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Season for Surrender by Theresa Romain

Genre: Historical Romance
Series: Seasons, Book 2
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 368 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Zebra publisher Kensington Publishing via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



'Tis the Season

Lord Xavier has never made a wager he hasn't won. This time, though, he's been goaded into a wager with stakes that could cause irreparable damage whether he wins or loses. He's been challenged to invite a proper young woman to his annual Christmas house party. Known for its debauchery and wicked revelry, it's definitely a scandalous place for a young miss. And not only does he have to get a lady to attend, she's got to stay through the duration.

Determined to best the bet and maintain his spotless record, Xavier has to think outside the box. If the lady must stay through his party, then he'd make the party more suitable for a lady. Simple, really.

Or it would have been, had the lady in question not been Louisa Oliver, a brainy little bluestocking who had weathered scandal before and survived. They had a past, in a manner of speaking, and getting her to come to his party and stay for the duration would take more maneuvering than simply making it respectable. For the first time in...well...ever, the only way to secure Lord Xavier's reputation and protect Louisa is to reach past that reputation to the man he is beneath.

When he does that, however, he is forced into a shocking realization: Louisa Oliver is more than a match for both the myth of Lord Xavier and the man, Alexander Edgware. And when it comes to Louisa, all bets are off.

~*~

There's something inherently appealing to me about a romantic hero who falls in love with his heroine when she sees into the man he is, not the face he shows the world. Dante-loving, vision-impaired Alex is just such a man. While his Lord Xavier persona is shallowly charming, a touch scandalous, and a bit of a condescending prat, the title has become a velvet-lined prison, so much so that he has almost become completely subsumed by it.

Underneath, though, Alex was a more uncertain and private gent who would rather read a good book than set the ton on its ear with the next bit of salacious gossip. Two sides to the same coin, the one overshadows the other for the sake of reputation and popularity in a world defined by both. He could have annoyed me as character, but I was too amused by the cultivated facial expressions to feel pique at his relentless need to validate his reputation.

Louisa was far more a simply genuine, straightforward character, and I loved her for it. She's my favorite sort of historical romance heroine: intelligent, sharp-tongued, and just a wee bit of a social misfit. I enjoyed her immensely, especially when she was popping pins in Xavier's ego. And she handled herself quite nicely when she needed to with others, as well.

Romain created a highly entertaining and vibrant backdrop for their romance. The two-week Christmas party provided a festive theme and a colorful array of secondary and ancillary characters to meet and enjoy. The plot could have been trite, with the bet setting up a cliched relationship conflict time bomb, but Romain stepped smartly around that pitfall. Louisa finds out about it early in the book so it's a non-issue in the romance, but still a motivating factor in both Alex's and Louisa's actions throughout the story. I thought it was nicely handled all around, actually, especially at the end when the money changes hands.

I did have a couple of issues with the book. Rightly or wrongly, I've gotten the impression from other historical romance that it was considered ruinous for an unmarried young woman of society to spend time alone with a man. Louisa's aunt accompanied her to Xavier's estate, but she and Xavier spent a lot of time alone together. I would have thought that would have been a big no-no. That concern - admittedly, unlearned as it is - niggled me throughout the story and stretched my willing suspension of disbelief a bit.

A larger issue, though, had more of an impact on my appreciation for the read. The dialogue. I don't know if it was a commitment to authenticity in historical speech patterns, or if the dialogue, especially between Xavier and Louisa, was written to be purposely obscure, but it drove me a little nuts. There was so much doublespeak, so much subtext and euphemism, that I had to really struggle sometimes to parse meaning in the conversations, especially between Xavier and Louisa. It significantly slowed my reading and kept me from being able to completely engage with the read.

I haven't read the first book in this series, but the story read fine as a stand-alone historical holiday romance. The main characters endeared themselves to me and their evolving relationship was engaging as the primary plot thread. I just wish I hadn't had to work quite so hard or so often to figure out what they were saying to each other. Even with that issue, though, I felt there were several original and fresh elements in story and character definition. Enough that I'd be interested in following this series as it progresses.

Burning Up by Anne Marsh

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: Smoke Jumpers, Book 1
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 304 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me for review. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



Didn't Light My Fire

The last thing smoke jumper Jack Donovan wants to do during an active fire season is ground his team and return to the small town he left ten years ago, but the phone call he receives one afternoon takes the options out of his hands. He may not be happy about it, but Jack cares too much to ignore the request from the woman who took him and his brothers into her home when they were children, then made them her own.

And when Nonna mentions the fires that have sprung up around the tiny town of Strong, fires that are too frequent and too controlled to be caused by anything natural, Jack does what any responsible son does. He goes home.

He's not back a day before Jack realizes that all is not right in Strong. The fires are more than just suspicious in origin, they are also occurring in a very definite pattern. One that surrounds a small farmstead under new ownership. When Jack finds out the name of the new owner, he realizes that this summer is going to burn hotter than any raging wildfire - and be just as dangerous.

Lily Cortez is back in Strong, the same Lily who haunts his memories, even after ten years. The Lily that he kissed the night before he put his hometown in his rearview mirror. And she seems to be the target of an arsonist.

Even as the battle in him rages between concern for her safety and trepidation about his control, he can still feel the press of her lips against his, remember the fit of her body to his. And in dreams and memories, he still tastes his need for her on his tongue. Seeing Lily again will leave Jack with not one doubt that this summer's fire season is going to be one for the record books. In all sorts of ways.

~*~

As soon as I read the blurb for this book I wanted to get my hands on it. A romantic suspense series is always a good bet for me, but one that features smoke jumpers? Hell yeah, now that's a veritable cornucopia of hot, alpha male goodness. That's like...firemen times four on the Sexy Meter. I was all in.

And before I make it sound like I was totally disappointed by the reality of this series debut, I have to admit, there was plenty of smoking-hot sexiness and alpha-male yumminess to be enjoyed. There were also a couple of great scenes in which the smoke jumpers were doing their thing against raging wildfires, and those were as chilling as they were deadly hot (the not-fun kind). I certainly have a whole new respect for anyone craz....er...dedicated enough to tackle that as a career.

I also had, though, a few pretty big issues with the story. I was never too keen about Jack as the lead character, first of all. He was sexy, yes, and had that whole bad boy thing going for him, sure, but I didn't like him all that much, either. Especially at the start of the book.

When we meet him he's annoyed and feeling put-out, wishing that he hadn't taken the phone call from Nonna because he feels his job is way more important than any piddly issues the town of Strong could possible have. His attitude, frankly, rubbed me all sorts of wrong ways. Then we find out that not only is Nonna the only mother he's ever known, but the man on whose behalf she's calling is the closest he's ever come to an uncle...yet Jack has not once deigned to visit either of them in the ten years since he left town. Even this time he seriously begrudges returning to a town that he seems to hate (for no good reason I could ever figure).

Yeah, at that point the first impressions weren't painting him as my kind of romantic hero. And it got worse before it got better.

Fortunately, there was Lily. And though there were times I questioned some of the actions she took and felt that some of her reactions to the Bad Guy seemed a bit off for someone as strong as she appears to be, I liked who she was as a person quite a lot. I loved that she went toe-to-toe with Jack more than once, thought she was fabulous when she was furious, and felt she handles Jack's return to her life with appealingly adult sensibility.

She was certainly more sympathetic and easier to relate to than Jack, especially at the beginning.

Another bone of contention I had was in the narrative. Most notable in the first half but present throughout, there was quite a bit of repetition that over-emphasized plot points and story elements. It got tedious. Jack and Lily's history was mentioned many, many times, Jack's determination to leave town at summer's end came up over and over, and I didn't need to be told Jack didn't like having walls around him quite as often as I was (though it would've been nice to find out the hows and whys of that phobia). Those and several other points were hashed and rehashed, and it cost the story the page space that could have been better served adding complexity and depth to the plot of both the romance arc and the Bad Guy's story threads.

Some contradictions in the story and a few minor holes in the plot were also troubling, though I enjoyed the concept behind the Bad Guy. Marsh handled the psychology of his character and the escalation of violence both consistently and believably. I wish he'd had a larger role in the storyline, because he posed a serious and significant threat to the characters, one that I would have enjoyed seeing expanded further.

I wish the characters had been better developed and fleshed out  more than they were. I don't think there was enough detail provided about Jack's past, and I don't think the secondary characters had a large enough role in the tale. It seemed like as soon as Jack locked eyes on Lily again he didn't stray far, and Nonna, Ben, even his brothers almost completely ceased to exist for most of the story. None of that made the story or the characters feel particularly well-rounded.

For all those issues, though, Jack grew on me later in the book and I liked him with Lily. The fire scenes were handled well and the stalker/arsonist was dangerous and grimly entertaining. Other than the repetition, always a hot button of mine, the book wasn't a bad read. It just wasn't complex enough in story or character to be consistently entertaining. I'd have to think hard about continuing the series, because the super-hot smoke jumpers just weren't enough for me in this one.

Rev It Up by Julie Ann Walker

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: Black Knights, Inc., Book 3
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 352 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Sourcebooks Casablanca publisher Sourcebooks via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



Almost the Charm

Four years ago, Navy SEAL Jake Sommers made the biggest mistake of his life. He's been paying for it ever since. He pushed away the woman he loved, lost her to his best friend, and held that much better man in his arms as he bled out in a hostile desert halfway around the world.

But that was then, and after working hard to get himself into a better head space, Jake "Snake" Sommers has finally come back to Chicago. He came for one reason: Michelle Carter, the only woman he has ever or will ever love.

His friend and former CO Frank Knight now runs a special ops unit fronted by a custom motorcycle shop. As far as Jake is concerned, Boss is just going to have to deal with him coming back for his sister Chelle. After all this time, Jake isn't going to be taking no for an answer, not from Chelle and certainly not from an overprotective big brother. Michelle is his.

She can't deny seeing Jake again after four long years is a shock that she hadn't expected. And if Michelle were honest, there's more there than just surprise. She's not, however, the same inexperienced woman she had been the night he broke her heart. She's a mother now, first of all, and absolutely nothing is more important to her than her son. Jake Sommers is not to be trusted.

When her brother gets word that his Black Knights are being targeted by a mobster with a grudge, the unit mobilizes and Jake steps up to the plate, offering his help in guarding Michelle - over her protests. As grimly certain as Jake is that no one is getting past him and threatening Michelle and her son, Michelle is equally convinced that having Jake in her home, her sanctuary, is a breach that will make keeping him out of her heart almost impossible.

And that's a fear that goes far beyond anything a potentially psychotic crime lord can dish out.

~*~

After three books of Walker's series, I'm still not entirely sure what to make of it. One one hand, it's got a lot of elements that I enjoy in romantic suspense: sexy alpha men on kick-ass motorcycles, lots of action and danger for all, and lusty, humor-laden romance. On the other hand, I continue to struggle with the dichotomy between the humor and the often brutal violence or serious themes, the only heroine I've liked is Becky from the previous book, and I haven't been completely sold on the plotlines of the external, non-relationship conflicts in any of the books.

It's a conundrum.

I have to admit, the appeal of this book was further hampered by a couple of personal reading preferences of mine. I'm not crazy about second chance romances and if children are involved in the story, I find single fathers far, far more palatable than single mothers. As this story features both a second chance romance and a single mother, it started at a disadvantage for me that is in no way related to the strength of the story.

Other issues were, however. I wasn't crazy about Michelle at any point in the story, but there is a fairly significant reveal late in the book that made me actively dislike her. Throughout the book, though, she seemed just a little too...sheltered, too cautious maybe. And in her environment, with the men as contrast, caution looks like weakness. I couldn't shake that feeling while I was reading. She also had some seriously skewed decision-making skills. Or lack thereof.

Jake was fine as the hero. He didn't wow me, exactly. His character was perhaps a bit too similar to every other alpha male warrior in the genre for that, but I did like him well enough. I understood his flaws and had sympathy for his pain and insecurities. I had quite a lot of sympathy for him towards the end of the book, when his world was spun on its axis, and I wish he'd held out a little longer on granting forgiveness over all that. I'm petty that way.

The threat posed by the Bad Guy was better balanced in the narrative than it has been in previous books. It's still not as fleshed out as I would have preferred, and there were a couple of questionable elements in the arc, but it provided a foundation for the plot that I did enjoy. And then there was the ancillary plot thread that focused on Vanessa and Rock.

I loved them! I loved everything about them both. Their plot thread, while not a complete secondary romance, was still more entertaining to me than the main characters' arc in a lot of ways. Vanessa made me chuckle and Rock melted my heart a little. They fit well together, and their chemistry was rock-solid. I'd love to see them in their own book and wish their roles had been expanded in this one. Without them, this would have been a much less entertaining read.

I really want to be able to connect to this series. So much of it is everything I like in romantic suspense. For one reason or another, though, something always seems to hold me back. In this book, one of the biggest "somethings" came with the big reveal that set up the relationship conflict towards the end of the book. Just thinking about it still makes my eyes cross. Plausibility did not seem to be a consideration for that one.

Normally, three books are more than enough to let me know if a series is going to be a good fit for me. Not so here, but I keep hoping for that one book to make everything click. So far it hasn't quite happened, though there are definitely series and story elements that totally work for me. Work so well, in fact, that it keeps me reading. I guess I'll continue to do so.


The Black Knights, Inc. Series:

  

Deadly Pursuit by Nina Croft

Genre: SciFi Romance; Paranormal Romance; Futuristic
Series: Blood Hunter, Book 2
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 286 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Entangled Publishing via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



Fierce, Furry, Futuristic Romp

Confused and disoriented, Jonathan Decker jerks awake aboard a strange ship. He's lying in bed in an unfamiliar room, not in a cell, and he's alive. He doesn't know why he was released from the maximum security prison he expected to die in, and he doesn't know who got him out.

It isn't until a young cabin boy shows up carrying clothes for him that he's told he's aboard a space cruiser called the El Cazador de la Sangre. Owned and piloted by a vampire, captained and crewed by what seems a band of misfits, it's enough to make his inner wolf twitch. Except for the blood sucker. He just makes Jon want to rend him limb from limb. Werewolves and vampires, after all, do not get along.

The cabin boy is interesting, though. It doesn't take Jon long to realize there's definitely a story there. His first clue is the fact that the boy isn't a boy at all, but a diminutive young woman. The second is that he seems to be the only one who knows that tidbit of information, and he just got there. Jon's not sure he cares enough to find out why that is, or what her story is, but his libido definitely takes notice.

Before he can decide whether to follow up on whatever secrets she's keeping, the ship is attacked and his life becomes more complicated than ever. Someone obviously wants him very, very dead, maybe more than one someone. Not surprising in theory, but almost inconceivable in practice. Then the girl turns out to be the runaway High Priestess of the Church of the Everlasting Life, one of the two most powerful organizations in the universe and not a big fan of his kind, and they're searching the galaxy for her. Which paints a bright red bulls-eye on the ship that is his only means of escape and survival. Not exactly where he needs to be to keep a low profile.

Who would've thought that a long, brutal end in a maximum security penal colony may have been the lesser of the two evils in this new nightmare called his life?

~*~

I'm a little surprised by how much I enjoy the mix of futuristic science fiction and paranormal romance this series provides. I wasn't expecting it with the first book, and though I knew of the juxtaposition going into this one, I was delighted to see it combined with a story that had more appeal than its predecessor. The longer format allowed for more depth and detail in character development, plot, and world definition, all things I felt lacking in the novella-length series starter.

Still, I'm glad I read that first book prior to this one. I don't think this one would read as well as a stand-alone. The story starts off almost exactly where the first book left off and if I hadn't read the other, I think a good portion of the first few chapters would be lacking in emotional significance and/or seem downright confusing.

I thought Jon was a solid lead character. He was abrupt and coarse at times, a bit of a smart ass, and a guy who loved pushing buttons, but he's also a wounded, deeply scarred male who has suffered painful loss and survived by insulating himself from life at every turn. Jaded, cynical, and standoffish, protective, proud, and passionate, there are many layers to that one, some of them downright unpleasant. He was also a fairly traditional alpha male and the lone wolf attitude fit him like a glove.

Alex wasn't as big a draw for me. I didn't dislike her, I just prefer a different type of heroine. Strength, intelligence, and independence are big to me and Alex didn't exactly overwhelm me in that regard. She was a little too skittish and inexperienced both physically and emotionally. It got her in trouble more than once. It wasn't until deep into the latter half off the book, as her relationship with Jon evolves, that I started to enjoy her and imagine them together. That put a bit of a crimp on my feelings about the romance arc of the book.

Beyond that, though, I thought the story was very solid. Full of action and danger, brushed by humor and spiced with lusty sexiness, the external plot conflict was a many-headed monster of tension and taut triumph. Like a juggler with his balls in the air, Croft kept each element of threat and danger churned up, tossed out, and caught again to finish the spin. Gave the book a hunted edge that worked nicely with the keen intent of the characters.

I wish the final conflict and resolution had been handled differently, though. After everything that happened, all that had been lost, found, stolen or sacrificed, the end struck me as fairly anticlimactic. It all got resolved too quick for my taste, and the epilogue didn't mitigate as much of that abruptness as I'd hoped it would. Leading up to that, though, the non-romantic story elements were wholly engaging.

This series is shaping up very nicely and has furthered the steady progress being made in turning me into a sci-fi romance fan. It wasn't too long ago that I didn't read sci-fi romance at all, but I have it admit, with entertaining stories like this one that blends my favored paranormal romance with the less familiar science fiction, the genre is definitely growing on me and I look forward to more.


The Blood Hunter Series:

  

One Wrong Move by Shannon McKenna

Genre: Paranormal Romantic Suspense
Series: McClouds & Friends, Book 9
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 400 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Kensington Publishing via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



My Wrong Move Was Not Picking Up This Series Sooner

Nina Christie has had bad days before. Who hasn't? She never expected to have the concept quite so thoroughly redefined for her, however. Then she was accosted on the street in the predawn hours, a crazed, beaten, and bloody woman calling her name, stealing her phone, stabbing a needle into her arm...

As the world goes dark, confusion and horror clamor viciously inside her. Nina recognized the woman who injected her with whatever was in that needle. But recognition brought no release from dawning terror.

One would think waking up in a hospital, realizing you're still alive, would be a general improvement at that point, but there were a lot of hours left in this particular bad day of hers. With one injection of an unknown substance, Nina has been hijacked from her safe little world, become the hunted for a power-hungry, evil group of people who have deadly, manipulative skills and abilities no human should ever have. And they want Nina dead. Not for who she is, but for what's inside her.

Fighting hallucinations, suddenly hearing people's thoughts, escaping a kidnapping attempt, barely surviving more than one attempt on her life, Nina's reality as been brutally stripped down to one prevalent fact: without help, she's dead. But even when friend-of-a-friend Alex Aaro rescues her from a fate worse than death and agrees to guard her until other help arrives, Nina can't help but wonder.

Is Aaro a grim-faced, aggressive, antagonistic, all around less-than-pleasant knight in shining armor...or is he just another deadly element in a day overloaded with them?

~*~

I love to read, and of course I prefer to enjoy what I'm reading, so I can't begin to tell you how annoying it is to realize I've missed out on so many potentially awesome books. Based on how much I enjoyed this ninth (and it hurts me just to type that) installment of McKenna's McClouds & Friends series, I'm going to be kicking myself over this one for a long, long time.

This was such an adrenaline-laced, action-packed, hell of a good time! I absolutely loved main characters Nina and Aaro, the world was well-defined and richly detailed, and the plot was a breakneck race for survival that left me breathless. Some elements were a bit confusing, and the scenes that featured characters who had obviously been previously introduced in the series didn't have quite the emotional impact on me that they would probably have had on a reader familiar with the earlier books, but this still read just fine as a stand-alone.

Not that I'm going to let it stand alone. I have absolutely every intention of continuing on in this series now that I know it exists.

Nina and Aaro were the absolute stars in the story in every way. Not only did I find them both well-conceived and layered, with their own flaws and peccadilloes defining and deepening them as characters, they were also just a lot of fun to spend time with. I was worried at first that Nina would be a bit of a damsel in distress, but she's a real trouper. Witty, sarcastic, and tough when it counts, she comes through nicely. And the banter between her and Aaro was truly classic.

About Aaro...wow...loved him so much. Sexy in that bad boy, alpha male, my-feminine-side-is-a-9mm sort of way, he was all sarcastic aggression, bad temper, and Slavic gorgeousness. Totally yummy and in no way a nice guy, I loved his beleaguered honor and integrity and adored his antisocial attitude. And watching him be floored by his reaction to Nina...that was all kinds of good times. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. Yum!

Their chemistry was off-the-charts awesome, but I was so happy that McKenna kept their responses and evolving relationship as organic to their situation as it could be, all things considered. The timeline of the novel is rather brief, and I normally don't have a lot of tolerance for romances that spring up that quickly, but somehow, maybe because so very much is going on around them and happening to them in such a short time, the speed and depth of their feelings for each other didn't feel rushed or unrealistic.

The story itself was just as wild and wonderful as the relationship between Aaro and Nina. I have to admit, the beginning read a little slow to me because the book pulls no punches, dropping readers head-first into the established world. I was confused initially, and it did take me a little bit to wrap my head around some of the critical plot elements and the various factions involved. And frankly there was just a hell of a lot going on in the book with which I had to become familiar. I can't really blame McKenna for it taking me awhile to catch on.

The fact that I was eager to do so in the face of my initial confusion is a credit to McKenna, actually, because had Aaro and Nina not been such strong, compelling characters, I may have put the book down before I had time to get acclimated. I was hooked, though, the first time they spoke to each other over the phone, and on top of my delight over what a bad mood bear Aaro was, my interest in the story was cemented.

This is definitely a book I'd recommend to fans of romantic suspense with paranormal elements. It's a solid installment in a series I plan on continuing, and I'm sure I'll eventually stop kicking myself for missing out on so much of it. Now I know, and after enjoying Aaro and Nina's story I just couldn't be happier about that.

Quotables:

"They're watching us," he said. "They'll follow."

She looked around wildly. "But where? I don't see-"

"Me neither," he said. "I feel them. They make my balls itch."

"Oh," she said inanely. "Must be nice to have an early warning system. Are you sure it's not just a fungus?"


"So people shoot at you a lot, then?"

"More often than I'd like," he admitted.

"Have you considered trying behavioral modification to address that problem?" she asked, a little too sweetly.

He shrugged. "It's more time effective to just shoot back."


He opened the freezer, which was amazingly functional. Some grubbing around yielded a handful of Lean Cuisines. He pulled out five, threw them into the microwave to nuke. "There," he said. "See? I cooked."

"Wow," Nina murmured. "The confidence, the skill, the flair. That was sexy, Aaro. I love to see a guy strut his stuff in the kitchen."

Run the Risk by Lori Foster

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: Love Undercover, Book 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 379 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by HQN publisher Harlequin via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



A Sexy and Fun Romantic Suspense

It was supposed to be a simple undercover op that would lead him to the man who killed his best friend. Detective Logan Riske has Pepper Yates in his sights and through her he plans to get to her brother, the only known witness to his friend's murder. All he has to do is play at being a construction worker, a helpful neighbor, and an interested red-blooded man as he slowly, carefully reels her in.

Logan is severely thrown, though, when he realizes just how much of her own reeling the shy, skittish, but surprisingly seductive woman is doing to him while he's at it. And just how effective it's been on his control. So much so that the longer he stays undercover, the more his focus switches from finding her brother to keeping Pepper safe from the crime boss that would happily see them both dead.

It never once occurred to Logan that he wasn't the only one keeping secrets in the relationship he's fostered with Pepper. And even as those secrets finally rear up and knock him flat, they could very well end up more than risking his case, but tearing his heart out as well.

~*~

For years I've enjoyed Lori Foster's romantic suspense novels and this series debut continued that streak quite nicely. Likable characters with sizzling chemistry combined with a solid plotline delivered a truly entertaining read. I enjoyed the plot twists and touches of humor, and the secondary characters provided intriguing glimpses into the future of the series. This was an all-around good read.

Not only was Logan a sexy bit of alpha male, but Pepper was a treat as well. I loved how they interacted, the heat between them was intense, and Pepper really kept the poor guy off balance from the start. Then there was the fact that Logan was hot for Pepper before he got to see beyond her disguise. That truly set him apart in my esteem. I'm always, always a sucker for the heroes who fall for the Plain Jane, seeing something of value in them beyond appearance, and that was totally Logan in this book.

And of course, when the gloves truly came off, I was tickled pink by Pepper's response and Logan's reaction to it. Loved that. I think I could actually hear Logan's jaw slamming on the floor in one scene.

Foster did a nice job keeping the threat of the Bad Guy cloaked in threats and mystery, teasing readers with the suspense threads in such a way that you don't really know the motivations or intentions of anyone but the main characters in most cases. Even partners and brothers were not immune from having their loyalties questioned. It kept the tension level high throughout the book.

Some elements of the plot weren't to my personal taste. I'm not a big fan of the mafioso-type Bad Guy trope, the city crime lord who holds court over a terrified populace. That's just not my gig and in this book it seemed a little overplayed and cliched, especially during the story's climax. Fortunately, my investment in the characters and their relationship was enough to balance that out and still keep me entertained.

This wasn't the most complex and mulit-layered story I've ever read, nor was it particularly gritty and realistic. There were several elements that worked to keep the tone set on the lighter end of the romantic suspense spectrum. I was perfectly okay with that, even when some of those elements tread closer towards absurdity for their humorous impact. There was simply a nice balance between the dark and the light that gave the book a sexy, fun feel as opposed to one more realistic and intense.

As far as series debuts go, this one hit the right notes to make me want to return to it when the series progresses. I very much enjoyed the introduction to the characters who will be featured in the next book. The chemistry between them was touched on very briefly and in some pretty amusing ways. With the hints given about one of those character's lives, there is some great story potential to look forward to.

Sexy, fun, graced by touches of humor and just enough danger to keep it relevant and interesting, this series debut by Foster delivered everything I was hoping for in a quick, easy, smooth read. Given my familiarity with Foster's work, I wasn't expecting anything less, but it's always nice to get exactly what you want out of a book when you want it.

Mark of the Witch by Maggie Shayne

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: The Portal, Book 1
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 400 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Mira publisher Harlequin via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



Has Several High Points

As far as nightmares go, repeatedly dreaming of being violently sacrificed is right up there in levels of badness. Being ripped out of sleep with wounds that match the damage suffered in the nightmare, well, that's a whole other level of scary-weird. And former Wiccan Indira Simon had a greater understanding of weird that most.

This was too much, though, even for her.

Disturbed and more than a little scared, Indira turns to Wiccan high priestess Rayne Blackwood, a woman who had been her best friend before Indy gave up the faith. Indira tells her everything, including the fact that she doesn't believe the nightmares she's been having are actually dreams. Indira is pretty sure they're memories. Her memories. From a life she lived thousands of years ago.

Instead of questioning her sanity, Rayne believes her, and more, she agrees to help. Then she calls the one person she thinks will be able to help Indy in a way she can't.

Father Tomas is not like any priest Indira has ever met. He's young and gorgeous, first of all, and the bolt of attraction she feels when he introduces himself to her is just wrong on so many levels. But when he starts telling her about his calling and about her destiny, Indy is sure he has lost his mind.

But the nightmares she's suffering are doing more than leaving rope burns, they're turning deadly. Suddenly the stories Tomas has told her don't seem quite so unbelievable, and the visceral connection between the two of them can't be denied. But they also leave her with a few big questions, not the least of which is whether or not the good Padre is what he seems, or if he's an enemy in priest's clothing.

After all, being sacrificed in her dreams is one thing. Indira certainly has no interest in suffering it while she's awake.

~*~

I don't always know exactly when a book is going to grab me. Some never do. Some don't have to, if I'm well into an established series by a favored author (there's always one book that doesn't work for me for whatever reason). But most books do have to grab me at some point if I'm going to invest my time in reading them through to the end.

The grab-point in this first book in Shayne's new trilogy was this:

Dammit straight to hell, I was being sacrificed again.

There was just something about that line, practically oozing frustrated annoyance and incredulous disbelief at such an obviously critical moment, that tickled me. As it also happens to be the very first sentence of the book, I knew right away I was in this book for the long haul. And lucky for me, most of that haul was a right good time.

It was definitely a unique story, with several elements that I've never read before. True, many of those were a mixed bag of good and less-good, but for the most part it was a positive. I certainly enjoyed Shayne's authorial voice and her main character, Indira, and I loved the murky enigma of the good versus evil theme that trickled throughout the book.

Indy was a well-drawn, likable character. She was enough of a skeptic initially to be freaked out over what was happening to her, which added a nice layer of tension to the storyline, but she was also smart enough and open-minded enough to adjust her point of view as she became more and more aware of what was going on and the role she played in it.

I like that she didn't just take what people told her as rote, she also relied on her own feelings and experiences, and stood up for herself when her opinions differed from others. Even in the face of prejudice and hatred. I respected that.

In fact, I respected her far more than I would have thought given her backstory. This is a woman, after all, who disavowed her religion and stopped believing in magic because the spell she cast to find her soul mate didn't work. That point struck me hard, seeming childish and petulant from the moment that information was disclosed. I would have preferred a better (at the very least less cheesy) reason for Wicca to have fallen out of favor with her.

For all that I liked Indy, though, I wasn't quite as fond of Tomas. Though I am in no way religious, I have to admit, I tripped over the Padre being written as the romantic hero. There's just something about those little white tabs in those black collars that draws a line for me, making them big unmixy things with this sort of romance.

Shayne tried hard, though, I'll give her that. I could tell she put in the effort to make that work for readers. From the moment of his introduction in the book we know Tomas is no longer a man of faith, though the storyline does take his belief structure on a bit of a wild ride. There were also several things about his character in general and his priesthood in particular that seemed designed to allow for the relationship between him and Indy, though some of those struck me as altogether too convenient.

I'm not saying that I felt their relationship wasn't okay. I wasn't conflicted by Tomas and Indy as characters together - they seemed to suit each other fairly well. I just felt a little blocked by the collar and couldn't fully commit to their relationship because of it. It didn't help that when Tomas faces his mentor, a more vile and hateful character I've rarely read, Tomas acted like a spineless fraction of a man, one too conflicted by the shackles of misplaced duty to make a stand against the unrelenting prejudice of an obviously unbalanced psyche.

Which brings me to one of my larger issues with the story. For all that I really enjoyed the arc of the plot, and think the tale was solid in concept, I struggled through a large section in the middle of the book, and it started shortly after Indy and Tomas make it to the cabin. There was a pretty significant shift in the focus of the story at that point, one that included the evolution of the not-so-good Father Dom as a potential antagonist.

I loathed that man. Hated everything about him, trusted him not a bit, and would have loved watching his head explode in slow motion every time he spoke. Everything he did, everything he said, all the vitriolic bullshit he spouted, all of that just turned my stomach - and seemed far too transparent. Too much so for me to rationalize Tomas' continued obeisance to the man in the face of some pretty heinous behavior.

I was left wishing, especially after an odd and abrupt twist near the book's climax, that Dom's zealous lunacy had been dealt with in a more subtle fashion. As it was, it put too much of a strain on my willing suspension of disbelief, not only in regards to Tomas, but also with Indy and Rayne, who had no real motive to agree to spend even five minutes with that man, let alone work with him to find the amulet. But everyone just let the vicious old lunatic get away with saying and doing whatever horrific thing he wanted to and kept pressing on in their quest despite it, and that just didn't fly with me.

Still, I felt there were more high points than low in this book. I would have enjoyed a different ending with a bit more resolution and far more justice, but so many of the elements of the plot and story were fresh and unique, and Indy was so much fun, that overall I'm glad the first sentence grabbed me like it did. There is definitely much story left to tell in this imaginative blend of past and present, myth and magic, and I'd like to know what comes next.

Shades of Temptation by Virna DePaul

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: Special Investigations Group (SIG), Book 2
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 384 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by HQN publisher Harlequin via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



A Little Bumpy in Places But Better

As a special agent with California's Special Investigations Group and the only female agent in the elite division, Carrie Ward knows all about having to work twice as hard to play with the big boys. She put in that work, dedicated herself to being the best. And until she hesitated during an apprehension, missed an important shot against a hostile perp and almost died because of it, she was confident and certain of her abilities as a cop.

Then she was shot and her world changed.

Her confidence shaken, Carrie is just coming back from medical leave when she's given lead on the sort of case that could make or break her career. A serial killer case. No sooner is she handed the file, though, than SIG starts second guessing the assignment. Carrie can accept that. It's not pleasant to be doubted but it's not wholly unexpected. She's poleaxed, though, when Jace Tyler, the one special agent that fires Carrie's lust...and incites her temper...goes to the acting director and flat-out tells him she can't handle it. Claims she's not ready. Wants the case for himself.

That's a betrayal that cuts deep. And it's one she won't forget, even when she and Jace are teamed up to stop the brutal, sadistic killer. Any lust she feels for the agent who is known for being fast on cases and faster with women...many, many women...will just have to take a back seat to her determination to stop a monster.

~*~

This second book in DePaul's SIG series worked better for me overall than it's predecessor. The characters had greater appeal to me, the serial killer thread was more to my liking, and the relationship between Carrie and Jace was both hotter and more realistic to me than the one in the first book. This story had its own ups and downs, but I did enjoy it more than the first.

I really liked Carrie as the female lead. Strong, independent, and a damn good shot, she's not so perfect that she doesn't have some rather serious personal flaws and insecurities, too. Short tempered, defensive, stubborn, she is a hothead with a chip on her shoulder - even if much of that chip is for good reason. She is also traumatized and shaken by what happened to her when she was shot and far more confident in being a cop than being a woman.

She wasn't always likable, in fact, there were times when she flat-out annoyed me, but she felt realistic to me, believable as a woman in that sort of career. I thought she was a three dimensional and interesting character...when I didn't want to smack her for her extremely prickly attitude.

Jace was slightly harder for me to get a consistent read on. On one hand he was a charming reprobate and his reputation with women precedes him. On the other, he kept Carrie in his sights, and kept pushing at the lust they felt for each other. He did some things I wasn't too keen on, but he also had a sharp mind and often looked out for Carrie's best interests when she was charging into situations half-cocked.

Obviously he was the senior agent, but sometimes I questioned his ability to think outside the box, and though I understand that his reputation with the ladies isn't totally representative of his reality, I wish I'd had a better grasp of what his reality was pre-Carrie and why.

The relationship between them was one of my favorite elements of the book. There was a lot of tension and anger, distrust and lust, attraction and frustration. The evolutionary road of the relationship arc that took them from reluctant partners and resistant allies to romance HEA wasn't without its major craters, and I can't say the romance elements totally won me over, but the chemistry generated by the often contentious struggles of two dominant personalities could not be denied.

I wasn't quite as enamored with the external conflict of the story, the plot threads surrounding the serial killer case Carrie and Jace were working. Some of the plot points seemed a little peculiar to me, and the way they developed as the story went along was at times perplexing. The first half of the book focused so heavily on the relationship between Carrie and Jace and on the questions of Carrie's competency to head the investigation, that the actual investigation and the killer's plot threads were almost completely overshadowed until the second half of the book.

By then there had been some fairly significant developments that I felt were tragically glossed over and under-represented in the story. So much so that when the unsub started to escalate as his story arc approached climax, it seemed many of the more unique elements of the plot had been muted or dropped completely. Then the story took a couple of drastic, dramatic turns that were surprising, but didn't completely make sense to me, given the psychological setup for the killer to that point.

There were definitely several tense and emotionally gripping scenes, though. Some that stunned for their abrupt carnage. The climax and subsequent resolution of conflict may not have been totally satisfying to my analytical side, but the part of me that likes the gut-churning emotions and steep costs when dealing with serial killer storylines was very entertained.

The story wasn't as smooth and well-balanced as I would have liked, but it appealed to me more than its predecessor, and DePaul has proved more than capable of creating some pretty twisted Bad Guys and nail-biting suspense. Call me certifiable, but I like the psychological thriller parts of my romantic suspense to be chock full of batshit crazy and causing a wide swath of damage, emotional and/or physical, for all concerned. This second book in the SIG series did, at the very least, do that.


Special Investigations Group (SIG) Series:

  

A Fool's Gold Christmas by Susan Mallery

Genre: Contemporary Romance
Series: Fool's Gold, Book 10
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 320 Pages
Formats: Hardcover, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by HQN publisher Harlequin via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



A Jolly Little Holiday Treat

Classically trained dancer Evie Stryker has every intention of escaping Fool's Gold as soon as she can. It wasn't her idea to come to the small town to begin with, but following an injury her estranged family snatched her out of the hospital and brought her there.

She's kept busy teaching classes at the community's dance school, but the holidays are approaching and the head of the school has taken off, leaving Evie sole responsibility of Fool's Gold's winter festival production. A production the whole town looks forward to. A production that she's never seen, about a story she doesn't know, with dances she hasn't choreographed, sets she can't find, costumes she can't make, and students she's just started to teach. Not that there's any pressure or anything.

Dante Jefferson doesn't mind Fool's Gold. He can be just as good a lawyer there as he could in the city, and being closer to best friend and business partner Rafe for business issues that need his attention make it more than worth Dante's while. The incessant clogging and giggling from the dance studio on the floor above him was a little much to take, though, especially after a long day. It also tended to put some of his business calls in jeopardy. Confronting the teacher up there so they could work out a schedule seemed the sensible thing to do.

Coming face to...leotard-wrapped, sexy body with Rafe's little sister Evie didn't exactly put Dante in a sensible frame of mind, but for all sorts of reasons, giving in to the hot jolt of pure physical desire at the sight was a bad, bad idea. Still, there's something about Evie that makes even Dante feel a little holiday cheer.

And so long as they both understood that giving in to their obvious mutual attraction is strictly relegated to a friends with some lovely benefits thing, it'd be a shame to let all that mistletoe go to waste...

~*~

I so enjoy fun, feisty, festive holiday romances. I don't read them with many expectations beyond a light, sweet story with a bit of holiday cheer, and Mallery delivered smashingly in this instance. Fool's Gold is the perfect setting, too. Sure, it didn't break any new ground in the genre, but Mallery has a gift for creating truly endearing characters with just the right amount of genuine personal conflict to keep them from being totally cookie-cutter.

Evie's issues with her family, her mother in particular, lend a touch of gravitas to her character and to the plot of the story, and the surrounding holiday was a perfect vehicle to address those issues. Dante's past, brushed upon as it was, had a bit of darkness in it as well, explaining his nature and providing a framework for his lack of faith in relationships. They were both sexy, slightly wounded characters who fit quite quite nicely together in the story.

Their romance was kept relatively low key, all things considered. I liked the scenes in which they spent time together, most holiday-related outings that reminded me fondly of Christmases in my past. Their sexual relationship was deftly handled, as well. A preponderance of mattress gymnastics would have been out of place given the story, but too often lately contemporary romance seems to be overloaded with hot, sweaty sex scenes that serve little purpose but to titillate.

Hey, I'm all for the hot and sweaties, but not at the expense of character development or story progression, and that's become sadly more common in the genre. Thankfully, that wasn't the case in this book. Instead, the bulk of the plot-driven story elements stuck close to Evie's preparations for the winter festival, providing lots of humorous and sweet moments, and the character-driven story points had both Evie and Dante's relationship as well as Evie's family stuff to work out.

Not only were there some nice layers to the plot, but the mix of emotional baggage and character responsibility kept the story from focusing too narrowly on the romance. The whole of the read felt more substantial because of it. Everything came together so well that Mallery was able to deliver a well-rounded tale of personal journey and familial healing along with a feel-good romance. That was a very nice treat.

With humor, a touch of angst when necessary, and heavy doses of holiday sentimentality, Mallery gives her readers a warm, fun, sexy, touching romance. Charming and sweet, if slightly predictable (the romantic conflict was hardly a surprise), this book may not stick in my mind for long after reading, but it is exactly the sort of read I'd crack open each year near Christmas, curling up in a cozy chair near a crackling fire on a cold winter's night...if we had many of those in my neck of the woods.

Seven Nights in a Rogue's Bed by Anna Campbell

Genre: Historical Romance
Series: Sons of Sin, Book 1
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 384 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.



Beauty and the Beastly

Sidonie Forsythe entered the dour Castle Craven with fear gnawing on her stomach and determination stiffening her spine. She knew the reputation of the scarred lord of the manor but the debt to a sister who had been a mother to her forced her hand. With Roberta's life on the line, she resigned to give herself to the nefarious Jonas Merrick in her stead.

Jonas had carefully and with great intent spun the web that the beautiful wife of his vile cousin had all but thrown herself into. With victory assured and every marker in his possession lined up, he had every intention of spending seven nights using Roberta to degrade and humiliate the cousin who had stolen so much from him. Except it wasn't the pretty wife that entered his parlor, but the wife's sister. An innocent in every way.

Perhaps it should bother him to continue with his plan, trading one sister for the other, and in so doing, ruin Sidonie's future unequivocally. It didn't. Jonas just wasn't that sort of man. He couldn't afford to be, given his appearance and all it represented.

It was certainly, and cynically, no surprise that the fair Miss Forsythe shivered and shuddered in his presence...though she didn't seem to be overly concerned with his scars. And that was only the first in a series of unexpected aspects of the young woman's personality. Not that it would garner her any mercy.

But maybe...just maybe...a different sort of game is called for. A different focus for this different woman. One who is, Jonas warily acknowledges, far more...everything...than he'd anticipated.

~*~

When I read the blurb for this book, I was drawn to the similarities in theme to Beauty and the Beast. Young woman goes to crumbling castle to beard the scarred, wretched beast in his den. She is the only one who can see behind his beastly facade to the man beneath, and her love changes him from monster into prince. They live Happily Ever After. Fade to black.

Irresistible.

And this book would have been, too, if it hadn't been for one or two niggling details that broadened that simple concept into the plot of this book. Details like Jonas, a character that is damaged and complex and on the surface everything I love most in a hero...turning out to be a ruthless bastard who took shameless advantage of a woman's addiction to force her into his clutches so he could cuckolded her husband as punishment for his offenses against Jonas. With not the first thought for the welfare or consequences the woman would suffer after he'd discarded her at the end of that week.

And when that married woman's completely innocent and virginal sister shows up instead, he still refuses to relent. Instead he adapts his plans and holds the gambling debt of her sister over the innocent's head so that she is forced to service him in her sister's stead.

Yeah, Disney didn't exactly cover that one with singing teapots and dancing brooms.

Of course, there is attraction between the beauty and the beast, and the book is written as a slow seduction of the one as we get glimpses into the pain and damage of the other, but I found myself struggling with the basic measure of a man who would consider - even if he didn't actually do it - using a woman as shamelessly as he intended to use Roberta. That trod a little too close to the irredeemable line for me to fully embrace Jonas as the romantic hero in this tale.

And believe me, I was absolutely no fonder of the idea that Sidonie's sister would allow her to face Jonas on her own in her stead, regardless of the abusive husband. For the first several chapters of the book, the only character I could even remotely tolerate was Sidonie herself. But that little bit didn't last too terribly long either, what with the secret Sidonie held back from Jonas even knowing exactly the price he'd paid for it.

Campbell does have a descriptive, emotionally significant writing style that appealed to me, though. The nuances of the main characters' emotions, damages, flaws, and insecurities were particularly well crafted. That appeal was able to smooth over some of my initial displeasure as I read further into the book. I was even able to eventually feel a genuine bit of the magic between Sidonie and her beast as their romance progressed. I just tried to forget the grim manipulations that put the players into the positions they were in. That helped.

The sex scenes were deliciously hot and went hand-in-hand with the angsty emotional consequences of Jonas' disfigurement, but they also overwhelmed the story a little. I would have traded one or two, or been content with shorter scenes in lieu of more complex character evolution and depth of plot.

A better balance in the plot would have been nice, as well. The main characters spent so much of the book in Devon that the plot threads that directly dealt with or spun from Jonas' cousin late in the book seemed cramped and abrupt, and there was one huge twist that seemed to spring up out of absolutely nowhere, despite all the care taken against it. And as much as I did appreciate the emotional quagmire that Jonas was forced to deal with on a daily basis, understanding the trust issues that could spawn, the relationship conflict and subsequent climax still seemed starkly abrupt and a bit out of character to me.

For all that, this wasn't one of my favorite historical romances. I think Campbell is more than capable of a thoroughly entertaining read full of flawed and damaged characters and sweeping romance. These characters and their story just didn't reach that level for me. That said, Campbell's authorial voice is solid and some of the secondary and ancillary characters introduced in this book did spark my interest to a degree that I would continue with the series if they're to be featured.

Boyfriend from Hell by Jamie Quaid

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Saturn's Daughter, Book 1
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 400 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Pocket Books publisher Simon & Schuster via Edelweiss. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.





Series Opener Finishes Strong

The only thing that scarred, limping, and mousy Justine Clancy wants to do is pass her law school finals and get her degree. Maybe then she can quit her part-time job in the radioactive area of Baltimore known as the Zone. Not that the Zone, altered by a series of chemical spills a decade ago, doesn't have its inherent charms. I does. It's just...those charms tend to seem more like freaky mutations or flat-out oddities to the uninitiated.

For two years Tina has worked for the sexy if ego-endowed Andre Legrande, keeping the books for the enigmatic man's many business holdings. She's gotten as used to the Zone as any normal person could, though she does avoid it at night. Still, after all that time Tina thought she'd seen all the weirdness the Zone could dish out. She thought nothing could surprise her anymore. 

Then she witnesses a government car mow down a bunch of teenagers in a crosswalk without so much as tapping the break, she has the bank deposit she's carrying stolen by an invisible assailant, and she barely survives when her boyfriend Max, driving her own damn car, almost runs her down - seemingly on purpose. Sure, they had a fight and she was ticked off at him, but vehicular homicide is just overkill. Literally.

Just before Max puts a painfully permanent end on a very bad day, Tina's panic and anger lashes out and she damns him for his actions. Damns him straight to hell.

And okay, it's the Zone, but come on. She didn't expect to actually send him there.


~*~

Quaid kicks off her series debut with a fascinating, quirky world that reminds me - in spirit, at the least - of Simon Green's Nightside series. That series forever endeared me to books set in those pockets of peculiarity, be they magical or paranormal in nature...or caused by toxic spillage, in which inhabitants are a different sort of breed entirely from "normals" even though they exist practically side by side. The Zone is just such a pocket.

I wish that the storyline had allowed for more depth in the world building and even more Zone weirdness, as those were my favorite elements in the book. It was almost a disappointment when Tina's sudden ability to banish annoying bastards turned out to be an issue of heritage, not radioactivity.

Don't get me wrong, I thought Tina's woo-woo stuff was unique and completely original. I think it's a nifty idea for personal weirdness, and the potential for crazy in it was great. I do wish it had been slightly better defined and explained, though. The whole Saturn's Daughter thing remained a bit too much of a mystery throughout the book given that so much else was going on around Tina. It had the unfortunate overall effect of muddying some of the plot threads for me, especially in the middle of the book.

I wasn't totally sold on Tina as the heroine, either. As much as I enjoyed her sarcastic, in-your-face, jaded awareness in the earliest chapters, she waffled back and forth between that and a willful disbelief about Max as the storyline progressed, despite some compelling evidence. It got a little tedious hearing her claim again and again that Max was a figment of her imagination. Especially as she easily acknowledges invisible thieves and Lady Justice statues that wink at her when she walks by. I would have thought her ability to embrace the surreal would be more advanced.

What I did like was the concept of a heroine who is all about justice. The Zone and its inhabitants, especially Andre Legrande, are steeped in the sort of shades of gray that make the idea of black versus white seem positively adolescent. The ethical issues inherent in Tina's natural ability seem perfectly suited for that sort of environment.

Andre is his own enigma. There definitely wasn't enough of him in the book, he stole every single scene he was in, and the questions about his character and backstory teased my mind long after I set the book down. He's a rather odd chap, really. Not quite an antihero, but he doesn't work on the side of angels, either. Tina's ambivalence to his less-than-pristine character was a lot of fun, and I'm hoping for some relationship evolution for the two of them.

I would have liked a few more of my questions about Saturn's daughters answered in this book, and I wouldn't have quibbled over a more linear external conflict. The Bad Guy was fairly straightforward, but I was a bit unclear on why Tina was considered such a loose thread. I just didn't think there was enough of an established connection between Max and Tina to warrant the Bad Guy's intent in making Tina dead.

This one wasn't a complete win for me as a reader, but there was definitely enough solid writing and intriguing story to appeal. In general I felt the story ended on a stronger note than it began, and I liked Tina much more at the end than I had even in the middle. That, coupled with a definite an air of originality and a wicked twist or three speaks loudly for the potential of this series. A potential I don't want to miss seeing realized.

Quotables:
"Men scratch their bellies and speak gibberish and would still be swinging from trees if we lived in jungles. They probably wouldn't bathe and would still be still be picking nits, too, except the ones with small weenies learned they could make money to compete in the testosterone wars and civilization happened."


"Having a bad day?" Andre taunted. "Doesn't your best - and only - boss deserve at the very least a cheery greeting?"
"I'm having a bad life, and cheery gets you killed around here."

Never Seduce a Scot by Maya Banks

Genre: Historical Romance
Series: The Montgomerys and Armstrongs, Book 1
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Length: 372 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle,
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Ballentine Books publisher Random House Publishing Group via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



Enchanting and Endearing

Their clans are vicious enemies but their king wanted an alliance between them, and what the king wants, the king gets...no matter who or what it costs them all.

Montgomery Laird Graeme Montgomery is furious that he's being forced to wed the daughter of the Armstrong Laird. For decades the two clans have warred with each other. His own father was slain in battle by his future bride's grandfather. To add insult to injury, he's heard Eveline Armstrong is...damaged. Mentally. Graeme will be unable to father children and risk his line being brought low by that sort of illness. For the clan Laird it is a bitter pill.

She has hidden herself so well for so long, too well, really, for her deceptions - though for good reason - have become her cage. Eveline knows she is loved by her family, but even they could not save her three years ago, and since her fall and subsequent illness, she has used the silence she endures to give the impression she's touched in the head. It's kept her safe, but it has a high price.

She's not damaged, nor is she stupid or ignorant, and she's definitely not mentally ill. What Eveline is, is deaf.

She knows that her father is unhappy about the king's decree, but once Eveline meets Graeme she can only see the opportunities. Maybe in another household, away from the threat that locked her into the lies she lives, she can be both a good wife and mother, be accepted for who she really is. All she has to do is convince Graeme that she's not what he thinks, and win over a clan raised to loathe her family with every fiber of their being.

~*~

This book represents everything I love about Scottish historical romance. Honorable Scot warriors, braw and mighty, and the strong, intelligent women who love them - and are loved by them. It just sets my heart to pitter-pattering, especially when the characters are as eminently lovable as Graeme and Eveline are in this book.

Readers for whom historical authenticity is paramount may not find this book as appealing as I, but I've never been one to quibble over those details. In fact, I often find the more historically accurate books to be a bit too realistic and depressing for it. This book had just enough of a medieval Scottish feel to maintain my willing suspension of disbelief but not so much that I was either annoyed, dismayed, or utterly horrified by what life was really like back then, especially for women.

And it had Graeme and Eveline. I loved them both. Graeme was the perfect alpha male, strong and commanding, but with some truly endearing moments of confusion, uncertainty, and vulnerability. I've always felt it's those less than perfect moments and how the characters respond to them that define my favorite alpha males and make them the most lovable. Graeme is right up there with my favorites.

As much as I loved him, though, it was Eveline who made this book such a rousing success for me. I always appreciate books with a hero or heroine who have to deal with a disability of some sort, and I loved the slant the story took with Eveline's deafness. Her character was completely sympathetic, but not once did she come off self-pitying or weak. The decisions she made in relation to her own clan were extreme, but understandable, and the efforts she made with Graeme and the Montgomerys were laudable. She was smart, resourceful, and independent. I just adored her.

I loved them both together, too, and the arc of their relationship evolution was full of just the sort of heart-touching romance...and sexy intimacies...that I love most in romance novels. That, along with Eveline's challenges in her new home, were the strongest elements of the story.

They were also the majority of the story, and that's the only reason this book didn't quite hit the full five stars for me. For all I loved what was there in the plot, I have to admit that it seemed a bit too straightforward and lacked the depth that could have made it meatier and more intense a read. What little external conflict there was struck me as a bit predictable and lacking in originality.

I liked it well enough, but I knew fairly early into the book just what the conflict climax was going to entail and how it would resolve. When I can see it coming that far in advance, it doesn't leave room for many pleasant surprises.

Obviously, that was only a minor complaint, because I heartily enjoyed this read. It's my first experience with Maya Banks in the mainstream, and I have to say, I'm thrilled by it. This was a wonderfully strong, emotionally satisfying, excellently cast way to kick off a new series and I can't wait to get another shot at the Montgomerys and the Armstrongs both.

Second Hand by Heidi Cullinan, Marie Sexton

Genre: M/M Contemporary Romance; LGBT
Series: Tucker Springs, Book 2
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 194 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.



A Cute, Feel-Good Romance

Life for Paul Hannon hasn't exactly turned out like he thought it would when he first moved to Tucker Springs. First he flunked out of veterinarian school, then his girlfriend dumped him and moved out, and now he's stuck, nearly flat-broke, locked into a lease for the firetrap of a home he can barely afford to pay for with his job as a secretary for a vet clinic.

Not exactly a lot to smile about in all that, but mostly he just wants his ex-girlfriend Stacey back so much he aches. Her birthday is coming up, and Paul sees that as a perfect opportunity to try to get her to come back to him. He just needs the perfect present.

Jaded loner El Rozal is minding his business, literally, when the cute guy with the reddish hair and quirky smile walks into the pawn shop he owns looking for a gift for his ex-girlfriend. It doesn't take fifteen minutes for El to realize how adorably cute but truly clueless and heartbroken Paul is.

El is hardly a perfect angel, though, and when the opportunity to spend time with Paul drops in his lap...for all its less-than-ethical reasons...he shamelessly takes it. And the more time he spends with Paul, the more El crushes on the man. So much, in fact, that he can't help but wish Paul isn't as straight as he thinks he is.

Trying to find out if Paul could ever be receptive to him romantically in a risk-free, subtle way, though, is a far more difficult task than El could have ever imagined. For all that Paul is sweet, funny, kind, and adorable, he's also absolutely and completely oblivious. To just about everything.

~*~

Cute and quirky, with one very likable main character and one eminently lovable main character, Paul and El's story made me smile. Cullinan and Sexton kept the plot conflicts from delving into angst-heavy complexity. Problems were mostly taken at face-value, quick to flair up and just as quick to be resolved. I enjoy light, uncomplicated romance now and then so that worked wonderfully for me here. Sometimes, a girl's just gotta have some brain candy.

I loved El. He made the book for me. The things he did to keep Paul coming back to his shop, the way he maneuvered him into spending time with him, both very sneaky and very endearing. He was just so good to Paul, so patient, and when he gets his chance with him, so perfectly in...over his head. I spent most of the tale either amused and/or delighted with him.

And I can't remember any laundry night I've ever had even remotely as entertaining.

El's issues with his sister and mother added a layer or two of depth to both his character and the story, and from the moment he took the dog I was an absolute sucker for them both. I do think that some of the souces of conflict, notably his mother's hoarding, were a bit glossed over, but it did add a twist to his backstory and current family conflicts.

Paul's obliviousness about everything from his sexuality to his job prospects was endearing for most of the book, but there were a few times he seemed more dense than oblivious. He was just a little too gullible for me on more than one occasion. When combined with his self esteem issues, his personality quirks started to wear on me in the latter half of the book, and I couldn't quite embrace his character as thoroughly as I did El's.

I was a little confused by their relationship conflict in the climax of the book. After El's seemingly endless patience and understanding nature when it came to Paul, that struck me as feeling a little out contrived, coming of nowhere. Like everything else, though, it didn't languish unresolved for long. I prefer a bit more work put into the resolutions leading to the end of a book. This one seemed as abrupt as the initial conflict. I have to say, though, I wouldn't have missed Paul's mother explaining her understanding of her son's life for anything. I loved that.

Though Paul and El's romance falls on the lighter and shorter side of a full sized novel, I thoroughly enjoyed their story and my first visit to Tucker Springs. It was just the feel-good, cute, sexy read I needed for a little light entertainment.

Ratings Guide

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

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

2014 Challenge

2014 Reading Challenge

2014 Reading Challenge
Tracy has read 22 books toward her goal of 175 books.
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Zero at the BoneHead Over HeelsLord of the WolfynIn Total SurrenderA Win-Win PropositionNorth of Need

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