Archive | October, 2012

Lisa Marie Rice Puts Plenty of Danger in Her New Release, Heart of Danger: A Ghost-Ops Novel

31 Oct

Heart of Danger (Ghost-Ops #1 – Mac and Catherine’s story) by Lisa Marie Rice (Avon, November 6, 2012)

I’m a big fan of Lisa Marie Rice, particularly for the way that she paints her alpha males and gives a series an overall story arc connecting her characters, usually the male protagonists.

When I found out a few months ago from her blog that she would be releasing a new series this fall, I immediately pre-ordered the book from Amazon and then sat twitching next to my iPad (luckily for me, the Kindle version of the book was released on October 26th whereas readers who prefer print are having to wait until November 6th). Swamped with work and at a conference this weekend, I was actually grateful that Frankenstorm kept me out of work for two days, and even used some of my precious iPad charge after the power went out reading this long awaited novel!

If you like Lisa Marie Rice novels (and I have read all of them – yes, that’s right, I actually have every one of her books), this book and series will offer you the familiar ground Rice always covers and yet it adds an interesting twist. We have our usually brusque, violence-is-his-job male who falls for the elegant, soft female so hard, he can’t remember what his miserable life was like before her. I know some people get critical of Rice using this trope every time, but guess what? This totally works for me.

In Heart of Danger, the setting is the not-to-distant future where Dr. Catherine Young is stranded on the side of a mountain in the vain attempt to try and reach a ghost, the disgraced Tom “Mac” McEnroe, team leader of Seal Team Six (yes, that one) who was accused with other members of his team of the ultimate betrayal to his country. He disappeared years ago, but Catherine’s interaction with a patient in her dementia pharmaceutical study has led her to right to Mac, and as her vision has caused her to believe, he comes to find her.

Dangerous Passion by Lisa Marie Rice (HarperCollins, August 4, 2009) – where Rice first experimented with a slight paranormal element in the attraction between her protagonists

The problem is, he’s totally pissed off, and a big, scary ex-S.E.A.L. is a little overwhelming. No one should have been able to find Mac and his team, yet this doctor about to expire from hypothermia in the winter storm has somehow made it up the mountain to their secret community. It’s not just his life Mac has to protect but the dozens of people who hide alongside him in the mountain, so he’s got to ignore the fact that this is the most gorgeous woman he’s ever seen and instead suspect her of foul play.

But in paranormal/sci-fi tradition, Catherine gives us one of our twists. She has the ability, and always has had it since childhood, to be able to touch someone’s skin and feel their character and emotions. The mysterious patient in her research ward touched her skin by accident and was able to force his thoughts into her mind, showing her he was the former commander of Mac’s team and, while the survivors thought he had betrayed them into disgrace and exile, in actuality he seems to be as much of a victim, unable to speak and close to death. Catherine has literally fallen in love with the Mac this man has revealed to her in his memories, and even while the reality is scaring the bejesus out of her, her body cannot help but react to his presence.

The evil villain provides both our story arc and the sci-fi element. The pharmaceutical company Catherine works for is involved with some very, very illegal research. She thinks that her mystery patient has dementia but her scans reveal surgeries not recorded in his medical file and while dementia symptoms exist, his brain scans show he should be fully functional and able to speak. What Catherine doesn’t know is that the head of the company is taking the drug Catherine is developing to amplify the neurons ability to communicate in her dementia patients, and instead using it to create hopped up super-soldiers, in the hope of helping the Chinese take over the world. (Unsurprisingly, their economy has superseded our own in the future.)

Midnight Man (Midnight series #1) by Lisa Marie Rice (Ellora’s Cave, November 1, 2009)

Mac seems like a cross between Midnight from Midnight Man in his air of command and physically reminds me of Douglas Kowalski from Midnight Angel because of his facial scarring. Rice always does a great job of making even the heroes who are clearly not physically beautiful appealing by explaining their aura of danger and laser-like attention to the heroine (let’s not forget their amazing bodies – that book cover doesn’t seem far off the mark). The sex in her books is always highly chemical, full of off-the-charts heat, a little fast and rough but these joinings always brings our hero/heroine closer together – they literally cannot get enough of each other. With Catherine’s ability to sense emotions through skin, this physical connection takes on a whole other dimension.

Just like in past series, we have two other characters, team members of Mac’s, who future books will flesh out. Nick will be the focus of the next book, I Dream of Danger, due out in July 2013, and while he seems emotionless, we discovered through Catherine’s touch that Nick is still in love with and worries about a woman he knew before he became a ghost. Happy-go-lucky Jon may seem like a surfer dude on the outside, but he’s unable to trust due to some betrayal of his past and I look forward to reading his story as well. There are a lot of interesting secondary characters (like former Oscar-winning actress and now cook, Stella, who I adored) that would either be potential partners for the men or great characters to explore in future books, so I’m interested to see if Rice stops at a trilogy or ends up with multiple books or novellas in this series.

With other supposedly dead members of their former team found at the end of this book, the revelations as to the level of conspiracy and the role of the pharmaceutical nemesis should be rather substantial.  It will be interesting to see how the romantic suspense plot develops as a result of this ongoing explanation, one which seems far more elaborate and substantial than anything Rice has taken on in a series before.

While we will have to wait and see the other books in the series to determine if Ghost Ops can compete with such fabulous classics as Midnight Man or Dangerous Passion, Rice is taking on new territory while relying on tried and true approaches to characterization will undoubtedly have her diehard fans adding this series to their bookshelves. I know I was happy to do it. Thanks, Lisa!

Philadelphia Lawyers Have Never Been So Sexy: Case for Seduction by Ann Christopher

25 Oct

Case for Seduction (The Hamiltons Laws of Love #1 – Jake and Charlotte’s story) by Ann Christopher (Kimani Romance, August 21, 2012)

It seems like it’s a Harlequin phenomena to have a series of books, usually based around a family, where each book in the series is written by a different author. I don’t know how I feel about this – granted I’ve read a few series that this worked (like The Notorious Wolfes, aka Bad Blood in the U.K., which was AMAZING) but they are more the exception than the rule. The danger is that you’ll love one author and her description of the family and then have to switch to another author whose perspective isn’t nearly as compelling. Not fun.

Since it was the first in the series, I was happy to take the plunge when I saw the NetGalley notice for Case for Seduction by Ann Christopher. I hadn’t read a book in a long time where the lawyer wasn’t a villian (and certainly I haven’t read about one who was a hero for an even longer time span) and it seemed like a great angle, particularly from an author who worked as attorney before becoming a romance writer. Bracing myself against possible disappointment, I took the plunge and started reading.

I could not put this book down! From the moment when Jake Hamilton meets Charlotte Evans in his local Starbucks to the final page featuring their Happily Ever After, this was a beautifully written, emotionally compelling book. A little longer than a lot of category romance, Christopher gives us three-dimensional but lovable characters, a host of family members, and a great family law firm in 224 pages. I heart her.

And I love Jake and Charlotte. You have to cringe a little at the way attorney Jake Hamilton has been living his life. He’s totally a man-whore, sleeping with plenty of women and facing one messy situation after another as a result. Meeting Charlotte in his local Starbucks, he ignores the flirting of the barrista to try and get to know the gorgeous, gray-eyed beauty he accidentally mowed down. She’s certainly attracted to him but is trying to focus on her law books since she’s got work to do. Hearing that she’s in law school and holding down a job to boot, he’s filled with admiration – Jake is aware that his family’s wealth has given him a lot of advantages and he’s beginning to realize that he’s not given back nearly as much as he’s been given. Looking at the woman who is trying to maintain a professional distance (why?), he’s determined to get to know her better.

Evidence of Desire (The Hamiltons Laws of Love #2) by Pamela Yaye (Kimani Romance, October 1, 2012)

Charlotte realizes soon enough that Jake has no idea that she works for his law firm in the secretarial pool. She’s been more than aware of his jaw-dropping good looks for months now, but he’s never looked at her twice, so why the sudden interest? Clearly the man is used to women falling all over him, as evinced by the pissed-off Starbucks employee he rebuffed and now some woman who loudly accuses him of sleeping with her three times and then never calling her again. Charlotte’s life is complicated enough without some womanizer trying to score, so she packs up her homework and heads out, determined to never think of him again, and she doesn’t bother letting on that she works for him. In the bowels of their offices, she’s bound to go back to being anonymous once more.

All those good intentions fly out the window when the surgeon father of her little two-year-old, Harry, blithely drops her son off in the middle of day, claiming an emergency call. Arguing with him in the reception area, who walks in on them but Jake. Jake is stunned to see the woman he could not stop thinking about for the last few days and the realization that she works for him hits him like a punch in the gut. No wonder she was angry! He surprises himself with both the jealousy toward the man with whom she was clearly involved at some point and with the instant liking he has for the little tyke in the feet-in pajamas. Although Jake knows he can’t pursue a relationship with someone who works for him, a law student is being wasted in the secretarial pool. He offers her a paralegal position, which comes with a 50% pay raise, an impossible proposition to pass up when it’s so hard to make ends meet. Charlotte makes clear that nothing can ever be between them and takes the job.

Legal Attraction (The Hamiltons Laws of Love #3) by Jacquelin Thomas (Kimani Romance, October 16, 2012)

Her presence in his life begins a transformation for Jake, and really, it’s more about Jake evolving than about Charlotte, although she obviously has to begin to trust him. A nice introduction to the Hamilton family takes place, and to the rivalries and sibling tensions throughout the clan, and this sets the class tension rather well. There is a constant conflict of Jake being confronted again and again with women he slept with (and often can’t remember their name), humiliating Jake and reminding Charlotte all too well of what a bad risk he is. My only criticism is that the sex scenes, while hot, seems to be cut off abruptly in spots – I don’t know if this is a Kimani rule or if the author or editor just wanted to spend more page space on the relationship. With writing this tight, I can settle for that compromise!

I adored watching Jake take in the sudden realization of how empty his life is and how Charlotte suddenly brings light and fresh air into it. It was easy to believe his rapid fall into love because she is so worthy of it – he sees her hard work in the face of adversity and she never seems embittered by the obstacles life has thrown in her way, yet she’s no goody-two-shoes. Her son Harry was an adorable little boy (although his language skills seemed really precocious for two and half) and all the minor characters lived up to being contributors in their own right rather than being cardboard cutouts simply inserted for dialogue purposes (the hallmark of the bad Harlequin novel).

The other two books in the series aren’t rated quite as well as this book, but I still think I’ll give them a try since I liked this family and their world so well. I would suggest going to Ann Christopher’s Goodreads page since it’s easier to navigate than her personal website – I discovered she’s got a romantic suspense series I have got to try!

Many thanks to Ann Christopher for her great writing and getting this series going with such a tremendous start. :-)

Catherine Mann Celebrates Sexy Prodigies with An Inconvenient Affair

24 Oct

An Inconvenient Affair (Alpha Brotherhood #1 – Troy and Hillary’s story) by Catherine Mann (Harlequin Desire, August 1, 2012)

Sometimes I’m browsing NetGalley to see what the various publishers are up to, and mostly I feel like I’m just skimming the book covers, reacting to the images. Every now and then, though, I catch a glimpse of an author I love and everything comes to a screeching halt as I fervently press the “Request” button and pray that I’ll get to take a look at their latest offering.

I almost broke my enter key when I spotted Catherine Mann‘s name!

And not just her name, but the fact that this book indicates a new series, one published under the Harlequin Desire line. You might remember that I adore her Elite Force series, since she writes with an amazing balance of compelling lead characters, great minor characters, and outstanding technical information that makes the plot oh-so-believable.

But how would she translate to category romance? Contemporary romance often crosses over into the category romance subgenre, which simply means that major publishers, like Harlequin and Mills & Boon, produce large numbers of shorter romance novels (this one is 190 pages), releasing a certain number of titles each month in given “categories” (like medical romance, etc.). I find myself very picky about who I read in category romance, simply because the brevity of the novels often means that the plot stays relatively superficial, with one main conflict, barely developed characters, and an unsatisfying ending.

My great news for you is that you don’t have to worry about those shortcomings with Catherine Mann. Yes, this novel is not as in depth as her other work, but in 190 pages (versus 347 pages for one of her Elite Force books), it’s understandable that we don’t have a ton of minor characters with their own plot lines and romances.

What we do enjoy are interesting, three-dimensional main characters wrestling with real issues while being swept out of their comfort zone in their reaction to one another. Troy Donovan was a hacker prodigy from rich, indolent parents and his devastating break into the Department of Defense computer system would have landed an older kid into a federal penitentiary. But Troy ends up instead in a tough military school run by the hard but fair Captain Salvatore, who doesn’t plan on letting him get away with anything. Finally finding friends among the brilliant and troubled kids in the school, Troy founds the “Alpha Brotherhood” with them, forming a club comprised of capable, damaged geniuses. As they age and meet with tremendous success financially, they are still called upon to do international spying and government work occasionally at the behest of the same former headmaster, Salvatore.

Hillary Wright is on a plane bound for Chicago to help the government identify the business partner of her former boyfriend, both of whom were responsible for embezzling thousands of dollars from scholarship funds. She’s sickened by both their behavior and her own gullibility - she thought she left the Vermont farm of her childhood long behind her, but it seems her trust in others has bit her in the butt. Again. When she feels attraction for her handsome and charming seat mate on the plane, she’s hesitant to do anything but talk, knowing how bad a judge of character she is. When he’s taken off the plane in handcuffs, she’s shocked at how nothing ever goes right for her and at the sudden recognition that the man with whom she felt such a strong connection was none other than millionaire software developer and playboy, Troy Donovan!

All or Nothing (Alpha Brotherhood #2 – Conrad and Jayne’s story) by Catherine Mann (Harlequin Desire, January 1, 2013)

But Troy outwitted Salvatore, who didn’t want Troy and Hillary to meet until the party, deliberately putting himself next to Hillary to gauge her personality. After reading her file, he had a feeling that she was an innocent in more need of protection than she was going to get and after feeling the heat between them and enjoying her refreshing skepticism and honesty, he knows he was right on the money. The handcuffs were merely a stunt for the bachelor auction for the Chicago party he and Hillary are both attending, but she feels additionally duped and lied to when she has the epiphany that Troy works for Salvatore as well and she is just a job to him. But as they trot all over the globe, falling deeper and deeper in love and lust with one another, both these damaged individuals realize they are in way over their head.

For such a brief number of pages, I was impressed at how Mann was able to compress so much character development into them. Troy’s home life is nothing short of child neglect and Hillary has run as fast as she could from her home in Vermont and from a mother in and out of rehab. Yet both are able to have close relationships – Troy with the “Alpha Brotherhood” and Hillary with her sister – so there is potential for them to love and care for another person. Mann does a good job of drawing a psychological profile, while regularly showing how Hillary can’t help being caring (no matter what her inner voice might be warning against) and Troy can’t help treasuring her and trying to make her happy. Their flaws are understandable and work well for the plot and conflict, and I found myself rooting for them to face their inner demons so they could be with each other already!

The Alpha Brotherhood series device was actually quite refreshing. Rather than the typical security company or brothers-in-arms, the idea of men who became friends while still extremely young and immature, bound together by the shared conditions of military school and their child prodigy status, is a terrific idea and one that lets Mann operate a little out of the box. We get a glimpse of Troy’s friends – Hughes, the economics genius turned Monte Carlo casino owner and the man known as “Mozart,” the music prodigy now a sexy cross between Harry Connick Jr. and Michael Buble. Both are also spies, and for Hughes, it destroyed his marriage, yet for each other, they’ll do anything.

With books this short, you basically fall in love a little with the protagonists (versus head over heels in love with the characters in Mann’s longer books) and sacrifice the fabulous technical details like those in the Elite Force series. Yet, at under $4 for the Kindle version of these books, they are a terrific value since they offer a wonderful escape to a jet-setting world (it is Harlequin, after all) with flawed heroes and heroines who nevertheless deserve to be loved.

The next book, to be published January 1st (see above book cover), is to feature Conrad Hughes and his estranged wife, Jayne, and I’m guessing that Playing for Keeps, listed on the series page on Goodreads as due out in April, will be Mozart’s love story. I’ve already pre-ordered Hughes’ book and am looking forward to enjoying the rest of the Alpha Brotherhood. Thanks, Catherine, for giving us these sexy prodigies to fall for!

One of the Best Shifter Romance Series on the Market: Shifters Unbound by Jennifer Ashley

22 Oct

Pride Mates (Shifters Unbound #1- Liam and Kim’s story) by Jennifer Ashley (Berkley, April 26, 2010)

I do not understand why so many otherwise normal romance readers get their panties in a bind admitting they enjoy paranormal romance, particularly shifter romance. Haven’t we all felt the lash of people judging us for reading romance? Why would we do this to each other? Sheesh, people.

A good shifter romance is sexy, steamy, and has a fabulous world you can dive into and not resurface until the last page is read. There’s lust and usually the idea that the shifter has a sense of finding his or her “mate.” But the really good shifter romances show the intense attraction between the hero and heroine grow into a deep abiding love based on the knowledge that comes with truly understanding someone. Really amazing shifter romance, like good steampunk, uses the concept of the “other” to highlight issues of racism and discrimination that exist in our world and show us noble characters determined to fight it.

Guess what? Jennifer Ashley writes the amazing kind of shifter romance in her Shifters Unbound series.

You might remember my shameless kvelling over Ashley’s incredible historical romance books, the Highland Pleasures series starring the uber-hot Mackenzie men, and it’s a credit to her versatility that she can transition into paranormal with seemingly effortless grace.

Primal Bonds (Shifters Unbound #2 – Sean and Andrea’s story) by Jennifer Ashley (Berkley, March 1, 2011)

In the first book of the series, Pride Mates, our heroine Kim Fraser boldly goes to the heart of Shiftertown, where the government makes all the shape shifters live, to research a pro bono case her law firm assigned her. Her client, a shifter, has been accused of killing his human girlfriend and Kim is convinced of his innocence, but she knows the jury will be all too willing to believe his guilt. Most people see shifters as wild animals, barely controlled by the magical collars they are forced to wear to keep them from giving in to their violent animal instincts. When her client informs her that no one will talk to her unless she convinces Shiftertown’s second-in-command, Liam Morrissey, of the seriousness of her mission, Kim bravely heads out to do just that.

Liam is a sexy, Irish (yes, I said Irish) feline shifter kept continually busy helping his father run their pride and settle Shiftertown’s disputes. Over 100 years old, yet looking a hunky thirty-something, he’s delighted with the spunk of this gorgeous lawyer. He’s never been attracted to humans before, but for this curvy brunette with her determined chin and brave attitude, he’s willing to defy his father’s edict to get rid of her and actually help her do her job. It doesn’t take him long to realize that this woman is the mate he’s been waiting for all his life, but he also knows that to truly claim her would ruin her career and the life she’s so carefully built.

Anyone who loves the Highland Pleasures series will see a few similarities in how Ashley constructs her characters. Her heroes are strong and often playful, but have tortured pasts and secrets they slowly dole out to the heroine as she earns their trust and love. The female leads are feisty (who else can stand up to these alpha males?) but loving, and usually take one look at the males’ close family relationships, either genetic or purposely chosen, and realize that they are keepers. Kim and Liam have such amazing banter that you are grinning like an idiot half the time and the sexual tension and love scenes have you reaching for a glass of ice water and it’s not because Ashley transmits a sense of the Austin, Texas heat.

The world-building is what totally blew me away. I knew Jennifer Ashley had the ability to plunge me into a vivid world (she did it with Victorian England and Scotland already with the Mackenzies), but I had no idea she was capable (or quite honestly that any author was capable) of placing me in an all-too-believable world of discrimination and secrecy. Shifters were created by the duplicitous Fae, who attempted to breed humans and animals with magic to create an army. This backfired as shifters were too powerful to become docile. Hiding among humans for centuries, the shifters were feared and hunted when their presence became known. With poor infant mortality rates and facing regular starvation, Liam, his widowed father, Dylan, and his brothers Sean and Kenny decided to have their families take the collar – a magical Fae-infused device which would control their violent tendencies by inflicting tremendous pain upon them.

Shifter Made (Shifters Unbound #.5 - prequel novella to series and Alanna’s and Niall’s story) by Jennifer Ashley (Berkley, April 20, 2011)

This process was unbelievably painful, yet being able to control their feral tendencies and live in relative peace with each other (and among different species of shifters, unheard of in the wild) was the reasonable trade-off. Yet Kenny lost his mate when she gave birth to their son, Connor, and Kenny died later at the hands of a feral shifter, leaving his father and brothers to raise his son. But while human governments think they have shifters under control, in actuality this group has been trained in brilliant subterfuge for a millennia  They have coping strategies unknown to humans, both regarding the collars that attempt to control them as well as in living their lives within the ghetto-like confines of their towns and the Jim Crow-like laws which rule their behavior. It’s a brilliant world, all too believable once you get used to the idea of shape shifters.

The second book in the series, Primal Bonds, focuses on Sean, the second brother and the all-important guardian of Shiftertown. Sean Morrissey is bonded to the Fae-infused sword of the Guardian, a sword created by one of his ancestors and handed down through his family. His job is vital to shifters yet makes him a feared individual among them – the sword is used to dispatch shifters to the Summerland or their afterlife, making him a specter of death. Because women shy from anything permanent with such a sober job description, he offers to mate-claim Andrea Gray, the niece of family friend (and his father’s lover) Glory, despite never having set eyes on the wolf shifter.

Andrea is half-Fae, half-Lupine and that heritage has made her life a misery in the Colorado town she grew up in. When the jackass son of the leader tries to forcibly mate-claim her, she turns to her aunt for help. Getting off the bus in Austin, Texas, she’s astonished that the man kind enough to mate-claim her so she can make her escape is the gorgeous Guardian of the town. His Irish accent and underlying playfulness is a fascinating counterpart to his all-too-serious job, but the Fae part of Andrea is called to Sean. On his part, Sean realizes this is no mere claim-of-convenience as the gorgeous wolf with the dark gray eyes is someone he must take to mate. While swirling power struggles among the shifters and the Fae try to keep them apart, Andrea and Sean might hold the key to freeing the shifters from some of the bonds that try and hold them.

Sean is a total hunk, playful in his own way like Liam but more intense and with plenty of guilt due to his job description. Andrea is different from all other wolf shifters because of her Fae side, and Ashley does a terrific job of introducing us to the world of Fae as Andrea begins to uncover more information about her father and some of her remarkable abilities, particularly with Sean helping and protecting her.

The prequel novella, Shifter Made, is the prefect next step to the series to read after Sean and Andrea’s story. The relationship Sean has to the sword of the Guardian (and Andrea’s affinity to it as well) makes the story of the sword’s creation so welcome. The master sword maker and metalsmith Niall O’Connell hates the Fae, remembering how they enslaved his people, and he has his hands full raising his motherless sons and keeping food on the table. When a beautiful Fae princess comes into his life to ask him to make a sword, he knows there is no trusting her, but her beauty cannot be denied. Alanna has been sent by her manipulative brother to medieval Ireland to put her own brand of magic into a sword that will bring the shifters to heel, but she has other ideas of rebellion, ideas that expand beyond helping the shifters after she feels the attraction to the ruggedly handsome Niall.

Bodyguard (Shifters Unbound #2.5 – Ronan and Elizabeth’s story) by Jennifer Ashley (Berkley, November 18, 2011)

I have to admit to a real soft spot in the shifter novel universe for bear shifters (I guess I go for the big, cuddly type that can turn badass when properly riled) so I was ecstatic when Ashley released Bodyguard, the novella about the Kodiak bear-shifter, Ronan, who works as bouncer at the Morrissey’s shifter pub.

Plenty of shifters shop at the funky novelty store owned by Elizabeth Chapman and her sister, Mabel, so when Ronan is in there late one night looking for a present for his housemate Rebecca, the last thing he expects to see is the cute human owner being held at shotgun point by some punk kid. He doesn’t think twice before shifting and taking down the would-be killer even though the cops who come on the scene arrest him for attacking a human.

Elizabeth does not need all this attention from the police but there is no way she isn’t coming to the defense of the kind – and seriously hot – shifter who got shot and arrested for his pains. She does what he asks and calls in Shiftertown’s leader and his human mate who is a lawyer. Hoping it will all blow over, she’s dismayed to discover that the brother of the obnoxious sociopath who was going to kill her is an equally scary organized crime boss and he’s determined she won’t get to testify. Ronan insists on taking her to his house and it’s not long before she gets a good look at his caring nature and his luscious body.

Ronan realizes quickly that Elizabeth is hiding something huge about her past, but he trusts her, so much that when the Morrissey leaders try and force her to tell them her secrets, Ronan mate-claims her to keep them at bay. Slowly showing her she can trust him, this burly bear lets Elizabeth come to him to share her sweet kisses and her body, which he is happy to guard. When another threat from her past is unleashed, Ronan is happy to take on all comers and insure that this tough, sexy human is his forever.

Wild Cat (Shifters Unbound #3 – Cassidy and Diego’s story) by Jennifer Ashley (Berkley, January 3, 2012)

I just want to cuddle up with a bear as patient and kind as Ronan (but who turn into a gigantic, enraged Kodiak bear when necessary) and this novella at $.99 on Amazon.com is a total bargain. We get a slightly different combination of partners in the third official novel (the fifth work) in the series, Wild Cat, when Ashley decides to move out of Texas to the Las Vegas shiftertown. Eric Warden came to Austin in Sean and Andrea’s story, Primal Bonds, on Dylan Morrissey’s suggestion and stayed to help them fight the Fae threat. He’s back on his home turf with his sister and second-in-command, fellow feline shifter Cassidy , who is commemorating the one year anniversary of her mate’s murder.

Cassidy has a problem, though. She’s being followed and shot at by an unknown assailant and when she tries to escape in cat form to an abandoned, half-built highrise to evade him, the cops show up. Las Vegas Detective Diego Escobar can’t believe that he has to go up to the 51st floor to figure out what has happened to the cops who investigated the trespass call. But hearing shots fired, he doesn’t have a choice – he’s just got to put the horrible night out of his mind when he almost fell to his death and then watched his partner and best friend get shot in front of him. It’s easy to forget when he sees a gorgeous Snow Leopard, clearly a female shifter, shift to her naked female form to save him when her assailant is busy shooting at them both. Getting her free takes some doing, but he’s responsible for her and, by God, he’s going to figure out what’s going on. He doesn’t know much about shifters, but this stunning blond is all he can think about and he’s vouched for her behavior and her safety.

Cassidy can’t believe that this human is stirring her blood in a way she hasn’t experienced since her mate’s death. She knows someone is hunting her but she cannot figure out why. Diego doesn’t understand shifters, but he doesn’t back down from Cassidy or her alpha brother Eric, so his strength is clear. Can they trust him with their secrets, at least enough to figure out what is going on? Particularly if they are right and the duplicitous Fae are involved again?

I was leery of moving the Shifters Unbound storyline out of Texas (I love my Morrisseys and Ronan!) but Las Vegas has an equally as compelling shifter presence and I did like Eric Warden. Luckily Cassidy is a terrific character, honestly mourning her mate but displaying the shifter openness of not denying what she is feeling for the sexy Diego Escobar. Ashley’s usual adept characterization is fabulous and the story arc is one that continues themes laid down in previous books with plenty of loose ends to be continued in future ones. It’s wonderful.

Hard Mated (Shifters Unbound #3.5 – Spike and Myka’s story) by Jennifer Ashley (Berkley, August 19, 2012)

Jennifer Ashley’s propensity for writing meaty novellas in between the full-length novels are a series reader’s dream, especially since they never feel half-assed or with a plot simply tacked on like so many other authors. In Hard Mated, we are back in Austin with the Morrissey’s tattooed tracker Spike, who has just been informed by an adorable human that he is the father of a cub. Seeing as the mother of his child was a shifter groupie one-night stand and that shifters have a hard time fathering children, this astonishes him, but no more than discovering that the formerly vibrant woman is dying of cancer. Her death leaves him with the custody of a wild little cat shifter who simply won’t behave. Spike might be able to break feral shifters to his will but he has no skill set for dealing with a willful little boy who just lost the only Mom he ever knew.

Myka is mourning the death of her best friend, Jillian, and worried about her little four-year-old son Jordan. She found Jordan’s shifter father working off steam at a fight club and it’s clear he doesn’t have other children. His physical appeal can’t be denied – the guy is gorgeous – but he also didn’t say a lot so she has no idea whether Jordan is safe with him. Myka’s also got the major problem of losing her livelihood if the stable owners where she trains quarter horses for a living decide to sell since there’s no way she and the other workers can buy such an expensive facility, but as important as that is, Jordan takes precedence.

Spike’s son is cutting a destructive swath through his house and even his grandmother doesn’t seem to know the best way to deal with the little guy. His job as a tracker means he’s at the leader’s beck and call, but Spike is all too aware that Liam Morrissey doesn’t really know him or trust him. Liam inherited Spike from the previous shifter leader, the megalomaniacal Fergus, after killing the bastard in a dominance fight. Spike likes working for Liam and thinks he’s a better leader, but he finally has something in his life, Jordan, that is more important than running Liam’s errands. When Myka shows up to check on Jordan, something clicks inside Spike. With her clear-eyed gaze and perceptive mind, Myka sees past Spike’s tough facial expression and tattoos to the giving person who cares for his family and wants to do the right thing. The fact she’s comfortable sassing the leader of Shiftertown and telling him how he doesn’t appreciate Spike only makes him that much happier. But past threats put Myka and little Jordan in the line of fire and Spike decides that he’s willing to fight anyone, and sacrifice anything, to keep them both safe.

Mate Claimed (Shifters Unbound #4 – Eric and Iona’s story) by Jennifer Ashley (Berkley, October 2, 2012)

I loved Spike and the perspicacious Myka, but was dying to get back to Las Vegas. While Cassidy and Diego had their plot line in Wild Cat, the other burning question was what was going to happen to Iona Duncan, the secret shifter living as a human who Eric Warden met and was attracted to? In the fourth full-length novel of the series, Mate Claimed, we get our answer.

Eric has kept a close eye on the stunning and sexy Iona Duncan since the minute he scented her in the shifter bar. An unclaimed female shifter, secretly living as a human, is a powderkeg waiting for a spark, but Eric is reluctant to drag her into Shiftertown and slap a collar on her like he knows he should. Iona is in the prime of her fertile years and clearly beginning the mating frenzy. After having denied her shifter side for her whole life, she needs Eric to help her accept who she is, and he is more than willing to help this raven-haired beauty.

The problem is that Eric had a mate long ago and has a fully-grown son, the powerful Jace. He knows that he should bring Iona in and encourage one of his unmated males to claim her but there is no way he can do that. The months of tracking her (and kissing her senseless) has been a way of keeping her all to himself, but he realizes a move will have to be made, and soon, since Iona is finding it tougher to keep from her panther form as the restlessness of her frenzy takes over. He is not about to let this beautiful woman go feral if he can help it. That Eric also has to deal with the idiot humans relocating a town of Lupine shifters into his Shiftertown is an unwelcome distraction. He’d much rather be spending all his time helping Iona than fighting dominance battles with Graham, the new wolf leader determined to oust Eric.

Iona does not know what to make of Eric. Yes, with his rock hard body and green eyes, he sets her blood on fire, but Iona has kept her shifter self hidden for years, not just because she would have to take the collar, but to protect her mother and sister who could go to jail for keeping her off the government radar for those decades. That Eric doesn’t try and force her to his will, just tempts her constantly, is a mark in his favor, but the world gets more dangerous when the town council chooses her construction company to build the new houses in Shiftertown. Iona is exposed to more shifters, including the wolf leader challenging Eric, and she is now caught between them.

Iona is a giving person who is nevertheless strong and dominant whether in human or her panther form. I loved how Eric held himself back, playing with Iona sexually (and boy, did they play! Yowza.) but not pushing her to have sex even though he knew with her mating frenzy he could have easily convinced her to succumb to him. This was honestly one of the most psychological books in the series so far, with Iona wrestling with accepting her nature and easing into the Warden family and Shiftertown prior to giving herself fully to Eric. On the flip side, Eric knows he wants Iona and readily admits that there’s no way another man will have her, but he has to undergo an emotional realization that he actually loves her, an epiphany that means he has to acknowledge he’s ready to move on from mourning his lost mate after all these years. It’s deeply moving, yet Ashley mixes sex and love in the perfect dose, all the while giving us conflict within Shiftertown (Graham and his Lupine crew) and the new villainous threat of humans, past and present, who experiment on shifters. I think it’s one of the most mind-blowing books of the series!

At the end of Mate Claimed, there is a delicious preview of the next full-length novel of the series, Tiger Magic, which stars the super shifter Iona frees from the government facility, the tiger with no name. He’s relocated to the Austin shiftertown and helps a beautiful human with car problems, but I’m thinking with that hunk of cat, she’s going to be getting much more than she bargained for (lucky woman)! But since that book is not coming out until June 2013, I’m more intrigued by the lack of information regarding the next interim novella, to be found in Angela Knight’s anthology, Unbound, to be published March 5, 2013. How can we not have an inkling about who this will focus on? Will it be Peigi, the damaged uncollared shifter freed by Cassidy and Diego, and Reid, the Fae who loves her? Ellison, the hunky Texan wolf tracker (I’m hoping Ellison gets his own book, FYI)? Well, both Kindle editions are pre-ordered, so I’m all set.

No matter who is the focus, I guarantee that, in the hands of Jennifer Ashley, it’s going to be another amazing shifter romance. Thanks for all your hard work and imagination, Jennifer!!!

Shannon McKenna Has Nothing But the Best Moves in Her Latest Suspense Thriller, One Wrong Move

15 Oct

One Wrong Move (McClouds & Friends #9) by Shannon McKenna (Kensington, September 25, 2012)

There is always a little nervousness when you are given what sounds like a terrific galley to review, only to discover it’s part of a series. Immediately, you are bombarded by the abject fear that you will be subjected to hoards of previous characters and in-jokes that will allow for only a peripheral submersion in the plot. After being intrigued by NetGalley‘s description, I asked to take a look at suspense author Shannon McKenna‘s latest novel, One Wrong Move, knowing I had never tried anything by this author.

But I had heard good things about McKenna. Compared regularly by Goodreads reviewers to Lori Foster (who I enjoy), McKenna purportedly crafts books with cranky, over the top alpha males and feisty heroines trapped in seriously heinous situations which lead to rapid emotional progression and some fabulous erotic “we could die so let’s seize the moment” sex.

This  combination totally works for me. If I know ahead of time that the hero is going to be a major asshole, at least in the beginning, I can brace myself to discover, along with the heroine, what redeeming inner qualities he has. And wow, does McKenna know how to do this.

Our hero, Alex Aaro, had me blinking with some of the unbelievably rude and outrageous things he was comfortable saying to the heroine, Nina Christie. Nina has had a crappy 24 hours. Walking home from her social work at a women’s shelter, she is accosted by a screaming woman speaking a foreign language, who jabs her with a hypodermic needle. Realizing as she’s losing consciousness that this haggard woman is an old friend of Nina’s deceased mother who she hasn’t seen in years, she’s baffled as to what has happened.  Nina left her phone on in the middle of the 911 call for help so she has the entire rant from her attacker recorded and it’s in some kind of Russian. The hallucinations and people after her in the hospital only ramp up her fear, causing her to turn to her old friend, Lily Parr, especially since Lily now has a hunky fiancee (and father of her soon-to-born baby), Bruno, who is associated with a top of the line security company who can help.

Bruno realizes that one of his firm’s associates, Alex Aaro, is touching down in NYC on personal business and can be called in for the assist. Aaro has the added benefit of knowing a few languages, with Ukranian – the language of Nina’s attacker – as the first one he spoke as a child. But Aaro wants nothing to do with the situation. This friend of Lily’s can get an interpreter because he has bigger fish to fry. Alex Aaro is the assumed name he’s lived under for years to avoid his father, who is Vor, or deadly Russian mafia. Aaro wanted none of that legacy so he started over, now a respected cybersecurity expert who knows his way around a variety of weapons, to boot. He’s back in New York to visit his dying Aunt Tonya, the only person who ever cared about him, but he needs to get in and out as soon as possible.

Blood and Fire (McClouds & Friends #8 and Lily and Bruno’s story) by Shannon McKenna (Kensington, September 4, 2012)

Well, the road to good intentions, and all that. After telling Nina over the phone he won’t help her – and her reaming him out about it – she manages to escape a strange group of people in the hospital who seem to be getting inside her mind. She shuts them out and gets away, scuttling to try and find the driver who helped her the night before, but she’s realizing that she can hear people’s thoughts on the subway. Worried she’s having some bizarre side effects from whatever she was injected with, she discovers that her good samaritan has been tortured and murdered. This confirms that the weirdness is not just coming from her mystery drug and she scuttles home only to have her home broken into. Hiding in the hidden panel of her closet, Nina gets a frantic text to Lily with the situation and her friend calls in the calvalry, Aaro.

The moment when Aaro holds the naked Nina in his arms, he realizes that something in his life has altered in a big way, and it’s not the two guys he murdered downstairs. The two of them take off on the run, initially trying to figure out this strange drug cartel who manufactures some kind of psychic enhancement drug (which only seems to help people with a strong predisposition for the talent) with the layer added later of vengeful Russian mafia types from Aaro’s past. Oh, and they have to get the second part of the drug so Nina won’t die in a few days. No pressure. Yikes! Like one of these wouldn’t be enough.

Nina is naturally freaked but she’s trying to marshal all her strength and reserves to deal with the situation. She’s a survivor who had to deal with a physically and sexually abusive stepfather and the suicide of her mother, but she’s used her past to motivate her to help people in need so there’s an element of triumph in her personal life. A holdover though is that she’s always been able to make herself, well, easy to overlook, and her bulky drab wardrobe, glasses and tight hairstyles only add to her invisibility.

Aaro got a good look at what’s under all that shielding and it’s not drab. He’s not one for deception so while he’s berating Nina for not telling him the whole truth of their perilous situation he’s also telling her, in explicit detail, what he wants to do to her. It’s a bit much for Nina, especially because his blunt statements combined with her current mental state are about as welcome as the bullets fired at them, but the strange thing is, she’s incredibly attracted to this lean killer, in a way that she’s never experienced before. She realizes that she’s not the only badly damaged one in this unlikely partnership. Maybe its the drug that’s changing her, but she is beginning to see behind Aaro’s shields to the lonely and terrified person who exists within.

While I expected the alpha to end all alpha behavior (and I had no problem with it – Aaro is totally honest and with his own code of honor, so McKenna does a terrific job of giving you a glimmer of the man behind the jackass which makes you stick for the long haul), I was surprised by the paranormal element regarding the psychic-enhancement of the drugs. There was both a delightfully creepy villain thing happening with the cartel, but at the same time, many people, like Aaro and his family members, had a natural ability for some of the psychic talents. Very cool and an interesting layer to the story.

I was impressed with McKenna’s writing ability. The sex scenes were hot and terrific, deepening and ramping up the connection between the hero and heroine, to the point where it was entirely feasible that these two people would realize that they were in love after only a few days. I love it when authors can pull this off and McKenna is a master. Her characters were exceptionally three dimensional – villians, heroes, and supporting characters alike – and this plot, which could have been a nightmare with all these competing elements, was tightly drawn but left a few threads that will clearly be picked up in a future book.

And that future book better star Miles. Miles – you sexy nerd beast – I adored you! A vital supporting character and member of the firm, Miles factors heavily into the denouement of Aaro and Nina’s story and clearly has a near obsession with Nina’s childhood friend, the missing Lila, who was captured by the drug cartel and held to manipulate her now-dead mother. The other characters hint at the content of the previous books and I’m absolutely going to end up reading this series backwards. I love it that McKenna manages to have those previous characters woven throughout the story but never in a way that makes the reader feel like there’s something they are missing. That takes skill and enhances the potential for a reader (like me) falling into the series and buying the backlog of books.

One Wrong Move is a terrific romantic suspense novel that reminds me not only of Lori Foster but of a personal favorite, Lisa Marie Rice, in its alpha males, great supporting characters, excellent suspense plot and erotic sexual content. I’m elated to have found a new suspense author with all the right moves. Thanks, Shannon McKenna!

Riveted by Meljean Brook Sustains the Iron Seas Reputation as the Best Steampunk Series

11 Oct

Riveted (Book #3 in The Iron Seas Series) by Meljean Brook (Berkley, September 4, 2012)

I think my deep-seated admiration for Meljean Brook as the premier steampunk author to whom I compare all newcomers to the genre is quite clear, and the latest addition to the Iron Seas series, Riveted, guarantees her street rep is totally intact.

Whereas the first two books in the series, The Iron Duke and Heart of Steel, are definitely interconnected to one another, a reader could read Riveted with merely an introduction to Brook’s world, best understood by her background essay on the alternate history she employs.

In Riveted, we meet Annika Fridasdotter (Icelandic translation literally “Frida’s daughter”), an engineer on Captain Vashon’s airship (another female airship captain with an excellent reputation – previous books have referred to her prowess). Dressed in outlandishly bright silks, Annika is making her way through a teeming port city back to her ship when she is accosted by an overzealous guard bent on proving she has fraudulent papers. She does, but it’s not because she’s an enemy, but rather carries Norwegian papers to hide her Icelandic origins. Not speaking Castilian, Annika is almost carted away, but for the intervention of David Kentewess.

While the guard is intimated by David’s monocle eye and visible steel hand and arm and backs off, Annika, ever curious, is fascinated by David, and her attraction only increases when she discovers he is a vulcanologist. She would love to know why someone would study something as dangerous as volcanos but sadly realizes that she must get back to her ship. Annika can’t shake the feeling that David has an agenda in helping her and that the intensity of his questioning indicates more than the typical interest between a man and a woman.

The UK cover for Riveted, where the heroine pictured is MUCH closer is appearance to the actual description of Annika, who has mysterious origins. It always makes me uncomfortable when a publisher chooses an image that makes one of the characters look “whiter” than they are described in the book. Be careful, Berkley Publishing!

Her gut instinct is dead accurate. David’s attention was captured not just by Annika’s clothing and good looks, but also by the fact that when trying to communicate with the bureaucratic port official, she ran through a gamut of languages, including the very rare Norsk. David hadn’t heard that language since his mother, a mysterious woman who never revealed where she was from to her beloved husband and son, died in the same violent volcanic explosion that took David’s eye, arm and both his legs.

Charged twenty years ago with taking his mother’s rune-carved necklace back to her homeland for burial, he has attempted to discover the location of her birthplace, and at last he has a clue, in Annika, who speaks with the same accent and phrases David remembers from his childhood. Thankfully his latest expedition is using Vashon’s airship for transportation to Iceland, so David and Annika are thrown together and the mutual attraction amplifies.

But Annika’s secret is an important one. She is out in the world away from the isolated Icelandic village she grew up in for a reason. Her sister, Kalla, was exiled for a mistake Annika made and Annika vowed to her village elders (after confessing it was her error) that she would find her sister before returning home.

Her village must be hidden from the larger world, as it is comprised solely of women, women who, generations ago, decided to honor what they felt was a sign from God that they were meant to live and love each other. They continue their numbers by choosing to either go abroad and adopt orphan girls or to lie with men who will take the infant if it’s a boy, but hopefully gain a daughter and return back to the village. David’s mother was one of the women who fell in love and chose to stay with her husband and son.

Iceland is not only renowned for its beauty, but for the amazing power of the many volcanos that exist in it, which fuel the natural hot springs all over the island

The previous heroes and heroines in this series have been what I would term “edgy,” often having experienced extreme personal adversity and with at least one person in the pair being sexually experienced. Riveted takes a new angle with its H/h both being relatively innocent from and love and sex standpoint. David has dealt with revulsion from women regarding his artificial enhancements and actually paid for sex twice in his life, although he couldn’t bring himself to fruition in the face of his partner’s disinterest or outright revulsion. Annika is a true romantic, virgin and waiting for the right person, woman or man, with whom to lose her virginity. In fear of her rejection, David initially leads Annika to believe he has no romantic or sexual interest in her, but when the going gets tough, finally caves and lets her know his true feelings. The building romance between them is breathtaking and magical.

Meljean Brook’s writing is, as it always is, beautiful and evocative. Every sentence has been crafted with care and her plotlines are watertight, letting the reader feel the delicious sense of anticipation and the wonder of true closure at the story’s conclusion. But where she excels is in the crafting of her characters. My mother and I spoke about this one to one another and mom said, that while she enjoyed the book tremendously, the beginning of the book felt slower to her than the other books in the Iron Seas series. I think she’s right, but it’s an excellent, calculated move by a talented writer.

Brook knows she must set up a side of her world that readers have never seen before. We are not in the world of England and the post-tower destruction, but are instead more immersed in the part of the world which did not live under Horde rule. As always she makes me fall for her world along with her characters. Annika and David are adventurous, well-matched, and with fascinating personal backgrounds which intersect with their worlds in ways that had me eagerly turning the page.  Riveted is aptly named, because it easily described my demeanor while reading it.

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