series debut that rocked my world. I didn't even know that was possible. I'm sure part of my appreciation lies in my love for hauntings, ghosts, ghost busters, ghost investigations, et al., but without Hoar's deft and comprehensive storytelling ability, this very short but lovely story would have still fallen flat.

There isn't a significant amount of expansive world-building, or pages of exposition to set up the story and the characters, but as it turns out, Hoar didn't need it to kick her story off and make her main character, Rachel, believable and sympathetic. I enjoyed her. Her quick-witted, sardonic, take no prisoners personality is really right up my alley.

Combining that likable character with a main plotline that has depth and you have a story with teeth and enough layers to keep me coming back for more, unsure what to expect next but happy to find out. The building blocks for the future of the series were laid well, right alongside a fully realized story conflict with enough closure to make the novella feel complete. And okay, it's true, I sort of had an instant if perhaps unwise attraction to supernatural mob boss Janus. Maybe there's something wrong with me, but I swear, I adored the tension between him and Rachel.

There's no romance in this short novella, per se, but if the series is heading that way, I hope it includes Janus. Call me a romantic, but even the possibility of him redeeming himself because of his feelings for Rachel flips my switch. I'm a total sucker for a redeemable bad boy.

At this length, there isn't room for sweeping, epic plot and a wide diversity of characters. Hoar kept her tale conservative in that regard, careful not to overextend herself. That being said, she definitely made the most out of what space she had and maximized every word that went into it. I was engaged and entertained from word one. I love that about this story.

Forever and a Day by Delilah Marvelle

Genre: Historical Romance
Series: The Rumor, Book 1
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 377 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.



Full of Highs and Lows

It was an innocuous meeting. One tall, exquisitely dressed gentleman speaking to one fiery-haired woman on a random street during a random day. Though it was obvious that they were of vastly different stations in life, Georgia enjoyed the gentleman's precise English accent and his handsome face. She was enough of a realist, however, to not trust the gentleman's intentions.

After all, what would a man of his obvious wealth want with a widow of her obvious lack of same except for the obvious? And not a chat over a cup of tea as he had oh-so-politely suggested. Georgia is a pride-rich but money-poor working woman of New York and knows the way of things. She makes her money through physical labor that does not include selling her body, thank you very much. And even if he wasn't trying to buy her time, he was definitely trying to charm his way into her.

If it wasn't for that thrice-damned thief who stole her bag after she'd bid the gentleman a polite but firm good day, or the gentleman's own sense of chivalry as he chased after the lout, Georgia would never have seen the man again, she was sure. But then the stranger ran out into a dusty intersection and was struck down. He was badly injured for her sake, and as impetuous as the action may have been, she couldn't just abandon him to an uncertain fate.

Georgia gets him to the hospital. She harangues the doctor to make sure he's sufficiently cared for. Problem is, she has no idea what his name is, and when the gorgeous stranger finally regains consciousness, neither does he. In fact, he has no recollection of who he is or where he's from, and what he does remember isn't real.

Burdened by her own sense of responsibility, Georgia does what she feels is the right thing to do, even knowing the risks. She takes the man who calls himself Robinson to her home. No doubt, when his memory returns, she'll pay for the indignity. And in more ways than one, for though he may not recall his past, his presence in her present is rocking Georgia to the core in a way that no man has since her husband passed. And that may be the most dangerous risk of all.

~*~

This series debut by Marvelle was a mix of highs and lows for me. I absolutely adored seeing a historical romance set in New York City, and applaud the work that went into the delightful authenticity of the setting. I soaked all of that up like a sponge. The medical conditions of the era and the limited understanding of the brain's intricacies were wonderfully realistic to the times. Also, I loved seeing a member of English nobility taken out of that world and put at the mercy of Georgia, who, for all her wit and pride, is a common woman of her time.

Less appealing, however, were elements of the story itself. While I have no problem with the amnesia, which may have been convenient but was also very well done, the depth of feeling between Georgia and "Robinson" bloomed way too fast for me. I could've embraced lust in that time frame, especially as the attraction had already been established, but love and an unwavering desire to be together forever has to take longer than forty-eight hours to be believable to me. When it doesn't, the entire romantic arc of the book starts to crumble.

The story also suffered from a rather large and slightly odd section of information dump in the middle that related directly to Robinson getting his memory back. I wish the story had split all that up a bit and doled it throughout the story, however that could have been accomplished, so it wasn't quite so overwhelming and didn't put the pace of the plot on hold as much as it did.

Then there was the issue with the characters. As much as I adore strong female leads, Georgia's personality strode over the line of strength and right into strident and querulous. She wasn't just independent and tough, she came off as a shrieking harpy in places. Much less appealing.

I adored Robinson for several reasons throughout most of the book, though, even when I thought it irresponsible of him to make unwavering promises before his memory returned. Like I couldn't see the inherent problems with that coming a mile away. I became much less enamored with him, however, when he assumed the role of king of his relationship with Georgia and started making decisions for her and on her behalf.

I can't begin to express how much I dislike that too-often seen habit of a character martyring himself (or herself) and/or the relationship for the good of his (or her) partner...without, of course, any actual input from said partner. After all, one wouldn't want to actually respect and value the thoughts and feelings of the person you claim to love enough to let them have a say in their future. I find that so remarkably insulting, and tedious as hell in romance novels.


Georgia's reaction to it was full of moxie, though, and delightfully Machiavellian, I'll give her that. It wasn't to my personal taste, as I would have preferred society not be allowed such power and it seemed to be a...loss of her character in a way, but I did respect her accomplishments. Because I did, though, I felt Robinson...now Roderick Tremayne, Duke of Wentworth...got better than he deserved faster than he should have. More grovelling. He definitely needed to do more grovelling.

The highs and lows from all of that made the book an uneven read for me. The parts I enjoyed were very well done and totally entertaining, and the parts I didn't either annoyed me or had me rolling my eyes in frustration. And it was definitely one or the other. There just wasn't much in the way of middle ground at any point of the tale. The elements that appealed the most, though, do bode well for the future of the series.

The Taken by Vicki Pettersson

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Celestial Blues, Book 1
Rating: 5 Stars
Length: 432 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me through the Amazon Vine program. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



Highly Stylized Noir Homage

A Centurion's gig should be simple. Someone dies a sudden and violent death, he shows up to escort the terminally confused into the Everlast. That's how it's supposed to go, anyway. Doesn't mean it always goes that way.

It's not that former PI and current angel Griffin Shaw doesn't sympathize with the hooker who got her throat sliced by her last john. She's dead. It sucks. He knows, because fifty years ago he was murdered, too. He deals with it. Mostly.

So okay, he's not the most sympathetic Centurion, and no, he doesn't believe his latest Take when she is adamant about not being a hooker. Fortunately, believing the dead isn't a requirement for the job. Still, he can't see forcing her to spend eternity in those working girl threads she's wearing, so he bends the rules just a little. Biggest mistake Grif's ever made.

That one moment of sentiment sets into action events that force him back to the mudflat, wings gone, slammed into a suit of meat. Skin. Breath. Life. Sounds great, except for an angel...now not-so-angelic...it hurts. And his punishment isn't over. His "good deed" such as it was, has consequences, and his punishment is to watch those consequences unfold, suffering through them all the while.

Now Grif, a gentleman from way, way back, is supposed to watch the most gorgeous woman he's ever seen get attacked by two men, be raped, then murdered. And stand by doing nothing. Because it's his fault Katherine "Kit" Craig is now fated to die.

Reporter and rockabilly enthusiast Kit is devastated by the murder of her best friend. They had been working together on a potential career-making story when Nic went undercover to get some corroboration on a tip. Now all Kit can do is follow through with that story, because besides ripping her heart out, there's one other thing that Nic's death does to Kit...it convinces her the story she and Nic were trying to verify has teeth. Nic wouldn't have been killed unless those teeth were extra pointy and sharp.

Problem is, only Grif knows that Kit is going to be next. And there's nothing he can do about it.

~*~

Gritty and decadently dark, the sheer artistry of Pettersson's new series debut totally rocked my socks. The concept alone is brilliant, and pairing a punished angel who was a PI in the fifties with a reporter who embraces the rockabilly lifestyle to the fullest is the hot fudge on one delicious hardboiled mystery sundae. Pettersson's gift for writing and her superlative grasp of all things Vegas spun the narrative of this tale like a well-oiled and glittery top, neon flashing over the soul-deep rust of human corruption, greed, and sexual deviance.

Grif and Kit were fantastic characters and perfect foils for one another. Kit is the idealistic reporter, passionate in her beliefs and clear in her grasp of black and white. A little naive at times, she cloaks herself in the detritus of a bygone era out of a combination of the yearning for simpler times and perhaps willing ignorance of the sad fact that there are no simpler times. Emotional and intelligent, she is forged by grief but untouched by the seedy violence around her.

Grif is like the shadow that Kit casts. He is all about the gray areas, full of a chilly cynicism that he calls having a solid grip on reality. Even fifty years as a Centurion, touched by the celestial as he was, didn't shake his world-weary view of human weakness. He's filled with angst over his death and the murder of his wife, but he's a man's man and stoic with it. He could have stepped out of a Sam Spade novel, or hung out with Phillip Marlowe and been right at home. He is definitely of a type, yet Pettersson avoids the pitfall of stereotype in lovely and unique ways.

The story, though obviously seeped in the paranormal, reads far more like a mystery than an urban fantasy. The supernatural elements become more like background noise as the story progresses, ancillary to the investigation that Kit and Grif are working on. There are times when it flares up throughout the story, and comes closer to the front towards the book's climax, but it's largely inconsequential to the bulk of the narrative.

That obviously wasn't a detraction for me, especially as I absolutely adored every moment of the leisurely-paced mystery plotline and tend to be picky about angel-themed fiction as a general rule. Fans of more traditional urban fantasy, as well as those who have little interest in this particular style of mystery, might have a less favorable view of the read. For me, it couldn't have possibly been any better.

The relationship between Grif and Kit was complex and added some delightful moments of levity to what really is a pretty horrific case. For all that they are picture-perfect together in appearance, Kit is a modern woman and Gif is a fifties man, and that sparked some great conflict between them. For all that conflict, though, there was also a nice give and take in their relationship that superseded the secrets Grif held, and absolutely enough sexual chemistry to light up the Vegas skyline.

Though there is a thread of romance through the book, this is not a romance novel, and the relationship between them evolved in a way that I felt heightened the intensity of the plot, especially towards the end. I also thoroughly enjoyed Kit's reaction when Grif comes clean, after, of course, Kit started putting pieces together and asked the tough questions. That changed the dynamic of their burgeoning partnership in some interesting ways.

Completely unique and utterly original, this book was a treat on every front for me. The Bad Guys were as bad as it gets, the crimes heinous, the mystery rich and meaty, and the characters vibrant and three dimensional. I can't wait to sink my teeth into the next book in this exciting new series and highly recommend it for fans of highly stylized noir fiction. Plainly spoken, it's art, and while art is always in the eye of the beholder, this particular beholder wants much more to see.

Somebody Like You by Candis Terry

Genre: Contemporary Romance
Series: Sugar Shack, Book 3
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Length: 368 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Avon Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



A Charming and Satisfying Delight

Home is where you go when you don't have anywhere else to lick your wounds. Chicago prosecutor Kelly Silverthorne is back in her hometown of Deer Lick, Montana. After failing to successfully prosecute a man for murdering his wife, Kelly is rocked by feelings of failure and guilt, feelings unfamiliar to a serious, intent woman who has never failed at anything before. Taking a sabbatical from her life, she's helping her father and sister at the family bakery and trying to get her feet back under her.

Except it's not just the professional crisis that Kelly has to deal with, and the problem with going home again is what you find there. Family. Ghosts of your past. Memories. And for middle child and "good girl" Kelly, a different sort of pain, one with far deeper roots.

Oh yeah, and James Harley, police deputy. The man with whom she'd had one memorable, if ill-advised and drunken, night of extreme pleasure. But she was hoping to avoid the hell out of him.

James was happy to see Kelly at the Sugar Shack when he stopped in for lunch. One night with the girl he'd wanted since they were kids just wasn't enough to slake his thirst for her. Now that she's back for a bit, he has every intention of getting a repeat performance. If, in the meantime, he gets to spend genuine time with a woman who stirs more than just his body, but his heart and mind, too, well...that's just icing on one of those delectable Sugar Shack cakes.

All he has to do is convince the stubborn and uptight woman.

~*~

This book was so much more than I was expecting. Judging the book by its cover (bad of me, I know), I was thinking this was going to be a fairly predictable but enjoyable bit of brain candy. That's not in any way a criticism. I love me some brain candy. But this little gem, as it turns out, is the brain candy equivalent of finding out that chocolate has been discovered to be a health food. A delightful surprise.

I haven't read the first two books in the series, so I went into this one with a clean slate - and I'm so glad I did, because it packed a punch. It started, though, a little rocky for me. At least in comparison to the rest, anyway. Kelly and James both seemed a little stereotypical for the genre. Kelly the classic Type A personality, James the sexy bad boy with a different girl on his arm every weekend, no concept of commitment.

The brief glimpse we get of Kelly's life in Chicago was largely superfluous, and her first face-to-face with James upon her return to Deer Lick could have been read during any similar scene in every other light, sexy contemporary romance. I didn't dislike it by any means, but I have to admit, I wasn't really knocking my socks off.

Then Kelly's mother enters the story and shows up in the backseat of the car Kelly's driving. Kelly's deceased mother.

"Mom? Is that really you?"
"No, it's the stinky cheeseman."
Kelly pulled her head back. "Well, that little bit of snark is unnecessary."
"You can get away with a lot when you're dead."

And from that point through to the end, this book was a wonderful ride through family issues, personal issues, and relationship issues for both Kelly and James. The story threads surrounding the ghost of Kelly's mother added a wealth of emotional baggage to Kelly's personality. It was baggage that I, personally, related to on a grand scale. As for James, well, somewhere around meeting his two Yorkies, Poppy and Princess, it occurred to me that he was not quite the stereotype I feared he was, either.

This book that I had pigeonholed as simple (albeit sexy) fluff delivered an emotional message, one with depth and heart. That message went hand in hand with an awesome, sexy romance. Between Kelly resolving family issues and finding her inner child, and James dealing with the fallout of his past and reaching out in a more healthy way to his brother, this book ended up providing a multi-layered lesson about mending frayed family bonds and healing from past mistakes. A lesson that took this book to another level.

The romance was still sexy, and James and Kelly had great chemistry together as a couple. I thoroughly enjoyed their relationship evolution. They didn't just fit well with each other, they each, as individuals, offered something to the other that had been previously lacking. I loved that about them. It really elevated their relationship for me.

In fact, this was one of the most pleasantly surprising and fun reads I've had in awhile. There were moments that made me laugh, moments that made me sweat (in a yummy-good way), and moments that made me both think and feel. Perhaps it's still brain candy, but it's brain candy with a hell of a heart. A perfect summer read and I enjoyed the heck out of it.

Lessons After Dark by Isabel Cooper

Genre: Historical Paranormal Romance
Series: Englefield, Book 2
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 346 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 Subtle Romance in an Intriguing Magical World

Olivia Brightmore needed this teaching job and was desperately hoping she wouldn't get turned away at the door when she showed up at Englefield. The new school was special, important, and highly secretive. She was offered the position by the couple who had started this incredible venture and with so few options, Olivia knew she had to keep it if she had any hope of staying out of the poorhouse.

There was tragically little money left after all the bills from her now-deceased husband's care had been settled, and Olivia was far beyond being able to pose as a medium as she did when she was younger. Especially given what she now knows about real magic, and how she wields it.

Englefield, the school for specially gifted children who will one day serve as a force against an army of darkness and evil, is an opportunity and a chance to take an active role in saving humanity from things it is unprepared to handle. It meant everything to her, so if the school's doctor and fellow educator, Gareth St. John, looks at her with silent scorn and a challenge in his eyes, well, she'll deal with it. She isn't the same woman she was when their paths crossed so long ago, and she has earned her position. She's not responsible for his derision and disdain.

The searing weight of it only hurts a little.

Wounded serving crown and country, Gareth is a staid and steady man of quiet intensity, one with a unique gift for healing that serves him well in his role as a doctor. He knows exactly who Olivia is, or was, and is vocally opposed to her position at the school. No doubt a woman such as her will taint the children in her care. If his generous friends and benefactors can't see her for the morally bankrupt charlatan she is, then Gareth will assume the duty of watching her like a hawk. All the better to swoop down and snatch her away from her charges before she causes the trouble he knows is unavoidable.

The problem with that plan, however, is twofold. One, no matter how many of her classes he observes, or how narrow his focus on her every move, even Gareth can't argue her dedication to responsible teaching principles both magic and mundane, and her grasp on the paranormal. And two...well...he's oddly and irrevocably attracted to the woman, a fact that gains greater and greater significance the longer he observes her. Of course, allowing her to become aware of either of those problems would serve no purpose, and could very well end up coming back to bite him.

And given his surroundings and the gifted nature of the children and teachers there, that could very well be literal.

~*~

Without having read the first book in this interesting historical paranormal romance series, No Proper Lady, I can't say how well this serves as a followup. I can, though, say it read just fine for me as a stand-alone. And it came with its fair share of pleasant surprises.

With a subtle style and the feel of historical authenticity, this slow-moving but character-driven story had its share of delightful moments. The plot, however, doesn't have much in the way of significant external conflict, and the romance is the sort of low key that sparks and slowly builds in the shadowy conversational corners of dialogue subtext. I know that style can frustrate and even bore readers. There were parts of the narrative that bored me, and I'm not a huge fan of subtext (that's mostly because a lot of it goes over my head). Still, the romance worked for me in a way that reminded me of my favorite Victorian romance classics.

The narrative has plenty of dialogue and a fair amount of exposition, but there just never seemed to be much solid information clearly and plainly offered in it. I felt a little at a loss when it came to the world-building and mythos for the series. Not enough to cripple my ability to understand the events that occur in this story, or to hamper me from slotting the secondary and ancillary characters, as well as their abilities, into substantive roles, but enough that I did feel a loss of context for the idea and purpose of the school in the big picture.

The romantic dance between Gareth and Olivia, though, was delicate and deftly handled. I would have enjoyed a more thorough backstory for each character, but they both held a lot of appeal as individuals and the chemistry between them had a finely wrought, understated intensity. Both characters were wonderfully individual and had a force of personality unique to them. Olivia was the more flexible of the two, with a nurturing and caring nature, while Gareth tended to silently stew in his ideological passions, passions hidden behind of wall of steely control. They tiptoed around each other as their initial animosity churned to grudging, then mutual respect, slowly building to admiration neither would admit to, which steadily grew into affection despite themselves. It was quite lovely to read and provided my favorite moments of the story.

Parts of this book struck me as being purposely and frustratingly obtuse. Intelligently written, in some places brilliantly written, but occasionally hard to understand. The romance amused and delighted me, though, as Gareth and Olivia so politely danced around each other, and that's what made this read a winner for me.

I intend to continue with future books in the series, but the combination of my contentment with this book as a stand-alone and my anal obsession with reading in series timeline order prevents me from having any motivation to go back and read the first book. I do hope, however, that future books in the series provide a clearer understanding of the forces of darkness that the students of Englefield are being trained to battle and a greater explanation of the world of magic around them all.

Edge of Midnight by Leslie Tentler

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: Chasing Evil, Book 3
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 432 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Mira Books publisher Harlequin via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.




Too Much and Not Enough

Three years ago, FBI Special Agent Eric Macfarlane was in Maryland, hot on the trail of a vicious killer who called himself The Collector. As a member of the FBI's Violent Crimes Unit, he was trained to hunt serial killers, but nothing could have prepared him for his wife Rebecca becoming the sadistic monster's fifth victim. The Collector slipped through his fingers, making Rebecca his final confirmed kill...an obscene retribution for which Eric still pays.

The Collector disappeared, and no victims have turned up that match his MO. Then Eric gets a call from his old partner and friend in Jacksonville, Florida. He tells Eric a chilling tale of a young woman, crime reporter Mia Hale, who had been found near the beach after fleeing an accident scene.

The woman had been nearly naked and drugged out of her mind. She showed signs of being restrained and tortured, and was covered in blood. Not all of it was hers. On her stomach someone had carved a number that is horrifyingly similar to numbers that Eric still sees in his darkest nightmares, that he saw on his own wife. But the one desecrating Mia's skin isn't the number five that had marked Rebecca's place in a psychopath's sick roll call. It's eight.

The Collector is back. And he's been a busy man.

Mia is the only victim to have escaped The Collector, but what she knows about the killer is locked away by the drug-induced retrograde amnesia she's suffering. Desperate to bring the monster down, Eric will do anything, push any angle, to get at the information that Mia has locked in her mind. Even if it puts her at risk. This is the one case that Eric can't let go...the one that took everything from him three years ago. And Eric knows beyond doubt that the monster will never stop, never, unless he can catch him before he strikes again.

~*~

I've been a fan of Tentler since her first book, Midnight Caller, and looked forward with anticipation to each subsequent book in this very loosely connected (as in not really at all) trilogy. Unfortunately, this one didn't work for me, a fact that I find frustrating, because by all rights, it should have. It's an intense psychological thriller, my favorite sort of romantic suspense. Neither the storyline nor the characters suffered any significant attack of the Ills and Imps. And Tentler can certainly write taut, horrific scenes that are gripping. All of those are big positives, and yet this one just fell short for me despite them all.

The main characters, Eric and Mia, were well developed and three dimensional. Their lives were filled in nicely with depth in their backstory and connections to friends, co-workers, and family. On top of that, I enjoyed them in their roles. I thought Eric's history with The Collector added quite a bit of gravitas to his situation, and the combination of Mia's professional experience and her memory loss melded together well to not only explain her lack of significant trauma from her experience, but forgive her determination to investigate the killer. Without that, she would have annoyed me senseless.

Unfortunately, despite Tenter's skill, I just didn't feel any sexual chemistry between them and the romance elements of the story failed to mesh for me because of it. I couldn't help but feel like they were being forced into their relationship instead of it being an organic extension of genuine attraction and increased sentiment. That's not to say that they didn't have some great scenes together, scenes filled with tension and intensity, but I just didn't buy their romantic relationship like I did for the romantic pairings in Tentler's first two books.

I also had an issue with a couple of story elements related to The Collector. We know from the beginning that this is one seriously screwed up, very bad man, sadistic and brutal. Had my view of him been limited to his crimes and his psychopathy, he would have been a powerful force of terror in the book. Unfortunately, parts of the narrative written from his perspective identified him and showed his relationship with his mother.

Instead of furthering a character study of a cold-blooded monster, he came off as weak and ineffectual in those scenes, a misogynist with Mommy issues. While it explained why he was who he was and how he became what he became, it robbed The Collector of his scary as all hell mojo and lent a pathetic air to his persona that did him an injustice in the book. I wouldn't have minded learning those things about The Collector in hindsight, but being peppered with it sporadically throughout the book had a negative impact.

I thought, too, that the storyline stretched a bit close towards unbelievable coincidence when connections between The Collector and Mia started to be woven into the story. I wish that had been left out of the narrative, because it didn't really work for me and it seemed a bit too far out there to be realistically plausible. It served no purpose beyond displaying an even sharper gradient of evil, and by the time the chips fell and the truth was known, it had become tragic but largely superfluous.

All of the issues I had are obviously quite subjective, and none of them take away from the fact that the book is well told, the characters are well written, and the crimes are well and truly grotesque. For me it just wasn't quite the powerhouse I was hoping for or expecting after the first two books in the series, especially the second one, Midnight Fear. It was okay, though, and I hope to have the pleasure of more from Tentler in the future.


Chasing Evil Series:

  

Cop Out by K.C. Burn

Genre: M/M Contemporary Romance
Series: N/A
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 200 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Dreamspinner Press via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



A Sweet and Caring Romance

After three years, Detective Kurt O'Donnell knew that he and his partner wouldn't be starring in any buddy cop movies any time soon, but he thought he knew the man, trusted that Ben was a good cop and had his back. Then a tip Ben gets goes as bad as a tip can go and the building they are entering explodes, killing Ben instantly and sending Kurt to the hospital. He's lucky to survive.

It isn't until Ben's funeral that Kurt starts to realize just how little he knew about his stoic partner, including the fact that Ben may have been gay. When Kurt reaches out to Ben's family and goes to his house to speak to the person he suspects he'll find, he comes face to face with the broken and grief-stricken Davy Broussard. Ben's other partner.

Upset not only because his partner of three years had kept so very many secrets from him, but because of how wrecked the poor young man is over his loss, Kurt reaches out to Davy and slowly befriends him as he pulls him back from the ragged edges of despair. In so doing, Kurt doesn't just learn more about his partner, a man he is no longer sure he would have liked had he known who Ben really was, but he learns so much more about himself than he had ever bargained for.

As time passes and Davy slowly heals, a strong friendship forms between the two men. A friendship that starts to unsettle Kurt when thoughts of Davy start to invade his dreams and his fantasies. And when Kurt realizes his body isn't responding to a very blatant sexual invitation by a very gorgeous woman, but the thought of Davy stirs him in all sorts of carnal ways, he gets very nervous.

Kurt has lived his whole life believing he's straight. But what if he's wrong?

~*~

This was a very sweet, if relatively uncomplicated romance. Kurt is the focus of the story, and the journey he takes from beginning to end is fraught with life changes and personal angst. A lovely depth of character adds solid definition to Kurt as he goes from feeling content with his life and job and secure in his partnership with Ben at work to having the ground yanked out from under him and everything he thought he knew about himself brought into question.

It wasn't a sudden transformation, and kudos to Burn for taking it one step at a time throughout the story. Kurt has to deal not only with his own injury on the job, but the death of his partner, then the realization of every piece of information that Ben had kept from him. The hits just seem to keep piling up and knocking Kurt down, drawing his own judgement into question.

More than any of the romance elements in the story, Kurt's evolution into the man he truly is was a plot-driving tour de force. I found his calm caring for Davy, the solid, steady presence he becomes in his life, and the deft concern he showed for Davy's grief was very appealing to me. It seemed organic to the character and the situations Kurt gets into and the life he'd led to date. Being the baby of a large family has had an effect on Kurt, and the comfort he gets from assuming a caretaker role for Davy had psychological implications that were nicely addressed.

I wasn't nearly as fond of Davy as a character or a romantic interest, though that's no fault of Burn's. When we first meet Davy in more than a passing fashion, it's over three weeks since Ben was killed and Davy is still so devastated he's barely functioning, not eating, and looks dangerously close to potential suicide. He hasn't shopped for food, hasn't paid bills, hasn't looked through Ben's paperwork or answered any of the letters or phone calls from Ben's lawyers. He just unplugged and caved to his desperation.

It's a long time before Davy really starts to get his feet under him and be his own person. Kurt takes care of him for a while. That level of weakness, spread over weeks, then months, was a problem for me on a very intrinsic level. It's not only that Davy is less masculine than I prefer in my M/M romance, though that's an issue. It's his abject helplessness, however, that bothered me the most.

Damsels in distress and other weak personalities, be they male or female, are a personal bugaboo of mine and always cause me trouble when I'm reading, even when they're well written or the characters have some cause. That is especially true when they are a main character or one half of a romance relationship whole. Davy's initial helplessness could be forgiven for the grief, but after almost a month he should at least be able to shower and get himself to work or feed himself. Maybe help his struggling sister, who has health problems because of her pregnancy. There were just too many things about his character that bothered me too much to be able to really like this story, even with as happy as I was with Kurt.

The story as a whole was well written, though, with enough emotional complexity to appeal to me. I'm certainly interested in other books by Burn. Personally, I'd love to see Kurt's brother Ian given a turn to star in his own book and find his HEA. I liked him, and his revelation at the end needed further discourse. Here's hoping Burn gives it to us.

Bared to You by Sylvia Day

Genre: Erotic Contemporary Romance
Series: Crossfire, Book 1
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 360 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me through NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



Focusing on the Book

When New York City newbie Eva Tramell first came face to face with the gorgeous and rich Gideon Cross, she was, quite literally, knocked on her butt by the power of her attraction for the man. It was almost a pity that all that dark and gorgeous was attached to such an offensive personality. Before she'd even learned his first name, the stunningly magnetic Mr. Cross announced his intentions towards Eva in as...plain-spoken a way possible.

Then she finds out that Gideon Cross is owner and CEO of Cross Industries and owns the building she works in. That's too much complication for her. It doesn't matter how hot the man makes her, it's not wise to sex it up where you work, even if she hadn't been extremely offended by his initial...offer.

"Think of the rudeness. I'm offended by how he just threw it out there. I hate feeling like a vagina with legs."

Problem is, it's not just Eva feeling that intense chemistry. Gideon is feeling it as well. And domineering, successful Gideon is only used to one thing: getting whatever he wants whenever he wants it. He wants Eva.

In getting what he wants, though, Gideon ends up with far more than even he'd bargained for. For the first time in his life a relationship with a woman is more than casual sex. It's more than he knows how to handle, and more, maybe, than the baggage carried by two wounded souls can handle. Giving in to their intense desire for each other will either end up bringing them more happiness than they'd ever dreamed, or burn them out and leave nothing but ashes.

~*~

It would be so easy to hop up on a soapbox and focus not on the content of this book but the rigmarole surrounding it. To chime in with my opinions on the similarities between this book and Grey. Then again, as I understand, Grey has it's own issues in that regard. Frankly, it's hard not to imagine that Day hopped on a coattail or two with this book, then rode them straight to the bank. The ramifications of that decision are what they are and honestly, they're none of my business. I have no greater or lesser power than the singular decision on where to spend my money...and where not to. So no soapbox. Just a review.

There's little doubt that Day is an accomplished author who can produce a sophisticated narrative. Parts of this story I enjoyed quite a lot. I liked the relationship between Eva and her best friend Cary, even when it gets complicated. I appreciated the emotional baggage Eva, Gideon, and Cary were dragging around, and could clearly see the affect of that baggage on the corresponding character's actions and decisions. Some of those things fit together to create a sweeping landscape of emotional damage and relationship evolution for all the characters throughout the story, but especially in the emotion-packed second half.

On a less positive note, my impressions of Eva and Gideon sea-sawed throughout the book. In the very beginning, I liked Eva's fortitude and her grasp on her self respect, and she really nailed Gideon with some excellent put-him-in-his-place zingers, but I wasn't at all happy with the endless and excessive gushing about just how god-like he is in looks and sex appeal, especially at the expense of solid backstory and character definition. At least she was consistent in her worship of the hunka hunka burnin' love, because that was about all she was consistent in, including her reaction to her family's money, which she claimed to eschew even as she took advantage of it at every turn.

There just seemed to be fairly little substance to Eva's character beyond her desire for the man and her determination to not give in to that desire. Until, of course, she completely compromised herself because her lust was just so very, very overwhelming and she wanted Gideon just that much.

Even with all that, Eva still made a better first impression than Gideon did. The twenty-eight year old, massively rich, massively gorgeous, massively arrogant, creepy stalker guy who, with no explanation for how this would even be possible, seems to own a majority of New York City. Willing suspension of disbelief was out the window at that point.

I don't care how rich you are, what twenty-eight year old man has had time to start, then build his own fully diversified corporation up to the point of making him one of the richest and most well-respected men in the world? Cross, however, is not only obscenely rich and good-looking, he owns and manages his own company, owns the building Eva works in, the one she lives in, at least two of the clubs she goes to (which he has an active enough hand in to be able to track clientele by credit card usage), one of the health clubs, a hotel, and his own home. In New York City.

Yeah...not really seeing how that's remotely plausible. If he'd inherited either the fortune, the company, or the property (preferably all three), that would be one thing, but that's not what his limited backstory seemed to imply. Not that much in the way of detailed backstory for his character is really disclosed.

I'll say this, though, as the story progressed, I found myself warming to Gideon and souring on Eva. At least Gideon was trying, albeit in a completely dysfunctional way at times. Eva just runs away like a child when things with Gideon get screwed up (which is, admittedly, frequent). Then Gideon chases after her, they make up, and proceed to have the Best. Sex. Ever. Every time. This seems to be the basic formula of their relationship throughout most of the book. Even when she's telling him she's not running...as she's running. It got a little absurd at times.

The sex is explicit, graphic, and erotic, yes. And there is certainly quite a lot of it. No problem for me there. I had no problem with the romance between Gideon and Eva in the latter part of the book, either. It had it's ups and downs, but I started to really like Gideon and wanted him to have some happiness, and Eva had some lovely moments of establishing personal boundaries and forcing Gideon to recognize and respect them. He was controlling and dominant, yes, but other than that freaky stalker stuff in the beginning, he didn't strike me as all that different from any random über-alpha, possessive male. He was also obviously helpless in his feelings for Eva, and that was endearing in places as he is so clearly in uncharted waters.

I don't think Bared to You is a bad book, exactly, so much as an uneven one. It has elements that work very well, and it has characters who are sympathetic and likable, though that comes and goes for each character. Some elements of the story are utterly unrealistic, and Gideon and Eva are extremely childish in places. They're also utterly hot and wonderfully erotic in others. Parts of their story touched me, parts annoyed me, parts disgusted me, parts amused me. In the end, summing everything up and averaging it all out, the pluses didn't quite outweigh the minuses...but they did at least mitigate some of them.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Genre: Thriller/Suspense
Series: Millennium, Book 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 590 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle



It's All About the Girl

Journalist Mikael Blomkvist has taken a personal and professional hit, one that comes with a three month jail sentence for libeling a financial mogul. As crooked as the untouchable giant is, Blomkvist's passion for justice was no match for the power of money. It was a harsh lesson to learn, and one that put his career and everything he holds dear on the line.

Following his conviction and public embarrassment, Blomkvist receives an unexpected request from a man known for being one of Sweden's premiere industrialists. With that call comes an opportunity that will change the course of Blomkvist's life.

Forty years ago, a young woman, niece of industry giant Henrik Vanger, disappeared from the mostly family-owned island where she was staying. Once a year every year since that fateful horror, her killer has taunted Henrik with memories of the beloved child, with his failure to protect her, with his failings as both a man and a corporate giant. Forty years Henrik has been haunted by inaction and cold leads. Now in his eighties, he wants answers, and in Blomkvist, he thinks he's found the tool necessary to dig for those answers, whatever they may be.

As Blomkvist's and Vagner's lives start to intersect and a family dynasty suffers intense scrutiny, a young girl will be drawn into the hunt. Brilliant and cold, odd and passionless, Lisbeth Salander doesn't have friends so much as she has people she probably wouldn't kill. A savant at information gathering, it is her skill set more than her personality that appeals to Blomkvist. At first.

The alliance they form and the attention they put towards a mystery that spans the last century will uncover a rotten core of pretty lies and powerful deceit. Together Blomkvist and the girl with the dragon tattoo will try to solve a case that has baffled police and criminalists for years so they can bring closure to a man in the twilight of his years. The race for the truth will become a cat and mouse game that will threaten their lives and rip apart their souls. Unfortunately, solving that extremely cold case is one thing. Living with the answers...that's quite another.

~*~

I avoided this book for so long, and for fairly predictable reasons. So much hype, and most everyone talking about it like it was the best thing ever written. I know myself well enough to know that those types of books usually don't work for me the same way they seem to for everyone else.

To a degree, that was exactly the case with Larsson's incredibly popular debut. I didn't think it was the most incredible book I'd ever read. I did, though, like it. Parts were absolutely awesome, thrilling, suspenseful, intriguing, and completely worthy of every ounce of praise it's received; some parts bored me to tears (like the first 200 pages or so). I wasn't crazy about Blomkvist, who I didn't much like as a man, but respected quite a lot as an investigator and a journalist. I loved Lisbeth Salander intensely.

In fact, where the first two hundred or so pages struck me as rather emotionally flat and colorless, including character introductions, so much exposition I would have happily been struck blind as I was wading through it, and a mind-numbing expose on the financial climate in Sweden, every word of every scene with Lisbeth was vibrant...and slightly off-kilter...and excessively colorful. The girl is not normal, but I sorta fell in love with her morally ambiguous and sometimes cruel little heart.

She was the sole reason I kept reading...right up until Blomkvist and Vagner meet. From that point on, it felt like I was in another hemisphere reading a completely different book in a totally new language. Maybe I just related more to an uncle's pain and sense of loss, or was captivated more by his extensive and decidedly peculiar family history (sorta like the Adams family meets the Manson family). I know my interest is more piqued by the missing and the dead than capitalist crooks with dollar signs where their hearts should be.

And when, finally, Blomkvist and Salander start working together directly...well that's when this book shined its brightest for me. I loved them together. I still didn't much care for Blomkvist as a man, and I think he's got some serious issues with women, but he and Salander just fit together in the story in a way that took me aback, I enjoyed it so much.

That's what I'll take from this book that both thrilled me and bored me. That's what I'll remember most. In time, maybe I'll forget the first two hundred or so pages and remember only the last three hundred and fifty or so. I don't consider this the greatest book I've ever read, and I do think there was a ton of superfluous detail that did nothing for the story at all. I liked it, though. Parts I completely loved. And the girl with the dragon tattoo...well, she just totally rocked.

Coveted by Shawntelle Madison

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Coveted, Book 1
Rating: 2 Stars
Length: 304 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Ballantine Books publisher Random House Publishing Group via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



Stumbled Over the Heroine's Issues

Five years ago, werewolf Natalya Stravinsky lost the man she loved to a job across the country and the responsibilities inherent to the pack alpha's son. The devastation from that loss changed her, turned a quirky werewolf with OCD into a shadow of herself. While she was still reeling from that loss, she was put into an untenable situation at a pack event and she went a little crazy, making a scene and embarrassing her family.

As a result, she was kicked out of the pack. Her alpha refused to tolerate any individual weaknesses that could threaten the strength of the pack as a whole.

Now Nat lives on the outskirts of her own town, skulking around the edges as a lone wolf. Her home, her job...even her life is solely at the discretion of the pack alpha. With a word she could be banished from her town, even killed. Her relationship with her family is tense, she has no love life, and her OCD has worsened and expanded to include compulsive hoarding behavior.

On the bright side she's got the most diverse and extensive set of Christmas decorations...in the world.

She's living her life as best she can, getting through the days, when her ex-boyfriend Thorn returns to town to assume the mantle responsibility for a pack in crisis. The heat between them is still intense, the need as clear in his eyes as it is in Nat's heart. Problem is, Thorn is promised to another werewolf, a high ranking female of the pack. And that pack crisis, attacks from an encroaching pack intent on gobbling up their territory, paints a target on Nat's back because of her lone wolf status and her lack of pack protection.

~*~

I'm glad I went into this book knowing that it was an urban fantasy instead of a paranormal romance. I was able to focus on the world building, plot, and evolution of characters. In that regard, though, this is one of the more difficult types of books for me to rate and review.

I fully appreciate the originality and unique story elements Madison introduces in this series debut. I admire the risk she took with a main character not just flawed, but suffering a mental illness. There were also many lovely aspects of solid storytelling here on every level, and I can completely understand why this book would appeal to many.

After a promising prologue, the first half of the book was a little slow for me, but that was more a minor issue. Unfortunately, this is just one of those stories that has a main character who is the absolute antithesis of my preferred type for heroes and heroines. I was completely incapable of connecting to her or garnering much in the way of sympathy for her myriad of psychological, ideological, and situational troubles.

This is my peccadillo, not the fault of the author, but I have little patience and less enthusiasm for demonstrably weak characters, especially female characters, and there aren't many I've read who are as excessively passive in their subjugation as Natalya.

And let me just say, I was so disgusted by Thorn and his treatment of Nat, treatment masquerading as concern and star-crossed emotion, of course, that I would have happily turned him into a wolf-skin rug and nailed his furry butt to my wall. Every time Nat turned around after he'd returned to town, Thorn seems to pop up, even sneaking into her room and stirring her body, mind, and heart.

That'd be all kinds of all right if he wasn't virtually engaged to another woman. He flat-out says he has no choice in his future, but if that's the case, man the hell up. Don't torture the woman who still loves you with yearning, passion-filled looks and soft caresses even as you're telling her she can't have you. That's not only wrong, it's pathetic and cruel. Especially with Nat's obviously unhealthy mental and emotional state.

It sure as hell didn't endear Thorn to me as a character.

This is such a character-driven story, with the narrative told from Nat's perspective in first person, that my issues with her made it almost impossible for me to really enjoy the strengths and many pluses that the book offers. I was a little heartened as the end drew closer, though, and the climax of the book started to get rolling. Several enjoyable elements came together and Nat finally flashed some fang.

It was too little too late to pull this one out for me, but it may speak well for the next book in the series, or give a hint of future progress for Natalya. I'm just not sure yet if I'd be willing to return to this series and see if and how any character evolution develops. Unless of course, Nat suddenly switches the focus of her hoarding to male wolf statues with their head's forcibly removed. Bitten off would be good, too. I'm pretty sure I'd be all over this series at that point.

Darkest Caress by Kaylea Cross

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Empowered, Book 1
Rating: 1 Star
Length: 92,000 Words
Formats: Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Carina Press via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



Too Many Contradictions and Inconsistencies

There is a war coming, foretold by prophecy. Daegan Blackwell didn't need prophecy to remind him, though. He felt it in his bones, coursing through his blood. Changes were coming. After two hundred years as a warrior, the leader of the few remaining Empowered, a race of beings with special gifts and abilities dating back millennia, could practically scent it on the wind.

That's why he's at the large mansion overlooking the ocean, touring the huge estate he may be buying. He and his brethren need a home base near the water that is the source of their magical power, a home base where they could prepare for the coming war against the darkest evil. As leader he would provide for them before it is once more into the breach.

Daegan hadn't counted on the sledgehammer of need that slams into him when he shakes hands with the real estate agent. He sure hadn't seen this bit of imminent disaster rolling at him like thunder, or read about it in any prophecy. Realtor Olivia Farrell is one of them. She obviously doesn't know it. What's more, she's also Daegan's destined mate.

Meeting her, touching her skin, feeling her warmth...nothing could have prepared Daegan for the onslaught of emotion and need for possession that sweeps over him. It couldn't have come at a worse time...he doesn't want it...he can't just take her...he can't live without her... As his mind whirls and his body revolts, one thought and one thought only is paramount in his mind. Olivia Farrell is his.

He better explain his world and his history to her quickly, though, and convince the headstrong and independent woman to accept not only him, but the truth of her heritage, because the clock started ticking the moment that they met. The prophecy has begun.

~*~

One of the drawbacks of writing a review based on an ARC version of a book is I'm never quite sure just how close to the final, released version it is. Most of the time it's not that big a deal. I can ignore the minor errors or typos I find, remain happily blind to all but the most egregious grammatical errors and such, because I figure they'll be caught before the book is available to buy. I'm not as good at ignoring larger or more numerous issues like those I found in this book. Those compounded the problems I had with the story and characters and made such a big mess for me that it gobbled up whatever pleasure I found in the read.

There were some bright spots in the first half of the book, and Cross' writing style is fluid and easy to read. The world and the mythos of the Empowered had points of originality in the details, even if it didn't break new ground in overall concept. I could definitely see the influences of J.R. Ward and other paranormal romance series similar to her Black Dagger Brotherhood, but as I happen to like those influences, that's not a problem for me.

One of my problems is that this book lacks complexity and depth in the plot conflict and the main characters suffered a lack of appeal because of it. In fact, I got to a point of such strong dislike for Daegan that his painful demise wouldn't have upset me. He's supposed to be the Coven Leader of the Empowered, but his lack of communication with Liv over what was going on with her and his martyred suffering as a result just made him seem like a total emotional coward to me. I get that he has baggage, but after two hundred years, a prophecy and an impending war, suck it up and deal with it.

Liv didn't bother me to that degree, but she ended up too often in the role of target and damsel in distress. Given her lack of information and inability to make cognizant decisions based on accurate information, I could see the plot conflicts with the Bad Guys coming a mile away. It felt like I spent most of the middle of the book waiting for that stereotypical B-grade horror movie moment where the blonde runs up the stairs instead of out of the house to escape the homicidal maniac.

And that moment did come. That's also when things went very, very wrong for me in the story.

I'm not going to belabor every point of contention, or spend paragraphs dissecting every element. I'll even admit that at least some of the issues I had were issues because I'm so damn anal retentive. Believe me, I wish that wasn't so. My life would be so much simpler. But the truth of the matter is, there were huge contradictions in the established mythos, especially relating to Liv's abilities, and major inconsistencies in the written details.

The biggest problems started around the sixty percent mark of the book. They completely knocked me out of the story and made it impossible to enjoy any other element of the read. Most of those bigger errors include spoilers that have been hidden for those who prefer to avoid them, but those interested in the details may read here:

Click me to read spoilers

Liv is driving to Daegan's and the ride is described thus:

With the convertible's top down, the warm, salt-scented air rushed past... 

That's all well and good. Unfortunately, it's followed up a few pages later with this:

She was pinned in her seat, wedged between the airbag and the damaged door frame. The entire left side of it had crumpled during the impact, making it impossible for her to get out through the back of the open convertible. She had to get out through a door.

Wait...what? Back of the open convertible? What does that even mean? And her only options are that or through a door? When the convertible's top is down and she could just climb out over the door? Am I missing something? Apparently so.

She grasped the door handle and yanked. The door didn't budge. It was either too badly twisted or pinned against something outside. Shaking, she wriggled down in her seat then crawled across the console into the passenger seat to try that door. It moved a few inches but didn't open enough for her to get out. 

Okay then. She's obviously mobile. She's not physically disabled. Not trapped. She crawls across the console, did not duck under it, so the car is not upside down. And the top is down! Did I mention the top being down??? A couple of pages of her struggling to get out of that car while the Bad Guy gets closer and closer seriously made me want to lose my freakin' mind.

And the hits didn't stop there. When the Bad Guy gets her (because seriously...was there any doubt he would?), he's so evil that she goes into convulsions and passes out because of her abilities. When she regains consciousness, the scene is set.

She was on a chair with her hands taped to its arms, her ankles taped to the legs.

Seems pretty straightforward to me, and to enforce the scene, we're given more details.

Shifting in the chair, she tried to twist her hands free or wriggle her fingers around to loosen the tape. It didn't help.

I gotta admit, that's a bummer. She's stuck tight in a den of evil.

She could move her feet and legs a bit, but the chair she was strapped to was tall. Her struggles to reach the ground with her toes only allowed her to inch the chair backwards.

Fortunately, all hope is not lost.

The tape on her ankles gave slightly, allowing her to slide her legs up a bit.

That's great news, too, because apparently it also allows her to do this when the Bad Guys come in for her:

All she could do was draw up her legs a tiny bit as he approached, gathering her strength. She waited until he was within range before lashing out with both feet.

Wait! Wait, wait, wait...lashing out with both feet? Surely I read that wrong after she had so clearly been able to do nothing but slide her legs up a little, right? Sadly, no.

He jumped back with a grunt and caught her legs, but not before she made solid contact to his shins.

Huh. Well then.

By this point I'm even ignoring the fact that the flagrant inconsistency in the effects Liv feels from being around evil is not only highly convenient but extremely egregious. My own convulsions have already overwhelmed me more than once.

I hardly even felt it when, after Liv was tortured...mostly terrified with threats of losing her fingers (which, I have to admit, was seriously creepy...even if I couldn't understand why the threats went unrealized), she manages to gain a slight upper hand a few pages later.

Liv lunged upward, grabbed for the weapon while she drew her knees up and drove her feet into his stomach.

Would have been better if she'd gotten her legs free sometime in the interim, though, or had one of her arms not still been taped down. And I'd love for someone to explain how she could do that when even being near a guy intent on evil made her go blind with pain earlier in the book.

But all that sort of pales to the pièce de résistance that comes up right after that previous quote.

Wasting no time, she opened the blades and sawed frantically at the rope holding her left hand hostage.

The rope. Right. Of course. And that sound you hear is my head exploding.

I know those sort of issues don't bother every reader. I wish they didn't bother me, especially as they occur at such climactic moments in the story. Like I said, though, this review is based on an ARC, not the final product, so it's possible some of the things that made this book so troublesome for me don't exist anymore. I do sincerely hope that's the case so other readers can enjoy this series debut by Cross.

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

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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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