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The Darkest Craving by Gena Showalter

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Lords of the Underwold, Book 10
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 466 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: A copy of this book was provided to me by the Amazon Vine program. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



Wasn't Completely Satisfied

Kane has always been a walking disaster. Literally. The Lord houses Disaster, a particularly vile demon that revels in making Kane's life hell. Then Kane actually ended up in hell, suffering horrible torture and rape for weeks on end until he was rescued by a strange female with one particularly odd request for her assistance. She wants him to kill her.

Still lost in darkness from his ordeal, wrecked in a way he's having a hard time dealing with, one thing is absolutely clear to Kane. He's not killing the feisty, adorable half-fae Josephina Aisling. He's going to rescue her instead.

Then he's going to finally kill the demon inside him. Even if he has to die to do it.

~*~

I feel oddly ambivalent about this tenth installment of the Lords of the Underworld series. After Paris' book, which gave readers some much-needed resolution to the nagging problems of the Hunters and Cronus and Rhea, I figured this one would have to be a transitional book. Transitional books tend to not be my favorite books in a series for a lot of reasons, but I've always felt they were a necessary evil and dealt accordingly.

Had this book actually offered some transitional series arc plot development or given any attention to the lingering issues generated by the big battle that ended the previous book, I think I would have been fine with this one in that role. My problem is that it really didn't. In fact, Kane and Josephina's story didn't do much of anything to establish a new, Hunter/Cronus-free direction for the Lords and their allies for the series, nor did it do much to progress the plot line about the hunt for Pandora's box - though that did receive a bit of attention with the kick off of Cameo's story threads and the return of a character I was really hoping to see again in this series.

As for the romance, that didn't really wow me with character or relationship evolution, either.

I like Kane. I've always felt bad for the guy (pretty much the standard for the pre-mated Lords), even when he served as little more than comic relief at the start of the series. It was nice getting a closer look at how he deals with Disaster. I also enjoyed Disaster being given a far more sinister presence than the demons of the other Lords have been given. Disaster just seemed more actively evil than some of the others have been. Not a bad thing, either. I liked it.

We've had a couple of books now, seeing Kane's story unfold, and much of that was pretty horrifying, so I also liked that he got some happiness. What he didn't get, what none of the characters in this series get much of lately, is character depth and complexity or realistic character evolution, and that, along with my issues with the stories themselves, is bothering me a lot in this series.

Yes, Kane is tormented by his time in hell, and rightly so, but that seems to be the sole defining element of his character, and that's just not enough to make him well-rounded and realistic to me. Josephina, maybe because she's new to the series, got a bit more character definition, and I liked her more for that, but again, her role in her family was her defining characteristic and there wasn't a huge amount of depth to her beyond that.

But depth of character and complexity of internal and external conflict have never really been something this series has really offered, and I'm just now starting to remember that. Hellaciously sexy times, yes. Action and adventure, even breath-stealing emotion, yes. Summer-blockbuster-movie amounts of fierce battles and wicked villains, sure. And like those summer blockbusters, not a whole lot of coherent, well-written story surrounding it all.

On a brighter note, I thought the beginning of this book was awesome. I loved when Josephina tried to get Kane to keep his end of the bargain, then turned to Lucien and Sabin when they showed up. I love the idea that the fae were huge fans of the Lords, whose antics they follow as rabidly as the paparazzi dog the Kardashians. I loved Cameo's cameos and Torin's plague-filled drama. And there was other stuff that I truly enjoyed as well.

Kane and Josephina's extended time in the fae world didn't add to the fun. It bored me. And they seemed to spend an awfully long time there, because this was an awfully long book. That's a lot of boredom. Boredom mixed with perplexity, because for the two previous books in this series, several critical things were brewing relating to Kane's fate and the fate of the world, and those threads were just butchered in this book, with no justification or supporting development.

Kane was supposed to start an apocalypse...marry one of the Horseman or the woman who housed Irresponsibility. Or both. Josephina had nothing at all to do with one of those fateful threads and Irresponsiblity had almost nothing to do with the other. Not in anything but a completely transitory way. So what was the point of even having those threads in the previous two books if you're just going to pull in some extremely tenuous threads of suspect connection to go around all of it?

Not deal with it, mind you, completely go around it. Two very different things.

None of that worked for me at all, and all of it, including several threads of resolution, seemed way too convenient and contrived. And the end of the book, with the resolution, was all too typical of Showalter in this series. Completely unsupported by previous development and utterly abrupt. Not to mention repetitive. Seriously, how many books (out of 10) have had an angel (who I guess we're calling Sent Ones now) step in at the critical moment in the climax to flick his wings (or, you know...fiery sword...whatever) to solve all the problems for the main characters and expedite the HEA? More than once is too many. Three times is appalling.

And one other thing: I loathe the, "Oops, I was wrong," explanation to force feed a conflict resolution and fast track an HEA and Showalter uses it All. The. Time. Call it a deus ex machina, a plot contrivance, or whatever, it's that moment when you're reading a story that's been written into a very clearly defined corner only to have the author decide the room is really round so the problem is solved. Argh! Drives me absolutely bat-shit crazy.

The one at the end of this book was particularly heinous, too.

There are just too many things going wrong for me with this series lately, so many that I'm starting to wonder if the two year hiatus I took from the series between Amun's and Strider's books was, in fact, long enough. I'm starting to think it wasn't.

Blaze of Secrets by Jessie Donovan

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Asylums for Magical Threats, Book 1
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 356 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: A copy of this book was provided to me by the author for review. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



The AMT is Terrifying

She is the first-born child of a Feiru mother in a world that hides her kind away in asylums out of a sick paranoia, fear, and prejudice. They call her elemental magic a threat to the unsuspecting human public. They keep her kind secret.

In those asylums they are stripped of their humanity and their dignity, used as lab rats, abused, and suffer torturous "medical" testing that often drives them insane, all for that nebulous Greater Good.

Now Kiarra Melini is left with a horrific choice: sacrifice herself to save her first-born brethren or sit idly by while the researchers at the asylum use her blood to strip the elemental magic from every other first-born they have interred in asylums around the world.

A tragic choice. A heartbreaking choice. But an easy one for the young woman who has been a prisoner of the Asylums for Magical Threats for fifteen years of her life.

She hadn't counted on Jaxton Ward swooping into her cell as she was attempting to end her life. She'd long since given up hope of ever being free from the AMT. Being kidnapped doesn't exactly instill in Kiarra a sense of peace and well being, though, even though Jaxton claims he's rescued her. After all, the AMT is the devil she knows. Jaxton and his anti-AMT group may prove themselves to be just a different sort of devil entirely.

Jaxton knew breaking into the AMT to get his brother and Kiarra out wasn't going to be easy, but he never figured Kiarra would rather suicide than be free. Now he's got to convince the woman he means her no harm and the rebel group he works with needs her elemental magic to fight against the very people who held her captive for most of her life. Training her is going to be a study in frustration, though, given the powerful attraction he has for the brave woman willing to die for her race.

~*~

Unique and original, this series debut by Donovan has a lot going for it, especially in the first half of the book. Kiarra was fiery, cagey, and keenly intelligent, and Jaxton was intense and sexy...and I'm a total sucker for heroes with a British accent. I enjoyed both of their characters very much, and the story was rich with solid world-building, action, and suspense.

I loved Kiarra's whole attitude and personality from the moment she's introduced as an AMT inmate through her dubious rescue and subsequent struggle to adapt to her new freedom. I think she was maybe a bit more balanced and sane than a person would be given what she's been through in her life, but I can't say I minded that for the purposes of the story. I liked her, and I was very pleased with the direction her character took following her rescue. That all worked for me nicely.

And full credit to Donovan for the creep factor and utter horror that was the AMT. I couldn't help but make comparisons to concentration camps in Nazi Germany and it was truly chilling. I find the sort of subversive, subjugating mentality that went into the creation and use of AMTs to be far more effective as a source of external conflict than an individual Big Bad because it's so damn easy to imagine something exactly like that happening, as it's happened before in humanity's darkest times.

I wish I could say I found the second half of the book as entertaining as the first. While the first half provided a solid foundation for the book, was well-conceived and written with a solid focus on fleshing out the world, defining the various factions and introducing the characters, the story took a turn for me at the halfway mark. As soon as Jaxton and Kiarra made it to Scotland and the external conflict became more significant in the plot, I felt like the book started to lose a lot of the cohesion it had established early.

There's a lot going on and it's happening to and with several different characters and their individual points of view. Between the evolution of the main characters, their relationship and all that entailed, their struggles to evade the AMT, the sinister- and almost ridiculously obscure - machinations of Bad Guy Sinclair, and the addition of Kiarra's brother Gio, who was a pretty big question mark to me and seemed an unnecessary source of ancillary conflict, there was too much to focus on. Too much was attempted and not enough of it had payoff. The plot's pacing bogged down and the story got a bit unwieldy and cumbersome.

At times I found myself getting bored - with Kiarra and Jaxton's relationship, with Sinclair's super secret and oh-so-nefarious plans, and with...whatever it was that Gio was trying to do. There were just too many sources of conflict, big reveals, and murky motivations, so many it all became white noise after awhile. It's a shame, because really, there didn't need to be anything beyond the AMT. The reality of those places and the driving force behind their existence is completely horrifying enough on its own to support an entire series of external conflict without needing all the other story detritus that cluttered the back half of this book.

I do think the series has a ton of potential, though, and there are more than enough interesting characters introduced here to provide fodder for many juicy stories to come. This one just didn't quite keep me consistently engaged beyond the story setup and the world-building, and a general sort of appreciation for the romance between Kiarra and Jaxton. Still, I can't say enough about how nice it is to read something that felt truly fresh and original. That alone is worth a lot in a genre glutted on same old same old.

Twilight Hunter by Kait Ballenger

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Execution Underground, Book 1
Rating: 2 Stars
Length: 376 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by HQN Books publisher Harlequin via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.




Left Me In the Dark

When it comes to werewolves, no one hunts them better than Execution Underground operative Jace McCannon. He is relentless and unforgiving, a hunter with a fierce intensity and dedication to his job. Problem is, if the organization knew exactly why he was as proficient a hunter as he is, it would be Jace who would be hunted to extinction.

As it is, he's already in enough trouble with his boss. There's a vicious rogue werewolf on the loose and the carnage he's leaving in his wake is enough to make even a seasoned hunter like Jace shudder at what is done to the female victims. For three weeks he has tracked the frustratingly elusive fiend and time is running out - for Jace and for the monster's next victim.

The latest crime scene turns up his first big break, a werewolf crouched in the shadows watching him examine the fresh kill. If Jace were human, running a werewolf to ground would be impossible, but he isn't human. Not completely. He's half werewolf, and highly motivated to catch the monster who left another woman's brutalized body in a gutter.

Being chased by a hunter is not Frankie Amato's idea of a good time, especially when the hunter on her tail is so much faster and stronger than she expected. Cornered and forced to shift into her human form to plead her case, the pack alpha has no one to blame but herself when Jace takes her into custody. Now she's got to figure out a way to convince the hunter that she can help him track down the killer before she ends up as his throw rug.

As he's made no bones about his loathing of her kind, she has no idea how to do that exactly, but if she and Jace don't work together, more innocent women will die.

~*~

This book did not work for me at all. I liked the idea of it but the actual read gave me a lot of trouble. I pretty much hated Jace throughout the book. I found nothing even remotely heroic or noble about the man. He's an alcoholic, self-loathing prick who treats everyone around him like crap because of some deep-seeded daddy issues. I just wanted him to get the hell over it already and look at the bigger picture, but no.

He was also horribly inconsistent, especially when it came to the relationship he has with Frankie. It was as if he had a bad case of emotional ADD, wavering back and forth between disdaining everything about Frankie to getting all wounded when she holds back her feelings from him...often from one page to the next. And I have very little tolerance for lack of communication being the source of relationship conflict in my romance. Their relationship was littered with it.

Frankie wasn't as bad. I can't really say I liked her throughout, but at least she didn't make me mental. There were moments when I liked her, and I very much appreciated the fact that she's her pack's alpha, but I wish she had been a little stronger in both power and personality to better reflect that position. She was just a little too submissive to Jace, and too willing to take all the bad stuff he dished out at her and love him anyway, for me to take her seriously as an apex predator and competent leader of her people. Didn't help that my first impression of her included her running and hiding from her responsibility.

The story did have its good points, but I struggled there, as well. The world didn't seem all that fleshed out to me. The mythos surrounding skinwalkers was original in theory but I thought the backstory and explanation was an unclear muddle (and in reference to how a skinwalker transitions into a berserker, just flat-out disturbing in context). I also never felt I had a firm handle on the Extermination Underground itself, and given that the series is titled after the organization (so I assume it's important) that was a problem for me.

In fact, every time the EU or its members had impact in the story, there was little more offered than a poorly defined but explosive conflict between Jace and the local EU director Damon. That conflict was too all-encompassing to allow me to get a feel for any of the other characters or the organization as a whole. And I was sincerely disappointed that there was no resolution for their absurd and over-the-top dick-swinging contest.

That actually smacks at the core of my issues with the book, though. For all that the ideas were sound, the story as a whole seemed bereft of nuance and subtlety. If there was an emotion expressed, it was sweeping and dramatic, if there was an action taken, it was balls-to-the-wall, no holds barred. Conflict was furious and deadly, sex was intense and often angry, characters were tortured, romance was angsty. It was all just...so much noise that the sum total just struck me not as a tapestry of plot, character, and world, but as a brute force cacophony: chaotic, hard-hitting, and lacking sophistication.

I wouldn't say I'm sorry I read this one, but I also can't say I'd be interested in continuing the series.

Realm Walker by Kathleen Collins

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Realm Walker, Book 1
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 189 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.



Problems and Potential Both

In a world that's been knowingly coping and coexisting with magic and magical creatures since the Rending, half-dark fae, half-mage Juliana Norris is a Realm Walker, an officer of the International Law Enforcement Agency that polices the Altered. She is most often assigned to tracking and, when necessary, hunting those nonhuman creatures who are causing trouble with their human neighbors.

Given as she can see the signature that every being leaves as it travels along its way, sort of like a magical scent trail, and identify them by their colors, she is uniquely qualified for the job. The only creatures she can't see, that leave no signature behind in their wake, are demons. That does, however, make more than a little problematic the fact that someone has summoned one and set it on a course of death and destruction straight at Juliana.

Then there's the vampire she once loved, Thomas Kendrick. Seven years ago he took her as his mate, then disappeared from her life before the blood was even dry. Losing him nearly destroyed her. The aftermath of his leaving changed her irrevocably. Now he's returned and is of the opinion that it would be the perfect time to force his way back into her life. Because she obviously doesn't have enough to worry about.

With a demon slaughtering everything in its path and Thomas dogging her every step, Juliana is running out of time to save the city and is in serious danger of losing her heart. The vampire has already proven he is just as capable of ripping it out of her chest as the demon is, and while the demon may provide a bloodier and more deadly sort of evisceration, it may not be the most devastating in the long run.

~*~

This series debut by Collins marks the second time in a handful of months where I had to stop a few chapters into a book and make sure there wasn't a preceding book or novella, or even a main series from which this one spun, because I felt like I was missing a lot of previously laid groundwork almost from the very beginning. There's plenty of tidbits of information about things that happened in the past to set up the story, but the characters, their backstory, and significant elements of the world-building are disclosed in a way that seemed far better suited as reminders than introductions.

Julianna and Thomas have a lot of personal history, that much is plain, but I never felt like I was given a good grasp of it. Details about their past were either glossed over or doled out in drips and drabs throughout the tale and I couldn't shake the feeling that I was supposed to have already known the whole story before I started the book. Though I'm not really sure how.

That problem wasn't limited to Thomas, either. All of Julianna's friends and acquaintances suffer similarly. There are several who have obvious history with her, but without the all-important context to let me know how and why they were as valuable to her as we're told they are, I never really felt any of those connections. That put a big crimp in the emotional impact of several crucial scenes as the conflict with the Big Bad heated up, and it confused me in general when it came to characters like Raoul and Michael.

And not for nothing, but I'm still not sure how I feel about Thomas. I was completely thrown by the weird way he showed up and inserted himself into Juliana's life, offering sketchy detail on what he does and doesn't know about her origins and her life since he left and making some pretty high-handed demands with all kinds of attitude. My first impression of him was of an overbearing, utterly egotistical asshat, and while that did improve the longer I read, it didn't completely go away.

Maybe it would have if he hadn't kept referring to Juliana as "his bride." Ugh. Not only did that bug me with its repetition, it seemed pretty offensively objectifying to me. Like he didn't see her as her own person with her own identity, she was just his bride. It was weird. Not sexy. Weird.

On the other hand, it quickly becomes clear that Juliana is absolutely everything to him and he would do anything for her. I would have preferred seeing a bit more of that in application, though, and a smidge of honest communication wouldn't have been remiss, either. I'm starting to wonder if there is just no other way to breed conflict between two stubborn, self-sacrificing characters, as often as that has been the sole source of major relationship conflict in stories I've read lately. Still, his devotion to her did temper my negative opinion of the guy and kept him from being utterly unlikable, but he was definitely not to my personal taste in romantic hero types.

There were, however, some very nice things going on, too. It was nice reading an urban fantasy series debut that didn't make me want to poke the heroine with something sharp. First time that's happened in a while. And no inklings of a love triangle, either, which is virtually unheard of in the genre of late. Those were two big positives in a book with a well-conceived (if not perfectly defined) world and solid story, and that's what kept my feelings generally positive overall as I dealt with some of the less favorable elements.

I actually liked Juliana. She's not the most original character, is in fact fairly typical for the genre. In Juliana's case, thankfully, her emotional maturity seemed slightly higher than that of an average twelve year old (a welcome change), and she's more palatable than most I've read recently. She's certainly the sort of smart-mouthed, kick-ass rule breaker I seem to gravitate towards most in the genre. You know the sort: she would sacrifice herself to save anyone she considers "hers" but guards her heart and her secrets like a jealous lover and doesn't actually let anyone in very far.

It's a common malady in urban fantasy heroines, but one I've always sort of enjoyed, or at the very least, never minded.

I did enjoy the glimpses of the world I got in this book, and there were several secondary and ancillary characters with nice page presence, though Michael in particular needed a hell of a lot more explanation. There is also a solid plot conflict going on around and in addition to Juliana's personal crisis with Thomas. It lacked sufficient setup and didn't come close to answering all my questions, especially after that rather odd but revealing climax, but on the surface it provided plenty of action and certainly a high body count.

Without the sufficient framework for everything that went on in this book, though, it just wasn't quite executed well enough for me to feel completely satisfied with the story as a whole. And did anyone figure out how Juliana knows who her father is if she can't remember anything from her first twelve years? I think I missed something there.

Well...I missed something in a lot of places, but that one still niggles me.

The plot execution may have been a bit odd, and it had some pacing issues and abrupt transitions, inconsistent progression and a general lack of the sort of detail found in the more complex urban fantasy series, but it still managed to keep me entertained. With more fleshing out in some crucial areas and another fifty or so more pages this could have really built into a gripping, multi-layered, complex tale with memorable characters. It didn't quite reach that level this time, but the potential is definitely there for the series.

Gunmetal Magic by Ilona Andrews

Genre: Urban Fantasy Romance
Series: Kate Daniels, Book 5.5
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 448 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle



Andrea Walks on the Wild Side

Andrea Nash has lived through horrors that would have killed lesser women. Her childhood was a nightmare that left her emotionally scarred, living in the human world doing everything she could to distance herself from her shapeshifter lineage. For good reason. She was a Knight of the Order of Merciful Aid, highly decorated and deadly, but the Order doesn't have any room for shifters, let alone beastkin like Andrea.

The Order found out she's a shapeshifter when a recent battle with a big nasty put her in the hospital, thus ending her career, but not before she'd already sacrificed her relationship with Raphael, beloved son of the bouda clan's alpha, and snubbed the whole shapeshifter population of Atlanta.

Hey, when your life explodes around you, it may as well be completely obliterated.

Now Andrea is just trying to get settled into a life without the Order, working with her best friend Kate at their new investigation agency. Not that work has been all that busy lately. But that sort of thing really is a mixed blessing, because when things pick up and Jim, the Pack's chief of security, calls Andrea with a problem, being bored out of her mind starts to sound pretty good in comparison.

Four shifters have been killed and Jim wants Andrea to investigate. And the victims were on a job, working for Raphael's reclamation company when they were killed.

Now Angela has to investigate the deaths of the employees of her ex. Fabulous. Because life wasn't nearly painful, complicated, or uncomfortable enough. At this point the only thing missing is some Big Bad threatening world-ending destruction.

Oh...wait...

~*~

I've been a fan of the Kate Daniels series since its inception, but because I'm weird (or dumb...your pick), I was hesitant to try Andrea's story when it came out. I bought it because I love the world and the characters, but I didn't read it...for exactly the same reason. See, spin-off books in beloved series tend not to go so well for me, and it took me a long, long time to finally work up the nerve to give Andrea's book a chance.

Of course I'm glad I did and of course I'm kicking myself for waiting so long. Of course. It's Ilona Andrews, after all.

I've always liked Andrea's character and appreciated her contributions in Kate's books, and I'm happy to say I think she acquitted herself nicely as a main character in her own. My biggest worry was that she would come off a little like Carbon Copy Kate, but that was certainly not the case. She was the gun-toting, arrow-shooting, bad-ass Andrea I know and like. Maybe a little older, darker, and more serious than the vibe I got from her in Kate's books, but still Andrea.

And man, her backstory definitely gave Kate's childhood a run for the money on level of horror and damage inflicted. Andrea's personality and life choices make so much more sense now. Andrews did a great job bringing that all together and weaving it into a compelling, sympathetic personal history of a character with whom readers were already familiar.

I have to admit, I was expecting more of a paranormal romance feel to the story than I got. Like the Kate Daniels books, this one read more like an urban fantasy with a strong thread of romance secondary to the main plot of the book. It's a more robustly traditional romance thread than that of the Kate and Curran saga, and I think it worked as it was supposed to, but it wasn't the focus of the narrative.

Andrea's investigation into the murders and the subsequent revelations about the crime, the concerned parties, and the potential for badness was a meaty, solid story that kept me engaged throughout. I don't know that it was as intrinsically intense as any of the books in Kate's series, and it lacked a bit of the personal connection that's so prevalent between Kate and her investigations/catastrophes du jour, but it was well-developed, layered, and provided a broad array of danger and life-threatening situations for Andrea and her friends.

I loved spending more time with Roman, who was introduced in Magic Slays, the book preceding this one. I'm still not completely sure how such a nice, decent-seeming guy such as Roman can be an evil Volhv and a source of darkness, but hey, the contradictions in his character make him interesting. I just like the guy.

Raphael, on the other hand, was a surprisingly big douche bag throughout a good portion of this book, and was responsible for one of my biggest sources of disappointment in the story. When he had the unmitigated gall to show up in Andrea's office with that human bimbo and was so hideous to Andrea during her interrogation, I wanted to kill him. And I was shocked Andrea didn't ever really nail him on it.

I will say the whole scene served as a nice catalyst to get Andrea to embrace her inner beast and let her fur flag fly, providing the impetuous for some much-appreciated character evolution, but the whole messed up situation was begging for a more visceral confrontation before resolution and there just wasn't anything beyond a tepid (well, seemed tepid to me) apology on Raphael's part. I wasn't nearly satisfied considering the insult he paid Andrea by doing what he did. Not. Enough. Groveling.

The other elements of their relationship evolution provided a nice level of heat and some humor to the read, but didn't quite wow me in the same way that Kate and Curran's evolving relationship has. I liked it well enough, but it never really captivated me. Personally, I was more moved by Andrea's long-awaited decision about joining the bouda clan and the scene in which she took control of her destiny in that regard. I kinda loved that.

In part because the Kate Daniels series has provided such a rich tapestry of world building, story, and character, and in part because the writing duo that is Ilona Andrews is all sorts of awesome, this book really shouldn't be missed if you're a fan of the series. It may not have been quite as fun for me as the Kate and Curran show, but it was was a solidly entertaining, fantastic visit into a world I've come to love and admire and it provided a bit of a different perspective on characters who have been around since the beginning. I liked it a lot.

The Darkest Seduction by Gena Showalter

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Lords of the Underworld, Book 9
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 504 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle



Finally...In More Ways than One

He is the maestro of the hit-it-and-quit-it. Possessed by the demon Promiscuity, Paris is doomed to have sex with a new partner every day. Sound like a frat boy's idea of heaven? Try thousands of years of having to feed a sex demon every day or risk death. Of never being able to sleep with the same person twice, never having a relationship, never loving anyone or being faithful to anyone who loves you. And if you try to hold out, try to abstain, the demon you house strips away the final strands of your meager control so the sex is no longer your choice, let alone the partner with which you have it.

Until her.

Sienna was human and a Hunter, the group intent on destroying the Lords. Paris was captured by her once, slept with her once, and for the first time in his centuries-long existence, once was not enough. His body responded to her again. It was everything he ever wanted and nothing he ever dreamed could happen.

Of course, she was his mortal enemy...and then she died...but what's a little death between a sex demon-possessed Lord and his only hope for salvation?

Paris has been tirelessly searching for Sienna ever since. And he finally knows where she is. He has been working his way to her side no matter what it has taken, or who he has had to sleep with...or kill to find her. He'll worry about whether or not she still hates him, or blames him for her death, or still wants to kill him, when he gets there.

~*~

Finally! It took a few too many books spread out over I don't even know how many years, but I finally feel like there was some pretty significant progress made in the Lords vs. Hunters/Titans, et al series plot. The sort of progress, in fact, that could alter the direction of the series from this point forward and provide for even greater potential catastrophe for the beloved Lords. The lack of that progress has long been a complaint of mine in this series, so I have to admit, I'm pretty happy that I don't have that problem this time.

Oh, yeah, and Paris finally gets some Happily in his Ever After, too.

I had reached the end of the line with Paris in the previous book, my well of sympathy for him had run dry, so I was a little uncertain how this book would play out for me. Showalter did a lot of good things in here with Paris and Sienna. A lot of good things. Was it enough to completely redeem Paris for me? Not totally, unfortunately, and I still have some lingering questions about the ambrosia issue given what Cronus did to Sienna, not to mention Paris' double dose of demon issue, but I was mostly able to set aside any lingering discomfort with his character and appreciate the story that was being told.

And there was a lot of story being told in this book. Maybe even a little too much, as I had been hoping for a bit more depth and dimension in the relationship between Sienna and Paris and a little less focus on everything else that tends to creep into each book. Something more like what Sabin and Kaia had in their book. Sadly, that didn't happen. Paris and Sienna didn't even share a scene until I was deep into the book and the evolution of their relationship was a little truncated for my tastes, with some less than pleasant - even perplexing, at times - elements, but at the very least it got the job done.

Sienna also wasn't quite as strong a heroine as I prefer. Kaia was a much nicer fit for my tastes in that regard, but I did like Sienna, and she was extremely understanding and gracious when it came to Paris' past. On that front I was satisfied, because Paris needed someone who could accept his past without letting it color their relationship. It takes a very special sort of person to be able to do that, and Sienna was that person.

She was just a little too good to be true, even though she's been housing Wrath for a while now. She's still naive and a bit innocent, and just a shade too decent for me, despite everything she's been through. She does have a big heart, though, and she had a strength of will and determination that I enjoyed, most notably when she's struggling to resist Cronus' myriad manipulations.

And Showalter broke my heart a little with Sienna's sister. That was damn tragic.

This was a bit of a darker book than its predecessor, and there was less humor in it. I like the humor, so that was a bummer, but the darker elements did fit with the downward spiral Paris has been on, so it maintained an organic feel. And the story also answered a question I've been wondering for years, so that was a bonus.

I can't say this was a be-all-end-all read for me, and the sheer bulk of the story was the largest problem. By this point in the series, there's just so much going on with so many different characters that giving each sufficient attention bogs down the story's pacing quite a bit. I don't know that I needed...or particularly cared for...Narcissism's introduction and the views we get from her point of view. Nor did I need quite so much time spent with Kane.

I can't help but wish Showalter would focus more on the featured characters and their relationships in their own books, because though we've known Paris and Sienna for quite some time in the series, there was a lot of room to add character depth and relationship evolution that was spent on highlighting other things. I know how important it is to weave several different elements into each book, but I think the romance arc lost out some in this one.

No doubt, though, the series is still going strong, and there are many positives that have reawakened my interest and investment in the Lords. Paris's book isn't a series favorite of mine, but it was a long time coming and I'm glad he finally got some peace and found the woman he loves. Though...she's still dead...and I'm not completely sure how that's going to play out given how the story ends. I guess I'll find out.

Thrill Ride by Julie Ann Walker

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: Black Knights Inc., Book #4
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 352 Pages
Formats: 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.

Liked It...Despite Myself

From the moment she learns the CIA has put out a burn and delete notice on Richard "Rock" Babineaux, Black Knights operator and, apparently, CIA spy, everything in communication specialist Vanessa Cordova rebels. She's had feelings for the man since the first time she heard his slow Cajun drawl, but more than that, she partnered with him on a recent undercover op and she just can't believe the man she knows has committed the heinous crimes the CIA is accusing him of committing.

With the full weight of the Black Knights' support behind her, Vanessa is determined to help Rock clear his name. She just has to find him first.

He's been in the wind for six months and Rock knows he has to keep his head down as he scrambles to figure out who screwed him and set him up. Practically buried in a South American jungle, alone, he's running out of options, resources, and leads, but he's resolute about not risking his friends. Until one fiery and magnificent woman crashes into his jungle and blows his best intentions straight to the same hell he'll likely be getting an up close and personal tour of all too soon.

The dangerously tempting Vanessa has found him, but by doing so, Rock knows unless he manages a miracle, she's likely doomed them both.

~*~

This fourth book in a series that has posed varying problems for me since its debut is definitely my favorite, though it's not without some large issues. Unlike its predecessors, however, I found myself entertained despite them. Walker's humor, which is sometimes silly but usually geeky and cute, is more prevalent in the narrative, and there were none of the darker, sadistic scenes I found so jarring in previous books. There's a ton of action which appealed, and plenty of sexy goodness to raise the temperature. The plot wasn't quite as layered as some of the previous books, but sometimes simple is, if not better, at least no worse.

All in all, I liked this book, though there were definitely elements that made me cringe a little. Or a lot.

I loved Rock, even with his persistent and repetitive warning against Vanessa loving him. He was strong and self-sacrificing, sexy and absolutely delicious. Vanessa, frankly, couldn't hold a candle to him, which is a huge shame, because I thought she was going to when she was first introduced in the previous book. Unfortunately, instead of strengthening her character in this book, broadening it and intensifying it, Walker went another route.

From competent and savvy communications specialist to crying (and oh my god, the crying!), wailing, screaming, stumbling, scared of the dark, horny emotional idiot whose entire existence seemed to revolve around her desire to make Rock love her, Vanessa's character went through a serious deconstruction in this book. I was completely boggled by it, and her personality grated on me before I was into the third chapter.

So did Rock going on and on to himself about how magnificent she was every single time he sees her. Like telling us he thought she was all things hot, courageous, and brilliant was supposed to convince us she was all those things despite all manner of evidence to the contrary. I'm not quite so easy to convince. One single scene in which she was faced with a difficult situation and didn't burst into tears or have some sort of emotional meltdown would've been far more effective. So would having her alleged excellence in her field serve as more than a transitory benefit in the story.

Unfortunately, it didn't happen.

Other than Becky, featured romantic heroine of the second book and a strong secondary character in this one, there hasn't been a female character that hasn't been a weeping, weak, nervous, shy, innocent stereotype of every bad romance novel cliche. And while that's normally a huge hot button of mine and slams the brakes on my interest in a book or a series, there has so far been enough good in these books to keep me reading. And there was enough in this one to actually entertain me regardless.

I'm worried about the next book, though. Nothing about Becky's friend and Wild Bill's former (and obviously not-so-former) crush Eve has indicated she's not exactly that same sort of weak heroine that's been bugging me since the beginning of the series. In fact, she's been drawn as a shy, nervous, uber-rich debutante, and I'm not exactly brimming with enthusiasm about that personality type filling out a main plot arc.

With this book, Walker seems to have finished straddling the line between light and serious romantic suspense and has come down on the lighter side. That works for me, as I've always thought the straddling was doing the series no favors. Plus I like humor and several scenes in this book made me chuckle to myself. Personally, I hope this is indicative of how the series intends to continue from this point. Now, if it could just put forth a heroine that doesn't make me roll my eyes, piss me off, or embarrass the hell out of me to be a woman, we'll be golden. But I won't hold my breath.


Black Knights Inc. Series:


Fairies in My Fireplace by R.L. Naquin

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Monster Haven, Book 3
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 236 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 Times with Zoey's Friends

Inveterate wedding planner by day and sole Aegis in the whole of the country by night...and day...and, well, every moment in between, Zoey Donovan is feeling the strain of the growing needs of the Hidden who are showing up at her door. The influx of magical, mystical, and beastly traffic has gotten so bad that even with the help of her closet monster Maurice and several other good friends of both the human and Hidden variety she's just barely squeaking by.

With a dire message about impending doom looming on the horizon and refugees with tales of Hidden loved ones being abducted, it's quite clear that things are just going to get worse. Something is coming. Something bad. And if the pattern of the mass exodus of Hidden and reports of the missing bear out, that something is heading right for the only Aegis left who can do anything at all to stop it...if it doesn't stop her first.

~*~

I'm a huge fan of this series. I love the world and I couldn't be happier with the wide array of wildly colorful and eminently lovable characters. Zoey is quirky and fun and one of the more unique heroines I've read in urban fantasy, but it's really the secondary characters who have stolen my heart. Closet monster Maurice in particular and the rest of Zoey's crazy coterie of friends in general elevate each book and make almost every single moment of each one of them a real good time to read.

I can't say this was my favorite of the three books, though. It started a little slow for me. Despite my rabid adoration of the veritable cornucopia of Hidden misfits who find their way to Zoey's home, I felt the development and execution of the story's main plot conflict got off to a rocky and anemic start in the first half of the book. For the first time in the series, I felt my attention waning more than once, wondering when the meat of the plot was going to really get going.

Fortunately it does get going, and when it does, there are several intense, action-packed, emotional moments (one of which broke my heart) and a couple of big developments that helped broaden and deepen the series plot arc. There's some very solid and highly entertaining storytelling going on in this book, for sure. I just I felt like the story tread water for too long before all that goodness really started.

I also can't say I cared for the return of a character we met in the first book. I wouldn't call Councilwoman Alma Dickson a Big Bad, really. She wasn't the story's main antagonist in this book any more than she was in the first, but she was just as big a tertiary source of conflict in this one as she was before. That felt a little too much like double-dipping into the character pool for me to really appreciate the conflict with her here.

On a brighter note, this is the first time in the series that I didn't have issues with Riley, Zoey's main squeeze. I haven't been impressed with him in the series to date, and still can't say he thrills me as Zoey's romantic interest, but he played a larger role in this one than in either of the previous books and I didn't mind having him around at all. He just seemed to have more of a presence in this book, and I liked it. His relationship with Zoey also gets some much-needed evolution in this one and I liked that, as well. I just wish they had more chemistry.

Naquin keeps surprising me, too. Zoey's wacky life and the wonderful weirdness that comes from the Hidden lend a lighter, more humorous tone to the series than the grittier, more dystopian urban fantasy series out there. That said, in each book there have been elements that remind me that Zoey's world isn't all fun and games by any stretch. There are Bad Things that happen to and around her characters. Very Bad Things. I won't discuss any spoilery stuff here, but the Bad Thing that happens in this one hit me hard and left me reeling.

This wasn't a perfect book for me, but I think it was an important one for Zoey's continued development and the evolution of the series. The issues I had with the external conflict were a bit more serious than they were in the previous book, and I'm a little worried that neither one was quite up to the fun level of the series debut. I love this world and the characters so much that I want to love everything else, too. I hope to get another chance to try soon, because I really can't wait to spend more time with Zoey and her fabulous friends.

The Monster Haven Series:

The Summer He Came Home by Juliana Stone

Genre: Contemporary Romance
Series: Bad Boys of Crystal Lake, Book 1
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 384 Pages
Formats: 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.




Bad Boys are Back in Town

A decade after putting his hometown of Crystal Lake in his rearview mirror, tragedy has drawn rock guitarist Cain Black back. One of his best friends is dead, a grim statistic of a war on foreign soil, and Cain has returned to mourn and pay his respects.

And because his own life is in shambles and he could use a break.

One of the first people he sees at the reception after the funeral is Maggie O'Rourke, single mother and redheaded temptress. Not that she's trying to be. In fact, the fiery beauty makes it quite clear that she wants absolutely nothing to do with Cain and would be perfectly happy if he would disappear off the face of the planet entirely.

Not that one of Crystal Lake's former Bad Boys is going to let that stop him. In fact, he's thinking he may as well stay in town for awhile, because there's just something about Maggie that reaches out and squeezes him hard - in all the best places. What surprises him the most, though, is there's also something about the shadow's in her eyes, the wariness and caution, that makes him want to slay her dragons.

There is absolutely no doubt in Cain's mind that the ethereal but haunted Maggie O'Rourke has them.

~*~

Maybe I should've stopped before I started this book. It's not a bad romance, and there were parts that really worked for me, but overall I had too many issues with it and some of those issues started early. When the book opens there are several melancholy scenes surrounding the death of one of Cain's best friends. It set a darker tone than appealed to me. I almost put it down at that point, not because it wasn't well written, just because I wasn't really in the emotional place to want to deal with it.

Still, I kept reading, and I was relieved that at least the melancholy waned relatively quickly.

I thought it was going to be good from that point. I liked Cain, even though the rock-n-roll romantic hero isn't a favorite of mine. I liked Maggie, too, even though she's a single mother and that theme also isn't a favorite of mine. I loved her son Michael. I absolutely adored him. More, I was completely and thoroughly enamored with the depth of love in the relationship between mother and son. It was one of my favorite things about the read.

Cain's relationship with Michael was another huge high point. It never once felt forced or awkward, or a footnote just to appeal to readers. It felt truly organic to all the characters involved.

The plot didn't break any new grounds, which normally isn't a huge criticism of mine. It's contemporary romance, and as a fan I expect some formula. Still, there could have been more depth and the last fifteen to twenty percent of the book was almost painfully predictable. I saw the conflict climax coming from the moment Maggie's past is revealed. Other story elements and character choices did provide pleasant surprises throughout the narrative, so I was disappointed that the end truly didn't.

And I began having a problem with Maggie late in the book. She's a very secretive person. Her past is filled with trauma and as a result she doesn't share anything about herself or that past. At all. With anyone. For awhile, I was fine with that, but the longer she was in the relationship with Cain and the more he opened up to her without any reciprocity, my struggles with her character grew. Because she was such a closed book with everyone, even her closest friend in town, I began to have a very hard time maintaining an emotional connection to her character.

That's when it became more than frustrating, it became detrimental to the story.

I also had trouble with the scenes that featured shifting points of view in a congruent timeline. It's a narrative style that rarely works for me because it can and does breed timeline inconsistencies like the one that occurs during the book's climax. For a detail-obsessed reader like me, those sorts of inconsistencies completely derail an intensely suspenseful or emotional scene.

Also, I know he was a secondary character and so not a tremendously big factor in the main story arc, but I had a huge problem with Jake. I don't care how close a friend a person is, or how long our history, if I hear them speaking to another friend of mine (and in this case a grieving widow) the way that Jake speaks to Raine in this book, I'd have his guts for garters. I was infuriated that no one deigned to address it or even made an attempt to rein in Jake's increasingly unconscionable behavior towards that poor woman.

There were just too many things that went awry for me in this book. And I had a lot of unanswered questions, which is uncommon for me in this genre. Unfortunately, they're the sorts of questions that can really compromise the effectiveness of a romantic resolution. Like...is Maggie still married? If not, when, exactly, was her divorce final, because unless I missed something, the way the scant details were divulged, there didn't seem to have been time and she sure didn't seem to have opportunity.

Between of those sorts of questions and my other issues, it was all just too much for me to really enjoy this read. The characters, especially Cain and Michael, were completely lovable, and I even liked Maggie throughout most of the book. And even with my issues, I thought a good portion of the romance between her and Cain was very sweet and incredibly hot.

Maybe with some distance I'd give a second book in this new series a try, but if Jake's going to be the male romantic lead in that one, I'm going to have to wait for awhile to see how the reviews shake out first.

Gifted by Liz Long

Genre: Urban Fantasy; New Adult
Series: Donovan Circus, Book 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 297 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: A copy of this book was provided to me by the author for review. Rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.

Fun Under the Big Top

It's been twelve years since Lucy Sullivan's parents left Donovan Circus and took her to live in the human world. Her parents are gone now, both dead before their time, and Lucy wants to return to her roots...and her own kind. Donovan Circus, one of the few places in the world that shelter and provide for gifted supernaturals like Lucy, is the only place where she can embrace what she really is: a Firestarter.

She's fitting back into the circus life well enough, making friends, even met a guy she likes. Then the first body is found. One of the circus' own has been brutally murdered. And then another. And another.

As the death toll rises and panic spreads through the circus family like fire from Lucy's fingertips, it is the newbie who is blamed for the crimes.

She came looking for her place in the world, but someone is intent on burning that world to the ground around her, and Lucy is going to need all the help she can get to keep herself - and everything that matters to her - from going up in flames.

~*~

This fun, unique story by Long isn't perfect in plot or execution, but with its X-Men-meets-Ringling-Brothers theme, fire-licking suspense, and an eclectic mix of likable, memorable characters, it is a very entertaining read. To be honest, I didn't expect to enjoy it as much as I did. It's got a very New Adult feel to it, despite Lucy being around twenty-five (if my math was correct), and I don't normally enjoy either Young Adult or New Adult fiction. This one I did.

I liked Lucy a lot, but have to admit, her character was prone to a lack of maturity and a tendency towards emotional melodrama. She rocked the martyr complex way too often for my taste. Still, I was pulled into her story from the very beginning and couldn't help but admire the world that Long created here. By the end I was fully invested and rooting wildly for Lucy and her friends.

The best part of the book, I think, was the circus itself. I absolutely love the idea of Donovan Circus and its coterie of quirky supernaturals. It just totally worked for me on every level, and it put a fresh and unique spin on a well-worn genre. The whole concept of a circus of supernaturals doing their thing for unsuspecting humans was fantastic.

The plot threads of external conflict were great too, though. The mystery surrounding the deaths of the circus workers and the growing threat to Lucy tied in nicely with the lingering mysteries about her father's choices and actions before he died, and it created a solid framework of story around Lucy's re-entry into circus life. Brimming with action and danger, rife with suspense and tragedy, this was an all-around solid read.

Not everything worked perfectly for me, though. There was a love-interest triangle that did nothing for me (though to be fair, they never do). I'm so tired of the ubiquitous love triangle in urban fantasy that even the slightest whiff of one turns me off, and there was significantly more than a whiff here, especially at the end, when I was rolling my eyes at the timing of some pretty heavy-handed relationship confrontation.

Though...I do have to say...Team Gabriel. And that's all I'm going to say on that.

There were some minor technical problems in the book. As a whole the story felt a bit overwritten to me and could have benefited from a tighter story edit to trim down the superfluous and streamline the narrative. There were also a few timeline issues in the plot. It wasn't clear in places, and in other spots there seemed to be some contradictions. And I felt the pacing in the latter half of the book suffered from an overabundance of long, dialogue-heavy scenes lacking in action.

None of those were deal breakers for me, though. I liked the story and the originality of the concept to such a large degree that the weaker elements just weren't a major factor at all. This was a fun, highly entertaining, and utterly original story with a great cast of characters I heartily enjoyed. I just hope there will be another chance to stop by the Donovan Circus soon, because Lucy and her friends (and Long) put on one hell of a good show.

Quotable:
"It takes more than having a gift to be gifted. Otherwise you're just a person who lights shit on fire using jazz hands."

Throne of Oak by Dana Marie Bell

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Maggie's Grove, Book 2
Rating: 2.5 Stars
Length: 224 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.




Felled by Execution

The mayor of Maggie's Grove, Dragomir "Dragos" Ibanescu, has a problem. Actually, a host of them. Four weeks after his town barely survived an attack by a psychopathic witch with a vamp obsession, the residents of the town are still trying to pick up the pieces and heal from the damage. Some of his people have gone missing. His father, a male Dragos has more than just an acrimonious relationship with, has contacted him for the first time in centuries. His ex-bed partner is stirring up trouble and teetering close to the line of black magic, if she hasn't crossed it already. And his sotiei, the dyrad queen Mina, who suffered the most under last month's vicious attack, not only isn't healing, but she refuses to even speak to him.

And that alone is enough to make his inner bad boy want to roar with frustration.

Being stretched thin isn't a new feeling for the vampire, but if Dragos can't convince Mina to at least give their relationship a try, the rest of his problems are going to disappear under the avalanche of destruction his inner beast will leave in its wake, and there is absolutely nothing Dragos will be able to do to prevent it.

~*~

It didn't take me long into this book to guess my feelings about it were going to be in the minority, because my biggest issue with the story is related to my personal preferences for my romance heroines. I have a very low tolerance for exactly the sort of wallows-in-her-misery damsel that Mina was for far too long in the book, and she just never redeemed herself enough for me to find her tolerable. And if I don't like one of the romantic leads, I can't like the romance.

Mina, who by all accounts should be one of the strongest females in the series as the queen of her people and the ruler of the Throne of Oak, just didn't cut it for me in this book at all. I would have had no problem being sympathetic to the grievous wounds she suffered if she'd been more proactive about dealing with them, but she wasn't, and every attempt by friends and potential loved ones to assist her was rebuffed out of a mix of fear and pride. I found that very unappealing.

As much as I love Dragos and enjoy the world that Bell has created for the series, with its imaginative mythos and fun, often funny, always quirky cast of characters, Mina alone was enough to temper the majority of the enjoyment I could have felt with the story.

But she wasn't the only problem. Like Dragos, I had a host of them.

Over two years have passed between the release of the first and second book in this series. That's a long time for a reader to remember details from a series debut. Maybe that's why Bell spent so much of the first part of this book outlining the events in that one...if outlining is the right word. To me it felt more like I was being force-fed a condensed version of the debut with all the info dumping that was in the first several chapters here. Much of it was completely tangential to this story's plot and characters, so it became a quagmire of unnecessary minutia that slowed the pace of the narrative to a crawl and distracted from the story threads that were being introduced here.

And tangential is the word of the day, too, because the narrative had a bad habit of trotting off on useless tangents rife with superfluous information throughout the whole book, a habit I found particularly annoying during several pivotal scenes. Something serious would be going down and everything for the characters would be tense or emotionally charged, then the narrative would veer off into a long-winded dissertation about something else completely unrelated to what was happening. Yes, details like those provided can add to the tapestry of world-building for the series, but in the wrong place it just yanks me out of the story and hinders the emotional impact of a scene. It was far too often in the wrong place in this book.

I also had issues with the plot's jerky timeline, abrupt transitions, and lack of relationship evolution in Dragos and Mina's romance. There was also a dearth of character definition, most notably but not exclusively when it came to secondary and ancillary characters.

Thing is, though, there were also several things I truly enjoyed about this book. I love Maggie's Grove and the imaginative, creative history of the town. I thought Dragos was a great romantic hero, and even though I never warmed up to Mina, I'm glad he got his HEA. The secondary characters, though two-dimensional, were another source of entertainment. That's where most of the humor was found, and I'm very fond of the sort of humor that Bell excels in weaving into her stories. There were a lot of lighter, chuckle-worthy moments that I enjoyed.

And of course the sex is always smoking hot. Bell gives great smutty good times, and she doesn't skimp on the number of them.

As a whole, though, the good bits didn't provide enough balance to the less favorable elements for me to be okay with this one, and I was pretty far removed from liking it. I still have hope for the series. There's a lot of great story potential and a cornucopia of characters I would love to see mix it up in their own books. I just think there has to be a tighter, more controlled execution of the plot and a bit more depth given to the characters and their romantic evolution before any of that awesome potential is reached.


The Maggie's Grove Series:

The Last Kiss Goodbye by Karen Robards

Genre: Paranormal Romantic Suspense
Series: Dr. Charlotte Stone, Book 2
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 336 Pages
Formats: Hardcover, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Ballantine Books publisher Random House Publishing via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.




Too Much of a Good Thing

As far as bad boys go, you don't get much badder than Michael Garland, convicted serial killer and all-around badass. He's the worst sort of guy for someone like Dr. Charlie Stone. Rude, ridiculously self-interested, arrogant and totally alpha-male, Michael should be the antithesis of everything she wants in a man. He's certainly nothing she needs.

And that's beyond the fact that he's been dead for the past eleven days, so not exactly primo long-term relationship material.

None of that changes the fact that when the renowned psychiatrist and authority on serial killers sees Michael sprawled out on her couch four days after he saved her life then disappeared from it, the relief and happiness almost takes her to her knees. It's wrong, he's wrong, and his continued presence in her life is no good for either of them, but damn it if she isn't so very glad he's back.

You see, Dr. Charlie Stone studies serial killer psychopathy, but her real gift is her ability to see ghosts. Though...when it comes to Michael, it's still a toss-up as to whether that's a gift or a curse. She's conflicted on that one.

Before Charlie gets a chance to really work out her wildly fluctuating feelings about Michael's continued presence in her life, horror slams into her back door. Horror in the shape of a terrified and bloody young woman screaming for help and begging to be let inside before the man chasing her can catch her and kill her. And with the turn of a knob, against Michael's strenuous objections, she might add, Charlie becomes the focus of another serial killer.

The Gingerbread Man, so named for the notes he leaves in the wake of his sadistic, murderous games, has set his sights on Charlie, and this time, neither the ghost she wants, Michael, nor the man she wants to want, FBI Special Agent Tony Bartoli, may be able to save her.

~*~

When Robards introduced Michael Garland in series debut The Last Victim, it was love at first snark. I absolutely adored everything about him. Vibrant and flagrantly alive...despite being a dead guy...he stole every single scene, and the back-and-forth between him and Charlie was my favorite part of that book. I loved the tension and heat between them, and Charlie's struggle to cope with her growing feelings for a man she thinks is a serial killer was awesome. Oh yeah, and there was also a pretty good psychological thriller going on around all of that, too.

In this book, and despite a spectacular start filled with scorching sexual chemistry, gut-clenching emotion, and grim horror, the pieces weren't quite so shiny and wonderful for me.

I still love Michael. He's absolutely one of my favorite characters in an ongoing series right now. I totally dig everything about him, flaws and all. But this time, the heights of my adoration for him was matched, even exceeded, by my annoyance, aggravation, and frustration with Charlie.

Instead of comporting herself like the respected psychiatrist she is, Charlie's behavior towards and about Michael was immature and borderline ridiculous in several places in the book, and that's when she wasn't being stubbornly conflicted or obviously petulant. And her hypocrisy and inconsistency bothered me a lot.

She spends most of the time when he's around doing everything within her power to ignore him or treat him like crap, then panics and freaks out when he starts to flicker out of her reality. And the cycle repeats over and over again throughout the story, subsuming other important plot elements and squashing anything resembling relationship evolution.

Yes, Michael is often a pain in the ass and obviously delights in pushing Charlie's buttons, but the guy was convicted of crimes he said he didn't commit and sentenced to die for them, only to end up shanked by a fellow inmate. Now he's doomed to be either stuck as a ghost or slip into the bad place that wants to claim him. You think a little patience and empathy for the guy wouldn't be completely out of line.

But because Charlie is so disturbed by her growing feelings for the arrogant, all male, possessive, protective, sexy, totally yummy ghost, she's willfully and purposely dismissive of him and cavalier about how her actions affect him. It made it hard not to loathe her. And her whole "if you can't love the one you want, love the one you're with" philosophy when it came to pursuing Tony as a love interest - right in front of Michael - not only diminished the significance of her feelings for Michael but also wasn't fair to Tony, who is...if a bit dull for my tastes...a genuinely decent guy who deserves better than to be forced to serve as the metaphorical "screw you, Michael I can do who I want" in Charlie's little self-absorbed world.

Lest I forget, which would be pretty easy to do, actually, there's also a race to find a vicious and manipulative serial killer before he takes his next trio of victims. The Gingerbread Man is a sadistic psychopath, just the sort of villain I like most in my suspense reads. It would have been awesome if the plot threads into his identification and apprehension hadn't been totally overwhelmed by Michael and Charlie's seemingly never-ending battle of emotional immaturity.

I love the story potential in the arc of their romance. There's a real star-crossed lovers theme going on here that I enjoy, especially when partnered with the against-all-odds, anything-is-possible relationship potential offered by the paranormal romance subgenre. And to be honest, I even understand why Charlie is completely conflicted about her feelings for Michael. I just wish their relationship in this book had some measure of actual evolution throughout the narrative and that it had been better balanced with the suspense threads of the plot.

So long as Michael stays on this side of the hereafter, though, I absolutely plan on sticking around for what comes next. Love. Him.


The Dr. Charlotte Stone Series:

It Had to Be You by Jill Shalvis

Genre: Contemporary Romance
Series: Lucky Harbor, Book 7
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 352 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



It Could Only Be Lucky Harbor

Sometimes it just doesn't pay to get out of bed in the morning. Unfortunately for Ali Winters, that sentiment spans more than just a single morning. It wasn't just getting dumped by her scumbag boyfriend Teddy, though that did suck. It just didn't suck as bad as actually catching him cheating on her, then getting a break-up text from him before she has a chance to dump him first.

To add insult to that particular injury, the text message kindly informed her he hadn't renewed the lease on the rental home they shared and she had to be out by the end of the month, which was, you know...yesterday. Now Ali has no home, no boyfriend, and a whole lotta rage. Not really a surprise that the police think she stole the $50,000 that went missing from Teddy's office after she left a very...detailed...note on his desk - and a voice mail or ten - letting him know just what she thought of him.

Returning to Lucky Harbor for some much-needed alone time after his latest case ripped his life apart, San Francisco cop Luke Hanover didn't expect to find a gorgeous, almost naked, and seriously brassed off woman squatting in his house. He wanted her gone so he could be miserable all by himself, but one look at the injured yet defiant Ali and he finds himself doing things he had no intention of doing.

Things like allowing her to stay at his place, or, when the police treat her like a suspect in a pretty major crime, getting involved to help her out. Which is the absolute last thing he wants to do. He just can't seem to help himself.

Yup, sometimes it just doesn't pay to get out of bed in the morning.

~*~

Another fun, feel-good Lucky Harbor romance! Shalvis' Lucky Harbor series is my favorite of the ongoing contemporary romance series I read. It's consistently entertaining, often flat-out delightful, and it's chock full of a wide variety of wacky and weird and wonderful characters who are so easy to adore. And of course, the romances between the heroes and heroines in each book are fairly awesome, too.

In this one we meet the irrepressible Ali and the inscrutable Luke as Shalvis kicks off her third set of loosely connected in-series trilogies, this one revolving around the boys of Lucky Harbor, three childhood besties who have grown up all kinds of hot, sexy, and heroic.

Lest I forget, you can't have a Shalvis romance without a quirky, fierce beauty to give the guy's heart his forever home, and I loved Ali. She's a spitfire. Dealt some pretty hard blows at the beginning of the book, Ali responds to each with her chin up and her fists clenched in proud defiance. She's strong and highly independent, but she's also got a softer, more easily bruised side that was very sympathetic. In fact, she sort of stole the show.

That's not to say that Luke isn't a tall dish of sexy goodness in his own right. Brooding, taciturn, and more than a little dented by life, Luke is the quintessential reluctant hero on the outside but total alpha male problem-solver at heart. He got sucked into the dual vortexes of Ali and Lucky Harbor and couldn't quite get himself free, no matter how hard he tried (which, well...wasn't really all that hard). He's a far more internal male lead than we've seen so far in the series, and he doesn't say a whole lot, but his actions speak volumes. I loved him.

As a couple they were a sometimes volatile and always impressive mix of hot sex and sweet, heart-tugging emotion. A very good pair to follow after the nearly incomparable Grace and Josh.

There was a suspense element in this storyline that the other books haven't had, and I liked it a lot. It didn't take a large chunk of story focus away from Ali and Luke's relationship arc, but it added a romantic suspense flavor that I enjoyed. Not that the Lucky Harbor series needed additional elements to improve it, or was lacking in any way, but I definitely thought it brought a new dynamic to the series that I appreciated.

But maybe it took something away, too, because I have to admit, the humor wasn't as prevalent as it was in the previous three books and I didn't feel there was as large an influence of Lucky Harbor residents as I'm used to enjoying. There were several included, obviously, and of course Lucille was up to her usual shenanigans, but overall on a lesser scale than I would have hoped for. Lucky Harbor's Facebook-loving geriatric brigade is always good for a smile or ten.

I also wish that Luke's problems with his job and the threat that brought to his life had been afforded a larger role in the story, with a more comprehensive resolution. Ali's issues, personal and legal, got significantly more page time, so the story lacked the sort of balance between the characters' personal evolution that other books have had. That was a little disappointing, especially as I had gone into this book looking forward to this three-book set in the series focusing more on the men and their lives and friendships, like the sisters in the first three and the female best friends in the second set.

But a little disappointment doesn't make this book a bad bet by any means.

Nothing about this book or this series is a bad bed. Shalvis is clearly at the top of her writing game and keeps cranking out touching stories that deliver on the sexy good times as well as the sigh-worthy love stories. For pure romance reading fun, you just can't do any better than Shalvis and her Lucky Harbor series. And if I ever find the place on a map, I'm so moving there.

Night Blade by J.C. Daniels

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Colbana Files, Book 2
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 255 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



Intense

Half-human and half...not, investigator, courier, assassin, and general jack-of-all-trades Kit Colbana is probably the happiest she's been in her life. She's got the Alpha of the cat clan as her lover, enough steady jobs to keep her occupied and paid, and she hasn't had to kill anyone lately. That's about as good as it's ever been for a woman who is still haunted by the vicious nightmare that was her childhood.

She really should've known the happiness wasn't going to last.

When she's approached by Banner cop and ex-lover Justin with a case Kit can't refuse, she is furious. And frantic. Someone has been killing council members of the Assembly of Non-Humans and all evidence is pointing to cat clan Alpha and her main squeeze, Damon. If Kit can't clear his name, or provide evidence that the kills are legally justified, Banner will put out a kill order on him and Damon will be executed. In days.

To make matters just that much worse, Justin, one of the most powerful witches in the country, puts a binding spell on her so she can't talk about the case with anyone, including the one man she would give anything - including her own life - to save. She can't ask for help, she can't warn anyone what she's doing. She's completely on her own.

And her life may very well be exactly the price she ends up paying after all.

~*~

If Daniels (aka Shiloh Walker) intended to write a book that would rip the bloody and still-beating hearts out of her readers' chests, then grind them into weakly throbbing pulp under the crushing weight of a titanium-soled heel, then she overachieved the hell out of that goal in the last quarter of this book. Wow. Talk about some viscerally devastating reading. It was an incredibly dark, powerful, gut-wrenching conclusion that is going to make me scurry off to find some light fluff for my next read.

I can do nothing but heartily admire any author who can put my emotions right where he or she wants them to be, and Daniels did exactly that. It wasn't fun, it wasn't even something I'd consider entertaining, but it was very well done. For that portion of the book alone, I liked this read.

The rest of Kit's story in this book, though, wasn't quite up to that level.

I like Kit as a heroine. She's tough but deeply damaged, she kicks ass but she's still haunted by her past. She's never warm and fuzzy and a bit too often she takes the smart-ass route when diplomacy could net her less damage. She's unapologetic and sometimes she's terrified, but she does the job anyway. I like her a lot.

I just wish she was given more to do in this book then race around getting chewed up and spit out, then painfully healed, only to turn around and do it all over again. Unfortunately, as soon as the main arc of the plot started to really get going, it felt like that was the majority of what I was reading. Toss in some nightmares about the grandmother from hell and you have 90% of the first three quarters of the book.

The other ten was time with Damon, and I have no issue at all with that beyond the fervent desire for it to be a larger percentage.

Even when Kit's frantic race to work the case had her following leads or questioning witnesses, we didn't really see her do much of that. Too often we were brought in after the fact, when things had gone balls up and Kit was getting chomped. I found it all a little odd, and the focus seemed to remain on Kit's thoughts and the panic she was feeling to get this job successfully completed more than on the steps she took to complete it.

Well, that and the sometimes repetitive internal monologue, which was too often stuck on the alternating thoughts of how much stronger/faster/better she is than anyone ever guesses, and how her grandmother's torture shaped her. And not for nothing, but there sure seemed to be a lot of ringing phones in the story.

The final quarter of this book was emotionally devastating. Reading it was incredibly painful, but I literally could not tear my eyes away. In part because I like Kit as much as I do, and love Damon fiercely, I was just emotionally wiped out at the end. Wiped out and cursing the long wait to the release of the next book in the series. Had the rest of the story arc at least held its own against that, this would have probably been one of the best books I've read all year, and one of the best urban fantasies I've read in a long time. It didn't do that, but it was still a worthwhile read.

Not fun, by any means. But deeply affecting.


The Colbana Files:

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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