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Sunday, November 29, 2009

'Red Letter Days' series by Rachel CAINE

‘Devil’s Bargain’ introduces us to Jazz Callender as she sits in a seedy bar, getting lost to the bottom of a bottle. Jazz is an ex-cop at the end of her tether – two years ago her partner and best friend, Ben McCarthy, was convicted and imprisoned for murder. Ever since she’s been running a half-assed investigation trying to free him. While sitting in this seedy bar she is approached by a lawyer named James Borden, who represents firm ‘Gabriel, Pike & Laskins’. This firm has a proposition for Jazz – she get’s $100,000 to start up her own Private Investigations firm if she agrees to be partnered with ex-FBI/CIA agent Lucia Garza and the two of them agree to take on the firm’s priority cases, to be delivered in a red envelope.

As the story progresses, it is revealed that Gabriel, Pike & Laskins are funding Jazz and Lucia’s PI firm through ‘The Cross Society’ – and more specifically one man called Max Simms who is currently imprisoned for serial murder. Simms isn’t your typical con though – Max Simms claims that he can predict the future. From his holding cell he feeds his predictions through James Borden, who delivers them to Lucia and Jazz who in turn are making catastrophic changes to the universe by altering the cause of events.

It’s not as good as Caine’s other series. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but ‘Red Letter Days’ definitely falls short.
Maybe it’s the vague genre. ‘Morganville Vampires’ and ‘Weather Warden’ are both firmly Urban Fantasy – and while ‘Red Letter Days’ does have elements of the supernatural with its psychic storyline, the crime mystery elements kind of outweigh the paranormal, leaving the books in a strange genre limbo.

‘Devil’s Bargain’ is told from Jazz’s perspective. ‘Devil’s Due’ from Lucia’s. The narration change is a little jarring, but as the story progresses in ‘Due’ you realize a change-up in narration was integral to plot pace.

One trademark in all of Caine’s series is a strong romantic element. In all of her series Caine likes to pair her leading ladies up with their soul mates, and ‘Red Letter Days’ is no different. Jazz’s leading man is lawyer James Borden. Lucia’s honey is Ben McCarthy, Jazz’s ex police partner who was wrongly convicted of murder.
I didn’t really feel the heat between James Borden and Jazz. There’s lots of lingering looks and naked speculation, but their romance didn’t spark the same way Caine’s other couples have – James & Jazz didn’t have the same chemistry as Claire & Shane (Morganville Vampires) or Jo & David (Weather Warden). I did like Jazz – she reminded me a little bit of Veronica Mars; a snarky Alpha-female. I preferred Jazz to Lucia (who is a statuesque Latina goddess) and while the narration switch aided plot pace, I would have preferred sticking with Jazz.
I felt a little more heat between Lucia & Ben, but they have added intensity by the fact that Ben’s been in prison for 2 years and is a little… eager. Despite that, their relationship is a bit awkward because Jazz & Ben also share a special bond – and there are hints of jealousy.

I was especially disappointed by the romance in both books because I expected some steamy scenes, judging by the publishers. ‘Silhouette Bombshell’ published the books, which was a Harlequin line with the MO of featuring strong heroines in action-packed storylines. Because ‘Silhouette’ was a Harlequin faction I thought romance and steaminess were guaranteed – not the case, unfortunately.

The plot in ‘Devils Bargain’ takes a while to pick up the pace. It’s not until halfway through the book that Jazz and Lucia discover the revelation that they are working for a psychic and carrying out his chaos-theory predictions.

The ‘Red Letter Days’ series also falls short because it feels incomplete. The psychic storyline definitely has a feel of longevity to it, and the series probably would have improved the deeper Caine explored the conspiracy theories. But unfortunately Harlequin’s ‘Silhouette Bombshell’ line was discontinued in 2007. Meaning the series, and Caine’s rights, died along with the book franchise.

I really wanted to love this series. I am a huge Rachel Caine fan; I adore her ‘Weather Warden’ and ‘Morganville Vampires’ series, and assumed that ‘Red Letter Days’ was guaranteed to please. ‘Red Letter Days’ has all the elements I enjoy; a mix of paranormal and mystery. However it just didn’t click for me. I was probably ranking it too harshly against ‘Morganville Vampires’ and ‘Weather Warden’, but how could I not?

Even if you’re a die-hard Caine fan, I probably wouldn’t recommend you bother with this series. It’s definitely not on-par with her other books, and the fact that the series was cut-short by the publisher’s liquidation means you’ll be reading a ‘work in progress’ that will never be completed.


'The Vampire Queen's Servant' by Joey W. HILL

From the BLURB:

Lady Elyssa Yamato Amaterasu Wentworth is a centuries-old vampire who's been given a new servant-Jacob, a total alpha male unaccustomed to submitting to any woman's wishes. What really binds Jacob to her are not her sensual midnight hungers, but something far more provocative. It stirs her blood, renews her life, and awakens her soul like only true love can. The passion between Elyssa and Jacob yields something else unexpected-a shared history that reaches back through the centuries and is fated to challenge their destiny like nothing ever will again.

In most urban fantasy books starring vampires, there is a trend for protagonists to be female, human and novices to the vampiric world. Often the protagonist will be guided through this new, supernatural world by a strong Alpha vampire who is usually male. Most authors imbue such Alpha male men with two-sided personalities, at once brutish and imposing, but also capable of tender love and fierce protection.
There is hardly an instance of a female Alpha vampire in urban fantasy being a heroine – these fanged femme fatales are more likely to be villains or secondary characters, but never protagonists.

‘The Vampire Queen’s Servant’ takes a very different tact by casting a vampire Queen as the book’s leading lady.
Imagine a book that offers insight into the history and working cruelty of some of your favorite urban fantasy she-devils: Queen Sophie-Anne Leclerq (Charlaine Harris ‘Southern Vampire: Sookie Stackhouse’), Belle Morte (Laurell K Hamilton ‘Anita Blake’) or Queen Andias (Laurell K Hamilton ‘Merry Gentry’).

It’s an interesting new angle for the vampire story; casting a traditionally villainous character as the lead. Unfortunately Hill hasn’t really imbued her protagonist, Queen Lyssa, with cruelty so much as misunderstanding. I admit, there probably wouldn’t be much appeal in reading a book about someone like Laurell K Hamilton’s Belle Morte who has a predilection for bloody orgies and flogging – but it would have been interesting to read a book about how someone like that could become so despicable.

Hill has given Lyssa a very sad past – her vampire husband started a slow descent into immortal madness and took his growing insanity out on his wife, through cruel sexual sport and disgusting foreplay. But Lyssa doesn’t really seem to have been psychologically impacted by those memories. At times she does flip between compassion for her vampire servant, Jacob, and then mind-boggling distance. And sometimes her inner monologue about how she’d like to dominate him is a little disturbing;

She missed taking alpha males. She enjoyed the fight, their resistance, the sweet taste of heated blood. The perception, if only for a moment, that the hunt would be a challenge. A vampire didn't survive by being ruled by her compulsions, any more than a woman survived by being consumed by her most private desires.

But for the most part she is a very tame character. She doesn’t hold a candle to the sadistic inner workings of Queen Andias or Belle Morte. And while Lyssa claims to be a very dangerous vampire; she is clearly very smitten with Jacob from the get-go, so we never really witness her supposedly ‘cruel’ side, thereby making her a somewhat meek, docile little vampire ‘Queen’.

I had three really big problems with this book.
The first is the author’s penchant for writing lengthy paragraphs detailing the character’s inner thoughts and feelings. This wouldn’t have been so unbearable, except that my second complaint has to do with the lack of plot. There’s no action or suspense, no high stakes leaving you on the edge of your seat. The whole story is about Lyssa agreeing to take Jacob on as her servant – and since she is intrigued and aroused by him from the moment they lock eyes, there’s little to no doubt that she will agree to take him on board. The only ‘action’ in the book are the sex scenes, beyond that nothing actually happens.

My third complaint is a huge gaping back-story. Jacob’s brother is a vampire hunter – but this is only ever mentioned in passing, leaving a huge gaping ‘WTF?’ about how his brother feels about Jacob becoming servant to the creatures he hunts. Halfway through the book it’s revealed that Jacob is the reincarnated soul of two ‘warriors’ Lyssa has met previously in her 1,000 years of life. Jacob was apparently once a samurai who saved Lyssa’s life when she was a child. Centuries later he was also a medieval knight who saved Lyssa’s life a second time when vampire hunters attacked her. Both of these tales are begging to be told through flashback or prologue – but Hill instead has them being recounted matter-of-factly, flat on the page. If there had been a prologue describing these events, maybe it would have made Lyssa and Jacob’s love for one another more convincing – instead we are to believe that a 1,000 year old vampire Queen has simply fallen for her human servant after only a few weeks.

I’ll admit, the sex scenes are pretty hot and smutty – but they’re not enough to make up for boring characters, sloppy back-story and no action in the plot.


Friday, November 27, 2009

'Dark Desires After Dusk' Immortals After Dark #6 by Kresley COLE

From the BLURB:

A seductive beauty he can never have, yet can't resist...

Cadeon Woede will stop at nothing to atone for the one wrong that will haunt him forever. But once he secures the key to his redemption, the halfling Holly Ashwin, Cade finds that the woman he thought he could use for his own ends and then forget haunts him as much as his past.

A tormented warrior she should fear, but can't deny...

Raised as a human, Holly never knew that some frightening legends are real until she encounters a brutal demon who inexplicably guards her like a treasure. Thrust into a sensual new world of myth and power, with him as her protector, she begins to crave the demon's wicked touch.

Surrender to dark desires...

Yet just when he earns Holly's trust, will Cade be forced to betray the only woman who can sate his wildest needs -- and claim his heart?

This is the 6th book in Kresley Cole’s ‘Immortals after dark’ series.
I struggled with plot logistics in this novel. Cade (the ‘kingmaker’) and his Kingly brother Rydstrom have been appearing spasmodically throughout the ‘Immortals’ series. I admit, I’ve never really grasped their storyline. Its been told in drips and drabs throughout the various books, but always in passing between characters and never with much detail.

Even in this book, the story behind how Cade lost Rydstrom his demonic thrown is told a little too hastily to grasp. In fact, I was a little hazy on the entire plot of ‘Dusk’. For one thing, the action kicks-off from page one and sets out a fast pace from there on in. Kresley Cole is relying on the reader remembering tidbits from previous books – like the fact that NÏx predicted Rydstrom would regain his crown when he found a sword that would kill demon-rival Omort. Or the fact that Omort’s brothrer, Groot, owns this sword. Kresley Cole is also hoping that readers will remember the fact that Cade has been spying on a human female for the last year after bumping into her at a college campus. It was a good thing Cole kept repeating her character’s motivations in one-line catch-phrases, or else I would have been a little confused; “Cade had to trade his female for Groot’s sword”, etc.

I did like Cade; he was cheeky, funny and totally smitten on Holly.

He knew it was ridiculous. He was an ancient immortal, a brutal mercenary, head of a crew of soldiers of fortune. And yet Cade looked forward to nothing – except seeing her.

But maybe my liking Cade had a little something to do with his linguistic-similarity to Bones from Jeaniene Frost’s ‘Night Huntress’ series. Cade speaks in a British accent, constantly throwing out words like ‘chit’, ‘tosser’ and ‘pet’. And I’m a sucker for a British accent….
I did feel that Cade was underdeveloped as a character. He’s been harbouring guilt over losing his brother’s crown nine centuries ago – yet Cole never gives him a really cathartic scene in which he comes to terms with his guilt. Maybe that’s coming in book 7, since that one deals with Rydstrom, but it’s a gaping hole in ‘Dusk’.

Holly Ashwin (human turned Valkryie) was a so-so character for me. As a human she battled OCD which had her needing her life organized in divisions of three and not being able to eat or drink anything contaminated by her own hands. I actually think Cole could have pushed Holly’s OCD even further – because once she turns Valkryie she pretty much has her compulsions under control, despite complaining otherwise. I think if Cole had given Holly an extreme case of chronic OCD it would have been a bigger triumph for her character to overcome, and a more distinct transformation.

One thing I can’t fault is Kresley Cole’s sex scenes. She never crosses the line into trashy, and she manages to shake things up in all of her books; never relying on the same clichéd descriptions or positions. It's actually pretty impressive how she manages to keep things steamy.

The general plot of ‘Dusk’ confused me a little, and just when I thought I had a pretty good grasp on everything; Cole rushes the ending. Cade betrays Holly in a very vicious way, and it’s at this point that emotions are wrought and the stakes are heightened. But Cole wraps things up too neatly and quickly.

This is probably the worst of the ‘Immortals’ books so far, IMO. I would prefer the books to concentrate on the Valkryie living in Val Hall, or the Scottish werewolves; but that’s just my preference.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

'Warprize' by Elizabeth Vaughan

The kingdom is Xyron is under attack by the Firelander Warlord. Supplies are running out within Xyron’s borders, the Firelanders are pushing through their boundaries and everyday Xylara tends to the wounded. Xylara, ‘Lara’, is half-sister to the current Xyron king – and though a Daughter of the blood and Xyron princess, Lara considers herself a healer first and foremost. She does what she can for wounded Xyron and Firelander soldiers alike.

As the battle rages on, and it becomes increasingly obvious that Xyron will have to either fall or surrender to the Firelander Warlord, negotiations begin. As apart of the peace treaty the fearsome Warlord, Keir, demands Lara as his Warprize.
Lara, understanding that she can bring an end to her people’s suffering, agrees to be slave and whore to Warlod Keir.

‘Warprize’ is set in an ambiguous era. Vaughan never confirms whether the book is set in the past, future or in a fractured timeline/alternate universe. The setting has a ‘Holy Crusades’ feel to it, with Medieval atmosphere. The timeframe isn’t really that important – since war is timeless, but as a reader you may be slightly frustrated trying to figure out the stories point in time.

At first I was thrown by Keir and Lara’s romance. Because I hadn’t pegged Keir as the books male protagonist. He doesn’t appear until chapter 2 or 3; before which Lara has met and cared for another wounded Firelander soldier whom I thought was going to be her love interest. I was initially a little disappointed that this solider, Simus, wasn’t Lara’s fated warlord. I liked him, aesthetically, because he is a big black man and Lara interestingly enough has never seen a dark-skinned person before. Simus turns out to be one of the best secondary characters I’ve read in a long time, and despite the fact that I did come to like Keir, I was still a touch disappointed that Simus wasn’t the stories hero.

I was at once swept up in Keir and Lara’s romance, but also somewhat disappointed in it. On the one hand, their love is epic - their union brings peace to the Xyron lands and the romance takes place amidst heated battles. It has a ‘Troy’ feel to it (think Brad Pitt and Rose Byrne’s Achilles/Briseis). There is bound to be sparkage when a fearsome Warlord takes a virginal princess as his sex slave. But for all the potential eroticism such a storyline conjures, Vaughan falls surprisingly short in the sex scenes. I don’t mean to sound like a sex-crazed reader, but Vaughan really shied away from anything above a PG13 rating. I was doubly shocked and disappointed at Vaughan’s reluctance to write sex scenes because there was such build-up to Keir and Lara’s coupling. I thought for sure, with such a sweet build-up, combined with an inherently erotic plot, that Vaughan would really let loose with the sex scenes – not the case.

I was swept up and over his shoulder. The move made me squawk, but I doubted that the noise could be heard above the noise of the crowd. He started to move. Through the soft cloth, I could hear his men chanting his name. I squirmed, but the cloak had me pinned, unable to move my arms or see anything.
Then I squirmed for another reason. His hand was on my buttocks, its warmth burning through the cloak. There was a caress, and then a soft swat… a warning to keep still.
I stopped squirming.
The hand stayed where it was.

Despite the lack of gratuitous sex (damn!) I did feel satisfied with Keir and Lara’s romance. Because it is undoubtedly, romantic. Keir is that gruff and rough Alpha hero that I love to read about – but with Lara he reveals his soft side. There’s a big plot twist toward the book’s end that sheds a whole new light on the Warlord/Warprize relationship, and its reveal makes the entire plot all the more heart-stopping and romantic.

I was really happy to discover that the other two books in Vaughan’s ‘Chronicles of the Warlands’ also follow Keir and Lara’s journey. There are at least three other Alpha males in ‘Warprize’ who could have potentially carried their own narratives; but I am relieved to know that Keir and Lara’s epic love story continues in ‘Warsworn’ and ‘Warlord’. Because the ending to ‘Warprize’ definitely leaves their story open-ended – it’s not a cliffhanger exactly, just a promise that there are more adventures in store for these two.

I went into ‘Warprize’ thinking it would be a sexy, romantic read. Well, it was and it wasn’t. The sex is seriously lacking, despite a steamy plot Vaughan shies away from explicit sex scenes that would have been entirely befitting the story. But, there was plenty of romance. Keir and Lara have an epic story, and I am pleased to know that it continues through two more books. I will definitely be reading ‘Warsworn’ and ‘Warlord’ ASAP because (despite the lack of sex) this was a great story.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

'Soulless' by Gail CARRIGER

From the BLURB:

Alexia Tarabotti is laboring under a great many social tribulations. First, she has no soul. Second, she's a spinster whose father is both Italian and dead. Third, she was rudely attacked by a vampire, breaking all standards of social etiquette.

Where to go from there? From bad to worse apparently, for Alexia accidentally kills the vampire -- and then the appalling Lord Maccon (loud, messy, gorgeous, and werewolf) is sent by Queen Victoria to investigate.

With unexpected vampires appearing and expected vampires disappearing, everyone seems to believe Alexia responsible. Can she figure out what is actually happening to London's high society? Will her soulless ability to negate supernatural powers prove useful or just plain embarrassing? Finally, who is the real enemy, and do they have treacle tart?

I’m new to the whole ‘steampunk’ genre. Whenever the word ‘steampunk’ cropped up in the book blogs I read I’d just smile and nod, but secretly not have a clue what the whole movement was about. Thanks to wikipedia and google images, I was able to get some perspective – but the general consensus is that if you’re green to steampunk, Gail Carriger’s ‘Soulless’ is the perfect introduction.

Steampunk is normally set in the Victorian era, in a world where steam power is highly advanced. In the Steampunk world, fictional technological inventions favoring wood, silver and brass aesthetic populate the 'modern' world (think H.G Wells & Jules Verne).
Steampunk is normally set in an alternate universe, with a history similar to ours, but with slightly skewed timelines.

Carriger’s ‘Soulless’ is sort of the perfect introduction to Steampunk for an Urban Fantasy lover like me, because Carriger has combined the two genres.
Most Urban Fantasy is set in modern-day; vampires and werewolves ‘come out’ in the 21st century, normally because they believe societal advancements have prepared humanity for their existence. But Carriger rightly believes that if ‘supernatural’s’ have been lurking in shadows since the beginning of time, why wouldn’t they have chosen to ‘come out’ earlier? ‘Soulless’ is set in the 19th century (Steampunk 19th century) and vampires and werewolves have been public for quite some time.

Carriger has written an incredible world, populated with even more impressive protagonists and secondary characters.
Alexia is a fantastic lead. She’s a spinster at twenty-six, full of Italian vigour and biting wit. I loved her. I also loved werewolf Alpha Lord Maccon – who is entirely masculine and rough around the edges but with a good deal of charm directed Alexia’s way.
Carriger also puts the ‘steam’ in ‘steampunk’. Alexia and Maccon have chemistry that crackles from their first scene. It’s intense: starting with witty back-and-forth banter that quickly turns to romantic tension.

It is wonderful and refreshing to read about these fantastical creatures in an earlier era. Carriger has included some fascinating characters to highlight the century; such as Alexia’s foppish vampire friend, Akeldama who has a penchant for velvet, lace trimmings and speaks in italics (darling!).

Carriger’s writing reminded me of Oscar Wilde. It’s the same acerbic wit, aimed at polite society and asinine formalities:

The ill-informed masses included her own family among their ranks, a family that specialized in being both inconvenient and asinine.

My one complaint about ‘Soulless’ is Carriger’s flow of narration. Carriger occasionally flips between perspectives without an ellipsis break to clearly show whose thoughts we are reading. It only happens occasionally, but I found it a little jarring and sometimes had to re-read a line to make sure I knew whose narration I was reading.

I loved ‘Soulless’ so much. It gave me the best of all the genres I love; regency romance, Urban Fantasy with a mystery twist. It was refreshing and exciting to read about vampires and werewolves in the 19th century; wearing cravats, attending balls and blending into polite Ton society.
I also adore the book's cover art by Lauren Panepinto - it is to die for!

I have to thank Mandi at Smexy Books for first reviewing this book and putting it on my radar, but also for recently prodding me to read and review it. She did a very good job at pimping ‘Soulless’, and I for one am grateful that I took her advice.

I have an inkling that Gail Carriger will become a ‘must-read’ author for me. I will faithfully read whatever she writes, even if it’s not Steampunk or an Alexia Tarabotti book.


The second book ‘Changeless’ comes out May 30th 2010.

Monday, November 23, 2009

'And then he kissed her' by Laura Lee GUHRKE

Emma Dove has been Viscount Harry Marlowe’s secretary for six years. She has been a model employee for the famous publisher/editor – going above and beyond the call of duty. Along with her usual secretarial jobs, Emma has been known to buy birthday presents for Harry’s sisters on his behalf, and has even bought gaudy jewellery to give to his discarded mistresses. She is a model employee, and hopes that Harry will reward her diligence by giving serious consideration to publishing her etiquette book. It’s the very least her employer can do for her. But when she discovers that Harry has never read any of the manuscripts she’s left for him, she is furious… and hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

Harry has to eat his words when Emma’s alter ego, Mrs. Bartleby, becomes the toast of London. Her etiquette column in the Social Gazette becomes gospel to society ladies and girl-bachelors everywhere, and now Harry has to beg her to come back to him…

I really liked this. The premise sounds pretty hum-drum, but the characters and unlikely romance make for a really fantastic read.

Emma is a 30-year-old spinster, dedicated to her work and absurdly concerned with social niceties. Emma writing of customs and etiquette in the 1800’s is fascinating for its ludicrousness.
I really liked Emma, she’s starchy, naïve and prim – but there’s a sweet mix of innocence and independence in her that I found to be a nice contrast. I especially liked the fact that in her relationship with Harry she didn’t drastically change herself to win his affections. She does undergo a change, a very big evolution in fact, but it’s entirely internal and not a Cinderella makeover. The biggest evolution belongs to Harry, who changes his perceptions of his prim and proper secretary as he gets to know her.

Marlowe was a thorough scapegrace, whose only associations with women were of the most dishonourable sort. As his secretary, she regarded his reprobate private life as none of her business, but as a virtuous woman, she had rid herself of any romantic notions about him long ago.

It’s a very sweet, slow romance between Harry and Emma. It’s made even more interesting for the improbability of their ever being anything other than employer/employee. There were moments when I questioned their ever getting together, which is very rare when you know you’re reading a romance.

I cried toward the end, for all of Emma’s fraught emotions. But I thought everything pulled together a little bit too easily – I would have appreciated even more emotional turmoil, sadistic as that makes me sound.

I had a bit of a strange reaction to the ending. I was kind of rooting for Emma to pack her bags and sail away to the far-off lands she’d been dreaming of, rather than end up with her leading man. Weird, I know. But I really thought the central love story was more Emma’s love affair with herself than with Harry. Sure, he opens her eyes and encourages her to enjoy life and not care so much what people think about her, and I did think they made a very sweet couple – but I sort of wanted to read about how Emma took her newfound confidence and completely turned her life around for the sake of self-discovery. Of course, this was a romance and that would never happen.

I did like this. Cuhrke writes beautifully, and she gives an unassuming history lesson of girl-bachelor’s in the 1800’s that is actually very interesting. Her characters are ordinary but lively, and her sex scenes were delicious.
Highly recommend.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Because these blogs 'Kick-Ass'...

Given to me by Larissa

Because Patti helps to feed my need for contemporary romance. And she lists Jamie Fraser as one of her fictional boyfriends, respecting the fact that he is the ultimate romantic hero.

'Smexy' - need I say more? Mandi introduced me to Tessa Dare, feeds my Blackdagger Brotherhood obsession and has an Edward Cullen ken doll. I repeat, need I say more?

'Mailbox Monday' is genius, and totally flies in the face of the 'Boomtown Rats' - 'I don't like Monday's'? Pfft! Clearly the Rats haven't read Michelle's blog. She also let me bad-mouth Laurell K. Hamilton, which I appreciate.

Because she understands that Rachel Caine is genius and knows how fabulous 'Morganville Vampires' is. Her blog layout is purple and divine, and gives me total blog-envy.

Last, but certainly not least - the person who gave me my 'Kick-Ass' award. Well, I'm giving it right back... because she convinced me to start reading the 'WVMP' Jeri Smith-Ready series, is feeding my Urban Fantasy addiction by writing 'kick-ass' book reviews and understands my 'Weather Warden' obsession. She also started this 'Kick-Ass' award and created one smokin' River Tam button to represent it.

- Accept this award, add the badge above and post about it on your blog with the name (link) of the person who granted it to you.

- Name 5 Blogs you think are Kick-Ass and write why. Don't forget to let them know that you have Awarded them.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

'My Favorite Mistake' by Beth KENDRICK

From the BLURB:

FIRST LOVE ISN'T FOREVER... Exhibit A: Faith's little sister, Skye, who muddled through her first divorce at the tender age of twenty-one. Faith has always provided damage control when Skye's love life gets too reminiscent of a daytime drama. But now that Faith has finally found the job, if not the man, of her dreams -- as a culinary writer, currently living la dolce vita in Italy -- she can't just jet back to small-town Minnesota to help her suddenly pregnant little sister heal her broken heart and anemic bank account.
BUT NEVER SAY NEVER! Faith has been putting off this homecoming for years, ever since her dad left her family in the lurch, her mother left her in charge of Skye, and a sub-zero case of cold feet led her to call off the engagement to her high school sweetheart, Flynn. But a return to the amber fields of grain might just be what Faith needs to gain some perspective on her past -- and figure out her future. It's been way too long since her last love...

If you liked the movie ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ this book is for you. Big city girl returns to her small hometown, fooling everyone into thinking she’s got herself figured out when in actuality she’s just as confused as she was 10 years ago. There’s even a high school sweetheart whose heart she stamped on by leaving town like a bat out of hell.

I started out really loving this book. Kendrick is really funny and she imbued the protagonist, Faith, with a biting sarcasm and quick-wit that would put those Gilmore Girls to shame. In summarising her teen-angst relationship with her high school boyfriend Flynn, Faith says they “had more issues than National Geographic”. And there’s plenty more quips where that came from.
Unfortunately, Kendrick doesn’t imbue the male protagonist with the same instant likeability. Flynn came across as very guarded and flat – he didn’t have much of a personality and lots of the chemistry between him and faith was explained by relying on their past romantic history.

At the start of the book Faith has a lot of obstacles in her way;

My foot remained firmly on the brake. “Let’s sum up, shall we? Currently, I have no money, you have no money, I’m on the brink of professional ruin, and I just drove halfway across the United States to the one place I never want to see again, all to face personal and financial humiliation with a man who hates my guts and doesn’t know I’m coming. Is that about right?”

I thought there was plenty of emotional baggage to make the plot interesting and the stakes were high enough to keep the pace moving swiftly. But certain issues get wrapped up too quickly and neatly. Faith’s biggest obstacle was mending bridges with Flynn after breaking his heart 10 years ago- but that was resolved way too easily. After an initial cold shoulder Flynn is practically panting after her. I was hoping for more angst, a little more suspense in the ‘will-they-or-won’t-they?’ stakes.

Kendrick does keep up the funny. But I was more chuckling occasionally than experiencing full-on belly laughs.

All in all this was a good book, but it could have been better if Kendrick had been willing to risk her character’s emotional upheaval and hadn’t made solving so many problems so easy.


Thursday, November 19, 2009

'Wicked Game: WVMP Radio #1' by Jeri Smith-Ready

From the BLURB:

Recovering con artist Ciara Griffin is trying to live the straight life, even if it means finding a (shudder!) real job. She takes an internship at a local radio station, whose late-night time-warp format features 1940s blues, 60s psychedelia, 80s Goth, and more, all with an uncannily authentic flair. Ciara soon discovers how the DJs maintain their cred: they're vampires, stuck forever in the eras in which they were turned.

Ciara's first instinct, as always, is to cut and run. But communications giant Skywave wants to buy WMMP and turn it into just another hit-playing clone. Without the station--and the link it provides to their original Life Times--the vampires would "fade," becoming little more than mindless ghosts of the past. Suddenly a routine corporate takeover becomes a matter of life and un-death.

To boost ratings and save the lives of her strange new friends, Ciara re-brands the station as "WVMP, the Lifeblood of Rock 'n' Roll." In the ultimate con, she hides the DJs' vampire nature in plain sight, disguising the bloody truth as a marketing gimmick. WVMP becomes the hottest thing around--next to Ciara's complicated affair with grunge vamp Shane McAllister. But the "gimmick" enrages a posse of ancient and powerful vampires who aren't so eager to be brought into the light. Soon the stakes are higher--and the perils graver--than any con game Ciara's ever played....

I really liked this book. I read ‘Wicked Game’ because I loved Smith-Ready’s ‘Aspect of Crow’ trilogy – which is fantasy, so when I discovered she had an Urban Fantasy series I was instantly intrigued.

Smith-Ready has written a very different vampire mythology. It is based in the real world; complete with references to Buffy & Angel, and Ciara has even been known to “scarf those trendy vampire novels like they were heroin-soaked potato chips” (so, a girl after my own heart). Smith-Ready does not glamorize her vampires, just the opposite. She has her vampires designing coping mechanisms for their immortality; they are essentially ‘stuck’ in the decade in which they were turned. Trying to force vampires into the modern age and outside their comfort zones will leave them hollow shells, alive but not living. These vampires also show signs of OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder);

As modern life intrudes on a vampire’s carefully constructed reality, he or she may rebel against these feelings of powerlessness. A benign response may take the form of obsessive-compulsive behaviors, which grant the illusion of control.

It’s a very different vampire mythology than I am used to, but utterly fascinating. Vampires are not known to the public, but have been monitored by Government departments for decades. It’s quite sad, really – these vampires are essentially useless to the US Government because of the drawbacks of their immortality, and are therefore a disenfranchised segment of society. They each struggle with their own neurosis, and grapple with their tethers to the past. They struggle to keep jobs, especially jobs that allow them to live in the present but remain connected to their past. That’s why the vampires at the WMMP radio station have the perfect job; they can play all the golden oldies they like and not be suspicious for being immersed in the past.

‘Wicked Game’ does have a love story at its centre. Ciara falls for vampire-DJ Shane (whose specialty is 90’s grunge) pretty much from the get-go. It is a very sweet romance – not only is Ciara overcoming her fear of getting bit, but she’s struggling with Shane’s mental disabilities too.

Both Shane and Ciara are pretty fascinating characters. Ciara has a shady grifter background – more at ease conning people than working for them, and it’s interesting to read her try to ‘play it straight’. Shane is also fascinating; even before he was turned, Shane struggled with depression; he wasn’t miraculously cured when he became a vampire, but had to add ‘OCD’ to his plethora of problems.

I really liked ‘Wicked Game’. Smith-Ready has become a ‘must read’ author for me. I adored her ‘Aspect of Crow’ trilogy, and now I am eager to read the next 2 books in this WVMP series.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

'What happens in London' by Julia Quinn

From the BLURB:

When Olivia Bevelstoke is told that her new neighbor may have killed his fiancÉe, she doesn't believe it for a second, but, still, how can she help spying on him, just to be sure? So she stakes out a spot near her bedroom window, cleverly concealed by curtains, watches, and waits . . . and discovers a most intriguing man, who is definitely up to something.

Sir Harry Valentine works for the boring branch of the War Office, translating documents vital to national security. He's not a spy, but he's had all the training, and when a gorgeous blonde begins to watch him from her window, he is instantly suspicious. But just when he decides that she's nothing more than an annoyingly nosy debutante, he discovers that she might be engaged to a foreign prince, who might be plotting against England. And when Harry is roped into spying on Olivia, he discovers that he might be falling for her himself . . .

This was so darn sweet; my teeth ached after reading (in a good way!).

This is a sequel to Quinn’s 2007 novel ‘The secret diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever’. The protagonist of ‘what happens in London’ was the best friend and sister to the two protagonists in ‘Cheever’ – in that book Olivia came across as quite flighty and ‘dumb blonde’, and I was a little dubious as to how she would hold her own. Quinn deftly addressed the issue of Olivia’s perceived stupidity with a great deal of care and compassion – turning it into an observation of women’s roles in the 1800’s.

Olivia admits that she has always been beautiful, and because of her beauty nothing has ever been expected of her – other than to act as a pretty China doll on display. And in the scenes when Olivia is out in public it is quite interesting to read her inner monologue versus the social ‘front’ she displays. Underneath her golden locks and porcelain skin, Olivia is a witty young woman entirely self-aware of her shortcomings and perceived perfections. I liked her instantly.

I also liked Sir Harry Valentine right away. He’s a very different leading man than I’m used to reading in regency romances, where rakes and cads are the preferred protagonists. Harry Valentine is a book-smart, quiet gentleman. He has moments of dashing heroics, but all in all he is not the typical Alpha male favored by romance writers – and that made him very refreshing and endearing. He’s sort of the ‘Miranda Cheever’ in this book. Where Miranda was plain looking and book-smart, compared to her dashingly handsome husband Viscount Turner; Harry Valentine is the plain-looking gentleman vying for the affections of the coveted bachelorette, Olivia Bevelstoke. It was a nice mix- up, and a welcome change of pace from the typically aggressive leading man.

The best thing about ‘what happens in London’ is the humor. I had quite a few ‘laugh out loud’ moments while reading this. Quinn makes fun of society belles, Russian princes, lurid gothic novels and much, much more. You don’t often get regency romances doubling as comedic reads – but in ‘what happens in London’ it is a two-for-one deal.

I only have 2 complaints about the book. The first is the lack of Miranda Cheever. I did love the book ‘the secret diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever’ and I appreciated that Olivia made reference to her sister-in-law and brother, but I would have loved them to make a guest appearance.
My second complaint is about the sex scene. There is only one, and it was so lacking in steaminess that I think I would have preferred there to be none at all. It didn’t do anything for me (ha!) and I just didn’t believe the spontaneous setting.

I did love this book, and I look forward to Quinn’s third novel ‘Ten things I love about you’ which is about one of the secondary (and hilarious) characters from ‘what happens in London’.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

'It had to be you' by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

From the BLURB:

The windy city isn't quite ready for Phoebe Somerville-the trendy, outrageous and curvaceous New York knockout who has just inherited the Chicago Stars football team. And Phoebe is definitely not prepared for the Stars' head coach Dan Calebow - an Alabama-born former gridiron legend and blond barbarian.

Calebow is everything Phoebe abhors - a sexist, jock tacskmaster with a one-track mind. The beautiful new boss is everything Dan despises - a meddling bimbo whose doesn't know pigskin from a pitcher's mound, So why is he drawn to the shameless sexpot like a heat-seeking missile? And why does Dan's good ol'boy charm leave cosmpolitan Phoebe feeling awkward, tongue-tied and frightened to death?

I really, really didn’t like this book, which is a shame. I actually had really high hopes for this contemporary romance. I liked the idea of a series being based around an American football team; a chance for some great contrasting characters and Alpha men. Not the case.

I really didn’t like the main character, Phoebe. She’s a ‘poor little rich girl’ with some genuinely awful incidents in her past. For one thing, her father was an atrocious parent – wounding her self-confidence from a young age and deeming her “his only failure” in her adulthood. For another, she was raped when she was 18 and never fully recovered. In response to her traumatic first sexual experience, Phoebe uses her sexuality as armor. She is very curvaceous and a proverbial ‘pin-up’ – but she hasn’t had sex in 15 years and at 33-years-old feels like a failure as a woman. She uses her curves as a defense against men – as a way to control them but leave them wanting and never suspecting that she never intended to ‘put out’ despite what her ‘come hither’ eyes were saying.

I can understand that Phillips wanted Phoebe to be a conundrum of a character. She acts like a ‘bimbo’ but underneath she’s really a shy, sensitive young woman who uses her sensuality as a defense against men and hasn’t been sexually active in 15 years.
I don’t understand why Phoebe couldn’t have been a woman who enjoys sex. I see no problem with women owning and flaunting their sexuality – it doesn’t make them ‘sluts’ or ‘bimbos’ – it makes them women who enjoy sex. This book was written in 1994, and I suppose women have undergone a transformation since then – strong, aggressive woman aren’t pariahs thanks to characters like Samantha Jones (‘Sex and the City’) or celebrities like Angelina Jolie who own their sexuality and aren’t afraid to flaunt it. But Phoebe was a lamb in wolf’s clothing, at least by my reckoning. I think she would have been a far more interesting character if she had been the blonde bombshell the media and men made her out to be; instead of the inwardly timid, sexually-oppressed woman she actually was.

I also didn’t like Phillips handling of Phoebe’s confession to Dan about her rape. So much of Phoebe’s persona is based around that event in her life, which colored her entire sexual outlook – but Phillips didn’t write a scene. Instead, she wrote a summary, along the lines of ‘Phoebe told Dan about the rape’. After so much build-up, Phoebe’s confession should have been a cathartic scene of release; but what we get is a one-line summary of the confession. Now that’s just sloppy writing.

Dan Calebow is a terrible leading man. Phillips has written what is quite possibly the worst introduction of a romantic hero in the history of contemporary romance. We first meet Dan on his way home from a black-tie event, as he stops in at a gas station. At this gas station is a 16-year-old girl wearing a short skirt and football jersey – she comes on pretty hard to the infamous Dan Calebow and he agrees to follow her home, since her parents are away. At this point I was feeling pretty much sick to my stomach. I continued to feel queasy as Dan proceeded to have sex with this sixteen-year-old girl, and Phillips details the encounter for three pages or so…. And then it’s revealed that this girl isn’t actually 16, or a stranger to Dan. It’s actually his ex-wife, Valerie, who he divorced last year but still engages in these sexual fantasies with while the two are between partners. Okay, so the good news is the books leading man isn’t actually a pedophilic slime-bag – the bad news is, Phillips introduction of Dan Calebow is so grotesque that it colors his character for the rest of the book. I could never warm up to him. Phillips tried hard to let readers know Dan wasn’t the typical football jock, but failed dismally. I really didn’t appreciate his treatment of Phoebe, for one thing. Even after he’s discovered her sensitive side and learnt of her abusive past sexual history, Dan still refers to Phoebe as “his sweet, smart, gutsy little bimbo”. This book is pretty much one big slap in the feminist face.

The sex scenes aren’t even that hot. They’re actually pretty tame, and I don’t know if that’s because this was written in 1994 and Phillips was being a bit conservative – or if it’s because Phillips just doesn’t excel at writing erotica?

The plot of ‘It had to be you’ is also pretty atrocious. You’d think the plot would be pretty straightforward – football team tries to win the Superbowl. But Phillips (for some reason) felt the need to include a mad gunman in her book as well. A man whose steroid-taking son was kicked off the Stars team and later died in a car accident is stalking Dan Calebow, who he blames for his son’s death. In the last half of the book the gunman kidnaps Phoebe and holds her hostage at the last game of the season, threatening to kill her if Dan doesn’t throw the game. Yeah. It’s as bad as it sounds.

This book is bad. But I have heard good things about the 2nd book in the ‘Chicago Stars’ series called ‘Heaven, Texas’ – so I will give Susan Elizabeth Phillips one more chance.


Monday, November 16, 2009

'Wicked deeds on a winter's night' Immortals After Dark #4 by Kresley COLE

From the BLURB:

Her breathless kiss haunts him...
Bowen MacRieve of the Lykae clan was nearly destroyed when he lost the one woman meant for him. The ruthless warrior grew even colder, never taking another to his bed -- until a smoldering encounter with his enemy, Mariketa the Awaited, reawakens his darkest desires. When sinister forces unite against her, the Highlander finds himself using all his strength and skill to keep her alive.
His slow, hot touch is irresistible...
Temporarily stripped of her powers, Mari is forced to take refuge with her sworn adversary. It's rumored that no one can tempt Bowen's hardened heart, but soon passion burns between them. Though a future together is impossible, she fears he has no intention of letting her go.
No deed is too wicked for her seduction...
If they defeat the evil that surrounds them, can Mari deny Bowen when he demands her body and soul -- or will she risk everything for her fierce protector?

This is Kresley Cole’s third book in her ‘Immortals after dark’ series. We met Bowen MacRieve in the first book ‘A hunger like no other’ as Lachlain’s best friend and cousin still reeling after the death of his mate 180 years ago. Bowen and Mariketa both appeared in the second book ‘No rest for the wicked’ as players in the Hie (Amazing Race-style treasure hunt). ‘Wicked deeds on a winter’s night’ starts out by filling in the story-gaps of the second book by revisiting the Hie. The first half of the novel is set in Guatemala as Bowen, Mariketa and a handful of other Hie-players try to make their way out of the jungle.

Bowen has been a fascinating secondary character for 2 of Cole’s books now, and I was really happy to finally read his story. Before the book even begins you know that Bowen and Mariketa have a lot going against them – mainly Bowen’s still grieving over his dead mate (after 180 years!). So there is a real element of ‘will-they-or-won’t-they?’ because the emotional stakes are so high and seemingly insurmountable.

There is quite a bit of action in this book too – plenty of fights and near misses, and all set in an exotic (and dangerous) location. Cole is great at the edge-of-you-seat stuff and there’s plenty in ‘Wicked deeds’.

I was a bit conflicted about the character of Mariketa. She has an interesting background and history, and is made even more fascinating by the fact that she is the witches’ future leader. Except for the small problem of having no control over her powers and being an ‘underachiever’ (or as she calls herself, an ‘overfailer’). My problem was her similarities to Emmaline Troy (from ‘A hunger like no other’) – both are half fey (Emma is fey/vampire while Mariketa is fey/witch) and both women are contending with Alpha males who resent their attraction to the females. I felt like I’d read this story before between Emma and Lachlain.

Nevertheless, if there is one thing Kresley Cole excels at it’s steamy romance. Her sex scenes are fabulously sensual and her men are always yummy Alpha’s. Bowen is a great character – funny, cheeky, flirtatious but ultimately cautious about getting his heart broken again. Together Bowen and Mariketa make a great, funny couple;

She inwardly shook herself. “MacRieve, when I settle down it’s going to be with a male that has - oh, I don’t know - a sense of humor, or of modesty. How about a lack of scathing hatred toward witches? Maybe a zest for life? Too much to ask that he’s born in the same millennium?”

I love this series, it’s one guaranteed to please. Because the timelines between books are so close it can be a bit difficult to pick up where the action last left off – but Cole’s speedy pace means there’s never a dull moment.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

'The Forest of Hands & Teeth' by Carrie RYAN

From the BLURB:

In Mary's world there are simple truths. The Sisterhood always knows best. The Guardians will protect and serve. The Unconsecrated will never relent. And you must always mind the fence that surrounds the village; the fence that protects the village from the Forest of Hands and Teeth. But, slowly, Mary's truths are failing her. She's learning things she never wanted to know about the Sisterhood and its secrets, and the Guardians and their power, and about the Unconsecrated and their relentlessness. When the fence is breached and her world is thrown into chaos, she must choose between her village and her future - between the one she loves and the one who loves her. And she must face the truth about the Forest of Hands and Teeth. Could there be life outside a world surrounded in so much death?

This is one of the best novels I have read all year. I loved it so much I ended up reading it in about 3 hours – I simply could not put it down.

‘The Forest of Hands and Teeth’ (best title ever, by the way!) picks up where so many zombie movies leave off. ‘Dawn of the Dead’ and ’28 Days Later’ all concentrate on the beginning of a zombie pandemic – the moment when everything falls apart and survivors are left to wonder at this strange new world. ‘Forest’ takes a different route – examining the aftermath of a zombie plague, years after the fact.

The main protagonist, Mary, has grown up on her mother’s stories of the ocean and buildings that reach the sky. But she has never known anything beyond the boundaries of her small village. Think M. Night Shymalan’s ‘The Village’ – as a community of people live within the confines of a tall fence that keeps the ‘Unconsecrated’ (zombies) out. These people have reverted back to past times – where the governing body is the church (The Sisterhood) and the village’s inhabitants are encouraged to marry and continue the human race.

Even as the Unconsecrated infected the living and the pressure of the Return began to build, They were busy constructing fences. Infinitely long fences. Whether the fences were to keep the Unconsecrated out or the living in we no longer know. But the end result was our village, an enclave of hundreds of survivors in the middle of a vast Forest of Unconsecrated.

Carrie Ryan has created an utterly fascinating paradigm of the world as we know it – only in a zombie aftermath. Survivors of the infection rely on simple truths and customs in their bid to go on living in a world so fraught with death and destruction. Ryan has imbued ‘The Sisterhood’ with a religious zeal that is eerie and compelling;

Remember where we came from, Mary. Where we all came from. Not the Garden of Eden, but the ashes of the Return. We are the survivors.

When we first meet Mary she is in a difficult position – the brother of the man she loves has asked for her hand in marriage, and she has little choice but to accept him. At the same time her mother’s madness sees her breaching the boundary fence in search of her Unconsecrated husband. On the one hand, being thrown into Mary’s turmoil from the get-go raises the stakes and kick-starts the book with a fast pace. But it would have been nice to have had a lull in which we could have observed Mary’s life before her upheaval.

‘Forest’ has a very sweet but complicated romance at its centre. Mary is torn between Harry who wants to marry her, and his brother Travis whom she loves. It is a very complex romantic triangle – and readers will be hard pressed to choose between Harry and Travis. Once again, it would have been nice if there were a pause in the frantic pace to observe Mary’s interactions with her two beaus – instead the action stays helter-skelter throughout.

Ryan does write action scenes extremely well. They have an exhilarating, cinematic quality that will leave you breathless. ‘Forest’ definitely has potential for movie adaptation.

I love, love, loved this book! And I was very pleased to discover that Ryan has a 2nd book in the works, set in the same universe but dealing with different characters. ‘The Dead-Tossed Waves’ comes out March 2010 and I will definitely be buying it.


Friday, November 13, 2009

'Fade Out' Morganville Vampires #7 by Rachel CAINE

From the BLURB:

Without the evil vampire Bishop ruling over the town of Morganville, the resident vampires have made major concessions to the human population. With their newfound freedoms, Claire Danvers and her friends are almost starting to feel comfortable again.

Now Claire can actually concentrate on her studies, and her friend Eve joins the local theatre company. But when one of Eve's castmates goes missing after starting work on a short documentary, Eve suspects the worst. Claire and Eve soon realize that this film project, whose subjectis the vampires themselves, is a whole lot bigger - and way more dangerous - than anyone suspected.

I am completely, obsessively in love with this series. It’s one of my all-time favourite YA series, and one of the best urban fantasy series I have ever read. ‘Fade Out’ is the 7th book in the Morganville Vampires series, and is just as good as the previous 6…

So much was resolved in book 6, ‘Carpe Corpus’ – the villains that had been plaguing Morganville for three books previously were all put down, and so many relationship issues were addressed that I wouldn’t have been surprised if Rachel Caine had declared ‘Carpe Corpus’ the final book in the series. ‘Fade Out’ feels like a pit stop on the way to the next ‘big bad’ story arc, but that doesn’t mean it’s not as good as previous books.

‘Fade Out’ actually has two villains. First is steampunk master computer, Ada, who is convinced that Claire is trying to usurp her power and intends to kill her in retaliation. Then there’s rogue vampire, Morley, who emerges from the shadows and demands a confrontation with Morganville founder, Amelie. Both Ada and Morley feel like minor characters in a much bigger picture – there will no doubt be major repercussions in future books where these two are concerned, and ‘Fade Out’ is a beautifully constructed cliff-hanger for the next book in the series, ‘Kiss of Death’ (May 4th 2010).

Mortal danger was nothing new around their unofficial four-person frat house. In fact, mortal danger didn’t even merit a full-fledged scream these days. More of a raised eyebrow.

I love that Rachel Caine mixes up physical evils with internal conflicts. Each of the four protagonists is constantly dealing with their own issues, and the mix of internal/external means that the drama stakes are constantly raised, but you also have enough emotional investment in the characters to want them to survive the drama. Michael, for instance, is still coming to terms with his new vampire half – he’s hoping that his friends (especially Eve) can accept that he has changed, but love him regardless. Shane is always battling with his guilt – guilt over his sister’s death, mother’s suicide and father’s fall from grace. Eve is dealing with her own disenfranchisement in the Morganville community, desperate not to let her past dictate her future. And Claire is coping with low self-confidence. In ‘Fade Out’ an ex-flame of Shane’s has Claire questioning their relationship and wondering what Shane sees in her.

‘Carpe Corpus’ had a small relationship cliffhanger for Shane and Claire, and it’s unfortunately not directly addressed in ‘Fade Out’. There was some business about a ring being given, but Caine makes no mention of this. Apart from that though, it’s fascinating to read the progression of Claire and Shane’s relationship – there are cutesy moments, but Caine also deals with some very pertinent issues where teen romances are concerned.

Caine’s writing reads like a movie script. She writes action beautifully – not so much detail that you get bogged down, fast pace and great visualisation. She really does leave you on the edge-of-your-seat plenty of times throughout; her writing leaves you feeling exhilarated. The entire series has a very cinematic quality to it – and I can understand (and appreciate) why this series has been optioned for TV/film rights.

I loved ‘Fade Out’, and I adore the ‘Morganville Vampires’ series. I can’t wait for ‘Kiss of Death’! The suspense is killing me!


If you haven’t read ‘The Glass House’ yet, you seriously need to prioritize! Caine has recently released the first of several omnibus novels – ‘The Morganville Vampires’ includes the two books ‘The Glass House’ and ‘Dead Girls’ Dance’.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

'Grave Secret' Harper Connelly #4 by Charlaine HARRIS

From the BLURB:

Lightning-struck sleuth Harper Connelly and her stepbrother Tolliver take a break from looking for the dead to visit the two little girls they both think of as sisters. But, as always happens when they travel to Texas, memories of their horrible childhood resurface.

To make matters worse, Tolliver learns from his older brother that their father is out of jail and trying to reestablish contact with other family members. Tolliver wants no part of the man- but he may not have a choice in the matter.

Soon, family secrets ensnare them both, as Harper finally discovers what happened to her missing sister, Cameron, so many years before.

And what she finds out will change her world forever.

This is the 4th and (according to Charlaine) last book in the Harper Connelly series. It’s sad going into ‘Grave Secret’ knowing it will be the last time we journey with this wonderful character. But, as they say, all good things must come to an end.

‘Grave Secret’ is a bit of a hodge-podge of a novel. On the one hand, Harper and Tolliver are dealing with very serious circumstances in the present as a case Harper is working on takes a curious and dangerous turn. On the other hand, an anonymous call brings up their past as someone claims to have seen Harper’s missing sister, Cameron, at a local shopping centre. The book is split between current events, while also backtracking through Harper and Tolliver’s troubled childhood and the events surrounding Cameron’s disappearance eight years ago.

It is interesting to delve into Harper and Tolliver’s past. Harper has confided little bits and pieces about her past in the previous three books, but not to the extent in ‘Grave Secret’.

Harper and Tolliver are not related by blood; Harper’s mother and Tolliver’s father found one another and got married right when they were both at the bottom of their respective bottles – both Laurel (Harper’s mum) and Matthew (Tolliver’s dad) were junkies. They sold drugs from the trailer where Harper and her sister Cameron, and Tolliver and his brother Mark were living with them.

Most of Charlaine’s female protagonists have bleak pasts (with the exception of Aurora Teagarden) – but Harper has the worst of them all. Her stepfather would frequently pass her off to the highest bidder in exchange for pills, and she was the primary caregiver when her little sisters were born. Then she was struck by lightening and dealing with the physical side effects as well as the supernatural ones. Harper is a warrior, and Harris’s austere description of her and Tolliver’s past is chilling, but an amazing indictment of their character. Charlaine Harris seems to be really fascinated by how people’s pasts can affect their future and their personalities. She favours female leads who have overcome great personal tragedy, and been made stronger for it. This is very much true of Harper, and at several points in the book she quietly muses about how she and Tolliver ended up ‘okay’ despite their childhoods and genetics. Putting aside her ability to locate dead bodies, Harper is a fascinating character for her past alone. She is a strong, hard-working woman and in ‘Grave Secret’ you really appreciate all that she had to overcome to get that way.

People who meet me in my line of work fall into three categories; those who wouldn’t believe me if I produced an affidavit signed by God, those who are open to the idea that there are strange things in this world that they might encounter (the “Hamlet” people, I call them), and the people who absolutely believe I can do what I do – and furthermore, the love that connection I have with the dead.

For three books now, Harper has been making mention of her sister’s disappearance 8 years ago. Harper has never suspected her sister was anything other than dead, and has been keeping her feelers out for any ‘buzz’ of Cameron’s bones ever since she went missing. For three books readers have been as anxious to know Cameron’s fate as Harper herself – even more so after a huge foreshadowing in ‘An Ice Cold Grave’. Fans can be assured that this issue is laid to rest. But be warned – it is a tricky and convoluted explanation that is made somewhat hollow for its loopy plot.

I wasn’t terribly satisfied with ‘Grave Secret’. Knowing that it was the last ever book in the series, I expected great things. But I don’t think Charlaine delivered, much as it pains me to admit.
The novels big mystery is hastily wrapped up, and in a manner that I absolutely detest in murder-mysteries; the villain explaining their reasoning and execution of their devious plans while still in the process of completing them. Urgh. Having read her other novels, I can assure you that this is Harris’s sloppiest wrap-up ever, and it’s a shame because the build-up beforehand was perfectly suspenseful.
I was also disappointed with the progression of Harper’s new romance. I love this couple (not going to say who, that would be a MASSIVE spoiler) and I wanted a few more cutesy moments (like we got in ‘An Ice Cold Grave’).
All in all I think ‘An Ice Cold Grave’ was a far more satisfying book and I would have preferred that that be the final book in the Harper Connelly series.

Once again, having read Harris’s other books, I can assure you (and warn you) that even when Charlaine is concluding a series, she doesn’t like to tie things up neatly, but prefers to leave a certain open-endedness for her characters. That is once again the case with ‘Harper Connelly’. The open-endedness isn’t a frustrating cliff-hanger, just potential for more. And after reading and being disappointed by ‘Grave Secret’, I really, really hope that Harris relents and writes one more, just to redeem the series.


Sunday, November 8, 2009

'Cassandra Palmer' series by Karen CHANCE

‘Touch the Dark’ from the BLURB:

Cassandra Palmer can see the future and communicate with spirits-talents that make her attractive to the dead and the undead. The ghosts of the dead aren't usually dangerous; they just like to talk...a lot.

The undead are another matter.

Like any sensible girl, Cassie tries to avoid vampires. But when the bloodsucking Mafioso she escaped three years ago finds Cassie again with vengeance on his mind, she's forced to turn to the vampire Senate for protection. The undead senators won't help her for nothing, and Cassie finds herself working with one of their most powerful members, a dangerously seductive master vampire-and the price he demands may be more than Cassie is willing to pay...

When we meet Cassie in ‘Touch the Dark’ she has been in hiding for 3 years from the vampire master who kept her under lock and key throughout her childhood. The vampire used her ‘seer’ gifts for his own financial gains, and since running away and hiding from him, Cassie is sure that when he finds her he will kill her. As readers we are thrown right into the thick of the action – just like Cassie herself as an ordinary day turns into her worst nightmare when a mysterious message arrives telling her she has been found. From that moment on the pace of each book is high-speed, as Cassie’s magic matures and strengthens and more people become interested in owning her powers.

Cassie is a great character. Reading her adventures and near-misses you get the impression that she is holding onto her sanity by a string – juggling all of the curve balls life is throwing at her, hoping to hell she can just get through the day without a major catastrophe. She isn’t your typical kick-ass female lead. She’s clumsy, scared, a little bit naïve, and utterly ill-equipped to deal with her newfound powers. But she’s also determined to put on a brave face and ‘fake it till she makes it’. It’s great to read Cassie’s inner doubts in contrast to her ballsy attitude when dealing with the vampire community. Best of all she also enjoys a good whinge now and again. Cassie is at her funniest when she is fed-up and cursing lady fate – and it’s refreshing to read a powerful UF protagonist have a minor melt down; it humanizes and endears them to me.

This UF series also has one steamy love triangle at its centre. First, there’s Mircea – brother to the infamous Vlad Tepes (Dracula) who is also one of the most powerful masters in the vampire senate. Cassie has known Mircea (and had a crush on him) since she was a little girl.
Then there’s Mage (magician) Pritkin – initially sworn to kill Cassie for her affiliation with the vampires, he eventually (luke)warms to her and begrudgingly agrees to teach her to use her newfound powers.
Both romances are extremely sparky – and fans of the series are divided on who is more deserving of Cassie’s affections. Karen Chance clearly loves toying with her readers when it comes to writing ‘will they or won’t they’ for Cassie’s men – and it is great fun to get sucked into the triangle.

Warm lips found my neck. “The only humans here tonight are entertainment and food,” he murmured, a husky whisper in the dark. “Which are you?”

At first glance the Cassandra Palmer series isn’t that much different from lots of other Urban Fantasies currently knocking around. The ingredients may be similar, but it’s how Chance mixes it all together that makes this series so worthwhile. The added element of ‘time travel’ to a vampire-heavy story is also really fascinating to read. The time travel aspects gets a little more complicated as the books progress, but it’s clear that Chance knows where her series is going and the overall story arc for Cassie - so you don't mind tagging along for a sometimes bumpy ride.

I love this series; it is one of my favourites. Chance started a spin-off in 2008 called ‘Dorina Basarab, Dhampir’ which is a bit darker and a great read for Mircea fans. Highly recommend if you are a lover of urban fantasy (with a dash of paranormal romance).


'Suddenly you' by Lisa KLEYPAS

Amanda Briars is turning 30. A celebrated author with two successful novels under her belt and the means to support herself, Amanda is a successful and independent working woman, a rare occurrence in 1836. But she feels unfulfilled; caring for her parents as they battled consumption for five years meant that Amanda never appreciated her youth. Coupled with her plain face and plump figure, Amanda has never attracted men’s amorous attentions.
So Amanda is taking matters into her own hands. A few days before her 30th Amanda visits Ms. Gemma Bradshaw – London’s most notorious madam – and requests a gentlemen to divest her of her virginity.
On the night of her birthday Jack comes to her doorstep. Tall, dark and devilishly handsome – Amanda can understand why he has chosen this particular profession. They share a night of restrained passion – and Jack initiates Amanda into the pleasures of the flesh…
One week later Amanda bumps into Jack at a ton party – where he is introduced to her as Jack Devlin. The man fast-becoming London’s must successful publisher – with his own library, bookstore, printing press and owning several newspapers and magazines. And he’s just bought the rights to one of Amanda’s novels…

There are several plots in one book here. Jack’s childhood history alone could have made for an interesting story. The second half of the book follows a very different trajectory than the original plot set-up – and that could have also made for a separate novel. There is a lot happening in ‘Suddenly You’ – especially towards the end when Kleypas rushes toward a grand finish.

I think the whole book had a small issue with pace. The opening chapter concerning Amanda’s ‘birthday present’ was a great set-up for the story. It was a steamy scene and a fantastic way to introduce the two main characters. However, the middle of the book felt a little bit clunky and slow to me. There is a definite lull in action after Amanda learns Jack’s true identity and they begin a courtship as author/publisher, and later as lovers. The middle of the book drags, and while there is sufficient chemistry between Amanda and Jack that their scenes are never boring, the pace does feel sluggish. There’s a bit of heightened action and emotion in the last-half of the book that comes on very quickly – the rapid conclusion could have been drawn out quite easily.

I really liked both characters. Amanda is a future feminist in the making – and I appreciated reading her thoughts on working women and female financial independence in the 1800’s. Jack likewise is a very progressive male, and the perfect complement to Amanda’s fiery spirit. At one point Jack decides to make Amanda the editor of one of his journals – she warns him that her being a woman and an editor will cause an uproar, to which Jack replies encouragingly;

“Set the world afire. Just let me hand you the matches.”

What a fella.

This is probably Kleypas’s most erotic novel. The sex scenes are the most explicit of hers I have ever read, and they are quite masterful in their sensuality. There is one scene in particular that has Jack doing something very interesting with raspberries – that one got my heart pumping.

I love reading a Kleypas book. I always know that I’ll have a good, satisfying read. I like some of her books and series more than others, but I know that with each of her novels I will be settling in for an enjoyable read. This is likewise true of ‘Suddenly You’ – it’s not my favorite Kleypas book, but I liked it nonetheless.


'Harper Connelly' series by Charlaine HARRIS

‘Grave Sight’ from the BLURB:

Harper Connelly has what you might call a strange job: she finds dead people. She can sense the final location of a person who's passed, and share their very last moment. The way Harper sees it, she's providing a service to the dead while bringing some closure to the living-but she's used to most people treating her like a blood-sucking leech. Traveling with her step-brother Tolliver as manager and sometime-bodyguard, she's become an expert at getting in, getting paid, and getting out fast. Because for the living it's always urgent-even if the dead can wait forever.

This is my favourite of Charlaine Harris’s series, after ‘Southern Vampire: Sookie Stackhouse’.

Fans of the Sookie books can appreciate that ‘Harper Connelly’ does have a supernatural bent. Harper’s world is our world, real life in which there are no vampires, werewolves or fey. The ‘Harper Connelly’ series looks at the supernatural from a realist perspective – and Harper is a protagonist dealing with other people’s pessimism and blatant distrust of her and her abilities. In this series Charlaine can explore the ‘what if’ aspects of the supernatural in everyday life.

Like Sookie, Lily and Aurora, Harper is an ordinary woman living an extraordinary life. When she was younger Harper was struck by lightening. Ever since she has been able to ‘sense’ death. She turned her ability into a profession and tours the country, helping search for missing persons (for a price).

You will feel conflicted about Harper’s line of work – but Charlaine has written a very pragmatic character, and Harper doesn’t mind defending her vocation and maintains that if she had to be lumped with a disability she may as well make money out of it. Fair enough. But there is more to Harper’s working gift. For one thing, her little sister was abducted when they were children. After Harper was struck by lightening and gained her ‘ability’ she instantly recognized that it could be a way to find her sister – a way to finally have closure and put her guilt and worry to rest. Furthermore, there seems to be a certain connection between Harper and the spirits she feels;

It’s hard to describe the feeling – but of course, that’s what everyone wants to know. It’s a little like hearing a bee droning inside your head, or maybe the pop of a Geiger counter – a persistent and irregular noise, increasing in strength the closer I get to the body.

As much as Harper tries to maintain her pragmatism, readers will no doubt see through the armour she dons to shield herself from the weight of her gifts’ responsibility.

They want to be found, you know.

Harper is a tricky character. She does shield herself emotionally, and there is a contrast between her thoughts and actions, especially where romance is concerned. But it is clear that Harper has been burned in the past – aside from having an abusive childhood and less than stable home life growing up, her ‘gift’ has caused Harper to become a social pariah. People believe she is a charlatan, and those few who are convinced of her abilities believe she is a crook for not providing her services for free. So, Harper has developed a tough exterior. It makes her a fascinating woman to read. On the one hand, readers are privy to her biting wit, loyalty and compassionate nature – and we know that if people would only give her a chance they would come to see her for the amazing woman she is. But on the other hand we do see people’s negative reactions to her and her gift – and as readers we want to shield her from further abuse and heartache. Unlike Sookie, Harper is living with her ‘gift’ without the crutch of a totally open supernatural community – and it is fascinating to see how people deal with her, and how she deals with her own uncertainties regarding her dubious ‘abilities’.

Like her other series, ‘Harper Connelly’ does have a love story at its centre. I can’t give this massive spoiler away – but many fans expressed dismay when the romance came to the fore. It will throw some readers for a loop, be warned. But I personally thought Charlaine did such a wonderful job with characterisation and the slow burn of the romance that it was a natural and inevitable progression for the two characters.

I love this series especially. There are moments when it is quite bleak; but that is to be expected when death is the subject matter. But the romance is definitely at the heart of the ‘Harper Connelly’ books, and that lightens the mood somewhat. Furthermore, Harper is a fascinating woman. For any fans of the ‘Sookie’ books who ever wondered what life would have been like for Sookie without the help of vampires, werewolves and fey – Charlaine is able to answer that ‘what if’ question through these books. It is supernatural in the real world and a completely compelling read.

Unfortunately Charlaine has said the series will only go as far as 4 books. ‘Grave Secret’ came out October 27th this year and that ties up the series. What a shame. But just because it ends so quickly, that’s no reason not to enjoy the hell out of it.


Saturday, November 7, 2009

'Aurora Teagarden' series by Charlaine HARRIS

‘Real Murders’ from the BLURB:

Lawrenceton, Georgia, may be a suburb of Atlanta, but it's still a small town at heart. Librarian Aurora "Roe" Teagarden grew up there and knows more than enough about her fellow townsfolk, including which ones share her interest in the darker side of human nature.
With those fellow crime buffs, Roe belongs to a club called Real Murders, which meets once a month to analyze famous cases. It's a harmless pastime--until the night she finds a member dead, killed in a manner that eerily resembles the crime the club was about to discuss. And as other brutal "copycat" killings follow, Roe will have to uncover the person behind the terrifying game, one that casts all the members of Real Murders, herself included, as prime suspects--or potential victims.

Once again Charlaine has a thoroughly ordinary female protagonist repeatedly thrown into extraordinary circumstances. Aurora is perhaps the most outwardly hum-drum of all of Charlaine’s protagonists; she is a librarian, complete with modest cardigans and horn-rimmed glasses. But don’t let appearances (or occupation) fool you. Aurora is just as interesting and lovable as Charlaine’s other leading ladies, maybe even more so because she is aware and makes fun of her outwardly plain-Jane appearances. Like Lily, Sookie and Harper, Aurora is an appealing protagonist because despite self-doubt, when push-comes-to-shove Aurora becomes a brave and ballsy heroine.

There is a lot of suspended belief in the Aurora series – throughout 8 books we are expected to believe that Aurora just keeps stumbling and unwittingly becoming involved in all the murders around town. But because Charlaine beautifully incorporates the bizarre with the mundane of Aurora’s everyday life, and because she constantly makes a joke of the coincidences, you really don’t mind the improbability inherent in the series.

“Two murders,” he repeated. He took his turn at head shaking. I would have to find someone at whom I could shake my head incredulously. “She just confessed two murders to you. How do you do it?”

‘Aurora’ is a fascinating series if you’re coming to them after reading Harris’s ‘Sookie Stackhouse’ books. Aurora is surprisingly similar to Sookie; both are women whom, at the start of their respective series, are really unaware of their femininity and have lived fairly sheltered lives. Sookie has been a loner because of her telepathic ‘handy-cap’, and Aurora because of low self-confidence and a focus on her work. Throughout their series both Aurora and Sookie are put through trials and tribulations that force them to come out of their shells and measure their mettle. But perhaps the ladies biggest connection lies in their romantic lives. As you compare both series you can pinpoint certain consistencies between the romantic entanglements. In both series Charlaine prefers multiple possible partners for her leading ladies, and enjoys keeping readers guessing as to whom they will ultimately end up with. In the ‘Aurora’ and ‘Sookie’ books Charlaine also puts her heroines through the romantic ringer – be warned, there are up’s and down’s that will tug at your heartstrings as you live vicariously through Aurora.

Unlike Sookie, Aurora has a tight family unit. This is really Charlaine’s only series that explores family dynamics and it is refreshing to read Charlaine’s funny take on family matters.

Once again, the ‘Aurora’ books are definitely murder-mystery. Charlaine has a very devious mind when it comes to writing crime, and it is a tricky pleasure to try and figure out the ‘whodunnit’ along with Aurora. But ‘Sookie Stackhouse’ fans should once again be warned that there is no element of urban fantasy in Charlaine’s debut series.

With a whopping 8 books in the series, Charlaine Harris has said in interviews that she has more ideas for Aurora Teagarden, but can’t see herself finding the time between Sookie books to pen a 9th novel. This is a shame. The eighth ‘Aurora’ book (‘Poppy done to Death’) did have a certain open-endedness to it – not so that it frustrates and leaves readers hanging, but just enough that you’ll wish Charlaine would continue with the series.

I don’t love the ‘Aurora Teagarden’ books as much as Harris’s ‘Lily Bard’, ‘Sookie Stackhouse’ or ‘Harper Connelly’ series’. But I do love them. I love Aurora, I love her leading men and I highly recommend this series to anyone who loves Charlaine’s writing and a good murder-mystery.


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