review: afterlight

Afterlight by Elle Jasper (2010)

Afterlight is the first book in Elle Jasper’s vampire/paranormal romance series, The Dark Ink Chronicles. Yes, I’m bringing you a vampire romance novel today, so let’s get the preliminaries out of the way, shall we? If you liked the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, but at the same time prefer your vampire romances to be written for adult readers (as opposed to young adult readers), you will like this first book in the Dark Ink Chronicles. I stumbled upon Afterlight while browsing the shelves of my local used bookstore. It’s been on my bookshelf for at least a year now, but with loads of time on my hands at the moment and nowhere to really go (I read this book during my state’s stay-at-home order prompted by COVID-19), I’ve been searching for new series to dive into and focused on clearing my physical and virtual bookshelves. I decided to finally pick up Afterlight, and the truth is that it kept me up past my bedtime and then kept me entertained for the better part of a Saturday. At the time of this writing, this book isn’t available from my local library or through Kindle Unlimited, but if you find it on your next trip to your local used bookstore and you like vampire romances, it’s worth your book dollars.

Afterlight is set in Savannah, Georgia. While many of the stories I have read that are set in Savannah emphasize the prevalence of ghosts, this book offers a slightly different view of Savannah by giving the protagonist, Riley Poe, an opportunity to discover the existence of the supernatural beneath the surface of the normal, human world she has always known. Riley is twenty-five and owns her own tattoo shop, called Inksomnia. She’s also the guardian of her fifteen-year-old brother, Seth. Though the novel is careful to stingily dole out insights into Riley’s past, we know from the very beginning of the story that her teenage years were wild and troubled. Two of the people who helped her get her life back on track are Preacher and his wife, Estelle. They are Gullah and own the shop next door to Riley’s, called Da Plat Eye (more on them later). When the story begins, Riley is tracking down her errant brother, who has gone to one of the local cemeteries with a group of his friends after hours. But it’s her brother’s visit to the cemetery that night and the trouble it brings that sends Riley’s world spiraling out of control and pushes Riley out of the normal life she’s known and into a world where vampires are real. Riley’s need to save her brother is what drives the action plot of the novel, but it’s also how she meets Eli Dupré, which in turn sends the love plot into motion.

The story is told entirely from Riley’s first-person POV. If you’ve been around my blog for a while, you know what I’m going to say next—the first book in a series must have a compelling protagonist if the writer wants readers to anxiously await and come back for the second book. The question then, of course, becomes, is Riley Poe a compelling protagonist? In my opinion, Riley is interesting enough and unpredictable enough to keep me turning the page to find out how she handles discovering she lives among vampires. Jasper is careful to make sure that Riley has secrets, secrets she isn’t quick to unravel even as her attraction to Eli Dupré grows stronger. Riley is also what has come to be known as the “strong female protagonist” and yet there is also a tension between Riley being capable enough to take care of herself and smart enough to know when she needs help. Because of her past, it’s easy to argue the possibility that Riley is on a redemption arc, and this would explain why one of her primary motivations is to protect those she loves as well as innocents who are being preyed upon, just as she was preyed upon in her youth. Riley is likable and readers will find her first person narrative easy to slip into and tag along with her as her adventure unfolds. There are some characters you simply love, characters who you cannot get enough of, characters who make you feel all of the emotions. Riley Poe wasn’t one of these characters for me. Not yet, anyway. I liked Riley, but she wasn’t so compelling to me as a character that she’s become my latest character obsession (we all have those, don’t we?). Her character is well-developed in the first book in this series, and she has enough potential for me to be willing to give Riley Poe another opportunity to totally win me over.

If you’re writing the first book in a series, the supporting cast is also of vital importance. Afterlight actually has a strong supporting cast with lots of potential for creating a richer and more intricate story world. I’ve already mentioned Riley’s brother, Seth, but there’s also Riley’s best friend, Nyx, who is also a tattoo artist and works in Riley’s tattoo shop, Inksomnia. So far, Nyx plays the role of human who is still blissfully unaware of the existence of vampires. In regard to mentor/parental figures, Riley has close relationships with Preacher and his wife, Estelle. They have been surrogate parents to Riley and are also the characters she is most likely to go to when she needs advice. I have also already mentioned Eli Dupré as the love interest in the novel. Inevitably, readers of the Twilight series will compare him to Edward Cullen (not an entirely unfair comparison since these two novels mostly live within the same broad genre of vampire romance, even if the intended audiences differ). Eli is…definitely not a carbon copy of Edward Cullen. He is intriguing and, at least in this first book in the series, compelling enough that when he was absent from the narrative for a while, I wanted him to come back. He’s not the most compelling vampire I’ve met in my reading adventures and also isn’t on my list of latest character obsessions (if you really want a new character obsession in the form of a vampire, go and find Matthew Clairmont), but again, he’s developed well enough to make me want to see what he does next. The supporting cast is rounded out by Eli’s vampire family, consisting of his mother and father, Gilles and Elise, and his three younger siblings, Phin, Luc, and Josie. In this regard, the Dupré family reminds me a lot of the Cullen family. They take Riley—as well as her brother and even Nyx—under their protection and her fight to save Seth becomes their fight as well. Jasper really has done a really good job of offering a supporting cast that readers will relate to and offering more than just cardboard characters intended to fill a particular role in the story.

Jasper does make a couple of creative choices that typically turn me off as a reader. One is the use of dialect—used primarily by Preacher and Estelle, but also when one of the Gullah characters speaks; the other is the heavy use of slang—used by all of the characters who are close in age to Riley. After a while, both got a little tedious for me. I know, I know. Sometimes I can be a snobby reader, but part of my job here is to offer insight into the book that you won’t necessarily pick up on in the back cover copy or the short sample available for download. If these devices bug you, then you’ve been warned.

When it was time for me to rate this book, I couldn’t decide between three stars and four stars. Really, I wanted to be able to give it a 3.5 star rating, or maybe even 3.75. I didn’t love this book, but it’s so much better than a lot of paranormal romances out there. I didn’t want to rush to download the next book to my kindle, but I did put the next book in the series, Everdark, in my shopping list so that I won’t forget about it. Afterlight was a good diversion and entertained my mind, and if you like vampire romances I do think you’ll enjoy this one.

Have you read Afterlight? What did you think?

review: echoes of fire

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

Echoes of Fire by Suzanne Wright (2018)

Echoes of Fire is the first book I’ve read by Suzanne Wright, and I’m asking myself how I have missed stumbling upon this author until now. I was absorbed by the story and the characters right from the beginning and stayed up past my bedtime on a Sunday night because I didn’t want to put the book down. And that was after having spent most of the day with my head in the book. Wright has instantly gone to my “read more books by this author” list. Echoes of Fire is the fourth book in Wright’s Mercury Pack series, shifter romances set in a contemporary world where humans know about the existence of shifters. Not having read any of the other books in this series (or its sister series featuring the Phoenix Pack), I can assure you that this book definitely stands alone. Concerned about your book budget? At the time of this writing, Echoes of Fire is included with your Kindle Unlimited subscription (if you’ve got one), but it’s not available through my local library. But listen, this book is worth your book dollars. Especially if you love racy romances and shifter romances that are well-written, fast-paced, and totally engaging.

This is the story of Madisyn and Bracken. Madisyn is a feline lone shifter who spends half her time working in a shelter, where she occasionally relocates shifters looking for a safe home and a fresh start. The other half of her time is spent working in The Velvet Lounge, a bar owned by the Mercury Pack. Though she doesn’t belong to the pack, she is under their protection, which becomes important when she refuses to give an Alpha bear shifter the information he wants about Daisy, a young bear shifter who Madisyn recently relocated. The thing Madisyn wants most is her independence and freedom, and learning Bracken is her true mate threatens to rob her of the life she thinks she wants. Bracken is a wolf shifter who has become isolated from his pack as a result of a massacre-type event that killed his entire family. Driven by vengeance, he tracks down those responsible for the deaths of his family, but now he is drifting through life with no real purpose and can’t find any joy or happiness in anything. He is on the verge of leaving the pack to go roaming, but learning that Madisyn is his true mate changes his mind. What Bracken needs most is confidence in his ability to protect those he loves, and the action plot of the novel challenges his confidence time and time again. Both Madisyn and Bracken are likable, fully developed characters, and I quickly got invested in them as a couple.

The story is told through Madisyn and Bracken’s alternating third-person POVs. Through their narratives you get to see several of the other members of the Mercury and Phoenix packs, who make up the supporting cast. One thing that stands out to me about Echoes of Fire is that since Wright keeps her lens tightly focused on Madisyn and Bracken, the supporting cast doesn’t jump out at me as much as other books. Sure, Madisyn’s closest friend, Makenna plays the role of BFF, but the sense of just how isolated Bracken has allowed himself to become is reinforced by the seeming lack of a BFF character for him. That being said, the antagonists of the story feel a lot more vivid than the supporting cast. The Alpha bear who continues to come for Madisyn, intent upon forcing her to tell him what he wants to know, as well as the characters he pulls into his plot to get what he wants, are the side characters that interested me most. Well, of course there was also Vinnie, the leader of the Olympus Pride who has unofficially adopted Madisyn into their group and come to her aid when she needs it. Still, I think one of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much was the laser-like focus on Madisyn and Bracken. They never disappear from the story and their narrative on what is happening at any given moment in the story was one of the most compelling aspects of the book. One of the writing rules I do my best to follow is to present compelling main characters, people who readers want to keep following through the story, who they simply can’t look away from. Wright has nailed that rule in Echoes of Fire and in doing so, gained a raving fan.

In case you missed it, I recommend this book to readers who love racy shifter romances with a strong subplot that brings a little mayhem and danger into the lives of the protagonists, threatening everything that matters most to them. Echoes of Fire is one of those books you will have no regret reading during the course of a lazy Sunday while ignoring all the household chores and general noise of everyday life. If you’re looking for the next book escape, put Echoes of Fire on the top of your to-be-read pile.

Have you read Echoes of Fire or any of the previous books in the Mercury Pack series? What do you think?

p.s. Since reading Echoes of Fire, I have gone on to read five other books by Suzanne Wright and not one of them has been a disappointment.

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

review: twilight heart

Twilight Heart by Adam J. Wright (2019)

Twilight Heart is the seventh book in Adam J. Wright’s Harbinger P.I. urban fantasy series. If you haven’t read the previous books in this series, I strongly recommend checking out my review of the first book here before reading on. Spoilers are ahead if you’ve not read the previous books. You’ve been warned.

Do you ever make it to the middle of a book series (or a television show for that matter) where you’re invested in the story enough to want to know how it ends, but you’re losing the excitement you had at the very beginning? That’s how I’m starting to feel about the Harbinger P.I. series. I’m going to keep reading because I want to know how it ends, but I just don’t get the same high satisfaction from each new book in the series that the first few books gave me. Here’s my take on book seven, Twilight Heart. Continue reading

review: imperfect

Imperfect by April Wilson (2017)

Imperfect is the fifth book in April Wilson’s McIntyre Security Bodyguard series. I have read book one in this contemporary romance series, Vulnerable, which features Shane McIntyre and ends on a cliffhanger, so I was wary as to whether or not Imperfect would truly stand alone. While I think readers who haven’t read any of the previous books in this series won’t be confused or lost, I do think it was helpful to me as a reader that I had at least read the first book. It establishes all of the members of the McIntyre family, who to varying extents appear over the course of Imperfect. If you’re not sure where to start, I would recommend beginning with Vulnerable and then if you like the writing and the characters, read Imperfect. If you’re a continuing reader, then know that you’ll see all of your favorite characters from previous books in the series. As of this writing, both Vulnerable and Imperfect are available through Kindle Unlimited but not from my local library. Imperfect receives an above average rating from me (it’s solidly between a B and a B+). It’s not one of my favorite books of the year but it’s definitely not the worst book I’ve read recently. Give this author a try and see what you think. Continue reading

review: buried memory

Buried Memory by Adam J. Wright (2016)

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

review: house of whispers

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

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

review: 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: one snowy night

One Snowy Night by Jill Shalvis (2016)

This novella is book number 2.5 in Jill Shalvis’ Heartbreaker Bay series (preceded by Sweet Little Lies and The Trouble with Mistletoe, and followed by Accidentally on Purpose, which I reviewed here). One of the good things about this series is that each book stands alone and the books can be read in any order. I’ve said this before and will say it again, Jill Shalvis is one of those authors whose books I will always check out because I know exactly what I’m going to get. I don’t know if I would put her in my list of favorites, but she’s dependable and entertaining and hasn’t ever disappointed me.

One Snowy Night is an easy and quick read. I tried to read with my “reader” hat on but somehow my “writer” hat kept demanding to be worn. While reading, the development of the main characters—Max Stranton and Rory Andrews—preoccupied my mind as well as the basic story structure. The story is told through Max and Rory’s alternating third person point of view, and while I would say that the narrative is split fairly evenly between them, I wouldn’t say that by the end of the story I know either of them especially well. Sure, I know them in terms of their current situation—Rory has agreed to accept a ride from Max as they both travel from San Francisco to Tahoe on Christmas Eve to spend the holiday with their families. Perhaps that is attributable to the short narrative as well as the fact that the story itself takes place within a time frame of approximately twelve hours.

The desire for forgiveness is what drives Rory’s character. What haunts her is the way she left home. At seventeen, she ran away from home after her junior year in high school in order to escape a household where she didn’t fit in and a family who blamed her for things she hadn’t done. Six years later, she is finally returning home and fears that she will do something to make her family continue to believe she is flaky and undependable. Proving that she has changed is the thing that drives all of her actions and emotions. In the end, it is her interactions with Max during the drive from San Francisco to Tahoe that shows what kind of person she is, and it’s up to her family to see and accept for themselves the woman she has become.

While Rory’s character arc is clearly defined, Max’s is a bit blurry and indistinct. He is haunted by the same incident in Rory’s past but his experience of it was different and he begins the story blaming Rory for what he thinks was her part in it. During the drive, he learns the truth about what actually happens, and this does change the way he sees Rory and allows him to act on the attraction he has felt for her in the time that they have both lived in San Francisco. Max travels a flat character arc through the story. He doesn’t change in any significant way (yes, it can be argued that he admits his love for Rory and that that is a significant change, but in my mind, this is a romance and that is what is expected and without that element the whole story fails to work). Rather, he reflects Rory’s positive change arc and assists her along the way, ensuring that once she does finally make it to her family home, her opinion of who she is and understanding that she is no longer the seventeen-year-old girl who ran away from home six years is what matters most. She won’t be devastated if her family doesn’t see the change and we feel confident that she’ll continue to be who she is even if she doesn’t have her family’s acceptance.

The structure of the story is also difficult to define in absolute terms. When it comes to story structure, I’m looking for the following six key turning points in the plot: catalyst, big event, midpoint, crisis, showdown, revelation. One Snowy Night does have external conflicts and obstacles that the characters must overcome along with inner conflicts that the characters must resolve. And yet, the lines between acts one, two and three are blurry and indistinct, and in my opinion, the turning points are largely absent. This is more observation than judgmental. The story moves along fine and has good pacing; there wasn’t a moment when I wanted to put the book down and stop reading.

If you’re looking for a few hours of escape into a book and want a light romance, One Snowy Night delivers. If you want something a bit deeper and more complex, I can recommend the first book in the series, Sweet Little Lies and the third book, Accidentally on Purpose. If you’ve already read every book in this series, well, then, perhaps like me you’re waiting for Spence’s story to finally be told in Chasing Christmas Eve.

Have you read One Snowy Night? Hit the comments and tell me what you thought of it.

book review: sandman slim

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey (2009)

I’m worried that I’m about to sound like a broken record, but I’m not going to let that stop me.  Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey is the first novel in an urban fantasy series.  Yes, another first novel in a series.  If you haven’t caught on yet, I like serial fiction.  When I finished this book I looked up when it was published.  When I learned that it was published in 2009, I wondered how it was that I hadn’t heard of this series before.  I’m glad I found it.

Sandman Slim follows the story of James Stark.  For the last eleven years, he has been in Hell, sent there by friend turned enemy Mason Faim.  Stark and Mason are magicians, and it is through a magic ritual that Mason sent Stark to Hell eleven years ago.  Learning of the recent murder of his girlfriend, Alice, Stark resolves to escape from Hell and return to take vengeance against Mason and the rest of the Circle that helped send Stark away years ago.  Thus, the novel follows your basic revenge plot pattern; although the plot is familiar, it’s not stale or predictable or like every other revenge plot that some series begin with.  Kadrey gives readers something familiar, but he doesn’t stop there.

One of the things that made me pick this book up and give it a try was that the back cover said it was in the noir tradition, and that’s a description I would agree with.  The story is told in first-person, and so we follow Stark through the whole novel and only know what he knows, and only when he knows it.  Stark narrates in present tense, which is something of a shock when you start reading, but it never turns into a distraction and after a while you’re simply used to it.  This device makes the story feel like it is happening now, right there and then.  The first-person narrative style is a great choice for this novel because it allows readers to see all the different sides of Stark, from his reflections on his experiences in Hell and how they changed him to his feelings for Alice, which show why he is so motivated to avenge her death and won’t stop until he has succeeded.  Stark is an engaging and compelling narrator and character, and one of the novel’s strengths is that the story stays with him the entire time.  He is always on stage, and his narration makes it hard to look away.

Like a lot of first novels in a series, the supporting characters must be introduced and their relationships with the protagonist have to be fleshed out.  Kadrey has surrounded Stark with a (mostly) strong supporting cast.  Each of the supporting characters is different, and perhaps with the exception of Medea Bava, none seems cliché or just another example of a specific character type.  The strongest of the cast are Vidocq, a Frenchman who achieved immortality seemingly by accident, Carlos, owner of a bar called Bamboo House of Dolls, Doc Kinski, who heals Stark’s injuries and whose true identity and nature puzzles Stark (this is revealed at the end of the novel), Candy, a “Jade” who is in a kind of twelve-step program with Kinski to keep her from preying upon humans, and Muninn, a kind of collector or procurer of things for his clients.  These are the strongest supporting characters because they are interesting in themselves and they also highlight and emphasize different parts of Stark’s character.  As a reader, I found myself wanting to know more about each of them and hoping that they would make it out alive and become recurring characters.  I imagine that other characters introduced here will also make appearances from time to time as the series progresses—such as Aelita, an angel and Wells, an agent with Homeland Security—and it’s not revealing too much to say that Lucifer makes an appearance as well.  So I have to say that the major and minor characters in the novel add depth and interest to the story.

As I have said elsewhere, the first book in a series should make readers want to pick up the second book, and Sandman Slim definitely succeeds in achieving that purpose.  Halfway through the book I was purchasing the next book in the series.  I was completely drawn into the world that Kadrey builds and the way he characterizes Los Angeles in the style of noir detective fiction, portraying the underbelly of the city that is rife with corruption and crime, betrayal is a given because most of the individuals within this world have no sense of loyalty or community, and beautiful surfaces hide ugliness and decay.  One of the things Kadrey does well is place his protagonist in the in-between space, making him morally ambiguous as well as ostracizing Stark from any place where he might feel he belongs.  This reinforces Stark’s isolated position and loner status, but it is from this position that he draws strength and the wherewithal to get the job done.  Like so many hardboiled detectives, Stark has his own code of ethics.  They aren’t traditional or what most would consider moral or even “right”, but he has his code and he stands by it.  All of these things—the first-person narration, the supporting cast of characters, and the convincing fictional world—make this novel succeed and give me hope that the next novels will build on the strengths of Sandman Slim.

I have had a difficult time finishing novels lately because so much of what I start is all the same and I quickly lose interest.  That was definitely not the case with Sandman Slim.  I was drawn in from the beginning and kept turning the pages.  I definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys urban fantasy and noir detective fiction and to anyone who is looking for a new series to sample.