Time Served by Julianna Keyes

Cover59341-mediumOnce upon a time Rachel had a boyfriend that she loved, a car, an alcoholic mother and a whole lot of ambition.  One night her mother in a rare moment of lucidity gave her a wad of cash and told her to take the money and get out of town. Rachel took the money and ran. She ran to a new life, one where she worked her way through college and law school, where she remade herself to remove any traces of her trailer park past. She now lives in showroom-spotless apartment, she puts in late hours at her firm and she has a perfectly boring golf-loving boyfriend that she can't stand.  

But when prep-work for a large class-action case brings Rachel to depressed neighborhoods that remind her too much of her old hometown, the last person she expected to run into is Dean. Dean is the boyfriend she left behind.  Her surprise abandonment shook him & set him on an even more self-destructive path than he had ever been before, one that led him not long after she left to a felony arrest and conviction for Armed robbery.

When Dean runs into Rachel he is very angry.  In some ways Rachel left a lifetime ago but now that he has served his time,  he wants answers and now that he knows where she is he is not going to give up till he has them.

Dean and Rachel's encounters are fraught.  They have so much history, hate, regret, guilt & sexual tension.  They end up agreeing to hate-fucking arrangement that serves as a twisted form of closure/revenge as they try to work each other out of their system once and for all.  Their encounters leave them both raw and confused. They stop knowing what they are to each other and what they can ask from each other. Their time together reignites feelings that they don't dare trust in light of their history.  Keyes does a fantastic job building the angst as Rachel and Dean try to sort out what they are and what they want against the backdrop of Rachel's increasingly distressing work-life.

The story really worked well as second-chance at love/reconciliation story.  Both Dean and Rachel have changed since they first knew each other as teens.  They are intimately aware of the baggage they carry from those days. The way they challenge each other is quite remarkable and compelling well grounded in their history together. Dean can question and interrogate her about her life choices in ways even her best-friend Parker can't because he didn't know her then. Dean can push her to consider whether she has the life she wanted, if it is everything she wanted it to be because he was there when she first started dreaming of a life outside the trailer park.

When Dean re-enters her life, Rachel realizes that somewhere along the way she has lost sight of her goals. Running into Dean helps her see that she has never stopped running from herself and her feeling of inadequacy.    Rachel however has a hard time accepting and understanding Dean's seeming lack of ambition. I really liked how hard it was for Rachel to understand what Dean wants out of life.  She has been on approval seeking carousel for so long, that his goals are baffling in their simplicity.  I loved that in the end all Dean wants it to be happy, and that he defines happy as being with Rachel.  He only starts seeing a future for himself and  becomes motivated to advance in his career when it becomes something that might help him stand by her side. 

The whole relationship arc was fascinating —  They move from playing  painful dominance games, to tentatively building trust that crumbles into disappointment, to experiencing  defeat and surrender, before being able to start clean again.  In the end they need to figure out how to stop keeping a tally of hurts and wrongs and to  start again with forgiveness & maturity. 

However, as much as I was sucked in by the raw angsty romance I really struggled being able to finish the book. Some secondary elements about Rachel's workplace rivalry really made me uncomfortable, nearly kicking me out of the story.

At work Rachel and Parker are working on gather evidence and plaintiffs for their class action suit. Rachel's number one workplace rival is Caitlin.  Caitlin is Rich-Blonde privilege personified, beautiful and highly connected. She is everything Rachel with her trailer park roots can never be and she is tipping the scales in her favor by sleeping with some of the senior partners.  Rachel is fixated on that, and tends to reduce her problem with Caitlin down to that consistently describing and defining her as a "whore".  While Caitlin is morally & professionally compromised and seemingly all-around shady, it bugged me every time she was called a whore by Rachel. It bothered me that their complicated relationship was reduced to base-sexual judgment. While it made sense for Rachel to have screwed up relationships with women, stemming from her difficult relationship with her mother, I found it  off-putting and troubling that with the exception of her secretary Belinda and Parker's wife Moira, (who is friendly but Rachel finds intimidating),  all the women in Rachel's life are either enemies, sexual rivals or both and Rachel never recognizes that as problem.

I have mixed feelings about this book.   It reminded me of some of my favorite Cara McKenna books, Willing Victim and Hard Time. I found the emotional arc quite profound,  the sexual relationship  hot while complicating and advancing the plot.  In the end I did really connected with it despite the fact the stuff that bugged really bugged me. 

I received a review copy of Time Served by Julianna Keyes from Carina Press via NetGalley.

 


Living in Sin by Anastasia Vitsky

Today I am over at Elisabeth Jane's blog: Cooking up Romance . Elisabeth and I  enjoy a lot of the same kinds of books and thought it would be fun to review one together.  We had so much fun we plan on doing it again sometime soon.

We both read Living in Sin, a Lesbian Romance novella by Anastasia Vitsky from Less than Three Press.

We both received review copies from Less than Three Press via NetGalley.   

 

 


Acute Reactions by Ruby Lang

9781440590641-194x300Fresh out of medical school Dr. Petra Lale is trying to figure out how to keep her solo practice afloat, learning how to market herself to patients, network with peers, and establish professional boundaries with the few patients she does have.  

Ian Zamora is a workaholic restaurateur, disillusioned with himself, and trying to salvage the most serious relationship in years by undergoing immunotherapy to overcome his allergy to cats. But when Ian walks into Petra's office he has a hard time remembering why he is putting in the effort since he quickly feels a stronger connection & attraction  to Petra than he has ever felt for his girlfriend Danielle.  Petra is dismayed and conflicted for feeling attracted to Ian and enjoying his company.  When Ian dumps his girlfriend and starts to tentatively pursue Petra,  she is startled, confused and scared. Her interest and feelings for Ian make her question her professional judgement and her already shaky confidence.  She firmly cuts all connection with Ian in an effort to protect her practice and her heart.

The novel then picks up five months later when Ian and Petra run into each other again and try to figure out if the attraction can ever turn into a relationship given the way they met.  Will any relationship be forever tainted by the way they met, can they build something together that will withstand scrutiny. 

Both Petra and Ian have complicated feelings about their parents, the way they were raised & the insecurities they developed as children while very different has had a significant impact into the way they behave and interact with the world and is part of why connect so strongly.  They both often second guess their feelings and instincts out of fear of repeating their parents' mistakes. Their hesitations, confrontations and misunderstandings felt realistic and believable. They are both ambivalent about their racial and ethnic identities, acutely ware of their otherness within their families and the culture at large, despite becoming outwardly successful adults.

I thought Lang did a great job developing the secondary relationships in the books.  Petra's loving but mutually frustrating & maddening conversations with her mother and the restoration and healing of Petra's fraught relationship with her best-friends Sarah and Helen were as significant to the HEA as Ian and Petra choosing to trust each other enough to risk loving each other.

There were a few things that didn't work for me or downright annoyed me.  The character of Kevin, one of Petra's few initial patients, never worked for me. Even with a neglectful and distracted father, I had a hard time believing that even Petra would routinely allow a child under-13 to routinely come to her office unsupervised.  At 12 he was supposed to be a somewhat annoying, somewhat endearing figure who is able infiltrated both Petra's and Ian's lives, but I just found him all around annoying  even before his boundary flouting came back to bite Petra.

I also didn't like Petra struggle with her "Inner Hippocrates" and was happy when that device disappeared for the most part in the second half of the book. I was less than enamored with the way Danielle, Ian's ex was used in the second half of the book.  I appreciate how Ian came to regret the way he has underestimated and treated her during their relationship but instead of becoming a more rounded fuller character, she became less sympathetic and more of mustache-twirling villain in the second half, making her undeserving of Ian's regret. 

Overall I was happy to have read this book, despite the small annoyances. I give credit to Ms. Lang for being able to take treacherous premise and succeed in building a funny and sweet story.  Her protagonists are flawed, their relationships messy but their story was engaging. 

I received a review copy of this book from the author, Ruby Lang.


Rock Hard by Nalini Singh (Rock Kiss #2)

Cover60096-mediumRock Hard is a workplace romance, with a former Rugby player/millionaire/CEO hero.  None of those things are my catnip, but since I'm a big fan of Nalini Singh & I read the previous book and novella despite having rock star heroes, I knew I was going to read Rock Hard. I'm glad I did because Singh does a fantastic job at writing heroes in hot pursuit who challenge but don't run over the heroines and Gabriel is no exception.

Charlotte Baird, works hard, keeps her head down and gets things done without looking for attention or credit.  She really doesn't want anyone to notice her, certainly not the way her new boss, Gabriel Bishop does because he terrifies her. But he does notice the mousy records manger who clearly knows more about his new company than most people and is capable of keeping up with him as long as she doesn't remember to be scared of him. In a total Cinderella move, Gabriel sees through the wiles of his mean-girl executive assistant and promotes Charlotte out her records room to a glittering glass desk outside of his office.

Charlotte is used to hiding in shapeless suits, comfortable routines and the company of a few trusted friends for very good reasons.  (Trigger warning, Charlotte's past trauma includes stalking, abduction, mental and physical abuse).  She survived but is still has so much healing and blossoming to do.  That blossoming, establishment of trust, figuring out triggers and looking for help in overcoming them is huge part of this romance.  Singh does a great job in how she has Gabriel  notice and negotiate Charlotte's triggers  as he tries to get closer to her, accepting her boundaries, and not taking them as personal rejections. His respect and love for her drives their story. 

I enjoyed their contentious courtship. I liked how he subtly baited and instigated in ways that let her have the time to come to terms with her own attraction and desire, built up her confidence until she was ready to claim him.

The secondary storyline about Gabriel's estranged and ailing father &  Gabriel's workalcoholism didn't work as well for me, with the exception of what it means for Gabriel and Charlotte for him to take the steps he takes when she challenges him to. I was impressed with the kind of clear-eyed acceptance, forgiveness and compassion modeled by Gabriel's mother toward her ex. What she models makes her sons uncomfortable but it is brave and rare. 

I love that the main characters love each other, desire one another &want to be together but that doesn't automatically solve their issues.  They can't simply love each out of panic attacks. They need to accept that things take time, professional help and trust in each other and that isn't easy.  I liked that Singh let Charlotte be frustrated and impatient. That she wanted to be able to sleep next Gabriel, to have him touch her hair without fear or panic, but her mind doesn't cooperate easily.  I liked that it was a struggle for her, that she would over-reach, rush and that she has to learn to manage her own expectations and accept herself and her own bumpy path to healing.  I love that even though Gabriel loves her and has great instincts and puts a great deal of though and effort things aren't perfect.  But what he does do, is that  he constantly gives her credit. Credit for her work, credit for her desire and wants and for all that she has overcome and still has yet to do and that was beautiful. 

I received a review copy of Rock Hard from Ms. Singh through TKA Distribution via NetGalley.

Rock Hard was released March 10th.


TBR Challenge: "Series Catch-up" or my Shelley Laurenston PNR binge

This month's TBR Challenge Theme is " Series Catch-up" but for some reason I had it wrong. Maybe I looked at the theme list from a past year, but for most of the month I thought I was supposed to be reading and reviewing a "new to me author".  I did read and  I will be reviewing a new to me author next week, but it isn't fair to call it a TBR challenge book because it is an ARC that was submitted to me for review consideration. I do have the latest installment of a couple of series languishing in Kindle right now from auto-buy authors but not even the challenge could inspire me to dig them out, I'm just not in the right mood.

What I did this month was go on PNR bender.  On my reading binge, I ended up filling in the gaps in few series I have been  haphazardly enjoying over the past few years.  I took advantage of my Scribd trial month to catch up  Jessica Sims "Midnight Liaisons" books, finish up couple of Vivian Arend's PNR series, but what I read the most were books off Shelley Laurenston's  backlist.   

I discovered  Laurenston  when I impulsively requested the last of the Pride books via of NetGalley right when I first started reviewing. I was completely unfamiliar with Laurenston & the Pride series when I  received the ARC of "Bite Me" with its honey-badger heroine and its Bear & Tiger hybrid hero. The story like the series was delightfully bonkers, the characters over the top and full of pulse-pounding action.  Despite the long running plots tying the series together I suspect that reading them in random order has only increased my enjoyment of the series.

One of my favorite things about the series is that Laurenston doesn't place former protagonists on pedestals. Most series books I know I have read, have former protagonist make small cameos, occasionally coming in to help  the hero and heroine. They are always happy and often juggling babies.  It is liberating to read a long running series where the former protagonists  can serve as antagonists or create complications for the current protagonists, and  keep their HEAs because there HEAs are not to simply live in some sort of conflict free state of happy limbo. Former starring couples don't often get along with each other, and some in fact actively hate the new protagonists.  My second favorite thing about the series is how effortlessly multi-cultural and multi-racial the world is. The diversity in Laurenston's books is not simply limited to having different kinds of shifters, but also actually having protagonists of color.

These are the Laurenston books I read last month:

PRIDE STORIES

  • The Mane Squeeze  Gwen is Lion/Tiger hybrid who has served and protected her mother' Pride for years without really belonging to it.  She catches the attention of Loch MacRyrie, a Grizzly bear shifter, because she has absolutely no fear of him. Gwen is being targeted by some of her mother's old Derby enemies and Loch ends up getting involved.   I loved that Loch's mother is ball-busting feminist professor with an adoring husband and how they aid Loch is his quest to win over Gwen's over-protected heart. Despite being big and powerful, Loch is sweet, thoughtful and a bit neurotic.

  • Beast Behaving Badly : Blayne is Gwen's best-friend and is an irrepressible and  unpredictable Wolf-dog hybrid.   Bo Novikov is one of the most vicious and dangerous hockey players in the all shifter-hockey league  and not much nicer off the ice.  All Bo cares about is hockey and his own hockey success, till Blayne careens back into his life. I love that this story sort of plays around with the fated mates idea, and has a ton of fun with it.  Bo and Blayne spotted each other across a crowded room over 10 years before, and Blayne ran for the hills rather than try to figure out why this massive Lion/Bear hybrid was staring at her so intently. Bo is certain if she hadn't run, he wouldn't be the player he is because he would have stop caring about anything else.

    This time Blayne isn't running from Bo but coming after Bo for help.  Needing to up her competitive edge in order to help her Derby team secure a championship, Blayne wants Bo to help her train the niceness out of her.  Despite the fact that the protagonists of all the other books pretty much hate Bo and are often annoyed and overwhelmed by Blayne, I just loved them. They are probably one of my favorite couples in the Pride series.  They are opposites in many ways but they both see past each other's most annoying qualities and just accept  and value each other.  

MAGNUS PACK

I didn't like Magnus Pack stories nearly as much as I had the Pride books.  They felt darker and less fresh with the exception of the Miss Congeniality short story.

  • Pack Challenge:  Sara Morrighan is wolf shifter, she just doesn't know it.  Orphaned as child and raised by a hateful and vicious grand-mother, Sara doesn't know the truth or much of anything about her past.  When Zach Sheridan rolls into town with his the Mangus Pack, Sara's life changes forever.  

    Half of this story is really about Sara's parents and the enemies they made while they lead the Magnus Pack and the other half is about Sara and Zach fighting their attraction to each other, and helping accept her wolf nature, while trying to fight of assassins targeting Sara.  
     
  • Go Fetch! Sara's best friend Miki is a former hacker with a genius IQ about to defend her dissertation.  She has two problems,  one is pack of Hyenas that inexplicably interested her and the second is Conall Viga-Feilan, Zach's second in command, who Sara is trying to set her up with.  While Miki is incredibly attracted to Conall, she know he is dangerous to her ( as she fears getting involved with any man lest she end up unexpectedly pregnant and alone like her mother did).  She tries to fend him verbally abusing him, and even drugging him, but all that does is make him admire her more. It is a hero in hot pursuit story with a heroine who is determined not to be caught.    The suspense plot was weak and confusing, and I was mostly skimmed till the Dr. Irene Conridge and Van Holtz pack family showed up.  

  • Here Kitty, Kitty   Angelina Santiago is the last of Sara's best-friends. She is accidentally kidnapped by a pair of Tigers trying to rescue her from Hyena attack .  Sara's pack can't go get her, as they are in the middle of their own crisis, so she has to hang out with the Tigers.  She is taking out her frustration by taunting the Tigers' older brother, and spending his money, while helping the felines around town fashion makeovers. And that is about where I stopped reading.  Sadly while all the other Pride books were easy to read format, this book was only available as PDF on Scribd and it is was crazy hard to read.  So I stopped reading because I honestly didn't like Angelina or her Tiger host Nikolai enough to persevere. 
     
  • When He Was Bad anthology – “Miss Congeniality”  Dr. Irene Conridge and Niles Van Holtz are odd couple pair who had supporting roles in the Pride series.  Irene Conridge is a brilliant chemist and researcher, whose ideas are highly coveted by Cold War era rivals.  Niles Van Holtz is a millionaire playboy whose family are long-time financial supporters of her work at the local university.  Niles has long enjoyed baiting her into flirty conversations, while Irene is determine to avoid sex ( a boring chore in her experience) or any kind of emotional involvement ( a useless distraction from her work).  It is an opposites attract /fake mate story. Niles marks her as his mate in order to protect her when she inadvertently angers a Hyena pack  while trying to destroy some of her dangerous research. Niles is shocked to discover that there is magic to the mating bond, and now has to persuade her to give them a chance as couple.

Anthologies:

  • Belong to the Night Anthology – “The Wolf, The Witch, And Her Lack of Wardrobe”  In this short story Jaime Meacham is power-hungry witch whose coven has entered a partnership with  a community of shifters to protect them from intruders. Tully Smith is the easy-going mayor of the community who needs to make sure Jaime's thirst for magical power will not endanger them all.   This short story packed a lot of plot in very few pages.  There is a plot by Tully's estranged father to invade and capture the town, Jaime is embroiled is being harassed by supernatural creatures after she insulted the wrong godling.  It had some of the same zaniness of the Pride series with a darker flavor.
  • Howl For it Anthology -- "Like a Wolf with a Bone"  Another flashback story, this is the story of about how Eggie Ray Smith  & Darla Lewis, the parents deadly  & dangerous DeeAnn Smith from the Pride books got together. Eggie is on temporary leave from his  shifter-only military assassin unit, when he rescues Darla Lewis from attackers.  He brings her to his house with him rather than risk her being attacked again.  Before long Darla is making herself at home, and making the place  a home for Eggie. She sees goodness in Eggie no one else sees, and Eggie doesn't want to let her go, even if he doesn't think he deserves to touch a hair on her head.  The story was sweet and fun and fit right in with the rest of the Pride books. 

 I know PNR books are not for everybody but I love them when they are done right and Shelley Laurenston does is better than most.


Intimate Geography (Book 2 of The Compass Series) by Tamsen Parker

Intimate Geography is book 2 in Tamsen Parker’s The Compass series duology. It picks up right after the cliffhanger ending of Personal Geography.

In this volume Cris and India have to make sense of what her choice means for their relationship and lives. I thought Parker did a fantastic job showing how hard this was for India. India reacts in believable ways, she wants to please Cris and stretches to live outside of her emotional comfort zone for the first time in years, but it takes a toll. I loved seeing how hard and complicated it was for India to break the emotional and relational habits she has intentionally cultivated for years. I liked seeing how thirsty India is for the kind of relationship Cris wants, even as it causes her stress and anxiety. Their pain, anger and confusion as they try to make decisions about their relationship was very compelling.

One of the things I wanted to see in this volume was for us to know Cris better and we did. We see in his home outside of his role as Dom, interacting with family and friends and best of all we get to see him in India’s domain. However the story is still first and foremost centered on India, her struggles, her pain and the risks to her heart. India makes some really painfully wrong choices in this novel, but they are completely in character.

The one flaw I found in the story was that the perpetrators of the catalyzing event near the end of the book that solidifies a happy ending for Cris and India were introduced very late into the story. In the previous book Parker had already introduced several people who have been dangerous to India’s life and career, and built up suspense for a particular kind of threat, they are neither responsible for the event, and the event is very different in nature than what we were led to expect, and that was less than satisfying.

I did love the story, primarily for how emotionally complicated India is and how anti-type Cris, he is my favorite #RomDom ever.

I received a review copy of Intimate Geography from the author via NetGalley.


Character Catnip

Since I’m not an aspiring writer and a moody rather than trendy reader and have little interest in predicting and anticipating the the kinds of stories, protagonists and heat-levels that I will likely encounter on the shelves in a year’s time, I generally don’t pay much attention to wish lists posted by agents and romance publishers. But every so often I do stumble upon one of those lists. This week a friend sent me a link to an post by an editor describing the kind of heroes this particular line was looking for.

When I get comfy in my nice big armchair with a cup of tea close at hand, I like to read books with heroes who are confident and sexy and, well, heroic. I don’t want too much realism. We all know guys who tell gross jokes or refuse to clean their bathrooms, so reading about them kind of ruins the mood, you know? I like a hero who has a bit of an edge and is tough enough to protect the woman he loves. Oh, and he has a sense of humor, too. The perfect man, right? Well, he doesn't have to be perfect; he can have flaws and vulnerabilities, and this is what makes him seem attainable.

http://www.readersentertainment.com/blog/2015/harlequin-blaze-editor-johanna-raisanen-talks-blazeblitz/

 

I ended up thinking about that post for a long while. I was particularly struck by the fact that she seemed to be saying that the flaws and vulnerabilities are there to make the character seem attainable.

I know everyone has different kinds of character catnip, but attainable is probably the last thing I look for in romance novel protagonists. While rock-stars, billionaires, sports-stars and CEO’s are all over the place, I personally really enjoy blue-collar or no-collar protagonists the best but not because they are more attainable. While I might be inspired to sigh at a romantic gesture or find a particular character incredibly swoon-worthy, they are in the end fictional. My enjoyment of romance is not tied to whether I think or dream about that story happening to me. Some of my favorite romances have been ones set in times/places completely apart from my life experience and when I judge my satisfaction with the romantic arc I care a lot more about whether they are attractive & attainable to the other protagonist, not to me personally.

What I look for in romance protagonists is wider and murkier. I love characters who are competent and love their jobs which is why so many of Julie James’s & Emma Barry’s heroines appeal to me. I love it even more when characters who are super-competent in one part of their life but not super-competent at the rest of their lives like Tamsen Parker’s India Burke in the Compass Series or both Charlotte & Gabriel in Nalini Singh’s Rock Hard. I like cranky, grumpy protagonists like Ilona Andrews’s Dali Harimau and KJ Charles’s Stephen Day. I love witty & charming characters who use their humor to hide their pain & vulnerabilities like Courtney Milan’s Sebastian Malheur & Blake Reynolds. I like humble, earnest & some-what self-conscious characters, like Laurenston’s Lachlan "Lock" MacRyrie, Meg Maguire’s Patrick Doherty or Florand’s Matthieu Rosier while at the same time enjoying deadly & dangerous characters like Kit Rocha’s Lex & Dallas & Carolyn Crane’s Thorne.

I know some readers are very hero or heroine centric, readers who love to read a fantasy about their perfect kind of man or woman, and I am not judging that. I can understand the appeal of a great care-taking alpha fantasy, or being able to sink into a story because you are able to deeply connect with one of the characters. For me only characters that evolve beyond their “type” will allow me to develop a lasting interest in a story. Just recently I DNF’ed a promising book because 25% of the way in the characters were still describing each other in the same repetitive & superficial fantasy-word-soup, all the descriptors were incredibly attractive but if the characters could only see each other as that limited list of descriptors that far into the story I was not going to invest any further time into trying to finish.

Yes, I want to read characters with flaws and failures, characters that are imperfect because our imperfections highlight our common humanity. They are not just qualities that make idealized characters seem attainable. I want the characters I read about to have vulnerabilities because I find character arcs richer when I see characters grow and mature through the course of the story.

I know many readers have bright lines about needing their romance protagonists to be heroic. I while I have lines, I have to admit that they might not be as bright for me as they are for some other readers. I've come to terms with my weakness for bad-boys (Spike over Angel, everyday!). I will happily read about pirates, outlaw bikers, con artists, fortune hunters, spies and assassins. I frequently read stories about morally compromised men and women finding love they surely don’t deserve and enjoy it. What matters to me when I read these stories is not whether the character’s morality is compatible with my own, but whether I believe the character to be capable of loving the other protagonist and able to do right by them.

I do love a good redemption story, but my acceptance of non-heroic characters has limits. I will not apologize for avoiding stories that center on slave traders, slave owners & exploiting colonizers. While I believe they like all sinners are able to be recipients of God’s incomprehensible Grace, I am not interested in reading their stories of romantic fulfillment.

One of my gray areas is characters who hold racist, sexist or homophobic views. My acceptance of those kinds of characters depends greatly on whether those views are presented in order to be challenged in the course of the story. If there is no change or rebuke, if those views are not a source of internal or external conflict, I am not likely to enjoy that book however compelling the romantic arc is. The way the author handles people of color and other marginalized people in the story is also going to greatly affect if the book is successful for me. Life is too short to read yet another “privileged person learns a lesson” story where marginalized people are nothing more than props.

So whether the main character is a troubled con artist or a lonely firefighter the biggest thing I am looking for is that they are rounded and real enough to carry stories that illustrate hope and joy. I want characters who reflect the same capacity to love and fail as the people I live and work with everyday. Sign me up for protagonists that are not simply attainable perfection but whose flaws, quirks and failures illustrate a shared humanity that shines through whether they live in ancient Rome, a story-book castle, a cramped urban apartment, a starship in a galaxy far away, in steam-punk China or a small suburb much like my own.

 

What qualities are you looking for in protagonists? What kinds do you want to read more of? The quirky, witty, competent, unlikable, sweet, feisty, troubled…? What are your bright lines? What are your exceptions?

 

 


Dead Heat by Patricia Briggs

DeadHeat_bigDead Heat is the fifth story in Patricia Briggs' Urban Fantasy series, Alpha & Omega.  I discovered the the Alpha & Omega series a couple of years ago when I ran out of her excellent yet heart-wrenching Mercy Thompson books to borrow from my library's audio-book collection.  Set in the same universe, the series follows Anna and Charles a mated wolf pair, who track and destroy supernatural threats to shifter and human communities.  

Charles is one of the son's of the Marrok, the leader of all the werewolves in North America.  He is his father's problem solver and enforcer.  Anna is an  Omega wolf, a very rare kind of wolf that exists outside the strict hierarchical werewolf pack power structure.  She can not be forced to submit to the will of even the strongest Alpha, and has the power to pacify and neutralize the most dominant of wolves.  

In Dead Heat, Charles and Anna travel to Arizona to purchase a new horse for Anna.   Instead of a relaxing visit with one of Charles's oldest non-werewolf friends, Joseph and his horse-raising family Charles and Anna arrive just in time to intervene when some of Joseph's extended family  are attacked .  The attack heightens inter-family tensions that threaten to derail their search for the powerful Fae responsible for trying to harm Joseph’s grand-children and the abduction of a preschooler. I really loved this book but I almost didn't make it past the first 20% because children were the targets of the attack.  If you are a person who is triggered or other has a hard time with children in peril stories, this might not be the book for you.  Through the book there are multiple references to children being abducted and harmed.  There is HEA and the good and righteous prevail but there was a lot of suspense, terror and tension before everything is resolved.

One of the things I love about the Alpha and Omega series is that while the stories are full of great crime solving/detective/action adventure elements, the stories in the end are really about Anna and Charles’s relationship.  Briggs does not flinch as she has portrays the many hurdles and difficulties pair have to overcome to be happy together.  Briggs strength in these books is that she has balanced the portrayals of conflict, pain, with those of growth and joy.  One of the major themes in this book is family, what it means, who belongs, and what kind of responsibilities they have to one another. I loved how complicated family was in this book, as we have pack, tribal, legal and emotional bonds inter-crossing and complicating everyone's lives. I was very satisfied with how Anna and Charles come to resolve their tensions over Anna's desire to have children and the roots of Charles' hesitance.

One thing I didn't like was the amount of horse lore packed into this book.  Joseph's family raises Arabians and I felt there was a lot of info dumping about horses in general and Arabian's particular. Some of it paid off in the end, but it was overwhelming.  But it didn't ruin the book for me.  It continues to be incredibly satisfying to read  about Anna and Charles falling and growing into love while defeating  yet another dangerous supernatural threat.

But I what I would really love is for Ms. Briggs to spin-off Bran and Moira into their own monster-fighting series.  I would love to read about the Marrok, rolling up his sleeves and calling in my favorite blind-wolf-mated Witch to hunt down monsters that really need killing. Their odd couple team-up in this book delighted me.

 


Vision in Silver by Anne Bishop

C.vision.silver.180Last summer I listened to the first two books in The Others series, Written in Red and Murder of Crows and I fell in love with the series.  The Others series is set in alternate Earth, called Thasia, where humans are not the dominant species. Instead humans are a vulnerable population that lives at the mercy of mysterious and supernatural communities of shape-shifters,  vampires, elementals and other even more powerful beings that have control over most of the world's lands and resources. Centuries ago humans and Terra Indigene worked out treaties that allow humans to barter technology, books and other manufactured goods in exchange for access to raw materials, limited land leases and access to water sources, allowing human communities to grow and thrive as long as they do nothing to threaten their Terra Indigene neighbors.   After the creation of these treaties, the Terra Indigene for the most part retreated to the interior parts of the vast land holdings, leaving behind only small groups to live near, observe and trade with the humans. These Terra Indigene-controlled tracks of lands, where human law does not apply, at the edges of human settlements were called Courtyards, and are used as headquarters, embassies and trading posts.

Meg Corbyn, is the central character in The Others series. She is a blood prophet who is learning how to live after escaping captivity at the hands of humans who profited from her prophecies. In Written in Red, Meg finds sanctuary among the Terra Indigene when she stumbles into the Lakeside Courtyard and into Simon Wolfguard's bookstore. In Murder of Crows,  Meg's continued presence in the Lakeside Courtyard and her prophesies expose a growing anti-Terra Indigene movement in the human communities of Thasia.  In Vision in Silver, the tensions between human and Terra Indigene communities continue to grow and it is clear that change, maybe explosive change, is inevitable. 

I really loved this book. It was 1/3 political thriller, 1/3 murder-mystery and 1/3 psychological horror story.

When the newly rescued Cassandra Sangue struggle to acclimate to life outside of the sanatoriums, Meg's quest to understand how to manage her prophetic urges while minimizing harm to herself gains new urgency. She is no longer simply trying to figure out how live and use her gifts outside of captivity  but intentionally blazing a trail for these young and newly rescued group of Cassandra Sangue.

Lieutenant Montgomery becomes personally involved in trying to identify and stop the human agitators hell-bent on sparking a Terra Indigene-Human war in Thasia, when his daughter Lizzie is nearly abducted and his ex killed.  He must try to figure out what humans he can trust while not overly-alarming his Terra Indigene contacts.

Meanwhile Simon is traveling all over Thasia following the clues in Meg's cryptic but frightening prophesies, looking for hope and hoping to figure out some new way to for these two communities to co-exist short of genocide.

Ms. Bishop was able to juggle these ambitious and complicated plot threads, while developing complex emotional relationships within the book's large ensemble cast.  I was fully engaged in all three plots, because I was emotionally invested in the lives of the secondary characters, both human & Terra Indigene, not just in Meg and Simon's relationship. But Simon and  Meg remain central to the story. Their struggle to understand what their growing attraction and emotional attachment means to them and everyone else serves as both a catalyst and proof of the radically altering state of human & Terra Indigene relations in the series.

 I was left wanting to read so much more about this world. I was greatly relieved to see confirmation on Ms. Bishop's website that we can count on at least two more books in this fascinating series. My only disappointment is in having to wait at least another year for the next book.

A review copy of Vision in Silver by Anne Bishop was provided by PENGUIN GROUP USA via Edelweiss. 

Thursday I will be again reviewing another fantastic Urban Fantasy book, Dead Heat by Patricia Briggs, the 5th story in her Alpha and Omega series.


Guilty Pleasure & The Pleasure Principle by Jane O'Reilly

Cover58621-mediumI read these two novellas last month. I didn't review them right away because I needed to think about how I felt about them. I liked a lot of what Ms. O’Reilly was doing in these novellas, and I found them undeniably hot but I struggled a bit with some of the choices made by the characters. Both the novellas center on women rebounding and reclaiming their sexuality in the face of misogyny, and unexpectedly falling in love not just in lust with their sexual partners.

In Guilty Pleasure, Tasha is the lone female architect her company. She has a sexist boss and sexually harassing clients. Always a hard worker, she is spurred into ridiculous levels of work-alcoholism when a new male architect, Ethan Hall is hired. She finds emotional release by masturbating at her desk long after everyone else has gone home. She knows it is dangerous for to her career if she were caught, but the fear doesn't stop her, and instead drives her on, till the night that Ethan walks in on her.

Ethan it turns out it is not the repressed workaholic automaton she has imagined him to be. Ethan becomes her sexual partner-in-crime. They drive each other into greater and greater risks in the office and more exploration outside the office.

I wanted to reach in the book and shake Tasha, and say “honey no!” to her self-destructive short-sighted choices. I have a hard time with books with lots of workplace conflict and I just wanted to get her out of that situation. Her sexual explorations with Ethan were certainly pleasurable, but so ill-timed I seriously worried for her. But in the end she gets herself out of her work conflict herself in completely satisfactory way.

I felt that Ethan and Tasha’s relationship was one dimensional. They are clearly sexually compatible, but little else was developed on the page, and I wished we could have seen them not just be told that they related to each other in other ways.

 

Cover58622-mediumThe Pleasure Principle:

When Verity discovers that her ex-boyfriend has negatively rated her sexual performance on a website, Verity breaks down at work. In response her boss & secret crush, Cal Bailey, an unapologetic playboy and rumored host of sex parties, invites her to his house for one of those fabled parties. At the party Cal takes a special interest in her but she is quickly overwhelmed by all the public sexuality only to run into her ex on the way out. Cal steps in, deflects her ex and walks Verity home where he confronts her. Cal is distressed to discover that Verity has internalized her ex’s ugly and hateful assertions that she is frigid, and decides it is his responsibility to show her that she is not bad at sex and that she can enjoy it. Cal has to work very hard to build up her confidence, earn her trust and help her feel less exposed.

When I read it, I enjoyed Pleasure Principle more than I did Guilty Pleasure, because I wasn't nearly as stressed for Verity as I was for Tasha. The trajectory of the story was comforting as Cal is essentially a jaded Rake who find meaning and intimacy while mentoring an in experience woman about the joys of sex, and I know how those kind of stories turn out. Verity however almost upsets the plan, because she is determined not get attached to Cal, it is only after she realizes how and why Cal has become invested in this project that she can see his hurts and needs. In the end the more they interact, the more they have sex, the more private they get. They move away from Cal’s voyeurism & exhibitionism withdrawing to private spaces, where they don’t need or want anyone else. Verity comes accept that this isn't a sacrifice for Cal, because what they have together means more to him. In this novella I felt we had more development of the relationship outside the bedroom but it still was not robust.

There were moments in these stories that I really loved, so I am open to reading more from Ms. O’Reilly, as I found her voice was very compelling and immediate.

 I was invited to consider these books for review by Ms.O'Reilly and received review copies from UK Carina via NetGalley