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The Winter King by C.L. Wilson

Genre: Fantasy Romance
Series: Weathermages of Mystral, Book 1
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 608 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me through the Amazon Vine program. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.





Enchanting Fantasy Romance

Reviled and ignored by her father, punished for her very existence, Khamsin Coruscate, Princess of Summerlea, hasn't had an idyllic life. Up until Summerlea lost the war with Wintercraig, though, Khamsin thought there were some lines that her father would never cross, despite his loathing of her. Tragically, she was wrong.

The Winter King, Wynter Atrialan, is in Summerlea to dictate the terms of surrender and peace following the three year war he'd waged on the kingdom. In recompense for the murder of his brother and heir, Wynter intends to take to wife one of the three beloved and revered Summerlea princess.

Instead of marrying one of those favored daughters, however, Wynter finds himself wed to a princess he hadn't even known existed.

Perhaps Wynter should have taken umbrage with the Summer King for the double cross, but he can't help but be pleased with the switch. There's something about Khamsin Coruscate that stirs his blood and brings a heat that Wynter has long since given up on feeling. Perhaps the fiery Khamsin is the key to breaking the hold that an evil god has on his soul before that evil is unleashed on them all.

~*~

I usually prefer more urban in my fantasy romance, but every once in a great while I get a yen for the swords and horses variety. Wilson's The Winter King satisfied that yen nicely. It's exactly the sort of tale I most favor in the genre, a story that focuses heavily on or revolves around the trials and tribulations of a heroine who, through whatever circumstance, is forced to endure terrible things, but in so doing is forged into a strong, independent women who more than holds her own.

Toss in a tormented hero as an alpha-male love interest and at least one loveable sidekick to add a touch of comic relief and I'm a happy reader. Call it formula, but it's one that works for me every time.

Between Khamsin's wretched life with her family and the devastating magic she can't control, Khamsin was a sympathetic heroine from the start. She was also stubborn and willful, and there were a couple of times I wanted to give her a good shake, but she was genuinely honorable, noble and kind, with a quick wit and intrinsically fun nature that kept her likable, even when her behavior got a bit frustrating.

And I loved how Khamsin matures and her character evolves over the course of the book's events.

I can't say I was as fond of Wynter. I liked him most of the time, thought he had some excellent alpha-male moments, and the chemistry between him and Khamsin was off the charts, but his personal losses goaded him into taking some severely questionable actions to give him the power to wage a brutal war that lasted three years and caused the lives of many. And the magic he wields as a result has the sort of consequences that kill entire kingdoms. All of them.

Then again, if he wasn't trying to prevent those consequences, he wouldn't have had any cause to meet Khamsin, so I can at least appreciate the plot-driving of it all.

It would have been a true shame, too, because the two of them together was my favorite thing about the story. Beyond their excellent chemistry and all the yummy sexy times that led to, I loved almost everything about how their relationship starts, then develops and grows as they get to know one another a bit better. Their relationship is fraught with trust issues, which is not normally something I enjoy, but when it comes to Wynter and Khamsin, the absence of trust issues would have been far more glaring. Their romance was much more believable and realistic with them.

There's a flip side to that, though, and it caused the only significant disconnect I had with the book.

This is a very, very long book. I don't want to spoil anything about the climax, so I'll just say that I was disappointed that the trust issues I had loved so much throughout most of the book became such a serious impediment and source of intense aggravation for me during the climax. The misplaced trust just ended up feeling out of character for those concerned and it made the subsequent events doubly frustrating to read.

It sort of took the bloom off the rose for me at the worst possible time, and the end of the book came too quickly after that for me to gain back some of the enjoyment I had lost. Honestly, though, that was my only significant issue with the whole book. I did have a minor issue with the too-linear and simplistic world building, what with the king of the wintery kingdom of Wintercraig being named Wynter and all, but that's strictly a personal preference thing. I would have appreciated a more sophisticated backdrop for what was, truly, an enchanting read when all was said and done.

Wicked Nights by Gena Showalter

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Angels of the Dark, Book 1
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 416 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle



Almost Wicked Enough

Turning eighteen wasn't quite the awesome good time Annabelle Miller thought it would be. She woke on that special day to searing, blinding pain, and before she could think straight, saw her parents slaughtered, cut down by a monster out of a nightmare. A creature spewed from the pits of hell.

Happy birthday to her.

Convicted of their murders, Annabelle has spent four years in a nuthouse for the criminally insane, fighting off pervert doctors, bullying orderlies, and a never-ending wave of monsters that, despite heavy narcotics or maybe because of them, only Annabelle can see. She is alone, desperate, and afraid she's just as insane as everyone thinks she is.

Seeing the huge guy with the gorgeous wings pop up in her room one night after a particularly bad attack doesn't exactly disabuse her of that notion, either.

Zacharel has once again drawn his boss's displeasure. In his zeal to dispatch demons, he's been less than conscientious about the safety of the human race. Humans have died. Zacharel doesn't much care about collateral damage. His boss, however, does. In punishment...and as a last chance to keep his wings...Zacharel has been given command of a squad of warriors just as close to their final fall as he is and is ordered to deal with a demon infestation at an institution for the criminally insane.

Investigation leads him to the room of a desperate human woman who is clearly the focus of the demons' interest. Not that Zacharel cares. In fact, he has no conscience, no feelings, no passions or desires. He's unmoved by her plight. So he really has no idea why rescuing her becomes so important to him. Or why he would ever, in a million years, entertain the ridiculous notion that she could somehow rescue him right back.

~*~

I'm a Showalter fan from way back, and consider myself a LotU fan even though the last couple of them didn't quite rock my world. Still, I was happy to hear about this spinoff series, and think there's much in this kick-starter to like. The world is comfortingly familiar, and the sometimes conflicted relationship between Zacharel and Annabelle had moments that were rife with humor and a lot of fun to read.

But there were rough spots for me, too.

As much as I love winged romance heroes, those that are angelic in nature are either loved or hated based on the level of Christianity-based mythology included in the story. I try to keep religion as far away from my reading entertainment as possible, and I'm leery of having those lines crossed whenever angels are included. Doesn't make for the most relaxing read, even when my lines aren't crossed.

I was fine with the angel warriors as seen in LotU, but here they're the main characters, so their mythos will get a much broader focus with greater detail in this series. Thankfully, in this book things were mostly okay, but it could go still go either way. There were a couple of things that didn't thrill me, especially the Zacharel-touted concept that faith defines reality, but I didn't feel like I was being proselytized at the whole time, or hit over the head with the religion stick.

I'm going with tentative acceptance at this point.

I was slightly...not disappointed, really, so much as underwhelmed by the plot of the book, though. I've been alternately amused and intrigued by the emotionally bereft Zacharel since his introduction in LotU, so I was hoping for a bit more depth of character and story than the plot provided. It wasn't bad, but it was a bit two dimensional, and I found myself paying more attention to some of Zacharel's warriors and their backstory than I was to his emotional thaw and the demon trouble with Annabelle.

I liked Annabelle as a character. She was a fighter, a survivor. I liked that about her very much. I just wasn't crazy about her as the romantic heroine for Zacharel. Anabelle was only eighteen when her world exploded, just twenty-two when Zacharel gets her out of the institution, and that seemed painfully young and inexperienced compared to Zacharel's long life and jaded demeanor. It sort of messed with my comfort level with the romance in places.

The conflict with the demon who killed Anabelle's parents was, again, not horrible but didn't really wow me, either. It did provide plenty of action in the story, which I liked, but I thought the Bad Guy's identity was painfully obvious from the very beginning. That robbed the big reveal in the climax of the book of a lot of the impact it could have had, and it completely stripped one pivotal scene of the intended emotional angst, making what should have been a gut-wrenching choice feel more like a dull no-brainer.

As a spinoff series debut, this book got the job done thanks to the continuity with the LotU world and some of its characters. My favorite parts of the read, though, introduced and featured the angels serving (grudgingly as that may be) under Zacharel. They are so fabulously flawed and deeply disturbed. I look forward to catching up with them again soon.

Dangerous Territory by Emmy Curtis

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: Alpha Ops, Book 0.5
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 112 Pages
Formats: 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.




Surprisingly Robust and Sexy Novella

Three years ago an anonymous night of passion with a sinfully sexy man served as both comfort and solace to journalist Grace Grainger. Memories from that night have helped her weather three, year-long tours with combat troops in Afghanistan, so when she gets separated from her patrol and caught behind enemy lines, she expects those memories will help her get through another night until she's rescued.

What she doesn't expect is her rescuer to be the same man who helped make those memories.

That others may live. That is the pararescuer creed, one Master Sergeant Josh Travers has lived by for years. Then the rescue mission he's on goes sideways and Josh finds himself cut off from his team and stuck behind enemy lines with the last person on the planet he thought he'd stumble across in Afghanistan. He hasn't seen that face, those eyes, or that body for three long, hot, sweat-and-danger soaked years, but he's never forgotten her.

Now Josh has to do his job to the absolute best of his abilities and get them both the hell out of there, or those memories are all that he and Grace will ever have of each other...for the too-brief time they'll survive.

~*~

While military-themed romance and romantic suspense aren't truly favorites of mine, there are a few series with that theme that I have and do enjoy. If this prequel novella by Curtis is any indication, I will be adding the Alpha Ops series to that short list.

I can't say I was crazy about the beginning of this story, though. The introduction of main characters Josh and Grace wasn't to my personal taste. I struggled with Grace's deception about her identity and Josh's evasions with his, as well as the deliberate intention of both of them to hit it and quit it. It was all just a bit too impersonal and calculated for me to fully enjoy, regardless of the personal demons riding them at the time.

Thankfully, that's all I disliked. Despite the setup, I actually liked both Josh and Grace as characters. They felt refreshingly realistic to me, with flaws and peccadilloes craftily woven together with personal strengths to bulk up their characterizations and add impetus to the romance arc of the story. Maybe there wasn't as much complexity as I would hope to see in characters in a full-length novel, but for a novella, I was well satisfied and quite pleased by both of them.

It didn't hurt that Josh and Grace do a lot more than get groiny in this novella, and are more then the sum of their sex scenes. There's quite a bit of story going on around them, with both a war and a hostile environment threatening their lives constantly. It made for a tense, suspenseful read, and I loved that Grace had just as important a hand in their survival as Josh did. This wasn't a story about an uber-alpha warrior riding to the fair maiden's rescue. Grace more than held her own, often gave as good as she got, and I loved her for it.

There was actually quite a lot to love about this novella. Too often stories of this length are a crap shoot for me. Either they're too light on characterization and story and end up feeling superficial and rushed or they focus too heavily on the relationship of the characters and don't offer nearly as comprehensive an external conflict. This one had a very nice balance of both that ended up leaving me just as satisfied by the story as I was by the sexy good times.

In fact, Curtis obviously did significant research to flesh out her story and her characters, and the care taken with the military elements of the story in particular were a high point as a result. If she can write a novella that feels this authentic, robust, and complex, with characters who are more than cookie-cutter stereotypes, I honestly can't wait to find out what she can do with a full-length book. With the first of those, Over the Line, set to release in early October, I'm happy to say I don't have to wait long.

My Lady Quicksilver by Bec McMaster

Genre: Steampunk Romance
Series: London Steampunk, Book 3
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 425 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Sourcebooks Casablanca publisher Sourcebook via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.




Dark, Vibrant World with Great Characters

She is the power behind the mask, the leader of the humanist revolutionary group. To most of them, and to the aristocratic Echelon of blue bloods she is intent on destroying, she is known only as Mercury. Few know her real name or gender. Rosalind prefers it that way.

In fact, she would have kept her gender a closely guarded secret if her late-night smuggling operation hadn't been crashed by the bane of her existence, the Master of the Guild of Nighthawks himself, Sir Jasper Lynch. Unfortunately, Lynch, obviously just as much bloodhound as he is blue blood, gets the drop on her, and it's only that brief moment of surprise when he realizes she's a woman that gives her the opportunity to evade capture.

Lynch still manages to thwart - at least temporarily - Mercury's master plan to wage war on the Echelon, and that, combined with the stress from not knowing if her younger brother is dead or alive after the bombing a few months ago, realigns a few of Rosalind's priorities.

She decides its time to beard the lion in his den. Going undercover as Lynch's secretary is a mad, risky, maybe even foolish move, but she's as determined to find her brother as she is to protect her people. Whether Mercury's passion for the fight against the Echelon will survive the indomitable will and honorable nature of Sir Jasper Lynch, however, is a question that neither the woman, nor the revolutionary, can answer.

~*~

I love the world McMaster has created for this series. It's a strong, vivid backdrop that serves each book as a fictional twelfth man. The steampunk elements have had, to date, a presence that trends more towards the subtle end of the spectrum, but that's never been a problem for me. In fact, I've enjoyed the broader emphasis on the unique paranormal elements, though this one did have more of a balance between the two given blue blood Jasper and mech Rosalind as protagonists on opposite sides of their sticky situation.

The two of them were great characters, at their best when they were together. I wasn't thrilled with Lena and Will in the previous book. Lena was too weak and Will too much a martyr for too much page time in that one for me to be satisfied with either of them. There is nothing weak in Rosalind - she's exactly the sort of strong, keenly intelligent, occasionally bull-headed heroine with a heart I prefer for my leading ladies. Lord Jasper, her perfect complement, does have a bit of a self-sacrificing streak, but honestly, he has a damn good reason, one that is driven by his sense of honor, not frustrating (and ill-placed) feelings of unworthiness.

I liked Jasper so much. There was something about him, and about that strict control he maintains over every aspect of his life...a control that Rosalind blows through with delicious speed and ease, much to his consternation, that made him seem so unapproachable yet endearingly vulnerable. It was an appealing blend of humanizing contradictions, foibles and strengths, and a sense of honor in a world that has little respect for the word.

The chemistry he and Rosalind had together was swoon-worthy. Whichever incarnation of Rosalind crossed his path, the physical attraction between them was a conflagration eclipsed only by the brilliance of their sharply-matched wits and traded barbs. They were perfectly suited and I loved them together.

The plot of the story wasn't quite as heavily flavored with Echelon politicking as the previous book, thankfully. There was an interesting - and tragic - murder mystery that Jasper and Rosa were dealing with. It wasn't the focal point of the story, really, there was so much going on that there really wasn't one main plot thread, more several strong storylines woven together to the benefit of the whole. Those story threads were well-defined and highlighted the evolution of both Jasper and Rosa's characters throughout the arc of the story.

Rosalind's evolution was the most impressive element of this one for me. McMaster has a deft hand when creating wounded, troubled, and utterly unique characters, often thrusting them into the most untenable situations. Rosalind was no exception. As Mercury, she's a dangerous, revenge-driven revolutionary. As Rosa, she's a bright, world-wise woman, determined but satisfied with her lot. Her hatred of the Echelon forged her, but her ability to look beyond her prejudices when faced with contradicting evidence defined her and kept her likable.

She was far less noble a character than Jasper for a good portion of the story. That's rare, especially in stories with historical settings. It's usually the male lead who is the dangerous bad boy in romance, but that wasn't exactly the case here and I liked the switch up a lot.

I was a little troubled at the end of the book, though. The climax and resolution to both the external and romantic conflicts weren't as satisfying for me as I had hoped they would be. It got the job done well enough, I suppose, tying up several threads that needed closure, but the manner in which those threads were tied was a bit too reminiscent of the conflict resolutions in the first two books. Nothing so egregious that it felt like I was reading the same ending with different characters, but enough that I felt there was more than vague similarity there.

That bothered me, in large part because everything else about each book has been so fresh, original, and unique, that even the vaguest sense of similarity stood out to me like a flashing sign. Lets just say I'd be quite happy not to come across another Standoff at the Echelon Corral in the next few books in the series.

Frankly, this series is just too good for that sort of issue to crop up and tarnish the read. The world is darkly compelling and sophisticated, the characters as unique as they are dangerous, and their stories a complex tapestry of grim threat, fragile hope, and steely determination. I'm a big fan. I want to be able to continue to be for a long time coming.

For Her Eyes Only by Shannon Curtis

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: McCormack Security Agency, Book 3
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 273 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.



Uneven Tone Hurts the Read

When the father of a good friend is murdered and her friend is viciously attacked, MSA operations manager Vicky Hastings is determined to have her first field assignment be the undercover investigation that will identify and catch the perpetrators. There's just one small problem. Her partner for the mission is Ryan Brennan.

Okay...the MSA agent and undercover specialist is not a small problem. Sinfully sexy problem, yes. Small, no. Unfortunately, the gorgeous but frustrating man sees her only as a friend and is completely dismissive of her talents and her contributions to the agency. He's none too thrilled with the idea of being her partner on this assignment, either.

Well he'll just have to suck it up and deal with it, because Vicky is determined to catch the killers and gain Ryan's respect as a valued member of the MSA team. She just hopes she doesn't die trying.

~*~

There were things I liked about this third installment of Curtis' McCormack Security Agency series. Despite a limited amount of exposition to set this book into the series and a perplexing setup for the plot conflict (why was a security agency doing what police are supposed to do?), the story starts with a vicious killing that sets the sort of dark, edgy tone that I like in romantic suspense, and there's no doubt that the killers are Bad Guys riding the Crazy Train. That worked for me, as did several crafty, well-conceived and executed plot points in the suspense thread. Overall, I was surprised and pleased by the big picture of the conflict when it's finally revealed late in the book as it reaches its climax.

There were also elements of the romance that amused and charmed, and the cute, sometimes goofy, sexy heat between Vicky and Ryan made up for some of the less favorable points in their relationship. Despite a hearty dose of emotional immaturity on both their parts, and the confusing, difficult-to-believe premise of friendship between them (I never bought that setup, no matter what they said), they sort of worked for me as a romantic couple.

Unfortunately, the lighter tone of their relationship was at such odds with the severity of the opening sequences and the seriousness of the suspense, that I found the two elements jarring when taken together in context. Instead of blending and weaving together cohesively, the suspense threads and the romance threads never came together for me and ended up feeling very disparate throughout the book.

And I'm sorry, but I have to vent. When you and your partner have just found a viciously assaulted young woman bleeding out and dangerously near death, then you have to toss the dying woman over your shoulder to race away from the scene before the bomb that was planted kills you all, the very last thing on your mind should be the fine bum of your friend/partner.

I think Ryan having to tell himself not to stare at Vic's ass mere moments after bearing witness to horrific brutality and nearly getting blown to bits was supposed to be cute, but to me, it was so completely inappropriate in the moment that it didn't give me much of a first impression of Ryan's character.

That situation wasn't helped by the borderline incompetence and lack of professionalism evidenced by Vicky and Ryan once they were undercover. The whole premise of them going undercover as a married couple was a pretty heavy-handed and overused romantic suspense trope to begin with. And once they've inserted into the scenario, they spent so much time bickering at each other and flagrantly one-upping each other with ridiculous cover story that the investigation got lost in the shuffle.

I was also a little unhappy with Vicky's naiveté, nerves, and discomfort with Ryan's proximity once they were under. For someone who fought so hard to get where she was, claiming over and over that she was ready and more than able to do the job, desperate to prove herself, she came off as a complete powder puff at crunch time, or worse, a very disappointing gender stereotype.

Truth is, though, for me it was really all about the tone. Because of how the story started, the lighter elements weren't as successful for me as they could have been. On their own and in a different setting, I could really have enjoyed the romance arc and would have had more patience for the characters and their quirks.

Had the lighter romance been more in line with the darker suspense threads, this could have been a very solid read for me. As it is, the disparate pieces just didn't quite fit right. There were good points for sure, just not enough of them to elevate the story as a whole.

Never Surrender by Susan Vaughan

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: Task Force Eagle, Book 1
Rating: 2 Stars
Length: 188 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: A copy of this book was provided to me by the author for review. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.





Struggled with the Romance

There is nothing Juliana Paris wouldn't do to protect her younger brother, even if it means withholding information from the sexiest man she's ever seen, DEA Agent Ricardo Cruz. Juliana doesn't trust cops and the DEA is just another type of cop agency as far as she's concerned. If her brother is in trouble, and it looks like he definitely is, Juliana will find him and she'll keep him safe. Keep him free. Fix whatever it is he's done wrong this time.

Except this time, Juliana discovers, there are worse things than sexy DEA agents looking to imprison her brother on drug trafficking charges. There is a vicious drug cartel who think she's got something that would incriminate them, and they're coming for her hard. With her brother on the run and Agent Rick Cruz breathing down her neck, Juliana may need to rethink a few of her trust issues. Her life - and the life of her brother - may depend on it.

~*~

This book started out okay for me. It didn't break any new ground in the genre, the story as a whole is a bit too generic and lacking in complexity and the suspense plotline is a bit too predictable, but both Juliana and Rick had moments when they really shone as characters, and I enjoyed their contentious interplay in the first half of the book. They made that part of the ride worth the trip.

I liked the solid foundation of personal history that shaped each of them as characters. Rick's loss of his brother was the source of his zeal to stop the cartel and take down its evil leader and Juliana's overprotective fervor for her brother and the desperation that drives most of her actions was born out of her own childhood traumas. Those were nice, organic touches that helped define the characters and added a layer of believability.

That didn't necessarily make them consistently appealing, though. Rick was a bit of a dog, actually. He's a good looking guy who appreciates all women...especially the ones he can charm into bed. And he's very charming. Just ask him. I liked him most of the time, but have to admit, there were times when he came off rather shallow and manipulative with that charm of his.

Juliana frustrated me. I can't say I disliked her, exactly, but she seemed to have a stubborn resistance to anything resembling sense in the first half of the book and it made her seem very immature. I understood, even sympathized at times with her desire to keep her brother safe, but I can't say she went about it in the best ways.  Unfortunately, my biggest problem with her - and the book - came at just past the halfway mark, when out of nowhere she suddenly realizes she's in love with Rick - the same guy she's been openly distrustful of and withholding evidence from at every turn up to that point...and beyond.

I'm all for a healthy bit of lusty good times, but her love for him at that point in the story was way too abrupt and lacking in necessary foundation for my taste. In fact, I think I got a little whiplash from the shocking about-face.

Still, I think I could have accepted that shocker and still mostly enjoyed the second half of the book if the romance had been handled better from that point. Unfortunately, the chemistry between Juliana and Rick worked better for me before they got together than it ever did after. The relationship-centric scenes suffered from stilted, awkward dialogue that made me cringe in places and what little sexuality was included stayed closer to tepid, child-friendly levels of description. For fans of the more circumspect sex scene this might be a big plus for the book, but that's not where my preferences lie.

Too many other things went wrong for me from there, too. The brother Juliana is trying to protect comes off as selfish and a bit stupid, the thugs causing most of the trouble never really seemed all that threatening to me, and the plot threads surrounding the leak in the DEA office and the identity of the cartel's American partner were so anemic they offered nothing of substance to the plot. Between that and Rick's team, who lacked the definition necessary to give them any impact on the story at all, far too many of the golden opportunities to broaden the scope of the story or better layer the plot went unexplored and unrealized.

Had the romance not put such a damper on the read for me, maybe I would have been more forgiving of the limited suspense plot. This isn't a long book, so I'm less of a stickler in that regard. I may not have loved it, but I wouldn't have ended up as dissatisfied as I was. Unfortunately, too much of my overall impression of the story is hampered by what was, to me, a sometimes painful and odd romance arc. There were good points to both the characters and the story in this book, but the bad outweighed them for me this time.

Darkest Flame by Donna Grant

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Dark Kings, Book 1
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 384 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Series Parts: Darkest Flame: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4
Note: Though I read this book in its series parts (1-4), I couldn't figure out a way to review those parts individually without making myself nuts, so this review is for the book as a whole.
Disclosure: An ARC of parts 1-3 of this book were provided to me by St. Martin's Press via Netgalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.




More Flash than Substance

When MI5 agent Denae Lecroix was sent on a mission to infiltrate Draegan Industries, she knew something was off with the assignment. She just didn't know how off it was until her partner turned on her and tried to kill her after they'd pushed deep into Draegan's land. That betrayal cut almost as deeply as the knife wound she took before she...ended the partnership.

Waking up from a sleep that spanned over a thousand years to find two humans battling to the death in his cave, Dragon King Kellan was so surprised by their trespass that he was able to curb the instinct to kill the interlopers.

And he remembered his responsibility. Good thing for the surviving female that he did, too. No matter how much he loathed humans, a race full of murderous, wretched betrayers, his word was a bond, obligating him to take the surviving human female to the King of Kings before he could wash his hands of the race and sleep once more.

What Kellan learns when he takes Denae to his King changes everything. With old enemies allying with humans and the Dragon Kings being targeted in a way they have never been before, their fate could very well rest in the hands of one not-quite-dead MI5 spy and her willingness to embrace a world that she couldn't have ever dreamed existed alongside her own.

~*~

It was nice reading a spin-off series opener that truly didn't require me to have read the series from which it spun. Grant did a really nice job introducing the Dragon Kings and their world in such a way that gave a nod to what came before, but didn't depend on it too heavily. There were a few scenes that would probably have had more of an emotional impact on me if I'd been familiar with their backstory, but nothing that confused me or made me feel lost.

There were several elements of Denae and Kellan's story that I liked quite a lot, and a couple of characters (Rhi especially) who endeared themselves quickly and deeply. I also thought the world and backstory were well-conceived, the history of the dragons tragic but, odd as it may sound, believable, and the dynamic between Dragon Kings, humans, and Fae - both Light and Dark - was fascinating. It all meshed together well and provided a solid framework for the story's foundation.

Plus, dragon shifters. I'm a sucker for dragon shifters.

Those were all lovely pieces of the story puzzle, but I can't say I was completely won over by the way it all came together. There wasn't quite enough focus on a cohesive plot for me and too much of the story got hung up on Denae and Kellan's attraction to one another to the exclusion of other necessary story elements.

Instead of laying groundwork for the arc of the series, or offering a sophisticated evolution of characters and story, too much of the narrative was spent telling me again and again how smart, strong, independent, gorgeous, etc. Kellan found Denae (despite his hatred of humans) and how unimaginably sexy and fierce and amazing Denae found Kellan. Unfortunately, there wasn't a whole lot in the story that evidenced either of those things to me as a reader, so it came off as a repetitive Tell versus Show situation unsupported by the reality of the content.

There were a few opportunities for plot progression, and scenes that made me think the book was getting into the nitty-gritty, especially during battle scenes or moments of suspense and tension. Instead of broadening and expanding on those points of conflict, though, the scenes tended to start and end quickly and were very sparse in description or definition. And far, far too many elements were introduced as teasers that never got anything even approaching explanation, let alone resolution.

Rhi's former relationship with a Dragon King. Con's hatred of Ulrick. And Rhi. His questionable actions in the past and conflicted ones now. The Silvers. The identity of the Bad Guy. Why that Bad Guy wanted Kellan. The MI5/Dark Fae alliance. Tristan's transition into a Dark King. The impact of human mates on the dragons. The dissension in the Kings' ranks.

And that's just off the top of my head. There were more things, sources of conflict or questions raised, that added to the pile of things that remained completely unresolved or unanswered by the end. The only thread that was resolved, in fact, was the relationship between Denae and Kellan.

Unfortunately, as characters, I couldn't quite garner much more than ambivalence for either of them. Their story just didn't give me enough reason to do so. Denae was too inconsistent. She kept reminding Kellan that she could handle herself and was a well-trained spy, but I don't recall many instances after the initial fight with her partner where she acquitted herself well in that regard. In fact, she had to rely almost exclusively and more than once on Kellan's help just to survive with both mind and body intact.

Kellan, on the other hand, was perfectly consistent...a perfectly consistent jerk. Between his oft-mentioned hatred of the human race and his unmitigated sense of superiority, I found him hard to take in the first half of the book and only marginally more palatable in the second.

There was a scene where he completely dismisses Denae's grievous personal losses because, as a dragon, his are so much more significant - then he jumps her for some wild monkey sex. That pretty much slammed the door closed on any lingering feelings of sympathy I had for him, and it severely damaged my respect for Denae's strength of character, because though she called him on his insensitivity, she sure doesn't hold him off or demand an apology for his galling opinions. He's apparently just too awesomely male to resist, regardless of his crappy attitude.

Adding in my issue with the too-abrupt (for my tastes) relationship timeline, and the romance elements of the story didn't work so well for me.

There were definitely parts of this book that shined brightly, but they just weren't given enough room to really gain a toehold in the narrative. Those good parts were fresh, original, and eminently entertaining, but neither the romance between Denae and Kellan nor either character individually worked well enough for me to convince me to stick around to see if all those teasers eventually get explained or all the unresolved issues eventually get their resolution. At best, this was an okay read for me overall, but not one I wish to follow up on with future books.

Blacker than Black by Rhi Etzweiler

Genre: M/M Urban Fantasy; LGBT
Series: N/A
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 360 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Riptide Publishing via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



A Better Book Than Its Cover

Black knows all about the dark underbelly of life. He should. He lives it every night. He and his twin sister were little more than children when circumstances forced them to the streets. Now they're Nightwalkers, selling themselves to survive.

Not sex...or blood, for that matter. Their vampire johns - Lyche, they call themselves - don't drink blood, and sex has never been one of the services the siblings offer. Besides, vampires have other needs. What Black and his sister sell is their chi, their life energy.

Hey, it's a renewable resource, and vampires pay well for it. Not that the transaction is risk-free. Quite the contrary, especially as he and his sister don't just sell their chi. They steal vampire chi for themselves in the process.

Turns out, their johns don't appreciate that much, a fact that becomes painfully clear when Black taps the very last vampire he should have anything to do with, Monsieur Garthelle. Not only is Garthelle the top vampire in the city and the law of the land, but the chi tap Black did on the guy goes wrong in a way that no other has.

Now he's got two choices. Either he lets Garthelle turn him and his sister into his two pet spies during some swanky party thing the vampire is holding for his nearest and dearest not-exactly-friends, or Garthelle will end them both.

Which really isn't any choice at all, is it?

~*~

With a fresh and original twist on vampire mythos and a complex and intricate story, Etzweiler's Blacker than Black was a much more entertaining read than I was expecting based on the cover alone. No offense to the art designer, but wow - that cover does this book no favors at all. Fortunately, both the atmospheric world and Black's travails after biting off more of Garthelle's chi than he could handle made up for it nicely.

I loved the mystery and investigation surrounding the murdered Lyche, and the world that Black and his sister are surviving in has just enough of a touch of slightly futuristic dystopian nightmare to give it a seedy, humans-are-second-class-citizens-at-best flavor but not so much that it turned me off (I'm not normally a fan). It was a nice balance, and all the meatiest plot threads were woven together in a way that slowly revealed more and more pertinent details about the characters and the Lyche culture.

It wasn't love at first chapter for me, though. I have to admit, I had to work at it a bit in the beginning. Black is narrating his story in first person perspective. Nothing unusual about that; a good majority of urban fantasy fiction is the same. What was unique...and, for me, off-putting, was the present tense in the telling. It made the beginning of the book in particular feel a bit odd and jarring, and I was well into the story before I realized I was no longer getting jerked out of the read every few minutes by the style of the narration.

The fact that Black wasn't my favorite character didn't help matters, either. I didn't dislike him. He had several good points. I just didn't think he was all that strong as the lead character - especially in comparison to his sister, who I loved. Black tended to focus too much on the fallout of his tap of Garthelle's chi for my taste, shortchanging the story's potential for more comprehensive world building and additional plot depth.

And because the story is being told by Black, who is almost completely ignorant of Lyche culture and all the labyrinthian politics, obfuscated loyalties, and seemingly cross-purpose agendas, he didn't serve as a very good source of information about them as the story progressed. I was forced to learn what I could as Black did, around his obsession with fighting off the effect of Garthelle's chi. There just wasn't sufficient explanation for me to be able to fully immerse myself in the world, or be consistently solid on was going on in it.

I liked what there was, don't get me wrong, and some of it I liked a whole lot. There just wasn't quite enough of it for me.

Black's sister would have made a stronger protagonist, I think (though that would obviously have put the kibosh on the M/M leanings). She was brash, cagey, independent, and showed no fear, even when she felt it. And she loved the hell out of her brother, which softened her roughest edges nicely. I was saddened to see her so underutilized in the story, but every moment of page time she got improved whichever scene that included her.

Garthelle was the other character that really worked for me. I can't say I feel like I knew him all that well by the end, and I still don't completely buy his motives or the wisdom of the decision to bring Black and his sister into his situation, but I loved his inscrutable, stoic exterior, especially when it was so clearly covering up a much more vulnerable side of himself. His machinations were deliciously Machiavellian, but those moments when he let his guard down around Black were some of my favorites of the book.

It all set a nice foundation for the personal conflict between him and Black, but as most of Black's best efforts were made with the hopes of getting out from under Garthelle's influence, it threw a monkey wrench into the arc of the romantic relationship between them. I just never felt they were ever on equal footing - neither in Lyche culture nor in the relationship that slowly develops between them. That put a serious crimp on the romance-flavored aspects and made some stuff at the end of the book not quite as satisfying as I would have preferred.

If this was a first book in a series, I think most of my other issues with parts of the story - an abrupt ending, the odd relationship jump between Black and Garthelle, and the myriad questions that lingered after the final page - would have been largely mitigated. Plus, I'm greedy. When I'm impressed by the originality of a book's world or the freshness of the plot, I can only want more.

This book begs a sequel. Or a series. As a stand alone it was entertaining, if not always consistently so, and I liked it. If it was the start of something bigger, it may have been love by the end. For now, I can only hope to see more of Black and Garthelle...and Red and Blue, for that matter...at some point in the future.

On the Surface by Kate Willoughby

Genre: Contemporary Romance; Sports Romance
Series: In the Zone, Book 1
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 272 Pages
Formats: Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by both the author and Carina Press via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.




Slap Shot of Sweet and Sexy Fun

Being traded to a new team isn't fun, but it could be just what NHL player Tim Hollander needs for a fresh start in a new town, a town where he's not as haunted by the memories of the daughter he lost to a cruel disease at too young an age. Now he has to win over the fans of the San Diego Barracudas while he fights to prove himself on the ice to the team that's taking a chance on him. He has to be focused. Work harder than he ever has. Avoid distractions.

It's a good plan. A workable plan. And it's a plan that gets blown to hell the minute he meets the feisty, fiery Erin Collier at a publicity event.

Erin doesn't know a thing about hockey, but she knows the doctor she's interested in catching is a big fan. Seeing the publicity event at a nearby restaurant when she stops to pick up lunch seems kismet. She can get an autograph from a famous player and turn that into the sexy doctor's appreciation.

When that quest for autograph turns into an altercation with a belligerent fan, it's Tim Hollander that comes to her rescue, and soon Erin is forgetting all about that sexy doctor. She's too busy learning all about hockey...and even sexier hockey players.

~*~

I love a good sports romance. Doesn't matter the sport, really, though I do favor football and hockey. Great news for me, then, that Kate Willoughby hits the ice with sexy, romance-y, hockey playing fun in this new series. I've had a fan girl crush on Willoughby since her Be-Wished series (paranormal romantica fans should check that out), so when I found out she was working on this, well...lets just say there was squeeing and happy wiggling and leave it at that. It was embarrassing, really.

But I was so happy!

It's a more mainstream romance with a tamer sexuality level than her Be-Wished series, but it has the same depth of emotion and story that got me hooked on Willoughby's writing to begin with. It also has a nice mix of sports and romance. The hockey elements never felt superfluous, or just a convenient backdrop for the romance. Instead, it was given enough attention, detail, and significance to the story and the characters that it became one of the defining factors.

I would have liked more time spent with Tim's teammates and a closer look inside the team's locker room, though. Tim and Erin's story, while charming, cute, and brimming with emotion and sexy good times, was also fairly straightforward and didn't have many ancillary plot threads focusing on detailing Tim's life as a hockey player or his relationships with fellow players. There were a few ancillary characters and plot threads that were introduced early in the book, but the threads petered out and those characters didn't make much of an appearance once the relationship arc between Tim and Erin heated up and commanded the story's focus.

That's not really a complaint, because I liked the story as it is just fine. I just think a few more layers of could've propelled it into the love range for me.

The characters didn't have quite the same level of appeal to me as their story did, though. There was nothing wrong with them. I don't mean that. In fact, I can't imagine a more heartbreaking trauma to survive than the death of a child, so Tim in particular tugged at my heart strings from the beginning. I never begrudged him his completely understandable issues, even though they did telegraph a major wrinkle in the relationship with the husband-and-kids-wanting Erin.

My problem was that Tim was just slightly more in touch with his hearts-and-flowers emotional side than I prefer in my romantic heroes, and a bit too quick to fall wholeheartedly into love with Erin. And Erin, though feisty and determined, with a generous heart and giving nature, was just not the sort of woman I can easily relate to.

She was nice. Truly, there wasn't a single bad thing about her. It's just...the book introduces her while she's trying to catch Dr. O's romantic interest by baking for him until he loves her. That was way too Fifties Housewife for me to feel comfortable with her as the romantic lead and it left me with a less than favorable first impression that lingered well into the book. Even after that improved, I struggled to relate to her long term goals and desires. She was just a bit too much of a gender stereotype for me.

But there were great things in the book, too. Things that touched me, or made me grin, or even tear up a little. The story was great. The hockey was great. The writing was great. The characters just weren't quite up there for me. I still got a total feel-good buzz by the end, and I'm looking forward to Willoughby's next installment. It's sports romance. It's hockey. It's Willoughby. I'm so there.

Quotable:
The cat was not only out of the bag, it was fucking running around knocking shit over.

A Package Deal by Mia Kerick

Genre: M/M Contemporary Romance
Series: N/A
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 265 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: A copy of this book was provided to me by the author for review. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



An Emotional Journey

It started with a girl.

Grad student Savannah Meyers seems exactly the sort of complex and beautiful young woman that most reliably catches the eye and holds the interest of contractor Robby Dalton, and Robby is thrilled when she agrees to meet him for coffee.

It turns out to be a really good date. Sort of. At least, he thinks so. Honestly, Savannah's a little hard to read, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Besides, she agrees to see him again, so Robby's very optimistic. And interested. Of course he's very interested.

He just wasn't expecting their next date to include another guy - one who obviously has a history...and a present...with the pretty Savannah. After that curve ball, a little confusion is perfectly understandable, right? Or a lot...given Robby's utterly stunned, mostly uncomfortable, yet undeniable physical reaction to the gorgeous and haunted Tristan.

After all, Robby's not gay. It's all about the girl. Really. Even if they're a package deal.

~*~

My feelings are so conflicted about this book. It's definitely like nothing I've ever read before, and I liked both the uniqueness of story and the wealth of emotion Kerick stirs with the personal journeys of main characters Robby and Tristan, with Savi's unconventional assist. It was gripping in places, heart-rending and painful. Other parts were soothingly, gently hopeful or sweetly, charmingly romantic. A good part of it was tense and a little confusing - in that totally good way of reading a story that's drawn you so deeply into a character's life that his or her perplexed discomfort becomes your own.

Then there were the parts that infuriated and frustrated me, both on behalf of the trials Robby and Tristan face (a testament to how affected I was by them), and in a less positive way at the story itself, which had a few elements that didn't appeal.

For the first three quarters of the book I was totally hooked. I absolutely loved this unusual, touching, emotional story. I loved Robby, with his befuddlement and earnest social awkwardness in the face of his complex and confusing reactions to both Savannah and Tristan. His journey locked me into this book and refused to let me go. And Tristan, the sweet man-child with a gentle soul and horrific past, made my heart ache.

He is such a broken young man, our Tristan, so fragile in so many ways, and yet there's such a guileless innocence and decency in him that I just wanted everything to work out for him, because he desperately deserved happiness, peace, and unlimited love.

It didn't matter to me in the slightest that the unconventional relationship between Tristan, Robby, and Savannah wasn't to my taste for romance. Frankly, the dynamic between Robby and Tristan didn't work for me in that regard, anyway, so I just stopped expecting any sexy M/M romance from the story early in. That helped tremendously.

In fact, this read much more to me like a coming of age story than anything else...except that all parties are already of age (despite the kid's card games and boyish nicknames). It was just far more effective for me as an emotional journey of self-discovery, acceptance, and healing than any sort of romance.

That's generally not something I like to read, but for the first three quarters of this book I was utterly and totally captivated by the characters and their lives. I loved everything about it. Well, okay, I loathed Robby's friend Mikey. From his introduction he did nothing but disgust me. That wouldn't have been too big a problem, though, if it didn't also draw Robby's strength of character into question for putting up with him for so long.

Still, I was dealing with that well enough right up until the incident between Mikey and Tristan. That's where the story started to stumble for me. The aftermath of that scene did more than draw Robby's strength of character into question. It obliterated it, as well as any respect I had for him as a human being for his response - or astounding lack thereof - to what Mikey had done. But it got worse, because there was also Robby's father.

Again, the problem wasn't that Robby's father wouldn't be winning any Father (or Husband) of the Year awards. He's a controlling, close-minded homophobe, but I expect to encounter at least one in stories of this type, so while I detested him, he was not the issue. No, it was Robby's choices and actions after the inevitable face-to-face with the man that derailed the story for me and put another series of large dents into Robby's knight-in-tarnished armor.

By that point in the story, I was hating on Robby almost as much as I was on his dad and Mikey. Fortunately, it was relatively near to the end of the book. Unfortunately, the too-abrupt resolution to everything didn't quite redeem Robby to me before the story ends, so in general the book ended in a less positive place for me than it was throughout the first three quarters of the story.

It also begs mentioning that the book's cover art, which practically oozes an implication of hot, sexy, mature content, utterly fails to reflect the New Adult tone of the story and the extremely tame (mostly glossed over) sexuality in the two brief scenes in which sex occurs. The cover is sexy and beautiful, no argument there, but that art shouldn't be on a book with a story that refers to a man's dangly bits as his "privates" during the only moderately descriptive sex scene in the whole book. Fortunately, it didn't affect my opinions of the story, but that's only because I didn't see it before I finished the book.

Bite Me by P.J. Schnyder

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: London Undead, Book 1
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Length: 89 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.


Lots to Devour in this Small Bite

The scream that rips through the night while Seth is on patrol is, sadly, not an uncommon sound for the werewolf shifter and London pack's Alpha. Not since the zombie outbreak turned London into a literal dead zone. As common as it may be, though, Seth has no intention of letting it go unheeded. Chasing the echoes of the scream into the nearby park, Seth is stunned to see a pretty human woman standing over a small family, fiercely protecting them, her guns blazing at the horde of walking dead attacking them.

Maisie knows she's in a world of trouble. Her ammo is running out, the people she's trying to save are so petrified they can't even help themselves, and the zombies attacking aren't acting like the zombies she's depressingly familiar with. These are faster, their attacks coordinated.

The huge, half-shifted werewolf that suddenly appears and starts tearing through the zombies with brutal efficiency startles her at first, but Maisie can hardly complain about the much-needed assist. Maybe she'll live through the night after all. But if these new, faster, more intelligent zombies are indicative of a shift in the zombie population, it's going to take more than a sexy alpha werewolf and a tough chick with guns and a limp to save what's left of London. It'll take a miracle.

~*~

Wow, this was such a fun read. Frankly, I wasn't expecting to like it nearly as much as I did. I'm not a fan of zombies, so I tend to avoid books that feature them, but I was curious about the mix of shifter romance and zombie apocalypse in this novella. I thought I'd give it a chance, but my expectations weren't high. By the end, every one of those expectations were greatly exceeded.

Despite the short length of this novella, there is an abundance of world building, plenty of action, and enough depth of character that both Seth and Maisie were more well-rounded than I'm used to reading in stories of this length. And the tale is written with a fast, engaging style and has a healthy serving of humor that appealed to me, despite the bleak post-apocalyptic London setting and the zombies that made it that way.

Both Seth and Maisie were quirky, completely likable characters, especially the indomitable Maisie, who I adored, and their chemistry was off the charts.

The relationship between them built up a lot faster than I normally prefer in my romance, as the entire story timeline takes place over a couple of days, but Seth and Maisie acknowledge that in the narrative, and that, along with the fact that Seth's werewolf nature allowed for a bit more leniency from me about that, served to mitigate any serious issue with how quick they get to their Happily Ever After. Or...well...potential HEA, as the Ever After in the story is fairly dependent on those zombies being dispatched sooner rather than later.

One of the things I liked most about this story was the wealth of emotional baggage each character is dragging around. Seth has the weight of his responsibilities as pack alpha and the lingering damage from his former lover's betrayal. Maisie is still struggling with the guilt from surviving the zombie attack that killed her family and has a damaged leg and a permanent limp as a daily reminder. Neither one of them were exactly normal and well-adjusted, but both of them were just three dimensional enough to keep from coming off as cardboard cutouts of real people.

There were a surprising number of twists and turns in the plot given the story's shorter length, but I do wish there had been a bit more attention given to fleshing out and better defining the external conflict of the story. That particular plot element was fairly thin, with so much of the story space having already been allotted to building up the foundation of the world and the characters themselves.

It actually took me awhile to recognize that there was a specific thread of external conflict going on in the unusual zombie attacks occurring around the city. There was just so much else to focus on that it didn't even occur to me that the tidbits of information about them were being woven into both this particular story's arc as well as the larger series arc until the story started cresting into its climax. Because of that, the end of the story seemed a bit rushed to me and didn't quite answer all the questions I had, nor resolve all the issues.

Some of that is understandable as part and parcel of being a series debut, but given how everything else was given such perfect attention, I felt the loss. But because everything else was given such perfect attention, and Seth and Maisie did such a good job stealing my heart, it was a loss I can easily live with.

I wish this had been a full-length novel. And not because I would have liked seeing one or two elements have a bit more room to really be explored in the story...though that is part of the reason. Mostly, though, I just wasn't ready to be finished with Seth and Maisie's story. I loved them so much as characters and a couple that I wanted to spend more time with them both. On the bright side, if Schnyder's goal, like P.T. Barnum's, was to leave them wanting more, Schnyder achieved the hell out of it. I want more from her as an author and more of this series.

Savage Deception by R.T. Wolfe

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: Nickie Savage, Book 1
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Length: 300 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: A copy of this book was provided to me by the author for review. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.





Deception Needs Black Creek

Savage. It's more than a name, it's a way of life.

Police Detective Nickie Savage had that brutal truth carved into her skin and burned into her mind when she was a child stolen from her home and forced to do things no child should ever have to do. But that was fifteen years ago, her past a bloody, jagged-edged crucible that forged her into the cop she is today.

She knows that's the reason the Feds have approached her to consult on a case surrounding a child prostitution ring. As suspicious as that makes her, she's quick to fly out to the crime scene in Vegas with Duncan Reed, famous artist, former military explosives expert, sometimes-hacker boyfriend by her side. Walking through the crime scene stirs echoes from her own tragedy, but that's not the worst of it.

With Duncan providing an assist, Nickie discovers evidence that suggests the perps behind the case are the same sick bastards who stole her from her own bed when she was only fourteen. With the implications of that connection rocking Nickie to the core and dark, painful secrets slowly rising to the surface after over a decade of suppression, it will take everything Nickie has just to stay sane.

And every trick in Duncan's well-stocked arsenal to keep the woman he loves alive.

~*~

Lately it seems I'm plagued with series debuts that don't read like series debuts. It's frustrating. At least in this case, there's a clear reason for it. Main characters Nickie and Duncan are featured in both Wolfe's Black Creek series and in Savage Echoes, a prequel novella for this series. I'm certain I would have had an easier time with this book had I read those, because there just wasn't enough exposition in this one to sufficiently introduce the characters or explain important story elements before the meat of the plot got going.

That was a problem for me, as the majority of the plot conflict revolves around Nickie's past, and there are a plethora of references to events and situations that I could only assume took place in one of those other two stories. As a result, I spent most of the first half of the book (and in places in the second half) feeling a general sense of disconnect and varying levels of confused.

I think my understanding was hampered by the third person limited point of view in which it's written. Though the character focus in the narrative shifts back and forth between Nickie and Duncan, which helped me get better acquainted with each of them, the lack of an omniscient voice didn't allow for a broader picture of their world and their past, and neither character deigned to reminisce on previously established information in a way that would have helped me find and keep my footing with the story.

That's a shame, too, because I think if I'd had that previously laid groundwork to build on, I could have loved this book.

I know I loved Duncan and I enjoyed Nickie most of the time - which is saying a lot for me, as I'm very tough on my fictional heroines. There were times when Nickie totally shut down and seemed more the victimized damsel than was comfortable for me, but most of the time she was a tough-as-nails, gritty chick I admired.

The best parts of the book for me were the scenes that featured both Duncan and Nickie. I absolutely adored them as a couple. Between Duncan's stalwart and unflagging devotion to Nickie and her fierce love for him, despite her myriad issues and their very different personalities, their scenes together stole the show for me. Before I was even sure I liked either character, I loved them together.

I also liked that their relationship, while obviously new, was already established. I don't read a lot of romance fiction in which that's the case, but I think the romantic suspense genre is a good fit for that particular relationship dynamic. Too, both Duncan and Nickie are very damaged characters, another point that appeals. Characters just seem more realistic to me when they have damage or flaws that impact their lives. We are all, to a one of us, walking wounded.

The external conflict in the plot was solid and meaty, even though some of the context was lost on me, but a few elements left me perplexed. I couldn't quite get a handle on Nickie's roll on the police force, as she seemed to spend more time investigating the connection between the evidence recovered in Vegas and her own childhood trauma than working any current day-to-day cases.

Don't get me wrong, I liked the story elements in the book and thought the investigative/police procedural end was nicely done. I just wasn't clear on how she could spend so much time on it over her open, active cases and more recent local crimes. I ended up feeling a little perplexed but mostly entertained by it all.

Hell, any attempt to end what was going on with the Bad Guys in this book is considered a solid win for me, story-wise.

Now that I've spent time with Nickie and Duncan and gotten a feel for their personal histories and their relationship, I want to read more, but to be completely honest, it wasn't always easy getting here. I would recommend this book only to readers familiar with the third book in Wolfe's Black Creek series or that prequel novella I mentioned. I certainly wish I had read those, because Savage Deception is listed as the first book in what has the potential to be a gangbusters romantic suspense series. It just doesn't read like it.

Wicked Wind by Sharon Kay

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Solsti Prophecy, Book 1
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 288 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: A copy of this book was provided to me by the author for review. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.




Wickedly Nice World

Nicole Bonham knows she and her sisters aren't normal. She doesn't know why that's so any more than she knows where their unique talents come from, but with her ability to manipulate wind and her sisters' talents with fire and water, the three of them are definitely not like the rest of humanity.

She can accept that. Has accepted it. Never once in her life, though, did Nicole ever doubt she was human. It never crossed her mind that was even a possibility. Then she meets a gorgeous guy in a club. There's no arguing he's smoking hot and, man, he can dance like a demon. As far as Nicole is concerned, it's her lucky night...right up until the guy tells her he actually is a demon.

If that isn't freak-out-worthy enough, the guy, Gunnar, admits he saw her use her power to help someone earlier that night and he wants to know what sort of supernatural being she is. Yeah, that's pretty much when the freaking out started.

As a Lash demon, Gunnar is very good at hunting down dangerous demons and keeping them from making a deadly mess in the human realm. After more than two centuries of doing just that, he's gotten very good at identifying supernaturals by their power signature alone. Nicole's power, though, is like nothing he's ever felt before.

Knowing how the bad guys work leaves him no doubts, either. If any of them find out about Nicole and feel what she can do, they won't bother asking questions, they'll either take her to use her, or they'll destroy her. And that's not something Gunnar is going to let happen. Not when the proud, stubborn female makes him feel things he never knew he could feel and want things he's never wanted before.

~*~

This series debut has several really good things going for it. I liked the world quite a lot and appreciated the detailed world-building. There was a nice amount of the story dedicated to fleshing out not just a few of the demon races, but other supernaturals as well. And I loved Gunnar and Nicole's trip to the demon realm, Torth. That was a whole lot of fun.

There was also a lot of heat in the relationship between Gunnar and Nicole. The chemistry between them was strong from the moment they meet and I liked that a lot, and Kay can definitely right sizzling sex scenes.

Gunnar and his Lash demon cohorts were fairly typical for the genre and not unlike the main characters of several similar-type paranormal romance series, but that's never been downside to me. I happen to like that particular formula of a brotherhood of alpha-male warriors and they worked for me here. It helped, too, that we met several who intrigued me and kept me entertained beyond just the main characters.

I enjoyed Nicole through most of the book. Romantic heroines are very often the weak link in books for me, and truthfully, Nicole had her moments, too, most notably late in the book, but I loved her bond with her sisters and she was a strong, independent woman who definitely knew her own mind. I was enamored of her from the moment she decides to use her talent to help people, long before she even knew what she is.

What she and her sisters are is probably my favorite aspect of the book. I totally dug the idea that they're so rare, even other supernaturals don't believe they are anything but myth. That tickled me, especially when Nicole keeps meeting supernaturals who express their disbelief. That made me grin every time. It was great.

I have to admit, though, I wasn't sold on the plot of the external conflict. Part of the problem for me was the limited amount of time given to it in the story. The Big Bag doesn't show up until the 67% mark and that was just too late in the book for his plot threads to really offer significant contribution to the story as a whole. It didn't help at all that Nicole had a few TSTL moments that led, in a painfully obvious manner, to a climax that seemed both predictable and abrupt.

There were also a few too many breakaway scenes for my tastes, scenes that focused on secondary and ancillary characters. I didn't mind Kai's. I liked him a lot and I loved the acrimony between him and Nicole's sister Brooke. It may be easy to see where that's headed, but I adore that sort of conflict, so I'm totally on board with their impending tale and loved how it was set up in this book. And as his story is up next in the series, it made sense that he and Brooke had some groundwork laid here.

Raniero's, on the other hand, was a problem for me on several different levels.

I would much rather have had the story offer more depth and definition to the bad guy and his plans instead of pages of excessively detailed information about Raniero's past. And that's not even touching the issue I had with his supposed endless love and relentless search for Ashina - given that he's spent all his free time since he last saw her, and I quote, "buried between the willing thighs of beautiful females." Made it hard to feel anything at all for the pages of tragic history that preceded that little gem and it didn't exactly endear me to Raniero as a character.

Plus, he wasn't a significant enough character for any of that to be necessary in this book to begin with, so all of it just completely turned me off.

The meat of the overall story seemed to focus more on the sexual and emotional relationship between Gunnar and Nicole than on the bad guy doing bad things, and that was really my biggest issue. There was a lot of sex in the story. It was very hot sex, for sure, but for me to really enjoy that much in a book I need other story elements to be given equal attention, and that didn't quite happen. My preferences lie with a more robust external conflict and a more plot-driven narrative. To me, the relationship between the main characters overpowered everything else and the romance itself got a little too schmaltzy for me by the end.

The good points in the story didn't quite outweigh my issues, but to be fair, the majority of those issues are a personal preference thing. For fans of paranormal romance with more attention on the R than the PN, the very things that didn't work so well for me would totally appeal. And because of those good points, not to mention the delicious teasers for Kai and Brooke's story, I'm looking forward to revisiting the world and seeing how Kay deals with a different character dynamic.

Some Like it Hot by Susan Andersen

Genre: Contemporary Romance
Series: Razor Bay, Book 2
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 334 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Harlequin HQN via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.





Nice Bite of Sexy Fun

Quintessential rolling stone Harper Summerville loves her job. She travels the globe, staying in a place just long enough to investigate the charities that have submitted a request for financial assistance from her family's Sundays Child foundation. It's Harper's job to determine the requesting organization's needs and the quality of care they provide, to make sure foundation funds are going to the best candidates.

It's the sort of job that fits her right down to her toes, because Harper's never been - and never will be - one to let any sort of moss grow under her feet. At least, that's what she keeps telling herself. Now that she's in the Washington town of Razor Bay and has met the delectable sheriff deputy Max Bradshaw, Harper has started to wonder about some of her wanderlust ways.

It's never been hard to move on before, in fact, she gets downright itchy if she stays in one place for too long, but there's something about the gorgeous, kind, but wounded Max. Harper's feeling an itch all right, but it has nothing at all to do with getting out of town and everything to do with one tall, dark, and oh-so-handsome lawman. 

~*~

If you haven't read the first book in Andersen's Razor Bay series, don't worry. I haven't either, and it didn't cause me any problems with this book, though it was clear that all the characters and some of the underlying issues were previously introduced. Frankly, I'm okay with not reading that first book, because while I liked Jenny and Jake well enough as secondary characters in this book, I don't know that they would've appealed to me as much in the primary roles as did Harper and Max.

Well...okay...mostly Max.

Not that there was anything wrong with Harper. There wasn't at all. She's a smart, independent woman with a big heart and caring nature. I wasn't totally able to relate to her rolling-stone ways, and I didn't like that the relationship between her and Max got physical before she got honest with him about her true purpose in Razor Bay, but watching her reach out and form deeper connections with friends and coworkers as her character grows in the story was a part of the fun of the read.

The lies and secrecy did make the inevitable relationship conflict too predictable and the buildup to the conflict climax more than a little formulaic, but in this sort of light, sexy romance, predictability and formula aren't huge detractors. In fact, this book is just the sort of reasonably uncomplicated brain candy that I was hoping it would be. There isn't a huge morass of angst or a lot of emotional melodrama, just two good looking characters with varying degrees of personal baggage and a few external complications.

And I loved the heck out Max. He was quite the full package in romantic heroes. Despite the troubled childhood and an adulthood shadowed by elements of darkness, he was still a truly nice guy - but with just the right amount of sexy edge and a dash of social awkwardness that warmed my heart even as it heated my blood. He was so, so yummy.

I liked the slow build in the relationship between him and Harper, too. They fit nicely together from the start, their initial run-ins flavored with sizzling sexual chemistry and the sweetest taste of earnest uncertainty. I was also pleased that the narrative didn't rush to throw them together romantically for the sheer purpose of getting them naked and horizontal. The majority of the first half of the book showed them mostly dancing around one another while each dealt with their own various internal and external issues.

Of course, them getting together didn't suck either. There were plenty of hot times in Razor Bay.

This was just an all around fun read for me, good for a few solid hours of light reading enjoyment. Basically what I expect from an Andersen romance, really. There was even a few teasers for what's to come in the next book in the series. Luc's introduction was a little heavy-handed in the last bit of this book, but there's an interesting dynamic between him and Harper's friend Tasha that's hinted at here and I'll keep my eye out for their book when it comes out.

Ratings Guide

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

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

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2014 Reading Challenge
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Zero at the BoneHead Over HeelsLord of the WolfynIn Total SurrenderA Win-Win PropositionNorth of Need

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