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Hunting the Shadows by Alexia Reed

Genre: Paranormal Romantic Suspense
Series: Shadow Ops, Book 1
Rating: 2.5 Stars
Length: 219 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.



Overreaching and Unfocused

He tried to stop them, tried to destroy it. The Centre, a shadowy, shady research facility ruled by the Council, creates genetically engineered children with spectacular psychic abilities, trains them to be warriors, then uses them as mercenaries. The methods the Centre uses, as well as what the Council commands it do to achieve their nefarious goals, must be stopped.

He should know. He is one of their top researchers. And he is one of their top agents. He is Jaeger-Caleb Nikolaeiv, and when he set off the explosives that were to destroy the east wing of the Centre, he became a traitor.

Her name is Amy. She, too, has spent her life in the Centre, but Amy isn't an agent. She's little more than a lab rat. Her entire life has been lived in isolation, not only because of the power she wields with her mind, but because unless warded, the overwhelming stimulus of every other mind around her will kill her. And she's too valuable to the Council to be allowed to die. Yet.

Amy needs J.C.'s help. She's spent time in his mind, even tried to help him escape after he blew the labs. He's the only one who has enough telepathic ability to hear her when she speaks to him, not that he believes she's real at first. She tries to warn him that there is more evil at the Centre than even he realizes. She's sensed it. Has, in fact, seen through the eyes of the killer as he murders his victims. And that killer's hunger is growing.

J.C. is more than Amy's only hope for freedom. To stop the psychic vampire from draining more victims he'll need her help in locating him. She's the only one who can. Even if her mind finally crumbles under the strain. Even if she becomes the killer's next target.

~*~

I liked it at first. Reed's debut kicks off with an impressive action sequence that sets the pace and tone of the book at pulse-pounding with a side order of gut-wrenching. Readers are dropped fast and hard into J.C. and Amy's world, and have to hold on tight as the story races forward, sketchily introducing that world and the people in it even as it seems to be exploding around them all. Not a lot is explained, but what is doesn't paint anything close to an idyllic picture.

It's dark, dangerous, and not just a little deadly.

Though that's absolutely my kind of read, it didn't take long before things in the story started to go a bit downhill for me. The lack of explanation and character development that marked the initial chapters became an issue as it continued throughout the story. I never did get a clear idea of the full scope and purpose of the Centre, how large a population it had, where it was, and who ran it. Near as I could tell while reading it, the Council is bad, their Enforcers are bad, the research done is bad, what is done to the objects of their research is bad...hell, even the "good" guys are not exactly lily white.

I liked J.C. as a character, but his past was ill-defined and his actions both as an agent and a researcher hinted at dark deeds done. Deeds that, perhaps, he was trying to stop from continuing, but still done. He was definitely one of the most noble of the characters in the book, and certainly one of the most well-intentioned, but after taking a good, hard look around that world and spending time reading about the characters in it, I can't say that's saying much.

Amy was also perfectly likable as a character. She was, in fact, my favorite character for the complexity that was the combination of her mental strengths and weaknesses. I can't say I totally bought how socially adjusted and relatively normal she seemed to be after the life she's been forced to live, alone and tortured again and again, but I felt for her and found her sympathetic.

I didn't think, though, that Amy and J.C. had any huge amount of chemistry. Amy was a little too innocent and J.C. a little too jaded for me to completely love their romantic relationship. I wanted to, very much, because I did like them both, but I just couldn't quite see them as equals. That made it hard for me to fully appreciate the way their relationship progressed with the story.

The biggest issue I had with this read, though, was also the most insurmountable. The plot threads surrounding the serial killer who is hunting members of the Centre, supposedly comprising the main plot conflict of the book, failed to have any emotional impact on me whatsoever. It all just paled in comparison to the horror generated by the atrocities being committed by the Centre and its workers, all at the behest or with the approval of the mysterious Council.

I couldn't have possibly cared less about the victims being killed by a serial killer. Not when the Centre condoned and facilitated the torture and killing of children. Not when researchers were giving children little black marks that determined the value of their continued existence and Council Enforcers were coldly torturing and murdering innocent people as threat tactics and motivation. I was too busy pondering how any of the "good" guys could knowingly, willingly working for that dehumanizing, demoralizing, torturous, murderous place and still consider for an instant that they had any moral high ground.

By that point the serial killer just seemed like overkill. No pun intended.

When I combine that issue with the lack of definition in the world and the characters, as well as the chaotic execution of all the plot-driven story elements, I just couldn't quite connect with this one. Had the story been significantly less ambitious and more focused on one big nasty instead of inundating readers with such a wide variety of evil, it would have had greater appeal for me. I do think there's potential for the series, but I'm not yet convinced it'll be realized any time soon.

Dangerously Close by Dee J. Adams

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: Adrenaline Highs, Book 3
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Length: 255 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.



Rockin' the Adrenaline High

Rock 'n Roll icon Seger Hughes has been a very, very bad boy.  Stumbling, sexing, and boozing his way through a brutal world tour, he's lucky if he can remember the lyrics to his songs when he's on stage. He sure can't remember the name of the barely legal girl he banged after a recent show.

He's burned out, and so disgusted with himself he can hardly meet his own eyes in the mirror. The love of music that once drove him like a demon is silent in his chest. He's desperate for a break, needs to step back and just breathe for awhile. Most of all, he needs to get away from himself.

Ashley Bristol knows a bit about playing the hand you're dealt, no matter how traumatic. She was collateral damage to a madman not too long ago and spent months in a coma because of it. Now, courtesy of a bee and the seaside stairs that lead up to her new home, Ashley takes a bad fall and ends up back in the hospital. And she's blind.

Refusing to succumb to panic or despair, Ashley returns to her beloved home intent on learning how to be independent. She had worked hard to renovate what was the guesthouse on a wealthy estate, and plans to continue to enjoy the fruits of her labor. She knows she has a neighbor, her realtor told her that's why she got such a deal on the house, but whomever it is has been a no-show since she moved in.

Mel Summers wants privacy. He wants to go unrecognized as rock's wild man while he gets his head on straight. He doesn't want to be Seger at all, actually. He certainly doesn't want a neighbor he hadn't known about or anticipated. But Ashley is like no woman Mel has ever met and her blindness allows him to keep his identity a secret. With Ashley he can just be a man.

He has no idea that someone is watching him very intently, watching as the friendship between him and Ashley grows and warms. That someone knows exactly who Mel Summers really is, and she wants nothing more than to prove to Seger that she's everything he will ever need in life. That she loves him. And she'll do whatever it takes to prove it.

~*~

I'm such a big fan of the Adrenaline Highs series. Adams brings a fresh voice and uncommon stories to the romantic suspense genre, satisfying readers with strong, unique characters thrust into life-threatening situations. Since Dangerous Race, the first in the series (which shouldn't be missed, though these books fare well as stand-alone reads), Adams has brought her happy readers into the lives of race car drivers, movie stunt women, and now rock stars. I've enjoyed every single pulse-pounding trip.

In this third installment, we're introduced to Seger Hughes, a flawed rock star with more than his share of self-made problems. He's spoiled and selfish, self-destructive and arrogant. He manages to take himself too seriously and life not seriously enough. In short, he's not exactly a nice guy, even after Ashley first wriggles her way into his life.

Ashley, on the other hand, is a force of nature. We first met her as Ellie's roommate and best friend in the previous book, Danger Zone. She's fought her way back to the land of the living and is doing fairly well until she falls down the stairs leading down to the beach from her new home and is, quite literally, struck blind. This is not a woman with the best luck in the world, by any means.

Despite that, and the occasional (completely understandable) moments of terror and despair that her blindness may be permanent, Ashley doesn't do self-pity or regret. She mourns the loss of her vision with dignity and moves forward, pressing relentlessly onward and drawing people into her sphere with her strength of character and generosity of spirit. I loved her as a secondary character in the previous book and I adored her - absolutely, positively adored her - in this one.

Frankly, Mel was a goner as soon as she set her almost completely sightless eyes on him. He just didn't know it.

The evolution of their relationship was definitely the high point of the book for me. It's become rare to find a story like this, one that so seamlessly introduces characters, develops a rock-solid friendship between them, then uses that friendship as the foundation for an incendiary love affair. It's a fantastic romance, and the characters are so modern and so clearly adult (if not always mature) in thought and deed that there's a wonderful earthy realism to every aspect of their interactions.

I'm slightly more circumspect when it comes to the suspense threads in this book. On one hand, I have to admire the utterly creepy and freakily believable motivations and actions of the antagonist. Who hasn't heard a horror story of a crazed stalker turned homicidal? You don't have to be a rock star to garner that level of crazy in your life.

On the other hand, the stalker-turned-killer villain has never been a particular favorite of mine in suspense fiction. Despite the solid execution of the storyline, I have to admit, the concept of a whack job stalking a rock star did seem a little clichéd to me. One of the few things in this series that ever has, actually.

Regardless, I think Adams wove those plot threads into the book with a masterful subtlety, including a few scenes from the point of view of the Bad Guy. It was startlingly effective at building the level of tension and suspense throughout the narrative. Not only because the chick is pathologically manipulative, delusional, and batshit crazy, but because when she worms her way into the lives of the main characters, they aren't thrilled with her as a person, but they don't know she's completely off her nut and dangerous as hell.

As critical elements go, mine turned out to be fairly minor in the end. I was so in love with the characters, so thrilled by Mel's evolution and the relationship between him and Ashley, and so impressed with the way in which Adams bled an increasing level of suspense and strain into the story, that the whole of the read was a major success for me. And this installment was my favorite of the three book (so far) series.


The Adrenaline Highs Series:

  

The Legend of Michael by Lisa Renee Jones

Genre: SciFi Romance
Series: Zodius, Book 1
Rating: 2 Stars
Length: 382 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle



Chaotic and Light on Romance

He's not human. Not anymore, anyway. Michael Taylor is one of the soldiers injected with alien DNA as part of a secret military project and scientific experiment intent on creating super soldiers, the perfect weapons. What it created, though, what Michael and others like him became, was more than anyone had expected.

Dr. Cassandra Powell isn't just the daughter of the general in command of the GTECH soldiers, she's been assigned to Project Zodius to study and evaluate the soldiers and the effects of their mutated DNA. She had no intention of getting personally involved with her subjects. She had no defense, however, for the intent and eerily powerful Michael.

They were drawn to each other, neither able to stay away. He thrilled her even as he made her nervous. She soothed him even as she stirred his blood. The mating mark and subsequent lifebond was the inevitable result of their affair.

Then Cassandra's world explodes when her father moves to imprison all the GTECHS who have tested positive for the X2 gene, a gene that seems to be connected to increased aggression and emotional instability. Problem is, the GTECH soldiers with the gene are less than keen on being imprisoned. In an angonizing instant, the X2-positive Michael is standing before her, her father's throat in his hand.

His support of the leader of the rebel soldiers, an evil and extremely aggressive GTECH named Adam, seems a heartbreaking reality. And on a whisper of the wind that speaks to him, he's out of her life. Has she been in love with traitor? Has Michael given in to the impulses of his mutated X2 gene and sided with evil against the country he's served so faithfully? And how can Cassandra survive the loss of him if he has?

~*~

I freely admit I'm a bit twisted, because when faced with a premise such as the one on which this series is based, I can't help but chuckle. See, I love reading a book about the debacles and disasters created by the combination of humanity's limitless arrogance and ignorance, especially when added to the Molotov cocktail of doom that is the incendiary mix of power and ego.

It's true. I do. And every time I come across one, I remember that line from Jurrassic Park which so aptly summed up the reason that movie was so damn terrifying:

"Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could they didn't stop to think if they should."

Yup. Give a few "brilliant" scientists a few strings of alien (or dinosaur) DNA, throw in a military-funded budget and at least one power-hungry egomaniac with a god complex, make sure remove all conscience, and of course they're going to try to create the ultimate soldier in the genetics lab equivalent of an Easy-Bake oven, with no concept or apparent concern for the long-term potential for badness. And man, there's always a lot of long-term potential for badness.

Soon as I read "alien DNA" I knew how this book was going to evolve and pegged several of the archetypal characters. I sat back, popped some popcorn, and prepared to enjoy the glorious devastation that was to come. And had this been slated solely as a science fiction novel, I probably would have ended up feeling more positive about what I read. I would still think the plot was a bit chaotic, but it could have been entertaining. Unfortunately, it also tried to be a romance, and in that it was a spectacular fail for me.

The romance between Cassandra and Michael was practically nonexistent, and I thought the timeline of their relationship was decidedly peculiar. Their presence in the story seemed to be limited by the overly ambitious plot. It hampered their characterization and crippled whatever emotional connection they had. And I'm so tired of the "I want him/her but I can't have him/her" mindset in the hero or heroine when it comes to romantic conflicts. It's never been a favorite theme of mine, but it feels like I can't open a book lately without stumbling across one or both main characters angsting themselves to death over that shit. I find it trite and boring.

The book had a great premise, and I love the concept for the series. This story and these characters, though, didn't work for me. There was so much plot crammed into the book and the world-building and setup were so immense that everything sort of degenerated into a chaotic jumble as the storyline progressed. And the romance was as good as not there. For me, it was all just a mess of too many characters, too many plot threads, too many conflicts, too little that consistently appealed...it was all just too much.

Summer Days by Susan Mallery

Genre: Contemporary Romance
Series: Fool's Gold, Book 7
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 378 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 Light, Fun Read With Feeling

Growing up dirt poor in Fool's Gold taught Rafe Stryker a very important life lesson: money is everything. Now Rafe, rich and successful, controls his own destiny. And everything else, as well.

When his mother is swindled out of over two hundred thousand dollars trying to buy the ranch that she loved and lost once before, Rafe does something he never thought he'd do. He returns to the town that reminds him of every pride-swallowing moment of his youth, intent on waging war and triumphing. For his mother, and for himself.

The goat, admittedly, was a surprise. As was the girl...well, woman, really...chasing after it.

After spending years on the road, all former carny Heidi Simpson wanted was a home. Now she's living the life she'd always dreamed, both as the owner of Castle Ranch and as goat milk entrepreneur. Then her grandfather, himself a former carny, takes a huge hunk of money from a woman, "selling" her home out from under her. Except it wasn't his to sell, and the money is gone, given to a sick friend for his cancer treatments.

Now the woman's son has thrown himself into the mix and is stirring up a world of trouble. He's furious and intent. She's earnest and stubborn. Neither want to give ground, but sharing starts to spark all sorts of feelings that neither had anticipated. Feelings that neither wanted. Feelings that neither can resist.

~*~

Mallery's seventh installment of her popular Fool's Gold series is exactly the sort of brain candy I was hoping it would be when I started it. Light, sexy, and fun, without a preponderance of emotional angst weighing it down, the story of Rafe and Heidi provided several wonderful hours of solid reading entertainment. And though this was my first visit to the well-established town of Fool's Gold, I had no trouble diving in at this point and appreciating the book on its own merits.

Heidi was a lot of fun as the heroine. She's a young woman intent on carving out a home for herself on Castle Ranch, and though her grandfather threatened that, she championed his reasons for doing so and worked darn hard to right the situation without losing her home. She was eminently sympathetic for all of that. She was also stubborn, proud, and independent, three traits which appealed to me in this situation.

Rafe was perhaps the more complex of the two of them, with a lot of baggage left over from a less than ideal childhood. I felt quite a lot for him, and honestly had some problems with his mother after the full impact of what he shouldered at such a young age. For all his faults, he was exactly the sort of controlling, money-hungry tycoon his past shaped him to be, and I commend Mallery for creating such an organic character.

I wish there was more of a reckoning for his mother, though. She's a woman who ceded family control to a boy whose biggest concern should have been whether or not the girls around him had cooties. That being said, the fact that his past was less than ideal and that past colored his relationship with his family and his happiness for his life was not only organic to his character but was also painfully realistic.

Yet this book isn't one of somber reflection and heavy issues. It's fun. The plot was fairly predictable, the outcome definitely so, but I enjoyed it despite that. There was plenty of fun to be had in the characters' antics and life in general in Fool's Gold. I heartily appreciated the light, humorous tone as I did the darker, more serious elements. Though those were fewer by far.

Together Heidi and Rafe were great. Heidi's past was less traumatic than Rafe's, but it served her well when it came to knowing her mind and following her heart. Rafe's transformation was another major positive. He goes from being a fairly generic poor-boy-made-good business mogul to land-loving cowboy between the covers of the book, and the transformation seemed natural and heart-felt, if a bit begrudging initially.

His controlling ways added a bit of weight and gravitas here and there. The issues with both his brother's career choice and his sister's life choices added familial conflict to the story and personal struggles to his character definition. I absolutely loved the scene with his sister, wish his model brother would have made an appearance, and generally adored the concern and care he showed his mother.

Of course it was cheesy in places, and there were elements that didn't completely win me over, but all told, this was exactly the sort of fun, breezy read I was hoping it would be. It gave me everything I'd hoped it would give me, and more depth than I was anticipating. These are thoroughly likable characters leading totally entertaining lives.

I wish I'd known about the Fool's Gold series sooner, because it's the exact sort of brain candy that I need now and again, a read that I can just settle back and enjoy without analyzing too deeply. It may not be perfect or truly unique, and Heidi may be just one Swiss mountain range short of a classic novel with her blond braids, grandfather, and goats, but it was fun, the emotional and sexual tension between Heidi and Rafe was off the charts, and the romance touched my heart. Can't complain about that.

Shades of Desire by Virna DePaul

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: Special Investigations Group, Book 1
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 384 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by HQN publisher Harlequin via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



Struggled with the Main Character

Her retinal degeneration is progressive, but professional photographer Natalie Jones is coping with the limits of her decreased vision. She thought she had time before her world went completely dark. She had no idea the morning she decided to take a stroll through the park near her Plainville home, snapping pictures as she went, that the bright day full of color and light, shapes, forms, and textures, would be the last she'd ever see.

Eight weeks later, a man breaks into her home and attacks her, almost kills her, and Natalie's dark world gets a whole lot more terrifying.

As special agent for California Department of Justice's Special Investigations Group, Liam "Mac" McKenzie is working a case of the murder of a sixteen year old girl. Her skeletal remains were found an hour north of the home of Natalie Jones. Mac has no idea what the connection is between his victim and a highly successful professional photographer, but evidence found with his victim's body and at the crime scene of Ms. Jones' attack points to the same man committing both crimes.

Mac feels the sharp jolt of a visceral attraction to Natalie even before he meets her the first time. He'd done his research prior to driving to her home to interview her, and something about her picture reached into his gut and twisted. Despite that, they didn't have the most auspicious beginnings. Mostly because for all the information Mac has gathered on Natalie, he doesn't know she's blind. And she is still reeling from her attack the previous day.

Suddenly Mac is doubly motivated to get to the bottom of the murder of a young girl and find out why Natalie is a target. Because the thought of that vibrant woman becoming a killer's next victim is absolutely anathema to everything that makes Mac a cop. And a man.

~*~

DePaul's romantic suspense series has a strong premise that appeals to me, stories surrounding the Special Investigations Unit of California's DOJ. Maybe a series featuring a unit of law enforcement roughly akin to a state-level FBI branch isn't a totally unique concept, but it's also not the ubiquitous security firm employing a bunch of ex-elite military men. I take my breaths of fresh air where I can find them.

DePaul delivered on the suspense elements, too. I can't say I was thrilled with every piece of the plot-driven conflict, especially later in the second half, but it provided a solid threat to the main character and carried tension and danger along with it. I did get a little lost in the timeline in a couple of places, and thought the Bad Guy's storyline got muddled and chaotic as it got closer to the book's climax. Overall, though, I enjoyed it.

I wish I could say the same about the characters. Especially as both Mac and Natalie were created with such a deft hand and an eye on realistic layers and character foibles. Mac was fine as a detective, really, that wasn't a problem. I just couldn't figure out his seeming insta-attraction for Natalie. Not only was that not to my taste for the story, I also felt his behavior skirted professionalism at times.

I was not in any way a fan of Natalie. She struck me as self-pitying and weak throughout most of the book. While I sympathized with her over the loss of her sight, and can appreciate that her emotional state of mind was probably fairly realistic, her prevalent poor-me attitude rubbed me raw from very early into the read. And frankly, when Natalie wasn't being fearful or self-pitying, she was being an uncooperative, obstinate bitch.

Actively disliking one of the two main characters throughout most of their book and having issues with the other put a pretty serious kibosh on the romance for me. Yes, by the end, Natalie had evolved into a moderately tolerable human being. No, it wasn't soon enough for me to embrace her in her relationship with Mac. On top of that, the two weren't even together for many scenes in the book. Even if I hadn't disliked Natalie, I still would have had trouble believing the depth of emotion they supposedly felt for each other after such an abbreviated acquaintance and limited contact.

There were good points, most surrounding the suspense, but for me, this series debut didn't entertain me as much as I'd hoped. I think the premise is still rock-solid, and I'm still very grateful that not one totally buff ex-Special Forces alpha male stomped his fine, regulation bum across my pages. Not that I don't love them, mind, but a break is nice, too. If I continue with this series, I'll hope for another solid suspense but much more likable characters.

Colby Law by Debra Webb

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: Colby Agency, Book 48; Colby, TX, Book 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 224 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Harlequin via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.


This Series Newbie is Sold

They were called the Princess Killers, Rafe and Clare Barker. They have been in prison for over twenty years. Rafe is sentenced to die and has languished on death row for the past seventeen years.

With thirty days remaining until his scheduled execution, Rafe's request to see Victoria Colby-Camp, head of the Colby Agency, a well-respected investigation and security company, is granted. Victoria goes to the prison and meets the man known as a monster. He looks her in the eye and says the first words he's spoken since his incarceration.

Rafe Barker wants Victoria to find his daughters, three little girls assumed to have been victims of the Princess Killers, and protect them. He claims they hadn't been murdered all those years ago, that he had gotten them to safety. He claims he hadn't, in fact, killed any of the girls he was convicted of killing...but his wife had. And Clare Barker has just been released from prison.

Rafe needs Victoria because he knows that Clare will track down their daughters and finish what she started all those years ago.

Lyle McCaleb is new to the Colby Agency's recently opened Houston branch, but his experience and history in the town of Five Hills has made him the obvious choice to track down the young woman identified as the youngest of three sisters and the daughter of Rafe Barker. Her identity rocks Lyle to the bone but guarantees his personal investment in the case.

Sadie Gilmore was the love of his life back in the day. His biggest regret and the source of his greatest pain. He'd loved her, but at fifteen to his twenty-one, she was a sweet temptation from which he had to flee. So he left town, left her. But it's been seven years and Sadie is no longer fifteen. When he shows up at her house, though, her dubious welcome back includes a loaded shotgun pointed at him.

That's when he gets the first inkling that the past seven years wasn't water under the bridge for either of them...and Sadie Gilmore had neither forgotten, nor forgiven him for their past.

~*~

I've picked up a book from the middle of a series before, but I have to admit, this is the first time I've started with the forty-eighth book in an ongoing series. Hell, this may be the first series I've ever come across that has that many books in it. Within Webb's Colby Agency world, however, this book is the first in a connected trilogy, and I was intrigued enough with the blurb to give it a go. Turned out just fine, too.

The beginning was the only time I felt a little lost within the existing world. There are names of a lot of different characters that obviously have history in the series, and they're often referred to by either first or last name. Without the framework of previous experience, it took a few chapters to sort everything and everyone out. Once the main plot of the book kicked off, though, and Lyle and Sadie emerged as the main characters, the name game settled and the story focus locked on to their backstory and the threads of their current plot threads.

Second chance romances aren't a favorite theme of mine, but I was okay with this one between Lyle and Sadie. It was handled very well, maybe in part because I sort of understood Lyle's reasons for leaving Sadie all those years ago, even if I didn't care for the way he'd done so. Plus, he'd made some efforts in the interim that smoothed my ruffled feathers a bit.

I enjoyed them both as characters, and that too helped me appreciate their romance. Lyle is fairly typical for the genre. Protective, strong, intent. He didn't have much in the way of annoying peccadilloes but was also a little light on the sort of flaws that would make him more memorable and individual. Sadie was a spitfire with a big heart. She was at war with her father, the man who'd adopted her as a child, and stuck tight to her principles, regardless of the personal cost.

She wasn't too keen on letting Lyle worm his way back into her good graces, which I appreciated, and handled some major upheavals to her life with maturity and aplomb. I liked her quite a lot, and I loved her cadre of misfit animals. Their romance was fairly predictable, but they had a nice, solid chemistry.

Theirs is a romance that seemed sweet more than spicy. My preferences lean more towards sexiness and heat in the narrative. It wasn't bad, it's just tamer than where my tastes usually lay. Sex scenes were limited in description, and written with more euphemism than detail. I also prefer sex scenes to include either a mention of protection or an understanding of why protection isn't necessary. Neither was the case here.

I was surprised by the depth and layers of suspense that the read offered. I wasn't expecting it in a Harlequin line. Not only was the backstory of the Princess Killers horrifying and disturbing, but the threat posed against the characters in this book was violent and gritty. I enjoyed how the story evolved. The multiple threads were woven together into a comprehensive plot that provided several points of plot-driven conflict. In that regard, it was a very satisfying suspenseful read.

This is a solid romantic suspense. I don't know how it compares to the forty-seven previous books in the series (that still boggles my mind), but it worked quite well for me as the opening installment of the trilogy surrounding the children of the Princess Killers. The romantic elements may not have been a complete win for me, but the characters were likable and the read was entertaining. Enough so that I've added the second and third (forty-nineth and fiftieth) books in the trilogy (series) to my Terrifyingly Tilted Tower of TBRs.

Banshee Charmer by Tiffany Allee

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: From the Files of the Otherworlder Enforcement Agency, Book 1
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 159 Pages
Formats: 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.



Wanted More of a Romance

As a police detective for the paranormal unit, half-banshee Kiera "Mac" McLoughlin is used to getting some fairly peculiar cases, but the crime scene she and her partner are called to, and the condition of the victim's body, has even her concerned. The method of death is one that points to an incubus as the perpetrator. That would give Mac a solid place to start looking for suspects if it wasn't for one little detail.

Incubi are extinct.

Mac returns home to find a dark, gorgeous stranger sitting calmly at her table, sipping her coffee and perusing one of her romance books, relaxed as can be...even with the gun she has pointing at his head. He introduces himself as Aidan Byrne, detective with the Otherworlder Enforcement Agency, and beyond being slickly charming as hell, he gives her disturbing news. The case she'd been called to that day isn't the first of its kind.

Mac has a serial killer on her hands. A murderer targeting young women. And the only evidence left on any of the victims points to a species of supernatural that no longer exists.

The stakes are raised and the case becomes personal when Mac's partner becomes the killer's next victim. Reeling from the loss and removed from the case, Mac refuses to let it go. She has only the enigmatic Aidan to help her track down the monster responsible, but she's determined. So determined that she doesn't notice that all is not as is seems with Aiden, and trusting him to watch her back may only accomplish one thing.

Giving him the chance to stab her in it.

~*~

Maybe I'm slow on the uptake (okay, obviously I am), but I was just getting into this book, the characters and world were being introduced, when it hit me. I have a genuine fondness for books and series surrounding paranormal units of law enforcement, whatever the level. One would think, given my extensive reading history, that I would have figured that out before now, or at least recognized on a conscious level what my subconscious has long understood. Nope. Not me. I am, apparently, not all that bright.

Ah, well. I know now.

Though this series debut is shorter in length than I expected, and much in the way of world-building was absent as a result, I enjoyed the diversity of the various species of paranormal inhabiting the world. Mac is half-banshee, her partner practiced witchcraft, and there are succubi (the incubi's female cousins), vampires, goblins, and more, that indicate a richly populous world of supernatural variety. I tend to favor diversity over a world that just has vampires and/or weres.

The investigative elements of the story were a little less appealing to me than the world in which the series occurs. I liked Mac as a character very much. She was an intent, prickly, headstrong, determined little thing. There was just not a lot to recommend her as a competent detective.

It's not that she's incompetent, exactly, it's just that most of the story seemed to revolve around her and Aiden "investigating" independently, then meeting up to ask each other what the other has found out. They exchange information often, but it felt like the actual investigation was almost simplistic and lacking in the sort of detail and dimension that would really elevate it to what would seem appropriate for professional detectives, paranormal unit or not. The information that Mac does uncover and the progress that she does make is almost more despite herself than it is a result of a methodical, discovery-based investigation.

I liked the storyline, though, even if the investigative elements fell short. And I liked Aiden quite a lot, too. I figured out what his connection to the case was fairly early on, but as that's not uncommon, it didn't detract from the story for me. I liked watching him and Mac circle around each other as they worked towards catching the killer.

There were a couple of nice twists and turns in the plot that also appealed, and the resolution was solid. I was left wondering, though, if this was intended to be a paranormal romance or an urban fantasy with romantic elements. There wasn't quite enough of a romance between Aiden and Mac to really work for me as a romantic relationship, and the HEA struck me more as a Happily For Now.

That would usually have me leaning more towards the urban fantasy end of the spectrum, but the next book features the succubus we meet in this book as the main character. That has me leaning more towards the series being intended as a paranormal romance. An argument could be made for both, but not being able to really tell definitely messed with my expectations, and my lack of satisfaction with the romance affected my feelings about the overall reading experience.

Wanted: Undead or Alive by Kerrelyn Sparks

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Love at Stake, Book 12
Rating: 1 Star
Length: 374 Pages
Formats: Mass Market 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.



Left Me Wanting

Phineas McKinney has fought the good fight since Malcontents stole his life and turned him into a vampire. He's been rockin' the Love Doctor persona of Dr. Phang since then, making all the undead ladies happy, but after a few years of that, it's gotten kind of old. Phineas wants what so many of his friends have. Love. Family. Commitment.

It doesn't matter that his professional life is super sweet right now, or that all sorts of attention is rolling his way since he started doing the commercials for the vampire's newest fusion drink, Blardonney - half synthetic blood, half Chardonnay. That, on top of his security job, has set him up right. But he's still feeling that emptiness inside him. That need.

Going undercover on a job for MacKay Security and Investigation has him playing turncoat in the hopes of catching Corky Courrant, current leader of the remaining Malcontents. The setup was going well until the self-proclaimed Queen Corky got away from Phineas and the security team sent in to catch her. When fresh intel reaches the vampires about Corky's possible location, Phineas heads to Wyoming to try to track her down.

Problem is, Phineas is a city vamp, born and raised...and killed and raised again, so he's going to need a bit of help in the form of one vampire-hating, prickly werewolf named Brynley Jones. She knows the area, it's where her pack lives. Phineas has some hot memories of Brynley from when they first met. Memories like how strong and proud she is. How her eyes remind him of a cerulean blue sky he can no longer see. How much she loathes vampires in general and him in particular.

Yeah, that last one is a problem. But he needs her help, and if working with the lovely but caustic woman as they spend time in very close quarters ends up leaving his heart feeling like she's taken a stake to his chest, well then...so be it. After all, love hurts.

~*~

I haven't read a book in the Love at Stake series since Secret Life of a Vampire, the sixth installment, but I am familiar with the series. I enjoyed several of the earlier books, appreciated that it was lighter in theme than my normal paranormal romance reading, but had some darker elements that appealed, too. Almost nothing about this book appealed to me.

Not only did I find the plot one dimensional and the story absurd, but I thought the main characters...and more than one secondary and ancillary character...had the emotional maturity of average twelve-year-olds. And frankly, while I commend Sparks on writing a romance that crosses racial lines, I would have preferred the characterizations of both Phineas and his brother had they not been limited to sad, overused punchlines in off-color jokes. It would have been very nice had they been defined by something more than a mess of egregious racial stereotypes.

I felt the dialogue was adolescent and unrealistic and the relationship evolution between Phineas and Bryn raced from contentious to lusty to love with such alacrity that it gave me whiplash. The humor, a strength in other books of the series, was juvenile in this one...though I have to admit, one scene with Phin and a particular item of Bryn's did make me laugh out loud. Character actions and reactions lacked logic and I struggled to find any sense at all in some places.

Why does Phin need to stock up the cabin and sleep in the basement in Wyoming? He can teleport (and does) back and forth between there and New York any time he wants, with no apparent drain on his energy. Why does Bryn care about her father's feelings about her being with Phin? She banished herself from her pack five years ago with no intention of ever going back, and sacrificed her relationship with her sister for her freedom. For that matter, what does she fear her father would do about it that she hasn't already done to herself? Illogical stuff like that, prevalent in the book, drives me bonkers, even when it doesn't have a large impact on the overall story.

I know this series is wildly popular and my opinion is in the minority. I had fun reading several of the earlier books, too. Hell, I still chuckle to myself when I think about Angus MacKay checking under his kilt every time he teleports just to make sure all his bits made the trip. That's still funny to me. After this installment, though, I think my reading tastes and preferences have diverged a bit too far from where this series is now to consider reading any more of it.

A Lady's Revenge by Tracey Devlyn

Genre: Historical Romantic Suspense
Series: Nexus, Book 1
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 448 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.



Luck Be a Lady...Spy

His assignment was simple: slip into the dungeon of a chateau in France where the female spy known only as the Raven was being held and liberate her, then bring her home. The Earl of Helsford and noted secret service cryptographer Guy Trevelyan didn't know the Raven had been brutalized for days after her cover was blown. He wasn't expecting - couldn't have conceived - what he and his best friend and partner Danforth find in that dank nightmare of a dungeon.

Tortured beyond recognition, the person could hardly be considered human, let alone female.

When Guy finally recognizes the shattered face of the person chained, suffering, on a butcher's bloody table, his whole world explodes. His life will never be the same. She is Cora deBeau, childhood friend and younger sister of the very man watching his back in that hellhole. The one woman he can never have, yet can't help but want.

So close to being compromised after days of unrelenting torture, Cora struggled to hang on, her keen mind comforting her with the knowledge that rescue was on its way. That it came in the form of Guy Trevelyn was more than a surprise, as she had thought he was nothing but an administrator for Nexus, the group of international spies she had been a part of for the past three years.

She would happily table the surprise if it spelled her freedom, ignore for now the thought that Guy seeing her broken and abused tore something inside her. He is the one man she can't forget, the one who sees her as nothing more than the precocious child she used to be. And he will always be the one she wants to view her as all woman.

Even as he rescues her from hell, reunites her with her brother and brings her home, she knows he can never be hers. Three years have changed her. Sacrifices were made for her country. And she knows one of those sacrifices won't stop hunting her just because she was rescued. Valère is a power-hungry monster who will want to make her pay. He'll be coming for her and Guy both. The Raven knows.

~*~

If you're looking for a historical romance outside the norm, look no further than this series debut by Tracey Devlyn. The book is historical romantic suspense, which is new to me, and both the male and female lead characters are spies. No shrinking violet virgins and swaggering peacocks here. Except maybe as cover stories. And the book opens with Guy rescuing Cora from some fairly heinous torture. Now that's one way to hit the ground running on an emotionally charged read.

I liked the opening and I enjoyed the plot of the book, as well as the concept for the series. Set in the early 1800's, Nexus is working to contain Napoleon as he tries to gobble up all of Europe. The spy angle, as well as the action, gave the historical a fascinating framework that I can't recall reading before. Throw in a traitor and a psychopath and the book did not lack for a meaty storyline.

As a huge fan of strong, independent female characters, I loved the idea of Cora's character, woman spy. Her response to her torture brought to mind the effects of PTSD, which I thought was a nice, realistic touch. I would have loved more of a glimpse of her life in France, even in flashbacks (which I don't usually favor), to have a better grasp of how her life as a spy worked.

I did have some issues when it came to her choices in her relationship with Guy. She was fairly intent on pushing him away because she couldn't handle him being shunned by society because of her time in France. Without any input from him on the matter. It smacked of needless self-sacrifice and that always annoys me.

Guy, on the other hand, was great. I loved that he's a cryptographer, more on the brainy end than the brawny, a trait sorely overlooked in heroes, I think. I love that he had such a strong history with Cora and couldn't fight himself when he woke up to the fact she was no longer a child. All of that, everything that was Guy, appealed to me.

There were a few things about the storyline that weren't as much fun. I didn't think the big shocker was all that shocking when it was revealed. It seemed to me just something that made sense for wily and evil men to try to do, but everyone was so shaken by it that I felt I missed something.

It wasn't the only time I felt that way, either. I was also a little confused by Valère's characterization. He kept referring to a desire for sexual dominance and referencing a sexual past with Cora that indicated she satisfied that need...but that didn't quite jive with his dialogue and actions whenever they shared a scene. It gave me a fairly muddled picture of him as the villain and made me question what his sexual proclivities had to do with him being the bad guy. It just seemed unnecessary, and as it was only sketchily defined, suspect for its inclusion.

The pacing throughout the story felt a little inconsistent to me, and there seemed to be an inordinate amount of travelling done by the characters, a lot of back and forth and back again. There were also a couple of moments in which highly intelligent spies didn't make the brightest decisions. That always bugs me.

Overall, the romance worked better for me than the suspense elements. I enjoyed Guy and Cora together very much. They just fit well, made sense as a couple, and oddly enough that's not always the case. The story could have been a little more streamlined, but I did like the plot threads that were left dangling. There are mysteries yet to be discovered in this series, danger to be had, and espionage to be done.

Upon a Mystic Tide by Vicki Hinze

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Seascape, Book 2
Rating: 2 Stars
Length: 375 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Bell Bridge Books via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



Not as Magical as the First

Dr. Bess Cameron is an excellent psychologist, counseling those who call in to her radio show on all matters of the heart. It's a career that fulfills her. One in which she excels.

Of course, if the station owner or her listening audience had any idea that she was in the middle of an acrimonious divorce and had been separated from her husband for years, she'd be out of a job. But that is a very closely held secret. Or it was, until a complete stranger calls and reveals that secret on air, throwing Bess' life into even greater turmoil.

She doesn't know who Tony is, or how he got his information, but she's completely shaken. She turns to a couple of good friends for support and ends up standing in their art gallery, staring at a painting that touches something deep inside her. It calls to her, drawing her to Maine and the Seascape B&B. She has no idea why she's so certain, but she's absolutely positive that she will find a precious sliver of peace there.

Private investigator John Mystic still loves his wife, knows he failed her as a husband just as he failed a dear friend as an investigator. He refuses to divorce Bess, though, until she agrees to take alimony, and she's being unreasonable on the matter. Now that news of the divorce has been made public, he's even more determined to make sure she's taken care of, no matter what it takes.

If he has to follow her to Maine and camp out at Seascape with her until she agrees to his terms, so be it. He just wasn't quite as prepared for dealing with a meddling ghost named Tony.

~*~

While the first book in this trilogy totally blew me away and appealed to me on many levels, I struggled with this second installment. Part of the problem is my own fault. I was pleasantly surprised and unprepared for the mystical elements and fabulous romance in the first, but I was expecting them in this one, and they just didn't live up to the expectation.

I was wise to Tony's story and his influence at Seascape, so that influence wasn't quite as mysterious here. It also lacked the darker edges of potential threat that kept me so off balance the first time around. He stuck his nose in a little too much for me, as well, until he seemed more like a secondary character than the briefly glimpsed guiding hand he was in the first. For me, less is more when it comes to Tony.

Then there were the main characters, Bess and John. I didn't like them and I hated the relationship conflict that was belabored throughout the book. That conflict is prevalent in second chance romances, one of the reasons I'm not a big fan of the theme.

These two characters supposedly love one another, always have, but they destroyed their relationship on the first go-round because they were completely incapable of honest communication, refused to show any sort of potential vulnerability, and wouldn't know how to express an honest emotion if it was beating them over the head. Like I wanted to do to them both. Often.

That's not relationship conflict, that's cowardice. I don't find emotional cowards to be all that romantic, and it was the main issue between them throughout the whole book, coming up in the story again and again with equal intensity and fervor. The unnecessary angst of it all overwhelmed the good points to such a degree that the romance was an utter fail for me.

Had there been a more gradual arc of acknowledgement, communication, and resolution throughout the narrative - and there could have been, there certainly were enough issues - I would have felt much differently about the whole relationship between them. I would have liked the characters more, too. Bess is supposed to be a psychologist, after all, but there was no professional light turned on the shadows of her personal life. And John was oblivious to the concept of healthy relationships. He could have used her professional advice, instead of letting his case come between them for so damn long. Man, they frustrated me.

Parts of this book were deeply emotional and poignant. Not all of it was disappointing. The town and the characters in it were just as charming as they were in the first book, and the plot threads surrounding the missing persons case John's been stuck on for years were interesting, if a little too abruptly resolved. The writing, too, was just as strong and the magic just as warm and heartening.

Unfortunately, not even all of that could balance out how much I disliked the relationship conflict or how disappointed I was in the main characters and their romance. But it did leave me with hope for the next book. I'll go in with fewer expectations, maybe, but I do believe the magic can be recaptured.

The Seascape Series:

 

Worth by Adrienne Wilder

Genre: M/M Urban Fantasy
Series: Gray Zone, Book 2
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 220 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.


It's a Mad Bad Crazy World

There's nothing Liam wouldn't do, nothing he hasn't done to protect and care for his two younger brothers. His stepfather is a drunk, sadistic bastard and Liam is all that stands between him and the tattered remnants of their innocence. His own he traded to insure Chris and Kevin keep theirs as long as they can.

Liam does what he can to assure his brothers don't hear, even as his screams echo in the shadows along the broken streets of the Gray Zone. He's been brutally raped, beaten, cut, burned...his body sold over and over to feed his stepfather's perverse hungers and seed his vices. He's been used and abused by sick, brutal men. And he'll keep taking it, knowingly, for as long and as often as it takes to keep Chris and Kevin safe.

It's not like there are a lot of choices in the Gray Zone, that colorless, hopeless strip that's stuck between the shimmering lies that humanity still tells itself and the gritty darkness of the Dens of the Kin, more honest but infinitely more dangerous. It's not a happy life, it's sure as hell not a good life, but it is life.

The night Liam first sees the Lesser-Bred Jericho is the first time he feels a spark of sexual need and hunger. What he can't fathom, what makes no sense to him whatsoever, is how Jericho looks at him. Not like he's a freak, scarred and ugly, or that he's dirty and over-used, shattered and alone, though Liam knows he's all those things. But with an unearthly beauty, Jericho stares at him as if he's...precious, special, and deeply, deeply desired.

It's a gift Liam doesn't trust but once felt, can't escape, and it hearkens a change that will alter every aspect of the desiccated life Liam is struggling to live. It will change...everything. And in so doing, will threaten the two children Liam has worked so damned hard to protect.

~*~

There's something about this series that just levels me. In fact, I hadn't actually planned on reading this book after the first left me feeling so shaken and disturbed. I like dark fiction well enough, but this series goes beyond such tepid terminology. It's a gut-clenching, brutal peregrination through a land stripped of anything recognizable as humanity, desiccated, devastating. Horrifying.

And then there are characters like Liam. His unwavering concern for Chris and Kevin and the conscientious care he provides them in the face of the wretchedness of their home life made for some truly captivating reading. I fell in love with him and his siblings, felt every ache and pain that the trio suffered throughout the book, every bloody, caustic wound inflicted.

Liam's life in the Gray Zone leading up to his becoming is the driving force of the plot, and it is so damn heartrending. The nightmare he endures to protect the brothers he loves is inconceivable, and the layers of betrayal he faces are enough to leave grown men blithering like idiots. How his heart and soul stayed as pure as it did is a mystery, but it made for some damn compelling storytelling as the tension and unrelenting sense of impending doom grew larger and larger.

I love the world that Wilder has created for this series. It's gritty, deadly even, but brilliantly imaginative. The Kin, a dragon race that serves as the impetus behind the existence of the Gray Zone in Atlanta, hasn't had an active role in the series to date, but their Lesser-Bred children have been more than enough to carry the series so far.

Make no mistake, the Kin aren't human in thought or deed, and neither are the Lesser-Bred once they've transitioned. They feed on sex, blood, and flesh. Period. Their needs and their habits are often...uncomfortable when viewed through lenses colored with human sensibilities and morality.

On the other hand, children are valued highly by Kin. They don't smell of sex, so they are not used for sex, and they are never victimized by Kin or Lesser-Bred. Ask Liam how he feels about that particular fact. Holding that up against the life Liam has been forced to lead, and I can't help but feel the monsters of this series aren't the ones with scales. The dichotomy makes for a powerful and intriguing theme that's being threaded through the series.

This isn't a series for the faint of heart, and it's not one I'd recommend for romance-only fans. Though the it's listed as M/M romance, I disagree with that categorization. Dark urban fantasy, yes. Very, very dark. There's a lot of sex (warning: not all of it consensual), but this book has even less "romance" than its predecessor, and neither book ends in anything resembling a Happily Ever After for its main characters. It's just not that sort of world.

Frankly, I'm utterly and completely addicted to it. The writing is strong, the world is complex and the characters reach in and claw out a nest for themselves in my heart. At this point, I can't not read it. I can't wait to see what Wilder comes up with next, even though I'm fairly confident I'll feel nearly gutted and disturbed by parts, if not all of it. Personally, I'd like a closer view of the Kin than we've gotten so far, but whatever story it is, I'm in. I'm absolutely all in.


The Gray Zone Series:

 

Because of You by Jessica Scott

Genre: Contemporary Romance
Series: Coming Home, Book 1
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 262 Pages
Formats: Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Loveswept publisher Random House Publishing Group via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.





War is Hell

He felt the pull, that elemental attraction of a man to a woman, from the moment he saw her in the bar the night before he and his men were to be deployed overseas. The kiss they shared would linger in his mind for a while, a fond memory of a slice of rare sweetness. Where Sergeant First Class Shane Garrison was going, he knew there was a lot of heat and sand, but nothing remotely resembling anything sweet.

It'd been so long since Registered Nurse Jen St. James had felt like a sexy, attractive woman that she hardly recognized the sensation when Shane kissed her. Battling the cancer that she sacrificed a breast to survive has left her scarred both physically and emotionally, but that one kiss sparked something in Jen she hadn't expected. Desire. It's just her luck that it's for a man sworn into service to his country and anxious to deploy so he can get back to his job.

This deployment, though, isn't quite like anything Shane has ever experienced before. Not only are tensions in the platoon running high thanks to a superior officer doing his best to be as incompetent as possible, but the missions are hot and extremely dangerous. And long ago he learned a valuable lesson about missions, knew that no matter how well trained, how good your intel, how prepared you are, sometimes the only difference between situation normal and SNAFU is luck.

Pinned down on a dusty Iraqi road, taking heavy fire and desperate for decent cover, Shane's luck runs out.

Jen hadn't expected to see Shane again so soon, and she would have given anything not to have seen him quite this way, clinging to life at the base hospital where Jen works. When he comes to and is informed of the condition of his body, Jen realizes that her feelings for Shane aren't going anywhere, but the man he used to be, a man who defines himself by his calling to serve his country and his dedication to the men under his command, may be gone forever.

~*~

It's almost a pity that the cover of Scott's authorial and series debut is so damn pretty, because it in no way prepared me for the gritty and realistic emotional journey that takes place between Jen and Shane over the course of the story. It is a far more weighty and significant a tale than I was expecting. At turns tense and heartbreaking, sometimes emotionally devastating, Because of You is complex and layered, with touches of humor here and there to lighten, in a very small way, the intensity of the jagged, corrosive price of war on those who fight it.

Jen may not be a soldier, but her battle and tentative victory over breast cancer helped define her character. I really enjoyed her, and commend Scott on a realistic portrayal of the effects losing a breast could have on a young woman. There were moments when her issues with her self-image overwhelmed her and moments when she was just so damn strong it killed me. Through it all she was a calm voice of reason in a storm of male uncertainty and panic. She's a character I ended up respecting a hell of a lot.

I wasn't as enamored with Shane on a personal level. Oh, I absolutely believed, beyond a shadow of doubt, that Shane's physical and emotional response to his injuries is very true-to-life. Capturing that in all its grim and uncomfortable glory is a testament to Scott's writing ability and her own military experience. Shane was a painfully realistic character, believable to the extreme, damaged, complex, and complicated. I just didn't like him.

His over-inflated sense of personal responsibility bordered on a god complex...or a martyr complex...and both lost its appeal long before his surly attitude and self-pity waned. If I had been expecting a different sort of story, something less light and sexy like the book cover suggests, I could have focused on the awesomeness of the writing for his character, because I gotta say, it was absolutely spot on. Because of my expectations, though, I just ended up annoyed with him and feeling like his attitude dampened the effectiveness of the romance in the book.

It is a grim reality that soldiers sometimes don't come home alive. And sometimes, those who do don't come home in one piece, either physically, mentally, or both. Terms and phrases like post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor's guilt have become a part of our modern lexicon for that very reason. That's the reality of the world we live in. Scott captured that, wove it into a story of survival and recovery, and created a sweeping and emotional tale. It just wasn't quite the tale I was expecting. It was just, for me, a little too real to be consistently entertaining.

There were also a few plot points left unresolved, points that I hope carry over into the next book in the series. Personal and professional problems concerning Shane's friend and CO Trent Davila and his wife Laura started as ancillary plot threads in this book, but there was almost nothing in the way of clarification or resolution provided. The conclusion of the book was fairly open-ended in regards to them, but very dire.

I enjoyed those story threads on their own, but the addition did seem to muddy the waters towards the end of the book and impinged on the conclusion of the arc of the romance between Shane and Jen. That, combined with the fact that I was totally unsatisfied by the lack of resolution relating to Shane's over-inflated sense of responsibility kept this book from being a completely satisfying romantic read.

As a realistic, gritty, and devastating emotional journey of two hearts battered by their own personal battles as well as external conflicts both foreign and domestic, though, it was an extremely well-written and gripping book. Whoever suggested to Scott that she should try her hand at writing professionally deserves a medal. And for Scott, who has served her country in ways I can't even begin to truly comprehend, well...she probably has some already. And she has my respect and heartfelt appreciation for her service, as well.

The Darkest Day by Britt Bury

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Immortal Heat, Book 1
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 288 Pages
Formats: Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Forever Yours publisher Grand Central Publishing via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.


 Has Some Highs and Lows

You think you've got it rough? Try being Izel Campbell, the only firstborn Campbell born female. She's the McCall, "Son" of the Battle Chief, but she's a Poet Fionn, not a Warrior like her father was before her. She's also lived her twenty-five years of life without feeling one single emotion. Ever.

She's flown a couple of thousand miles to Scotland on the vague hope her very powerful grandfather can help fix her. She found his home, which is great, but he's not there, which isn't. Bigger problem, someone else is.

That someone is Battle Chief of the Kerr clan, immortal Pookah warrior Kelvin Kerr. A tall, gorgeous male who for some reason has every intention of removing her head from her shoulders, though from what he says, he feels really bad about it. Because that's a consolation.

Before he has a chance to behead her, Izel is plunged into hell, and all those emotions she has never felt crash into her at the same time. Terror. Sorrow. Anger. Helplessness. Combined they become a physical agony she doesn't understand and has no ability to process.

Kelvin has no idea what's happening to the woman he's sworn to kill, but suddenly he feels her pain and watches as she changes right in front of him. The lass suddenly lights up his senses like nothing he's ever felt before and two things become painfully clear. The first, she's his fated female, but he doesn't want to think about that. Especially as the second thing eclipses everything else.

Izel Campbell is mortal. A full human. As her species was thought to have become extinct decades ago, she's also the only human.

With that inconceivable revelation, Kelvin's goal changes. In the shadow of a prophecy he doesn't fully understand, he can no longer kill the Campbell as he's sworn to do. He has to protect the last human against a world of beings who will want to eat her and deliver her to a destiny he doesn't know if she'll survive.

~*~

Some reviews are just harder to write than others, and this is one of those hard ones. Bury's debut has a lot of good points. I loved the concept for the series. There were a few elements that reminded me of Kresley Cole's Immortals After Dark series, but it has enough individuality and uniqueness to stand on its own merits. I also loved the idea of humanity being extinct...or mostly extinct...and the world being home to all the things that go bump (and apparently bump-and-grind) in the night.

Yeah, that's probably me just being twisted or some such psychobabble. What can I say? I'm over humanity being the go-to species for fictional focus.

The writing was another plus for me in this debut. Bury has a gift for quip-laden humor and snappy comebacks. I enjoyed Izel and Kelvin most when they were sniping at each other, or when their sardonic inner thoughts practically dripped disdain. I wouldn't say there was a large amount of humor in the book, but there was enough snark sprinkled throughout to entertain me.

I had some problems with the plot, though, and a couple of the story elements hit up against some of my personal preferences in reading. I wish the world had been better explained or fleshed out more. It felt like I was getting a lot of terminology, but not a clear understanding of what the words meant and how they fit into the world. That made reading the book feel a little like looking through a telescope; I could see and understand what was going on where I was looking, but out of my direct field of vision, everything was still a murky black.

The beginning of the book was one of the two largest stumbling blocks for me, story-wise. So much happens just as we meet Izel and Kelvin that the first quarter of the book was a bit of a chaotic jumble for me, and some things poked at my reading preferences. I'm a little tired of the fated mate trope. I've read it done well, I've read it done poorly, but my biggest issue is that I've just read it too often. It wasn't done badly in this book. In fact, I liked that Kelvin avoided thinking about it as much as possible and wasn't too keen on the idea. I'm just tired of it being used at all.

More of a disappointment were some of Izel's points of character. When we meet Izel she's a relatively plain-looking, unprepossessing female who hasn't come into her "power" yet. Before we even get to shake her metaphorical hand, she becomes the most important find on the planet, the last of her kind, and a prophesied Major Power in a coming confrontation. If that's not enough, she also goes from being average looking to stunningly, heart-stoppingly gorgeous. And she's a virgin. Of course.

The characters and story do settle and start to mesh as the book progresses, but a little too much of the plot stays focused on the romance threads. I would have appreciated a comprehensive and layered plot-driven conflict to add depth and dimension to the read. I also would have enjoyed more page time for the secondary characters, because they were a couple who were truly bright spots in the book. I couldn't possibly have loved Ryo the witch more than I did, and the Fionn warrior Ramsey was sorely underused.

There were, however, a sequence of scenes in the second half of the book that didn't work for me on any level and seemed to so contradict what readers had learned about the main characters and the evolution of their relationship to that point that the whole of it struck me as one horribly egregious plot contrivance. So much so that I was genuinely annoyed by everyone and everything in the book for several of the subsequent chapters and it colored my overall impression of the book.

Without a doubt I believe there is a foundation for a strong and imaginative series here, and several characters with a huge amount of likability have some great story potential. There just weren't quite enough good points in this particular book to fully countermand my dislike of the things that failed for me personally. I would love to see where Bury takes the series, though, because with a few different characters and a few different elements here and there, this series could really rock my world.

Quotables:
"Don't flatter yourself. I basically prefer your company over death. Well, that and-" she tapped her chin and looked to the sky- "nope, just death."


She was not stomping away and throwing a fit like a five-year-old. She just happened to enjoy pounding her feet on the ground while she walked, that's all.


"The McCall title was given to describe one with a unique heart and great power. It was you all who thought that the only powerful creature must be male."

Touch of Power by Maria V. Snyder

Genre: Fantasy; Young Adult
Series: Healer, Book 1
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 390 Pages
Formats: 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.



An Imaginative and Creative Touch

Avry knew, when she healed the girl, that her days of running would be over. She knew that her actions would be reported and she'd be executed for being a healer. But she couldn't lie there and listen to a child drown on the fluid in her own lungs. She just couldn't. So Avry did what she was born to do.

After the plague that killed two-thirds of the population of the Fifteen Realms, the survivors placed blame at the feet of the healers who were rumored to be responsible, rumored to have denied their healing to those who had fallen ill. Since then, her kind has been systematically hunted and killed. It didn't matter that the rumors were wrong, that the healers didn't actually start the plague. It didn't matter that the remaining public was misinformed about a healer's ability to cure plague victims.

So Avry knew saving the child's life would mean the end of her own. She had no idea that she'd be rescued by a small band of men in desperate need of a healer. She had no clue that her journey with them would take her across the Realms, or that their race against time stirs the eddies of conflict in an approaching war, as remaining leaders start to maneuver for control and power and Realms are realigned.

She didn't know her fate would become intertwined with that of a man she'd just met and couldn't trust, or that she would be called to save a man she considered a vicious criminal. She had no idea that her life would never be the same. Then again, Avry thought she'd be dead.

She'll find out that death would have been easier.

~*~

It's been several years since I read Maria V. Snyder's Study series. In fact, The Study Series Bundle was one of the first things I downloaded on my very first Kindle after a friend lent me Poison Study in paperback. Over three years and fifteen hundred books later (no, not all of them read...yet), I couldn't miss out on her new series, despite it being outside my normal preferences.

I very rarely read in the Young Adult category, so I can't even say for sure that this is a Young Adult book. I don't know what the parameters are for such a label and wouldn't presume. I can say that if I were a young adult, or a parent of one, I'd consider the material in this book age-appropriate. Avry is twenty, but the subject matter and the content are such that it would work for late teens.

I enjoyed the creativity and imagination of the world building. I loved Avry, who is strong and sharp and loyal...but also fallible and flawed. She makes a solid narrator, and I was thoroughly entertained by her wonderful logic. Even though I would have loved a glimpse or two into the head of the bane of her existence, Kerrick of Alga, I found the first person perspective worked well for the storyline.

It's an ambitious storyline at that. The journey that Avry takes with Kerrick and crew isn't just a physical one. There's a large amount of personal growth involved as well. I liked the scope and depth of the tale, if it fell a little flat for me in execution. My biggest problem was with the pace and the tone of the narrative. Avry is a fairly dry, sardonic character who has spent three years living as guarded a life as possible. She's not exactly one for a lot of emotional expression.

Unfortunately, as she's relating the events of the story, those events seem to unfold in as emotionally monochromatic a way as possible, with little to no inflection. Things traumatic and horrifying are related to the reader with the same emotional impact as Kerrick finding yet another cave or the group deciding who takes first watch. For all that the story is interesting on a mental level, it had almost no emotional impact on me at all.

That severely impacted my appreciation for the threads of romance betweeen Avry and Kerrick, which completely failed for me until very late in the book. Everything was so unemotional that I just couldn't sense any connection between them at all - except for general aggravation - until the last few chapters of the book. Compounding that issue was the abrupt transition of the romance. The enemies-to-lovers theme is a favorite of mine, but Avry and Kerrick rode their mutual antagonism so far into the story that the flip, when it came, was too abrupt and too late to feel it balanced out the preceding strife.

Also a concern was the somewhat uneven amount of description in the book. Some aspects of the world, the characters, the political situation, and more are glossed over in almost perfunctory fashion, other things are described in such detail that it became overwhelming. The pace of the book overall is fairly slow and steady, but there were times when details became extreme and bogged down the narrative.

Still, I enjoyed the story. Perhaps not quite as much as I did the Study series, but it's early yet, and I did enjoy Avry enough to want to find out what happens next in this lovely fantasy series. There were just enough plot threads left dangling to keep me wondering, but not so many that I felt this book was incomplete. That, along with the imagination and creativity of the world and likability of the characters, is what will draw me back to this series in the future.

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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