review: modern sorcery

Modern Sorcery by Gary Jonas (2011)

Modern Sorcery is the first book in the Jonathan Shade urban fantasy series by Gary Jonas. This book has been on my kindle for at least six months. I don’t know if this happens to anyone else, but over the weekend I decided I was in the right mood to read this particular book. Well, I should say I was finally in the mood to make a second attempt to read the book. The first time I picked up Modern Sorcery, I read about 9% of the book or what amounts to the first 40 pages. I didn’t know if I would actually make it through the whole book the second time around, but I wanted to, because this is exactly the kind of urban fantasy that is my favorite—private detectives whose investigations take place in a paranormal world, and bonus points if the novel weaves in elements of noir and hardboiled detective fiction. I’m not able to say I loved Modern Sorcery, but I did like it a lot and already plan to read the second book in the series. On a budget? At the time of this writing, it’ll cost you $2.99 plus tax, as the book is not currently available from my local library and it’s also not in the Kindle Unlimited library. If you’re a fan of the urban fantasy genre and looking for a new series, then it’s worth the dollars from your book budget. If you’re a casual fan or new to the genre, I’d recommend starting somewhere else (the Harry Dresden files by Jim Butcher and the Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne are fantastic entry points).

The protagonist of the novel is Jonathan Shade. One of the things that makes Jonathan stand out is that while he’s fully initiated to the existence of magic and the supernatural, he has no magic. And yet he is immune to magic, and this anomaly promises to turn into a mystery about his true nature that will have to eventually be unravelled. Three years ago, Jonathan died, and after being brought back to life he acquired the ability to see ghosts. Jonathan is a private investigator, and when he arrives at his office at the start of the novel, there is a client waiting for him. It happens to be Naomi Miller, his ex-girlfriend who declined his marriage proposal five years ago. Naomi asks Jonathan to investigate the murder of her mother, Kathy, and prove that magic was somehow responsible for causing her father to kill her mother. Jonathan reluctantly takes the case even though there is indisputable video evidence that shows Naomi’s father killing her mother. In terms of the plot structure, Modern Sorcery employs one of the elements from noir detective fiction in that the mystery that sends the story into motion is easily and soon resolved, only for the detective to find a more sinister and dangerous plot lurking beneath the surface. In a classic noir detective novel, the corrupt underbelly of society would in some way involve the wealthy elite and/or law enforcement. In this particular urban fantasy setting, the corruption lies within the elite echelons of the magical community. Modern Sorcery also incorporates the noir convention of the femme fatale in the form of Naomi Miller. Jonathan never got closure to his relationship with Naomi, and their shared past together is his primary motivation for taking her case and agreeing to help her. If you are a fan of classic noir detective fiction, you’ll feel right at home in the world of Modern Sorcery.

This year, I’ve written a lot about what feels like a shift toward long sections of internal narrative from the protagonists of urban fantasy novels that come at the cost of developing vibrant supporting characters who I can care about. The balance between dialogue and narrative in Modern Sorcery is much more balanced and that is a point in its favor. Not surprising, the difference equates to a strong supporting cast of characters who garnered my interest and did more than just play their role in the story. Jonathan’s circle of friends includes Kelly Chan, his partner and the owner of a dojo. Kelly is skilled in the martial arts, and not only is she Jonathan’s primary sidekick but she’s also his protector (sort of like Jack Dalton is MacGyver’s protector and best friend). I love Kelly and want to see more of her and how she develops as the series continues. We also meet Esther, the resident ghost who is bound to an old Underwood typewriter in Jonathan’s office. Esther cannot go more than fifteen feet away from the typewriter, so when Jonathan wants some privacy he moves her typewriter into another room or when he wants her help he takes the typewriter with him. Esther is definitely one source of comic relief but she’s also just plain adorable. Because you can’t have a private detective without some form of law enforcement-type character, there’s also Patrick O’Malley, a Denver PD homicide detective. Rounding out the supporting cast is Sharon, who works as a librarian at the University of Colorado-Boulder library. I won’t spoil it but it’s also going to be obvious to well-read readers what Sharon’s true identity is. She’s another character who I can’t wait to see more of in future books in this series. Truthfully, the supporting characters of Modern Sorcery are what make me think this series has potential to become one that I love.

I’ve said this before but it applies to Modern Sorcery so I’ll say it again. The first book in this series is like the pilot episode of a new television show, where I liked the pilot well enough but need another episode before deciding if I’m definitely hooked. Like I said above, I’ve already added the second book to my to-read list and it’s more than a little likely that I’ll read the next book sooner rather than later (by the way, the next book in the series is Acheron Highway). I have no regrets about reading this book and if you’re looking for a new series to try, I’d recommend giving Modern Sorcery a chance.

Have you read Modern Sorcery or any of the other books in the Jonathan Shade series? What did you think? Should I keep reading?

review: the ghost hunter next door

The Ghost Hunter Next Door by Danielle Garrett (2017)

Looking for a light read that offers a good mystery, a bit of the paranormal, and a dash of romance? The Ghost Hunter Next Door by Danielle Garrett checks all the boxes. This is book one in Garrett’s Beechwood Harbor Ghost Mystery series, which I would categorize as cozy mystery/ paranormal suspense. For my readers who (like me) have a book budget you try not to bust every month, here are your options: (1) it’s in Kindle Unlimited if you are a subscriber or (2) it will cost you $1 (plus tax). It wasn’t available from my local library. Between you and me, it’s worth your book dollars, especially if you are a fan of cozy mysteries. I’m not a huge fan of cozy mysteries, but every once in a while I want something that’s a little different from my favorite genres. This is my first time reading Danielle Garrett’s work, and I was pleasantly surprised and fully satisfied with my reading experience.

Let’s talk about the main protagonist of the story, Scarlet Sanderson. She’s a thirty-year old singleton who has recently settled in the small town of Beechwood Harbor, Washington. For most of her 20s, Scarlet travelled around the world, taking odd jobs to finance her travels as well as help from the Bank of Mom and Dad when she needed extra help. Upon her death, Scarlet’s grandmother left her some money and encouraged her to pursue one of her dreams—opening a flower shop. The thing that makes Scarlet different (well, aside from her seemingly privileged upbringing and early life) is that she can see and talk with ghosts. Because ghosts can be a demanding lot, Scarlet has taken the suggestion of one of her ghost friends, Gwen, to conduct a “ghost support group” on Sunday nights. During this time ghosts can come to Scarlet and ask for her help. The story happens to open right before one of these group sessions, during which a female ghost appears and threatens mortal harm if Scarlet does not stop the renovations being done to Lilac House by the hosts of a television design show. The ghost shatters the front door to Scarlet’s flower shop, prompting her to make a run to the grocery store that ultimately leads to the story’s meet cute moment (more on that later). Over the course of the story, we learn that the ghost’s name is Rosie and she’s angry because she believes she was murdered by her fiancé, who she accused of cheating on her. Stopping Rosie from harming the work crew and figuring out the mystery behind her death are the story goals Scarlet and her friends will pursue for the rest of the novel. All while Scarlet attempts to get (perhaps fruitlessly) the one thing she wants most—a semi-normal life.

The supporting cast of characters is a highlight of the novel, and each character pulled me further into the world of Beechwood Harbor and made it easy for me to stay there and want to return. The ghosts who make up Scarlet’s circle of friends are Gwen, who died in the 70s as the result of a stage-diving accident; Hayward, the ghost of a 19th century English gentleman who has a crush on Gwen and refers to Scarlet as “Lady Scarlet”; and Flapjack, the ghost of the cat Scarlet had when she was a little girl. Gwen is definitely a mentor/mother type figure for Scarlet and Hayward plays the role of father figure—interesting in its own right in that, from the few hints dropped during the course of the story, it appears Scarlet and her parents don’t have the best of relationships (her parents live in Phoenix). In addition to the ghosts, we meet Officer Jason Keith, who has his own crush on Scarlet but as of yet it is unrequited. Then there’s the love interest, Lucas Greene. Lucas is a visitor to Beechwood Harbor, there to work on the production of the television show that has taken on the job of renovating Lilac House. Lucas is former military who also spent some time after his discharge traveling the world, and he and Scarlet bond over their mutual wanderlust. Scarlet and Lucas meet when she accidentally wanders onto the closed set surrounding Lilac House and is tackled by him. Scarlet reveals her secret to Lucas—that she can see ghosts—and tries to warn him of the danger Rosie possesses. Upon learning of the danger, Lucas agrees to help her unravel the mystery and in this way stands in as both sidekick and love interest. There’s really no BFF character in the story, and I’m curious as to whether or not one will be introduced and developed as the series continues. On the whole, the supporting cast enriches the story and adds color to this small town setting.

I said in the beginning of this review that I’m not a huge fan of cozy mysteries, but Danielle Garrett has won me over. The fact that I have already added the next book in this series, Ghosts Gone Wild, to my to-read list and look forward to continuing this new-to-me series are the clearest indicators of how much I enjoyed reading this book. Did I give it a five-star rating? No, but it did get four stars and I recommend it to other readers who are fans of this genre. If you’re in one of those moods where you’re not sure what you want to read, and you don’t want to endlessly scroll through your options, try The Ghost Hunter Next Door. It’s just the right mix of light mystery and ghost story that will satisfy your need to read.

Have you read The Ghost Hunter Next Door or any of the other books in the Beechwood Harbor Ghost Mystery series? What did you think?

review: southern secrets

Southern Secrets by Willow Monroe (2016)

I stumbled upon Southern Secrets by Willow Monroe by accident. I wasn’t necessarily looking for a cozy mystery to read, but I was looking for something to read. Southern Secrets is the first book in the Ace Baxter Ghost Chronicles paranormal cozy mystery series. In terms of the cozy mystery genre, this book is a bit of a unicorn in that the main character is male (the main character of a cozy is almost always female) and that’s one of the main reasons I picked it up and decided to give it a try. That and the fact that it’s a short read, which meant I didn’t have to make a lengthy time commitment. On a budget? At the time of this writing, Southern Secrets isn’t available from my local library but it is available in the Kindle Unlimited library. If you’re not a KU subscriber, then it’ll cost you $2.99 plus tax. If I’d spent my book budget dollars on Southern Secrets I probably would have regretted the decision. That being said, it’s a decent read and when prompted I gave it a three-star rating.

As you’ve already guessed, the protagonist of the novel is Ace Baxter. The story is told through his first-person POV. Ace is recently retired from the Army, where he spent twenty years as a military police officer. He’s also recently divorced from his second wife. Ace has moved to Mossy Creek (located somewhere in the South) and bought an old plantation house called Blackthorn Manor. He has set up shop as a private investigator and is basically starting over. When the story opens, it’s Ace’s first morning in his new house and he’s confronted by the apparition of a Confederate soldier pointing a gun at him. It is Ace’s first experience seeing a ghost, and after the soldier disappears, he sees two more ghosts in his living room. Thinking maybe he’s losing his mind, Ace calls his sister, Lilly, who happens to be a psychiatrist and asks if there’s a history of mental illness in the family. She assures him there isn’t and he’s unwilling to tell her exactly what prompted him to ask. For the time being, Ace keeps his experience of seeing ghosts to himself. Oddly, it’s never revealed in the story why Ace can suddenly see ghosts, and I can only wonder if this will remain a mystery or if it is something that will be explained later on in the series. It’s not long after seeing his first ghosts that Ace learns of an unsolved murder that occurred in his new house. For the remainder of the novel, his primary story goal is to find out whodunnit.

Like many novels I’ve read recently, Southern Secrets relies heavily upon internal narrative. The result is a thin supporting cast of characters that don’t really receive a lot of screen time on the page. It seems like every cozy mystery I’ve ever read offers some kind of police officer-type character, and this book is no exception. In this story we’re given Sam Oaks, the Chief of Police for Mossy Creek. He’s colorless and unremarkable, but he’s there to fill his role as the character who can enforce the law when needed. The ghosts of Annabelle and Essie Blackthorn, who lived in the house all of their lives, appear to be set to stick around and act as supporting characters. Annabelle is the stern one and Essie is the whimsical one. Ace’s aforementioned sister, Lilly, lives in Atlanta but brother and sister talk on the phone often, thereby keeping her present in the novel if not physically in Mossy Creek. Last is the librarian of the local library, Kitty Davenport, who I would expect to continue to pop up in future stories in order to help Ace do whatever research is needed to solve his cases. The truth is that I didn’t really care about any of the supporting characters. I can write about who they are, but beyond that, none of them has any real depth or sparks any real interest for me as a reader. All of the characters, including Ace, are bland, flat characters, and if this hadn’t been a quick read, it’s questionable whether I would have made it to the end of the book.

I love the novelty of a male protagonist in a cozy mystery. That being said, I don’t plan on reading the next book in this series. My suggestion? Skip this one and keep on browsing for your next read.

Have you read Southern Secrets or any of the books in the Ace Baxter Ghost Chronicles series? What did you think?

review: deadline

Deadline by Jennifer Blackstream (2016)

Deadline is the first book in Jennifer Blackstream’s Blood Trails urban fantasy series. If you’re a frequent reader of my blog, then you will have noticed I’ve read a lot of first books in a series lately, and we’re only a few weeks into the year. I tend to think of the first book in a series the same way I think of the pilot episode of a new television show. If the description sparks my curiosity and interest, then I’m willing to sample the first installment. While some critics will tell you we’re experiencing “peak TV”, I would further suggest we’re experiencing “peak publishing”. Which means there are so many more books to sample than I really have time for. The consequence (and maybe it’s a negative consequence) is that the first installment of any series has to grab hold of me and refuse to let me go. What I find is that the more first books I sample, the higher my expectations become, and the harder it is for the book to exceed my expectations. The truth is that my reading time and my book budget dollars are both precious and a finite resource. Which means I’m likely to keep reading a lot of first books in the series, and I’ll try to write something worthwhile and informative about my impressions so that you can decide whether you want to invest your time and money. That being said, let’s dive into the world of Deadline.

The protagonist of Deadline is Shade Renard, and the story is told solely through her first-person point-of-view. For the last three years, Shade has been living in the town of Dresden, Ohio and serving the locals as the resident village witch. Early in the story we learn what Shade wants most—to work as a private investigator in addition to her regular witch duties. At the end of the story, it is still a mystery as to what exactly motivates her to follow this path, but what we do know is that it has much to do with her search for redemption for the sins of her past. We also learn that Shade has spent many years as a student and apprentice to Mother Hazel, AKA Baba Yaga. Mother Hazel is not at all on board with Shade’s desire to be a P.I., but she doesn’t directly stand in her way, either. Shade possesses a strong sense of right and wrong, but at the same time, she’s no idealist. Rather, she’s a realist and by the end of the novel, this worldview will put her into direct opposition and conflict with one of the supporting characters (more on that in a moment). While she isn’t an expert at all things magical, she’s also not a complete novice nor is she one of those protagonists you frequently meet in an urban fantasy novel who is being introduced to a whole new world she never knew existed. Shade has an impressive amount of power, but it appears that part of her journey will be to learn how to navigate the power politics of the Otherworld while trying to find answers (and justice) for her clients. What makes Shade a compelling character you want to follow through the story? In equal measure she is vulnerable, determined, and doesn’t let the fact that she’s in over her head stop her from seeing her first case to the end. I liked Shade, and I like that at the end of the novel, I don’t know every single thing about her. There’s still a lot to learn about her as a character and there is a lot of room for her character to develop and evolve.

It’s a good thing Shade is a likeable character, because she has to carry much of the weight of the story, and this leads me to one of the trouble spots for Deadline. There isn’t much of an identifiable supporting cast of characters. The supporting character who gets the most time on the page is Peasblossom, a pixie and Shade’s familiar. Honestly, I loved Peasblossom and would like to see her character get more time on the page. She loves honey the same way I love coffee, and is definitely a bright spot in the novel. The above-mentioned Mother Hazel is obviously intended to be the mentor figure for Shade. My guess is that Anton Winters, AKA Prince Kirilla of Dacia, will also become a part of the supporting cast, as will his wife, Vera and their heard but not seen son, Dimitri (I’m especially curious about Dimitri and would love to see him pop up again in future books in this series). Anton is essentially the creator of the world in which Deadline is set, and as such the center of great power. Even though he is technically Shade’s second client, he exists mostly on the fringes of the story. One of the questions that repeatedly comes up is why he hired Shade to find an item that’s been stolen from him. At the conclusion of the story we still don’t have the exact answer to that question, but there is more than a hint that Anton has a particular interest in Shade, which for now remains a secret. The character who seems to be an antagonist for Shade (at least for now) is a sorceress named, Arianne Monet, whose specialty is dream magic. In Deadline, Shade makes a dangerous enemy of Arianne, and it will remain to be seen as to whether or not they remain enemies or move closer to being friends. Because, well, close friends are noticeably absent in the supporting cast, and that’s one of the weak points of the novel. There’s really no sidekick or BFF type character.

Some writers subscribe to the idea that a great story needs five specific character types: the protagonist, the antagonist, the mentor, the sidekick/BFF, and a love interest.* For the most part, I tend to agree with this way of thinking in terms of character and story structure. Which leads me to the question of whether or not Deadline offers a love interest for Shade. I would say the answer to this question is…maybe. The likeliest character to fill this role in future books is FBI Agent Andrew (Andy) Bradford. Andy is the character in the story who is just now becoming aware of a world he didn’t know existed. I don’t want to spoil what happens with this character, but there is something about him that made me think about him as a character and myself as a reader. Andy is an idealist. For him, everything is right or wrong, good or evil, and people are either law-abiding citizens or criminals. Also, his expectation is that all individuals—whether human or Otherworlders—are subject to human standards and human laws. He is not willing to compromise on his ideals, and who can fault him for that? At the end of the novel, he and Shade have a long conversation, and it made me question whether I’m just a jaded reader (and a jaded person?) that my reaction to Andy was negative. For me, he’s too self-righteous. His idealism is commendable, and yet, we do not live in a perfect, equitable world, and justice really isn’t blind. Failing to acknowledge these truths inevitably leads to a failure to bring about lasting, meaningful change. In a word, Andy makes me uncomfortable, but then, maybe that’s exactly what he’s supposed to do. His idealism is a foil and counterpoint to Shade’s realism. He rubbed me the wrong way, and the result is that I find it problematic to consider that he is being set up as a potential love interest for Shade.

I try to keep my reviews in the neighborhood of 1000 words, and this review has ballooned well over that self-imposed guideline. I find that the books that cause me to write more than 1000 words are the books that were in some way provocative for me, making me think about my own worldview or the craft of writing. I know what you’re wondering. Did she like the book? Yes, I liked Deadline. Much like First Grave on the Right, I liked it, but I didn’t love it and I’m skeptical about whether or not I will pick up the second book in the series. I recommend it to readers who enjoy urban fantasy and like a female protagonist as the main character. It’s smart and well-written, and the mystery is layered and complex without being unnecessarily complicated. There are even a couple of nods to Harry Dresden. Blood Trails is a series that has potential and I don’t think you would be disappointed if you give it a try.

On a budget? At the time of this writing, Deadline is not in the Kindle Unlimited library and it’s also not available from my local library (in either paperback or e-book format). In my opinion, this book was worth the $0.99 price tag I paid for it (and I’d argue it is worth more than that, but the trend seems to be a low price for the first book in a series to convince you to take a chance, particularly if the writer is one you’ve never read before).

Have you read Deadline or any of the other novels in the Blood Trails series? What did you think? Should I keep reading?

*K.M. Weiland has written about these five character types being vital to any novel on her website, Helping Writers Become Authors.

review: dark magic

Dark Magic by Adam J. Wright (2016)

Dark Magic is the third book in Adam J. Wright’s Harbinger P.I. series. If you haven’t read the first two books in this series, Lost Soul and Buried Memory, I strongly recommend checking out my review of the first book here before reading on. Spoilers are ahead if you’ve not read the first two books. You’ve been warned.

While I am a woman on a book budget and will use my KU subscription to help me satisfy my reading addiction and stay within my budget, I also believe in supporting my favorite authors by buying their books when I can. So although Dark Magic is available in the KU library, I spent some of my book budget buying the title, and I’m not at all disappointed. Dark Magic picks up just a few minutes after the moment where Buried Memory ends. Felicity has returned to Dearmont and reveals that she has broken off her engagement to Jason, and Alec tells her about everything he learned about himself during the course of Buried Memory (which I’m going to do my best not to spoil here). Mallory has gone to search for Mister Scary and, with the exception of a short phone call between her and Alec, remains absent for the whole of the third book.

Remember back to the beginning of Buried Memory, where Amy Cantrell comes to Alec and asks him to investigate her mother’s death and she reveals that her mother was killed by the preternatural investigator who worked in Dearmont prior to Alec’s arrival? In book two, Alec learns that Mary Cantrell was one of thirteen people massacred at a church in Clara, a town down the road from Dearmont. It seems that Alec is going to further investigate this massacre but then he gets called to London by his father. Well, it’s in book three that we pick up the threads of that mystery and find Alec investigating what happened in Clara. In this way, Buried Memory and Dark Magic feel like companion books, with the mystery surrounding the massacre at the church in Clara standing as the outer frame of the story and the mystery surrounding Alec’s sudden summons to London and the hunt for a traitor within the Society operating as the inner frame. For this reason I’m glad I read these two books in quick proximity to each other, and I’d recommend readers of this series do the same.

With Dark Magic being the third book in this series, I would expect to begin seeing some further development of the supporting characters in addition to seeing continued evolution in the protagonist. This book focuses on the development of two relationships—the one between Alec and Sheriff Cantrell and the one between Alec and Felicity. More than in any of the previous books, Wright spends some time developing Felicity as a love interest. On the one hand, this is what we expected all along, right? On the other hand, well, I don’t find anything compelling about them as a couple. In other words, if this were a television show, I would not be shipping them. Still, it’s fine and not distracting or anything that would make me want to throw the book across the room. The relationship between Alec and Sheriff Cantrell, on the other hand, does hold my interest and I’m invested in seeing where it goes. Sheriff Cantrell’s dislike for Alec stems from his hatred for Sherry Westlake, the P.I. he believes is responsible for the massacre at the church where Mary Cantrell died. Throughout the story, Alec must deal with the Sheriff’s animosity even while working with him on the case. In a way, gaining Cantrell’s respect is the equivalent of gaining full acceptance into the community of Dearmont. It’s also important (at least, I think it’s important) to see Cantrell as a contrast to Alec’s father, Thomas. By the end of the novel, what we have is a solidification of a trusted Scooby Gang for Alec, composed of the Sheriff, Amy Cantrell, Felicity, Leon (the computer whiz) and his butler/bodyguard, Michael, and Devon and Victoria Blackwell. Moving forward, it will be worth watching how Wright uses the supporting cast of characters to weave in conflict as well as a sense of family into the story.

Three books into this series, I’m still invested in the characters and their stories and the world Wright is building. I’m still waiting patiently to find out more about Alec’s back story and the secret of his true nature, and I’m also waiting to see what will happen with Mallory, her search for Mister Scary, and whether or not Alec will eventually help her bring her search to a conclusion. I still want to know the true motives and goals of Alec’s father, Thomas, because at the end of book three, I haven’t yet decided whether he is friend or foe (in fact, Thomas reminds a little bit of Jack Bristow from Alias, but it’s still to be determined if he’s the kind of father who is always acting in the best interest of his child with his sole intent to be protect Alec, or if he’s the kind of father willing to sacrifice his own son for some nefarious purpose or seemingly greater good).

I liked Dark Magic and think the books in the Harbinger P.I. series get better with each new installment. I recommend this series if you like urban fantasy (especially light urban fantasy that isn’t too dark or overly complex). The next book in this series, Dead Ground, is already in my reading list. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Have you read Dark Magic or the Harbinger, P.I. series? What do you think?

review: only love

Only Love by Melanie Harlow (2018)

Only Love is the third book in Melanie Harlow’s One and Only contemporary romance series. Each book in the series follows one of three sisters, Maren, Emme and Stella. I can tell you without reservation that Only Love can be read as a standalone book. I haven’t read the first two books in this series but wasn’t at all confused and I didn’t feel like I stumbled across any spoilers. This is the second book I’ve read by Melanie Harlow and I have to say—she knows how to write a romance novel. I think I liked After We Fall a little more (you can read my review of that book here) but I did enjoy Only Love and would recommend it to any reader who loves romance novels, especially the steamy variety.

This is the story of Stella and Ryan. Of the three sisters, Stella is the oldest. She is the responsible one, the one who has convinced herself that she wants a stable life with a stable husband even if it means stability comes with boredom. She’s a psychologist/therapist who seems to be able to analyze and figure out everyone but herself, and she chases her vision of who she wants to be, who she thinks she wants to be, rather than being who she really is. Ryan is a former Marine, divorced from his wife and now living in a house in Michigan that he is renovating while also working at a winery/farm. He has been doing odd jobs for Stella’s grandmother, who happens to live next door. Ryan’s obstacle to overcome is his need to not feel anything. He repeatedly says he simply wants to be alone and talks about flipping the switch on his emotions, turning them off (a la Damon Salvatore). Once he meets Stella, it becomes more and more difficult to flip that switch and be happy with being alone. While I liked Stella and Ryan as a couple and was invested in their love story, I have to admit that at first, I don’t think I particularly liked Stella all that much. Or maybe it’s that I had a hard time relating to her. I don’t want to spoil the first few chapters, but I think it’s enough to say that I was worried she would be the kind of female protagonist who could only find her value and self-worth in the roles of wife and mother. I did, however, warm to her and got to the point where I was rooting for her and Ryan to fall in love. It also was a challenge to warm to Ryan, and I’m going to attribute this to Harlow intentionally portraying him as someone who didn’t want to feel and craved only numbness. In this way, even when Ryan is narrating from his own point-of-view, he feels distant to the reader. Again, I warmed to him as his character developed and evolved, and he became more accessible in conjunction with his growing inability to flip the switch on his emotions.

The story is told through the alternating first person POVs* of Stella and Ryan, with a small handful of short scenes narrated by Stella’s grandmother, Grams. Normally, I wouldn’t like these “interruptions” by a first person narrative voice not belonging to the female or male protagonist, but I fell in love with Grams’ character and thoroughly enjoyed her intrusions into the narrative. Indeed, as the matchmaking force that ultimately put Stella into Ryan’s path, her narrative intrusions mirror her matchmaking machinations as the two lovers move through the familiar milestones of a romance plot (girl meets boy, girl gets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy back). In addition to Grams, Harlow gives us Emme and Maren as supporting characters, both of whom act as confidants for Stella as well as contrasting personalities who help show Stella as a more rounded, fully-developed character. For Ryan, the best friend/sidekick character is an old buddy he served with in the Marines. One of the things that Harlow does well and sets her novels apart from others in the genre is that she uses her supporting cast effectively, letting the two main characters play off them in multiple ways and in doing so allows them to become more than just characters performing predictable roles in predictable fashion.

Listen. I’m an avid fan of romance novels and scoff at those who want to give the judgy side-eye to romance readers. Still, the massive glut of romance novels currently available makes it challenging for readers of the genre to find the kind of romances they like to read. I sample a lot of romance novels before deciding what I’m going to commit to buying and reading. The more romance novels I finish, the more I recognize the good ones from the bad ones, the bad ones from the ones that are simply unreadable, and the really good ones from the ones that are just okay reads that I’m going to forget hours after I’ve gotten to the end. Similarly, more than I ever have before, I’m keeping track of those authors whose work hasn’t let me down. Those authors who know how to deliver a romance with an actual love story. Because why do we read romance novels in the first place, if not to be swept out of our own everyday worlds and into a grand romance where we’re rooting for the two lovers to defy all the odds and find a forever kind of love? I mean, don’t we all want a happy ending, or am I just projecting here?

Thus far, Melanie Harlow hasn’t disappointed me and she’s earned her place on my list of authors whose work I can go to when I need to get my romance novel fix. If you are looking for a good romance, I recommend checking out Only Love. As of this writing, this book wasn’t available from my local library but it is currently available in the Kindle Unlimited library. That being said, it’s my opinion that this is a book that is worth your book dollars and the author is definitely someone worth supporting (because I really want her to write more books!).

Have you read Only Love or any of the other books in the One and Only series? What do you think?

*POV = point-of-view

review: the merging

The Merging by John P. Logsdon and Christopher P. Young (2017)

What do I say about The Merging, a book I didn’t really enjoy even though I really, really wanted to love it? The Merging held out the prospect of becoming immersed in a series that existed within a fictional world populated by other series with a common thread linking them all together. Fall in love with one series and I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from devouring each series in the same world, right? It would be like NCIS and all its offshoots, or CSI and all its offshoots, or… Well, you get my point. It’s an ambitious vision which I have to commend the authors for undertaking, but at the same time, one of these books was more than enough for me and I’m not inclined to give the other series in this world a try. And yet, the number of four- and five-star ratings this book has received online makes me think I’m an outlier, not the norm, when it comes to not liking this book.

What I need to say, then, is that The Merging is the first book in the Las Vegas Paranormal Police Department series featuring Ian Dex. Logsdon and his co-writers have created series featuring other protagonists who work for the PPD in other cities—Seattle, The Badlands, and New York, just to name a handful. If you’re intrigued enough to want to check out this series or the others in this world of the PPD, then you also want to know that as of this writing, they all appear to be available in the Kindle Unlimited library, but they aren’t currently available through my local library. If you’re on a book budget, well, my honest recommendation is to hold onto your book dollars to be spent elsewhere.

Frequent readers of my blog will notice that I read a lot of first books in the series. Observant readers will have also noticed that I read significantly fewer books that are the second in the series. More often than not, the primary reason that I don’t continue reading a series is because I either don’t like the protagonist or there’s just nothing about him or her that I find compelling. In this series, Logsdon and Young offer Ian Dex as the protagonist and first-person point-of-view narrator. Ian has worked for the PPD for seven years, and for the last five years he’s been the Chief of the Las Vegas PPD. Ian is an amalgamite, which means he has some characteristics of various types of supernaturals, a jack of all trades in the paranormal sense of the term. Upon signing up to be a cop on the PPD force, his DNA has been genetically modified to enhance all of the supernatural qualities he possesses. On the surface, that would seem to make him at least a little interesting, right? I thought so, too, but this potential gets lost in the execution of the story. The authors sacrifice character development for a procedural-type story (and note well that I do not say plot here, which I’ll get to later). While we do learn bits and pieces about Ian as the story moves along, there is a stunning lack of depth to him as a character. He is very much a cardboard character who serves the purposes of the story. I subscribe to the assertion that the protagonist should be someone who is compelling and who I want to follow throughout the story, someone who I just can’t take my eyes off of because I can’t wait to see what happens to him or her next. Frankly, because there’s a lack of depth to Ian’s character, not only did I not find him compelling, I really didn’t care about what he was going to do next because I didn’t really care about him.

Not only is there a lack of depth and development of the protagonist, but the same is also true for the antagonist of the novel as well as the supporting cast. Like Ian, the antagonist is a one-dimensional, almost cartoon character bent on world domination but with absolutely no indication of his motives or why world domination matters to him. He has no real weaknesses to Ian’s and his team’s attempts to stop him until the moment when, magically, they defeat him. I never really had the impression anyone on the team was in mortal peril or any clue as to what would happen should the team fail and the antagonist succeed.  In other words, nothing felt like it was at stake, and again that made it hard for me to care or become invested in the story.

Ah, the story. Yes, there’s a story in The Merging, but there’s really not a plot. Instead, what we are given is a series of challenges Ian and his team have to face as they struggle to understand what exactly they are up against. This made the story feel like the characters were just moving from one scene to another, battling monsters until they could figure out what was going on and then battle the bigger monster, failing again and again until eventually they succeed (and brought the story to conclusion).

While The Merging didn’t end up on my list of abandoned books, I can’t say I enjoyed it or that it was an entertaining read. The concept of the PPD is a good one, I just think the book failed in its execution. With so many other series to try within the urban fantasy genre, this series won’t get a second chance from me.

Have you read The Merging or any of the other series in the world of the Paranormal Police Department? What do you think?

review: first grave on the right

First Grave on the Right by Darynda Jones (2011)

First Grave on the Right is the first book in Darynda Jones’ Charley Davidson series. For those of you on a budget, one of the first things you’re going to notice is the price tag on this ebook (and oddly enough, the ebook is a dollar more than the physical paperback version). If you’re like me and haven’t read anything by this author before, you might be a little wary. My monthly book budget is $30 (and that has to also cover my KU subscription), and after tax this book would have taken a third of that amount. That was a big commitment for me for an author whose work I wasn’t sure I was really going to like. But, if you’re a reader on a budget, I’ve got good news for you. First Grave on the Right was available in ebook format from my local library. So if you want to give this book a try but you’re not sure if your book budget can handle it, try your local library. If that fails, you might be able to find a copy in your local used bookstore.

As you have likely already guessed, the protagonist of this book is Charley Davidson. If you’ve read any of my other reviews on first books in a series, you’ll know that the success of a series is going to hinge, first and foremost, on the protagonist. Who is Charley Davidson and what makes her a compelling character who we want to care about and follow throughout the story? How is she different from every other protagonist we meet in an urban fantasy novel (more on that categorization in a bit)? Well, Charley is a grim reaper.  According to her, the grim reaper. In addition, she’s also a private investigator and a consultant for the local police department. She can see and talk to dead people. She narrates the story from her first-person point-of-view, and her voice is engaging, sarcastic at times, vulnerable at others. She’s not a “new adult” kind of character, fresh out of college or high school, green and without any life experience. She’s not just been thrown into a world where she has new abilities or powers that she has to learn to use or understand. She’s not a character with a destiny (at least not yet). This is not to say that she doesn’t, through the course of this book, discover some things she didn’t know.  She may not have a destiny, but there are a couple of mysteries hovering over her life.  While she works to solve mysteries on behalf of her clients, she is also trying to do the same for herself. I like Charley.

The world in which Charley exists looks a whole lot like the one I walk through everyday. Again, if you’ve been around my blog for a while, you know how much I appreciate it when an author chooses to locate his or her series in a city that isn’t New York or Los Angeles. Jones chose Albuquerque as the setting for her series.  That’s in New Mexico if you’re not good with geography. Thus far, another decision Jones has made that isn’t your norm in an urban fantasy novel is that other than the presence of the grim reaper and the ghosts of the dead, there really aren’t any other supernatural elements to the story. No vampires or werewolves or shifters, no witches or wizards, no demons or dragons. It’s for this reason that I hesitate to fully throw this series into the urban fantasy genre. It sort of fits, like a square peg in a round hole. I also want to note here that it’s also not paranormal romance (whether it becomes that over the course of the series remains to be seen, but book one doesn’t fall into that category). I’m more inclined to put this into the paranormal mystery/suspense category. And no, for most readers the category doesn’t really matter and I’m not the person who has to put a label on everything. However, I get super cranky when I think a book is one thing (based on the back cover copy or advertising, etc) and it’s something else entirely. I just want you, the potential reader, to be forearmed and have a better idea of what to expect.

Another thing to be aware of before you pick up the book is the existence of two separate mystery plots, and honestly, I think this is one area of the book that could been executed better. The first mystery plot revolves around the murder of Patrick Sussman, whose ghost appears to Charley and asks her to solve his murder. Not long after he appears, Charley gets a call from her Uncle Bob, a detective for the Albuquerque Police Department, asking her to come to a crime scene. When she arrives, with Patrick in tow, she learns that her newest client and her uncle’s murder victim knew each other. Within this mystery plot is another mystery to be untangled, involving a missing teenage boy and a man convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. In addition, there is a second mystery plot involving a mysterious stranger that appears in Charley’s dreams as well as someone she calls Bad, a shadowy figure that has been present at critical times in her life but whose face she’s never seen and whose identity remains unknown. The challenge, as you might guess, is balancing these two mystery plots, particularly since one really has nothing to do with the other (they do not come to intersect, as you might expect, but instead run in parallel). What happens is that Jones puts down one plot in favor of the other plot, so that at times it feels uneven and I wondered “when are we going back to the other plot?”. Put in a different way—there is a lot going on in this novel so be prepared.

Since this is a first book in a series, I tend to pay particular attention to the supporting cast of characters. Charley’s best friend is a woman named Cookie, a single mom who runs the office and does research for Charley’s P.I. agency. Cookie is exactly what you’d want in a BFF type character. She is supportive but also challenging. She is a trusted confidant with an open-mind. There are also two sidekick type characters in Uncle Bob and Garrett, a bounty hunter. Garrett also could qualify as a love interest, though whether that’s where future installments in the series go is another thing that remains to be seen.  In First Grave on the Right, Garrett is more antagonist than love interest. Indeed, Garrett is meant to be contrasted against the actual love interest in the story, a man from Charley’s past called Reyes. There are also two ghosts who help Charley with her investigations. Angel, a thirteen-year-old boy killed during a gang drive-by shooting, and Rocket, a ghost who died in a psychiatric institution. All of the supporting characters are intriguing and more than cardboard characters performing their specific roles in the story. None of them will make you want to stop reading and throw the book across the room.

The job of a first book in a series is to get me invested in the characters and their world, and make me want to pick up the next book in the series. I will say I was immersed in Charley’s world and I wanted to keep reading to find out the solutions to all of the mysteries. Jones also leaves the book on a kind of cliffhanger, a coda if you will, that entices me to want to pick up the next book to see what happens next. As I said above, I like Charley and I like the supporting cast. And while I gave this book a five-star rating (not something I do lightly), I can’t say that at the end, I was ready to rush out and find the second book. Will I come back to this series in the future? Yes, I’m sure I will, but it’s not on the top of my reading list. It’s not even currently in my reading list. With that said, though, I do recommend reading First Grave on the Right simply because it is distinct enough to not be like every other series in the genre.

Have you read First Grave on the Right? What did you think?

review: buried memory

Buried Memory by Adam J. Wright (2016)

I went back for a second helping of Adam J. Wright’s urban fantasy series, Harbinger P.I. and was not disappointed. Buried Memory is certainly an appropriate title that links all of the strands of the story’s plot. It’s about Alec’s buried memories and the physical representation of buried memories—the dead interred in their graves. While I will do my best not to spoil too much, be warned that you need to read this series in order. If you like urban fantasy novels that feature private investigators, give this series a try. The first book in the series is Lost Soul, and you can read my review here. As of this writing, both Lost Soul and Buried Memory are available for Kindle Unlimited subscribers, so if you’re on a budget but have this subscription, you can “read for free”.

Buried Memory picks up about two weeks after the beginning of Lost Soul, and so not much time has passed since the end of book one. First thing you want to know about this book—a lot happens, particularly in the second half of the book. If you like your fiction to be fast-paced with reveals you didn’t really see coming and that leave the main characters in a much different place from where they started the story, you’re going to like this book. Second thing you need to know is that while a lot happens in the book, the first half of the book may seem a little slow and like the plot doesn’t really know where it’s going. Trust me on this. You don’t want to stop reading. Keep going. You will not regret it and your patience and investment in the story will be rewarded. Continue reading

review: bitter reckoning

Bitter Reckoning by Heather Graham (2018)

You know how you read a book by a prolific writer, and you think to yourself: Self, this book just doesn’t feel like it was written by the same person who wrote the other books in this series I love so much. Yeah, that feeling. Moving on.

Bitter Reckoning is (technically) the sixth book in the Cafferty & Quinn series, which you will likely find in the mystery or suspense category of your favorite bookstore (don’t be fooled—the main characters are in a committed, loving relationship, but these books aren’t romance novels). If you haven’t stumbled upon this series yet, please find the first book, Let the Dead Sleep (and if you’re on a book budget like me, you’ll be glad to know that this book is available through my local library in both physical and e-book format). Furthermore, I don’t want to bury the lede here. Let the Dead Sleep, Wake the Dead, and The Dead Play On are the primary books in this series. If you haven’t read any of these books, focus on those three and then if you feel like you must, you can read the…off-shoots. If you have read the first three books in this series, well, maybe you want to stop there. Continue reading

review: house of whispers

House of Whispers by J.L. Bryan (2015)

House of Whispers is the fifth book in the Ellie Jordan, Ghost Trapper series by J.L. Bryan. While I wouldn’t say these books can be read as standalone novels, I won’t be revealing any major spoilers in this review that would ruin your enjoyment of the preceding books in this series. If you like books featuring a female protagonist and/or books featuring ghost hunters, you will enjoy this series. To be candid, I inhaled the first four books, and probably would have continued reading them one after another if I had liked the fourth book, Terminal, more than I did. If you’re new to the series, begin with book one, Ellie Jordan, Ghost Trapper. If you stopped somewhere along the way and haven’t gotten to House of Whispers yet, let me just say that in my opinion, this is the best book of the series so far. Bryan ramped up the scary factor and the danger factor in this one and kept me engaged in the story from beginning to end. Continue reading

review: skin and bones

Skin and Bones by Susan Harris (2016)

Skin and Bones is the first book in Susan Harris’ urban fantasy series, The Ever Chace Chronicles. Before you have a chance to read the blurb teasing the story, the first thing appearing in the back cover copy is a pronouncement identifying the book as a “2017 RONE award nominee for best paranormal romance!”. Not going to lie—after I read the description of the story, the suggestion that this book is part of the paranormal romance genre was the gentle push I needed to download the book and give it a try. Do not be fooled like I was—this is not a romance novel. Yes, there is a love plot, but it’s definitely not the A plot. Paranormal suspense is probably a better descriptor of the book’s genre. This is not to say that, once my expectations were adjusted, I didn’t enjoy reading the book. I just didn’t get what I thought I was getting, and while that is sometimes a good thing (like when you get even more than what you were expecting or you get something you didn’t even know you wanted and it was totally awesome), Skin and Bones presented a few other challenges that were difficult for this reader to overcome. Continue reading

review: these haunts are made for walking

These Haunts Are Made For Walking by Rose Pressey (2014)

I have a complicated relationship with cozy mysteries. On the one hand, cozies typically provide a pleasant but not too intellectually demanding reading experience. On the other hand, they are too often littered with boring, plain vanilla characters and plots that are wholly sanitized of life’s hard, and sometimes ugly, realities. When I do find a cozy series I like, I inevitably abandon it after a few books because I get frustrated when the main character shows no growth or change as the series progresses. If you are new to this category or the term, cozies generally have a few things in common. The murder itself is not gory or graphically depicted, and they contain little to no violence. Cozy mysteries typically take place in a small-town setting where everyone knows everyone else. When a murder is discovered, the whole town is thrown out of balance. It is the job of the amateur sleuth to find the killer, bring him or her to justice, and return order and normalcy to the community. For the most part, cozies are “clean” reads. I tend to favor hardboiled or noir detective fiction, but cozies are mostly on the opposite side of the spectrum.  Maybe that is why I feel so conflicted about this genre. Continue reading

review: guarding brielle

Guarding Brielle by Nicole Flockton (2018)

Guarding Brielle is the fifth book in Nicole Flockton’s Guardian SEALs series. I didn’t know until I started reading Guarding Brielle that this book exists within the world of military romantic suspense created by Susan Stoker. Guarding Brielle is adjacent to Stoker’s SEAL of Protection series and brushes against her Delta Force Heroes series. Also, be aware that this book is part of a larger Kindle Worlds series—Special Forces: Operation Alpha World (there’s a handy list in the back of the book identifying the titles in this series). Had I known all this going in, well, I might have made a different buying decision. Which is to say, I’ve always been lukewarm where Stoker’s novels are concerned. In short, if you have read Stoker’s novels, know that Guarding Brielle will deliver more of the same, and from there you can decide if you are totally down for more of the same or you’ve already had enough. If it’s all new to you, don’t worry. Guarding Brielle can be read as a standalone book. Also, if you are the kind of reader who prefers romance novels more on the sweet side of the spectrum, this book may appeal to you. It is definitely not a racy read. But…Guarding Brielle isn’t one of my recommended reads and honestly, I have no intention of going back to read any other books in this series. Before we dive into what this book is about, here’s another warning: if you are the kind of reader who is easily annoyed with typos, you’re going to want to take a pass on this one because I’m sad to say the book is poorly edited. Okay, that’s all the preliminaries, I think. Moving on. Continue reading

review: the carrow haunt

The Carrow Haunt by Darcy Coates (2018)

As I read The Carrow Haunt, two classic novels came to mind—And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie and The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. In all honesty, I put this book down about halfway through and let a week go by before picking it up and finishing it. Let me tell you how glad I am I didn’t abandon it. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I don’t normally read books that fall into the horror genre, but I stumbled upon this book through BookBub and decided to take a chance on something a little different. This is the first book I’ve read by Darcy Coates, and I’m adding her to my list of new-to-me authors whose work I want to read more of. Continue reading