Tag Archives: Texas

Ilona Andrews’ Clean Sweep Adds Fantastic Characters and an Intriguing New World to the Urban Fantasy Genre

6 Dec

Clean Sweep (Innkeeper Chronicles #1) by Ilona Andrews (NYLA, December 2, 2013)

Anyone who adores the Kate Daniels series or the glorious Edge books understands the phenomenon that is Ilona Andrews. A spectacular husband-and-wife author team, Ilona Andrews has a definite corner on the urban fantasy market and their latest publication, Clean Sweep, only adds to their dominance of this market.

In true urban fantasy style, Andrews begins Clean Sweep by deceptively giving us the appearance of normalcy only to strip back the layers to show us how wrong we are in our assumptions. Dina Demille runs the Gertrude Hunt Bed-and-Breakfast, a beautiful Victorian home located in a sweet suburban town in Texas. Unfortunately for her, something has been brutally killing her neighbor’s dogs in the Avalon Subdivision, and while the people around her speculate that its a mountain lion, Dina knows all too well that it’s not.

You see, it’s slowly revealed that Dina is not your normal innkeeper, or rather she’s an Innkeeper with a capital “I”, a vocation held by people with magic who bond with an inn, a place of sanctuary for all types of creatures with the understanding that the location (and the innkeepers) are neutral and can therefore offer safety. Dina’s missing parents were also Innkeepers before their mysterious disappearance and while she’s been channelling her energies into revitalizing her previously abandoned inn, she’s never stopped looking for them.

But this deadly magical creature on the loose puts her neighbors into danger, and at first Dina is highly suspicious that one of them, Sean Evans, a werewolf may be involved, but it’s a supposition she quickly discards. While he tries to deflect Dina’s imperative to figure out what’s going on in his territory (not wanting to admit that he’s a werewolf to a strange human), he quickly realizes that she’s nothing to be trifled with. That he’s never heard of or met an Innkeeper is part of his confusion, but this ex-military man is deadly and very, very territorial. He’s not thrilled about a mysterious creature on the loose and he’s definitely unhappy that Dina feels she has the right to engage it. It seems he’s feeling a territorial about her as well.

The seamless blending of science fiction elements into this urban fantasy is addictive.

The seamless blending of science fiction elements into this urban fantasy is addictive. Image purchase via Shutterstock.

One of the realities Dina helps Sean face is that he’s not some morphed DNA but an engineered race and one of many. As Dina tells Sean, “For various reasons, Earth is a way station for many travelers. We’re the Atlanta of the galaxy: many beings stop here for a layover.” And she transmits this information none too soon. While Dina and Sean have managed to kill a few of the monstrous creatures stalking them, the corpses (or rather what’s inside them) attracts the unwelcome attention of vampires – and they are not the sparkly kind, but the instead the kickass, alien warrior knight kind with a very distinct code of honor.

When one of them is badly hurt, his relative, Arland, a Marshal of House Krahr, comes to protect his uncle and seek vengeance on and information about the assassin wielding these creatures. Sean and Dina realize that they are involved in something much bigger than just a crazed creature in the neighborhood and they put their heads and power together with Arland to flush out the perpetrator while hopefully saving their home. That is, if they can all manage to not get killed first.

Dina is a fascinating heroine, one more than capable of carrying a series on her shoulders (particularly with the help of her morphing broom). I liked how she was well-trained in both magical and physical self-defense but she’s not prone to the mind-altering violence we expect (and love) in Kate Daniels. Dina is truly the embodiment of her inn, a defender of hearth and home who provides sanctuary and protection to others, and she’ll go to any length to insure that safety. That her potential love interests are a footloose werewolf and a vampire who is the head of his clan’s military branch offers a natural source of conflict as it’s hard to imagine a successful long-term partnership with either man (although it’s very, very easy to imagine a successful mating!). The entire story is laced with Andrews’ fantastic sense of humor – those little references or popular culture moments that bring a big grin onto your face.

It’s a profound skill as a writer to reveal layer upon layer of a rich world while also building layers of a plot and make it all look effortless. The immediate story is the one of “who is sending these creatures and why?” – a question which ends up revealing a much more interesting plot with politics and otherworld power struggles. Yet the larger story arc reveals questions that the first book leaves unanswered in order for the series to progress: what happened to Dina’s parents? Where is her brother? What is Sean going to do in the other realm for the werewolves? What are Sean and Arland’s intentions toward Dina?

A shi tzu, the closest we can come to understanding Dina’s wonderful dog, Beast (considering that Beast can morph into something a bit scarier than this little cutie). Image via Wikipedia.

As is typical with Ilona Andrews, the amazing secondary characters blow you away and convince you that this world they’ve crafted actually exists. I love it that the house is truly a character – complete with emotions and reactions just like a human. Any follower of Andrews’ blog knows the troublesome but lovable role their animals provide and Beast, Dina’s dog, will be more than recognizable to any animal lover (her treeing Sean, the alpha werewolf, was one of my favorite scenes!). Even Dina’s permanent guest, Caldenia, clearly has a rich story to tell as she appears to be royalty or some type of powerful entity who may very well eat someone (but don’t try and separate her from her Mello Yello soft drink).

Doris Mantair not only did the cover art but also the interior, stunning full-color illustrations that bring Caldenia, Sean and Arland to life (ladies, please note that Sean and Arland are both available for download in the form of various wallpapers for your electronic devices via Ilona Andrews’ website). This book was an experiment for the writing duo, having been published for free in weekly serial form over several weeks and honed with the continual feedback of readers. That said, the original free format of its release has done nothing to inhibit sales of the official print version, as Andrews’ just announced on December 5th that Clean Sweep had reached the #2 and #3 slots for paranormal and urban fantasy on Amazon in just a few short days. I anticipate that fans (like me!) will be clamoring for scenes from Sean and Arland’s persepectives a la the Curran scenes that are so hugely popular. 🙂

Andrews’ website did announce that the sequel to Clean Sweep would come out in early 2014, but its unclear to me at this time whether there is a single sequel or multiple books which would fulfill the series name of “Innkeeper Chronicles” more thoroughly. Either way, this series (like every other series by Ilona Andrews) has leapt into my “pre-order it, dammit!” list rather quickly. Fans of Andrews, urban fantasy, or paranormal romance with more than a big dose of science fiction elements will want to rush out and grab Clean Sweep while they can.

Happy reading!

A Riveting Affair Anthology Features Three Page-Turning Steampunk Tales

25 Oct

A Riveting Affair by Patricia Eimer, Candace Havens, and Lily Lang (Entangled Ever After, March 2013)

I love anthologies. I know I’ve said it before and yet it’s amazing how many reviewers on Goodreads and Amazon complain about them. You have to wonder if these are the same people who loooovve novellas, not realizing that the anthology they crankified about online (yes, I invented that verb) happens to contain multiple tales of the same length. Sheesh.

Feeling in a Steampunk/Gaslight mood last night, I decided to read the anthology, A Riveting Affair, largely because it contained a story by Candace Havens, whose writing I uniformly love. I would have paid $2.99 for just her story, but the bonus is that I got two other outstanding novellas for that price, plus found additional authors whose writing I know enjoy. Bargain!

“Beauty and the Clockwork Beast” by Lily Lang

Rose Verney arrives in a steampunk Manhattan on Sebastian Cavendish’s doorstep and she’s sacrificed quite a bit to get there – running away from a controlling older sister, a pestering suitor, and having her pregnant best friend hide her before she could sell her last pieces of jewelry to buy a one-way train ticket from New Haven to the city. But it will all be worth it if her late father’s star pupil can help her finish his teleportation machine.

The Imposter by Lily Lang (Samhain, 2012)

She’s escorted through a dust-filled empty mansion to his bedchamber, shocked that the formerly handsome boy has come through the war with a disfigured face and pronounced limp. More shocking than his physical change is when he begins kissing and groping her, having mistaken her for the prostitute he ordered for the evening. When she instead explains that she is to deliver the blueprints for the teleportation device per her father’s will – and stay to help him finish it – he rejects her out of hand. Rose doesn’t realize that Sebastian has sworn not to build any more machines after watching his work take so many lives during the war.

When Rose not only refuses to leave the following morning, but begins to clean his mansion, revitalize his clockwork servants and rebuild his laboratory in his old nursery, Sebastian finds himself unable to cling to the bitterness and anger he’s nurtured since his time in a Confederate prison. His nightmares come less often when he wakes up to Rose holding his hand, he feels the thrill of inventing again with the best partner he’s ever had working next to him, and the light and comfort in his home reflects what he feels in his heart. But as these two people fall quietly in love with one another, Sebastian’s beliefs about what he truly deserves threaten to come between them and the happiness that lies within their grasp.

This story strongly resembles a gothic tale with a scarred and bitter hero, a dark, scary mansion, and a beautiful, innocent heroine who brings the hero back from the brink. I loved Lang’s character development, the steampunk angle of the recently concluded American Civil War, and the fact that she introduces the moral question of how responsible an inventor is when his creations are used to kill. The only piece I did not enjoy was that Lang is rather “closed door” in her sex scenes, making this story a little sweet for my tasteLily Lang has a small oeuvre (unsurprising as she lists her main occupation as a graduate student) but she’ll be an author I keep a close eye on. I may try one of her intriguingly blurbed historical romances just to see if she carries these strengths in her other works.

“The Clockwork Bride” by Patricia Eimer

Aida Mulvaney feels that her attendance at a Christmas ball is a waste of time when she could be at home with her family working in the lab, but her best friend Esther uses blackmail to get her there. Blackmail is exactly what it takes, considering that this Irish engineer is heading straight to a masquerade given by Lord Capshaw, the Empire’s leading anti-Irish, misogynistic leader of the Luddite party.

Luck of the Devil (Speak of the Devil #1) by Patricia Eimer (Entangled, 2011)

It’s also been three weeks since Aida’s friend Leopold walked out on their engagement, one undertaken to spare him from an arranged match. That he’s a prince and son of Queen Victoria (who is nothing short of enraged at Leopold’s temporary defiance and Aida’s Irish cheek) doesn’t put Aida in a great position, either from a business standpoint or as the butt of gossip throughout London. Still, she’s in disguise this night, so how bad can it be?

Being at the home of her greatest enemy is taking her mind off losing her friend, particularly when a mystery man helps her escape the arrival of Leopold and his insipid German fiancee. Her savior seems happy to take his payment by kissing the stuffing out of her in a dark alcove, but it’s a welcome development to the night. Welcome, that is, until he takes off his mask and she discovers the gorgeous son of her enemy, Julian Capshaw.

Aida also discovers that Julian is actually a talented scientist, a profession unheard of among the nobility, and he demonstrates the extent of his rebellion by whisking Aida away to a party on a dirigible. When he boldly suggests that she solve her current scandal by helping him free himself from his father via marriage, she’s startled but intrigued. She knows that as a scientist who respects her chosen profession, Julian will understand the time she needs for her engineering work so she capitulates to the idea. That there is plenty of steam being generated between them physically doesn’t exactly hurt either. But as this unlikely partnership grows into something more tender, Julian’s powerful father and a resentful Queen attempt to insure these two will never have a chance to explore the future they could have together.

My single criticism of the story was that it was told in the first person from Aida’s perspective; Julian was SUCH a gorgeous hunk of a hero I wanted to experience his point of view throughout the story, too. I loved the steampunk world Eimer created, particularly appreciating how Aida’s loving Irish family created an environment where she could thrive as a brilliant inventor despite political and social obstacles. Julian is the most unlikely match to an Irish commoner, yet from a personality standpoint he is her ideal partner and that comes through with both their heat and their banter. Even though Patricia Eimer seems to have her other books published under the umbrella of contemporary paranormal, I’d strongly encourage her to keep up the Steampunk since she does it damn well!

“Demon Express” by Candace Havens

Lions, Tigers, and Sexy Bears, Oh My! by Candace Havens (Entangled, July 2013)

Professor Maisey Clark has left her research to work as an assassin with a single target – her former fiancee, Julian Darvil. Following him from London to deep in the heart of Texas, she’s glad to capture three grave robbers for her client as his recent trouble – isolated attacks against cattle in the Forth Worth area, coincidentally happening around the same time as grave robbing – indicates Julian’s evil involvement. When the three men turn out to be investigators also hired by her client, she’s annoyed that they have gotten in her way, particularly the leader, Marshall Jake Calloway, fresh from helping the Texas Rangers. His long hair and facial scar do not detract from his overall appeal, but right now she sees this tall hunk of man as an obstacle rather than an ally.

Working and living in her private steam engine, the Iron Witch, Maisey spends her time analyzing blood samples in order to determine if the presence of Julian’s supernatural creatures is causing the phenomena in the area. Created by her father with enhanced abilities and raised from childhood as an assassin of supernatural creatures, Maisey wanted to pursue her intellectual interests but ended up using her natural born skills once Julian attempted to seduce her into creating Wollstonecraftian creatures mutated by viruses in order become the ideal warrior. Needless to say, Maisey hasn’t had an easy road with men, but luckily for her she is surrounded by people who love her, whether it’s her English mastiff Henry, her enhanced acerbic butler Barnes, or the ghost of her dead nanny who sticks around to clean and cook for her, while leveling judgement on Maisey’s choice of clothing.

This outstanding story will leave you wanting more, both from the fascinating world (more gaslight than steampunk since it includes the supernatural as well as clockwork elements) to the wonderful characters which inhabit it. While I was a little miffed at Patricia Eimer telling her story from the first person, Havens does the same and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest because the tone of the story lands closer to Urban Fantasy. I’m really hoping that this story is a prequel to a full-length novel since Jake and Maisey do not get together (although there’s plenty of sexual attraction) and there is an abundance of conflict and plot developments to support a longer storyline. While Havens is a varied, talented writer able to pen seemingly any genre (her contemporary romance, nonfiction about popular culture, and her paranormal writing are all equally wonderful), I don’t think she’s done a tone of steampunk/gaslight, a fact I hope she rectifies considering how much I adore her writing.

A Riveting Affair is a fantastic steampunk anthology for lovers of the genre who enjoy strong female protagonists filled with intelligence and gumption. I strongly recommend this terrific bargain of a book for anyone wanting to be riveted for a few hours. Happy reading! 🙂

Hotshot by Julie Garwood Continues Her Reputation for Solid Suspense

6 Aug

Hotshot (Buchanan-Renard #11) by Julie Garwood (Dutton, August 6, 2013)

I was a little leary about tackling Julie Garwood’s latest addition to her long-running Buchanan-Renard series, Hotshot. After all, I was not a fan of the last book in the series, Sweet Talk.

I did have a few criticisms similar to my concerns surrounding Sweet Talk. Rather than rich description, the narrative does sometimes lean to telling rather than showing. Garwood is excellent at creating a sincerely complex suspense plot with plenty of players, but it’s with her main characters that she needs to spend more time.

The book opens with a long prologue detailing how when the Lockhart family moves in next door to the MacBains, teenage Finn sees little five year old Peyton fall into the pool and almost drown. Luckily, the newly minted lifeguard rushes over and manages to save her. A bond is formed, one that continues long after Finn goes to college, the Olympics, law school and then later working for the FBI. Peyton always sends him a note on her birthday, thanking him for saving her all those years ago, and while he sometimes answers her and sometimes doesn’t she always thinks fondly of her “Hotshot” which she named him after all his medal wins in the Olympic games.

But she’s living her own life. Her parents are unhappy that she discarded her humanities degree to go to a presitigious French culinary school and pursued a chef career. Trying to find an opportunity back in the states is difficult, but she manages to astonishingly land a job at the premier food magazine as an assistant where she will train for a year and then become a reviewer. She packs herself up and moves to the middle of nowhere Minnesota in the middle of January to turn a new page of her life.

When something sounds too good to be true, it probably is, and Peyton discovers (over the course of the first fifth of the book) that the company’s CEO has recently lost his wife of many years, leaving the day to day in the hands of his grasping daughter and disgusting son-in-law. Peyton works for the son-in-law who makes it instantly clear that a big part of her job will be pleasing him in the bedroom. He doesn’t seem to take no for an answer and, with the support of a few friends, Peyton gets incriminating evidence of his sexual harassment and threats on her cell phone and then heads back to Texas as fast as she can. Pursued on the highway, she barely manages to get away, later discovering that her car actually has bullet holes in it from her boss’ henchman.

yokusuka-89827_640Home for his Navy brother’s wedding, Finn MacBain doesn’t recognize the amazing dark haired beauty approaching him with a smile in front of the church. He’s blown away to discover it’s little Peyton all grown up and the kiss they later share confirms that she’s got his vaunted control in the palm of her hand. Recognizing the bullet holes in her car, he drags her story out of her, putting her in contact with a lawyer friend who can help. Even though he knows he should stay away, they still fall into bed together for a cataclysmic night of sex and Finn is slightly horrified to discover (after the fact) that Peyton was a virgin.

She’s okay with knowing that nothing more can be between them, especially since she’s embarking on her own adventure. Her two sisters and Peyton have been offered the opportunity of a lifetime by their Uncle Len. He wants them to take over one of his resort properties in Florida and make it into a money-making prospect; if they succeed, they’ll inherit the multi-million dollar Bishop’s Cove and be set for life. With her older sister’s interior design prowess and Peyton’s culinary background it could work, and it’s a good excuse to move forward.

The FBI, bringing you taciturn and emotionally remote heroes.

The FBI, bringing you taciturn and emotionally remote heroes.

But Finn doesn’t seem to go away permanently. He shows up in Florida when the case against her boss further develops, offering life-rescuing help at every turn, and naturally they sleep together some more. While Finn is enormously helpful with protecting her and figuring out the next move against her boss who has her in his sights, he (eventually) makes clear when he leaves he has no intention of seeing her ever again. Ouch. That’s kind of dick move, if you want my opinion, particularly since he’s sleeping with her for days before he says anything. WTF?

Even after Finn leaves, the suspense plot keeps moving and it’s only after a major attack on Peyton that the anvil falls on Finn’s head and he realizes that he loves her (not that we are privy to that internal decision, just his panicked reaction to the notice she’s in the hospital). The suspense plot has a tidy wrap up with all the baddies discovered and a happily ever after mapped out for our hero and heroine.

Finn is just as non-communicative as the hero in Sweet Talk (is it an FBI requirement maybe? To be a non-chatty semi-dickhead?) and is completely resistant to any future with Peyton, although he doesn’t mind sleeping with her and leaving her in the dark. While Peyton does a good job rallying when she realizes that Finn has no plans to make a future with her (and that he’s totally resistant to marriage and kids, an attitude he never and explains and we are meant to assume it’s because of his crappy ex and the violence in his life), she acknowledges some sadness but just keeps herself busy.

She’s virgin in her mid-twenties (dude, she’s gorgeous and went away to college and FRANCE – how is this possible?) but I like how direct and no-nonsense she was. She did not strike me as a chef at all; people who work with food have a distinct approach to it and use passionate, descriptive terms when talking about it and that wasn’t present in the text. There was also something…old-fashioned about her, and I don’t mean that as a complement. Several references to her mother’s outdated views had me realizing that Peyton herself seemed old to me; I couldn’t imagine a young woman putting up with Finn’s crap and not letting him have it. At no time was I really convinced she was actually in love with him, nor he with her, because I didn’t see it. Were they likeable? Sure. Would I want to be friends with either of them? Not so much.

I’m beginning to wonder if my issues might stem from a lack of editing time dedicated to the manuscript. I found a few usage errors and I could easily see the publishing house giving valuable editing resources to burgeoning authors, knowing Julie Garwood will sell on her own merits and is a pro in terms of the years she’s been publishing. It’s just hard rereading Garwood’s excellent characterizations in her older historical romance novels and not seeing that level of attention in her recent suspense work.

I’m not sure I’d pay the new book price of $9.99 for the Kindle edition or in the $16 range for the hardcover, but I would absolutely recommend checking it out from your local library if you enjoy Garwood’s other suspense novels.

Countdown to Christmas: Cowboys and Snow Add Up to Holiday Sexy in Carolyn Brown’s Mistletoe Cowboy

1 Dec

Mistletoe Cowboy (Spikes and Spurs #5) by Carolyn Brown (Sourcebooks, October 2, 2012)

There are a lot of wonderful romance novels entirely based on the December holidays. Littering the shelves by Halloween, their covers are filled with bare torsos, snow, and twinkle lights (those torsos must have gooseflesh, for sure!). Rather than be annoyed by it, I love them – what could be more romantic than the holidays which celebrate light in the darkest time of the year? I plan on having a whole “Countdown to Christmas” series this month, highlighting the stories which will bring some holiday cheer right into your hands and heart, so let’s get started.

When I feel like a little Texas twang in my romance, I know who to turn to – Carolyn Brown. I enjoyed One Hot Cowboy Wedding from her Spikes & Spurs series, and now she’s back, taking another sexy Riley brother off the market (thank heavens their mother had the foresight to have seven of them) in Mistletoe Cowboy.The good news is that you do not need to have read any other books in the series to enjoy this one, although chances are you’ll end up picking up one of them if Brown’s brand of romance resonates with you the way it’s done with so many other readers. She’s not a New York Times Bestselling author for nothing!

I’ve written before that, since I fell for my wonderful hero during a blizzard, I’m far from cynical about using this device in romance novels. It’s a great way to trap two people who would otherwise not choose to be together and have them truly get to know one another.

That’s exactly what happens in this heartwarming book. Sage Presley is spitting mad, so much so that she’s driving in the middle of a blizzard to the ranch where her grandmother raised her to have a huge fight. Her Grandmother told her on the phone that she had decided to sell the Rockin’ C to some cowboy she just met. She was giving them both three weeks to think on the deal and he could stay at the place and take care of the livestock while they were considering.

Arriving to the dark house with the electricity already out, Sage discovers her grandmother already left for Pennsylvania to visit her sister, undoubtedly to dodge the storm and to dodge Sage’s wrath. She rolls into her bed still in a temper with her one consolation that the blizzard will at least spare her the company of whatever rotten person is trying to buy her family home.

Naturally, she practically has a heart attack when a sexy, snow-covered cowboy walks through the front door the next morning. It seems Creed Riley, the would-be purchaser of the ranch, got there before the storm. While before the thought of facing the angry granddaughter gave him chills, his chills are now of a totally different kind. This 5 foot 10 inch dark-haired beauty is not what he expected from the description he heard and the pictures in the house don’t do her justice. She’s as plainspoken as they come, making it clear that she is not happy with his designs on the ranch, but that doesn’t stop them from getting to know each other over the next few days. Civility morphs into kissing, which morphs into more horizontal activity, and pretty soon they are both in over their heads. Creed’s sworn off long-term relationships after his fiancee dumped him and Sage has never believed in committment since people you love just up and leave. So where exactly can this go?

The Palo Duro Canyon in the panhandle of Texas where the Rockin’ C Ranch is located (granted there’s a little less snow in this shot than in the story!)

Carolyn Brown has some definite strengths. She writes an unbelievably strong sense of place, so much so that I find myself ready to take a road trip cross-country and visit the fine state of Texas when I turn the last page. She is not one for excessive description, particularly the dialogue padding I often rely on to figure out what the characters are feeling. Instead she has a snappy back-and-forth that puts you in mind of a Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn movie if they used “y’all” and “passel” as regular vocabulary. The language is always an adjustment for me; I get kind of annoyed for the first chapter or so with the poor grammar asking myself “do people really speak like this?” and then something inside me just relaxes into the speech pattern and I end up loving it. Go figure.

I liked how Brown used Sage’s livelihood of painting to show what was underneath her prickly exterior and I loved the homeless pregnant or newly birthed animals (you’d think the Rockin’ C was an inn in Bethlehem, albeit with room for all) to further drive home the Christmas theme. It’s hard to not appreciate the complexity of an author who has her characters go to church and say grace before meals but also have hot (emotional) sex on the living room credenza. There are plenty of people who live with that spiritual dichotomy in their lives, and I like seeing it in a romance novel.

The absolute best aspect of this book is that, in Sage’s love for her home, Brown brings us to a place where home is not where you hire someone else to mow the lawn you bought two years ago, but rather is a place of livelihood and sweat with a family cemetery on the property and generations of happiness leached into the wood. This kind of connection to where you grew up has become less and less common but I bet there are plenty of readers out there who crave it in their lives. While many of us can’t manufacture the old homestead, we nevertheless can enjoy it second-hand in romance novels, like those written by Carolyn Brown. Thanks, Carolyn!

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!!!

Sexy Texans and a Close-Knit Irish Family in C. H. Admirand’s The Secret Life of Cowboys Series

11 Jun

Tyler (The Secret Life of Cowboys #1) by C. H. Admirand (Sourcebooks, March 1, 2011)

Despite being a born and bred Easterner, I’ll happily admit to enjoying a good Western romance. The small town atmosphere that usually accompanies these books is always a pleasure and a real cowboy, one with a sense of honor and a direct approach to getting his woman, fits my romantic ideal to a “T”. That’s T for Texas, folks, that hot and steamy home of cowboys who can knock your boots off if they kiss you right.

They are like Scotsman but with boots instead of kilts.

I actually read the third book of the series first as a NetGalley review and was so utterly charmed by it that I had to read the first two. I’m so glad I did! The Garahan family is comprised of a hardworking trio of cowboys who are desperate to save the ranch that has been in their family for generations in the middle of Pleasure, Texas. The Circle-G with its feed bill and mortgage payment needs money like a steer needs fresh pasture and the Garahan brothers – Tyler, Dylan and Jesse – can barely make ends meet working dawn until way after dusk.

In the first book, Tyler, when the oldest Garahan brother sees a job listing at the new bar that’s opened up in town, he figures he can make some extra money lugging kegs. He’s startled when the lush figured, no-nonsense redheaded owner, Jolene Langley, asks him to strip. He didn’t realize that this was a strip club and that a real live sexy cowboy is great for business. He begins to think the money isn’t worth it until the second sexy redhead walks out to join her cousin.

Emily Langley might be covered in chocolate after losing a battle with her mixer and some brownie batter, but all Tyler can think is that he wants to lick it off her considerable chest. Those whiskey-colored eyes hold a sweetness that make this bookkeeper warm something deep inside him that none of his ex-girlfriends have touched before. When he realizes that someone is out to stop the Lucky Strike club from succeeding, all his protective instincts are aroused (a long with some other parts of him).

Emily and Jolene are hilarious spitfires who give feisty a capital “F” and the crew at the Lucky Strike are a nice mix of minor characters. The heat between Tyler and Emily is off the charts, with both their scarred hearts taking a chance on one another. The snootypants prisses from the town (who want to change the town’s name from Pleasure to Emerson since it’s less risque) provide a good foil and there is a ton of small town atmosphere, always a hit with romance lovers. We get a good sense of taciturn Dylan and talkative Jesse, and the fact that all three brothers have regular fistfights to blow off steam is an adorable indication of the machismo factor at the ranch.

Dylan (The Secret Life of Cowboys #2) by C. H. Admirand (Sourcebooks, January 1, 2012)

In the second book, Dylan, the quietest of the Garahan brothers agrees to take over for Tyler, who has had a nasty run in with a bull at the end of the previous book. In one of Dylan’s early performances he is asked to lasso a blindfolded brunette celebrating her birthday, but when the blindfold comes off he is astonished to find a glaring pair of emerald eyes. The undertones of vulnerability in those same peepers reel him in for a mind-blowing kiss, but when he asks her to stay and meet him after the show, she gives him sass like he’s never received. Rather than put off, he’s turned on beyond belief.

Ronnie DelVecchio is a transplant from New Jersey. She’s fled an ex-husband who decided to have an affair with her best friend and her heart is more than a little wary. Add to that the DelVecchio curse – that once every other generation a DelVecchio woman loses her heart to a pureblooded Irishman and promptly has twins – and she’s running away fast from Dylan Garahan, despite the pull of those incredible kisses. But running away is slightly complicated by the fact that her friend Emily has arranged for Dylan to help Ronnie put her store back together after the town vandals decimated the interior. The fact that she’s supposed to be paying him by cooking her home-cooked Italian cuisine for the brothers puts her right in arm’s reach of that quiet middle brother who is short on talk but long on action.

Since I’m originally from Northern New Jersey, Ronnie’s character of a hot-tempered, loving Italian who believes firmly in her family’s curse is a fabulous character I immediately loved. After having her heart broken by her philandering husband, it’s easy to understand why she is not ready to leap back into love. Her gut tells her that she is in danger whenever Dylan is around. He might hesitate to talk, but his tender actions and hot loving tells her practically everything she needs to know about the kind of man he is. Dylan gave his heart to his childhood sweetheart only to get hurt when she wiped the dust of town off her feet eight years later and headed off to adventure. But he never felt like this about anyone, and he’s not about to let go of Ronnie. You will love the law that gets invoked at the end of the book!

Jesse (The Secret Life of Cowboys #3) by C. H. Admirand (Sourcebooks, July 1, 2012)

Poor Jesse. We saw his friend Lori break his heart (for the second time) in Dylan, and Jesse now sports a barbed wire tattoo around his arm to symbolize how he isn’t going to let any woman get past it to his heart. Until he stops to help a gorgeous blond with car trouble, that is. One look at Danielle Brockway and her tiny daughter, Lacey, and he falls hard for both of them.

Danielle doesn’t want to jump from the frying pan into the fire. Her rodeo husband left her and their daughter, taking all of Danielle’s hard earned savings while he was at it, and she’s retreated to Pleasure to stay with her loving uncle who owns the town diner. She might be attracted to the hunky youngest Garahan but she’s a mother first and she needs to do what’s best for Lacey.

Little Lacey steals the show. She’s the tiniest cowgirl in pink boots and a matching hat she wears to bed every night, and Jesse being a real cowboy puts her over the moon. Jesse wants Danielle and Lacey at the ranch all the time, but is harboring a secret. He’s taken an outside job to help with the mortgage payment (no, not at the strip club) and is being secretive about it with everyone. Danielle is worried she might have picked another man who is going to put her second, but she’s bolstered by seeing the loving Garahan family in action. Any man who comes from this crew is bound to be a solid citizen.

I might have wanted to shake Jesse a couple times in this book, but he’s likely to be my favorite Garahan so far (fear not, Tyler and Dylan, I still love you both). C. H. Admirand does a great job of showing how brusque cowboys can still be Southern sweet-talkers when they want to be and if the sex they dish out is any indication, there will be hordes of women moving to Texas post-haste. The best part of the book is when the Garahan cousins – the cops from New York and the U. S. Marshals from Colorado come out to join in the town of Pleasure’s annual party. I’ve got all my fingers and toes crossed that Admirand isn’t an author who would tease a reader with a bunch of sexy, single male cousins and then not deliver on future books starring them. Don’t disappoint me, Ms. Admirand! 🙂

If you feel like a little twang, a wonderful small town, hot lovin’, and some sexy cowboys who find the women who make them sit up and realize what love is, you are more than ready to add The Secret Life of Cowboys series to your reading shelf. Jesse doesn’t come out until July 1st, but you can get started with Tyler and Dylan. But let me warn you. Reading about Texas in the summer is H-O-T, so be sure to have a cold glass of sweet tea nearby to cool yourself down.

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