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Thrill Ride by Julie Ann Walker

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: Black Knights Inc., Book #4
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 352 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Sourcebooks Casablanca publisher Sourcebooks via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.

Liked It...Despite Myself

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

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

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

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

~*~

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

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately, it didn't happen.

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

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

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


Black Knights Inc. Series:


Fairies in My Fireplace by R.L. Naquin

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Monster Haven, Book 3
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 236 Pages
Formats: Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Carina Press via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.




Fun Times with Zoey's Friends

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

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

~*~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Monster Haven Series:

The Summer He Came Home by Juliana Stone

Genre: Contemporary Romance
Series: Bad Boys of Crystal Lake, Book 1
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 384 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Sourcebooks Casablanca publisher Sourcebooks via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.




Bad Boys are Back in Town

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

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

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

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

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

~*~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gifted by Liz Long

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

Fun Under the Big Top

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

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

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

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

~*~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Throne of Oak by Dana Marie Bell

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Maggie's Grove, Book 2
Rating: 2.5 Stars
Length: 224 Pages
Formats: Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Carina Press via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.




Felled by Execution

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

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

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

~*~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Maggie's Grove Series:

The Last Kiss Goodbye by Karen Robards

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




Too Much of a Good Thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

~*~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Dr. Charlotte Stone Series:

It Had to Be You by Jill Shalvis

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



It Could Only Be Lucky Harbor

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

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

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

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

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

~*~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Night Blade by J.C. Daniels

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



Intense

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

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

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

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

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

~*~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not fun, by any means. But deeply affecting.


The Colbana Files:

Deceiving the Witch Next Door by Melissa Bourbon Ramirez

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: N/A
Rating: 1 Star
Length: 161 Pages
Formats: Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Covet publisher Entangled Publishing, LLC via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.


Too Many Negatives for Me

Eight years after leaving Bloomington, Texas in the dust, Storie Bell is back to make her mark in the only home she ever knew. She had to, she had nowhere else to go. Okay, so finding out that Reid Malone was also back in town was not the best news she'd ever heard. Not when the last time he saw her he almost caught her using her magic, and not when the memory of that long-ago night, and the incendiary moment they shared, still had the power to leave her breathless.

So she'd avoid him. That shouldn't be too hard to do, even in a town as small as Bloomington.

Reid may be stuck in his podunk hometown for now, but as soon as he helps his father find the secret ingredient to his moonshine recipe, he'll be long gone. Sure, having Storie back in town is a heady distraction, and her renovation of the old gas station next to his father's bar is putting a serious crimp in his search for that special oil her father used to give to his old man, but he's not going to let that get in his way. Memories of the night they shared eight years ago would just have to take a back seat to his father's ambitions.

He just had to find a way to worm his way into her life, and really, that shouldn't be too hard to do in a town as small as Bloomington.

~*~

I had so many problems with this book, I'm not really sure where to start. It started well enough. The flashback from eight years ago provided a strong beginning. Unfortunately it was all downhill from there. There wasn't much in the way of world-building, the characters were two dimensional, the plot was very limited, the narrative was repetitive, and the relationship between the two main characters never evolved beyond rampant lust.

The building blocks were there. I liked the brief look of eight-years-ago Reid, and I liked Storie pretty well throughout most of the book. Current-timeline Reid, however, was fairly reprehensible. Not only was he actively deceiving Storie so he could steal from her for his equally reprehensible father, the justification of his actions left me cold. This is a rich, self-made man who couldn't figure out a better way to help his crook of a father? Really? He had to take advantage of a perfectly sweet woman just trying to set up a life for herself? And he's supposed to be the hero of the book. Sorry, no.

Their relationship, such as it was, was acrimonious, so this may appeal to enemies-to-lovers fans, but for this theme to work for me, there has to be a better evolution of the characters as the story progresses and a better foundation for that evolution. All Storie and Reid had was that oft-mentioned night eight years ago. And I got sick of hearing about it. I can't even tell you how many times it was brought up in the story. Every time they so much as thought of each other, they would refer back to that night. Between that and how often Storie reminded herself that witches can't be with mortal men, the narrative seemed painfully repetitive.

And while it was easy to believe the lust they felt for each other, though the significance of that lust after eight years was a bit of a stretch, nothing in the plot at any point in the story indicated any greater depth or complexity of emotion. There just wasn't room for it to develop, no matter what readers are told. But just saying it's so doesn't make it so.

There was also a plot twist that came out of nowhere late in the book and further hampered my enjoyment of the read. The twist struck me as heavy-handed and emotionally manipulative, and instead of garnering sympathy for Storie, I ended up questioning her ridiculous decision-making. I could no longer justify caring for a character who would leave her best friend - her only friend in the whole world - completely in the lurch with nothing more than a hastily-written letter because of some inexplicable sense of responsibility to people she's never met.

Family of the heart deserves better. Her best friend and that friend's two little girls deserved better. As a reader, I felt I deserved better from a heroine of a story. And that's above and beyond how painfully contrived the whole situation seemed to be.

I was also left wondering if I was supposed to take that sweeping romantic conclusion seriously. Up until the end, the story had been consistent about the toll Storie's magic took on her, enforcing and reinforcing the fact that it was failing, that even the smallest spell drained her to the point of needing a nap. And then, after wielding some hefty mojo in the climax of the conflict, she's not only still conscious, she's able to toss around a few get-naked-now spells as she gets busy with Reid without so much as a yawn for her efforts. That inconsistency on top of the sudden declaration of previously unsupported everlasting love just put the final nail in this book's coffin.

It's a fast read, and there were elements of the story that had appeal. Storie's friend was a solid secondary character and her two daughters were precious and precocious. I even liked the idea of Storie's bookshop cafe and could have embraced the otherworldly elements if they had more definition or explanation. In the end, though, there were just too many negatives for me, and the two biggest were Reid and Storie. That's two pretty insurmountable obstacles.

Against the Wall by Dee J. Adams

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: High Stakes, Book 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 279 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me for review. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.

Action-Packed Series Debut

Spending seven years in prison for a crime he didn't commit gave Tanner Bryant plenty of time to plan his revenge on the man who put him there. He wanted...needed Maurice Juneau to suffer as he suffered, and Tanner had every intention of making sure that happens.

Unfortunately, he hadn't planned on the young woman who stepped into his line of fire and took the bullet meant for Juneau. Nor had he planned on kidnapping her after he shot her. He's pretty sure that will come back to bite him, too, because Jess St. James may be tiny, but she is a force of nature. And he hasn't the first idea what to do with her.

Jess is frantic. Not only didn't her slimy boss give her the eight million dollars she needs to save her family, she got shot then kidnapped by the lunatic who shot her. Frankly, she shares Tanner Bryant's animosity for her boss. It's Maurice's fault her family has been abducted by a vicious criminal. But unlike Tanner, she needs the man alive to save her family.

Now she's got to partner up with the guy who put a bullet in her so she can get money from the man she works for. And she's running out of time. If she doesn't produce eight million dollars soon, her family will die. She's just going to have to convince Tanner that his revenge, however deserved it may be, is going to have to wait a little longer.

~*~

There are few things as nice for an avid reader like myself than having a favored author come out with a new series. I've been a fan of Adams' Adrenaline Highs series since the first book, so finding out about her new series made my day. I love Adams' writing style and her characters tend to be some of the best and most unique in the genre. Tanner and Jess were no exception.

Tanner was certainly a layered almost-antihero. It's not every day you get a hero that starts off a book shooting his heroine, but I sympathized with his past. His reaction to Jess, though, is what really charmed me. For all that he tried to be nothing more than a big, bad ex-con with an ax to grind, he was also a damaged guy who had lost everything. Jess' fateful stumble turned his carefully laid plans on their ear and kept him completely off balance, giving his initial attraction to her and his sympathy for her plight time to work on his conscience and reawaken his sense of integrity and honor.

I liked him a lot, and I appreciated the evolution of his character as the story progressed.

Jess was another bright spot. Though tiny in stature, she was fierce in her fight for her family and had no problem standing up for herself. I wasn't always thrilled with some of her emotional outbursts, but she was a nice fit for the more stoic Tanner. They had great chemistry and that was due in large part to the balance of strength and vulnerability she brought to the mix in their relationship.

As great as they were, though, had they been the sole focus of the narrative, I'm not sure I would have liked this book as much as I did. Oh, don't get me wrong, they were very likable, and they had some scorching sexy times I heartily enjoyed, but with a few exceptions, their storyline was fairly standard for what I've come to expect from Adams. What I didn't expect, and what really thrilled me, were the scenes with Jess' family.

Though they had secondary roles, Jess' family provided almost all of the more disturbing and suspenseful points of the plot. I loved Jess' parents, Jay and Terry. Their scenes were narrated with a slant from Jay's point of view and they stole the whole book. Between Jay's pride and love for Terry and their kids and Terry's indomitable strength of will, the characters and their scenes held me enthralled and drove all the darker elements of the suspense arc. They had so much presence on the page that they very well could have been the main characters. I loved them.

This was an action-packed and pulse-pounding read with some surprising, gasp-worthy twists and turns. I was caught off guard more than once by developments I hadn't seen coming and moved by characters who left an impression. I even had a total fan-girl squee moment with an awesome Adrenaline Highs series tie-in. Rock on Seger Hughes!

I can't say I was totally sold on every element in the story's premise, the family kidnapping in particular strained my willing suspension of disbelief given the motivation of the Bad Guy and sheer logistics, but the action itself, the scenes with Jess' family, and the arc of the romance between Tanner and Jess combined to provide a thrilling, sexy, and sometimes horrifying romantic suspense that kept me highly entertained. Adams may just have another hit series on her hands. One I plan on reading along with until the end.

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

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