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~Tracy

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Forged in Fire by Trish McCallan

Genre: Paranormal Romantic Suspense
Series: Red-Hot SEALs, Book 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 309 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Note: This review is based on a previously-released version of this book, which may differ from the version released 9/4/2012.



A Little Odd but Entertaining

It was just a crazy dream, right? That's what Beth Brown kept telling herself, right up until she locks eyes on the three men she'd dreamed about the night before, men she saw die as they fought the hijackers of the plane getting ready to board from gate C18.

Was it really a dream...or was it a premonition of death and destruction the likes of which Beth could hardly comprehend? One that showed her a man whose name she knows and whose face is as familiar to her as the back of her own hand despite never seeing him before in her life. A man who would fight violently against the carnage that was coming. And lose.

Navy SEAL Lieutenant Commander Zane Winters wasn't looking forward to wasting three days of leave flying to Hawaii for a wedding, but when his gift suddenly descends on him and thrusts him into the bloody visions of the imminent deaths of his platoon buddies and traveling companions Rawls and Cosky, all thoughts of leave evaporate like so much smoke.

Moments after being swamped by those disturbingly fleeting and not terribly helpful visions, he turns and meets the eyes of a woman who stirs more than just his psychic abilities. Everything in him recognizes her as the one he's been waiting for his entire life. The mate of his soul.

As if seesawing from intense battle-ready concern to yearning need in five clicks or less wasn't enough, his woman is sitting at the gate of the very plane that is obviously doomed to disaster. Unless he can save the day for them both.

~*~

I'm not sure what I was expecting when I originally picked up this series debut by McCallan, but it certainly wasn't the slightly chaotic and weird story that I got. At times it almost seemed like the book suffered from multiple personalities, as the tone of the plot wavered between the lightly humorous, the sexy and combustible, and the cold, clinically orchestrated violent. Not to mention the dark, vile acts of unspeakable horror.

There were moments that made me grin and chemistry between the main characters that made me sweat. Other moments entertained for their tense action or intriguing ingenuity and complexity of conflict. Then there was the scene that gave me a brutal kick in the gut and left me shaken and disturbed.

Still, this is a paranormal-flavored, military-themed romantic suspense with an imaginative concept, solid writing, and likable characters. And as much as there were moments when I was thrown by the wildly vacillating tone, or distressed by the lack world-building and absence of a satisfying conclusion, I did enjoy the read. More, honestly, than I thought I would based on that whole soul mate thing. It is in no way a favorite plot device of mine and it's one that smacks readers in the face from the very beginning.

I think McCallan was extremely smart in handling that, though, because while ├╝ber-alpha male Zane revs hot and hard as the chest-thumping, possessive male he is as soon as he sees Beth, she is having none of it. In fact, Beth considers the reality of alpha males just a half-rung of evolution above complete troglodytes at best and the idea of a romance with one laughable. She fights her attraction to Zane and dismisses his claims on her. She certainly doesn't feel the same soul mate compulsion he does.

That highly amusing conflict was what saved the beginning of this book for me and kept me reading.

The deeper I went into the book, the more surprising and entertaining I found it. Despite some issues, the storyline felt fresh and the writing kept me guessing with neat little touches here and there that lent an original and unique - and yes, weird, but not really in a bad way - flavor to the story. It wasn't perfect, no, and I did have one big beef with the timeline of the story and the arc of the romance within that timeline, but McCallan won me over.

Taken with the well written, creative storyline and fun main characters, the things that are normally big hot buttons of mine didn't bother me so much that they prevented me from liking this read as a whole. I'm intrigued to see where the series is planning to go next, but I do admit, I'm hoping for a more consistent tone, more realistic timeline, and a more self-contained plot arc with a better conclusion.

If You Know Her by Shiloh Walker

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: The Ash Trilogy, Book 3
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 400 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Ballantine Books publisher Random House Publishing Group via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.




A Solid Conclusion to a Great Trilogy

It was supposed to be over. She was supposed to have closure. In the six months since her cousin and best friend Joely Hollister had been viciously brutalized and slaughtered, and the monster responsible identified and killed, Nia Hollister was supposed to have been able to heal a little. Move on a little. Get over it...at least a little.

Supposed to matters not at all when you can't get the terrified, agonized screams of your last remaining family member out of your head, even if they are imaginary.

The thing is, the facts didn't quite add up, no matter how many the cops in Ash, Kentucky had shoveled at her. The timeline was...just a little off. Nothing too bad, nothing so out of whack that it couldn't have happened the way she was told it did. But definitely in a way that left Nia with a feeling of hopeless incompletion and unassuaged grief. Definitely in a way that compelled her to risk everything to find answers. To rip away the blinders and hunt for a killer she believed was not only still alive, but still hunting women.

That meant returning to the small town of Ash, Kentucky. It also, apparently, meant accepting the help of the one man she thought, at one time, was responsible for Joely's death. Because once Law Reilly sees her again, he makes it clear there is no way in hell he is going to let her stir up trouble for herself without watching her back.

~*~

It had to be big. After three long books, the only way for this trilogy to come to a successful conclusion for me was that it had to be big. Walker did not disappoint. At least, not in the suspense and psychological thriller aspects, because man, the killer in this trilogy is one sick, twisted, horrifying monster and readers get more than a glimpse into his blood-stained, murderous mind with several chilling and disturbing scenes from his point of view - including the dehumanizing rape and murder of some of his victims.

Not for the faint of heart, that.

The way Walker keeps readers guessing with a couple of well-placed red herrings and slick hidden-in-plain-sight twists and turns was especially well done, though, and one of my favorite aspects of this book and the trilogy as a whole. Well, it kept me guessing anyway, as my list of potential subjects kept spinning like a terrifying Rolodex since the start. And I like being kept guessing very much.

Again, Walker's gift for complex and damaged characters sets this book apart from others in the genre. Nia's pain over the loss of Joely, along with her control issues and stubbornness, gave her dimension and depth, even as it sometimes made her a little difficult to like. I have to admit, there were moments where I wanted to shake her for her frustrating behavior even as I was relating to her, knowing I wouldn't have done much different in her situation.

Nia wasn't the only one who occasionally gave me fits. Law, who was a calm, rational presence in the first book but stumbled a little in the second, seemed to go overboard on the caretaking for me in this one. And I had a hard enough time accepting these two as the romantic main characters to start with, because I still hadn't gotten over the way Nia showed up at Law's with a gun she intended to use, or Law's subsequent response to that incident, in the previous book (bros before hos, man, even if your bro is your female best friend).

Maybe because of that, their evolving relationship never really seemed truly organic to me, and it lacked a certain depth of emotion that could have elevated it beyond what ended up seeming a purely physical, lust-based physical attraction. Their relationship just never really clicked for me, the largest stumbling block - in fact, the only stumbling block - of this read.

For romantic suspense lovers, though, this is definitely a trilogy I'd highly recommend. True, not every single element in every single book was to my personal taste. A handful of the various antagonists' (the Big Bad and lesser antagonists in each book) actions and decisions didn't work for me. The main characters, while diverse and damaged and wonderfully complex, didn't always fit together as neatly as I would have liked. When it comes to the trilogy as a whole, though, any issues I had with individual books ended up being relatively minor. And for the record, I loved the first book (a rare five-star gem), liked the second (four stars), and because of the excellent conclusion to a very dark and disturbing suspense arc and an okay, if not spectacular romance, more than liked this one (four and a quarter stars).

If You See Her by Shiloh Walker

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: The Ash Trilogy, Book 2
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 372 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Ballentine publisher Random House Publishing Group via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.




Another Strong Romantic Suspense from Walker

Hope Carson doesn't think of herself as a survivor but she escaped an abusive husband and survived an attack by a monster. She's skittish and nervous and spends most of her time looking over her shoulder, but she's still alive. In the small town of Ash, Kentucky that's become more than half the battle.

District Attorney Remington Jennings doesn't want to believe Hope could be responsible for the vicious attack on her friend's life or the suicide attempt that almost took her own, but the call he makes to her ex-husband puts all sorts of doubts in his mind about the woman he's been inexplicably drawn to from the moment he first saw her. Maybe that indelible attraction is why every instinct Remy has rebels at the thought that Hope is mentally ill and dangerous - to herself or anyone else.

All he wants to do is protect her, to get her to trust him, to be close to her. He doesn't want to prosecute her. Unfortunately the evidence and the statement from her ex-husband seem to indicate that Hope Carson is a lot more than appearances - and his instincts - want to admit. Unless both the evidence and the ex-husband aren't what they seem.

But if that's the case, Hope is in a hell of a lot more danger than she could ever be to herself. And she's not the only one.

~*~

Another solid romantic suspense by Walker. I wouldn't recommend it if you haven't read the first book in the trilogy, though. Not so much because the story here doesn't work as a standalone but because of the backstory and character dynamic introduced in the first book. The emotional impact of the first chapter alone would be completely lost on someone just joining the trilogy here. And that first chapter was a doozy. I was sick inside while Remy spoke to Hope's ex. It set the tone for the rest of the narrative and I can only imagine how much of that would've been lost if I hadn't read the first book.

I love the blend of story and character that Walker's created for these books. Primary and secondary characters have depth and individuality, and I love that their interpersonal issues are messy and emotional and realistic. The interwoven plotlines of the characters' evolving relationships add cohesion to the story and work well within the small-town setting. Add in the story elements of a particularly nasty psychopath and a thriller that spans the series and all sorts of Happy Reader buttons are being pushed by this trilogy.

I did have a couple of issues with this installment that I didn't have in the first. Early in the book I started to get a little overwhelmed by the various shifting points of view and multiple threads of plot and and sub-plot. There is so much going on with so many different characters that the story waters got a little muddy and chaotic in places as the book progressed. It was never so bad that I was turned off the read, but it did trip me up a here and there.

The romance arc wasn't quite as appealing to me as the one in the first book, but that was more an issue of personal reading preference. I just wasn't as crazy about Remy and Hope, either as individual characters or as the lead romantic couple, as I was about Ezra and Lena in their book. Hope's damage and the emotional baggage she carries, as well as how she deals with both, is realistic and understandable, but it just isn't my cuppa for romantic heroines. Remy, too, crossed the narrow line between supportive and overprotective just a few too many times for my taste.

I still enjoyed the characters very much, and appreciated their romance, but neither it nor them really knocked it out of the park for me.

One of the things I did like about this one was the continuing serial killer arc. The glimpses we see from the killer's point of view take chilling and creepy to a whole other level, especially when it comes to his thoughts and actions concerning Hope. And I'm still absolutely clueless about who he is.

There were several developments in the arc of the psychological thriller that really worked for me, and though the main characters and their romance weren't quite as entertaining to me as the other book, I still heartily enjoyed this read. Fans of romantic suspense should start at the beginning, but they should definitely start this trilogy. I'm anxiously looking forward to seeing it reach a climax and resolution in the next book.

If You Hear Her by Shiloh Walker

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: The Ash Trilogy, Book 1
Rating: 5 Stars
Length: 400 Pages
Formats: Mass Market Paperback, Kindle



Sleek and Sizzling Romantic Suspense

It was a gorgeous day as Lena Riddle walked her retriever Puck along their normal path through the woods. The weather was perfect, the company perfect, and Lena was enjoying herself as much as her dog. Then she heard...something. It was faint, like a soft grunting, and it raised the hair on the back of Lena's neck even as Puck started to balk at continuing along their path. He'd never done that before.

As eerie as that experience was, it was one that eventually faded from her mind as time passed. It was an inexplicable one-off, freaky but largely forgettable. Then one night a woman's scream shattered the stillness with panicked desperation and ripped Lena from a dream.

Ezra King is a cop on leave, staying in his grandmother's house in the small town of Ash to heal from his wounds and a tragedy that still haunts him. Meeting Lena definitely draws his attention away from his own problems. She is beautiful and compelling...and way more than he can handle, but that doesn't stop him from wanting to try. From wanting her.

When their paths cross again at the police station, he overhears her statement about the screams that had woken her the night before. It's clear to him that the cops aren't convinced she heard what she claims to have heard, as if her blindness somehow precludes her from being a reliable witness. They thought she imagined it, or had been dreaming.

Ezra isn't so sure. His cop senses are tingling. But Ash isn't a big city where violent crime is as prevalent as it is tragic, it's a nice little town where nothing ever happens and everyone knows everyone else. Where a blind woman has taken his breath away and left him shaken.

Could it also be a place where something very, very bad happened to some poor, unknown woman? And if so, the person responsible may not like Lena having been witness to it. He may not like it at all. That's not a risk Ezra's willing to take.

~*~

I loved this series debut by Walker. It had all the elements that make a Romantic Suspense one of my favorite genres. The main characters were complex and well-defined, and their chemistry simmered and smoked on the page. The storyline balanced their romance and the threads of suspense in such a way that both plot elements were fully rounded out and meaty. It's a delicate balance, and one that many in the genre don't quite manage.

Walker does flawed and/or damaged characters particularly well, and that was in evidence here with Ezra, who has the full travel set of emotional baggage dragging along with him everywhere he goes. His physical and emotional wounds help flesh out his character and explain a lot about who he is as a man and a cop. He's not perfect by any means, nor does he fall victim to that too-good-to-be-true pitfall, but his faults and moments of darkness emphasize his struggle to rise above his issues for Lena's sake and safety. I loved him a lot.

And Lena is everything I adore in a romantic heroine. Strong and independent, intelligent, with a bit of a bite to her personality when warranted, she appealed to me on every level. Her blindness is a challenge she meets and beats daily, and there's not an ounce of self-pity or weakness in her even as she works around the few limitations she has. I loved her attitude.

I also appreciated Walker's attention to detail in regards to Lena's blindness. In the first few chapters in particular she described things from Lena's point of view in a way that subtly but masterfully clued readers in to her lack of vision without spelling it out. As the book progresses she remained true to the basic but often overlooked fact that description given from a blind character's point of view has a very different emphasis than for one who is sighted.

There were a nice group of secondary and ancillary characters with a myriad of tiny plot threads woven together between them, colored by their combined sense of familiarity and personal history, and driven by a few small external conflicts that added depth and complexity to the plot even as it flavored the whole of the story with a lovely small-town feel.

Not to be outdone, the main arc of the suspense is a taut, grisly psychological thriller that Walker deftly weaves throughout the rest. It's my personal favorite of the suspense genre, which I'm sure added to this book's appeal for me. It's also a thread that spans the three books in the trilogy, so there is no final resolution to that storyline at the end of this book. Instead of making the book feel incomplete, however, Walker provided readers with plenty of story between the main characters, including a hell of a romance, and those elements allowed for a nice sense of closure at the end, even as it enticed me to pick up the next book.

And I did. In fact, I have to find out who the sick, sadistic bastard is who is raping, torturing, and killing women. Walker keeps his identity tightly concealed. That, too, is a preference of mine in psychological thrillers and romantic suspense. Then again, this book hit so many of my preferences for books in this genre that I couldn't help but love the whole book. I can't wait to see how it all evolves from here.

Ratings Guide

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

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

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2014 Reading Challenge
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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