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Chase Me by Tamara Hogan

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



I'm Really Digging This Surprising Series

They are among us, but we will never know they're there. Incubus, siren, werewolves, Valkyrie, and more, all paranormal species, all living right beside us. They stay far under our radar, governing themselves, living their lives. They have completely integrated into our world. 

They had to after their ancestors crash landed on our planet.

Werewolf Gabe Lupinsky hasn't even had a chance to celebrate being named interim Director of Physical Sciences at Sebastiani Labs before professional thorn in his side, archaeological wunderkind, and Valkyrie Second Lorin Schlessinger interrupts an Underworld Council meeting with shocking information. Patching in from the Isabella archaeological dig in northern Minnesota, where she'd gone to prepare the dig for the coming summer, Lorin informs the various leaders that she's found something remarkable, something that may be the key to a thousand years of their history. 

And then she promptly breaks every biohazard protocol that exists while getting the mysterious artifact on camera. Though accidental, Lorin's touch causes the box to open, and with that one mistake, Gabe's stellar summer plans become a several months-long study in frustration and discomfort. He's been sentenced...er...reassigned to supervise Lorin's work in all things related to the dig and the artifact. At the site. In the wilderness. With the bugs. And dirt. And appalling limitations to personal hygiene. 

Not to mention the nearly criminal disregard of anything resembling detailed, ordered, methodical reporting and records keeping. But that has more to do with an obstinate Valkyrie than the wilderness. 

To top off the joy that this nightmare of a summer is going to bring him, Lorin is about as fond of Gabe as Gabe is of her. When he tells the Valkyrie Princess that he is going to be her site supervisor for the whole season, Gabe has no doubt just how welcoming her reaction will be. Then again, working together won't be a problem if they end up killing each other before they discover the first thing about that mysterious artifact.

~*~

Well, damn, when it comes to having expectations tossed out the window, I don't think I've ever seen it done as thoroughly as Tamara Hogan did with this second installment of the Underbelly Chronicles. Nor do I believe I've ever read a second book that is both so dependent on and yet different from the series debut. And that is in no way a criticism, because frankly, this book really impressed me.

I liked its predecessor well enough, I suppose, but I had some issues with the main characters and the romance didn't do much for me. The world was interesting and Hogan's creativity and originality were great, but I wasn't completely won over by that story. She leveled me with this one.

Weaving science fiction story elements into an edgy paranormal romance series? Yeah, I didn't see that coming. I don't know if I missed some major series setup in the first book or if this aspect of the Underbelly Chronicles was just introduced to readers in this installment, but that took me completely by surprise. Though it did answer a few of my lingering questions about the Big Bad from Taste Me.

And while I was already captivated by the depth and unique complexity that Hogan brought to her world in that book, Hogan ups the stakes by giving us Gabe and Lorin for this one. I loved them. I adored them. I couldn't get enough of them.

Gabe is a delightfully atypical werewolf with his obsessive Type A personality, appreciation for the urbane, and science-loving geekiness. He lives in a world where werewolves have a whole host of problems, including a bigoted blowhard for an alpha and Underworld Council First. As a race, werewolves are suffering from a lack of genetic diversity, and Gabe's family has been particularly hard hit. One sister can't hear, another was born without a leg, and Gabe has vision problems.

The fierce Valkyrie Lorin, daughter of the Council's Valkyrie First, is everything Gabe is not. She's headstrong, passionate, fiery, quick to anger and just as quick to forgive. Her race demands she blow off energy at regular intervals or her head and heart could explode. She's usually moving too quick, thinking too fast, leaping too far to take the time to be a meticulous records-keeper, and she doesn't have the patience for trying. Or for anything resembling convention.

The two are about as different as the sun and the moon and they were awesome together. I have a soft spot for Gabe, who is so adorable at times with his uncertainties. Then again, Lorin is exactly the kind of brilliant, strong female lead that I most favor. Their relationship starts out strictly professional and intensely rocky, then quickly morphs into something with real teeth. 

There is snark and attitude and one-upmanship. Lust, frustration, and aggression. Wit and wisdom and passion. Respect and trust and love. The evolution of that relationship and all its inherent baggage made for a rock-solid (no pun intended) romantic read that tickled all of my Happy Reader buttons.

Meanwhile, the dig and the story surrounding the artifact Lorin found, not to mention the glimpses of the alien Big Bad and his nefarious scheme, all blend and work together to provide several very good external conflicts and a few plot-driven crises that kept me completely engaged in the world and the characters' lives. 

I don't know where Hogan has been, but she writes like a seasoned veteran with an eye towards huge, rich, decadent storytelling. Her characters are three dimensional, like living, breathing creatures, people who suffer and triumph, who feel petty jealousies and passionate pleasure and everything in between. And the world in which they live is just an imagination away from our own. 

The only thing that kept my enthusiasm for this book tempered was my uncertainty over how I felt about the space ship and aliens elements. I loved these main characters and I adored their story, but the interloper from off-planet, while absolutely original story-wise, wasn't quite a seamless fit into this storyline. Part of my issue with it, though, may be nothing more than the jarring surprise of his existence, a surprise that lingered long after his introduction.

Still, there were so very many good points in this sophomore effort by Hogan. I definitely preferred it over its predecessor. I'm very glad, though, that I read the first book. Not only did it appease my OCD tendencies, but it set the framework and provided an introduction to the world and the plethora of characters that are included in each book. The stories themselves may be practically mutually exclusive, but both the world and the characters in this series are complex and well integrated into each book, and it helped me immensely having that first one as a step on the way to this one. 

I am truly excited to revisit this world and spend more time with this author's work. It's one of the most, if not the most, unique stories I've read in awhile. This was more than a four star read for me, but the science fiction was just a bit too jarring to take it to a four and a half. 

Quotables:
"Why buy the pig if you just want some sausage?"

This morning, she wanted to give every person with a penis a FastPass to hell.

The Underbelly Chronicles:

  

Taste Me by Tamara Hogan

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Underbelly Chronicles, Book 1
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 370 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle



An Intriguing and Unique Debut

They are among us, but we will never know they're there. Incubus, siren, werewolves, Valkyrie, and more, all paranormal species, all living right beside us. They stay far under our radar, governing themselves, living their lives. They have completely integrated into our world.

Lukas Sebastiani runs Sebastiani Security, and the incubus has a problem on his hand. Rock star Scarlett Fontaine has just returned to town after a long tour and no sooner has her tour bus parked than paranormals start being viciously attacked. And Scarlett, a siren with a voice so haunting and powerful it could make you her slave, looks like death warmed over.

Lukas will do whatever it takes to keep Scarlett safe, even if that means protecting her from himself. They had one night together once, and he's felt guilty about it ever since. She stripped every ounce of control he had and he saw what that did to her. He would never allow that to happen again. But guarding her, keeping her safe, not touching her...it is the sweetest torture.

Scarlett is wiped out. The tour nearly wrecked her, and she's been running on fumes for months. Now she's home, all she wants to do is sleep. She definitely doesn't want to deal with Lukas. Her heart still hasn't recovered from their past.

But Scarlett has bigger concerns, too. Someone is attacking her friends and Lukas is worried about her safety. Ironic, really, because the only time she ever feels totally safe is with him, and being with her is the only security measure he refuses to approve.

~*~

As far as unique series go, Hogan is on the right track with this dark paranormal romance series debut. The world she's created here, while maybe a little short on detailed definition and explanation, is intriguing and complex. It has a very original backstory and it's well-populated by a wide variety of paranormal creatures. Not every element was a complete win for me, but the concept and setup for the series were delightfully fresh and exciting.

I also have to give kudos to Hogan for creating a Bad Guy who freaked me the hell out. It wasn't the severity of the violence committed or the scope of the crimes, though that was significant. In this case, though, it was the opposite. Hogan created a villain who had moments of vulnerability and likability, and there were glimpses that even made him sympathetic. And yet he was still just...blankly conscienceless about his vicious crimes. The way he viewed his actions and his victims, reflected on it all after the fact, was completely chilling.

It was also completely effective. It added a rich, slightly horrifying suspense thread to the many-layered plot. I wish all the other elements had as powerful an impact.

As much as I enjoyed the world and think the characters in it were fascinating and fairly high up on the scale of awesome, I was a little overwhelmed by the sheer number of them included in the first part of the book. There were so many it made it hard to figure out, then remember, how they all fit into their world. And when you throw in fleshing out a serious plot-driven conflict and a sexy, hormone-laden romance, there was so much going on I struggled to keep everything straight.

The romance was the weaker storyline for me. It's my own fault, really. I'm not a fan of second-chance romances to begin with, and I hate when one of the characters in a romantic relationship takes it upon himself or herself to decide to be the martyr, sacrificing his or her desires for the good of his beloved (or be-lusted) because the beloved can't handle their power/strength/money/[insert whatever other completely insulting assumption of weakness here].

Hell forbid Lukas actually ask Scarlett what she can or can't handle or does or doesn't want to handle. That would be too respectful of her independence, intelligence, and maturity. It's far better they both be miserable.  Yeah.

I certainly don't find that romantic, endearing, or even tolerable, but worst, I don't feel it's gripping relationship conflict. It's annoying and insulting, and any hero or heroine who does something like that completely loses my vote for HEA until he or she has a major attitude adjustment. Unfortunately, that whole issue sort of tainted my feelings for Lukas as a character and his relationship with Scarlett for quite a while as I was reading.

This debut is quite a long book, and it did start out fairly slow for me. I felt buried at first, and frustrated in places. Still, it was so nice to sink into a debut that felt fresh and offered something new, and to be completely fair, Lukas does manage to redeem himself in his feelings for Scarlett. Hogan's world is dark, sexual, intense, dangerous, and very, very compelling. I enjoyed visiting. Enough to come back.

The Ugly Duchess by Eloisa James

Genre: Historical Romance
Series: Fairy Tales, Book 4
Rating: 2 Stars
Length: 384 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Avon Books publisher HarperCollins Publishing via Edelweiss. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



Didn't Work For Me

Theodora Saxby suffers no illusions. She's heard the whispers, knows very well what she looks like. Theo has no qualms about acknowledging that her profile is mannish and she does not have the plushest of physical attributes that are gracing the ballrooms this season. She's adjusted as best she can, crafted her wit to snag a husband who could at least find her interesting.

All she needs is a polite introduction to the one on whom she's set her sights. After all, she's not without benefit to a potential suitor. She'll inherit a vast wealth and her dowry will be substantial. And Theo has long-range plans. As soon as marriage has given her some freedom, she'll immediately set about dressing as befitting her form and coloring. That alone should help, though she knows she'll never be beautiful.

She needs the help of her childhood friend, the boy - now a handsome young man - with whom she had been raised. His father the Duke had kindly taken in both Theo and her mother after Theo's father, the Duke's best friend, died. Now, as soon as she convinces James Ryburn, heir to the Duchy of Ashbrook, to introduce her to the dashing man she wants as a husband, everything will be just fine.

Theodora Saxby had no idea that it would be James, her dear, beloved James, the same James who persists in calling her Daisy no matter how hard she tries to get him to stop, who would sweep her off her feet and marry her while her head is still spinning. She didn't know that two blissful days as his wife would be the very best time of her short life. And she could not possibly have guessed, or ever, ever imagined, that it would end in such a brutal fashion, betrayal flaying the heart from her chest, cruelly stripping away everything in her life that she had thought was good, true, and honest.

Leaving nothing in its path but the broken wings and ravaged plumage of one ugly Duchess.

~*~

This book gave me fits. Eloisa James is proven in her craft, writing sweeping, emotional historical romance. She can certainly tell a captivating tale. Still, several elements of this story didn't sit well with me at all. There were moments early in the book when I thought it was going to be okay, when I saw James and Theo's relationship as they first married. I felt comforted by the genuine love between them, even knowing it would have to come crashing down at some point.

Of course I loathed the Duke and think he should have been gut shot and left to bleed out slowly, but regardless of the horrendous betrayal that's disclosed in the opening chapter, James did love Theo, and despite his guilt, did marry her with true feelings in his heart. That went a long way with me. And I liked Theo, too. I appreciated her forthright honesty and her sense of humor.

Then it exploded in a hail of emotionally devastating bad choices made by all.

From the moment Theo finds out about the theft of her inheritance all the way through to the end I had my jaw clenched and my hands fisted on my Kindle. And honestly, maybe even surprisingly, not all of my animosity was pointed at James.

Oh, don't get me wrong, quite a lot of it was, but not all of it.

James Ryburn was a hideous emotional coward who lacked the testicular fortitude to stand up for what he believed in or fight for who he loved. He then compounded that egregious character flaw by embracing his inner reprehensible narcissist, spending seven long years gallivanting around the high seas like some hapless cad, thinking only of himself.

Then again, Theo kicked him out and told him quite clearly that she never wanted to see him again, even informed him that he should remove himself from the country. He took her at her word, so she was certainly not blameless. She was also not always a completely endearing character. For all that she felt horrible when labeled rudely for her looks, she was known to be rather sharp-tongued and openly critical of others. After the betrayal her personality often seemed unappealingly cold and biting.

Of course, James does return to England eventually. Problem is, when he is face to face with Theo again he is an arrogant, contemptible, cavalier ass, lacking in even the merest glimmer of contrition or apology for past bad acts. Sure, he spouts some romantic drivel about Theo being the other half of his soul, but by that point all I could do was gape in astonishment, because he continues to regard his seriously bad judgement and worse actions as inconsequential.

He also seems to suffer from the unconscionable belief that everything will be just fine between him and his wife as soon as he can toss her skirts up once or twice.

For all that I detested the man at that point in the story, there were still moments when Theo and James together was a good thing, even moments (however brief) when their romance worked for me. And honestly, I'm glad they found their way to a Happily Ever After. I'm just disappointed - and in some cases, horrified - about how it all developed. I needed more than what the book provided to help me get over all the horrendously bad choices and actions. Unfortunately, this book just wasn't for me.

Relentless Pursuit by Adrienne Giordano

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: Private Protectors, Book 4
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 265 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.


Billy and Kristen Shine Together

Billy Tripp knows he messed up. He forgot to renew his passport and ended up on his boss' shi...er...shiitake list. Now, instead of feeding his inner adrenaline junkie in some balls-to-the-wall, no-guns-no-glory operation overseas, he's stuck working at Taylor Security's equivalent of a behavioral time-out in a swank hotel in South Beach.

The thrill-a-millennium assignment among the rich, ridiculously tanned, and infamous? Babysitting a necklace, an assignment that's the mental equivalent of watching grass grow. Disgruntled and bored, tension is starting to ride Billy hard. And that's particularly dangerous, what with Billy's unfortunate...issue.

Then she walks into the ballroom, and Billy can't help it. He stares.

If you had spent the majority of your life feeling like a fat Amazon compared to your perfectly gorgeous, party-hard little sister, you'd have self-image issues, too. At least, that's how hotel heiress and manager Kristen Dante rationalizes the hate-on she's got with her height and fat...er...lush figure, so being stared at by Mr. Tall, Gorgeous, and Monosyllabic is more than a little disturbing. Fortunately her job doesn't allow her to stand in one place for too long, and she's called away to deal with an issue before she totally freaks out about it.

Unfortunately, Billy approaches her while she's dealing with a security problem, his interest piqued by the flashing lights of the cop cars in the parking lot. One of the hotel guests has reported his car stolen and as soon as Billy hears that, Kristen can practically see his ears prick in interest.

Suddenly, Kristen can't help but wish she could go back to his silent stare routine, because frankly, the only thing worse...and sexier...than a quietly intense Billy is a take-charge, mouthy Billy. Which, she realizes with amused horror, may actually be his default setting. While he's giving her the full court press and she's torn between duty and attraction, Billy's investigation into a growing list of car thefts starts pointing to an international smuggling ring.

That's about when whomever is responsible makes their tragic, fatal mistake. They try to take Billy out of the equation. Now they're going to get a good, hard look at exactly how former Army Ranger Billy Tripp defines "relentless pursuit."

~*~

I'm so glad I didn't eschew picking up the third book in Giordano's series when I had the chance to read Risking Trust a few months ago. Not only would I have totally missed out on the sexy fun of this romantic suspense series, but I might never have come in contact with the incomparable Billy Tripp. And that would have been a real shame.

Irreverant, incorrigible Billy Tripp. Part adrenaline junky, part lunatic, both a patriot and a man who loves his mother, Billy Tripp suffers from and is embarrassed by what has been diagnosed as borderline (yeah...not so border) ADD. He's hyper, often hyper-aware, and is much better at blowing things up and pushing people's buttons until things explode than he is at controlling his mouth, his attitude....even his actions.

He's like a frenetic pit bull in a kick-ass warrior's body, and when he does focus on what - or who - he wants, he is relentless. And he wants M.H. He wants her bad.

All of that means more fun for me, because I thought Billy was awesome. It may be less fun for Madam Hotness herself, because Kristen spends most of the book torn between mortification at Billy's obvious attraction and wild behavior, and getting a warm, sexy little thrill over his endearing, honest, non-filtered thoughts and antics. Their relationship was a total blast.

Between Billy's mental and behavioral issues and Kristen's problems with body image, I thought Giordano did an excellent job creating two perfectly imperfect and often difficult characters who were just right for each other. It's rare for me to like female lead characters as much as their male counterparts. I did here. Not only did I think Kristen's personal issues were realistic, they never once diminished her character's independence or professional confidence, nor threatened her unshakable belief in her own intelligence and her abilities as the manager of an exclusive hotel. I liked that.

Giordano may write gorgeous alpha men, but she also writes confident, powerful women who are quick to rely on their brains and recognize their strengths, using both to their full potential. The way that Kristen managed Billy - a guy who desperately needs a firm hand to know where the limits are - was nothing short of fantastic. And the way he manages her insecurities was nothing short of brilliant.

On their own, they're layered, fallible characters with personality traits in both the plus and minus categories. Together they fit like exquisitely crafted puzzle pieces, as if they were meant to lock together in perfect compliment to each other's needs. Their relationship was more than the sexy heat that Giordano brings to the story, though that surely didn't hurt. But they were just as remarkable working together as they were loving each other.

Held up against all that, the suspense elements of the storyline would have had to have pretty remarkable to snag much of my attention in this book, and frankly, that wasn't the case for me. I'm sure car thievery, even on the scale indicated in this book, is a serious issue worthy of attention, but it didn't do anything for me personally and added very little in the way of suspense to the read. I ended up not really caring one way or the other about who was stealing the cars. Or why.

Usually, when either the suspense or the romance elements of a romantic suspense read go awry for me, it tempers my overall appreciation of a book. That wasn't what happened here. I loved Billy and Kristen so much, and so fully adored every moment of both their personal and professional relationship, that I couldn't help but like this book. The suspense elements may not have added anything to my reading experience, but it didn't detract much from it, either.

I've become a fan of this series, more specifically the way that Giordano creates and evolves her characters. Hot alpha males, intelligent, competent women, and both with their own quirks, peccadilloes, and insecurities...what's not to love? Add in a more personal or emotionally significant suspense thread, and this book would have hit every one of my Happy Reader buttons. Even without it, this was a great read.

Frat Boy and Toppy by Anne Tenino

Genre: M/M Erotic Contemporary Romance
Series: Theta Alpha Gamma, Book 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 186 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Riptide Publishing via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



Cute, Fun, and Oh So Sexy

As far as paradigm shifts go, consciously realizing you're gay because your fraternity brother's naked bum looks like something you'd want to tap is fairly conclusive. Up until that blinding moment, Brad had never let himself think about why the girls in high school and college have never really done it for him. Not that he didn't try lots of them out. He did. So many, in fact, he feels bad about it.

Especially now, when it's finally become so clear that he was just hiding from his sexuality, and if anyone treated his sisters like he's treated women in his past, he'd kick their asses. That is one humbling revelation.

So, okay, he's gay. He can deal with that, he supposes. He has no idea how he's going to come out to his fraternity, though. Not the frat who practically worships at the alter of booze and gives medals for chick boffing. It sucks that he was so good at building up his jock reputation all these years. He doesn't even particularly like playing football.

He does, however, like Sebastian. Sexy Sebastian, TA for Brad's history class, is one put-together, good looking, openly gay man. Just watching him as he reads essays, wearing glasses that add a whole other level of academic hotness to his appearance, gets Brad's blood flowing - and all of it southward. Now that he's finally embraced being gay, there is no doubt who he wants to embrace first. But getting Sebastian to notice him is a whole other issue.

Sebastian is a little bit of a snob when it comes to the third year history students. They're not serious enough about the subject to warrant him learning their names before the end of term. So he doesn't. Except for Brad, anyway. That young man is definitely too hot not to pay all kinds of attention to. Between that gorgeous jock body and those cheekbones of his... Yeah. Pity he's straight, because Sebastian would totally do him.

Except Brad approaches him one night after a party and gives Sebastian his own personal paradigm shift. No way is Sebastian not taking the guy up on it. But no matter how out of the world the sex is, Sebastian is afraid Brad is going to fall for him. And that is going to be a problem, because Sebastian doesn't believe in love. Doesn't even know what it is.

~*~

Well, hell. Obviously I haven't been paying close enough attention, because my first experience with author Anne Tenino is by no means her first book. Using this little gem as a yardstick, I have definitely been missing out!

I loved Tenino's authorial voice. It's got a lovely a mix of witty sarcasm and tongue-in-cheek humor that always appeals to me. It comes through with wonderful clarity in the narrative and imbues both Brad and Sebastian with a sense of lighthearted sexiness that keeps this story far from any significant amount of pathos or angst.

I really enjoyed seeing a coming-out tale that wasn't mired down by a bunch of emotional dreck. There's certainly a place for the serious, emotion-pummeling stuff. I have enjoyed many a thoughtful, heartfelt, intense M/M read, but I also love getting a healthy dose of temperature-raising smutty goodness with lots to chuckle about besides. And that is exactly what Tenino offers readers with this one.

From first moment of Brad's self-revelation all the way through to the frat boy's coming out announcement there were tons of scenes that just tickled me to no end. I was especially fond of Brad's discussion with his family and the scene in which he catches Kyle up on various options for gay sex. All the scenes between Brad and his sisters and Sebastian with his were also big hits.

And I adored Collin. He was a scene stealer from the...well...very first page, actually, but his character also allowed for a wistful poignancy and a touch of seriousness to balance out the rest. I am dying to read his story.

Make no mistake, either, Tenino definitely writes smoking hot, erotic sex scenes. Even solitary ones. She did so with a deft hand, stirring fearless lust with hopeful yearning to create an erotic playground for her yummy characters. I definitely eyed my hairbrush differently this morning. And that was actually a little disturbing.

The tale definitely stays closer to the surface as far as story depth and complexity goes. There's not a lot of conflict - neither internal nor external - and everything progresses rather quickly. What conflict does exist is resolved without any significant trauma or is handled with a sharp eye for the lighter tone of the story.

Neither main character has a ton of depth or dimension, just enough to flesh them out a bit and individualize them. Most of the story evolves from Brad's perspective, so his character feels a bit more robust than Sebastian's by default. Both he and Sebastian are likable, though, and both are defined enough to keep them from feeling cardboard. This just isn't the sort of story that provides any deep character studies or sweeping emotional sagas.

It didn't need to be. It entertained me by being no more or less than exactly what it is, an erotically-charged, fun, light read. It is chock full of cute moments, richly flavored with amusing moments, spiced up with scorching hot moments, and even, when you include the end, touched with sweet moments. I enjoyed it a lot.

The Last Victim by Karen Robards

Genre: Paranormal Romantic Suspense
Series: Dr. Charlie Stone, Book 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 336 Pages
Formats: Hardcover, 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.


If Loving Garland is Wrong, I Don't Wanna Be Right

Seventeen-year-old Charlie adored her best friend Holly Palmer. The popular girl had befriended her on her first day at her new school, where they would be sharing a locker for their senior year. That's huge. Holly even invited her to spend the night when Charlie's mom forgot to pick her up after the Friday night movie they went to with two other girls.

It was a great night. Except she knew she shouldn't have drank so much. She was worried saying no would ruin her shot at popularity. Still, she paid for it. Charlie had to race to the bathroom in the basement, purging booze and bad decisions with each shuddered retch.

That's where she was when the screaming started.

Fifteen years later, Dr. Charlotte "Charlie" Stone is one of the premier psychiatrists specializing in the study of serial killer pathology. Working at Wallens Ridge State Prison, Charlie is conducting a forensic assessment of several serial killers incarcerated in their Special Housing Unit. Michael Garland is one of them. Charismatic, gorgeous, and deadly, he amuses himself by being difficult when they're in session, so when a guard interrupts to let her know she's got two FBI agents in her office, Charlie is more than ready to bring the session to a close. Until she finds out why they've come for her.

A vicious predator is on the prowl along the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and his signature is so chillingly similar to that of the Boardwalk Killer, the monster who slaughtered Holly, her entire family, and four other families fifteen years ago, that the FBI are convinced he's back. They want Charlie to return with them to the latest crime scene, then stay and help them catch him.

They are asking for more than she can give. She is in the process of turning them down, or offering to help from afar, when life in the prison takes a deadly turn. Michael Garland is shivved as he's being transported back to his cell, and he bleeds out even as Charlie desperately tries to save his life. A deeply disturbing event for anyone, but for Charlie, who isn't quite like everyone else, it's much worse.

In an abrupt about-face, Charlie's on her way to North Carolina in the company of two FBI agents. She has to go. She has to get away from the prison for a few days. You see, Charlie can still see and hear Michael Garland. To Charlie, who has always seen ghosts, he's as real as he ever was and will be until he crosses over. Facing her own fears to catch a monster seems a better choice than dealing with that one.

~*~

I'm totally in love with a serial killer. Yeah...never thought I'd think, say, or type that in my life. Then I met Karen Robards' latest character creation, Michael Garland, and I swear, it was love at first snarky come-on. In my meager defense, I don't actually think he is a serial killer. Just...um...convicted and sitting on death row...before he's murdered and turned all ghostly. Still, I could not possibly have adored him any more if I tried.

Spectral crush aside, I had moments where I wasn't quite sure what to make of this book while I was reading it. It starts out like an in-your-face, gripping, tension- and terror-filled psychological thriller. A vicious serial killer is slaughtering families, then stops for fifteen years for reasons no one knows, and is now apparently back to bloody business. Psychologist/criminal profiler/FBI team gear up to pit their wits and resources against the heinous killer to identify him and bring him down.

Love it.

But then Garland is killed, Charlie sees his ghost, and the book takes a very different turn. First off, Garland isn't a scary ghost. He comes off as more tough guy than crazy killer guy. And a mouthy, sexy (can't believe I'm saying that, either), horny, smart-ass, too. A pain in the ass sort of ghost. A ghost who makes lewd comments to Charlie, but who shows some vulnerability and even a protective streak if you look hard enough.

Charlie, in the mean time, is freaking the hell out that he's showing up all the time, keeps getting caught talking to him, and tries everything she knows how to try to get rid of him.

I really wasn't expecting to be quite so entertained by a book about a serial killer, but I definitely got caught up in the humor more than once. I don't think it's ever blatantly comedic - that probably would have been in poor taste, all things considered - but many scenes were amusing and the rest were just flat-out awesome. I loved every single second that Garland shared a scene with Charlie. So much so that it made the scenes in which he is not a part seem a little bland in comparison.

Which is actually a problem.

Lest I forget, and maybe more's the pity, but the book is about more than how hot Michael Garland is. Looking at the suspense elements on their own brought into focus a couple of things that didn't sit well with me about the tale. Charlie and Garland are both powerhouse characters with a ton of personality, but the FBI team that comprised most of the secondary characters in the book never seemed to have anywhere near as much presence on the page or impact in the story. They kept fading into the wallpaper instead of commanding their own space, and I never felt their characters were well-defined enough to have any depth.

The plot threads for the investigative arc of the suspense, though, were quite solid. If you were to remove the paranormal elements from the whole of the book (though that would've been a tragedy), you would still have a gripping psychological thriller. One I would have preferred see evolve a little differently, maybe, but it is still a strong, solid, intense read.

The paranormal elements took it to a completely different level of awesome as far as my reading enjoyment level goes, but it didn't always mesh well story-wise. I prefer a bit more focus on the psychological aspects of the killer's motives and motivations in my suspense fiction. I was a disappointed we didn't get more insight there. I was more than disappointed by the final chapter, which had what I consider a fairly egregious summation scene.

I dislike summation or "wrap up" scenes on general principle. They gloss over all the dangling plot threads and wandering story elements and tie them off during a brief discussion between two of the characters, or between the narrator and the reader. That may tidy up the story and help to answer some unanswered questions, but they always strike me as awkward and unnatural. It's a too-easy out, when the story would be more interesting if the provided information is discovered as a natural result of the featured investigation. In this book, especially, it could have made the suspense seem more substantive in the overall had it been better handled.

Those minor grievances aside, I can't remember the last time I was as happy to turn the last page of a book as I was when I finished this one. Not because the story was over. That part was a major downer; I was heartily and thoroughly entertained and wasn't ready to have it end. What thrilled me to pieces in this case was the note that said there are more books with Charlie and Garland to come. Now that was fantastic news that made my day. I just hope it's soon.

Lucky in Love by Jill Shalvis

Genre: Contemporary Romance
Series: Lucky Harbor, Book 4
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 341 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Forever publisher Grand Central Publishing via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



I'd Move to Lucky Harbor

Lucky Harbor's good girl Mallory Quinn hasn't gotten far in life by being the one everyone depends on to handle...everything. She's responsible. Trustworthy. Nice. And okay, a little bit of a pushover. It's starting to drive her crazy, actually.

Stopping at the Eat Me Café after her shift at the hospital as a favor to her mother, Mallory makes it inside just as a vicious storm starts to rage through town. First the power fails, then a fallen tree takes out the window, and before she and the two other diner inhabitants, waitress Amy and town newbie Grace, realize it, the three are huddled up together behind the counter, bonding over mutual fear and chocolate cake. And their exciting evening is just beginning.

When a couple of thuds on the outer wall draw Mallory's attention, she nervously ventures out to see what's causing it. Caught by the storm and wounded, lying feet from the door to the Café, is the handsomest catch in town, Mysterious Cute Guy. Mallory rushes to help him (or...uh...bean him with Grace's cell phone), and the three women manage to get him into her car to take him to the hospital. That's when her two new besties go completely off the rail and start urging her to walk on the wild side. With the nearly unconscious Mysterious Cute Guy, in fact.

Maybe it's all the chocolate she ate (inhaled), or how the restrictive bonds of always being the good girl are starting to pinch, or the way MCG looks at her when he finally opens his eyes, but for some reason, Mallory finds herself suggesting a date to a gorgeous guy who's got his bleeding head in her lap. One who may not actually remember agreeing to the date when he's fully conscious.

Hey, that's Lucky Harbor for you. She really should have at least asked for his name first, though.

~*~

Jill Shalvis is one of my favorite authors for light, sexy, awesome contemporary romance. Her books always seem to hit the high points in humor, great character chemistry, and enough solid story to thoroughly entertain. The Lucky Harbor series in particular has really delighted me from the first book, and I'm thrilled Shalvis has taken us back to that quirky coastal town for another set of three.

Where the sisters in the first three books gave us the mouse, the steel magnolia, and the wild child, it appears new best friends Mallory, Amy, and Grace will be more the good girl, the bad girl, and the lost girl. It's the good girl's time to shine with the hunky Ty Garrison, former Navy SEAL medic, current private contractor with the government, on leave as he recovers...or tries to...from an injury he sustained on his last assignment.

Shalvis creates likable, three dimensional characters in both Mallory and Ty. Both have their own personal demons that give the characters depth and add conflict to their individual lives. Both are at a point in their lives that engendered its own push-and-pull in the burgeoning relationship between them. She's a good girl looking to embrace a few bad girl traits, he's a guy...looking to keep his mind off his bum leg. The fact that she's a resident and he's a visitor intent on leaving also set up a lot of the long term conflict, and that felt fairly organic to their situation, if not entirely original or complex.

Still, for all the solidly good things about the book and the characters, this was my least favorite story in the series so far. I wanted to love it, but it felt, to me, that there was some sort of intangible magic missing from either the characters or their relationship. Each of the sisters' books had a spark, a unique sense of something special, but this one fell a little flat in that regard. It was a solid, sexy romance, but it was a fairly traditional solid, sexy romance - in both characters and story - and I'm not used to anything resembling traditional when it comes to Lucky Harbor.

It's not a bad read, I don't think Shalvis is actually capable of writing a bad read, but the plot wasn't as layered nor did I find the story as touching or as well-rounded as its predecessors. The characters didn't seem quite as perfectly suited to one another as other couples have, either, especially not at first. That issue smoothed out a bit in the second half of the book, and I ended up enjoying the latter half much more because of it, but until then, I struggled.

The presence of Lucky Harbor as a wacky little town full of insane residents, one of the major draws in the first three books, wasn't as prevalent, and everything that makes the town endearing seemed muted. Maybe part of that was the shift away from the marina and the sisters' Bed & Breakfast, and it was just an issue I had with new and unfamiliar settings, but it bothered me a little.

I was also bothered by how quickly Ty and Mallory get sexual in this book...and doesn't that just make me sound the prude. Ugh. Anyway, Shalvis has an innate ability to raise the temperature of her romances to sizzling with smokin' hot sex scenes. She writes them very, very well. That said, stumbling over one so early in this book, with two characters who just met, sort of turned me off of them both and took the starch out of my appreciation for the subsequent relationship for a good long while.

Despite my issues with this installment of the series, I couldn't be happier that readers are getting another set of three books in Lucky Harbor. I adore the place and the people in it. Shalvis has created the perfect little home away from home, one that entices readers to crack a book and visit for a while. These books make me laugh a little, love a lot, fan away the sexy heat (or revel in it), and embrace the bonds of family, friends, and lovers. It's a fantastic place for a series of romances, and I can't wait for my next trip.

Obsession by Debra Webb

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: Faces of Evil, Book 1
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 333 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.



Had Trouble Connecting With This One

When she left her hometown of Birmingham over twenty years ago, Special Agent Jess Harris did everything she could to wipe the South from her voice and strike her past from her life. She excelled in her career with the FBI, became lauded as a criminal profiler, and spent several years being the go-to agent for stopping the worst of the worst. Then came the case that tilted her world on its axis, stripped everything from her in cacophony of bad choices and ego, and sent her hurtling back to the last place she wanted to be helping the last person she wanted to help.

Birmingham...and Chief of Police Daniel Burnett...have a potential problem on their hands, one Jess is both uniquely qualified for and highly trained to help them with, if she can keep a grip on the crushing emotion that comes from losing everything she's ever valued - including herself. After all this time, ten years since she last saw the man, twenty since she loved him, Burnett has contacted her to request her help on a case. He's afraid he has a serial situation on his hands.

Disregarding her last horrible, career-ending mistake, one that handed a vicious serial killer a Get Out of Jail Free card, Special Agent Jess Harris is the absolute best chance Birmingham has for finding whoever abducted four young women and stopping him before he can get another. Hopefully before the bodies start piling up.

~*~

Every once in a while I pick up a book that just doesn't quite work for me despite all the positives it has going for it. Obsession is a well-written suspense novel with a substantial plot and several solid characters. It has a hearty complexity in both internal and external conflict threads and features a sympathetic victim to engage readers and engender emotional connection. The police procedural and investigative story elements felt authentic and organic to the story, and they progressed at a steady and enjoyably readable pace.

In short, this book was a nicely conceived and crafted tale.

It should have worked for me, but it didn't. I have no major complaint about any part of the story, just minor things that bugged me a little as I read. I wasn't crazy about Jess, who, as the main character, struck me as too stubborn and convinced of her own infallibility to be truly sympathetic. There's a fine line between confidence and arrogance, and her personality seemed to waiver across that line more than once.

Not all the time by any means, and I certainly didn't think she was unlikable, but there were a couple of moments when I thought to myself that she obviously hasn't learned from the very mistake that put her career in jeopardy, because she keeps falling prey to the mentality that led her to make it. Then there was a scene in which bad behavior was actually rewarded. That was disappointing.

The romantic elements between her and Dan were also a bit of a downer. On one hand, they did manage to keep their professional focus on the missing girls and didn't let the stuff between them threaten lives, despite the amount of unresolved emotion between them. On the other hand, the emotional tension was a major story element that I felt got a little overplayed given the time they've spent apart and the maturity level they should have for their age. Again, not throughout the book, not even enough to cause a serious negative impact to the story, but enough that it niggled me more than once.

There was a decided lack of any real progress in their personal relationship, and an absence of a satisfactory resolution. This is not the sort of romantic suspense that ends with a Happily Ever After for the main characters. Even though I knew this is the start of a series and wasn't expecting a big HEA moment, I was hoping for more progress than I got after all the angst both characters gnawed on throughout the story. A Happily For Now moment would have been nice.

My biggest issue with this read, though, is one I don't completely understand. I never felt any particular connection to the plight of Andrea, one of the young women abducted and a character we see sporadically as the search for her progresses. Even now I'm not sure why. It wasn't badly written. There was nothing wrong, per se. I just found the scenes from her point of view lacking in suspense and appreciable threat, and my emotions never really engaged for her or the other girls.

It's frustrating having to acknowledge a general feeling of dissatisfaction without being able to pinpoint exactly why. I will say that I felt the scenes that feature contact with the serial killer from Jess' past were some of my favorites in the book. Now that was some plot-driven tension that packed a punch, and the ending of this book had a twist and a shock I wasn't expecting. It got me interested in finding out what happens next.

A warning to fellow cliffhanger-haters: the conclusion of this book is a definite lead-in to the next and could be considered a cliffhanger. Despite my normal loathing of cliffhangers, I didn't really have a problem with it here. This book did tie up all the main plot threads for this story, and I already had the next book when I started this one. That helps.

Lethal Rider by Larissa Ione

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Lords of Deliverance, Book 3
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Length: 464 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Forever publisher Grand Central Publishing via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



Favorite of the Series

And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.
——Revelations 6:8 (KJV)

So. Five thousand years of celibacy, convinced that his virginity was all that stood between life as he knew it and the apocalypse. Thinking one good shag - hell, even a fairly average shag - would turn him into a psychopathic killer on a global scale, Death incarnate, and kick start the end the world. Turns out, he was wrong. Sort of a blessing and a curse, that.

Blessing, because hey, bring on the girls! He's got some serious time to make up for. Curse, because the truth came in the form of traitorous...and, okay, sexy...Aegis Guardian Regan Matthews. The female wormed her way into his home, then forced herself into his bed. She drugged him, then took him. Against his will.

Him! Thanatos! The fourth bloody Horseman of the bloody apocalypse and a nightmare feared by all with a soul and a good many things without!

To add enraging insult to heinous injury, his siblings Ares and Limos, also known as War and Famine, took him down and took him down hard. For eight and a half months they've kept him immobile, feeling every moment of the curse that plagues him, aware but unable to fulfill his obligations. He's got daytime television, which is torture enough on it own. Occasionally someone reads to him. And he's got a lot of time to think.

A lot of time to rage, actually. A lot of time to plan down to merciless detail exactly what he's going to do to Regan when he's free. Kill her, of course, use her body as she did his, definitely. Though...uh...not in that order, obviously. Maybe then he can banish the woman from his head and get back to stopping Pestilence, the Horsemen who used to be his beloved brother Reseph, end the world as they knew it. But first...freedom.

Nearly nine months pregnant with Thanatos' child, Regan has no doubt that she will die at the hand of Death. She will do everything in her power, though, to make sure the child is safe. Regret and shame over what she did to Thanatos still make thoughts of him dangerous ground, but she's comforted by the knowledge that he's being kept out of commission until the child is born.

Imagine her surprise and terror, then, when he shows up in the middle of one of the most secretly guarded locations in the world, Aegis headquarters. Awake. Aware. And seriously, mightily, unimaginably pissed off.

Telling the male you betrayed that he's going to be a father and it is his child, not his virginity that is his agimortus isn't exactly a conversation she's in a hurry to have. Especially as neither Regan nor anyone else seems to know if what she did to Thanatos...and the child she carries because of it, will be the thing that saves the world...or guarantees its destruction.

~*~

Hands down, this third installment of the Lords of Deliverance series is by far my favorite of the series to date. In fact, though I'm loathe to admit it, I didn't completely enjoy the first two books. Certainly not like I did every installment of Ione's Demonica series. I didn't dislike them by any means, but they didn't quite click for me in the same way as Ione's other books have. That is so totally not the case here. I loved this book.

I loved Thanatos and Regan. I loved their relationship. I loved their story. I even loved what went on around the arc of their romance and thought both the relationship conflicts and the external conflicts blended together nicely to form a cohesive, complex, action-packed and emotion-packed read.

The world of this series (the same as Demonica but with a wider scope) has never been an easy place to live, nor a particularly kind one. Thanks to Pestilence, it's now in the process of completely disintegrating, and the damage he's caused is really starting to make everything fall apart at the seams. It's hard to wedge a romance into that sort of world-ending horror and keep it believable, but Ione did a hell of a balancing act in this book, and the devastation that is Pestilence didn't overwhelm me as a reader as it has in the previous stories.

I also thought Thanatos and Regan were simply better conceived and developed main characters than others in the series, with more significant story impact. I not only got a true sense of both of them as individuals, but I liked them both - very much, actually. I rooted for them more than I have others in this series. They were great characters and I enjoyed them both on their own merits.

As soon as they were together, this book shot into overdrive and never let up. The chemistry between them was awesome. Sexy, hot, and deliciously adult chemistry. Yum. And it wasn't just sexual, either, though by all means - major plus there. The banter between the two of them, though, as they matched wits and jockeyed with one another, trading barbs here and there, was phenomenal. Regan definitely had a dry, sardonic wit I appreciated immensely, and for all that Than could be a true nightmare, he was an intriguing mix of snarky bad boy and old, old, old school gentleman that held mighty appeal for me, and the few moments of uncertainty and sensitivity we see kept him very sympathetic.

Their relationship was fraught with several serious, world-threatening issues, and both characters had quite a wealth of personal foibles and peccadilloes they brought to the table, and still the evolution of the relationship between them infused a lot of fun into the story. Their romance felt wonderfully complete and satisfying. I loved everything about them.

Finally, too, we see some of the development among the factions fighting Pestilence that I had been hoping to see, with truths being revealed, agendas being disclosed, and betrayals being discovered. There is always a lot going on in an Ione book, it's never just about the main characters, but I have to admit, this is the first time in this series that all those story elements seemed to genuinely compliment instead of obfuscate the threads of romance. It was all very well done.

There was only one point in this whole book that bothered me. I was very disappointed in how Regan's actions eight months ago were referred to and dealt with, especially in the beginning of this book. I don't care how pretty a coat of paint you slap on it, or how Than chooses to deal with her after the fact, Regan raped Thanatos in the previous book. Raped him.

Not only was the attack not called rape, but the sexual assault seemed an ancillary concern compared to the eight and a half months Thanatos was kept incapacitated. I know Regan was drugged, too, but that doesn't mitigate the fact that Thanatos was forced to have sex against his will. It may lessen Regan's culpability in the rape (that's still a big maybe to me, given her intent), but it doesn't alter the fact that he was raped. I wish the whole matter had been better addressed and handled differently.

Given everything else that goes on in the book, though, my issues with that - which, admittedly, are entirely personal and subjective - weren't so unsettling that I wasn't able to set it aside and focus on the rest of the tale. And not once did it diminish my overall appreciation for this read as my favorite of the series. This was a fun, fantastic, furiously paced adventure all the way through and I thought it was great.


The Lords of Deliverance Series:

  

Hell on Wheels by Julie Ann Walker

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: Black Knight, Inc., Book 1
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 349 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.



H-E-Double Hockey Sticks

It's been three months since Nate "Ghost" Weller had the torturous task of informing his best friend's family that their son and brother was dead. Three months since Grigg's little sister Ali Morgan climbed into his Jeep and fell apart in his arms. Three months of hellish nights remembering the kiss of solace and life-affirming passion.

And he spent every moment of those three months being racked by guilt over the twelve-year infatuation he'd had for the woman. Guilt and self-disgust are tearing him up, but it's the soul-sucking knowledge that's killing him. Nate knows that if sweet, sunny, kindergarten teacher Ali ever finds out what he'd done in that Syrian hellhole where he and Grigg had suffered unimaginable torture, she would never, ever forgive him.

He already knows he'll never forgive himself.

And now Ali has traveled halfway across the country and shown up on his front doorstep in Chicago. Well...less a doorstep and more an armed guardhouse in front of the custom motorcycle shop that serves as the front for the Black Knights, a group of black ops specialists who take the most difficult of the sensitive jobs for the country. Still, Ali's here for a reason, one that has obviously freaked her out and scared her, as she's asking for his help.

Someone has been following her, she was almost mugged, and her home has been invaded, and that's all happened since he saw her last. It's obvious that someone thinks she has something of value, but she has no idea what or who is responsible. Racing to her brother's best friend, knowing full well he's more than what her brother told her he is, seemed the best idea at the time.

No sooner does Nate let her into the Black Knight, Inc. building than it becomes painfully clear that Ali is going to need the Knights' brand of highly specialized help. She's positively neck deep in trouble. Nate just hopes he can keep his hands off the woman long enough to pull her out of it.

~*~

This series debut by Walker wasn't what I was expecting. It had a lighter tone, with lots of intended humor and cute situational comedy moments, a female lead character right out of a Disney movie (including an annoying aversion to any sort of adult language), and a Bad Guy so exaggerated he came off as more a caricature than a character. The whole thing just sort of struck me like a cross between an episode of The A-Team (80's TV show version) and a Katherine Heigl movie.

Until it didn't.

I had some serious issues with Ali's character throughout the book, and I thought the scene featuring the resolution of the external conflict was odd and lacked plausibility. Too, the timeline of some of the major plot points of the story arc were suspect and strained my willing suspension of disbelief. That being said, it was the almost bi-polar tone of the piece that caused me the most consternation. After all, I have a lot of fond memories of The A-Team (which I watched religiously back in the day), and I think Killers was funny. Silly and ridiculous, but funny.

This book seemed to be trying to stick to the same chord, but when paired with story elements and a scene or two that were utterly grim, brutal, and horrifying to gut-wrenching degree, it just couldn't pull it off. The mix didn't work for me. I couldn't quite find that reading groove I need to settle into the story.

There are great moments in this book, though. I loved the secondary characters, especially Ozzie, and I adored Peanut. The ancillary storyline between Frank and Becky was great for amusement...until it, too, took the exit into bi-polarsville. But up to that point it was a lot of fun. The narrative is heavily flavored with pop culture references and the internal monologues and descriptive passages are all about the colloquial language.

That last was both a plus and a minus, though. It was amusing in places, but I prefer that in smaller doses than I got here, and because it was universal throughout the story, I had difficulty differentiating character voices when the point of view of the narrative shifted focus between characters.

And about those characters... I liked Nate a lot. I did. He had moments when he was maybe a little too in touch with his emotions for my taste, as I like my broody, tortured souls to be not quite so hearts-and-flowers expressive, but I'm a total sucker for unrequited love theme. And despite the two-faced tone of the tale, what he went through in Syria was utterly horrific. I felt for him.

Ali, on the other hand, made me want to shake her. She's sharply intelligent, keenly observant, and can handle a handgun for personal safety...which is great. But she doesn't curse (one more h-e-double-hockey-sticks and I was going to be the one to hurl), she's morbidly embarrassed by the idea of her panties being searched, and she's a delicate little girly-girl flower who responds to stress by either crying about it or vomiting over it.

I had trouble relating to her.

The good points of the story were very good. There's a lot of promise in the style and substance of Walker's writing. I especially enjoy the concept of the custom motorcycle business front for the spec-ops Black Knights, because lets face it, the only thing hotter than the bodacious bods of fight-ready former military men is the thought of those bodacious bods, shirtless and slick with sweat, on a thousand or so pounds of roaring bad boy chopper.

Uh...yeah...I think I'll be giving the next book a try.

Quotables:
In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.
—Jose Narosky


Unmentionables?
Whoever came up with that ridiculous term? Underwear that fantastic deserved to be mentioned on a regular basis.


Surly and disagreeable? He hadn't been surly and disagreeable. He'd been noble and honorable. Jesus. Couldn't she tell the friggin' difference?

Kiss of Snow by Nalini Singh

Genre: Paranormal Romance; Alternate Universe; Futuristic
Series: Psy/Changling, Book 10
Rating: 5 Stars
Length: 432 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle

Photobucket

Perfect

He wants her. There's no use lying to himself about that. Hawke aches to possess her with a single-minded intensity that has his wolf starving for the most intimate of skin privileges. But he's not going to take her. He's a mature wolf changling, alpha of SnowDancer, and significantly older than she is. But damn, he wants her.

PsyNet defector and cardinal X-Psy Sienna Lauren is an adult in the pack, and given her past, she's older than her years. She is the ultimate weapon, one that requires unimaginable discipline, and it makes her crazy that the one man she wants, Hawke, refuses to see her as anything but the child she was never allowed to be.

As attacks by an aggressive faction of Psy known as Pure Psy are leveled against SnowDancer and the winds of a burgeoning war start to blow in their direction, Hawke's focus is torn between his pack and his desire for the one woman he refuses to take. His resolve is legendary, but even he has to see that a woman who can fight for her pack, risk her life for them, is old enough to decide who she lets into her bed.

She has to do something to show the stubborn wolf she is more than the child he sees. Even if it endangers the woman she's become.

~*~

I can't tell you how many times I've highly anticipated a book in series only to have that book disappoint in some way or another. You'd think I'd know better than to ever let myself feel that anticipation, but it's a lesson I seem to need to keep learning. Or maybe it's books like this, those rare awesome books that are highly anticipated...and manage to deliver for me on every front...that keep anticipation burning.

Don't know. Don't care, either, at the moment. I'm too busy being thrilled with this book.

Obviously, as I'm still reading this series at the tenth book, both the series and the author are favorites of mine. Some of the books in this series have been more beloved than others, and I do slightly prefer Singh's Guild Hunter series to the Psy/Changling series, but both are two of my favorite ongoing series and I highly recommend both for fans of well-written and imaginative paranormal romance/urban fantasy romance.

I loved everything about this book. The complexity of the plot and the myriad of plot threads that Singh wove together throughout the story were impressive. There's so much that goes on, and so many characters involved in so much of it, with a rock-solid foundation built by every one of the preceding books, that I would definitely not recommend a reader new to the series start here.

It could be done, Singh has a gift for condensing necessary exposition and fitting it in well with current developments, but so much of the emotional impact would be lost that it just shouldn't be.

I adored the relationship arc and character developments for Hawke and Sienna in this book. It wasn't what I would call a traditional romance, really, and that's what I love about Singh. She has such a gift for creating stories that fit perfectly with the characters featured in it. Hawke and Sienna have known each other for a while, have battled and locked horns, have struggled against their attraction for years, so the relationship between them is in a completely different place and needed completely different things than, say, Judd and Brenna did in their book.

The pack, the past, who they are, what they're responsible for, what they can do, the issues each have with how they feel, the threat of the Psy, all of that plays a significant role in each character's definition and development, not to mention on their romance. It was frustrating at times (very frustrating at times). It was enlightening at others. There were moments that made me mad and moments that made me laugh. Sometimes it just flat-out broke my heart. For me, though, all the sublimely well-crafted pieces that factored into their personalities and into every moment of their relationship arc worked...perfectly. I loved every second of it.

I was also very much in love with the secondary romance between pack healer Lara and Walker, Sienna's uncle. Where the relationship between Hawke and Sienna was rocky, fiery, raging with emotion, and practically shouting its passion and angst, hurt and strength, stubbornness and pride, Lara and Walker's relationship balanced that with its quiet implacability, its soft moments and tender touches. The frustrations were more internal, the feelings more subdued. That relationship created such a wonderful counterpoint to Hawke and Sienna's point that I can't imagine what the book would have been like without it.

By no means is this book, or any of the books in this series, focused solely on the romance, though. This one definitely provided some forward progression on the Pure Psy threat and the continuing degeneration of the Council and the PsyNet. There are so many, many balls up in the air in this series that a single book can't really touch on every plot point without being six hundred pages long, but there were certainly a lot covered here. Singh manages to keep me guessing on some things, keep me horrified about others, and still manages to introduce new story elements all the time.

Honestly, I don't know how she does it. I don't know how this series, even at the tenth book, feels just as fresh, just as original, just as intriguing and compelling and a thousand times as complex as it did in the beginning. I open a Psy/Changling book and feel like I'm visiting old, beloved friends who I care about very much...even if I wouldn't want to catch a meal with them. In particular, I want to thank Singh for the gift of seeing Lucas and Sasha's newest development meet the world.

I'm so incredibly invested in this series. To me that's the mark of a series that is a step above, one that has just that little extra that makes it stand out among a huge crowd. This, its tenth installment, is perhaps the best of them for me. It certainly did not disappoint.

Quotables:
"Do you really think I'd let you go that easily?"
An implacable glance from eyes that were suddenly decades older than him. "I'm not yours to let go."


"Walker doesn't glare...He just looks at you until you obey."


"You're in my every breath and every thought, intertwined so deep inside me that love's not a strong enough word - you have my devotion, your name branded on my soul, my wolf yours to command. A hundred years? It'll never be enough. I want eternity."

Infected: Prey by Andrea Speed

Genre: M/M Urban Fantasy
Series: Infected, Book 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 376 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: A copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher for review. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



Two Solid Reads in One Great Place

In Infected: Private investigator and werecat Roan McKichon is called to the scene of an ex-cop's mauling to sniff around for clues. His infected status is no secret to the police force he once served, and he's gotten called in on a few "kitty crimes" in the past. In this case, though, Roan knows the prime suspect may just be his lover and business partner Paris Lehane.

If that worry isn't enough, their two-man firm has just picked up a new client, and Roan is on the trail of a missing teen. When he discovers that the kid is a werecat wannabe, the investigation points Roan towards one of his least favorite people and places, Eli Winters and his Church of the Divine Transformation.

Roan can deal with the small-minded fear and bigotry of the ignorant, those who hate him because he's gay...or infected. It's the ones who worship as gods those who are infected that seriously wig him the hell out. After all, the infection is a disease. A painful, life-shortening disease that brings physical agony once a month, steals your dignity and your identity, and threatens the general population. And he'll tell the kid that. If he can find him before he ends up as cat food.

In Prey: Roan and Paris are approached by the last person they'd expect to request their services. The venerable Eli Winters, leader of the Church of the Divine Transformation (or, according to Roan, werecat-worshiping nutcases), informs Roan that several young werecats from his congregation have been murdered and he wants Roan to find out who is responsible.

While Roan tries to find a cold-blooded killer, Paris works his own angle on the investigation, curious as to why Eli has brought this case to them. It's not like there are any warm feelings between the man and Roan. What they find will call into question everything they thought they knew about the zealot and threatens to push Roan into a situation that could more than ruffle his fur. It could end his life.

~*~

I enjoyed my introduction to author Andrea Speed and the two stories that kick off this series, Infected and Prey. It bears mentioning that this isn't a romance series, though the relationship between the main character Roan and his partner Paris plays a major part. While the two love each other, sex is glossed over or mentioned only in passing, and there are certainly no romance novel tropes in the storyline. Romance-only fans should be warned.

While I have a preference for romance in my reading, these two stories really worked for me. The world, while not expansively explained, was a big high point. It's got a real-world feel that appealed to me. Take away the paranormal elements and the plots of both stories could just as easily have fit in any hard-boiled detective novel.

The paranormal elements, though, were another high point. I loved the concept of a population of werecats created by a virus, with that virus spreading like any sort of real-world virus. And these aren't socially acceptable werecats, either. For five days of each four week virus cycle, the infected transform into one of several cat species, depending on the strain of their virus. They lose their humanity and become the predators. The rest of the time they are no more or less human than they ever were.

Hey, I'm a beast five days out of the month, too. I can relate.

The absolute best part of both stories and the most compelling element of the read for me were the characters. I loved Roan. He's a rough, complex, cynical bastard who edges towards bitter, especially when he allows himself to think about the future. In many ways, Roan is the quintessential jaded private investigator, grim and determined but a touch humorless about life. He's also a wounded loner, a sarcastic reprobate, and a closet White Knight.

Paris is definitely the more charming of the two of them. He's everything tall, gorgeous, and yummy, with a sensitive soul and a gentle nature. Fairly ironic considering his strain. His sense of humor is sharp and he's not afraid to use charm, humor, or his stunning good looks as shamelessly as he needs to to get what he wants, for himself or to help Roan.

Together they fit really well, though, each offering an essentially needed piece to the other. A fact that makes certain elements of this story just damn heartbreaking, actually.

While executed very well, the plot-driven investigative elements of both novellas weren't as satisfying to me. They were okay, but I found them more interesting for the information they provided about the world and the effect the werecats have in that world. I also felt the pacing in the middle of both novellas slowed, getting bogged down as each investigation languished. Then evidence would pile up or pieces would start to fall into place, and the pace would pick up through to the end.

I did find it odd at first, then distracting, then bordering on annoying, just how often the fact that Roan is gay is mentioned, referred to, brought up, thought about, or discussed throughout both stories. By basically everyone, but especially by Roan himself. It seemed more of a major story element than even him being a werecat, and that just struck me as peculiar and one of the few things that niggled me as seeming unrealistic.

Realism. Seems an odd word to use in reference to a piece of fiction with a fantasy theme. It's fitting, though.

Speed hasn't pulled any punches in this debut, not when it comes to what it's like to be a werecat, or gay, or...whatever, exactly, Roan is or will be. And frankly, from the very first chapter it's clear that this series is not likely to be heading in a direction that's going to assure the characters any sort of a fairy tale ending. There is definitely a sense of realism in all that, and a sort of hopeless desperation. It's compelling reading, very well-conceived and executed, and I can't help but wonder what comes next.

Quotables from Infected:
"You just cursed him out?"
Reluctantly, he shrugged. "Guy was drunk. Kinda clumsy."
Paris stopped massaging the back of his neck and gave him a mock-stern look. "Clumsy how?"
"He may have walked into a wall while I was trying to handcuff him."
"Just the once?"
"Repeatedly. But he honestly did fall down the stairs all by himself."
"Repeatedly walking into walls can do that to a person."
"So I hear."

"You just can't keep from being a smart-ass, can you?"
"Snarky is my default setting."

Quotables from Prey:
There were so many good reasons for hating people on an individual basis that mass, generic hatred seemed idiotic. Hate a person for who they were, God knows he did, but for what they were? Moronic and lazy.

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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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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