review: haunted on bourbon street

Haunted on Bourbon Street by Deanna Chase (2011)

It’s a ghost story + a love story + a cozy mystery sans the murder and has touches of the supernatural. Oh, and it’s also book one in the Jade Calhoun series. The mishmash makes it a challenge to categorize Haunted on Bourbon Street in a specific genre. It’s not exactly urban fantasy and it’s not exactly paranormal romance. My inability to pigeonhole the book into a genre doesn’t erase the fact that I did enjoy this book. It wasn’t great but it was good enough to keep me engaged and make me curious about what happens in the next book in the series. If you’re on a book budget (welcome to the club!) the good news is that with this series the first one is free, and I noticed that it’s also available through my library. So if you’re looking for something to read but have also blown your book budget for the month, consider this one as an option to feed your book habit until your budget is back in the black.

Let’s start with the protagonist, shall we? Jade Calhoun is an Idaho transplant who has recently settled in New Orleans. She is an empath and able to sense the emotions of others—this is her superpower, the thing that makes her different from everyone else and will be the source of challenges and obstacles to overcome as her character develops. The thing I like about Jade is that she’s real—she makes mistakes and bad decisions just like people do. Another thing I like about Jade is that she feels like a contemporary, 21st century female protagonist. If you’ve visited my blog before you already know the next question that’s on my mind—is she a compelling protagonist? The kind of main character you absolutely can’t resist and enthusiastically follow through his or her adventures? Jade didn’t draw me in from the first paragraph, but she definitely grew on me, and by the end of the story I definitely wanted to keep reading to see what happened next. The best answer I have right now is that I’m on the fence. I’m willing to go on another adventure with Jade but in the back of my head I’m thinking the next one better be good.

While I might be on the fence about Jade, I’m ready to go along with the supporting cast of characters. There’s Pyper, her new friend and boss at The Grind, the cafe where Jade works. Pyper is the say anything, do anything character that will push Jade’s limits and be a catalyst for her growth as the series continues (this is just my guess, I’ll let you know if I got this one right or not). There’s Aunt Gwen, who still lives in Idaho and can sense Jade’s moods from afar. Aunt Gwen doesn’t have a big role in this book, but I envision that it’s a possibility that she could be more of a presence in future books and she’s also one of the mentor characters for Jade. Bea, a white witch who owns an herbal shop, also has the potential to become the wise woman/mentor figure in the series. We also meet Kat, Jade’s best friend, though how this friendship will play out as the series continues is a mystery and honestly, Kat is probably the character I like the least. Finally, we come to Kane, the love interest and other half of the love story. Kane is cut from the protector cloth so I have instant love for him, though Chase is careful to keep him shrouded in some mystery throughout the story. I’m eager to see how his character is developed in future books. All in all, though, the supporting cast is a good one, and the best part is that Chase succeeds in giving each supporting character enough screen time to introduce them, show how they fit into Jade’s life, and begin to develop them as characters we can get invested in and care about. They are not mere devices used to propel the plot forward and keep the protagonist’s character arc in motion.

As the title of the book suggests, Haunted on Bourbon Street is a ghost story. Jade has recently moved into an apartment above the strip club, Wicked, which is owned by Kane and right next door to The Grind. It doesn’t take long for Jade to learn that her new home is haunted, and this is the catalyst that sets the mystery plot into motion. With the help of her old and new friends, the mystery of the ghost is unraveled, the ghost (read: antagonist) is vanquished and order is restored (at least until the next adventure begins). This familiar rhythm is what ultimately makes me place this book into the mystery section of my bookshelf. It has romance and it has elements of the supernatural, but in the end, discovering the identity of the antagonist, bringing him to justice and restoring order is the conventional setup of a mystery novel. That’s what you’ll find in Haunted on Bourbon Street.

I stumbled upon this series because I found myself on Kate Danley’s website (author of the Maggie Mackay Magical Tracker series, which I recommend starting if you haven’t) and she had a link to a box set of seven books that were series starters. Because I’m me and can’t resist sampling a new series, I clicked through and read through the synopsis of each one and decided to give the Jade Calhoun series a try. I know that otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have discovered this series because it’s not exactly what I normally read, and yet it has all of the elements I love in a good book. I’m glad I tried this one and have already added the second book in this series, Witches on Bourbon Street, to my to-be-read list. If you like mysteries but want something that isn’t as…sanitized as some cozy mysteries can be (this is not a knock on cozies as I’ve read my fair share of the category, they just tend more toward clean and wholesome and lacking any kind of sharp edges, which doesn’t align well with my reading preferences) then give this one a try.

Have you read Haunted on Bourbon Street or any other books by Deanna Chase? 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: wrong side of hell

Wrong Side of Hell by Sonya Bateman (2016)

I read a lot of books that are the first in a series, and Wrong Side of Hell by Sonya Bateman is the next addition to that particular section on my bookshelves. When I read the first book in a series, I’m looking for the author to satisfy a few specific requirements and convince me that continuing to read the series is going to be worth an investment of my time and my book budget (this is always an important factor for me, because I’m a woman who does have a book budget and though I love my public library, there are so many titles that are simply not available; I’m always disappointed when I spend my money on a book and end up with buyer’s remorse). I won’t bury the lede here—I really enjoyed Wrong Side of Hell and am looking forward to reading the second book in Bateman’s The DeathSpeaker Codex series. Let me tell you why.

If I’m trying out a new series and a new author, the most important thing the author must do is give me a compelling protagonist. I have to like the protagonist and I must want to continue following him or her through the story. Bateman offers Gideon Black as the protagonist. He’s twenty-six years old and lives out of the back of his van, which he parks in the garage attached to his gym. Gideon works as a body mover—meaning, he’s the person who gets a phone call requesting that he pick up a corpse and deliver the dead from the places where they died to what Gideon calls their next stop—be that a funeral home or a morgue. He works primarily during the night and sleeps during the day. When we first meet him, the person he seems to be closest to is Abe, who we come to learn is the mentor figure in his life and who works as an NYPD homicide detective. What makes Gideon compelling? Well, he’s your typical loner and he overcame an early life filled with adversity. But he’s just a guy, working in the city, doing a job few would be willing to do to make ends meet. He’s drifting through life, but of course, that changes dramatically when he saves a young woman from a group of men intent on killing her. Why else am I willing to follow him through the book that amounts to his origin story? He’s resourceful, compassionate, and knows that sometimes doing the right thing means doing the hard thing. Considering this is just the first introduction to Gideon Black, Bateman has given me enough reasons to want to see how he will evolve as he settles into his new normal now that the veil of innocent ignorance has been ripped from his eyes.

In addition to a compelling protagonist, I also need the supporting cast of characters to be sketched out and developed to the point that I can see how each character will fit into the protagonist’s life as he navigates his new world but also are interesting in their own right. Sometimes what I find is that I like the protagonist well enough, but the supporting cast are annoyances to be tolerated or are somehow obstacles to get through. Again, Bateman succeeds here in not giving me a reason to stop at the end of the first book in the series. The supporting cast is a strong one. First there is Sadie, a werewolf who is initially drawn to Gideon because of a talisman in his possession. She is his first source of information into this new world he has been thrust into and at least at the beginning serves as his first guide. Second there is Taeral, a Fae cut off from his home world of Arcadia. Taeral stands as Gideon’s protector and a reluctant teacher, and in many ways he is established as Gideon’s opposite. From his “normal” life, there is Viv, the medical examiner with whom Gideon has worked to solve murders in the past, as well as the aforementioned Abe, Gideon’s mentor and an NYPD homicide detective. Rather than existing as carbon copies of a particular character type, all of the characters are distinct in their identities, at least this is the case in book one. Taeral is probably the character I’m most intrigued by, and I will be interested to see how he is developed as well as how his relationship with Gideon unfolds as the series continues.

The third aspect I’m going to be analyzing when I’m reading the first book in a series is the world building. Bateman doesn’t diverge here in terms of what you might expect from an urban fantasy novel. We have the unknowing human world moving alongside the hidden supernatural world. Bateman locates her world in New York City, and well that’s fine if a bit unoriginal. One thing that does standout about this world in regard to the supernatural is that in this book, the Others (as Bateman calls them) exist on the fringes of society. They are not the wealthy, powerful individuals passing as human as you frequently see in other urban fantasy worlds. Instead, the Others in this world are hunted by the Milus Dei—a secret faction of humans intent upon eradicating the Others from the planet. Of course, this secret society of hunters is not original either, and to be honest, I’m at capacity when it comes to the conventional trope of secret societies hunting paranormal beings. The one reason I wasn’t turned off by the appearance of this trope is that at least it was introduced in the first book of the series. Meaning, I expect to see Milus Dei as a recurring antagonist, instead of being brought in out of nowhere during the middle of the series. Also, from my perspective at the end of the first book of the series, I am setup to cheer on the eventual overthrow and destruction of Milus Dei, but of course, we’ll have to see where Bateman takes it. Overall, though, the world building is enough to keep me interested and there’s nothing that makes me want to stop reading.

Indeed, the book ends in such a way that I want to keep reading the further adventures of Gideon Black. Once I finished the book, I added the next book, Fields of Blood, to my to-be-read list. I’m glad I stumbled upon this book, and it was worth my time and money. If you enjoy urban fantasy and have been looking for a new series to read, I recommend reading Wrong Side of Hell.

Have you read Wrong Side of Hell or any other books by Sonya Bateman? What did you think?

review: the valley of fear

The Valley of Fear by A. Conan Doyle (1915)

Reading The Valley of Fear, the final Sherlock Holmes novel, has been on my to do list for quite some time. Imagine my surprise when I started reading and discovered that I had at least started it in the past. I’ve got notes in the margins and underlined sentences throughout the first part of the story, but then nothing for the second part, which leads me to think that I started the book but then didn’t finish it because this is one of the Holmes novels that does that thing I don’t really like—but more on that later. Like I said, The Valley of Fear is the final Sherlock Holmes novel. In case you’re wondering, the others are (in order): A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of the Four, and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Also, if you are a fan of the BBC’s Sherlock, the beginning of The Valley of Fear will be familiar to you, as the decoding of a cipher received by Sherlock is adapted in the series one episode titled, “The Blind Banker”.

Structurally, The Valley of Fear is a framed narrative. The story is divided into two main parts and the frame is closed with an epilogue. The use of the framed narrative is actually one of the things that turns me off about the story, and I’m guessing that it was at the start of the inner story that I put the book down. That being said, the framed narrative works for this story. At the beginning of the novel, Sherlock receives a coded message from one of the many confidential informants he’s built a relationship with over the years. The message warns of mortal danger to John Douglas, owner of an old manor house called Birlstone. However, before Holmes can act to save the endangered man, he receives a visit from Inspector MacDonald, who brings news of the brutal murder. Holmes, Watson, and MacDonald make plans to travel to Birlstone the following morning. Prior to their arrival, Watson inserts a chapter into the story that reveals the statements made by those within the house at the time of the murder. In this way, Watson provides back story and what basically amounts to an information dump, so that when the trio arrives at the manor house, Sherlock and Inspector MacDonald can begin their interrogations of the witnesses. Because Sherlock falls into the category of the “Great Detective,” it is often the case that he makes deductions, solves the mystery, and reveals the solution to readers in such a way that readers cannot themselves figure out whodunnit. The Great Detective is needed to explain the crime to us. The first part of The Valley of Fear follows this same structure, however, perhaps more than any of the other novels (and short stories), there is a heavy smattering of clues. While I wasn’t able to figure out the whole of the mystery, there were parts of it I had already deduced before the reveal of the solution. One other noteworthy aspect of the mystery itself is that it is a kind of “locked room” murder mystery, in that the manor house at Birlstone is surrounded by a moat and thus can only be accessed by a drawbridge. Douglas insists the drawbridge be raised every night, and the fact that the drawbridge was raised at the time of the murder is another puzzling fact that Holmes must take into account as he deduces the chain of events leading up to and immediately following the murder.

The opening frame ends with the presentation of the solution to the murder. The inner story then goes back twenty years into the past. Part of the function of this inner story is to further illustrate the character of John Douglas. Indeed, it is in many ways a character study. It is also there to explain the motive for murder. Part two of the story paints a vivid and engaging portrait of the man as well as the so-called Valley of Fear, explaining the source of the title. However, what I think is most notable about the second part of the story is that it meditates upon the issue of class warfare and considers the limits of what constitutes justifiable behavior in the struggle between the “little man” and the large corporation. At the same time, the inner story invites us to determine how we feel about a character who is presented as being more than a little morally grey. We have to ask ourselves how we feel about him. Do we like him? Do we abhor him and his actions? Do the ends justify the means? These questions earn greater importance as the inner story concludes, and we as readers must reconcile our impressions and judgement of Douglas in light of the conclusion to his story. The inner story is complex and pushes the reader outside of the bounds of detective fiction and into the margins of moral fiction. Read in this light, the inner story fascinates me on a level that I hadn’t quite expected but definitely appreciate.

Finally, the closing frame of the narrative calls back to the opening, where the spectre of Professor Moriarty hovers of the story as the catalytic force that sets the whole of the initial murder mystery into motion. Because The Valley of Fear was written after “The Final Problem” it is worth pondering how Conan Doyle shaped this story based upon his knowledge of how Holmes’ battle with Moriarty played out. That is, his hindsight allowed him to sprinkle in these references to Moriarty and show him to be the masterful consulting criminal who cannot fail. It could be that if Conan Doyle hadn’t written “The Final Problem” when he did, the stories and this novel that come after it would lack these elements of intrigue and insight into Moriarty as well as the struggle between Sherlock and Moriarty for supremacy.

Though the structure of the framed narrative frustrates me on one level—because I read the Sherlock stories because I want to see Sherlock and Watson in action—I have to admit The Valley of Fear commanded my attention and provoked me to think about the story on a philosophical level. Even though it took me two attempts to get to the end, I recommend reading this novel, especially if you’ve never read any of the stories or novels. You will definitely watch film and television adaptations of the Sherlock and Watson stories in a different way after you’ve read the stories that inspire them.

Have you read The Valley of Fear? What are your thoughts?

review: close contact

Close Contact by Lori Foster (2017)

When it comes to romance novels, I like mine sexy hot and with a heavy dollop of suspense. It’s no surprise, then, that I settled on Close Contact by Lori Foster while searching for my next read. I’ve read Foster’s work before, but it’s been awhile. Still, I thought I knew what I’d be getting with one of her books—steamy romance, independent female protagonist and a male protagonist with a protector streak two miles wide. Close Contact is the third book in Foster’s Body Armor series, featuring MMA fighters-turned-bodyguards. In the genre of romantic suspense, how could this go wrong, right?

This is the story of Maxi Nevar and Miles Dartman. I’m not a proponent of spoilers, so I’ll just say here that one night, something scary happens to Maxi, who is currently living on a 25-acre farm left to her by her late grandmother. Not sure what to do, she reaches out to her former lover, Miles for help. Miles has recently retired from his career as an MMA fighter (for reasons that remain shrouded in mystery for some time, and when the reveal does happen, it’s a bit disappointing in the sense that Foster could have done so much more with it) and now works for Sahara Silver, owner of Body Armor Security. After a somewhat tense reunion, Miles agrees to play bodyguard, and the pair return to Maxi’s farmhouse. Once there we learn that there are various potential suspects—Maxi’s ex-fiance, Gary, her brother and her sister who want her to sell the farm, and a township cop who seems more than a little shady. Aside from the general threat whose source remains elusive, the farmhouse and barn need lots of repairs, and Miles and his friends offer to do the work while also trying to pinpoint the source of the threat against Maxi. Continue reading

review: odd thomas

Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz (2003)

Though I have liked both of the books I have read by Dean Koontz in the past (Fear Nothing and Phantoms) he isn’t one of my go-to authors.  My perception of his work and the fact that his name is frequently spoken in the same breath as Stephen King’s (and as it happens, the books of these two writers are often found on the same shelves, almost back to back with each other), I tend to think of his novels as residing more in the horror genre than anything else.  Horror isn’t a genre I seek out all that often because I don’t like to be scared.  Life in the 21st century is plenty scary enough.  But then every time I read a book by Koontz I remember that it isn’t that his books are really horror.  Instead they are suspenseful and you don’t always know what awaits the characters around the next corner.  If you haven’t ever picked up a book by Dean Koontz because you’re also not a fan of the horror genre, but you do like suspenseful stories that will keep you turning the pages, give Odd Thomas a try. Continue reading

review: cursed city

Cursed City by William Massa (2016)

Do you ever get into reading slumps?  You know, those periods when you search and search for something to read (even though you have tons of books already on your bookshelf just waiting for your attention) but nothing ever really sparks your interest? When you read sample after sample and give up before you get to the end? When you force yourself to finish the book you took a chance on even though it doesn’t fully capture you and demand you keep turning the pages? Well, this is where I have been for the last few weeks.  I have started several books but haven’t finished one, and I’ve spent way more hours scrolling through my options on Amazon than is good for me.  At last, I opted for Cursed City and I read it from start to finish in one day. While I feel terribly accomplished in that I actually met my reading goal for the week (to read just one book), I’m not enthusing about the book itself. Continue reading

review: hard to let go

Hard to Let Go by Laura Kaye (2015)

And then we came to the end. Hard to Let Go is the final (full-length) installment in Laura Kaye’s Hard Ink series, which follows a group of five men who were discharged from Army Special Forces in disgrace and are trying to unravel the truth behind the event that ended their military careers. If you haven’t read all of the books before this one, then here’s your spoiler alert warning. Stop reading because there are spoilers dead ahead. If you’re interested in checking out the series, I do recommend the first book, Hard As It Gets.

Is it part of a series?
Yes. This is book six in the Hard Ink series and I would advise reading them in order. Hard to Let Go wraps up the larger mystery threaded through the series and ties off all the loose ends.

What is it about?
If you look at the book in terms of its placement in a series, then you can guess that Hard to Let Go is the climax of the series as a whole. The book begins where the previous book in the series, Hard to Be Good, leaves off. There’s been an attack on Hard Ink and in terms of the series’ story structure, the team’s investigation into the events surrounding their discharge from the military and the coverup of what actually happened has reached its moment of crisis. The attack brought death and loss straight to the team’s door, and the beginning of Hard to Let Go is basically the aftermath. The team is reeling but still intent upon pursuing their investigation to the end, particularly in light of all of the sacrifices they’ve made up to this point. In this book, Kaye gives us the revelation of the mastermind as well as answers the questions of what the initials GW and WCE mean, sets up the final confrontation and showdown between the team and the villain, and delivers closure and realization for the team. Oh, and of course there’s the romance plot between Beckett and Kat.

Tell me more about the main characters.
Beckett Murda is the fifth and final member of the team to find love. For most of the series, Beckett has been the one on the fringes of the group. He feels guilty and responsible for the injury his best friend, Derek “Marz” DiMarzio (whose story is told in Hard to Come By) suffered during the firefight that ended their military careers. He is also struggling with his past, which has led him to be emotionally numb and caused him to believe that he doesn’t deserve love and that no one wants him in their lives, as either friend or family. Katherine “Kat” Rixey is Nick Rixey’s sister (whose story is told in the first book, Hard As It Gets). She’s come to Baltimore to visit her brother and also put distance between her and a threatening ex-boyfriend. Kat is an attorney at the Department of Justice, and she reveals that her office has been investigating some of the same people that the team has identified as being part of the plot to discredit them. She agrees to provide the team with documents that could be helpful to them, risking her career in the process. Although Beckett and Kat’s relationship begins with the familiar “I can’t stand you” trope, they work well together as the leads of the story. Both of them are likable characters, and if you’ve been invested in Beckett’s character throughout the series and waiting for his story, you won’t be disappointed. Another highlight of Kat’s introduction into the story is that there is additional emphasis on the aspect of family. Nick, Jeremy, and Kat are their only family unit, as are Becca and Charlie, but Kat’s inclusion into the story reinforces a running thread throughout the series, which is the idea that family isn’t just about blood relations. Sometimes family ties are forged in blood. With Kat’s appearance, there’s also the sense that the Rixey family has once again been made whole, and that the ties between brothers and sister are stronger than ever. Indeed, the same can be said of Becca and Charlie in light of the revelations of their father’s actions before his death.

What is the narrative style?
Like many romance novels, the narrative is told in third person point-of-view, alternating between Beckett and Kat’s POV. The narrative style works and I liked being able to see the story, at last, from Beckett’s point of view.

Should I invest my time?
If you’ve come this far into the series, then yes, you should definitely read this book. Again, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in how the overarching story ends or in the romance plot between Beckett and Kat. I actually gave this book five stars when rating it, which isn’t something I do often. In my opinion, the book earned that rating from me because it not only rewarded my investment in the series as a whole, but it also drew me into Beckett and Kat as characters and convinced me to become invested in their story. I see this series as falling into the subgenre of romantic suspense, and since that is what I write myself, I appreciated the way this story (and the series as a whole) was structured and how the romance plot and suspense plot were intertwined. Though I am sad to see this series come to a conclusion (yes, there’s one more novella after this one that I’m guessing is actually an epilogue to the series as whole), I was more than satisfied by the conclusion. I’m also comforted by the fact that there is Kaye’s new series, Raven Riders, to look forward to. The Hard Ink series is definitely one that I recommend to anyone who likes their romance and suspense to walk hand in hand.

review: dead things

Dead Things by Stephen Blackmoore (2013)

I stumbled upon Dead Things by Stephen Blackmoore when I was trying to find new authors to read.  I decided to give this one a try and it’s been on my e-reader for a couple of months.  Dead Things exists within the urban fantasy genre, and if you don’t know what that means you’re not alone.  In basic terms, urban fantasy gives you a world and setting that looks very much like our own but that setting is occupied by all the things that go bump in the night–vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and lots of other supernatural creatures.  The setting for Dead Things is Los Angeles, and in some ways it has the feel of fantasy noir.  Blackmoore doesn’t create a dark paranormal underbelly beneath the sun-drenched glitter of Los Angeles, but there is the potential to see his vision of Los Angeles evolve into that kind of world that you might expect from fantasy noir.  Without further ado, here are my thoughts on the book in a different format I’m experimenting with for my reviews.

Is it part of a series?  Yes.  Dead Things is the first book in Blackmoore’s Eric Carter series.  The next book in the series is Broken Souls and the third book, Hungry Ghosts was just released last week (February 2017).  One note that might help in case you are interested in starting the series–there is a fourth book called City of Souls that takes place within the world of Eric Carter, but from everything I can find, it does not feature Eric Carter.

What is it about?  Eric Carter is a mage and necromancer who receives news that his sister, Lucy, who he hasn’t seen in fifteen years, has been brutally murdered.  He returns to Los Angeles to find the person responsible for her death and exact vengeance.  Complicating his return to Los Angeles is the fact that he is a man going home again after fifteen years of being on his own and out of contact with everyone who had been in his life before.  As the hunt for his sister’s murderer unfolds, Eric is also trying to decide if coming back home (and staying home) is a good idea, if it’s possible to reconnect with the people he left behind, and reconciling the man he is now with the person he was when he left everything behind.

Tell me more about the main character.  Eric Carter is the kind of protagonist you would expect to find in a noir-ish urban fantasy novel.  He is the isolated loner who has lived a nomadic life since he left Los Angeles, never settling down in one place and never thinking of any one place as home.  He’s mad, bad and dangerous to know, street-smart, quick-thinking and smart-talking.  He is a powerful necromancer, which means he can see and speak to the Dead, and though it takes a while for him to reveal this aspect of his character, it is the Dead that he helps and to some extent, saves.  He considers himself to be one of the speakers for the dead, and he gets vengeance and retribution for them (and yes, some would call it justice).  He is their champion and he understands them, a lot more than he understands the living.  He also feels incredible guilt for leaving his sister and his friends behind when he left Los Angeles fifteen years ago.  Dealing with that guilt and finding a way to make things right are two of the primary motivators for his character.  In some ways, he’s like a lot of other male protagonists you find in this genre, but like the world of Los Angeles that Blackmoore presents, he has the potential to be more than average.  In truth, he is only at the beginning of his journey, and though he has developed and undergone important changes by the time the story ends, there is lots of room for more growth and change.

What about the supporting cast?  Tough question.  In this novel, the supporting cast is comprised of Alex, the man who was his best friend and who looked after Eric’s sister after he left home.  Vivian is Eric’s ex-girlfriend, who has become a doctor in the time that he’s been away and moved on to someone else.  There is Tabitha, a waitress who works in the bar Alex owns and is a potential love interest.  The two non-human characters are Darius–who seems to be some kind of genie or djinn perhaps–who owns a bar whose doors move and within which time moves at a different rate than that of the outside world, and Santa Muerte, a goddess who wants Eric to be her right hand assassin.  I don’t want to spoil how the story ends but there will definitely be changes to this supporting cast in the next book.  Eric’s interactions with the supporting characters say just as much about him as they do about the secondary characters themselves, particularly Alex and Vivian, the latter of which is drawn realistically, I think, but at the same time she grated on my goodwill as a reader.

What is the narrative style?  I think this is an important aspect of the book to highlight because before reading Dead Things I started a different book that I put down after fifty pages because it was told in the narrative style I dislike the most–that being multiple point-of-view (and when I say multiple I mean from the perspective of three or more characters).  Blackmoore takes the more traditional route in terms of narrative style and it will be familiar and comfortable to readers of the genre, choosing to tell the story solely from Eric’s first-person point of view.  Another notable aspect of the narrative style is that it is told in the present tense which may feel different to readers who haven’t encountered this before, though I will say it is a style that seems to be growing in popularity.

Should I invest my time?  Another tough question.  One of the things that instantly came to mind while reading this book is that it has the same feel as the Sandman Slim books by Richard Kadrey (also set in Los Angeles, also noir-ish, also told in that present tense, first person narrative style).  The Sandman Slim series is one of my favorites, and though I think the Eric Carter series could be as good, it’s not there yet. I don’t know what the next book in this series will bring.  For me, the first book in a series should make me want to read the next book, if not right away then at least inspire me to immediately add it to my to-be-read list.  I didn’t have that feeling at the end of Dead Things, and admittedly part of this may be due to the way the book ends, which is clearly setting up for the next installment.  I think that if you like this genre, you should at least give the first book in this series a try and decide if you want more.  Personally, there are so many books on my to-read list for the year that I don’t see myself adding Broken Souls to my reading list any time soon. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the book. I’m just not convinced I want to go back for more.

review: accidentally on purpose

Accidentally on Purpose by Jill Shalvis (2017)

Do you have “dependable” and “reliable” authors on your bookshelf?  You know, those authors who you can depend on for a good read, no matter what book by them you might pick up? I do, and Jill Shalvis is one of those authors for me.  She is reliable in that whichever book of hers I happen to choose to read, I know I’m going to get a good book with characters I like and a charming supporting cast of characters that deepen the story. All I wanted from my day was to sit on the couch and read a book, and Accidentally on Purpose, the third full-length novel in Shalvis’ Heartbreaker Bay series did not disappoint.

What is it about? It’s the story of a woman who is strong and independent, needs no one, and is accustomed to being in control of every aspect of her world and a man who is used to be in control of every aspect of his world and who is the protector–he protects his friends, the people who work for him and his clients.  Because of the way she grew up and a shared experience in the past that was mutually defining for both of them,, she has trouble letting people in and letting down her guard, and he is dedicated to making sure she is always safe and protected. They are two strong personalities who clash repeatedly until they learn to work as team and transform from you and me to ‘we’.

Who is in it?  Elle is the female protagonist and she is like many of Shalvis’ strong female characters who can and do take care of themselves and find it difficult to build trust and emotional intimacy.  Archer is the male protagonist and he is a successful business owner who has until now been emotionally unavailable.  Elle and Archer met when she was sixteen and he was a rookie cop.  After that, Archer kept tabs on how she was doing, and then eleven years later she takes a job managing the building in which he has his office.  She’s been a presence in his life for a year when the story begins, and though all of their friends can clearly see the attraction between them, Elle and Archer have been ignoring it, but that changes when Archer asks Elle to assist him with one of his operations.  She agrees, something she has done several times in the past, but this time, neither of them can easily walk away from the other.  When trouble arrives in the form of Elle’s sister, Morgan (could she possibly star in her own book in this series at some point in the future?), Archer’s commitment to convincing Elle to take a chance on him solidifies.

The supporting cast of characters will be familiar to you if you have read any of the other books in this series, but it is not necessary to read these books in order.  For those who have, Finn, Willa, and Spence make appearances in this book, with Spence’s presence being the strongest of all (I would love to know if his story will be the focus of the next book in the series).  In fact, I learned a lot about Spence in this book.  He is not as fully drawn, of course, as Elle and Spence, but I felt like there was a good introduction to who he is and sets readers up nicely to anticipate his story.

The story is told in third-person point of view and switches back and forth between Elle and Archer, though I would say a greater proportion of the story is told from Elle’s point of view.  I mentioned above that Archer character fits into the protector archetype.  That being said, I don’t think he’s a flat character, and neither is Elle.  Though they will both feel familiar to readers of romance, they aren’t colorless or cardboard copies of a character type.  There really are several moments during the story where I felt the emotion in a particular scene that Shalvis intended to evoke in readers.  Another thing that made this book satisfying to me?  Most readers of the genre are more than familiar with the typical plot pattern for a romance–girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy back (or vice-versa, depending on who the main character is).  It’s the second part of that plot pattern-girl loses boy–that is quite often the most tiresome and disappointing aspect of most romances I read.  I understand why this moment always happen–it’s the crisis moment, the all-is-lost moment, that every book needs.  And yet for me it’s often the least enjoyable part because so frequently it’s just unbelievable.  But the good news is that the way that Accidentally on Purpose handles this moment wasn’t one that wanted me to throw the book (read: my e-reader) across the room and didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book.

Final analysis? If you enjoy contemporary romance with engaging characters, give Accidentally on Purpose a try.  I have also read the first book in this series, Sweet Little Lies, and recommend it as well.  Jill Shalvis is a dependable author who will deliver a satisfying read, and if you are interested in reading more by her, I would also recommend her Lucky Harbor series.

review: come a little bit closer

Come a Little Bit Closer by Bella Andre (2013)

Come a Little Bit Closer is the seventh book in Bella Andre’s featuring the Sullivans (specifically, the San Francisco Sullivans) and tells the story of Smith Sullivan, mega-movie star and the woman he falls in love with Valentina Landon.  The Sullivan books don’t have to be read in order, but they are certainly more enjoyable when you do.  Case in point: one of the supporting characters in this book and Valentina’s sister, Tatiana Sullivan, will return in the tenth book of the series, Just to Be With You.  That book makes several mentions to the movie that Smith is producing, directing and starring in during this book, Gravity.  Another kind of easter egg is that at the close of this book, there’s a reference to the Maverick Group, which is a nod to another of Andre’s series that she co-authors with Jennifer Skully.  To recap then, you can completely read these books in any order and you can skip books if you don’t they will appeal to you.  On a personal note, I’ve skipped books three and eight, but read all of the others in the San Francisco and Seattle Sullivans series.

There are three watchwords around which much of the thematic content of the book revolves–close, closer, and gravity.  Not going to spoil that for you, but if you do pick the book up, make sure to pay attention to Andre’s use of those words in particular.  It gives a lot of insight into Smith and Valentina’s needs and their relationships with each other and their families.  As alluded to above, the story finds Smith starting the first day of production on a film where he wrote the screenplay himself and is producing, directing and acting in the film.  It is a major turning point in his career, and he is intent upon not losing his focus at such a crucial moment.  And yet, he can’t help but be distracted by his co-star’s sister, Valentina Landon.  As Tatiana’s business manager, she will be on the set everyday, and finding a way to ignore his attraction is part of his internal struggle.  The love story between Smith and Valentina takes place against the backdrop of a film in production, and it’s no coincidence that the film is also a love story, where the male protagonist bares many similarities to Smith, his creator.  One aspect of the novel that makes this book stand out among the other books in this series is that Andre plays with the narrative structure, showing the scenes that are being filmed by narrating the events so that readers can follow the parallel story.  She does this by showing it through Valentina’s point-of-view, though it’s not necessarily true to how we would absorb it if we were watching the actors play out the scene.  All we would see is the dialogue, the characters’ body language, the background; we wouldn’t have privy to the characters’ inner thoughts or the back story, but because Valentina has read the script, in a way she is our interpreter, our narrator, filling in the gaps between the dialogue..

Throughout the series, Smith Sullivan makes brief appearances, and there are times when his absence makes him a presence in the other books.  Consequently, it really is a delight to finally read his story, and as is sometimes the case in a series where one character’s story is long-awaited, I’m glad to report that I wasn’t at all disappointed with him or his story.  Smith’s character is a fully developed and realized character at the end of the story, and though perhaps he doesn’t go through as much of a change as other protagonists, there are bits and pieces that demonstrate that falling in love with Valentina has pushed him into unfamiliar territory and into behavior that is wholly uncharacteristic of him.  In some ways, he is your cliche character who is in some way famous (here an actor, but Andre has already given us this trope with in Marcus and Nicola’s story, Ryan and Vicki’s story and will use it again in Mia and Ford’s story). He doesn’t ever think he will be loved for who he really is beneath the fame and celebrity.  He has millions of adoring fans but none of them really knows who he is.  While that is the case, Smith is unique enough to hold your attention.

Valentina is also a likeable, believable character and she is strong enough to stand up to Smith and say exactly what is on her mind but she also conventional in that beneath the strength there is vulnerability and a fragile need for love.  She is also conventional in her insistence that she will not date an actor, providing Andre with a built-in way of increasing the unresolved sexual tension.  Another concern in a series like this where Smith’s story was long-awaited is that the mate chosen by the beloved character isn’t close to who you would imagine him finding a happily ever after with.  Again, this is something that doesn’t happen and Valentina is definitely not a disappointment.  She easily becomes a character readers can fall in love with and who easily fits effortlessly into the Sullivan clan.

I’ve had this book on my to-read shelf for a long time, and honestly, I hadn’t started reading it for the very reasons listed above–I was worried I would be disappointed.  Instead, this was the perfect book for a Saturday when all I wanted was to spend the day on the couch getting lost in a good book.  Come a Little Bit Closer is actually my second-favorite book in the series, and the thing that makes that statement interesting to me is that Just to Be With You (the book featuring Tatiana Landon and Ian Sullivan) is by far my favorite book in the series.  Somehow, Bella Andre got it right with these two Sullivans and the sisters they fall for.  It didn’t all five stars when I rated it after reading it (the end seems to drag a bit) but it is definitely one of my recommended reads and gets a star next to it on my list of books read for the year, reminding me it was a favorite.  Give it a try.  If you like contemporary romance, I think you’ll enjoy it.