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Come Hell or High Desire by Misty Dietz

Genre: Paranormal Romantic Suspense
Series: N/A
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 227 Pages
Formats: Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Ignite publisher Entangled Publishing via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.

Action-Packed and Thrilling

Since his mentor John's sudden death a year ago, it's been a daily struggle for Zach Goldman to keep up with the construction business he inherited. He's getting by though, clawing his way through. Until someone leaves an inscrutable note on his door one morning. It asks just one short question. "Where is she?"

When Zach figures out John's daughter is missing, he's rocked by self-loathing and fear. He'd promised to take care of the woman who was like a sister to him. Obviously, he failed, but he's going to do everything he can to bring her home.

Boutique shop owner Sloane Swift isn't too concerned when Zach first shows up to ask about her friend and employee Ann. She's too shocked by the pleasant zap to her psychic senses when they touch and too overwhelmed by healthy, normal lust for the gorgeous man. When they meet up at Ann's house later that day, though, Sloane finds out just how bad things really are, for Ann and for her own closely-guarded secrets.

She can tell something very, very bad has happened even before she comes in direct contact with the negative energy around Ann's front door. Actually touching the doorknob hurdles her into a dark and terrifying psychic vision that makes her violently ill. Now she's got to explain the inexplicable to someone who doesn't look real long on embracing a bunch of woo-woo stuff, because one touch tells Sloane that Ann's time is very limited, and if Zach wants to find her, he's going to need Sloane's help to do so. No matter how desperate she is to keep her secrets.

~*~

Have you ever read a book that introduced you to a secondary character with such presence on the page that you're desperate for that character to get their own book just so you can spend more time with him or her? Maybe it was the scars and damage that the character has that drew you to him/her, or the honor with which he/she lived despite it. Maybe it was just the sheer intensity of his/her personality. Whatever it was, it caught you by the throat and almost superseded your feelings about the book in which he/she was introduced.

Then you get that next book, the one in which the secondary character you met and fell for is now featured, and it's fantastic, giving you a more detailed look at the character, more definition to his/her personality, and the sort of thorough backstory that both breaks your heart and makes you fall even more in love with the guy...or girl. It's everything you were hoping it would be and leaves you feeling excited and satisfied for that character.

That is exactly, to the letter, how I felt about this book and Zach's character. I loved him intensely and enjoyed finding out a bit about his past and the people in his life who helped shape him into the sexy, strong, sometimes self-doubting but noble man he is. A far better man than he thinks he is. There's just one problem with all that awesome.

In this case, there was no first book. In fact, as far as I know, this book isn't a part of a series at all. It's a stand-alone novel. And yes, that's a big problem.

See, I think there actually is a first book. There has to be, even if that book has never been published or the story exists only in the author's mind. This one is just too quintessentially a second book in a series to ever convince me that there isn't something, somewhere, written or not, that featured Zach's friends Twyla and Archie and their relationship. A story in which John is still alive, at least in the beginning, and Zack is the brooding guy with a tragic past that offers up a kidney to his best friend's terminally ill wife because he can't imagine not doing everything he can to save the life of the woman who has come to mean absolutely everything to the man who is closer to him than a brother, regardless of the danger to himself.

Because that is who Zach is. That's the awesome character we meet in this book. And we get all that delicious detail about his past that fleshes him out and makes him real, if in too-brief snapshots of a rough childhood and heartbreaking young adulthood. What we don't get is the foundation, the building blocks of the character and his key relationships to the now-deceased John, to Twyla and Archie, to Morgan, and most notably to Ann.

It felt very much like walking into a movie theater twenty minutes into the featured presentation.

Therein lies the largest stumbling in this book for me, particularly as it pertains to the suspense elements of the plot. Ann was a complete non-entity to me throughout the story, with no real impact on my emotions one way or another. As a result, I didn't care beyond the level of passing curiosity what happened to her, or if Zach and Sloane would find her before her ugly demise. I was more affected by what happens to a character we do meet in this book, yet that horror never really seemed to have much of an impact on either Sloane or Zach after the initial hit, which puzzled me.

Here's the thing though, I still liked this book, despite what is a pretty serious problem. In fact, I liked it a lot. The elements I couldn't connect with were far less significant to me than all the wonderful things to which I connected brilliantly. Like Sloane, who I absolutely adored.

Despite her tendency to burst into tears a bit too often for my tastes, I loved her. She had some personal issues and a tragedy in her past which provided some nice layers to her character. I appreciated that. What really made me love her, though, was her unerring eye for judicious pragmatism in the face of pretty disturbing goings on and the way she dealt with Zach's inherent alpha male-ness. She not only held her ground with the overprotective and occasionally stubborn male, she had no qualms about telling him exactly where he could stick his attitude when it started to choke her healthy independent streak.

I believe the term she used was seismic jackass, and I loved every second of it.

They were great together as a couple, and their chemistry hit hard, fast, and was totally off the charts. Maybe it wasn't always appropriate to their surroundings or what was going on in the story, and their relationship progressed to love way, way too fast for me given the timeline of events, but I couldn't help but absolutely love them. And I was a huge fan of Sloane's psychic abilities and how they were introduced and utilized in the story.

Now, about that story...

As a reader, I don't have to feel particularly connected to the victim of a crime to be able to fully enjoy the pulse-pounding action and thrilling danger in which the main characters get themselves embroiled. That's a very good thing in this case, because this book was an absolute roller coaster of emotion (in Zach and Sloane's relationship), danger, mystery, and suspense. I had no idea who was responsible for Ann's disappearance until the moment of reveal and the plot twists after that reveal made my gut clench. Did not see that horror coming at all.

For me, this book was absolutely a high-octane thrill ride of paranormal romantic suspense with great characters and a sizzling romance that wowed me in a lot of very awesome ways. It's just not a stand-alone novel...despite the fact that it is.

Tall, Dark, and Vampire by Sara Humphreys

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Dead in the City, Book 1
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 320 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.




More than I was Expecting

Three hundred years ago, Olivia Hollingsworth watched a monster slaughter the only man she ever loved, then was forced to become a monster herself. She's never quite gotten over it.

Sure, being a vampire has its perks, but mostly Olivia just tries to keep her coven, those vampires she's turned and the humans she's saved, safe and gainfully employed at her night club. In all that time, through every thing she's seen and done, with every soul she's saved...one way or another, she has never forgotten the man she gave her heart and body to all those years ago.

For the past two decades, against everything she knows to be true about her kind, Olivia has dreamed of that man. Her Douglas. The one she couldn't save. And then he walks into her club, alive, breathing, and decidedly human, and Olivia's reality takes a quick trip to the land of surreal.

Homicide detective Doug Paxton has a grisly case on his hands, a victim who looks like he was mauled by an animal, the blood drained from his body. All evidence points to the night club near where the body was found. Meeting the owner, however, rocks Doug to his core, because for all that he knows he's never met the deliciously gorgeous Olivia before, he's seen her almost every night for as long as he can remember. In his dreams.

Two souls separated by centuries, divided by more than surface differences, are destined to complete each other in ways neither had ever dreamed. If the forces working against the city's inhabitants and the vampire race itself doesn't kill them both first.

~*~

I had some trepidation when I picked up this book. I wasn't a big fan of Humphreys' Amoveo series debut and I was a little worried by this book's title and cover, which gave me the impression of this being a fluffier book than I favor for my paranormal romance. Fortunately, however, that impression was wrong. This is more the sort of darker-edged story that I prefer.

In fact, neither the story nor the characters are anywhere in the vicinity of fluffy, and for almost three-quarters of the book I was highly entertained by the foundations of the gritty world that Humphreys started fleshing out here, as well as the deadly plot and intense characters. I enjoyed the role reversal in the power structure of the relationship between Olivia and Doug. For all that Doug is quite obviously an alpha male, he is human when he's introduced as a character and Olivia is not. She's a former warrior and current savvy business woman, fiercely independent and more than a little jaded about her kind.

She is the power in the relationship and I liked that dynamic between them very much. I was less fond of her three hundred year celibacy, but that was more in how it kept being mentioned. After three hundred years, one would think the subject would be played out, that it would be a moot point, just a fact of Olivia's unlife or whatever, so it didn't feel natural that it kept coming up in the narrative. I get that readers need to be made aware, but a more organic way would have been appreciated.

That was a relatively minor hiccup in my fondness for Olivia's character, however. She's keenly intelligent, loyal to her family, and struggles with the darker side of her nature. I found her interesting and wish the story had provided even more depth to her character, delving into more of her issues with the dark impulses of her kind. She's obviously set herself up as an outsider in her world, and her entire coven are misfits, all survivors of one tragedy or another. I would have loved to have a more comprehensive view of all of that.

With so strong a female lead, I was surprised to find myself liking Doug as much as I did Olivia. Humphreys tread a delicate line in their relationship. Olivia was strong in ways that didn't undermine or contradict Doug's own strength of character, and that thrilled me, but he was also quite endearing, mostly for his butt-over-brains reaction to coming face-to-face with the woman of his dreams. He was so adorably poleaxed by Olivia I couldn't help but be charmed. That he was also a no-nonsense homicide detective with a hella amount of sexy going on just upped his appeal.

Well...I did for most of the book, anyway. My appreciation for Doug as a character in general and as the romantic hero went through a very large change right around the same time he did. Frankly, I thought he was more than a little bit of a douche bag at times in the latter half of the book, and he spouted off some pretty unpalatable plans to address his new condition.

I think I could have accepted that as a part of his character evolution, though, had there been a corresponding evolution of the romance arc surrounding it. As it was, I just couldn't engage in any of the sexy good times between Doug and Olivia so soon after he tossed himself on the not-so-metaphorical pyre and acted like a judgmental, ignorant wanker. And there was a disappointing lack of addressing that issue throughout the end of the book.

Unfortunately, that downturn in the romance coincided with a couple of elements of the external conflict in the plot that didn't appeal to me. For the majority of the book, this was a nicely woven, darkly suspenseful tale with a strong thread of romance tying it all together. Then things went just a step too far down the road of implausible, illogical, and abrupt and I had to shake my head a little.

Beyond my issues with the not-so-fabulously changing Doug, the conclusion to this book was not to my taste. The resolution of several of Olivia's and Doug's life-threatening problems got handed to them on a silver platter that came out of nowhere, and it included some very odd story developments and awkward attempts to hash out a few more quick bits of world building and shady explanation. In a few pages, what had been a dramatic Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads morphed into into a quick, way-too-convenient and tidy conclusion. It was a very uncomfortable deus ex machina that left me feeling confused and a little frustrated.

It was still a better read than I was expecting, though. I didn't have a lot of luck with the Amoveo series. It just wasn't my cuppa, and I was worried this book would also fall short. It didn't, really, even if the ending was too abrupt and clean for me. The larger portion of the book was a lot better than I was expecting and highly entertaining for it all. I may have absolutely no idea what direction the series is heading in - not after that conclusion - but I'd be interested in finding out.

Seeing Red by Jill Shalvis

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: Firefighter, Book 3
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 352 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Forever Yours publisher Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.




This Firefighter Brings the Heat

He was her best friend. She was his world. Then tragedy struck and tore Summer Abrams' life apart. Crippled by grief and forged by loss, Summer ran from her hometown of Ocean Beach. She ran from the loss of her father. She ran from the suffocating emotion of her family. She ran from the strength and importance of her friendship with Joe Walker. She ran, and never stopped running. Then the call came.

Twelve years after the warehouse fire that irrevocably altered her life, the beast has struck again. The first time drove Summer away. The second brought her home.

She hadn't expected her return to OB to be easy, not after so many years, but her family's chilly reception still hurts. Summer is determined to reconnect with them, to reforge the bonds she had once cut so cleanly no matter how uncomfortable she is with the effort. She's just as determined to reconnect with her former best friend Joe, who has grown into a fine specimen of manhood.

The longer she stays in town, however, the more she feels pushed out the door. Her mom certainly doesn't seem to want her around, and Joe, now a fire marshal and investigating the fire that brought her back, is no more welcoming. Maybe it's been too long. Maybe time doesn't heal all wounds.

When another fire breaks out and almost takes Summer's life with it, she is forced to face another grim possibility. Maybe her return has stirred up ghosts that someone is desperate to let lie. Maybe, just maybe someone she loves wants her gone...permanently.

~*~

I've pretty much come to the conclusion that if a book has Jill Shalvis' name on it, I'm going to enjoy the read. Of course some books I like more than others, but the sheer consistency of entertainment her books provide sets Shalvis apart and is a large part of why she's one of my favorite authors. And this re-release of a 2005 title just goes to show she's been good for a long time.

The sticky widget with re-releases is whether or not they'll feel dated. That can quickly ruin a read for me. Fortunately, that wasn't a problem here. The big reveal during the book's climax felt a little old-school and a trifle cliched because of it, but nothing really struck me as completely anachronistic.

This book has a much stronger suspense plotline than I was expecting. I'm used to, and love, Shalvis' contemporary romance novels, especially the Lucky Harbor series (which absolutely should not be missed), but they're lighter than this one so the emotional depth and darker elements in this story took me by surprise. That doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it. I love romantic suspense, and felt this was a solid example of one.

I fell hard and fast for the fabulous Joe Walker. Shalvis sure didn't go easy on the poor guy, but he's a great character. His horrible childhood and the emotional detritus from his struggles with weight as a teen made him such a sympathetic hero. And I'm a total sucker for a guy who's loved a girl his whole life, even after she ripped his heart out. The fact that he is now a totally hot, if often emotionally unavailable firefighter was just icing on a very delicious cake. Sexy, strong, and oh-so-endearing, I adored everything about him.

Summer, on the other hand, was a bit of a harder pill to swallow. My feelings about her are far more complicated. On one hand, I appreciated her for her flaws and damage. I find flawed and/or damaged characters intrinsically more interesting and believable than their picture-perfect counterparts. Not necessarily more likable, just more interesting. Summer definitely wasn't always likable.

In fact, through most of the book she struck me as wounded but selfish with it, and her self-involvement was often cruel, albeit unintentionally so. I felt for her yearning for family bonds and struggle to fit in, but shuddered at her casual dismissal of Joe's plainly-spoken boundaries and the legitimate reasons for them. Too many times and for too long into the story I felt Joe deserved a lot more than Summer was willing or able to give. And emotional cowards have always been a major turn off to me. That made it hard to really embrace her in her romantic role, even though I heartily appreciated those flaws in regards to her family issues and the suspense elements of the plot.

I had some minor quibbles with one or two other elements of the story, and I was a little disappointed that Joe and Summer's fight before the first fire was never really addressed, but mostly I was thoroughly entertained by this book and totally smitten with Joe. I haven't read the preceding books in the series, but can happily say that had no impact at all. This read like a stand-alone novel. Of course, I want to read those preceding books, but that has less to do with them being a part of this series and everything to do with that name on the cover. They're Jill Shalvis books. A guaranteed good time.

Along Came a Spider by Kate SeRine

Genre: Urban Fantasy Romance
Series: Transplanted Tales, Book 3
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 251 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Kensington Books via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.




I'm Very Conflicted

Trish Muffett, investigator for the Fairytale Management Authority, just finished working a brutal crime scene when she's attacked by the two vampires responsible for the victim's death. For a Tale like Trish, vampires aren't unusual, but the two who attack her in the alley feel different than normal Tale vamps. And she has no idea why.

It's not like she has time to figure it out, either, what with trying not to die and all. Fortunately for Trish, not dying gets a lot easier when Chicago's very own vigilante, The Spider, comes to her rescue.

She is stunned when she recognizes the Tale to whom she now owes her life. The Spider is none other than Nicky "Little Boy" Blue, a man who left Chicago two years ago to track down Vlad Dracula, the Tale responsible for his wife Juliet's death. Oh, yeah, and he's the only man Trish Muffett has ever loved. Awkward!

It's even more awkward when Trish is attacked again, this time in her own home by an obviously pissed off poltergeist, and it's Nicky Blue who once again saves the day - and her sanity - when he shows up in her living room. Wait...Nicky Blue broke into her apartment. When he thought she was sleeping. Uh...yeah, someone's got some serious 'splaining to do.

Teaming up when they discover that the new vamps are Dracula's handiwork, Trish and Nicky race to catch the literary fiend. Whatever his master plan, Vlad is turning Ordinaries and they're killing Tales. He's got to be stopped. Unfortunately, their investigation has them practically tripping over agents from the Agency, the Ordinaries' elite Men in Black squad.

As tensions between the Agency and the FMA heat up and unrest grows in the Tale community, Trish and Nicky have to find the one monster at the center of it all and close his book for good. Unless he ends them first.

~*~

My feelings are completely conflicted about this book. I love the world SeRine created with this series, and though I didn't read the second book, I mostly enjoyed the first in the series, Red. This one, despite being an overall better story with a more engaging and complex external conflict, had elements that bothered me a lot while I was reading. And they were pretty important elements, too.

This is one of those books - and series - that walks the line between paranormal romance and urban fantasy. It's a hard line to tread and I've read few that could pull off both aspects with equal aplomb. This one didn't. Not for me, anyway. The first person point-of-view narrative was my first problem. It just isn't a favorite of mine in conjunction with a romance arc. And that romance arc was far more prominent in this story than it was in the first book.

Normally that would be a good thing, but between the POV and Nicky, who I didn't like as a character nearly as much as I did Nate in Red, that put the final kibosh on the appeal of the romance in general.

I don't know what it was about Nicky, really... I liked him just fine as an ancillary character in Red.  As a heavily involved secondary character in this book, he began to wear on me by the halfway point. Everything from his name, which struck me as too-cutesy after being mentioned as many times as one would expect for his level of story involvement, to his very vaguely defined criminal enterprise (I would have liked a lot more explanation about just how criminal that enterprise was), to his odd relationship with his dead wife Juliet and his sudden spurt of emotional connection to Trish, just started to rub me the wrong way and never quite smoothed out for me.

And if he called Trish "doll" one more time, I was going to scream. Suffering through his dialogue was like being dropped into a bad prohibition-era mobster flick. Not my thing.

I liked Trish a lot more than I did Nicky. In fact, I liked her a lot period. She was a little inconsistent at times, and she wavered a bit between take-no-prisoners badass chick to squealy damsel-in-distress, but overall, I found her to be a very palatable heroine. Much more so than Red in the first book. She definitely wasn't the stereotypical, emotional-commitment-issue-having, gun-toting, sarcastic, ass-kicking heroine, a fact that I was most grateful about, but she managed to mostly hold her own when she wasn't screaming or fleeing danger in terror.

Mostly because of her appeal and despite my issues with Nicky, I was very much engaged in the first half of the book. The story started strong and the plot had a lot going on from the beginning. The two main threads of external conflict, the growing issue with the Agency douche bags and the search for Dracula, provided a nice, meaty bit of drama for the characters. Much danger and mystery surrounded it all.

I was about halfway in when I started to feel like the storylines got a little lost. There weren't a lot of answers to be had at that point, just growing badness with the Agency and with Dracula, and Trish and Nicky seemed to be spinning their wheels a little in both areas. The book seemed to lose a lot of its momentum at that point, and I started growing more and more frustrated by some things, most notably the Tales' lack of action against the Agency for some pretty heinous actions.

That was also about the time the romance went completely off the rails for me. Given all the backstory with Juliet and some pretty startling revelations about her relationship with Nicky around the time of her death (which I didn't like for several reasons), I did not expect, nor did I enjoy, the seemingly abrupt about-face in Nicky's feelings for Trish. I just couldn't buy it. Not without a more detailed foundation and or some emotional resolution concerning his dead wife.

And the problems I was having with both the romance and the external conflicts plagued me throughout that whole third quarter of the book. It got so bad at one point that I almost put the book down. Nicky gives Trish a gun as they get ready to walk into a dangerous situation, then tells her to expect the dangerous people they're going to meet to take it from her. When Trish asked a very valid, "well then why give it to me in the first place?" Nicky's response was something along the lines of him wanting to make an impression.

I just stared at that passage for a while feeling not just a little gobsmacked. Because of course, when you're walking into a very dangerous situation to meet very dangerous people, bringing a gun that you know will be taken from you is an excellent idea. Obviously, these people need to have more weaponry at their disposal to end you should your presence miff them.

Brilliant plan, asshole.

I was so disgusted at that point that it didn't matter what happened in the scene they walked into. I was already predisposed to hating it. And that's the problem that I had with that whole middle part of the book.

It got better, though. In fact, it got a hell of a lot better. When the pieces (finally) started to fall together and the answers started coming, the external conflict picked up speed and intensity as the climax approached. I loved the last twenty percent of the book. Action packed, emotional, dangerous, even a little tragic in very surprising ways, the end of the book was definitely a very high point of the read for me.

Therein lies the conflict. There were parts of this book I liked, parts I loved, parts I didn't like, and parts I hated. That definitely makes rating it difficult.

I love SeRine's world of Transplanted Tales. I do. It's unique and intriguing and the characters are diverse and fascinating. I even love SeRine's authorial voice, which resonates with such clarity in the narrative. Unfortunately, I don't always like what that voice is saying to me, and it leaves me feeling very torn about the book and the series both.

The Winning Season by Alison Packard

Genre: Contemporary Romance; Sports Romance
Series: N/A
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 241 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.



Close to a Grand Slam

The first time they met, they hated each other. Then Matt Scanlon, an MLB catcher riding a self-destruction rocket to rock bottom, got traded to his rival team, the San Francisco Blaze, and comes face-to-face with Kelly Maxwell in a professional capacity. Maxwell is the publicist for the Blaze.

Second impressions - for both of them - were no better than the first.

All Matt wants is to be left alone while he tries to pull his life back together after a long, painful year of bad decisions and worse actions. He refuses to talk to the media vultures clamoring for an interview, no matter how intently Kelly badgers him. If pushing her buttons and being an ass keeps her off his back about it, well, that's not exactly a hardship. Especially when it hits him that Kelly Maxwell, professional ball buster, is pretty damn gorgeous when she's riled.

He's the bane of her existence. The insufferable, boorish jackass is making her job hell. Kelly doesn't know why Matt suddenly went from being the golden boy of baseball to a self-made pariah, nor does she care. She's stuck with him for now, so she'll do whatever it takes to get him to tow the publicity line. And if it just so happens that doing her job forces her to get in that shockingly handsome face of his at every turn, well, maybe that isn't so bad after all.

Matt never expected that sparring with the fiery Kelly would become the highlight of his day. He's not sure what that means, exactly, but he knows one thing. If he can't convince her that he's sorry for their past and he's genuine in his interest in her, she'll toss him out of the game before he can even make it to the plate.

~*~

I like sports romance and I love the enemies-to-lovers trope, so I have to admit, I was predisposed to enjoying the heck out of this sexy, fun little reading treat, but Packard really went above and beyond for her readers with this one. Not only were the characters fairly awesome, especially the tomboyish, foul-mouthed (though she's working on that) Kelly, but the plot had enough meat on its bones to satisfy even the pickiest reader.

Baseball isn't really my thing as a sport (I'm a football fangirl), and I don't know much about it, but even my untrained eye was impressed by the authentic-feeling touches Packard put into the story. There wasn't a huge baseball element (a fact I appreciated), but what was there felt very much like it was written by someone who not only understands the sport more than I do but likes it. That was a particularly nice touch and, oddly enough, fairly rare in the sports romances I've read.

Kelly and Matt had a nice bit of depth as characters, too. Kelly, who deals daily with the harsh realities of surviving an eating disorder, isn't your typical romance heroine in form or function, and I liked that about her. Matt, probably the more stereotypical of the two of them, didn't make any better a first (or second) impression on me than he did on Kelly, but allusions to the cause of a lot of his personal demons kept me from writing him off precipitously and he evolved rapidly enough after that to win me over.

That was a good thing, because he had a lot of evolving to do. I've rarely read an enemies-to-lovers themed romance in which the "enemies" part of the plot was so completely justified. If any man ever spoke to me the way that Matt spoke to Kelly on their first meeting, I don't know that I would've been as violence-free as she was. Kudos to Kelly for her ability to handle him with a vicious verbal volley that reverberated long after their initial encounter.

And kudos to Packard for divulging that scene when she did, because if it had come at the beginning of the book, I can't say I would have continued the story long enough for Matt to redeem himself.

My only disappointment with the read came, unfortunately, at the end of the book. The relationship conflict was predictable, obvious, and cliched, and the resolution was downright unsatisfying. After such a great buildup, with a slowly evolving romance and a positively wicked amount of sexual chemistry between Kelly and Matt, the end felt more like a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am and it left me a little agog. A few dangling secondary plot threads lent it an unfinished feel, too, which didn't help matters.

I could have handled the lack of satisfactory resolution on those plot threads, because there was setup in this book for another story in that world (though nothing I could find about this being a series, despite the character connections to Packard's debut novel, Love in the Afternoon), but the romance resolution left a mark. Just about everything that preceded it, though, was great - some was even more than great. It was certainly enough to make me a fan of both the book and of Packard's writing, if not the sport of baseball (nobody is that good).

The Heiress Effect by Courtney Milan

Genre: Historical Romance
Series: Brothers Sinister, Book 2
Rating: 5 Stars
Length: 315 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by the author via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



A Delightful Romp

With an inheritance of 100,000 pounds, being politely boorish and kindly offensive enough to ward off the interest of titled men seeking a fortune in a wife is exceptionally hard work for Miss Jane Fairfield. It's a desperate balance on a tightrope over the chasm that is the indentured servitude of marriage. Until her sister reaches her majority, however, it is Jane's reality. She will do anything, be anything she needs to be to save her sister. Even make herself a laughingstock. A punchline. A blight.

As plans go, hers is working quite well until the day she is introduced to Mr. Oliver Marshall. No matter how gauche her gown or how rude her behavior, Mr. Marshall obstinately refuses to be anything but gracious to her. Even amused at her most reliable devilish tricks.

Well...that certainly won't do.

Oliver only wants one thing in life: everything. Ambitious and proud, he's on the cusp of finally making his mark in the political arena. His efforts in fighting for the rights of the common man hearken to the modest origins he's worked so hard to rise above. The one thing he doesn't need in his life is a woman like Miss Fairfield, no matter how clearly he sees through her ruse and how enchanting he finds her. She's everything that would close and lock the doors he desperately needs to be opened, and certainly the very last woman on the planet he'd marry. Friendship, at least, he can do, and given the pool of sharks she's swimming with, she definitely needs one.

Even if he happens to be one of those sharks. And is desperate to take a bite of her.

~*~

I loved this book.

Jane and Oliver were wonderfully unconventional characters, and that lack of convention fell neatly along my preferences for the genre. Jane is intelligent, cunning, and strong, and about as far removed from a proper society debutante as a character can be, willfully and knowingly being brash and socially inept...while staying within the bounds just enough to keep her uncle from intervening. Some of the most entertaining moments were seeing her pit her skills against the deadly polite and back-biting scions of high society, where backhanded compliments are an art form.

That her efforts took a toll on her made her sympathetic, that she did it anyway because of her love for her sister made her a hero. I adored her. She was a brilliant balance of flagrant self-possession and shadowed pain, of casual confidence and weary insecurity. She knew herself so well she was able to make a weapon of her inadequacies, to make lemonade out of the lemons her life has given her.

Oliver was a bit of an odd duck himself, and I loved him despite...or maybe because...he was really the antithesis of heroic throughout most of the book. Where Jane was a quintessential nonconformist, Oliver has survived by having conformity beaten into him to the point where he doesn't even realize he's no longer the man of integrity he has believed himself to be. He is his ambition, and some of the things he does, or debates doing, for that ambition were definitely less than heroic.

For all that, though, he still has a conscience, and Jane first pricks it, then sets it ablaze the longer they are acquainted. She is everything he once was and is no longer, and he's parched for her thirst-quenching presence. The effect they have on each other is fantastic and deliciously ominous as the conflict between their opposing goals reached its climax. It was very compelling.

The whole story was compelling, and wonderfully rich in plot and character. Secondary and ancillary characters were vibrant and real and regardless of how short their time on the page, they left their mark. There was even a nice secondary romance featuring Jane's sister that was fraught with emotion and complexity, and plot threads surrounding Oliver's colorful family that rounded out the book nicely. I was especially enamored with Oliver's aunt. She had a brief role, but it packed one hell of a punch.

Truly, this one is the whole package. Great characters with faults and foibles easy to embrace (or loathe, as the story dictates), a wildly satisfying and emotional romance, and a plot with wonderful diversity and depth to weave it all together. It pulled me in from the start, gripped my heart hard, and refused to let go until the last page was read. My Happy Reader buttons were flashing in contented bliss when it was all over.

One might even go so far as to say I was tickled fuchsine by the whole thing.

And okay, it taught me a valuable lesson. I won't wait so long to pick up another Milan book next time, especially if we're going to see what's going on with Oliver's cousin Sebastian in the next book in this series. There's story there. I want it.

Stolen by Shiloh Walker

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: N/A
Rating: 3 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 Bit of a Disconnect for Me


She fled to the end of the earth...

When she was a child, Shay Morgan survived the sort of brutality that leaves the deepest scars and the most terrorizing nightmares. To protect herself, she stays off the grid, living in Earth's End, Alaska. She has few true friends and the one man she loved dumped her because she could never open up to him, no matter how much she wanted to. Her life is a lie told to perpetual strangers, the truth too shattering to ever be revealed.

Two weeks after a serious car accident, Shay has finally recovered enough to start to getting back to her life, but a trip to a friend's bookstore brings her face to face with her ex-boyfriend Elliot Winter. On its own, their conversation has the power to leave her hurting and shaken, but it's what she sees on the bookshelf beside the man that rocks her to her core. A signed copy of the latest thriller by author Shane Neil.

The problem with that seemingly innocuous discovery is twofold. Shane Neil is a very carefully guarded secret of Shay's. The name is her nom de plume. But she sure as hell didn't sign any of her new books...for that bookstore or any other.

...it wasn't far enough.

The closer Shay looks into the mystery of who signed the books she authored, the more troubling her life becomes. Facebook, Twitter, and online outlets everywhere have been impacted by this impostor in a detailed and disturbing case of identity theft that threatens to expose Shay to the very man she's been hiding from her entire adult life even as it targets Elliot, the man she still loves. But when identity theft turns out to be the very least of the perpetrator's crimes, Shay may no longer have the luxury of worrying about her past. Her present has become deadly enough.

~*~

One of my favorite things about Shiloh Walker's books is her gift for creating truly damaged characters who have been through hell and are flawed and/or broken as a result, who are then, through the plot of the book, put through more hell before they get a chance at redemption or happiness. That gift is sometimes a double-edged sword, though, because occasionally her characters have gone through so much and are going through so much more that I can sometimes find the journey from Point A to Point HEA a little too dark and depressing, or the level of damage a character has is so severe that it makes it hard to relate to them and really embrace them in their full role.

That was the case for me in this book.

I struggled quite a lot with Shay as the main character. I loved the concept of the story, and could understand and sympathize with why she is where she is geographically as well as emotionally at the start of the book, but somewhere around the middle it started to really drag me down. I couldn't quite connect with the story or the romance because of just how much Shay was going through and how deeply damaged she was.

I liked Elliot, and I thought the story was scary for just how easy it was for the Big Bad to infiltrate Shay's life and completely take it over. She had worked so hard to hide that she managed to create the perfect opportunity to be victimized yet again. Given the proliferation of social media in our daily lives, it's eerily easy to imagine everything that the Big Bad was able to do. That's actually a little terrifying.

It didn't create a good foundation for the romance for me, though, and I need to be on board with both the romantic elements and the suspense elements for a romantic suspense novel to really work for me. I just think Shay needed some serious therapy and as good as Elliot was to her (eventually) and for her, I don't think he was enough to truly heal the sort of wounds Shay has.

None of that makes this a bad book. Walker writes extremely good suspense and very hot romance, and the combination of the two couldn't possibly be bad, as far as I'm concerned. It just wasn't quite something I could fully connect to and enjoy, either. Walker's Ash Trilogy worked much better for me in that regard.

Hotshot by Julie Garwood

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: Buchanan-Renard, Book 11
Rating: 1.5 Stars
Length: 368 Pages
Formats: Hardcover, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Dutton Adult publisher Penguin Group via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.




A Hot Mess

Peyton Lockhart was six years old when she met Finn MacBain. She was dying at the time. Though he was only fourteen, he dove into the pool in which she was drowning and pulled her out, then gave her CPR to get her breathing again. She owes him her life, and for every one of the birthdays she's had since that fateful day, she's thanked him for it.

Now all grown up and working on making a career in the food industry, Peyton lands herself a job at a prestigious foodie magazine. Unfortunately that job puts her in the crosshairs of a sexual predator. Her boss. When efforts to handle the issue within the company prove fruitless, Peyton takes control of her own fate and gets out.

She doesn't get far before it becomes clear that she's in a lot more danger than she realized. Her boss has no intention of letting her go and risk ruining his power-grabbing plans for the future. He wants her dead. And he's got the power and money to make it so.

It's been years since Finn has actually laid eyes on Peyton, and seeing her again at his brother's wedding knocks him for a loop. She's definitely grown up, and she's incredibly beautiful with it. Since the night he saved her life, Finn has achieved much. He's won Olympic gold medals, earned a law degree. He's even become a decorated FBI agent. Through all of it he's never been as affected by anything as he is by Peyton Lockhart's smile when she walks up to him before the wedding.

Or by her request to do what he has done once before: save her life.

~*~

This installment of Garwood's long-running Buchanan-Renard series had a few cute moments and a few nice scenes, but for me, they were way too few and far between. There were several times throughout the book, especially in the middle, when I got so frustrated with the manner in which the story is told I seriously contemplated putting it down and not finishing it. I ended up persevering, but I'm not actually sure if that's a good thing or not.

I'm leaning towards not.

It started so well, which was one of the reasons I slogged through it to the end. I loved the beginning. The prologue caught my attention and sucked me in. I enjoyed meeting the young Finn, his beleaguered parents, and his audacious brothers. I loved the scene where Finn saves Peyton, and the subsequent scene in which Peyton's parents go to Finn's parents to tell them what happened was awesome.

The narrative of the prologue was fast-paced and the storyline concise, but with just enough detail to flesh out the backstory and give some surface definition to the characters. I thought it was the perfect execution of a short prologue. Things started to go bad for me relatively quickly after that, though, when the book switched over to a present timeline and started to introduce the plot arc of Peyton's trouble with her boss.

The narrative style which worked so well for the prologue was far less successful throughout the rest of the book. Plot points and story elements continued to breeze by at a break-neck pace, lacking depth or anything resembling detail. Occasionally the story would jerk to a stop and toss some more badness Peyton's way, but then it raced off again, twisting and turning along a path that was laden with superfluous silliness and downright odd developments.

Honestly, throughout most of the book I just felt like I was being pummeled by a chaotic mess of wildly divergent, often random plot threads and heavy-handed attempts to instill a lighter tone to the external conflicts and the relationship arc. The concept of the plot was solid, the beginning impressed me, but man, the execution throughout the rest of it drove me crazy.

When things go that bad for me during a book, I try to focus on other elements, but even the characters made me struggle. I like Finn well enough, I suppose. He wasn't exactly a well-rounded character, but he wasn't bad. Peyton's inconsistency bugged me. Her character wobbled and tottered back and forth between displaying an appalling lack of intelligence and wisdom to being decisive and competent or playful and witty.

Plus, she was a virgin before Finn got a hold of her, which rarely appeals to me in this genre. And there was no good reason given for such a stunningly beautiful (according to the male contingent in the book), supposedly intelligent, world-traveled young woman to still be a virgin at that point of her life beyond providing Finn a pristine landscape to plunder.

A couple of the secondary characters provided some color to the story, and I even liked one or two of them, but none of them had any more depth or detail than anything else in the story. In fact, Peyton's sister Lucy was such a painful caricature of a shrieking harpy whenever faced with the minutest amount of stress that I loathed her intensely. I won't even get started on the wing nut of a cousin, whose behavior went past absurd to beyond the pale.

Despite the great start and the potential in the story concept, too much about this book either didn't work for me or ticked me off. There were brighter glimmers here and there, even a few passages that made me smile, but overall, I just ended up thinking Hotshot was one hot mess.


The Cute Moments:

"You might need to stay another night."
"No, I won't stay. People die in hospitals. They check in just fine, and - wham - they get some horrible disease and die."
Finn was trying not to smile. "If they're just fine, why would they check into a hospital?"
He was being logical, and she was having none of it. She wanted to go home. "It happens," she insisted.


"I'm here because you need me." It was an outrageously arrogant thing to say, and he knew it was going to rile her, but he didn't care how upset she became. She did need him.
"I do not need you. I'm a capable adult, and I can take care of myself."
"Where's your car?"
"You know it blew up. I just told you."
"And where are you now?"
"In the hospital, but--"
"So, taking care of yourself... How's that working out for you?"


"You have to set a trap," Peyton told them.
Both men looked at her, and Finn asked, "What do you have in mind?"
"I don't know. That's your area of expertise. I'm a chef. If you catch him, I'll make you a soufflé."

Bittersweet Blood by Nina Croft

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: The Order, Book 1
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 246 Pages
Formats: Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Entangled Publishing via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.





Almost Very Entertaining

Out of everything in the world she could possible have, all Tara Collins wants is one thing: a normal life. A normal life that doesn't include twenty-two years of living a lonely, secluded existence with a sheltering, secretive aunt. A normal life to be found beyond the borders of a small town in the middle of Nowhere, England, one that includes friends, a formal education at an actual university, and breaking every single rule her aunt had drilled into her head as she was raising her.

To have that normal life, Tara has to first find out exactly who she is, but for that she needs professional help. Five minutes after meeting private investigator Christian Roth, Tara has no doubt he can help her find the truth about her identity. She's less certain, however, that she can afford the answers.

From the moment Christian catches the tantalizing scent of Tara Collins he wants her. In over five hundred years as a vampire, he's never smelled anything quite like her, certainly not anything human. And if nothing else, his senses tell him Tara is very human.

Of course, that begs the question of why demons are trying to kill her.

Delving into her murky and suspect past, Christian is forced to face one grim fact. It's no longer who she is that matters. It's what she is. Unfortunately, the answer to that puzzle will definitely kiss goodbye any hopes of her having a normal life. Right before it kills her.

~*~

Even after giving it some thought, I'm not totally sure how I feel about this book. On one hand, it's old school vampire romance, which I've always enjoyed. On the other, the plot was predictable to the extreme and neither the world, the characters, nor the narrative itself had much in the way of depth or detail. I even found the dialogue painfully pedestrian in places.

As far as the story goes, it wasn't bad, it just didn't bring anything new to the table, and while the characters had their moments, there were also several times I could have cheerfully throttled both of them. By the halfway mark, if Tara complained one more time about wanting a normal life, I would have been thrilled had Piers just eaten her and been done with it.

Still, I managed to like them well enough, and I was particularly fond of how Croft keeps her vamps from being paragons of virtue. They're not evil exactly, but they're sure not fluffy bunnies, either. They fit comfortably into that gray area where I find the most interesting characters in fiction. With more detail and definition, they could have been really spectacular.

Despite my annoyance with Tara's perpetual insistence on a normal life, she was my favorite of the two main characters. She had a nifty habit of being pointedly sarcastic, irreverent, and dismissive of danger. It didn't always balance out the moments when she came off as an insipid victim, but there was enough there to keep me interested in what happened to her. Christian was a fairly typical alpha male, but his tendency to make decisions based on his opinion of Tara's best interests is a hot button of mine and kept me from really embracing him as a romantic lead.

One of the more frustrating aspects of the read was the unrealized potential. The secondary characters were interesting and diverse, but without really having anything to do besides stand around and glower, or pop in and out when the action was low, they didn't get a chance to really add much to the read. The predictable plot could still have been fully entertaining if the climax hadn't been so abrupt and anticlimactic and the resolution so odd. The romance could have been hot and sexy and completely satisfying if the main characters had a bit more to say to each other that went beyond the surface.

Too many could have beens and not enough was was my biggest problem, and it kept me from fully enjoying the read. There was absolutely nothing that was so egregious that I was totally turned off, but neither was their anything specific that wowed me. I was mostly entertained, and the book was a lot of fun at times. Just not quite often enough.

Quotables:
"I love you," he said, and she went still at his words. "I might not have mentioned it yesterday, but I wanted you to know. I've never loved before. I'm new to this. I just hope I get it right."

Knowing the Score by Kat Latham

Genre: Contemporary Romance; Sports Romance
Series: London Legends, Book 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 228 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.

Great Romance

Rugby superstar Spencer Bailey learned a valuable lesson when he was nineteen. Women and rugby don't mix. During the season, he's focused, intent, and celibate. Between seasons, he prefers short term arrangements with women who know from the start their relationship will be temporary. That discipline has helped him both on and off the pitch.

It's been a year since he's been with a woman, but just when Spencer should be able to get back into the swing, so to speak, his grandfather suffers a heart attack and almost dies. In fact he would have died if it hadn't been for Caitlyn Sweeney, who saw his grandfather collapse on the street and kept him alive long enough to get to the hospital.

The pretty American is everything Spencer enjoys most about a woman and she has the added benefit of only being in the country for a few more months.

International disaster relief worker and environmental engineer Caitlyn Sweeney gets nervous around large men and they don't come much larger than the perfect physical specimen that is Spencer. Even while her girly parts are dancing a jig that the gorgeous guy is interested in her, she's completely incapable of acting on her mutual interest without doing something completely mortifying. Like almost biting the guy's tongue off when he tries to kiss her.

She'll have to apologize for that. And really, Spencer may be is exactly what she needs to take care of that pesky little problem she still has. It really is the perfect opportunity. Her visa is expiring soon; she's leaving. So long as she keeps her secrets about her tragic past and he is willing to be patient with her, there is no reason at all that they can't both enjoy each other for awhile without it turning into a big, heartbreaking mess.

Of course making that decision and living it are two very different things. For both of them.

~*~

I have to give credit to Latham. This story has several elements that I don't like in my romance fiction, one of which is even usually a complete deal-breaker for me, yet most of those elements had such a well-developed foundation and believable reasons behind them that they worked for me in this context and didn't lessen my enjoyment of this cute, heart-filled romance in the least.

Outside of historical romance, virgin romance heroines do not work for me. Not usually, anyway. In this case, Caitlyn's traumatic past, her plain-spoken honesty about her issues in the face of crushing humiliation, her intent to triumph over them, and the touches of humor that lightened the tone of some of her efforts, made it all fit in such a nice way that I ended up feeling just fine with it all. That was a fairly large and pleasant surprise.

It helped, too, that Caitlyn's personality was so stellar and her job was so interesting. She was far, far more than her virginity in this story. Her past may have crippled her, but she was exceptionally competent, self-aware, and independent in all other areas of her life and I liked her very much as a character.

Spencer was just a complete doll. Sure, he was hot and sexy and all that, but it was his good humor, his genuine kindness and patience, and his love for his grandfather that really made me fall head over heels for him. And I loved him with Caitlyn. It was more than sexual chemistry (which was just fine on its own merit), there was the sense of a true accord between them, a friendship just as strong as their romance. Loved it.

I also love a good sports romance, but I do think it translates better for me when I have at least some basic understanding of the featured sport. Unfortunately, what I know about rugby could fit on the head of a very small pin. I appreciated Spencer trying to explain it a little to Caitlyn, because that was exactly the simplistic tutorial I needed, too, but I just couldn't quite connect to it as I do the sports I'm familiar with. Thankfully, the sports angle wasn't a huge part of the overall story.

The arc of their romance and the plot of the book were both strong, satisfying elements of the story. I loved when Philip was visiting Spencer in London. He was a great secondary character and I adored him. After he returns home, though, and the story widens its focus to include more detail about Caitlyn's career, the intensity of the relationship between her and Spencer really starts to build up nicely. Until a romantic plot twist that sparked the inevitable romance conflict, anyway.

That plot twist was another element I don't like in my romance fiction, but again, I have to credit Latham for providing the necessary foundation for it. I didn't see it coming, but the ground had been laid to allow for it to be plausible and realistic, and I can't help but admire that.

I hated the subsequent relationship conflict it sparked, though, and have a few personal issues with what Caitlyn was going to do in the situation she was in. Any time I read that in a book it lessens the appeal of the heroine for me. No one deserves to be subjected to that sort of life-long loss, regardless of what he has or hasn't done, and neither do the other concerned - and completely innocent - parties. Anytime a romantic heroine even starts to contemplate that choice, it smacks me across the face and drops me right out of the story. It's one of the reasons I loathe that sort of plot twist to begin with.

It takes some pretty satisfying emotional resolution to circumvent the disaster of that conflict, and while what was there in the denouement of the book was definitely good, I don't know that it fully mitigated what were some pretty unpleasant scenes in the climax. I still absolutely enjoyed the book and really liked the romance and the characters, but that relationship conflict did leave its mark and ended up being the largest factor in this being a book I liked, but didn't quite love. It's a solid read, though, and very enjoyable all around. 

The Gravedigger's Brawl by Abigail Roux

Genre: M/M Paranormal Romantic Suspense; M/M Paranormal Romance; LGBT
Series: N/A
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 250 Pages
Formats: Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Riptide Publishing via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



A Creepy-Good Read

Crawling under his desk to hide from his board of directors is perhaps not the most dignified course of action for museum curator Dr. Wyatt Case, but with members of the board looking to discuss the museum's dismal attendance and subsequent lack of revenue, it seems a prudent option at the time. Unfortunately, it wasn't a successful one.

With his job on the line and not one crowd-drawing idea to speak of, he needs a distraction from the growing probability of impending unemployment. Maybe that's why he lets his best friend Noah drag him out to an odd little gaslight-themed bar called The Gravedigger's Tavern.

Wyatt quickly realizes he should have been more specific about that whole distraction thing. Gravedigger's is definitely not his normal scene. Not that he's gotten laid enough in the last decade to really have a scene, but still. Hey, at least the bartender is cute.

Ash Lucroix, bartender extraordinaire, takes one look at the geeky-chic Wyatt and falls into serious like with a side-order of healthy lust. It's obvious he's not the history buff's normal type, but they hit it off so well that a night spent flirting and talking while he serves the man his drinks certainly put ideas in his head.

Gravedigger's puts ideas in Wyatt's head, too. Ideas for a new museum exhibit featuring history on hauntings and haunted buildings, as the tavern is purported to be. When Wyatt's research uncovers the building's sinister and macabre past, even the skeptical Ash is freaked out. Then a barroom brawl ends with Ash taking a bottle to the head, and suddenly his skepticism is taking a worse beating than his noggin.

Is Gravedigger's really haunted, or is the combination of a concussion and the stories Wyatt has dug up playing tricks on Ash's mind? More importantly, will they live long enough to find out?

~*~

Expectations can be so damaging to a reading experience. I went into this one with my mind set on paranormal romance and ended up almost doing this fabulously freaky story a grave disservice. Yes, it has paranormal elements and there is romance, but the relationship between Wyatt and Ash is never really the focus of the plot. At times it's even less than a secondary thread.

Personally, I got way more of a paranormal romantic suspense vibe from the story, and if I had gone into it with that mindset, I think a lot of the problems I ended up having with the romance (and there were several) wouldn't have ever been problems and this would have been pretty close to a five-star read for me. Right or wrong, as a reader I have a different set of wants and needs from the arc of a romance in the two different sub-genres. For romantic suspense, those were mostly met, for romance, they weren't even close.

When I remove my issues with the relationship arc, though, I have to say this book is haunting, chilling, and creepy-good entertainment. Hell, even with the issues, I didn't dislike anything I read.

Wyatt and Ash were solid lead characters, if a little lacking in depth and definition. The plot didn't leave a lot of room for complex personal or interpersonal issues, but as characters they were perfectly likable. They were even quite nice as a couple, though they aren't actually a couple throughout a good portion of the story (part of my problem with considering this a romance). It also wasn't a relationship that was brimming with visceral sexual chemistry - at least, not that I ever felt outside the few sex scenes - but it made up for that with an abundance of endearing charm.

The book has a nice assortment of colorful secondary characters that had more going for them in personality than they did in depth, but that worked for me. They added to the vibrant intensity of the story itself. I really enjoyed Wyatt's best friend Noah and his relationship with Ash's boss Caleb. They were fun together and had a lot of sweet scene-stealing moments. Actually, in a lot of ways, the arc of their romance was more traditionally satisfying than Wyatt and Ash's.

Where this book truly shines, though, is with the superlative storytelling surrounding the Gravedigger's ghostly woes. There is a wealth of interesting historical information throughout the book, some of it disturbing as all hell, and a conflict with a psychotic poltergeist that builds in intensity and horror as the story goes along. Everything is woven together so brilliantly that the blend of historical fact and imaginative fiction creates a stalwart foundation of horror and suspense that seeps into every nook and cranny of the narrative.

It starts with chilling subtlety, with much of the weirdness being written off because of Ash's head injury. It was all so fabulously realistic and believable in that regard. Then things begin to get increasingly weird as Ash draws more and more attention from the spectral sadist. Roux handled it perfectly, keeping me perched precariously on a razor's edge between the unbelievable: a haunted tavern and a serial killer ghost, and the entirely believable: a young man with head trauma.

It was really well done; atmospheric, disturbing, and more than a little scary.

With Halloween just around the corner there couldn't be a more perfect time for fans of creepy ghost stories to make note of this little bundle of spine-tingling fun. Just check your expectations at the front cover. There's some hot M/M sex, solid characters, an understated romance, and one mightily brassed off ghost with a yen for the freaky life. Enjoy.

Trail of Dead by Melissa F. Olson

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Scarlett Bernard, Book 2
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 297 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Amazon.com through the Amazon Vine program. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



Strong Second Book in an Entertaining Series

It's good to be home again. For about five seconds, anyway.

She's fresh off a plane and back in LA after a long trip to New York, but magic null and Old World cleaner Scarlett Bernard doesn't even make it out of the airport before LAPD Detective Jesse Cruz is dropping a new case in her lap and glaring at her like she caused it all. Dragging her out to the crime scene, questioning her as if she hadn't just gotten back in the state, the gorgeous detective definitely seems to still have an issue with Scarlett's occupation and her connection to the vampires, werewolves, and witches who comprise the Old World presence in Los Angeles.

Though that's not really a surprise, given how their single date had gone prior to her trip.

Unfortunately, Jesse is also correct about his take on the crime scene. It definitely looks like it has been cleaned, indicating at least some Old World connection. Scarlett just hasn't been back in town long enough to know what sort.

Pressed into investigating a crime she didn't commit...again...doesn't exactly thrill her, but Scarlett soon realizes she's got bigger concerns. Two witches are already dead, and two humans with an eerie connection to Scarlett's past are killed. That's more than enough carnage to let Scarlett know her formerly dead (now undead) mentor Olivia has decided three months of reprieve is long enough. She's coming for Scarlett, and leaving a trail of blood and death in her wake.

If Scarlett can't figure out what game Olivia is playing and stop it quickly, everyone she cares about could fall victim to the same batshit-crazy psychopath who killed her parents.

~*~

I liked Olson's series debut Dead Spots. By the end of that book I felt optimistic about the potential for this series and pleased with the world and the characters. Trail of Dead furthers that potential by taking several more strides in the right direction. I think it was a slightly stronger book all around, with a more personally significant external conflict for our heroine, and some of my more minor issues with the first book didn't carry over into this one.

With all her apathy, moral ambiguity, and emotional immaturity intact, Scarlett is back in LA just in time to land herself in trouble once again. There are still moments in the book when I didn't like her. She's a young twenty-three in a lot of ways, and suffers from an appalling amount of emotional immaturity too often to be consistently appealing at this point in the series, but I do still think she's a very unique heroine.

Her lack of a strong moral compass and her questionable ethics make her interesting. It never occurs to Scarlett to do the right thing just because it's the right thing, or out of some inherent sense of honor or concern for the community at large. She's just not that sort of heroine. That's more Jesse's style, and I love that contrast between their characters. Scarlett does only what she needs to do to stay alive in a deadly world and be moderately comfortable while doing so. No more, no less.

She's been living in an emotional vacuum since the death of her parents, torn apart by (misplaced) guilt and barricaded against any and all emotional vulnerability, but that's been slowly changing since Jesse came into her life. Olson is keeping the evolution of her character very slow so far, but it has seemed very organic given the situations in which Scarlett has become embroiled. Sure, sometimes it's frustrating - like when I would prefer Scarlett be a nicer, more mature person in general - but I can't fault the evolution itself.

Jesse, as he was in the first book, is a bright spot in this read and the perfect complement to Scarlett. I like him both as a character and as a man in Scarlett's life. He's the good, decent, kind, honorable sort...and sometimes I just want to gobble him up with a spoon. I'm so happy that Olson maintained the fluid shifts in points of view between Scarlett's first person narration and Jesse's third person. Olson does that exceptionally well and her transitions are flawless. The unique style also allows for more depth and definition for Jesse's character beyond his interactions with Scarlett, increasing his presence in the story. I really love it.

Eli, on the other hand, is just as much a non-entity for me in this book as he was in the first. For all the relationship angst between him and Scarlett, I just don't think his character has been around enough, or has a large enough role, to really impact my feelings about him one way or another. I found his character to be far more effective as a source of conflict and catastrophe late in this book than he's ever been as a love interest or supporting character. Which, frankly, disappoints me, because I think I'd like him - even root for him - if I just got to know him a little better.

Not that I want to perpetuate the love triangle between Scarlet and Jesse and Eli. I don't. I hate love triangles, and think they are agonizingly overused in the genre.

I loved the plot arc of the conflict with Olivia in this book, though more so in the second half, when the crises really started to go critical and puzzle pieces started to lock into place. It was a far more personal conflict for Scarlet than that of the previous book, and that added emotional impact in several tense, gripping scenes. I can't say all the pieces of the puzzle fit together for me, and I was left with a few question marks about Olivia's actions and motivations, as well as confusion about the intended end game for the other Big Bad, but overall, I found it very satisfying.

I did start to question the timeline in some of the backstory though, and I'm not entirely sure some plot points didn't contradict established history. Scarlett has been adamant about blaming herself for her parents death (I won't even get started on how I feel about that nonsense this time), and I could have sworn it was established that her guilt was what impacted her relationship with her brother since their parents' death five years ago. But Scarlett only found out Olivia killed her parents the week before Olivia "died," which was less than a year prior to the events of the first book and about a year before this one.

Because of that appearance of contradiction, as well as some other confusing timeline issues later in the story, some crucial scenes didn't track as well for me as they might have. I also had a hard time buying the purported timeline of Olivia's partnership with the other Big Bad in the story, and elements of the external conflict strained my ability to suspend disbelief during the climax and resolution because of it. I just couldn't completely believe everything we're told given Olivia's mental instability and her obsessive relationship with Scarlett.

Honestly, though, those were more minor grievances than true stumbling blocks for me. As a whole, this was a great installment for the series. I liked it even more than I did its predecessor, and would rate it four and a quarter stars if I could. I'm in love with the world and I adore Jesse. If Scarlett continues to evolve into a more consistently appealing heroine in future books, I can easily see myself falling absolutely in love with this series.

The Scarlett Bernard Series:

Jax and the Beanstalk Zombies by Avery Flynn

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Fairy True, Book 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 81 Pages
Formats: Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by the author for review. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.

Adventurous, Sexy Fun

Veronica Kwon doesn't live the most conventional of lives. She walked away from a controlling father and his financial empire to start her own treasure hunting business, searching for those magical and mysterious artifacts of Fairy Tale fame. Her only regret, falling in love with fellow hunter Jax Taylor, the man who broke her heart - and their engagement - three months before the wedding.

She hasn't seen or heard from him since. Or she hadn't, until she strides into her mentor Antoine's shop and runs smack into a gorgeous, chiseled chest that could belong to no other but the bane of her existence.

The last thing Veronica wants to do is work with the man who still makes her pulse pound as much as he makes her blood boil, but she can't turn down Antoine's request, he taught her everything he knew about treasure hunting and was more a father to her than her own. And she certainly can't say no when he tells them he's found the three magic beans necessary to grow a very large beanstalk.

Standing next to the only woman he ever loved is a lesson in endurance and torture, but the reason Jax ended their relationship is just as pertinent today as it was the day he made that fateful call. If the opportunity Antoine presented them was any less spectacular he'd never subject his heart to being so close to Veronica again.

The expedition, however, is a bit more challenging than they had anticipated. Neither Veronica nor Jax had expected the beanstalk to lead them into a cloud country overrun with brain-eating, former-giant zombies. That fact certainly wasn't included in the briefing. Unless they can put their past behind them and work together to get out of the clouds, it may very well become a deadly oversight.

~*~

This original, imaginative story was so much fun! It's relatively short, even for a novella, but Flynn breathed life into these characters and their world in delightfully unique ways and it ended up feeling like a much meatier read than the story length would seem to allow.

I loved Veronica and Jax. What they lacked in depth of character and expansive personal history they more than made up for in vibrant personality. Veronica is a capable, independent, strong woman and Jax is everything hot and sexy in a man. The chemistry between them crackled across the page and electrified their relationship.

Second-chance romances are not a favorite of mine, but when it comes to novellas, especially those with a timeline that encapsulates only a few days, I often like them more than any other trope. The established relationship is just easier to embrace as the story races along towards an HEA. That served this story well, as I was completely on board with who they were as individuals and where their relationship stood within the first few pages of the story, allowing me to focus on the surrounding world and the arc of the plot.

The world-building was particularly well done. Flynn's writing style allowed for the magical elements of the world to be revealed as part and parcel of their character's experiences along their journey, instead of introducing elements, then explaining or defining them around the storyline. It may not have allowed for the most comprehensive world-view, but it added magical, creative color to the characters' immediate surroundings and day-to-day reality. And it did so in a very organic, inclusive fashion that appealed to me.

There were a few flies in the logic ointment in some places when it came to the plot. The plot twist was a doozy, I didn't see that one coming at all, but I was puzzled by Bad Guy's nefarious past deeds. I just couldn't figure out why he hadn't gotten enough the first few times. And how did the zombies survive so long before Bad Guy started feeding them? I also never had a good grasp of the timeline of the characters' history. It left me with some questions.

Still, none of those issues were major detractors. I was well-entertained by the danger, adventure, and steamy romance despite them. Though short, this was an action-packed, magical thrill ride of sexy good times. I couldn't be happier that it's the first in a series. I'd love to visit the Fairy True world again. Once was definitely not enough.

Undone by Shannon Richard

Genre: Contemporary Romance
Series: Country Roads, Book 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 368 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Forever Yours publisher Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.




Guiltless Pleasure

Paige Morrison hasn't had the best day...er...well, week...no, it's more like...oh, hell. The past year of her life has pretty much sucked.

She lost her job with an advertising agency in Philadelphia, lost her roommate (and best friend) to a swank job in DC, lost her apartment because she couldn't make the rent alone, temporarily moved in with her boyfriend until she got back on her feet, then got dumped before she got the chance. Forced to leave Philly just to survive, she ended up at her parents' home in the small town of Mirabelle, FL, where for the past three months she's found nothing but closed, prejudiced minds and tightly sealed doors, so no job and no friends there either.

Then, to add insult to the injury of a particularly humiliating interview with the town's resident gossipy, venomous hag, her Jeep dies, stranding her on the side of a very hot, very dusty road to nowhere. Yeah, she's definitely had better years.

Hey, at least her mechanic is hot.

Brendan King has heard of Paige Morrison. Everyone has. He's even seen her jogging around town a few times. Her call for a tow, though, is the first chance he has to see her up close or talk to her. Turns out that's probably a good thing, seeing as how just five minutes with the gorgeous, smart-mouthed, quick-witted, and so obviously down-on-her-luck woman completely rocks Brendan's world to the point where he doesn't know if he'll ever recover. Or if he even wants to.

She's the best thing he's ever had happen to his life, but Paige is a city girl, and Brendan is right where he belongs in the small town of Mirabelle. The problem may not be so much getting the girl as it is keeping her, but some risks the heart just has to take.

~*~

I have a few confessions to make. First, I absolutely love romances that have a guy so totally gone over a girl that he's endearingly goofy with it. It's totally sappy of me, I know, and I'm probably ruining my tough-girl cred (I have tough-girl cred...really...I swear. Oh, hush.) but for some reason that sort of over-the-moon-for-a-girl guy just really pushes my Happy Reader buttons, and Brendan was exactly such a guy from the moment he meets Paige. I loved it. I loved him.

I also have to confess that sometimes, just sometimes, no other sort of book will do for me but a light, fluffy, relatively complications-free romance. They're the cotton candy of what I refer to as brain candy reads; airy, not a lot of substance, really, but still so damn sweet and tasty. When I started this book, that type of cotton candy romance was exactly what I needed to cleanse my mental palate after several weightier, less happy reads. For most of this book, I was in reader heaven.

Brendan was by far my favorite character, but I liked Paige, too. Their romance was the sort of cute, fun, slow-buildup (relatively), almost idyllic romantic tale that doesn't come around all that often any more. There was sex, but not before they had been seeing each other for months, and the arc of their romance stretched all the way through a wedding and beyond. Definitely not something you read every day.

While the narrative lacked a measure of sophistication in a lot of ways and the writing style, most notably in the descriptive passages, sometimes read like bullet points, there was plenty of southern small-town goodness to balance it out. There was also a nice number of secondary characters with tons of personality if not definition, and the setup for the next book in the series, Jax and Grace's book, was well done.

The plot wasn't complex. External conflicts were mostly annoyances and relationship conflicts were few and far between. Personal conflicts and emotional baggage didn't come into play all that often, either, even when it would have been more realistic if they had. Occasionally that made the romance arc feel a little saccharine and made the book seem a little long, especially as I reached the last quarter of the story. I also had some minor issues with the timeline, which starts out with a nice day-to-day pace but has some awkward transitions when the timeline starts jumping forward by months. Nothing too bad, but enough to notice and pull me out of the story a bit.

To be honest, a staple diet of this sort of romance would drive me a little batty, but in small doses, it's just what my reading doctor ordered. For me it was a feel good, guilt-free pleasure read with a totally adorable romantic hero and an eminently likable heroine. It was also my first read of a Shannon Richard book, but given how I'm dying to get my hands on Jax and Grace's story, I can pretty much say with certainty it won't be my last. After all, a girl's gotta have just a little bit of cotton candy every once in awhile.

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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