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~Tracy

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All He Ever Needed by Shannon Stacey

Genre: Contemporary Romance
Series: Kowalski Family, Book 4
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 384 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.



Fun and Plenty Sexy

Demolitions expert Mitch Kowalski is a rolling stone, a rambling man through and through. That serves him well, as his company has a diverse and geographically wide-spread clientele. It fits his social life just fine, too, because Mitch is a good-time guy. He enjoys women, all sorts of women, but he's always upfront about the fact that he plays, never stays.

It's been three years since his last visit to hometown Whitford, Maine, but his baby brother broke his leg and can't manage the family lodge until he gets the cast off. Mitch has committed to six weeks of his time while Ryan heals. He's not back in town a day before he steps into the town's diner and meets the new-to-him owner, Paige Sullivan.

Suddenly six weeks in a town full of people who know every last one of his wildest antics growing up...and still gossip about them...doesn't seem so bad. Especially now that he knows exactly how he plans to spend his downtime, and with whom.

Growing up with a weak, needy, wanderlust mother who spends her life chasing after one man or another molded Paige into the independent woman that she is. For two years she's been living her dream, putting down roots, owning her own business, her own tiny little home, dependent on no man for her happiness. As far as Paige is concerned, men are nice enough to look at, but they offer nothing that she...and a few good batteries...can't take care of herself.

Then again, some men are nicer to look at than others, and gorgeous Mitch Kowalski definitely reminds Paige how easy it would be to submit to a man's hard-pressed seduction. And when no-strings Mitch locks horns with no-man Paige, the sparks that flare up between them are hot enough to burn both of their tightly-held convictions right to the ground.

~*~

There are several things I liked about Mitch and Paige's book, not the least of which was the fact that it didn't read like the fourth book in a series. I read the first book over a year ago but missed the previous two, and I didn't know how that would affect the read. It wasn't a problem at all.

Stacey set up the characters and the town with a deft hand, painting them with personality and vibrant color, capturing the small-town charm and the peccadilloes of the residents in a way that felt charming and fresh and new. This could very well have been a series debut.

Mitch and Paige were a lot of fun together. On their own, Paige appealed to me a little more than Mitch did, but I didn't dislike him. He just seemed a bit shallow, more driven by self-interest, especially initially, than I prefer in a main romantic lead character. Paige, on the other hand, charmed me from start to finish. I loved her independence and her determination to make her way and follow her dreams on her own merits. No man needed.

Their road to Happily Ever After is a fairly well-traveled one. It isn't the most original premise. The plot is fairly predictable. He's a total commitment-phobe who never leaves a woman unsatisfied, but always leaves. She's the determined firecracker, the only one who refuses to cave to his many and varied charms. Of course he changes her mind, of course she changes his.

Though there aren't many surprises, neither are there a bunch of big misunderstandings, unnecessary angst, or any of the other trite, ubiquitous relationship conflicts that drive me a little batty.

Still, had their relationship been the only thing going on in the book, I probably would have gotten a little bored. Stacey proved herself more wily than that, though. There are several secondary and ancillary plot threads that pop up throughout the narrative, and secondary characters play an important role in adding diversity and depth to both the cast and the tale. There was also a bit of groundwork laid, I believe, for Mitch's two remaining single brothers and their stories.

This ended up being a really fun contemporary romance. Sweet in places, quirky and charming in others, a little funny here and there, a lot sexy here and there. With the diversity in the plot threads, there are even elements that lean in the chick lit direction every now and then. I enjoyed it.

Stacey has appealing literary voice, and she's created a lovable world that makes me want to pop open an online map so I can figure out how to get to Whitford for a short vacation. The characters feel like old friends. I may have missed the second and third books in this charming series, but I have every plan to continue on from here.

In Rides Trouble by Julie Ann Walker

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: Black Knights Inc., Book 2
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 311 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.



Fun Read...Until Trouble Rode In

It had certainly seemed like a good idea at the time. Rebecca "Becky" Reichert needed a vacation. After Frank Knight, head of the covert special ops team her custom bike shop fronts, shot her down personally and crushed her hopes of ever becoming an operative, she had to get far, far away from the man.

Three and a half years of hoping and yearning, wanting him to care for her like she did him, and all of it wasted, leaving her with nothing but broken dreams and a battered heart. It made it impossible to stick around Chicago while she licked her wounds...and talked herself out of killing the stubborn jerk.

So yes, cruising around the Indian Ocean on her best friend's catamaran, enjoying warm seas and a tropical paradise, all seemed like the perfect recipe for healing. Sort of makes that whole pirate thing even more of a bother.

Being overtaken by Somalian pirates, boarded at gunpoint, and held for ransom shouldn't be all that much of a surprise, really. It's just another example of how Becky's life doesn't ever go quite as planned. On the bright side, she has not a scintilla of doubt that Frank, her brother, and the other operatives of Black Knights, Inc. will be racing to rescue her and her friend as soon as they find out.

The less bright side: she is just as confident that Frank is going to somehow blame her for this whole mess. Again.

~*~

I wasn't sold on the first book in this series. It had some positives, but issues with the inconsistent tone of the tale and some dissatisfaction with the main characters kept it from being as entertaining as I had hoped it would be. Then I dived into this second installment and was pleasantly surprised by both the story and the characters.

Becky and Frank were introduced in the previous book. The groundwork for their relationship was well-laid and their story thread, though ancillary to the main plot, was one of the brights spots of that book for me. I liked them both a lot as characters, and I looked forward to seeing their story transition into the main relationship arc of this book.

I was a little concerned that having the age difference as the main bone of contention between them would start feeling a little one-note if it dragged on too long, but Walker handled it nicely. There were several separate issues, some that were offshoots of the age thing and some not, and they kept me from losing interest or getting frustrated. All told, their relationship issues were believable and realistic within the framework of the story.

At least through the first three quarters of the book, anyway.

The suspense plot threads were a little disappointing. The Bad Guy was a bad guy, all right, but his presence felt almost transitory, and he never really posed more than an academic threat through a good portion of the middle of the story. I appreciated the glimpses of what made him who he was, but would have appreciated more seeing him and his storyline have more impact in the book.

The narrative was much smoother and more balanced than the first, though, which I liked. It didn't sway wildly between too-sweet saccharine moments (mostly absent in this book, thankfully) and moments in the most graphic of war-torn hells. There were still occasions of minor disconnects between the humor inherent in Walker's writing style and the grimness of the storyline, but they were far, far less jarring.

Unfortunately, my biggest issue with this read spanned almost the entire last quarter of the book. There is a very thin line between a story that evokes emotion and one that flagrantly manipulates it. The way in which the story was written to hide details (or reveal them) in certain key moments smacked of emotional manipulation and made some pivotal scenes distasteful. One of them was the initial sexual encounter between Becky and Frank, and that was a huge problem for me.

The way in which the narrative was crafted around that scene made it tread dangerously close to one of my reading red lights (something in a story that is so anathema to me that it stops me in my tracks and can turn me off an author's entire body of work). And it was obviously intended to do so. Then, when the story progresses to the point of climax and resolution, and truths are revealed while explanations are given, the reason behind the angst seemed ludicrous.

Twelve years old? Really?? And not once did Frank entertain the notion (insane as it may be) of having one single, honest, adult conversation with the person to whom he could address a pledge made by a child. Instead that pledge becomes a twenty-seven-year-old albatross around a certain bullheaded idiot's neck, even as it silently strips away any lingering hope for a life with the woman he loves.

Even with that, though, Frank and Becky's story was a more entertaining read for me than it's predecessor. I really enjoyed the first three-quarters of the book and the characters, especially tomboy mechanic Becky, charmed me. The introduction of several new characters also offers a glimpse of the great story potential for upcoming books. I still think there's promise in this series for me, but it's going to have to have an improved romantic resolution. The one here was a killer.


The Black Knights, Inc. Series:

  

This Case Is Gonna Kill Me by Phillipa Bornikova

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: N/A
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 384 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Tor Books publisher Tor/Forge via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



Original World, Likable Heroine

Maybe it used to be a dog-eat-dog world, but since humans became aware of the existence of the Powers - vampires, werewolves, and elven Álfar who have been integrated into society and hold positions of power in the country and around the globe - it's a different sort of feeding frenzy altogether. Not that Linnet Ellery feels that way. She was fostered in a vampire Household and groomed for the law.

After graduating top of her class and passing the bar on the first try, Linnet is excited about her new position with a prestigious White-Fang law firm. At least she is until the case from hell is dropped in her lap, her co-workers shun her, and the managing partners make it quite clear her position is strictly on suffrage. Then the case she's working on takes on a sinister turn.

Her boss is killed and Linnet barely escapes being mauled by a werewolf. And that's just the first in a long line of Very Bad Things that make Linnet feel less than safe and nowhere near welcome at her new job. If, on top of all that, she can't close a case that's been floundering on the firm's books for over twenty years, she may as well just start running and keep on going.

Then again, it's become clear she'd be better off doing that even if she can close the case.

~*~

Bornikova's imaginative debut hits a lot of the right notes for me. I really enjoyed the world she's created, and Linnet was an appealing main character. The mix of urban fantasy and legal thriller worked surprisingly well within the framework of the setting, the plot, and the characters. It was sort of like the bastard child of The Vampire Diaries and The Pelican Brief. With significantly less faux-teen angst.

Maybe most compelling to me is the evolution of Linnet's character throughout the story. She starts off at a severe disadvantage, disappointed in her job, worried about keeping it, and a bit timid with it all. She's fairly meek when faced with workplace harassment and ostracism, as well, as she's desperate to make as few waves as possible.

Then she survives a couple of werewolf attacks in ways that get more and more delightfully outlandish, and instead of being scared away, she starts to really dig in and stand her ground. With each turn of the page she comes further and further out of her shell and became more appealing to me as she did.

She'll never be a prototypical kick-ass heroine. She's a human female lawyer in a world dominated by old school male vampires and several very bad doggies. Her inner warrior-woman is more business casual than leather, a Harley, and a sawed-off. Linnet instead holds her own with judicious use of her sharp intellect, guided by a deep sense of right and wrong, and motivated by sheer persistence. I liked that about her.

I wish the world had been better explained and further defined. I never felt like I got more than a taste of the paranormal and supernatural elements in and of this creative almost-reality. Too many things were hinted at or alluded to or mentioned in passing, too few things given clear, in-depth definition. By the end of the book I had a ton of questions that didn't come close to even being addressed, let alone answered.

Instead, there was a plethora of superfluous information and minutiae in the narrative. The first third of the book in particular was particularly sluggish because of it, and several sections after that got bogged down as well. i.e. While I appreciated Linnet's love for and history with horses for the depth it added to her character, neither my interest nor the pacing of the story were benefited by having every horse in the book (a surprising number of them) identified in detail and equestrian riding described so thoroughly.

And that's just one example among many. A tighter grip on the editing could have smoothed out several rough and bloated spots, sped up the pace, and allowed for heightened emotional impact regarding the plot-driven external conflicts.

Linnet's huge case never really inspired me to care too much about its outcome, either. It was a little too distant, the interested parties a little too hostile, the quagmire of former actions, rumors, and suppositions all stayed just beyond my ability to invest my emotions. It was the case that caused the most plot conflict in the book, both directly and indirectly, but it wasn't a strong conflict for me.

The few pages given to the deposition between the battered wife and the stalker werewolf husband had a far more visceral emotional impact and that was just a tiny part of the overall story.

Romance fans will be happy that Linnet has a love interest that comes into play in the story. I liked him well enough, but I found the vampire David Sullivan's character to be more intriguing to me personally for some reason. I kept hoping for more about him or more scenes featuring him. And his scene in the park was awesome.

This book had its ups and downs, but I have to say, it really is an original and imaginative world that Bornikova created for her characters. Next time I hope to find out more about it. Hell, I hope there is a next time. Linnet really grew on me, to the point that I would be very disappointed if I don't get a chance to revisit her and several other characters who have wormed into my head and made themselves at home.

Kiss of Steel by Bec McMaster

Genre: Steampunk Romance
Series: London Steampunk, Book 1
Rating: 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.


Photobucket

One of My Top Reads of the Year

When her father was murdered and the Blue Blood responsible put a price on her head, Honoria Todd slipped out of the city proper with her younger sister and brother. They disappeared into the rookeries, into the fringe of life on the edge of Whitechapel. For six months she's been using an assumed name and practically starving as she works to the bone to feed her family and keep her brother's illness at bay.

The rookeries have their own version of a king, and no one dares cross the rogue Blue Blood known as Blade. If you're under his protection, no one would dare hurt you. If you're an enemy, the angels themselves couldn't save you. And as Honoria scurries home from her much-needed job, hiding herself along the journey to keep secret where she lives, one of Blade's people waylays her and lets her know a chilling fact. She's been summoned for an audience with the king.

Blade's viral count is dangerously high. He's already showing signs of the first symptoms of the Fade, that slow, inexorable descent into madness that will change him from man to monster, from blood-drinking ruler of the rookeries to mindless, ravening vampire. He doesn't have much time left.

Blade views Miss Todd, and yes, he knows who she really is, as a pawn. He's aware that his most reviled enemy, the member of the Echelon responsible for his infection and, ultimately, his sister's death, is hunting Honoria and her siblings. The price on their heads, most notably Honoria's, is extremely high.

He doesn't know why...yet...but he'll find out. And he'll use that knowledge to get what he wants. That's what he does. That's what he has always done. Then again, he's never before met anyone quite like Honoria Todd. And as he gets to know the fiercely prim warrior that challenges and resists him at every turn, even when exhausted and half-starved, he comes to realize something almost miraculous for it's simple truth. The king of the rookeries, battle-hardened gang leader and borderline monster, has met his match.

But with a voracious vampire cutting a bloody, deadly swath through Whitechapel and his own Fade creeping ever closer, the damnable truth is that it may just be too late for him. It may be too late for them all.

~*~

Wow, what a spectacular debut this was! I loved everything about it. The world was gritty, dangerous, and dark, the characters were full of strength and passion and furious honor...even as they danced along the gray line between black and white, and the story was action-packed, dangerous, and powerfully emotional. Hands down this is one of my top three reads of the year to date. I'm definitely the most excited I've been about a new series in a very long time.

I'm still sort of a steampunk neophyte, so I don't have a large reservoir of material to compare, but I loved the mix of steampunk and paranormal in this fantastic romance. The steampunk elements were fairly low key, which might bother true enthusiasts, but my largest passion is paranormal romance, so this worked just fine for me. I'd even suggest the steampunk-curious try this one to get their toes wet. I think it would be a good way to delve into the genre.

The whole grimy, soot-stained, virus-ridden world felt deliciously fresh and original, and I adored what was a completely new take on both vampire and werewolf mythos here. The ruling Echelon, with their infected blood rites and power-hungry House structure, was freaky-scary in concept. Considering they were knowingly and enthusiastically infecting themselves with a virus that demands blood-drinking and would lead to their eventual destruction when the virus overwhelms them, it all seemed a rather profound statement on the vagaries of vice and power.

I loved it.

And Honor and Blade were fantastic main characters. Honor was everything I could have ever dreamed. Fierce, intelligent, independent, proud, she was both a free thinker and riddled with prejudice and fear, stubborn and generous in equal measures. She sometimes took wild, dangerous risks, throwing herself into battle for those she loved, and she would defend them to the death. She stood up to Blade, a man who is everything that most terrifies her, even when he had her completely at his mercy. I liked her as a person and respected the hell out of her character, even when her obstinacy regarding Blade started to really frustrate me.

One of my favorite things about this book was that it wasn't just me that it frustrated. Blade was quite vocal in his frustration with Honoria, as well. That was a fantastic thing to read. I can't tell you how many times I've suffered with a mind-numbingly frustrating heroine's sundry issues only to curl my lip at the hero's seeming limitless patience for - or obliviousness to - those issues. Sometimes it's just nice to see a hero call her on it, be affected by it, acknowledge it as the head-cracker it is. Blade did that, and I loved it.

That's not the only reason I loved Blade though. He was...it. The perfect "it." Bad boy with a heart of gold, borderline monster with a soft spot for his woman, honorable crook, violent protector, the most loyal libertine. And he had this unguarded tenderness in him for Honor. Against even the warnings of his own people he wanted her and took care of her, fought with her and yearned for her, protected her and wanted to throttle her. He was jealous and adorable with it, fierce and sexy as hell with it, resolute and uncompromising and utterly trustworthy with it. He was, in short, perfect. Even his flaws were perfect.

Together their chemistry was tempestuous, emotional, fraught with tension, and absolutely incendiary.

Combine two awesome characters with a perfect complement of memorable secondary and ancillary characters, give them a layered, complex plot with several meaty, overlapping plot threads to keep them racing against time and evading danger, and you have this book. I was in reader heaven. I loved the story, the journey from the opening words to the final sentence. Villains and their villainy, hopelessness, loss, injury, lust, threat, risk, failures and triumphs littered the whole of the book in such a way that every chapter was an odyssey.

Some story elements surprised the heck out of me, some I'd figured out fairly early, some made me nervous and some made my gut churn with dread, desperate for it all to work out. The overall plot did absolutely everything it was supposed to do. It entertained the hell out of me.

Books like this are exactly why I'm so rabid about reading. I was transported into McMaster's world and held there until she deigned to let me go. Her writing is a stylized joy, her imagination a fierce weapon, her sense for story and character a tremendous gift. And I'm thrilled, just thrilled, that there is more to come in this series. I can't wait.

When You Give a Duke a Diamond by Shana Galen

Genre: Historical Romance
Series: Jewels of the Ton, Book 1
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 356
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.



Didn't Quite Sparkle For Me

She is...flawless. Women revere her for her sense of fashion and style, men yearn for her attention. The Duchess of Dalliance, sobriquet bestowed by the Prince Regent himself, supports herself on little more than the fickle attention of the ton. She is a known courtesan, one of three under the protection of the Earl of Sinclair, the Earl of Sin.

The truth, Juliette knows, is largely immaterial in these sorts of matters.

The papers have lately taken to linking her name with the Duke of Pelham, a man whom Juliette has never actually met. To fan the very flames of speculation and rumor which assure her continued validity in Society, Juliette maneuvers an introduction to the dour but powerful Duke when presented the opportunity at Prinny's latest fête.

The Duchess is horrified - on the inside, she certainly doesn't let it show - when the Duke publicly cuts her, then calls her a whore. In front of the Prince Regent and all the ton.

With her future now at risk and humiliation burning a hole in her soul, Juliette escapes the crowd. Unfortunately, her evening is not destined for improvement. As she stands in the shadows on the balcony, the Duchess witnesses a vicious murder. To truly consign the evening's events to the deepest depths of hell, the victim is no other than the Duke of Pelham's fiancée.

And Juliette knows the killer, a true devil of a man who calls himself Lucifer.

Her first instinct is to flee, but her actions throw her directly into the path of the Duke of Pelham. Problem is, the man not only doesn't believe her, he makes it clear he has no intention of sullying his reputation with the likes of her, no matter how desperate she is for his help.

~*~

This series debut by Galen perplexed me a little. It wasn't at all what I was expecting. There is quite a discrepancy between the book blurb and the actual storyline. And not only that, but the tone of the book is different, as well.

That's not a criticism. I liked the premise of the storyline quite a lot and particularly appreciated the threads of suspense in the book. It was more the characters and the inconsistency in the execution of the story that gave me pause in places.

I struggled with Juliette's character. I kept hoping she'd explode across the page with self-sufficiency and independence, push beyond the dictates of society and force Will to judge her based solely on her wit and strength, and that just never quite happened. It's not that she was a victim or a damsel or anything like that, but she very much lived a life within the boundaries. That disappointed me.

The Duke, Will, was a bit of a different kettle for me. I loved his quirky OCD issues and all his stiff-upper-lipness. I was so charmed by him when he got his first glimpse of Juliette. I loved Galen's writing in that scene. There was such a delightful sense of self-deprecation in him.

And then, unfortunately, he spoke.

He turned into an utter prat who treated Juliette with cruelty and disrespect for no other reason than he was displeased by his attraction to her and he assumed she was responsible for the gossip articles that his friends keep mentioning to him. He punished her, was as offensive and humiliating as he could be. And throughout the rest of the book, just when I started to warm to him again, feel some sympathy for his character or amusement at his quirks, he'd open his mouth again and crush Juliette.

By about the third time I could no longer understand why she took it like she did. And that severely impacted my ability to fully enjoy their romance. By the end of the book he had disparaged her one time too many and the final resolution didn't have nearly enough of him on his knees grovelling for her forgiveness.

I had a couple of other small issues with the plot of the external conflict. It seemed fairly one dimensional, and there was an odd plot twist or two that lacked the emotional impact it could have had. There were surprises, but those surprises were based on my uncertainty about the plausibility of some of the events, and I wish Juliette's backstory had been better represented to provide a more well-rounded foundation for others.

Without a doubt, there were some fun moments in this book, and I thoroughly enjoyed Galen's writing style. The plot thread with Lucifer is something I'm assuming is going to carry through each book of the series, so I look forward to seeing how the other two diamonds will play into it all.

How to Drive a Dragon Crazy by G.A. Aiken

Genre: Fantasy Romance
Series: Dragon Kin, Book 6
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 470 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle



It Wasn't Just the Dragon

A lot can change in ten years. Éibhear the Blue is now Éibhear the Contemptible, Squad Leader for the loathed and feared Mì-runach, a band of warriors roughly akin to a Black Ops unit for Queen Rhiannon. For ten years the Mì-runach have battled the Ice Land dragons, but now that the force invading the Northland has been smacked down and rubbed out, Éibhear's got a bit of vacation time in front of him.

And a commander who insists he be a good son and visit his family.

Stopping off to see his sister Keita is a bit of a mixed bag, but it does present Éibhear with a unique opportunity. Keita's mate Ragnar lets slip...accidentally, of course...that Iseabail the Dangerous, also known as, well, so many other titles it's almost ridiculous, but most importantly the source of all Éibhear's past idiocy, is needed back home. Ragnar and Keita were planning to pick her up and accompany her there.

Well that just wouldn't do for Éibhear. Not when he's perfectly capable of seeing Izzy home. He's got a few things to say to the woman, things he's left far too long unsaid. Like a sincere apology for their regrettable past. So he'll go. And apologize. Sincerely. To the one woman in all the known universes least likely to accept an apology without making him pay very dearly first. Possibly in blood and body parts.

Good thing he's spent ten years as a mighty and feared Mì-runach or that might actually send the monstrously large Éibhear into a panic.

~*~

I have to admit, I'm loathe to write this review. I had quite a few problems with this book, but this is one of my all time favorite series and Aiken (aka Shelly Laurenston) is one of my favorite authors. I usually love and adore everything she's ever written. I didn't adore this.

There were parts I enjoyed. Elements of the book I loved just as much as every other book in this series. Unfortunately, they weren't in the majority. And I had some big issues that I don't want to belabor...mostly because it's just too damn painful to do so...but I do want to mention.

Too much of the first half of the book, especially the events prior to Izzy and Éibhear returning to Garbhán Isle, seemed almost like meandering filler and failed to hold my interest. It dragged down the pace of the story for me and overwhelmed any potential for insight into Izzy's or Éibhear's matured characters. I enjoyed Éibhear's Mì-runach squad, and I didn't mind getting a glimpse of where everyone is ten years after we last saw them, but it plodded on too long before the plot started to feel like it had a definitive direction. And there was far too little that featured progress in the relationship between the alleged main characters.

I say alleged because though this book is touted as Éibhear's and Izzy's show, it felt like they were only in about half of it. Considering there were several significant plot threads that soaked up a large amount of page time and a couple of them didn't even include Éibhear or Izzy, I suppose I should be glad they were in that much of it.

There were plenty of other characters in it, though. So very many, in fact, that it seemed like everyone ever mentioned in the previous books (with the exception of Ren), as well as several new characters introduced here, were included in what was one of the most populous casts of secondary and ancillary characters I've ever seen in a book. Football stadiums don't hold as many people as were in this book.

For all of those characters, and for all of the many, many things going on in this book, some of which were truly wonderful and some simply overkill, the one thing that wasn't included was anything resembling a romance. Given Izzy's and Éibhear's rocky and painful past, then suffering through all the waiting and dealing with all the buildup, that one point of contention was especially hard for me to forgive.

That's what drove me absolutely crazy about this book. That's what pushed me over the edge. Nothing - not one single issue from their past was hashed out or resolved in any satisfying manner, even the ones I felt truly deserved to be addressed. At best, a couple of things became punchlines, when they were brought up at all.

Éibhear apologizes to Izzy early in the book, an apology for which Izzy does most of the talking. They get groiny about halfway through as if it's some sort of cosmic inevitability (in an odd scene that didn't feel all that natural to the storyline in either setting or character to me). Then they get together late in the book. It was, without a doubt, the most underwhelming long-awaited relationship pairing I've read in a book in recent...and not so recent memory.

If I hadn't been so hopeful, or so intent on reading how they finally clear the slate on their past while they acknowledge long-held feelings, maybe my overall impression of the book would have been more positive. I did think there were several interesting developments in the second half of the book. For a transitional novel, which this book clearly is, there is a huge amount of depth in the multi-leveled storyline in that latter half.

I wish I could have appreciated it more.

I wish the first half had been severely edited, the second half expanded, and more room made for Éibhear and Izzy to have a relationship that evolves throughout the book. That didn't happen for me this time. From all appearances, however, there are big things brewing for the characters I've grown to love in this series. There is certainly no shortage of story potential. I just hope that in the future more of the plot is focused on the main characters and their romance.

Quotables:
"You are a callous cow, Branwen the Awful. A cruel, callous cow...and I adore you like the suns."
Branwen shrugged, black eyes twinkling, "And I you, cousin, for together we are a true blood-filled nightmare - which I find nothing but entertaining!"


"I'm still not talking to you."
"Still? When did you start? The not talking, I mean, because usually I can't get you to shut up."

"I thought I told you to wait."
Izzy gave a light, carefree laugh. "I simply adore how you think I'd take your orders at any time or for any reason in this known universe. That just amuses me so much. Such a sense of humor you've gotten."

The Dragon Kin Series:

  

  

Heart's Home by H.B. Pattskyn

Genre: M/M Historical Paranormal Romance
Series: N/A
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Length: 260 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.



Intense, Emotional, and Utterly Gripping

A year earlier it had become notorious, London's East End district of Whitechapel forever linked with the hunting grounds of a vicious serial killer known only as Jack the Ripper. For the poor and wretchedly unfortunate, the criminals, prostitutes, gangs...and dispossessed lycanthrope Alun Blayney...it was home.

Flush with winnings from a recent card game, Alun is on his way to a doss house to rent a room when the unmistakable scent of blood, death, and werewolf washes over him. Following his nose, he finds the body of an eviscerated young woman, slain by one of his kind. Not by fang or claw, however, but by blade.

Police Constable James Heron is walking the beat on his shift in Whitechapel. As he turns a corner late that night, he's rocked by the scene before him. A tall, rangy man is leaning over a body on the ground. Before he can blow his whistle to call for assistance, the man has him pressed against the brick wall, swearing he wasn't a killer. That if he had been, James would be as dead as the woman whose blood was even now spreading across the cobblestones.

While that logic is just enough to relax James a little, it's the look in the eyes of the dark, brooding man that stirs something in James, despite the vicious circumstances.

Two men from vastly different worlds, one human, one lycan, both outcast. Together they discover a tentative, fragile happiness. It's a feeling Alun can't trust to last, not with the secrets he holds, or the situation in Whitechapel. There are no happy endings for the werewolf who has sexual congress with men, and no possibility of a human mate, even if James could accept his existence. And as the body count in the East End continues to rise, the grim, unalterable fact is that happiness is a luxury when survival alone is in doubt.

~*~

What a fantastic read this was! The depth and scope of the plot impressed, and Pattskyn imbued the tale with a dark, rich sense of decaying desperation that perfectly accentuated the world and its inhabitants, setting the tone of the story and providing the framework for the often deeply conflicted emotional landscape of the characters. And speaking of the characters...wow.

Alun and James just absolutely slayed me. Their story sucked me up, slammed me down in their world, and dragged me along for the whole ride. I adored them. I loved them even when I wanted to grab Alun by his shaggy hair, shake him senseless, and kick him in the kneecap for his stubborn, jaded cynicism, feelings of inferiority, and doubt in the face of James' absolute commitment to him. Oh, sure, I totally understood where those feelings came from, they were absolutely organic to his personal history and his circumstances. I still wanted to kick him.

James was both Alun's diametric opposite and his absolute match in every way. His ability to love, his temperament, the determination in him to live with love in his life despite huge social and legal opposition, his commitment to Alun, even his concern for Rob, all made him yang to Alun's yin. I  both respected him as a man and loved his character.

Both characters were so well drawn, so perfectly conceived and executed, that they lived and breathed on the pages - to the point that they made me hyperventilate. I did not want their story to end. I was completely caught up in the traumatic angst of their relationship, the suspense of the crimes that impacted them both, and the frustration with Alun's relentless negativity. Though he'd call it realism.

And they weren't the only characters of note in this book. Pattskyn was brilliant in the judicious creation of unforgettable secondary and ancillary characters. I absolutely fell in love with Robin and would love to see him in his own book, and though she was only featured briefly towards the end, Gwenyth was a fantastic character. A slightly darker and more ancillary character that intrigued me was James' boss, Inspector Lamont.

None of these characters would have had as much going on for them if the storyline hadn't been so great. Pattskyn could give lessons on creating a multi-layered, complex tale with a wealth of internal and external conflicts to drive the plot-driven story elements even as they were adding gravitas to the character-driven elements. Between the mystery surrounding the murders, the perplexing connection between the crimes and the local pack, the fact that werewolves exist and Alun is one, James and Alun's sexuality, the class difference, and a sundry of other tribulations and trials they must weather, there was just so much damn story in this book that it could have easily been twice as long.

I do wish Alun had been a little less persistent in mentioning again and again that James was human and therefore couldn't be Alun's mate. That got repetitious and became a little one-note as a conflict, especially when there was so much else inherently working against them.

I also felt there were some emotional elements that were glossed over towards the conclusion of the book, the paradigm shift that Alun has about his relationship with James addressed almost subtly. The doubt was such a big part of Alun's makeup for so long that the moment he started to have faith would have been more satisfying had it been better defined. There was a brief acknowledgement, but I felt it lacked the emotional impact necessary to balance out the negativity and doubt that drove Alun for most of the book.

Still, my sincerest appreciation goes to Pattskyn for this debut. It was a fabulously written, complex, and gritty tale. The historical elements seemed authentic, the paranormal elements were original and fresh in their setting, and both the romance and characters were divine. I hope she doesn't make readers wait too long for the sequel in the works. I'm dying to revisit these beloved characters and their dark, gritty world.

The Thirteenth Pillar by J.L. O'Faolain

Genre: M/M Urban Fantasy
Series: Section Thirteen, Book 2
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 265 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.



Less Camp and Chaos Than The First

It's only been a month since exiled sidhe Tuulois MacColewyn agreed to join the police department's newly reappointed Section Thirteen, the section dedicated to investigating crimes by or against paranormals. Though time with his new lover and partner, NYPD Inspector Joss Vallimun, is definitely one of the perks, the workload is intense and resources are few. Cole's life is becoming barely recognizable.

Not only is Section Thirteen horribly overworked and wretchedly understaffed with only Cole, Vallimun, and Cole's erstwhile best friend, Detective James Corhagen to handle the caseload (everyone else keeps fleeing in terror when slimy things rise up out of the sewers - the cowards), but the cases themselves are getting more and more disturbing. Even for a sidhe who's seen, done, and snarked his way through as much as Cole has.

The burned and partially masticated bodies of several young boys have turned up in the morgue, and Cole has to use his abilities to question the victims. Disturbing as that is, there is also the brutal slaying of a private school teacher by what appears to be a pack of fey wolves on Staten Island. And they're not the only fey to be acting in a way that's against their nature, either, and they all have one thing in common: a suspicious black collar somewhere on their body and tales of enslavement to a new lord and master.

It's a complicated, dangerous, stressful time to be the only full-blooded sidhe cop in NYC. Good thing he's pretty.

~*~

Sometimes it's the story, sometimes it's the characters, ideally it's a combination of both. There are a myriad of different reasons that a book or a series of books appeals to me. In this wacky but weirdly wonderful series, it's the combination of Cole as a main character, the utter charm and likability of several of the secondary and ancillary characters, and the author's writing style that have made me a fan.

The first book was campier than this one, more flamboyantly wicked and generally bizarre. I embraced the flighty storyline, ignored most of the camp, and accepted the chaos in the writing because I adored the insouciant, irrepressible, irredeemable Cole. He was a delight of a character. He still is, but this installment offers a slightly more serious, darker version of the sidhe.

His character, intentionally or not, actually seemed to perfectly reflect his situation and the tone of the book. It was as if even the immortal Cole is feeling the strain of the amount of work Section Thirteen is dealing with and he's worn out enough to mute some of the natural incandescence of his personality. Or maybe he's just more relaxed now that he's having sex on a regular basis thanks to the big and brawny Joss.

Whatever it is, I liked this version of Cole very much. He's still a wellspring of sarcasm and sardonic humor, but he's not quite as persistent to the point of annoyance with Corhagen (who I still avidly dislike), and his actions in this book evidence a more accurate reflection of his emotional investment in the people he cares about than they did in the first book. All very good things.

The storyline was a bit more complex than that of the first book, yet ironically easier to follow. There seemed to be more going on as far as sources of external conflict, and while I think the plot lacked a little of the emotional intensity that the first one had, I also think it was better constructed overall. Plot points and story elements were added as the book progressed, all building on a solid foundation, and it provided an increasing level of danger and intensity throughout the read, as well as bulking up the narrative with depth and dimension.

This still isn't a book that's flawless in concept and construction. There is still a good dose of camp, and there are scenes and story threads that get a bit chaotic. The humor is certainly very subjective, and I wouldn't recommend it for romance-only fans. There is a thin thread of romance in this book, as Cole and Joss seem to be building an actual relationship as opposed to just occasionally having hot (very hot) sex, but this isn't at all a romance series and that thread stays ancillary to the plot-driven story elements.

I just think this book and this series is a hell of a fun read. In fact, I have such a good time when I'm reading, and I love Cole's character so much, that I get swept up in what's happening and forget to think about the book critically. Maybe that makes me a bad reviewer. All I know for sure is that it makes me a happy reader.


The Section Thirteen Series:

  

Beneath a Rising Moon by Keri Arthur

Genre: Paranormal Romantic Suspense
Series: Ripple Creek Werewolves, Book 1
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 368 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Dell Books publisher Random House Publishing Group via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



A Dark and Deadly Sensual World

When her twin sister is viciously attacked by the werewolf who has slaughtered three women on the Ripple Creek Reservation, Neva Grant vows to kill him. She can't just let the Rangers handle the investigation. She knows from her sister's files that they suspect a member of the Sinclair pack. She also knows that only the alpha's third son, bad boy Duncan Sinclair, has an alibi that elevates him above suspicion. For the murders, anyway.

Neither his past nor his reputation are in any way innocent on any other level.

Now all Neva has to do is seduce the gorgeous werewolf during the moon dance, get access to his home, figure out who almost killed her sister, and end his reign of terror. Piece of cake. Well...at least it's easier than controlling her emotions around the gorgeous Duncan. She's agreed to be his mate through this moon cycle. Rampaging killer on the loose or not, a week of mating with Duncan may be riskier to Neva's life than anything else she'll face.

~*~

This is a re-release of Keri Arthur's Ripple Creek series debut, originally published in 2003. I was a little hesitant when I started reading. I knew the werewolf mythos in this book was similar to that of Arthur's Riley Jenson Guardian series, and I wasn't crazy about certain aspects of that in the two RJG books I read. Thankfully, any contentious elements remained mostly in the background in this book.

I liked both Neva and Duncan as the main characters, but I do wish there had been more attention given to their character definition. The romance arc has a heavy sexual element, which was fine, but there was little in the way of significant character depth or romance evolution to balance it out. In fact, the majority of their relationship seemed based solely on lust and physical compatibility as opposed to any deeper emotions or mutual respect, and that doesn't really work for me.

The suspense and mystery story elements were solid, though. The Bad Guy was pretty easy to figure out early in the tale, but I liked that the plotline got richer and more complex, piling on deadly implications and threatening dangers as the story progressed. The scope, motivation, and intent of the murders as well as the intensity level of the investigation kept me invested throughout the book.

I do wish the book had begun at a slightly earlier point in the characters' lives. I would have really enjoyed seeing Duncan in his environment prior to his return, or reading about Neva dealing with her sister's attack as it happened instead of being told about it after the fact. Other than that, though, and beyond a few scenes that displayed some lapses in logic and some rather specious conclusions in the investigation, I liked the werewolf killer storyline a lot.

Equally enjoyable was seeing Neva's relationship with her parents alter in the latter half of the book, and I respected the hell out of Neva when she stood up to her father. It wasn't just what she said, but how she said it that I appreciated immensely. The philosophical differences between Duncan's pack and Neva's pack were fascinating and the subsequent fallout made for some emotionally intense scenes. I would have loved to see that have an even larger role in the story.

The second half of the book was stronger and more enjoyable to me than the first half. Duncan eased up just a little on the alpha male jackassery, Neva established herself more in their relationship, and some of the misunderstandings between them were cleared up. The scenes with them working together to track the Bad Guy were my favorites in the book. The read as a whole may have been a bit uneven for me, but it definitely ended on a positive note.

Love, Hypothetically by Anne Tenino

Genre: M/M Contemporary Romance
Series: Theta Alpha Gamma, Book 2
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 100 Pages
Formats: 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.



Fun, Actually

Calapooya College grad student and tutor Paul is an intellectual elitist and a cynical bastard who loathes jocks on principle and is no more fond of frat boys. It's a wonder the guy ever gets laid.

Booted from his old apartment for treating his former roommate's new boyfriend like the jock boy toy he is, Paul is stuck tutoring lunkheads all summer long. He needs the money to get out of the dorms and into his own place before fall session starts. Then he gets a specific request for his tutoring services from the new head coach of the Calapooya woman's softball team.

No. Absolutely not. Paul has a strict "no athletes" policy, and he has no qualms about meeting with the coach and explaining that to the man. At least he doesn't until he actually gets into the guy's office. Then there's all sorts of qualms. And maybe an emotional meltdown or ten.

Calapooya's new softball coach is former Major League Baseball player Trevor Gardiner, the man who betrayed and humiliated Paul back in high school, back when they were boys...and earnest boyfriends...until he and Trevor were caught in an incriminating position and Trevor threw Paul under the bus and out of the closet to save himself.

Everything, absolutely everything Paul had hoped and dreamed about Trevor died a horrifically disillusioned, brutal death that afternoon. And now he's at Paul's school. Retired from baseball and out of the closet, Trevor claims to want nothing more than to make up for the mistake he made nine years ago. He claims to want to try for something real between them again. And he claims to be so very, very sorry.

Yeah, well, there's no way that Paul is going to fall for that line, no matter the hoops Trevor is willing to jump through. It would be emotional suicide. The only way he would be insane enough to even consider risking it would be for love...hypothetically.

~*~

This followup to Tenino's charming Frat Boy and Toppy isn't a perfect read. Beyond some pretty extensive editing issues that I hope are polished out in the final version, it's also got some story issues that caused some problems for me. The story is short, even for a novella, and there were a few scenes that I felt could have better served the tale had they been focused elsewhere. Like on character development.

Paul's character is pretty limited in nature to the prick he's always been, but at least he felt familiar to me from his introduction in the first book. Trevor isn't even that lucky. There is almost no page time given to fleshing out or defining his character at all. Readers who prefer depth in character should be warned. There is little to be found here.

It was impossible for me to even consider Trevor a main character, actually. He wasn't in as many of the scenes as I was expecting. Unfortunately, that limited the relationship development between him and Paul quite a lot. I also thought the end of the story was a little rough and too abrupt, and felt the frat house tie-in seemed a bit awkward and forced.

Thing is, though, this story still worked for me. I was not a fan of Paul in the first book, and I don't particularly care about the reason given in this one to explain his prickish behavior and attitude. I don't think just knowing his caustic, bitter personality is born from pain and betrayal redeemed his character. It explained it, yes, and I certainly felt for the boy he used to be. It didn't redeemed the man he is now, though. Not for me.

Something else did that. And that's when I started to notice how much I was enjoying this read. Tenino has this gift for capturing awkwardness in her characters and making it endearing. She did it with Brad throughout the first book, Sebastian towards the end of it, and when Paul's not being an utter ass (which is, admittedly, often), she manages to flush out his tender little underbelly here, too.

Paul's scene with Toby in the bar, that whole hypothetical situation they discussed as Paul battles ice cubes and citrus garnish, was flat-out cute. The scene that really put it away for me, though, was the one in Sebastian and Brad's apartment. It wasn't just the conversation between the three men that appealed, though that was stellar, but also the internal goings on in Paul's head, the thoughts and feelings he's having while they're conversing. I absolutely adored that whole scene to the point that it elevated my overall appreciation for the entire read.

Keeping in mind the length of the tale and accepting the story for what it is helped me enjoy this one. I am really starting to dig Tenino's writing style and her sharp, sardonic wit. Her characters aren't quite the most individual I've ever read (Sebastian and Paul seem pretty interchangeable in a lot of ways), but there is something very appealing about them. And their stories. It helps that Tenino is absolutely no slouch in the yummy sex department, too. So...any chance we'll see Collin's story? I'm still waiting on that one.


The Theta Alpha Gamma Series:

  

Fear the Darkness by Alexandra Ivy

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Guardians of Eternity, Book 9
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 352 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Zebra Books publisher Kensington Publishing via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



Too Little Romance

He used to be the Bad Guy. The Big Bad of the piece. Hunted for bad acts, reviled for nefarious plans. Caine was the cur obsessed with becoming pureblood. Narcissistic, lacking conscience. Then one selfless act changed his destiny.

First, it killed him. Which, admittedly, was a bummer. Then he was reborn as a pureblood. Perk. But it also thrust Caine into an unfamiliar role: hero and protector of the most important being alive, the pureblood Were and prophet Cassandra.

Yeah, no pressure there. And that's not all. Caine is having the devil's own time keeping his hands off the beautiful, innocent Cassie. He's supposed to be her guard dog while they bounce all over the country at the whim of her prophecies, not panting after her like a sex-starved pup. That's somewhere he absolutely cannot go, no matter how his body torments him for his restraint.

His yearning is great but the stakes are high. They must focus on the race to stay one step ahead of the Dark Lord. If they fail, if the Dark Lord gets the last living prophet in his clutches, the future will be forever lost to them all.

~*~

This installment of Ivy's Guardians of Eternity series provides an example of why I tend to dislike when multiple books in a series have concurrent, non-sequential, or overlapping timelines. I can imagine it's a very tricky thing for an author to pull off successfully because I've read several series that haven't quite managed to do so. Including this one.

The first half of this book, the half that most heavily features the two main characters, Caine and Cassie, details the events leading up to and including how those two characters ended up where they were in the previous book. On one hand, that's a good thing, because honestly, I thought I'd just forgotten major plot points after such a long lag time between when I read the seventh and eighth book. On the other hand, once I realized that wasn't the case, the issue became that I was reading half an entire book knowing exactly how it was going to play out.

Not the details, maybe, but the end result. And that completely stripped any and all suspense or tension from that part of the story for me and made a couple of the elements seem a waste of time.

It did give me a chance to reacquaint myself with Caine and Cassie, which I appreciated. Still, there wasn't enough of what I was hoping this book would offer: a closer look into the nitty-gritty of a fascinating character like Caine. The psychological and physiological effects of the massive paradigm shift and major species upgrade that changed his life offers practically endless potential for character evolution and definition, but sadly I felt most of that potential went unrealized.

I like Caine. I've always liked Caine, even when he was on the less-than-straight-and-narrow, because I understood his motivations, even if I didn't approve of his methods. And remember, I hated Salvatore with a fiery passion (before Ivy made me like him, damn it all), so I was all for anyone opposing the character I thought was a hopeless, brutish thug. I just would have really loved seeing Caine's character go from Point A to Point B with a bit more of a scenic route.

Cassandra had the same sort of take-her-or-leave-her impact on me that she's had since her introduction into the series. I felt her character definition also had potential when she and Caine were in Vegas, but the story focus stayed more on their interpersonal relationship, limiting the page time needed to really dig into defining her as a young woman who's been sheltered from the world for her whole life. I never really felt I knew who she was in any substantive fashion.

Plus, I've mentioned before my preference for strong, independent heroines over damsels in distress, and Cassie was the quintessential damsel throughout almost all of this one.

Once the timeline progressed beyond the events of the previous book, this story picked up for me. I loved how the pieces of external conflict started to come together, building tension and becoming more and more intense. The Dark Lord and his minions stirring up all manner of hell, the efforts of the Vampires, Weres, and all their allies growing more and more desperate as they sustain blow after blow... All of that was great. I enjoyed what was there in the story completely.

My problem with the latter half of the book was not with what was there but rather what wasn't. Namely Caine, but to a lesser extent, Cassie too.

Once Caine and Cassie were in the mist dimension, a place we knew they had been taken as of the last book, Caine's circumstance removed him from almost the whole of the second half of the book and we only got glimpses of Cassie. Not only did that limit the impact of the characters in what is supposed to be their own story, but it completely crippled the romantic story elements for me. And the resolution of the romance story arc just wasn't enough to redeem that for me.

There is a lot going on in this book. Much of the plot-driven, external conflict is a culmination of several books in the series, and it's intense and well written and very respective of the groundwork that Ivy has carefully laid. In that regard, the book was completely successful for me. But it's supposed to be a paranormal romance, and this time there just wasn't enough romance for me to be able to fully enjoy the read.

Bound by Darkness by Alexandra Ivy

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Guardians of Eternity, Book 8
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 374 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle



Broader Depth of Story Appeals

He had kidnapped her. Unloaded her unconscious body in the decimated halls of his deposed master, the vicious Morgana le Fey. Once he had her secured beyond the mists in Avalon he chained her with silver - protecting her delectable skin, of course - and waited. She is Jaelyn, a vampire, one of their feared Hunters.

Ariyal chose not to look too closely at his reasons for taking her. That way lies madness. Instead, he's going to punish her for his interest and torment her a bit. After all, he blames her for his failure to stop the Dark Lord. It's only fair he exact a little retribution...before he tracks down his brother and continues the distasteful task he started.

He has to kill the child born to be the reincarnation of the Dark Lord or it will be the end of the world as all know it.

Regaining consciousness chained up in a strange place with a Sylvermyst bastard looming over her isn't exactly the highlight of Jaelyn's long life. Oh sure, the bare-chested bastard is gorgeous. Lovely eye candy. And if she wasn't a Hunter, immune to his fine-bodied charm, she might have been worried. Instead, all she wants to do is sink her fangs into the fiend and show him what a Hunter like her can really do.

And she means that in the most painful and deadly way. Really.

She's definitely not going to let Ariyal continue with his heinous plan. She'll find a way to stop him from killing that child. But when an Oracle pops up and suddenly changes the nature of the contract between her and the Consortium, she can't help but wonder what in the hell is in store for both her and the Sylvermyst.

Bringing him in is one thing, but sticking by his side - even helping him - given how he affects her, may be more dangerous to Jaelyn than anything else she's ever faced. And riskier than facing the Dark Lord himself.

~*~

Just before I started reading this installment of Ivy's popular Guardians of Eternity series, I checked to see when I'd read its predecessor. I was a little surprised it had been over a year and a half and a little concerned that I'd have a hard time slipping back into the series after so long.

Thankfully, that wasn't the case. Ivy did a decent job with the series exposition, weaving it in with the book's story arc in a way that reminded me of what went before even as the current plotline progressed. While I don't think this book would work well as a stand-alone, or as a starting point for interested readers unfamiliar with the series, it worked just fine for me.

As much as I read, there are surprisingly few series that hold my attention as long as this one has. The world that Ivy's created here may not be the most expansively detailed, nor are the plotlines all that complex, but each book offers a sexy, fun, action-packed read with wonderful dashes of snarky humor liberally sprinkled throughout. There is also a wealth of originality in the world and mythos, and that keeps the series from feeling like just another incarnation of the paranormal romance genre masters.

I liked Ariyal and Jaelyn as characters. Ariyal is a gorgeous, sexy alpha male who's had it very rough in the past. He bears the brunt of the responsibility for the future of his people and feels the pain of his brother's betrayal. Jaelyn is a gorgeous female warrior, cold and deadly because she's had to be, threatened by the fiery heat of her attraction to Ariyal because the cost of feeling for him is too high.

He's insouciant and sardonic, she's chilly and quick to bare her fangs or reach for her shotgun. It was fun seeing them evolve and grow closer despite themselves as they were forced to work together, and the chemistry between them was top-notch.

There was a nice balance in the shifting points of view in this book, too. As the threat of the Dark Lord continues to grow, important characters from earlier books, as well as a few new characters, have significant secondary character roles in this one. I'm a big fan of Styx, and Ivy made me a Salvatore convert with his book, and their increased presence served both the arc of the series and the storyline of this book quite well. And I appreciated very much that Ivy didn't shortchange the romance between Ariyal and Jaelyn while including them.

Then there's Levet. It just wouldn't be a Guardians of Eternity book without Levet. I love that little fairy-winged, French-spouting, magic-exploding gargoyle.

This series may fall closer to the brain candy end of the spectrum than the series I favor for their dark, detailed, complex worlds and angsty, deadly romances, but sometimes I just don't want to work that hard to enjoy a read. I trust Ivy to entertain me and raise my temperature. The male characters are sexy and powerful, the female characters are strong and independent, and the stories have been adding depth and dimension as the series has progressed. For all of that I'm still reading, still enjoying, and plan to continue to do so.

Stranger in the Room by Amanda Kyle Williams

Genre: Thriller/Suspense
Series: Keye Street, Book 2
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 320 Pages
Formats: Hardcover, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Bantam publisher Random House Publishing Group via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



The Indomitable Keye Street is Back

Atlanta private investigator, bounty hunter, and occasional police consultant Keye Street is feeling a little tense. She has been ever since she and her homicide detective boyfriend Aaron Rauser survived a couple of murder attempts last year, but the punishing southern summer heat of Atlanta in July is making it worse.

And it's times like this that Keye's demons ride her hardest.

Four years after her alcohol addiction destroyed her criminal profiling career with the FBI, the last thing recovering alcoholic Keye needs is her damaged, flawed cousin Miki calling her up and begging Keye to meet her at a nearby bar. But that's what you do for family.

Miki is freaked out. She claims that someone broke into her home, but after the police showed up and didn't find anything, they took one look at her record and blew her off. Thing is, Keye isn't sure she believes her either. She's been down this road before with her self-destructive cousin.

Then Keye finds a body in her cousin's living room, and the victim may be connected to Rauser's latest homicide case. Even as she kicks herself for not taking Miki seriously, this new development puts even more on Keye's plate. Now there's a murderous stalker on top of a bail jumper with bodily fluid issues and an investigation into a crematorium that may not be keeping the home fires burning.

The heat and the fear and the exhaustion on top of all of that start to make a drink sound like just the thing Keye needs to get her through. And this time, her demons may be too strong for her to defeat.

~*~

Amanda Kyle Williams is back with another long, sultry look into the day-to-day life of the mostly functional all-purpose bastion of law and order, Keye Street.

I love Williams' style. This isn't just a suspense novel or a psychological thriller. It is peccadillo-embracing, loony-relative-having, deep-fried-donut-eating Southern fiction wrapped around more than one bizarre case of varying criminality and horror. It's the sort of fiction you don't just read, you commit to, because by the time you're done, the narrative has taken you on such a slow, sweaty, southern journey that the characters are anywhere from old friends to bitter rivals...or both.

Keye is so deliciously flawed as a character. She's got issues. Big, juicy, career-ending, daily-struggle issues. And it's not just the alcoholism, though that is a huge part. Her life is a cautionary tale and Williams pulls no punches, as if she crafts every scene to display Keye's strengths and weaknesses in as harshly bright a light as possible. I love it.

I also love the subtle touches of quirkiness and humor, mostly sarcastic, that lighten Keye's nature (and the story) when things are at their most tense or bleakest. I love Keye's intelligence and her dedication to those she considers her people, be they close friends or family. Her cousin Miki is a real piece of work, but Keye handles her. Not always with kid gloves, but then again, Miki keeps trying to goad Keye into taking a drink. Lovely woman.

Keye still feels compelled to do the right thing. Miki is family. Period. End of discussion. So southern.

Unfortunately, the verdant, rich southern style did slow the pace of the tale. The first half of the book felt a bit boggy and plodding after the pulse-pounding start. As big a fan as I am of Keye and all her quirks, there was a lot of character-driven material in the first half, and the meat of the external, plot-driven story elements didn't really gear up until about midway through.

Once they do, several significant story elements built towards a surprising and satisfying conclusion that was ripe with personal danger and future implications. It's a good plot arc, for sure, and all the plot-driven elements were wonderfully convoluted and complex.

I wish less time had been spent focusing on Keye's never-ending obsession with alcohol. It's something that bothered me in the first book, as well. Her being an alcoholic (recovering) is a defining element of her character, I know. I just get a little weary of reading about it over and over throughout the story. Especially in this book, where I felt a more subtle application could have lent more emotional impact to events during the final conflict of the book.

That said, this book has provided me another solidly entertaining read. I love Keye, and while spending time in her head can get a bit harrowing at times, I find myself rooting for her. Liking her. Wanting her to be happy with Rauser and content in her job. Sober. Even when she makes me totally mental, I want her to triumph. But maybe that's just the Southern in me. Whatever it is, I hope we see more of Keye Street soon.


Keye Street Novels:

 

A Lady by Midnight by Tessa Dare

Genre: Historical Romance
Series: Spindle Cove, Book 3
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 384 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided by Avon Books publisher HarperCollins Publishers via Edelweiss. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



Oh Corporal, My Corporal

Kate Taylor loves her life in Spindle Cove, a place that offers her a home and friendship and allows her to make a living doing something she loves, unhindered by the birthmark that mars her face. Still, she yearns to know who she is, where she came from, and has only brief, elusive memories of her past before her time at Margate School for Girls.

She thinks she was loved, once, and still has hope that she will be again.

Though not, quite obviously, by the brooding and severe Corporal Thorne, who has, in his time at Spindle Cove, done nothing but prove to her time and again that he holds her in no kind regard. Imagine her surprise, then, when it is the dour Corporal who not only saves her from a bad turn, but steps forward when strangers show up in Spindle Cove claiming to be her kin. And insists he is her fiancé.

Corporal Thorne hasn't lived an easy life, but he takes his responsibilities seriously. One of his most important responsibilities is protecting the women of Spindle Cove. Especially this one woman. That's the only reason he claims Miss Taylor has agreed to wed him.

Not that he doesn't personally care for the woman, as she believes. His feelings are quite the opposite, but Thorne knows Miss Taylor deserves far, far better than a thief, a convict, and a battle-scarred warrior such as himself. He would lay down his life for any of those under his protection. But for Miss Taylor, he's already traded his future. He did so a long, long time ago.

That she doesn't remember is a blessing. That she will never know is a necessity. Now he just has to keep reminding himself that every moment their pretend engagement keeps her by his side.

~*~

This third installment of my favorite historical romance series came as a bit of a surprise. It's absolutely as well written and as full of rich, memorable characters as I've come to expect from the talented Tessa Dare, but it has a more serious tone than its predecessors and a more traditional (relative to the series) pair of main characters and storyline.

Dare set up this relationship between Kate and Thorne quite nicely in the second book of the series, and I was looking forward to seeing how the characters would develop once they were given their own story. I've liked both of them since their initial introduction in the series premiere, especially Kate, but this book quickly became all about Thorne for me. I adored him for all his taciturn self-sacrifice and quiet dedication.

I loved the backstory between them. It was as interesting and original as it was unexpected. And I couldn't help but hurt for everything Thorne has lived through since they were children. It certainly explained a lot about his personality. And my goodness, some of his revelations to Kate about their past together were horrifying and heartbreaking. How could I not love the man who was no more than a boy when he risked so much for so little?

Their relationship arc provided a solid read, but I have to admit, this wasn't my favorite book in the series. Not only did I miss the witty banter and sardonic humor that set apart the first two books and gave me lots of laugh-out-loud moments, but Thorne was such a somber character for so long, certain of his lack of worth, that there were a couple of scenes between him and Kate that got a little depressing.

I was also confused by the description of Kate's birthmark in this book. I thought I remembered it being described as almost fully covering one side of her face in the first book, but in this one it's described as a heart-shaped mark at her temple. It's entirely possible I mis-remembered, and I don't have the first book to go back and check, but the impression was there and it created a seeming lack of continuity that bothered me.

The sudden arrival of Kate's long-lost and alleged family seemed a little convenient, timing-wise, but I have to admit, I thoroughly enjoyed all of them as secondary characters. Harry, and the deft handling of her passionate proclivities, was particularly delightful. While perhaps there was a lack of historical authenticity in how her relationship with Ames was portrayed and accepted by her family, historical authenticity has never been a series bailiwick, and I appreciated it for its very existence.

I liked Kate and Thorne together very much. Their romance arc was full of emotion and the characters passionately appealing. I melted a little every time Thorne referred to her as Katie. Thorne's character seemed to have a greater depth and dimension with a more complex personal history than Kate's did, but each personal trait and every story element fit together just right to create the perfect tapestry of two people who were destined, really, to find joy with each other.

Though not my favorite book of the three, this is a solidly entertaining installment of an absolutely beloved series. I'm not sure what's to come next from Tessa Dare, but it's my sincerest hope that her readers (okay, namely me) get a chance to return to Spindle Cove soon.


The Spindle Cove Series:

  

Ratings Guide

Here is a rundown of what the star ratings mean to me! It's not a perfect system, so you may see me add in a .5 star here and there if my impression of the book falls somewhere between these:

5 Stars - Loved it
4 Stars - Liked it
3 Stars - It's okay
2 Stars - Didn't like it
1 Star - Hated it

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2014 Reading Challenge

2014 Reading Challenge
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Zero at the BoneHead Over HeelsLord of the WolfynIn Total SurrenderA Win-Win PropositionNorth of Need

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