review: hard to come by

Hard to Come By by Laura Kaye (2014)

Hard to Come By is the fourth installment in Laura Kaye’s Hard Ink series.  These books should be read in order but I will try to keep spoilers to a minimum.

This book picks up what feels like only hours after the conclusion of Hard to Hold on To, the third book in the series.  This one tells Derek “Marz” DiMarzio’s story, and though he is as intense as the other men in his team, he is also lighter and a bit more fun (he sings aloud and apparently does so terribly).  Marz is the computer genius of the team of former Special Forces men.  In this book, he has two primary goals to achieve: one, unlock the microchip drive that they discovered in the previous book and two, get close to Emilie Garza with the hope that she will in turn provide the team with the intel they need to find and capture Manny Garza, a man they suspect is working with Seneka Worldwide Security, a defense contractor that is well-known for its allegations of corruption, and is also somehow connected to the Church gang–the team’s primary adversary thus far as they try to unravel the secrets and lies that led to their team being ambushed in Afghanistan, seven of their brothers-in-arms being killed, and their less than honorable discharge from the service and their honor and reputations ruined.  One of the main characteristics of Marz that also drives a lot of who he is as a character when we first meet him and his development as the story progresses is that during the ambush he suffered a leg injury that led to his leg being amputated just beneath his knee.  Marz, Nick (their team’s leader) and Beckett (Marz’s best friend and fellow team member) all came back with varying levels of scars that are visible on the outside, and how he deals with the loss of part of his leg is inspiring and humanizes him as a character.  He is definitely a good guy, but that comes into conflict with the fact that for the first third of the book, the relationship he’s building with the Emilie is built on lies.

Emilie, on the other hand, wears her battle scars on the inside.  She is recently divorced from a man who shook her ability to trust, and she’s been dealing with her brother’s increasing erratic behavior.  Emilie is a trained clinical psychologist and believes that Manny is struggling with a form of PTSD, and she has been contemplating taking steps to have him involuntarily committed for a psychiatric evaluation because he refuses to seek help or even talk about what’s going on with him.  She isn’t the strongest female character you’ll find in a romance, but she’s also not portrayed as being weak and docile.  I liked her character, and her story arc is also one of healing in terms of learning how to trust again.  I would also say that part of her character development is coming to terms with the consequences of making an impossible choice that, even if it’s the right choice, it’s still not easy to live with.  If you have read the first books in this series, I think you’ll find that Emilie is a lot more like Becca (as opposed to Crystal/Sara or Jenna) and what you have in the romance plot between her and Marz is that two nice people end up falling in love with each other.

Yes, the books are romances, but there is a heavy element of suspense/action to the series as well.  In a way, the main thread that has carried through the series as a whole thus far is that at it’s heart, it’s a quest story.  This team of disgraced soldiers are looking for truth and redemption, and they are only going to be able to get it if they can find out exactly what happened in Afghanistan, why the military covered it up and hung the whole thing around their necks, and who is pulling the strings.  Hard to Come By takes another step in the quest by unlocking the microchip, which leads to a revelation that changes everything.  It also brings the threat of the Church gang to a conclusion, much in the same way a hardboiled detective novel resolves the mystery that you see on the surface but in doing so only leaves you with more question and a far more complex mystery to unravel.  Also, the mystery of the bracelet that the team’s former commander, Merritt, sent to his daughter, Becca is solved.  This is all to say that some questions and puzzles that have lingered since the first novel get paid off in the fourth book, but at the same time, the quest is not over.  I hope that what will follow in the last two books is a showdown that is both surprising but also brings closure and success to the team of men Kaye has convinced us to become invested in and care about.  Indeed, when the first book begins, the team–Nick, Shane, Easy, Marz, and Beckett–don’t look anything like a close-knit group and the bonds that had held them together as brothers-in-arms were in shambles.  As the series has progressed, those bonds are being rebuilt–and this book features the rebuilding of the friendship between Beckett and Marz, which has been strained since their return from Afghanistan–and on top of that, their family is growing.  Becca, Sara, Jenna and now Emilie are part of the family, Jeremy (Nick’s brother) has had his relationship with Nick strengthened, and Charlie, Becca’s brother, has also been brought into the family bosom.  There is a definite sense that until they met each other and came together to fight for a common goal, they were all adrift and isolated.  There’s even a moment in the book that alludes to this very idea.  Now, though, they have each other, and all that’s left is to finish what they’ve begun.

One more thing. Each of these books takes place over the span of a week at most, and that works in this series because it gives a sense of immediacy and urgency, but it also gives each book a sense of purpose.  Each book lays out a challenge, and like I said, each challenge brings them closer to their goal.  The fact that these stories don’t take place over a longer period of time for me makes them more believable, because no way could this kind of intensity be sustained over a period of several months.

I really do like these books and recommend them to readers who enjoy romantic suspense.  There’s a nice balance between the romance plot and the suspense plot, and the books themselves are well-written.   If you want to give the series a try, start with the first book, Hard As It Gets.

 

Special Note: The Raven Riders series by Laura Kaye is an offshoot of the Hard Ink series.  I happened to have read Ride Hard before reading Hard to Come By, and it is in the latter that Kaye introduces the characters of Haven and Cora.  They are only in the book for a minute and it’s not necessary to read this series first; however, I will say that if you like the Hard Ink series and are interested in the Raven Riders series, finish this series first and then start with Ride Hard.  I wish I had.

review: demand

Note: Demand is the second book in the Careless Whispers trilogy.  If you have not read the first book in the series, please stop reading this post.  Spoilers are ahead and I don’t want to spoil the surprises for you.

Demand by Lisa Renee Jones (2016)

In the second book of her Careless Whispers trilogy, Lisa Renee Jones returns us to Italy and the world of Ella and Kayden at the exact point where she left off at the end of the first book, Denial.  In fact, Jones does something at the start of the book that I have never encountered before.  She devotes the first pages to a kind of “previously on Careless Whispers” intro that you would expect from your favorite television series, and you know what, it totally works.  She follows it with a list of characters, one that reminds me of what I would expect to find in a detective mystery novel, but that works, too.  Both reminded me of where I was in the story, of the characters I had met and would meet, and made me ready to take on the second book even though it’s been months since I read Denial.  I loved this device, and though there may be people who frown at it, as someone who reads a lot of serial fiction and sometimes installments are several months (or a year or two) apart, this was an excellent way to reacquaint me with the story and the characters.  Well played.

Like Denial, Demand is told completely from Ella’s first-person point of view.  One of the reasons this continues to be the most effective narrative style is that more and more, Ella is getting her memory back.  She remembers more about David, the man who was her fiance, about the mystery man that rescued her after she lost her passport and all of her money but also abused her sexually, and about her life before she travelled to Europe.  Having her as our narrator makes everything she is remembering, feeling and experiencing much more immediate, especially since a lot of what is revealed is happening in her own mind (as opposed through spoken dialogue) and also because with the exception of Kayden, there really is no one that she trusts enough to reveal all that she is remembering. The other reason this works is because, at least for me, I like Ella as a character and I’m invested in her story.  She is frequently just as clueless about what is happening as we are as readers, and thus we’re in the same boat, trying to navigate the confusing labyrinth together.

Though the story is told through Ella’s first person narrative, Kayden does not feel distant from us or an impenetrable mystery.  As this book unfolds, we find him being much more forthright and open with Ella than he was in the first book.  Kayden is the prototypical male protagonist you would expect to find in a book firmly placed in the erotic romantic suspense genre, but he’s not a carbon copy.  He, too, is likeable even though there is a definite edge to him and it’s clear that he does not always operate on the lawful side of the line dividing the good guys from the bad guys.  He isn’t so dark that it is hard to understand why the female protagonist would want to be with him, and if you like alpha male characters he delivers and compels you to want to keep reading and see how the romance between him and Ella will play out.

The plot of the story becomes more intricate in this book even as certain questions are answered.  Jones reveals the identity of the man that Ella can remember mistreating her but whose face she has been unable to recall.  There is forward progress on the plotline involving Gallo and his relentless pursuit to destroy Kayden, and at the end of the story we are left wondering how that will play out.  Niccolo makes an entrance into the story, and there is more revelation about why the butterfly necklace is significant and what Kayden’s relationship to its discovery is.  And yet there are new characters that we are not yet sure we can trust, and there’s also the recurring implication that the tower of the castle where Ella and Kayden live is under some kind of surveillance.  This feels like it is leading up to a betrayal from someone close to them that neither Ella nor Kayden will see coming.

While the Careless Whispers trilogy is a spin-off of Jones’ Inside Out series, you don’t have to have read the latter to enjoy this trilogy.  I would recommend this series to anyone who has enjoys the work of Julie Kenner (the Stark novels), Sylvia Day (the Crossfire novels), Meredith Wild (the Hacker novels), Lorelei James (the Mastered series) and Jones’ Amy Bensen series.  Lisa Renee Jones is solidly on my list of authors whose books I will automatically add to my to-read list.  I consumed this book in one day and had a hard time putting it down.  In my opinion, it’s not easy to find good books in the romantic suspense genre, but this trilogy definitely stands out and shines.  I’m looking forward to the final book in the trilogy, Surrender.

review: one with you

Note: One With You is the fifth and final book in Sylvia Day’s Crossfire series.  If you have not read the first four books in this series, there will be spoilers below.

One With You by Sylvia Day (2016)

One of the reading goals I set for myself for 2016 was to finish some series I had been in the middle of for a long while and catch up on others that have not yet ended.  The Crossfire series by Sylvia Day was on that list of series to be completed, and so here we are. The story of Gideon Cross and Eva Tramell has now reached its end.  I’m not going to lie–I was not happy with the way book four in this series, Captivated By You, ended, and also I haven’t been Eva Tramell’s greatest fan.  Looking at the series as a whole, my first conclusions is that I have liked the series, but maybe I haven’t loved it–at least, not since the end of book three. One of the first things you’ll read about this series is that it’s in the same category of Fifty Shades of Grey and well, I guess there’s no getting around that comparison though it’s one thousand times better than that series.  But, if I’m being honest, it’s also in the same category as the Hacker series by Meredith Wild and the Stark Trilogy by J. Kenner.  Of these four series, the Stark books by J. Kenner are the best, and though I don’t think it really matters, I still ask myself which is second best, the Crossfire series or the Hacker series.  I don’t yet know the answer to the question or if I ever will, but maybe I’ll work it out as I write about One With You.

Because this the last book in a series, there’s a lot of ground to cover, and perhaps that explains the length of the novel itself (and perhaps the length of the novel is one of the strikes against it rather than an aspect in its favor).  There are some loose ends to tie up in this series, and perhaps the best place to start with that without giving away too many spoilers is the resolution of the thread of the storyline that has explored Gideon’s relationship to his own family.  Throughout, he’s had strained relationships with his mother and his stepbrother, Christopher; his relationship with his stepsister, Ireland, has evolved; his relationship with his stepfather, Chris, got a lot more complicated at the end of book four but resolves itself in One With You.  Day doesn’t do the thing that you might expect–she doesn’t give an epilogue that tells you what the characters’ lives look like years into the future.  Instead, she leaves you with a chapter at the end of the book that gives you a sense that Gideon’s relationships with his family aren’t fully healed, but for the most part there’s hope for the future.  Along those same lines, now that Gideon and Eva are settling into married life and trying to figure out what it means to be a team facing whatever challenges come their way, it also means that Gideon has to handle becoming part of Eva’s family.  This aspect of the story plays into bringing the development of Gideon’s character to its finish.

Speaking of character development.  Gideon’s arc at the end of One With You feels like it ends with him being assimilated back into a familial structure that he appears to have existed outside of since his father committed suicide when he was a child.  He is still a flawed character prone to making mistakes, but at least now those mistakes don’t threaten to take away everything he holds dear.  On the opposite side is Eva’s character arc.  I said above that I wasn’t thrilled with how book four ended.  Probably because I felt like she resorted to a temper tantrum and an ultimatum to get her way and it just felt manipulative and selfish.  For me, one of the things she has had to learn throughout her journey is forgiveness as well as the fact that it’s unreasonable to expect that someone will always react and behave exactly as you want them to.  I don’t want to be critical, but I think that’s always been one of the aspects of her character that have turned me off from the very start.  No one can be exactly as we want them to be, even if they are trying their hardest to fit our ideal.  I think this is one of the realizations that was necessary for her character to show growth, and she does finally achieve it, though it happens after a horrible event takes place that I was not expecting at all.  One of the most important things about serial fiction that distinguishes the good from the bad is how invested I am in the characters and watching them develop over the course of several books.  In that aspect, the Crossfire series doesn’t disappoint.  Though I’m probably more partial to Gideon than Eva, I have to admit that once I started I couldn’t put a single one of the books in this series down.

Something else about the book that puzzles me and makes me want to write about it is one of the mysteries that surfaces in this book that has never been alluded to in any of the other books.  I don’t think it’s revealing too much to say that it is a mystery that involves Eva’s mother, Monica.  What I don’t really get is why this was even in the book to begin with.  Theoretically, it would be something that drives the action, but it’s a plotline that really just exists on the edges of the story and for me doesn’t really add much overall.  Also, One With You follows the same narrative structure as Captivated By You–the narration switches with each chapter from Eva’s first person point of view to Gideon’s (Eva has the odd chapters and Gideon has the evens).  This is worth noting because for the first three books in the series, the books are told entirely from Eva’s first person point of view.  The change was a welcome one in book four and I’m glad Day carried the narrative style into the final book.  It made the final conclusion much more satisfying than if I’d only gotten it from Eva’s perspective.

Ultimately, it wasn’t an epic ending.  Yes, some surprising revelations are made and Gideon and Eva are finally on the same page at the close of the novel.  Their love story has a happy and hopeful ending.  There is also a tragic event that turns up the emotion.  It was a satisfying conclusion and my investment in the characters was rewarded.  Perhaps it tried to do too much, but I would rather that be the problem than not doing enough.  In the final analysis, this series has been a good read and I would recommend it to fans of the genre.  I started this series almost two years ago, and though I have enjoyed checking in with the characters over that span of time, I’m also okay with bidding them farewell.

review: kiss of a demon king

Kiss of a Demon King (2009) by Kresley Cole

Kiss of a Demon King is the sixth book in Kresley Cole’s Immortals After Dark series.  For the most part, these books can stand alone, so no need to worry about spoilers. This book features Rydstrom Woede (the fallen demon king of Rothkalina) and Sabine, Queen of Illusions.  In some ways, it’s a continuation and companion to the previous book in the series, Dark Desires After Dusk, which features Rydstrom’s brother Cadeon.  Though I say that these can stand alone, I recommend reading Cadeon’s story before Rydstrom’s for more enjoyment and because both stories are happening at the same time.  Some of the events in Cadeon’s story are spoiled in Kiss of a Demon King so do beware of that.

It’s no surprise that in a series of this length (right now, there are fifteen books in this series, so I’m not even halfway through what’s currently available) you’re going to find some books that are weaker and less appealing than others. Part of this is because of the need to write characters who aren’t carbon copies of each other, right? If every male and female protagonist were exactly the same as the ones that came before, it wouldn’t keep me invested as a reader or keep me coming back for the next installment.  Well, this is how I feel about Kiss of a Demon King.  It wasn’t terrible but it wasn’t wonderful.  The characters? Meh. One of the things I like about Cole’s writing style is that she does her best to present strong female characters.  She does this successfully with Sabine, who is a sorceress that has been hunted nearly all her life and has had only herself to depend upon.  As a sorceress, she is physically vulnerable and has no “battle magic”, and she has died dozens of times only to be brought back to life by her sister Lanthe, who has the power of persuasion and uses that power to bring Sabine back from death.  It is because of her vulnerability that she and her sister agree to become part of Omort the Deathless’ court in exchange for his protection.  Omort, as it happens, is the self-proclaimed new king of Rothkalina, assuming to throne after defeating Rydstrom in battle nearly a thousand years ago.  Yes, you got it–this puts Sabine and Rydstrom in opposition as enemies from the very beginning.  Cole takes these two characters and actually does a role/gender reversal with them.  After Sabine captures Rydstrom, it is he who refuses to surrender sexually and shuns marriage (I don’t want to spoil the reasons for this but they do make sense within the context of the book) while it is she who is the sexual aggressor and the one who insists upon marriage.  For much of the book it is a battle of the sexes and a clash of wills, with each one seeking to torment the other until one of them gives in.  The thing about Sabine, though, is that I don’t really buy into her feelings for Rydstrom, and that makes the romance part of this story not work at all for me.

What does work is the adventure part of the story.  Since we met the Woede brothers early in this series, we knew that eventually it was going to come down to whether or not Rydstrom would return to his throne and his place as king.  In this book, we see more of Rydstrom’s side of his relationship with Cadeon which is satisfying after reading Dark Desires After Dusk, and we also get to see how the final showdown between Rydstrom and Omort plays out.  Since this is happening during the Accession, it becomes clear that the Woede brothers are yet another group with the potential to reap gains during this period of tumult and life-or-death stakes.  They are clearly aligned as allies with the Valkyrie, the Lykae, the Wroth brothers, and the Witches.  They are on the “good” side of the Lore.

One other interesting part of this book–we get our first introduction to Lothaire, who was spoken of but not heard from in book seven, Untouchable.  Here we learn that he was an ally of Omort, and his character’s exit from the story promises his eventual return later, a promise that the next book also continues.  Right now he’s a mysterious character who’s allegiance isn’t yet fully known, but what we know if him so far is compelling enough to make me as a reader want to know more, so I’m looking forward to his story which is told in book eleven, aptly titled Lothaire.

Yes, I intend to keep reading this series.  I almost didn’t review Kiss of a Demon King because I just didn’t feel like I had a lot to say about it.  The role reversal keeps the tension going between the protagonists, but the part that really works is the adventure and ultimate resolution of the story of the Woede brothers.  Sabine is a strong female character, but the romance between she and Rydstrom wasn’t completely believable.  Typically I would say that I’m on to the next book in the series, but I have skipped book three, and since it tells the story of one of the MacRieve clan, and book eight also is about one of the MacRieves, I’m going to go back and read that one before moving forward.

Have you read Kiss of a Demon King? What were your thoughts?

review: hard love

Note:  This is the final book in Meredith Wild’s Hacker series.  If you haven’t read the other books in this series, there will be spoilers ahead.

Hard Love by Meredith Wild (2015)

We have now come to the end.  Hard Love, the fifth and final book in Meredith Wild’s Hacker series, spends part of its time wrapping the stories of the supporting characters while also resolving some of the larger plotlines threaded throughout the series.  It does this even as it throws Erica and Blake into one final crisis that threatens their happily ever after.

The supporting cast of characters all get their lives figured out in this book.  We find out what happens to Alli and Heath, James and Simone, Fiona, Daniel, and Marie.  Some minor characters come back for a bit–Michael, Blake’s mentor, his son, Max, and Risa, the woman who worked with Max to build a rival site to Erica’s Clozpin. Without revealing how everyone ends up, let’s just say there’s a bit of betrayal, a bit of forgiveness, a bit of redemption. Although this series isn’t really about the supporting characters, they add to the depth of the series and do a good job of being mirrors and/or antagonists to the main protagonists. The thing I appreciate is that these resolutions are, for the most part, sprinkled through the story rather than in one long epilogue at the end.

The main show is what post-wedding life looks like for Erica and Blake.  After learning in Hard Limit that she may not be able to have children, this becomes a focal point in their story as they try to make the impossible possible.  There’s also the main driver of the plot–upon returning from their honeymoon, they learn that Daniel (Erica’s biological father) has won the governor’s seat for the state of Massachusetts, however, the FBI and Boston Police are investigating what they think to be election fraud/rigging (a la Scandal, but let’s not get distracted). Blake becomes the main suspect, and proving his innocence becomes Erica’s priority.

The narrative departs from its first-person point of view that has been solely Erica’s for the first four books in the series.  Normally this bothers me, but in this book I love it and it works.  We get Erica’s and Blake’s first-person narratives, and the book is about half of one and half of the other.  Although I wouldn’t say there’s a distinctive difference in their two voices, I liked being able to see events from his perspective, and of course because of what happens in the story, his point of view is necessary or the book wouldn’t work at all.  One interesting thing about this is that there is a part of the story where Blake is not the character we have come to know.  He’s almost hopeless and drowning (and paralyzed by) his powerlessness.  At the same time, though, it’s Erica that uses what power she has to prove Blake’s innocence.  The power dynamics between them switch, and there’s no doubt in your mind that this power exchange has a lasting impact on each of them individually as well as on their relationship.  Erica realizes how strong she can be and the extent of the agency she possesses.  Blake is forced to cope with a sense of powerlessness and a period of time when he has no agency, and it is the impetus for the final change in his character arc–that is, he reaches the point of revelation and a moment when he finally breaks from the demons and mistakes of his past and fully embraces the “new” man he has become.  As I’m writing this, I’m actually resolving in my head the part of the book that wasn’t my favorite part and that has made me think that it’s not my favorite book in the series.  It’s still not my favorite book, but it’s completely necessary from the standpoint of completing Erica’s and Blake’s character arcs.

There’s a lot to like in this book and it is a satisfying end to the series.  I know there are readers who don’t like what they see as a recent trend (but which totally isn’t, serial fiction has been around for centuries) toward serialized fiction that follows the two main protagonists.  If that’s you, well, this series isn’t for you.  I have said this before and I will say it again–in my humble opinion, serial fiction is the book equivalent of a television series.  Just as much as I enjoy following all of the drama between Olivia and Fitz and Mellie on Scandal, so do I enjoy spending more than three-hundred pages with the characters of a particular book.  This is all to say that though I may not have loved the final book, I have loved this series and I’m glad that I started and finished it.  I haven’t been disappointed in it at all, and it’s a series I definitely recommend if you’re a fan of the romance/erotica genre.  I’m also a little sad to be done with this series.  My goal for 2016 is to complete some series that I am in the middle and have been in the middle of for quite some time.  Well, I can check the Hacker series off my list and say on to the next but I’m going to miss Erica and Blake.

review: untouchable

Untouchable* by Kresley Cole (2009)

*This full-length novel is the featured story within Deep Kiss of Winter, a collection of two books by Kresley Cole and Gena Showalter.

Untouchable is book seven in Kresley Cole’s Immortals After Dark series.  In many ways, it is the final chapter in the part of the series that focuses upon the Wroth brothers, who were all turned into vampires during the eighteenth century.  This book follows the story of Murdoch Wroth and his Bride, Daniela.  The thing to know about this book going in is that it is better enjoyed if you have read the three previous books about the Wroth brothers–The Warlord Wants Forever, No Rest for the Wicked, and Dark Needs at Night’s Edge.  The reason for this is that although most of the books in this series can stand-alone, the events that take place in Untouchable are happening concurrently with the other books focused upon the Wroths, and so if you haven’t read the others, there are things that will get spoiled for you.  [Note: Although A Hunger Like No Other does not have one of the Wroth brothers as a main character, some of the events in that story are spoiled as well, so beware].

To be honest, the way that the events of Untouchable unfold is one of the most fascinating things about this book.  Cole is building a complex world within this series, and though she is carefully to welcome new readers and allow them to step into the series at any point, it also rewards readers who have been reading the series in order.  What I really appreciate about this book is the sense that all of the books in the series are truly happening at the same time, and this makes the Accession–a time when the separate factions of Lore, such as the Valkyrie, the vampires, the Lykae, and demons, battle each other and kill each other as a system of checks and balances to keep the population of the Lore in check–feel not like a protracted period of time, but rather a period of time during which all of these things are occurring and how each of these events will ultimately impact how the Accession plays out.  In other words, each book is–if I can borrow a term from American literary realism–almost a slice of life that is taking place within a larger world.  With each new book, the pieces that we’ve been given come together to give an increasingly holistic picture of the Lore as it moves through the period of the Accession, which occurs every five hundred years (or as Cole writes in the glossary of terms that appears before the start of each book “now”).  The more books in the series we read, the more we’re able to see the alliances that are forming and who will be the winners and losers of the Accession.  The fact that this aspect of the novel is complex but at the same time accessible is one of the accomplishments of the series as a whole.  It starts with the assumptions that readers are smart and intelligent rather than assuming the lowest denominator, and it trusts that as a reader I can understand the complex world and all its moving parts even while it gives me reminders from time to time of details that I may have forgotten or overlooked. Honestly, this is so refreshing, as I am of the opinion that a lot of books don’t think I have a brain in my head or that I know how to use it.

The two main protagonists of this story–Murdoch and Daniela–are presented with a lot of obstacles that make their path to true love fraught with difficulty.  Daniela is half-Valkyrie, half-fey; specifically, she’s an ice-fey, which means she can’t touch or be touched without experiencing or causing pain.  In this way she is literally untouchable.  Murdoch, on the other hand, is a vampire who has a history of being a rake; he is untouchable on an emotional level.  Naturally, the inability to touch each other causes tension in their relationship, and this becomes the thing that each character wants most but that is repeatedly denied to them.  It is actually the climactic moment of the story that paves the way for Murdoch and Daniela getting what they want. Although both characters fall into the typical archetypes for characters in a romance, they are both likable characters and I was invested in their story from the beginning.  Strangely, it is one of the strengths of the novel–that is consciously is occurring at the same time as other stories within the story-world–that is one of its flaws.  There’s a point in the novel where events get fast-forwarded and months pass by, and thus the characters’ plight loses some of its urgency and their story moves to the background in order to show how all four of the stories about the Wroth brothers are tied together.

Definitely don’t skip this book in the series.  It is a little annoying that Untouchable isn’t available on its own (I found a copy of Deep Kiss of Winter in the $1.00 clearance section at my local used bookstore, and being someone with a book habit, that is a total win when it comes to my book budget) but it is well worth the read.  At first, I thought it would be novella-length, maybe 100 pages at most, but that is certainly not the case.  It’s shorter than the other books, granted, but the characters and the story is well-developed, and the story-world is further expanded and developed.   Thus far, this series has not disappointed at all, and I recommend it as one to dive into if you haven’t already.

review: twice tempted

Twice Tempted by Jeaniene Frost (2013)

Twice Tempted is the second book in Jeaniene Frost’s Night Prince series.  These books need to be read in order, so start with the first book, Once Burned.  By way of a quick, spoiler-free introduction to this series, the female protagonist is Leila Dalton, a woman who was struck by lightning as a teenager and as a result, is capable of electrocuting people if she touches them and possessed of the ability to pick images from a person’s life, either by touching them or an object they have touched in the past.  The male protagonist, is Vlad the Impaler, but don’t think about calling him Dracula.  And yet, he is the man behind the legend; thus, one of the questions that drives the story is what would happen if Dracula fell in love? What kind of woman would he fall for and how would that complicate his life, as well as hers? This series, as well as Frost’s Night Huntress series, exist in the same urban fantasy/paranormal romance universe, and both are series I recommend picking up if this genre appeals to you.  If you read Once Burned but weren’t sure if you wanted to keep reading, give Twice Tempted a try.  I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

The story picks up about four weeks after the end of Once Burned.  Leila is still living in Vlad’s home, and she is still devoid of her powers.  Vlad has become distant, and Leila worries that because she is has lost her powers, he has lost interest in her.  Events happen and she ends up leaving Vlad and returning to the States, planning to return to the carnival act she and Marty–a surrogate father that is also a vampire–and putting her past with Vlad behind her.  Of course, it’s not that easy.  Not long after she reunites with Marty, and explosion rocks the carnival location where she’s taken refuge and then sends her on the run.  As the story unfolds, Frost continues to build this part of her story-world, fleshing out the customs of the vampire society that Vlad dominates as well as populating that world with characters who prove themselves to be either antagonists and enemies or loyal friends and allies. Several characters from the first book return as well, including Leila’s father and her sister, Gretchen, Vlad’s second-in-command, Maximus, and Marty.  I read Halfway to the Grave, the first book in the Night Huntress series a couple of weeks ago, and it seems to me that Cat’s mother from that series and Gretchen, Leila’s sister, are in many ways the same character; and yet, although Gretchen is definitely a minor supporting character, by the end of Twice Tempted she does change into a character that I don’t completely dislike.  The other thing that this book does in building the story-world is steadily mount the obstacles to true love and happily ever after that Leila and Vlad must overcome.  Those obstacles come not only from their enemies but also their inner circle and each other.  Their struggle to be together in this second book has a genuine feel to it, it’s not rushed or trite,, and importantly, Leila doesn’t have to become a weak-willed, powerless character in order to successfully win the fight for the man she loves.  What I like about this book, as well as the first book in the Night Huntress series, is that it is not overtly, slavishly devoted to following the conventions of the romance genre, and therefore it’s predictable. I want to keep reading because I’m not sure what’s going to happen next.

The story is told from Leila’s first-person point-of-view, and honestly, it just works from every angle.  We can only know what she knows, and though I’m sure I’m not the only one who would love to know what is going on in Vlad’s mind, Frost is able to deftly write Leila’s first-person narrative in a way that you don’t feel completely distant or alienated from him, except during those times when that is actually how Leila feels.  Otherwise, Leila’s narrative gives us enough to feel like we know more and learn more about Vlad as the story progresses, and he’s not just a part of the fictional scenery, playing his role when needed and then going back to being a cardboard figure when he’s not.  While there’s no doubt that Leila has a specific arc for the development of her character, the same can be said for Vlad.  They both change and grow and that keeps the story dynamic and interesting, and it keeps me as a reader invested in the outcome of their relationship and the challenges they face. I want to see more of them, and once the book ends, I want more.

It’s interesting reading Twice Tempted in such close proximity to Halfway to the Grave.  There’s a part of my mind that wants me to decide which of the couples I like more, which of the worlds I prefer.  The Night Prince series is more firmly in the paranormal romance genre, while the Night Huntress series is more paranormal romantic suspense.  What I can say and what makes me happy is that neither couple is exactly the same, mere carbon copies of the other but rather distinct.  So far, the Night Prince series puts more emphasis on the love story while the Night Huntress series puts more emphasis upon the mystery.  That being said, choose the one that you’re in the mood for, but I would recommended giving both series a try.

review: caged

Caged by Lorelei James (2015)

Although Caged is the fourth book in Lorelei James’ Mastered series, it can absolutely stand alone.  The story focuses upon two characters that were peripheral in the first book in the series.  Molly Calloway is the female protagonist, and if you’re new to the series what you need to know about her is that she was mugged, and afterwards she enrolled in a self-defense class taught at Black Arts dojo.  Deacon McConnell, the male protagonist, is an instructor at Black Arts but he also is a fighter in the dojo’s MMA training program. This is a romance, so the summary of the novel is exactly what you’d expect–they meet, they breakup, they makeup and live happily ever after.

I’m still pondering the rise of the MMA fighter as a trendy male character in romance novels, but it works in this book; in fact, perhaps it is this very aspect of Deacon’s character that is critical to his development because in many ways this particular career choice marginalizes him.  The shaved head, the tattoos, and the aggression of the sport further push him to the fringes. It also gives James the opportunity to breakdown a stereotype (even if she does so in a conventional way).  His relationship with Molly gives him a connection to another person, and because of it the friendships he’s made with the instructors at Black Arts appear to deepen. By the end of the story, he’s also able to reconcile some of his family issues.  The loner is no longer a loner or a social outcast.  He is no longer the man apart or the man alone. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Molly, a woman who has been touched by violence and struggles to find a way to make herself feel safe and learn how to protect herself. The thing I like the most about the way James characterizes Molly is that the self-defense and kickboxing classes she has been taking grew out of a need to know that she could take care of herself, and in the process she’s not only found the physical strength she needs to do that but she’s also discovered her own inner strength that she draws upon repeatedly throughout the story, from dealing with her bully cousins to handling her relationship with Deacon.  The thing that Molly struggles with throughout the story–and is also the thing she must overcome in order to achieve growth as a character–is her unreasonable expectations for how the man she loves shares his secrets and his past.  That is to say, she must learn that emotional intimacy is not easy nor does everyone share as easily or willingly as others.  Maybe what it boils down to is a lesson in patience, and for Molly it’s a hard lesson to learn where Deacon is concerned.

I read a lot of romance novels, and this means that there are a lot of bad romance novels on my digital bookshelf.  Gratefully, Caged doesn’t fall into that category.  In case you missed it, I like my genre fiction (romance, paranormal, urban fantasy, suspense) to be edgy in some kind of way, I like my characters to be relatable, believable, and either likable or brilliant in the way they make me dislike them. I want the story to make me think about my own life in some way or another. I want it to be difficult for me to put the book down. I want the ending to be satisfying.  Caged hits these marks for me.  I could absolutely relate to the way that Deacon isn’t nearly as open or forthcoming with the details of his past as Molly wants him to be.  I get the way he has trouble communicating and isn’t big on talking about stuff.  The way that he struggles to share his thoughts and emotions and build an emotional bond with Molly is something that is familiar to me, and the way Molly’s inner strength and self-reliance has evolved since book one in this series is something else that resonates with me.

This is all to say I would recommend this book. I’m relatively new to Lorelei James’ work, but having read a couple of books by her now, I definitely won’t hesitate to read more.  I like her style of writing, and I so much appreciate the way she tells the story in third-person from Molly’s and Deacon’s points-of-view and doesn’t stray to other points-of-view. This keeps the novel focused and the story moving. It also induces me to become invested in the main characters and remain invested in them as the story unfolds. The more book reviews I write, the more I realize how much the narrative style affects how much I enjoy the novel. If you’re looking for your next read, pick this one up or Bound if you want to start with the first book in the series.

 

 

review: hard limit

Note: This is the fourth book in Meredith Wild’s Hacker series.  The first book in the series is Hardwired. If you haven’t read the first three books, there will inevitably be spoilers below.

Hard Limit by Meredith Wild (2014)

I have to be honest.  I had a really difficult time putting this book down and read it in two sittings.  I think it’s because beneath all the trappings and conventions of this genre, I just like following Erica and Blake’s story.  I like them as characters and though everything that happens to them is completely melodramatic and over the top, I remain willing to suspend my disbelief and go along for the wild and crazy ride.  Kind of like Olivia and Fitz, but let me not digress.  If you have read the first three books in this series (Hardwired, Hardpressed, and Hardline) I’m sure you’ll like the fourth installment. It may be the best one of the series so far.

The book starts wonderfully–with a prologue that is told from Blake’s point-of-view and that involves events that happen two weeks after where chapter one begins.  As far as I can remember, this is the first and only look we’ve had at him and his relationship with Erica from his own point-of-view.  I wanted more, but at the same time I appreciate that Wild only gives us this brief tease and immediately and firmly returns to telling the story from Erica’s first-person point-of-view. Once the first chapter starts, the action, the tension and the conflict don’t stop.  Maybe that’s why I couldn’t put the book down.  It’s tightly plotted, nothing to distract away from what’s happening, and there is a lot happening in this book.  Erica and Blake are planning to be married soon.  The partnership Erica made with Alex Huntington in the previous installment is set to take a few twists and turns. Sophia returns and another aspect of Blake’s past–both with her and in the aftermath of their breakup–are revealed and it is this part of the plot that generates continued tension and conflict between Erica and Blake. Daniel also comes back, and the sort-of cliffhanger ending of third installment where we learn about who has revealed the relationship between Erica and Daniel to the media comes to fruition and gets tied up by the end of the book.  Though the story is told from Erica’s point-of-view, Blake continues to be drawn and developed more deeply as a character–which is to say that unlike other series within this genre, he’s not a cardboard character without depth and whose arc seems artificial and contrived at best.  I like him, and he’s one of the reasons I have remained invested in this series.  To lesser degrees, the same can be said of other members of the supporting cast, particularly Marie (Erica’s surrogate mother) and Daniel.  A lot of this story revolves around the question of family, how families function or are dysfunctional, and the ties that bind families together.  The story also flirts with the ideas of betrayal and loyalty and how we come to realize who we can and cannot trust.  I know what you’re thinking–quite philosophical words about a romance novel, but I’m just calling it as I see it.  I’ve read a lot of copycats that weren’t worth the time I spent reading them, and in my opinion it’s hard to write this kind of romance with elements of suspense and do it well and in a way that isn’t just about how how the sex scenes are. Which, if you’re wondering, the sex scenes are really hot (and explicit, so if you don’t want that in your fiction, this series isn’t going to be for you).

The end of the book sets up the final novel in the series, Hard Love. While some subplots within the series as a whole have been resolved, there’s still the issue of Trevor–Blake’s hacker nemesis–to be resolved, and I won’t be surprised to see a final showdown involving Sophia.  The final chapter of the Hard Limit finds Erica and Blake flying away from Boston to their honeymoon destination. I’m looking forward to the final book but I’ll also be sad when I’ve gotten to the end because then it’ll be over.  Still, I’ve enjoyed every single book in this series and definitely recommend it if you like your romance with a little edge, a little suspense, and well-developed characters.

 

 

 

 

review: the dead play on

The Dead Play On by Heather Graham (2015)

This is the third book in Heather Graham’s paranormal suspense series set in New Orleans and featuring Danni Cafferty and Michael Quinn.  Danni and Quinn, with the help of police detective Jake Larue and the rest of the supporting cast, work on cases that involve objects embued with evil or that have some sort of paranormal power and capturing those individuals who would use the objects for murder, mayhem and terror. In that way it reminds of my Warehouse 13 on Syfy.  Although the first two books in this series had definite paranormal elements, The Dead Play On is more rooted in the everyday world, and while there is still an object that is the focal point of the mystery and the murderer, readers who aren’t big fans of paranormal stories would find pleasure in this particular story.

Like the first two books, part of the story arc involves a quest for the object of power.  In The Dead Play On, that object is a saxophone that was played by Arnie Watson, a veteran returned home to New Orleans who was working as a musician in the city’s music scene.  The music scene within the city makes up much of the backdrop of the book, and the city’s musicians make up the group of suspects and victims.  The murderer wants the saxophone because Arnie had always called it his “special sax” and the murderer believes it has magic, a magic that makes the person playing the instrument a great musician.  This is what motivates the murderer–he wants the saxophone so that he can be a great musician and so that others will actually “see” him.  Because Graham has chosen a third-person narrative style for these books, readers are able to get a glimpse of the murder’s mind every now and then, and we learn that one of the things that drives the murderer is his sense of feeling invisible.  If only he can find Arnie’s “special sax” he won’t have to be invisible anymore, and he’s willing to do anything–including kill–to obtain the instrument.

In order to capture the murderer, Danni and Quinn immerse themselves in the music scene.  Quinn plays the guitar and begins sitting in with the band, and Danni sings backup vocals.  The device helps them to interview potential suspects and victims and learn more about Arnie Watson and his special sax, which everyone who knew him had heard him play and talk about.  Danni and Quinn are a couple, and one of the arcs in the story is the internal struggle Quinn wages with himself between protecting Danni and trusting in her ability to take care of herself.  With the third-person narrative, Graham switches between Danni’s and Quinn’s points-of-view, and this book seems to spend more time telling the story from Quinn’s perspective.  He’s definitely more the main character in this book, but this was something I enjoyed, being able to learn more about him and seeing his character developed and fleshed out a little more. While talking about characters, the supporting cast for this series is also further developed and you learn a little bit more about most of them, particularly Billie, whose experience with the bagpipes allows him to be able to play the saxophone.  At times, there are a lot of characters to keep up.  Between the usual supporting cast and the cadre of musicians there are a lot of people to keep up with, but Graham succeeds in giving most of them distinct enough personalities that you can keep them straight in your mind as you read along.

The revelation of the murderer was no surprise for me.  I had figured out the murderer’s identity about halfway through the book, though I can’t say anything in particular gave it away, maybe just experience reading detective fiction.  Even with this knowledge, though, the story is nicely paced and once it does finally reach the points of crisis and showdown, Graham doesn’t rush unwinding these pivotal points in the story. The final denouement where the remaining loose ends get tied up once again happens with the all of the characters gathered together in the style of Hercule Poirot.  It’s a satisfying conclusion to the book and at the end I was more invested in the characters and want to see more of them.  This is definitely a point in this series’ favor, since recently I have started a lot of series and not found a whole lot to like for one reason or another.

If you like suspense I would say give this series a try.  The first book is Let the Dead Sleep followed by Waking the Dead (which I think is my favorite of three books so far), and though I would recommend reading them in order, Graham does a good job of hinting at the previous cases while not spoiling anything about them.