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: 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: 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

review: the red tower

Sherlock Holmes: The Red Tower by Mark A. Latham (2018)

Here’s what you need to know. If you are a fan of the original Sherlock Holmes stories written by A. Conan Doyle, then you should read this book. If your only experience with Holmes and Watson is through television or film, then you should read this book. If you think Holmes is the main character of these stories, well…you’ll have to have a little patience. There is a whole lot to like about Mark A. Latham’s latest contribution to the Sherlock Holmes collection of books currently being published by Titan Books. Sherlock Holmes: The Red Tower is just the fourth book of the year to get a five-star rating from me. I loved this book and couldn’t have asked the author to do anything more, and one of the best parts is that I had no idea what the solution to the puzzle was until I got to the very end of the book. The Red Tower is a great read, and though it’s not currently available from my local library, it was worth every single dollar from my book budget. Continue reading

review: lost soul

Lost Soul by Adam J. Wright (2016)

Have you ever downloaded a sample of a book, gotten a couple of pages in, and decided to take a pass? Then, months later you give the sample another, dive in, and devour the book? Well, this is what happened to me with Lost Soul by Adam J. Wright. If you’ve seen the book and haven’t decided whether or not you should give it a try, my five cent recommendation is to take a chance and give it a read. If you like urban fantasy featuring a private detective-type main character, or if you are looking for a new series to read, then this book checks a lot of boxes. I’m disappointed this book isn’t available from my local library, but it was certainly worth the withdrawal from this month’s book budget.

The protagonist of Lost Soul is Alec Harbinger, a preternatural investigator banished from Chicago and sent to work in Dearmont, a tiny town in Maine. Alec works for the Society of Shadows, an organization that has its roots in 17th century England. His job is to investigate preternatural threats and solve them. The Society has offices in cities around the world, and though they don’t exactly hide what they do, the majority of the population doesn’t believe in the existence of the supernatural and looks skeptically upon Society investigators. This has the effect of making Alec an outsider, marginalizing him to the fringes of society, and placing him in the long line of protagonists similar to the archetypal hardboiled private eye.

As a character, Alec is fairly ordinary (or at least, that is how he seems right now). He’s not immortal, he doesn’t have any odd idiosyncrasies, he’s not super-flawed or morally grey, he’s not dark and tortured. He’s a likable guy. He’s normal within a world where the paranormal is real. In that way, he’s easy to relate to as a character. What drives him, what he wants most, is to protect unsuspecting people from falling prey to the supernatural creatures walking among them. He wants to do good, and yet he finds himself in opposition to the very Society he works for, which may or may not care about doing what is good and right. Alec resents being stationed in Dearmont and misses Chicago, and as the story begins to unfold, we learn that the reason for his reassignment stems from something that happened while he was in Paris, though it’s a while before the details are revealed (and I won’t spoil them here!). Suffice it to say, this bit of backstory sets up what I expect to become one of the through-lines of the series.

Alec doesn’t expect Dearmont to be a hotbed of supernatural activity, an assumption proven wrong early in the story. How refreshing is it to have a little town in Maine as the primary setting for this series? It’s almost to the point of being a cliche to find urban fantasy series set in New York, Los Angeles, London or even Chicago, and that gets to be imaginatively boring after a while (at least for me it does, and yes, I get that I’m talking about “urban” fantasy). I really appreciate Wright’s decision to set the story in an unconventional location on the map, and I’m hopeful that as the series progresses, the setting will provide a whole gamut of interesting characters and challenges that a big city setting can’t offer. Even though Wright didn’t choose a metropolis for the setting of his story, he is still working in the same tradition of hardboiled detective fiction familiar to readers of the genre, only he takes it down the path that anyone familiar with Stephen King’s work will recognize—a small town that on the outside looks idyllic and wholesome, but underneath the surface lurks the ugly underbelly of humanity.

But of course it’s not just about the protagonist. Overall, it’s a good supporting cast. Each character has potential in his/her own right, but each character also reflects different sides of Alec, showing us who he is and what he cares about. The Society has assigned Felicity Lake to be Alec’s assistant, and while she’s working for him, she can also complete the year of training necessary for her to become a preternatural investigator herself. She’s also there to spy on him for the Society. There’s also Mallory Bronson, who’s been friends with Alec for a few years. Mallory is a “Final Girl” (a term I was not familiar with until reading this book, but then, I don’t watch a lot of horror movies ). As a teenager, she was at a party where everyone was massacred by an assailant called Mister Scary. Now Mallory’s sole mission is to find him and end him, and she puts that mission above everything else in her life. We also meet Leon Smith, a young man Alec encounters as he tries to solve the case his first client in Dearmont brings his way. Leon is new money and good at anything involving computers (yes, he’s your requisite “tech” character). He’s bored and jumps at the chance to help Alec when he needs it. We’ve also got Alec’s absent father, Thomas, who I’m sure will pop up again in future books and seems to be one of the characters with whom Alec will be in conflict as the series continues.

Sheriff John Cantrell also looks to be a conflict character. What is up with the antagonistic law enforcement character that seems to be pervading every urban fantasy series I pick up? I am seeing that trope with greater prevalence these days and I’m bored with it. And yet I understand why this character keeps reappearing. One, it’s a way of adding conflict to the story and another kind of antagonist for the protagonist to have to deal with. This character generally ups the stakes for the protagonist and puts him/her into some sort of peril. Two, it follows in the hardboiled tradition of law enforcement being corrupt and underscores the need for the protagonist to continue doing his job and in doing so, protect the community, sometimes using any means necessary. So while I’m not a fan of this kind of character, I understand the reason for his/her existence, and in this series we’ve got Sheriff John Cantrell.

The more time I spend writing this review, the more I realize how much I liked this book. It marries two of my favorite genres—urban fantasy and hardboiled detective fiction. I definitely recommend reading Lost Soul, especially if you’re like me and have trouble finding new urban fantasy series you can enjoy and don’t feel the same as everything else in the genre.

Have you read Lost Soul? What did you think?

review: wild in love

Wild in Love by Bella Andre & Jennifer Skully (2018)

After a bit of a reading break, I went to my book shopping list and discovered that Wild in Love by Bella Andre and Jennifer Skully had finally been published. Quickly, I snapped it up and planned to spend my day reading the last book in the Maverick Billionaires series (which, by the way, apparently isn’t really going to be the last book, but more on that later). My reading excitement stemmed from my previous experiences with the first four books in this series. I knew I had liked them all, and I’d been waiting for this last book for more than a year. Well, I bought the book, I read the book, and here I am to review the book. Spoiler alert: I was a little disappointed.

If you are new to the Maverick Billionaires series by Andre & Skully, then know that you can read these books in any order. For the most part they standalone. You can safely read ahead, as there won’t be any spoilers of any other books in this series. If you want to read the series from the beginning, start with Breathless in Love.

This is the story of Tasha and Daniel. At the beginning of the story, Tasha is in a self-imposed exile, intent upon doing penance for the sins of her father. She has bought a wreck of a cabin by the lake, but to keep herself busy and turn the cabin into a livable home, she has dived into DIY home improvement. The solitude and loneliness weigh on this natural extrovert, though. Tasha believes this to be her due and that she doesn’t deserve to have friends, happiness, or anything good in her life. Daniel is vacationing at his lake house, the interior of which is still under construction. It’s a project he intends to complete himself, and since he has made his fortune by opening DIY home improvement stores and making DIY videos, completing the interior of the house is more a labor of love than work. Daniel is the last of the Mavericks who is still single, and from the beginning of his story, we are given a man who wants to find a perfect love, the kind of love he believes his parents have. No messes, no arguments, just an endless string of moments of bliss. But a phone call with his mother disturbs his image of the idyllic love and marriage. From the outset, the trajectory of each character’s growth arc is clear: Tasha has to return to the world of the living and accept that she’s not responsible for her father’s sins, and Daniel has to learn that there’s no such thing as a perfect love or perfect marriage and be willing to risk his heart anyway.

You know how you read a novel and you get close to the end and realize not a whole lot has happened so far? Wild in Love is like that. Don’t get me wrong—there is a story, but there’s no plot. One side of my brain wants to defend this and point to this book as an example of the character-driven story. Perhaps, but if that’s the case, I need much more compelling characters whose motivations and desires cause them to make choices that complicate their lives and the lives of others before they get to the end of their growth arcs. That’s not really the case with Wild in Love, and maybe part of that is due to the isolated, single setting environment in which nine-tenths of the story takes place. Because the story takes place on the lake where Tasha’s and Daniel’s homes are somewhat secluded, there isn’t the opportunity for external conflict to come in and be disruptive. So Andre & Skully rely heavily upon internal conflict and the tension between Tasha and Daniel. For this reader, it doesn’t really work. I did keep turning the page, but mostly because I didn’t want to abandon the book, especially a book whose release I’ve been waiting for. I’m one of those readers who wants to care about the characters, and it was hard to do that with Tasha and Daniel.

Then there’s the fact that this is the last book in the series. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you might know how I feel about the last book of a series—it should be epic. The tension should be higher, the stakes should be greater, the emotion should be at its highest peak. To be clear, I really did enjoy all four books prior to this one, and I have been looking forward to reading the last Maverick’s story. But there wasn’t anything epic about this book, and there really wasn’t anything special about it either, and that’s disappointing. At the same time, it is a reminder of the challenges that come with writing a series. Some books in the series will be better than others. However, based upon what I read in the back matter of the book, there is going to be at least one more book in this series. From what I can tell, it will be what I’m calling “Maverick-adjacent” since it features a character we’ve met before, but who isn’t part of the original group of five.

Final analysis? It’s hard for me to say to skip this book if you’ve read all four of the previous books. Wild in Love gives closure to the original concept of each Maverick getting his own story. So if you’ve read all of the other books and decide you want to read this one, maybe go in with lower expectations than I did. If you’ve not read any of the books in this series, please don’t start with this one. Indeed, I’d say start with any other book but this one.

Have you read Wild in Love or any other books in the Maverick Billionaires series? What did you think?

review: maggie get your gun

Maggie Get Your Gun by Kate Danley (2011)

This is the second book in Kate Danley’s Maggie MacKay Magical Tracker series. If you haven’t read the first book, Maggie for Hire, click here for a review and keep reading at your own risk. Spoilers ahead!  Did you want to know if you should still keep reading this series if you’ve only sampled the first book? Yes, you should.  Danley has written another fun and fast-paced adventure with a strong lead and supporting cast.

Maggie Get Your Gun picks up about two weeks after the end of Maggie for Hire.  Life has gotten back to what relatively passes for normal for Maggie—she’s still working as a magical tracker for hire, and she’s now back to doing it in partnership with her father.  Except, at the beginning of the story, Maggie’s father is out of the office on a long weekend getaway trip with Maggie’s mother.  Left alone to hold down the fort, Maggie decides to take on the case brought to her by a new client, Isaac Smith, who tells her that he knows her father.  Smith wants to hire Maggie to retrieve a lady’s hair comb that he left behind on Earth in a place near Las Vegas called Calico Ghost Town.  Maggie senses that Smith isn’t telling her the full story, but when Smith offers to pay her a hefty sum to locate the comb and bring it back to the Other Side, she agrees to the take the case.  With her father out of town and not answering his phone, Maggie decides to enlist Killian, the elf, as backup.  The pair travels to Calico Ghost Town and once they retrieve the hair comb, they discover that it does have magical properties—namely, rising the dead from their graves and turning them into mummies.  Once Maggie realizes that she has been effectively hired to smuggle the comb across the border between worlds (a crime that world walkers like Maggie often become entangled in and for which she could lose her license to move between worlds) she decides to confront Smith and force him to reveal his true reasons for wanting the comb.

I am still very much a fan of Maggie as a character.  She is smart, strong, and funny.  One of the things we learn about Maggie in this book is that she’s always been afraid of ghosts, a fear she’ll have to overcome in order to defeat the primary antagonist of the story.  We also learn that she worries about falling into the trap of becoming a smuggler, which is portrayed as being the common fate and downfall of many world walkers. These are a couple of the insights we get into her character during this adventure.  Not many, and there is not a significant amount of development or growth for her character, but there is enough to keep her interesting and me wanting to continue to follow her through more investigations.

Like in Maggie for Hire, the supporting cast adds depth to the story and is one of the series’ strengths.  Maggie’s twin sister, Mindy, returns, as do her mother and father, Killian, Pipistrelle (the brownie who now protects Mindy and doubles as her housekeeper), and Xiaoming.  Though Maggie herself doesn’t show a lot of change in this story, there is development in her relationships with the supporting characters.  By the end of the story, her relationships with her father and Killian change, and Mindy has also demonstrated that she’s a little bit different than she was before.  In Maggie Get Your Gun, what you have is a family that fights together to save the world, helped along by some friends they make along the way.  If you are a fan of Supernatural and like the family dynamic of that show (Sam and Dean, along with their chosen family—Bobby, Castiel, Jo and Ellen, Jodie) then I think you will like this book because it has that sort of feel to it (I also think that if you’re a fan of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, you’ll also like this series).  In addition to Maggie’s friends and family, the Big Bad of the series so far—Vaclav, the vampire that wants Maggie dead—also makes a return in this book.  For this reason, I recommend that the books definitely be read in order for maximum enjoyment.  This isn’t the kind of series where you can skip around or skip books and not be confused about what’s going on.

I enjoyed this book and will continue to read more of this series.  Maggie’s first-person narrative style is engaging and holds my interest and attention, and yet another strength of the narrative style is that unlike so many first-person stories I have sampled lately, there isn’t endless narration with no real conversation or interaction with the other characters in the story.  We’re not just alone in Maggie’s head while she tells us what happened and what everyone else did.  Maggie is telling the story, but the supporting characters are right there with her, acting and reacting.  And for my friends with a book budget—this one wasn’t available from my library but it was worth every dollar.  If you haven’t tried this series, you should, and if you read the first book, keep reading! I definitely will.

Have you read Maggie Get Your Gun or any other books by Kate Danley? What did you think?

review: fast burn

Fast Burn by Lori Foster (2018)

Do you remember when I reviewed Close Contact, which is the third book in Lori Foster’s Body Armor series?  Well, I didn’t like that book and found it to be a bit disappointing.  Since then, though, I have read the second book in this series, Hard Justice (which I loved and recommend for fans of romantic suspense) and I just finished reading the fourth and final book, Fast Burn.  I loved reading this one, too, and honestly, I now want to go back and read the first book in this series.  The third book may have been a dud, but Fast Burn was the perfect read for a lazy Sunday.  If you like reading about lady bosses, the trouble that finds, and the men who love them, pick up this book post haste.  The suspense kept me turning the pages and this one will appeal to readers who like their romances to fall more on the sweeter end of the spectrum.  I actually went into a physical bookstore and bought the paperback edition of this book (thanks to a gift card from someone who loves me, a 17% off coupon for St. Patrick’s Day, and my store membership).  It’s worth your book budget dollars and your reading time.

This is the story of Sahara and Brand.  Sahara is the owner of Body Armor Security, a company she took control of when her brother, Scott, disappeared mysteriously in a boating accident.  In the sixteen months that she’s been in charge, she has remade the image of the agency, handpicking MMA fighters seeking a new life after ending their fighting careers and training them to be bodyguards.  Hands down, Sahara is my favorite lady boss character I’ve read all year.  She’s smart, resourceful, good at reading people and situations. There are really two things she wants most when the story begins—to finally recruit Brand Berry into the agency as a bodyguard (something we see her trying to accomplish during books two and three of the series) and find her brother, who’s presumed dead by everyone except her.  Brand is an MMA fighter who is considering what the next step in his career will be.  He is interested in Sahara’s job offer, but he wants to date Sahara, not work for her.  He has to make a choice about whether or not to accept a fight in Japan, which will help him cover new financial obligations arising from his birth mother’s recent health crisis.  Though Sahara and Brand are firmly locked in a clash of wills through most of the story, I wouldn’t really call this an enemies-to-lovers story (putting that out there in case that particular trope isn’t really your thing).  It creates the tension and conflict that moves the love story along, but these two don’t have to get over hating each other before falling in love with each other.  Consequently, the romance plot of the story drew me in as a reader and immediately I felt invested in these two finding their happily ever after.

The story is told through the alternating third-person POVs of Sahara and Brand, but also be aware that there is a third POV from the antagonist’s POV (again, putting that out there just in case multi-POV isn’t your thing; it’s not really my thing but it’s not bothersome in this story).  If you’ve read any of the previous books in this series, you were already primed to expect that the suspense plot of Sahara’s story would revolve around finally finding out her brother’s fate.  After being kidnapped by a group of men who have a connection to her brother, she is closer to her goal than she’s ever been before.  This is where the main characters from the previous books enter the story, ready and determined to help Sahara stay alive and find the truth. Her character arc can only come full circle once she knows what happened to her brother and as a result, is able to move on with her life and out of the limbo she’s been in since his disappearance. In the process, Sahara also learns that while she is very much the boss, she’s also part of a family.  And if it seems that Fast Burn is all about Sahara Silver, well, it is.  She is the focal point of the story and everything in the novel revolves around her.  Don’t get me wrong—Brand isn’t a flat character who is there only to be a plot device and a means for propelling Sahara’s character development. I like Brand and he’s very much a part of the story, but this is one of those stories where if you don’t like Sahara, you won’t like the book.

But like I said earlier, I love Sahara’s character and I really enjoyed this book.  The Body Armor Series is a good example of a series where not all of the books are equally entertaining but as a whole it’s a series worth reading.  The good news is that if you want to skip any book in this series, or if you want to skip around and not read them in order, you can and you won’t have missed anything important or be confused.  There were, however, several references to the first book in the series that I didn’t get because I haven’t read that one, but otherwise I followed along just fine.  If you’re looking for a good romantic suspense series with likable characters, smart suspense plots and satisfying love stories, try this series.

Have you read Fast Burn or any other books by Lori Foster? What did you think?

review: the grendel affair

The Grendel Affair by Lisa Shearin (2013)

Have you seen The Librarians or Bones? The Grendel Affair feels a lot like those shows, but with supernatural elements. This is the first book in Shearin’s SPI Files series and it could easily be viewed as a kind of pilot episode for the series itself. We are introduced to the main characters that will make up the crime-solving team whose purpose is to protect humanity from the supernatural baddies stalking the underbelly of the world. Like you would expect, we don’t get to know to know too much about any one character, but by the end of the story, there’s the expectation that as this series unfolds, more will be revealed about each member of the team and the supporting cast. But as with any pilot episode—and more to the point, any first book in a series—the characters have to grab you, drag you into their world, and make you want to stay there with them. I’m not convinced that this particular Scooby gang succeeds.

Let’s start with the main protagonist. The story is told through the first-person point of view of Makenna “Mac” Fraser. Mac is relatively new to SPI (Supernatural Protections & Investigations) and the talent that makes her unique as well as placing a perpetual target on her back is her ability to see beneath the glamours, veils and disguises that supernaturals are able to draw over their features and make themselves appear to be human. This ability makes Mac a Seer, a rarity in the world Shearin is building and as such a highly valuable asset to the SPI team. Given that she’s still new to the team, though, Mac is still learning how to navigate the ins and outs of her new job, and though her talent isn’t new, putting it to use is. She’s not an uninitiated innocent that doesn’t know about the hidden world of the supernatural, but she is at a starting point in the series where she has a lot to learn and tons of room for character development and growth. The problem with Mac, at least in this first book, is that she’s not compelling enough. Yes, she has her struggles in terms of fitting into this new world of SPI, but other than the fact that she’s a Seer and the promise that this will likely put her life in danger again and again, there weren’t any glimpses or teases that there’s anything interesting lurking in her backstory. Mac is normal. Maybe too normal.

Which brings me to the supporting cast. Mac’s partner is Ian Byrne, formerly an NYPD detective. She’s not really sure if Ian really likes her or sees her as an equal member of the team, and worries that he thinks of her as someone to babysit. From early on in the novel, there’s a bit of mystery surrounding Ian, as Mac runs into someone she doesn’t know but who clearly knows her and asks her to send his regards to her partner, whom she identifies by name. Then near the middle of the book, Ian relates the event from his past that caused him to leave the NYPD and start working for SPI, adding another layer of interest to his character. Ian doesn’t have any supernatural talents, but he knows how to strategize and soldier. He’s a protector (and yes, maybe that’s why I’m so drawn in by him as a character) but he’s also clearly not a plain vanilla character. Another key member of the supporting cast is Vivienne Sagadraco, the founder of SPI and director of the New York office. Like her name is intended to suggest, Sagadraco is a dragon (cue references to the “dragon lady”) and as the plot develops, it becomes clear that she, too, has a compelling backstory that will come back to haunt her present and impact the team as a whole. It’s also clear that Sagadraco could become the mentor-type figure for Mac, supportive but authoritative, cautious but encouraging. Then there’s Sagadraco’s right-hand man, Alain Moreau, a vampire who is also the lead counsel for SPI (cue references to the “blood-sucking” lawyer). He doesn’t have a big role in the story, but when he does appear it’s with the sense that at some point in this series, he will be featured more prominently and that Moreau is definitely much much more than he seems. Rounding out the cast are Yasha, a werewolf; Calvin, a human who agent who is good in battle; and Kenji, the computer/tech wizard. The problem that Ian and Sagadraco pose is that they are far more interesting than Mac, the perceived protagonist. I can imagine myself picking up the second book in this series just to see how the characters develop, but at the same time it’s not a book I’m going to rush to download or add to my to be read list.

Shearin has chosen New York City as the setting for her series, and no offense to the New Yorkers out there, but once again I find myself rolling my eyes and shaking my head at this choice. Though popular culture wants me to believe it, NYC really isn’t the only city in the world. At the same time, I do have to admit that the choice of New York City is a good one for this particular story. In order to “save the day” Mac and Ian must stop the antagonist of the story from revealing the existence of the supernatural community before the ball drops in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Aside from the setting, there isn’t a great deal of world-building in the first book in this series, but again, I’m willing to chalk that up to this being the equivalent of the pilot episode of a new series. The point here is that thus far, there’s nothing unique or new about the world Shearin presents, which means you’ll feel at home if you’re a frequent reader of urban fantasy but that there’s also the potential for being bored. For new readers of the genre, it is a good entry point that isn’t so complex that you’ll be put off or alienated.

Is The Grendel Affair a satisfying read? Yes, but I’m not sure I would take the next step and say that it was hard for me to put down or that I was fully engaged throughout the story. It was average, not by any means the worst of the category but not an exemplar, either. Considering that I’ve always got my eye on my book budget and want to make the most of my book dollars, I’m not inclined to read the next book in this series any time soon. If you’re looking for urban fantasy that is similar to what you’d find in the cozy mystery genre, this one might be for you; however, if like your urban fantasy to be populated by characters with haunting backstories and a world that is a bit more dangerous and threatening, then take a pass on this one.

Have you read The Grendel Affair or any other books by Lisa Shearin? What did you think?

review: the purest hook

The Purest Hook by Scarlett Cole (2017)

I have found a new author to add to my list of favorites, and her name is Scarlett Cole. Look. The Purest Hook is packed with loads of dramatic tension and I was tense the whole time I was reading. I can only admire a book that evokes an emotional response and creates a visceral reading experience. I started this book late after work one night and read for about two hours before forcing myself to stop and get some sleep. I picked it right back up in the morning, and then read straight through to the end. I borrowed this book from my local library so if your book budget is a bit tight, look for it there. Honestly, though, this is one writer I want to support so that she’ll write more books, so I’ll be buying her stuff from here on out. Three books into her backlist and I haven’t been disappointed. Listen. Get thee into the Second Circle Tattoos series! For the most part, each book stands alone, but I strongly recommend starting at the beginning with The Strongest Steel (if you’re interested, you can read my review here).

This is the story of Pixie and Dred. Pixie is the office manager at Second Circle Tattoos. Seven years ago, she ran away from home and landed in Miami, where Trent and Cujo, owners of Second Circle, took her in and gave her a place to call home. She likes show tunes and Broadway musicals. Though the guys have taught her how to tattoo, Pixie’s real dream is to start her own business making custom dresses and costumes for little girls. She’s managed to build a life for herself, but like any good protagonist, there are things in her past that haunt her and threaten to destroy the life she’s built. Dred is the lead singer for a metal band called Preload. He, too, has a troubled past filled with secrets he would rather not be made public. While Dred comes up with any number of reasons why he should avoid Pixie, particularly that he should focus on his career and that there will be time for everything else later, he can’t stop himself from asking her to go out with him each time they meet. It’s impossible to miss the similarities between Pixie and Dred. Neither of them defines family by blood ties, and both of them are being exploited.

For me, characters are probably the most important element of a book. If you’ve read any of my previous reviews, you already know that I read the sample before deciding whether I’m going to buy a book by a new author or one I’m still on the fence about. More than anything else, if the characters aren’t compelling, or if they are just carbon copies of favorite characters in the genre, then I’m not going to buy the book. It would have been really easy for Cole to present Dred as a stereotypical rock star—the arrogant, self-absorbed, damaged asshole who simply needs the love of the right woman to reform and be a better man (you’ve read that one, probably more than once, right?). You know the kind of character I mean—the one you don’t really like and certainly would never consider to be date material in real life. Dred Zander doesn’t fall into that category, and his character development from start to finish turns him into a compelling character that you just want to keep reading about. Indeed, I’d say all of the male protagonists in this story are genuinely likable characters, even when they make stupid choices (mind, the female protagonists also make stupid choices). Pixie is perhaps closer to type and her character arc is closer to being flat than one filled with change, but she’s not a broken damsel in distress in need of rescuing. What I loved about them together is the way their struggles and challenges moved in parallel. Pixie and Dred aren’t so much in conflict with each other as they are in conflict with themselves and the antagonists they have to defeat.

The story is told through the alternating, third person point-of-view of Pixie and Dred. And though there’s plenty of unresolved sexual tension between the lovers for the first half of the story, the real accomplishment is the sustained dramatic tension. From the beginning, Cole reveals Pixie and Dred’s secrets one layer at a time, and each new revelation heightens the dramatic tension. My heart rate sped up several times as I waited to find out what happened next. Though it would be easy to shelve this book in the rock star romance category, it’s not so easily labeled, and that ends up being a good thing because the story doesn’t fall into predictability. In that sense, Dred isn’t drawn as your typical rock star male protagonist, and that just makes him all the more interesting as a character. Another noteworthy aspect of the story is that, although Pixie fled from an abusive home, the plot doesn’t turn on actual or an implied threat of violence against women. This is something I’ve appreciated about the books in this series. Cole finds other ways to put her characters in jeopardy and danger, other ways of introducing conflict into the story. This isn’t to say violence is wholly absent, just that the premise of the suspense plot doesn’t rely upon it.

I can’t tell you how much I loved this book. I didn’t hesitate to give it a five-star rating, only the second such rating I’ve given all year. It was difficult to stop myself from instantly downloading The Darkest Link, the fourth and final book in this series. That’s how addicted I have become to these books. I’m also on board with diving into the series that follows this one and delves into the lives of the members of Preload. If you’re like me—someone who reads a lot, is easily bored by 80% of the TV shows currently on air, and mostly disenchanted by or disinterested in the film industry’s recent offerings—and thus spends a lot of time looking for entertaining and satisfying reads, then I highly recommend giving this series a try. I really loved The Strongest Steel, The Fractured Heart was a good read, but The Purest Hook might be my favorite so far. But please start at the beginning of the series—it’s worth your time and your money.

Have you read The Purest Hook or any other books by Scarlett Cole? What did you think?

review: maggie for hire

Maggie for Hire by Kate Danley (2011)

Looking for a new urban fantasy series featuring a female protagonist as the main character? May I suggest Maggie for Hire, the first book in Kate Danley’s Maggie MacKay Magical Tracker series. Even for this slow reader it was a quick read, and I’ve already added the second book in the series to my to-be-read list—which, if you come here regularly, you know is my litmus test for the first book in a series. Here’s what you’ll get if you give this series a try: an engaging protagonist surrounded by a strong supporting cast, operating in a world that is familiar enough to be comfortable but also different enough to offer some surprises. I happened to get the first book in the series for free, and I don’t see that they are available from my local library, but they are reasonably priced and I will buy them without a moment of buyer’s remorse.

The story is told from Maggie’s first person point-of-view (POV), and the setting is Los Angeles. Maggie is a magical tracker, the equivalent to your garden variety bounty hunter. She tracks down skips who are from the Other Side. These Other Siders are not human, and they have either overstayed their visa permitting them to travel through an official portal to Earth, or they have travelled to Earth through an unofficial portal. When we first meet Maggie, she is fighting a vampire. Just before she stakes him, the vampire delivers an ominous warning—that Maggie has a bounty on her head. This opening is merely that—a prelude to the real catalyst of the story, which comes in the form of Killian, an elf who has been sent by the Queen of the Elves to ask Maggie for help. She agrees to help Killian, and the adventure begins.

I don’t know about you, but an unappealing main character will make me put a book down and abandon it faster than any other element of the story. Maggie MacKay shares similarities with other protagonists you’ll find in this genre, but the good news is that she’s not a carbon copy of another character, derivative and unoriginal. Maggie is an engaging narrator, amusing and sassy, real in the way the best fictional characters always are. Something we learn about Maggie right away is that her father was from the Other Side and her mother is from Earth. Her father was a powerful “world walker,” someone who could open a portal between Earth and the Other Side by simply ripping a hole in the fabric of the border separating the two. Maggie has inherited this gift, and it’s because of this ability that she’s able to do the job she does. The other thing that is different about Maggie is that she’s not the stereotypical twenty-something whose world as she’d always known it is about to fundamentally change. This isn’t to say there aren’t some revelations awaiting Maggie as the story progresses—there are—but Maggie isn’t the character whose about to be initiated and introduced into a whole new world she’s never known existed before, and for me, that makes her all the more interesting. What also makes her intriguing is that because she can easily walk between both worlds, and because her mother is human and her father is Other, she is the kind of character that struggles to know where she fits, where she belongs. Is it on the Other Side? Or is it on Earth? Is it both, or neither? How does someone who can straddle both worlds, negotiate both worlds, find her place to call home?

When I’m reading urban fantasy, the second element that must be done well is the supporting cast. Danley succeeds in surrounding Maggie with a strong group of characters that have the potential to be interesting in their own right as well as how their relationships with Maggie develop and change. Killian, the 6-foot-4 elf, is both sidekick and love interest (and honestly, I can’t help imagining Captain Hook from Once Upon a Time – wily and capable, but definitely riding in the passenger seat instead of driving this train). Father Killarney and Sister Magdalena are both mentor figures and the wise/scholar type characters of the story, fully aware of the Other Siders and how to battle and defeat those that are malevolent. Maggie’s family is also part of the supporting cast. Her mother lives on the Other Side and is a seer, and yes as you’d expect that means she can see into the future. Maggie has a twin sister, Mindy, who appears to be a plain vanilla, non-magical human. She lives on Earth and in Los Angeles with her husband. Maggie and Mindy are close enough that Mindy keeps a room for Maggie to sleep in when she’s on Earth, but it remains to be seen how that relationship will be further developed in the future. For now, though, Mindy has been set up as a kind of confidant. Then, perhaps most typical in this particular genre, there’s the missing father. Years ago, Maggie was working a job with her father, and when it came time for both of them to jump through a portal and travel from Earth to the Other Side, she made it through but he didn’t. You’ve read enough books in this genre to know that he’s not going to stay missing, right?

This book was a pleasant surprise. So many times after reading the back cover copy of a book, I think to myself, yes, this book has potential and might be exactly what I’m looking for, and it’s disappointing when all that potential goes to waste. That didn’t happen with Maggie for Hire. Actually, in the days after I finished it, I realized just how much I liked it and that it stood out among its peers, which is not always an easy thing to do in this genre. I’m looking forward to reading the second book in this series, Maggie Get Your Gun, and in fact it’s near the top of my to-be-read list. Whether you’re new to the urban fantasy genre or a long-time fan, I recommend giving this book a read if you haven’t yet stumbled upon it.

Have you read Maggie for Hire or any other books by Kate Danley? What did you think?

review: the strongest steel

The Strongest Steel by Scarlett Cole (2015)

Are you here to find out whether or not you should add The Strongest Steel by Scarlett Cole to your to-be-read list of books? Short answer: yes. Want to know more? Keep reading…

The Strongest Steel is the first book in Cole’s Second Circle Tattoos series. The book is set in Miami and is a contemporary romance falling more on the sweet side of the spectrum than the steamy side. Also, the book is more of a romance with elements of suspense, than romantic suspense. I was able to borrow this book from my library, so if you are on a book budget like I am, or if you’ve already overspent your book budget (I could be guilty of this, too) but want a book to read, see if your library has this title. Even though I borrowed the book, I would have paid for it and had no regrets about spending the money (even if it sent me into the red with my book budget – I may also have some experience with this, too). I am glad I found this title, and that it’s taken so long to show up on my radar only reinforces my suspicion that where I’m concerned, Amazon’s algorithm is way, way off.

This is the story of Harper and Trent. Harper works in a small cafe. Cole is careful to keep Harper’s full story shrouded at the start of the book, slowly revealing bits and pieces of her history as the story progresses. What we do learn about her is that she has scars on her back, received during a violent attack four years ago. What Harper seems to want most at the start of the book is to cover those scars with a tattoo, seeing it as a way of moving forward and putting the violence of the past behind her. Trent is the owner of Second Circle Tattoos and just like you’d expect, he’s a tattoo artist (don’t call him a tattooer). The name of his business is taken from Dante’s Divine Comedy (how much do I love the interweaving of classic literature into contemporary novels??) and all of his tattoos are inspired by the classic text. Part of Trent’s mission as a tattoo artist is to serve those seeking tattoos as a form of emotional healing from the trauma that left their bodies scarred. Trent’s studio is successful and he’s content with his life, but when Harper approaches him at one in the morning and asks if he can tattoo her scarred back, his life takes an unexpected turn. The love story and romance between Harper and Trent is the focal point of the novel. Yes, there is some trouble lurking on the edges of the story, but the main source of tension stems from the path to true love being anything but smooth.

The story is told from Harper and Trent’s alternating third-person point of view. Both Harper and Trent are well-developed characters, though I would say that Trent’s character arc is more flat while Harper’s character arc is one of positive change. She has definitely grown as a character by the end of the book. The supporting cast of characters in the story is worth mentioning, particularly since they will be featured in their own stories as the series continues. Cujo is Trent’s best friend and also works in the studio as a tattoo artist. Lia is also a tattoo artist, and Pixie runs the reception desk and is effectively the office manager. There is also Drea, Harper’s best friend, who works at the same coffee shop as Harper. The supporting cast is a good one. Each character gets just enough “screen time” to make me curious about them and interested to see how they are developed in future books. The world Cole has started to build in The Strongest Steel, with Second Circle Tattoos standing at the center of that world, is one where friends are family and everyone supports each other. Along with Harper and Trent, the supporting characters are flawed but likable, and I can’t overstate how important that is to me when considering whether or not I want to continue reading a series.

I liked this book. I didn’t love it, but I liked it a lot. If there were something between four and five stars, that’s the rating it would get from me (since there isn’t, I gave the book four stars). I wanted to keep turning the pages and I was invested in Harper and Trent’s story and engaged while reading. For me, The Strongest Steel falls into the quality read category. It’s a book I enjoyed reading and don’t feel like it was a waste of my reading time. If you liked the Hard Ink series by Laura Kaye, I think you’ll also like The Strongest Steel. There is more action in the Hard Ink books and they are also a bit steamier than The Strongest Steel, but I would still put them in the same section on my bookshelf. I plan on reading more of this series and have already added the second book, The Fractured Heart, to my to-be-read pile (and that’s saying a lot, considering I usually avoid the enemies-to-lovers trope, which is the convention the book turns on).

Have you read The Strongest Steel or any other books by Scarlett Cole? What did you think?

review: after we fall

After We Fall by Melanie Harlow (2016)

If this is the only sentence you read, here’s what you need to know: read this book if you love romance novels. It’s the first novel to get a five-star rating from me this year and I want to read more books by Melanie Harlow. After We Fall is the second book in Harlow’s After We Fall series. I downloaded a heaping handful of samples onto my kindle one morning and when I got to the end of the sample for this book I instantly hit buy and there’s not a bit of buyer’s remorse.

This is the story of Margot and Jack. Margot is your stereotypical rich city girl, the daughter of an old money family in Detroit. Her father is running for Senate, and her mother is all about appearances and tradition. Margot has always gone along with her parents’ wishes, being the dutiful daughter and doing what was expected of her (going to Vassar, majoring in English). The next step in the line of duties seems to be getting married and starting a family. At the start of the story, Margot is on the cusp of doing exactly that. Indeed, her story begins with a marriage proposal. A dozen thrown scones later, she’s effectively banished from Detroit and told to keep a low profile until her shocking and scandalous behavior is forgotten. This is the catalyst that pushes Margot out of her normal world and into a new world she knows nothing about—a small farm in northern Michigan. In many ways, Jack is Margot’s opposite. He left college to enlist in the military after 9/11 and spent eight years in the Army. After returning home, Jack marries the love of his life, Steph, who died two years later. When the story begins it’s been nearly three years since his wife’s death. Jack is still grieving and is also dealing with traumatic events that took place while he served in Iraq, events that make him feel directly responsible for his wife’s death. The only things Jack seems to find any joy in are spending time with his one-year-old nephew, Cooper, and working the farm he owns along with his brothers, Pete and Brad. It’s those brothers, along with Pete’s wife, Georgia, who hire Margot’s marketing firm to help them build the farm into a successful business, a decision that forces Jack out of his normal world.

The ensuing romance between Margot and Jack is turbulent and more than once evoked an emotional response from me (I teared up and laughed out loud). Margot and Jack are honest and real characters, relatable and vividly drawn. Repeatedly they are thrown into situations with each other that highlight their differences and show who they are, what they want and what matters most to each of them. Sometimes they do the right thing and sometimes they make mistakes, but the whole time I was reading I was invested in their love story and kept reading to see how they would get their happily ever after. Jack’s character arc is more fully developed than Margot’s and thus he undergoes more change throughout the story. And yet Margot changes as well, starting out as the dutiful daughter that cares what other people think of her and becoming a more independent woman who lives her life on her terms regardless of anyone else’s opinions. Harlow drives this home during a conversation between Margot and her mother near the end of the story. The point I’m trying to make here is that both Jack and Margot are engaging characters. I was completely engrossed in their story and I think you will be, too.

The story is told through Margot and Jack’s alternating first person point-of-view (POV), and it turns on the recognizable trope of the city girl/country boy opposition (though why it’s always the woman from the city who is the fish out of water in the country, and rarely vice-versa, is beyond me). I have to admit that Harlow does something in this book structurally that typically turns me off when it comes to a romance novel. The meet cute between the lovers doesn’t occur until chapter seven. While I’m pretty adamant about the meet cute happening in the first or second chapter (at the latest) of a romance novel, the delayed moment of Margot and Jack’s meeting works in Harlow’s favor here. I got to know Margot and Jack a little bit before they met, pulling me into their separate lives and seeing them as individuals before they are thrown into the falling in love portion of the story. Another aspect of the novel that did have me raising my eyebrows is the supporting cast of characters. Margot’s friends—Jaime and Claire, who are featured in books one and three of this series—are fine, but I gave Jack’s brothers, Pete and Brad, the side-eye. Jaime and Claire work in terms of showing Margot’s support system, but Pete and Brad don’t really come off as being all that supportive of a brother who’s had the experiences Jack has had. Perhaps that’s the reason for including Georgia in the supporting cast. I kind of wanted to tell Pete and Brad to have some compassion, but maybe their lack of compassion and brotherly love and support further underscores the myriad of reasons Jack is struggling with his past and having trouble moving forward.

I loved this book. I don’t give out five-star ratings easily or often, but After We Fall earned it. Not only does Harlow deliver a compelling romance, she also manages to slip in an important message about agribusiness and food justice. This was exactly the kind of read I was looking for and it definitely goes onto my recommended reads list and my list of favorite books for 2018. Give this one a try, it’s book budget money well-spent.

Have you read After We Fall or any other books by Melanie Harlow? What did you think?

review: damaged!

Beware: Damaged! is a racy read. It contains naughty language and graphic sexuality. If you prefer sweet romances, this one is not for you.

Damaged! by J.S. Scott (2017)

Damaged! is the third book in J.S. Scott’s Walker Brothers series. Though I was a bit skeptical of the book due to the exclamation point in the title (why is this necessary?) and though billionaire romances are a dime a dozen and so few stand out from the forgettable glut of books in this category, I have enjoyed other books by this author and decided to give this one a try.

This is the story of Kenzie and Dane. Kenzie has recently lost her job as a receptionist in a New York City art gallery. On the verge of being homeless and destitute, she gets a job offer from Trace and Sebastian (Dane’s older brothers) to be their brother’s personal assistant. With no other viable options, Kenzie packs her things and makes the journey from New York to Dane’s private island in the Bahamas. Having worked in an art gallery and being a novice artist herself, Kenzie is excited to meet Dane Walker, a world renown artist. Upon her arrival and first interaction with her new boss, she learns the reason that old saying exists—never meet your heroes. Dane has been living on the island for the past eight years in near isolation. He bought the island at the age of eighteen, after being a passenger in a plane crash that killed his father and left him with numerous scars on his body. Though the extreme isolation has taken a heavy toll on Dane’s psychological state and he longs for social interaction, he is irate with his brothers for sending Kenzie to the island and hiring her as his PA without his knowledge. His first inclination is to send her back to New York, but once he learns the circumstances she’d be going back to, he relents and allows her to stay. As the story progresses, both Kenzie and Dane show all the ways in which they are damaged, and readers are invited to believe in the power of love to heal all wounds.

Both Kenzie and Dane (is it wrong that I keep wanting to type Deeks here?) are likable characters. The story is told through their alternating first person point of view (POV), with a heavier bias towards Kenzie’s POV. Structurally, Scott does something noteworthy with the narrative. For about the first half of the book, she intersperses chapters from Dane’s POV that show specific moments in his past. She starts with a scene from eight years ago, then seven, then six, etc. Once those narratives catch up to the present time, she mirrors this framework with Kenzie’s POV, having her scenes also count down from past to present. One reason Scott has for doing this (at least in my opinion) is that she is trying to show what Kenzie and Dane were going through at relatively the same point in time. She continues this interweaving by giving them both a mantra they repeat to themselves to keep themselves going, to not give in or quit. Scott drives home this interconnectedness by making their birthdays be exactly one day apart. All of this makes the narrative a more interesting read for the careful and attentive reader.

The love plot turns on a highly prevalent and recognizable trope found in contemporary romance novels—namely, a romance between employer and employee. Given the current environment where a news article revealing sexual harassment appears every day, I question how long readers of romance novels will continue to find this an acceptable trope or if it is one they will begin to avoid or shun. I’m also curious about whether or not authors will continue to use the trope or if they will begin to cast it aside in favor of other tropes. Only time will tell.

I liked Damaged! I didn’t think it was great, but it was more than just okay. I was entertained and invested in Kenzie and Dane’s story. I say if you have read any of Scott’s work in the past and enjoyed it, you’ll likely enjoy Damaged! If you’re a new reader and can’t really find anything else to read, but you’re intrigued by the back cover copy, give it a try. I don’t regret spending the money and I didn’t at any point want to put the book down and stop reading.

NOTE: I enjoy reading steamy romance novels but it’s not easy to find quality reads in this category. It can be challenging—even after you’ve read the back cover blurb and a sample—to know for sure if a particular book is worth your time and money. If you’re a reader like me who likes this category but wants quality over quantity, then drop a comment below and let me know if this review was helpful to you.