Taken by Charlotte Stein (mini-gushy review)

Charlotte Stein is the master deep first person weirdness. I just love her stories. Taken is an intense & delightfully off-kilter erotic romance.  Taken is the story of an unexpectedly tender/kinky accidental-kidnapper bookseller and the reluctant vandal/nearly arsonist who falls for him.

This story is just a short 99 pages but it is worth every cent. I stretched out reading it over a day and half, because it was too good to rush through. As it is I felt I read it too fast. If you have never read any of Stein's gloriously erotic stories give this one a try. Taken has so much of what makes her a joy to read.  

Stein's meet-cute are more like meet-under-the-most-bizarre-of-circumstances. In this case a college student agrees to accompany a friend to play a prank on store owner who was rude to her, but instead finds herself nearly helping her friend set fire to his store.  Johann stops them before they do much, and in a fit of anxious panic ends up handcuffing her to his bed in the store basement. Then he really panics.

Stein's voice is hilarious. I've yet to read one of her stories where I don't end up laughing or at least chuckling to myself.  None of her characters are cool and aloof, however much they want to be. They are full of this effervescent excitement.  These sex feelings and tinglings are the best things ever and even if they want to seem in control and sophisticated it just leaks out of them.

Stein's stories are about acceptance and celebration. Many of Stein's hero and heroines have an idea of what kind of people they should be.  They feel woefully inadequate and alien. They might be externally competent and put together but inside they are mush.  Yet the very things they deny about themselves are what their lover wants them to express the most. Are you secretly kinky, and afraid of losing control? bring it! Do you care too much too fast? me too! I just love the underlying joy of recognition, of seeing someone else say "I just love that about you!"  Her heroes and heroines bodies, personalities & quirks are celebrated and desired.  Their arousal & satisfaction are gloried in and in the end her protagonists are allowed to revel in love they never expected to have. 

In the end Stein's stories always feel to me like warm weirdly arousing hugs and I always want more.

 

 

 

 


World-Building in Romance

Books that have a strong sense of place really help me sink right in. It makes the story feel solid and tangible.

— Ana (@anacoqui) April 9, 2015

 

Last week I was reading two very different kinds of romance novels (Joanna Wylde’s Silver Bastard and Laura Florand’s upcoming All for You).  Although they are both contemporaries on the surface, you can’t pick two more different types of stories and settings yet I felt fully engaged and immersed both these books in no small part because of the way the authors described and rooted the action in their locations in macro and micro ways.

The novels didn't use their cities/towns as interchangeable backdrop or wallpaper but instead took the time to develop a distinctive location for the reader. Locations were consistently described, attention was paid to the way people experience and interact differently with the landscape when walking versus when they are driving. While I couldn't have drawn you a map based on the descriptions I had a sense that the writers could have. 

I grew up reading Fantasy, Sci-fi & Mystery and I still have weakness for novels with maps. I love books that take the time to develop a setting so it feels like it had depth and solidity. I don’t care if we are talking about books set in steam-punk China or Victorian England, a post-apocalyptic future or planet far far away,  small-town or urban contemporary, world building is important to me. I think one of the reasons books by Jeannie Lin, Courtney Milan,  K.J. Charles, Kit Rocha, Shannon Stacey & Julie James work so well for me is that they do excellent world building.

Reading is an act of trust. As a reader I routinely gift authors with my goodwill and enter their books with a willing suspension of disbelief. When I do that I trust the author to take me someplace amazing, some place worth going.  There are lots of ways to screw that up. Everyone has different things that trigger disbelief and kick them out of story. For me repetitive vocabulary, vague geography & continuity mistakes are some of the more common ones.  

How important is place and world building to you?  What are your essentials? I've listed a few authors I think do a consistently good job, any authors you feel do this particularly well? Do you have higher expectations from some kinds of books than you do of others?


Still the One by Jill Shalvis

Darcy has spent her whole life on the road. As child she was shuttled from one international posting to another following her parents' s all important diplomatic careers. As an adult she has always chased thrills and adventure as travel writer. But a catastrophic accident has stranded Darcy in small-town Sunshine, Idaho. Darcy is angry, restless and directionless. The only thing that means anything to Darcy right now are the rejected therapy dogs she rescues and re-homes.

AJ is a Physical Therapist and owner of the Sunshine Wellness Center, and Darcy's brother's best friend. He did everything within his power to ensure Darcy received the best care post-accident, pushing her hard during their sessions and then secretly covering her PT bills long after her meager insurance coverage ran out.  He is secretly in love with Darcy but won't pursue her for reasons and allows Darcy to think that he rejected her.  But things get complicated and hot when AJ and Darcy are forced to endure a weekend away together pretending they are in a relationship so that AJ can secure a grant that would allow him to help others in the same way he helped her.

I love a cantankerous heroine, and Darcy had that role covered. In the previous books in the series we have learned a lot about Wyatt, Zoe and Darcy's awful parents, and the emotional scars their neglect and disinterest have left on their children.  Darcy has a lot of them.  She is lonely, angry and very vulnerable. I appreciated her pride and her determination to rescue those dogs, even if I rolled my eyes at her inability to let anyone else help.  I liked that she is deeply uncomfortable being put on display and having to talk about her injuries and recovery process.  Her disabilities and struggle to regain her mobility  don't serve as inspiration porn.

I had a harder time connecting with AJ. I liked him as a super-competent Physical Therapist who struggles with his attraction for Darcy because she is  his best-friend's sister and a former patient.  I didn't like the twist that the deep down his actual internal conflict for stems from  a secret tragic back-story, especially when it stays a big secret from Darcy for way to long (his fiancee rejected him and herself after she was disfigured by IED, so he fears falling in love again).   I wanted to like him and Darcy together but I didn't understand his motivations and behaviors a lot of the time (he went hot and cold, initiating and then backing away) and felt most of their conflicts could have been resolved if they actually spoke to each other rather than ignoring each other and avoid talking about their issues.

In the end the romance didn't hold together well enough for me. I felt there were a lot of issues raised that were not dealt with completely  and others that while powerful and interesting (Darcy's  heart-breaking break-up with her best-friend Xander over being "friend-zoned"), stole away the focus from AJ and Darcy relationship issues.

I felt very lukewarm over Still the One. There were a lot of things to like, interesting characters & situations,  good ethical questions, and some hot sex scenes but in the end it didn't work for me.


A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley

Wpefa6f380_05_06In A Desperate Fortune, Kearsley interweaves two distinctive love stories, separated by time and place into one beautiful narrative about hope and longing and the power of love to upend our expectations and re-write sad endings.

In A Desperate Fortune, Sara Thomas is an amateur cryptologist asked to decode the diary of  a young French-Scottish Jacobite. The novel follows both Sara and the diary writer, Mary Dundas as they begin new chapters in their lives and find unexpected love and acceptance.

Sara is a computer programmer by trade. But she loves cracking codes and playing with numbers often using them as way to re-focus when she is in social situations that tax her (She has Asperger’s). Her cousin Jacqui, a literary agent, convinces her to put her deciphering skills to use and accept a lucrative job offer from one of her clients, Alistair Scott, a celebrity historian.  In order to decode the diary, Sara has to move to a beautiful old house in small town outside of Paris, where the owner of diary and Alistair’s old friend, Claudine resides. Sara slowly becomes part of the household, building relationships with her host, Claudine, Claudine’s house keeper Denise, Denise’s son Noah and ex-husband Luc.

Mary Dundas grew up forgotten by her family, left to be raised by her French relatives after her mother’s death. In her aunt’s household she grew up loved but still an outsider, not quite French not quite Scottish. When one of her older brother’s writes to invite her to join him and his family at  the Jacobean court in Saint-Germain, she is thrilled.  But she never makes it there for it turns out her brother has volunteered her to help with a covert mission to protect Jacobite operative fleeing from the English. Mary must deal with the disappointment of not being reunited with her family or sought after for herself while at the same time embracing the adventure and opportunity to remake herself in a new environment. Thrust into the company of strangers, who are even more skilled than she is at wearing masks to hide their true nature, Mary must learn to recognize friend from foe and learn to discern people’s true agendas and motivations if she is to survive long enough to make her own choices.

Kearsley shows considerable skill in structuring this story. She flips between Sara and Mary’s stories at just the right times, building suspense, while giving us satisfying chunks of narrative to digest. As the dual stories unfolded. The stories are complementary rather than parallel. In the diary Mary writes down fairy-tales that she is reinterpreting and re-telling in ways that are aspirational and contemplative.  Her stories inspire, clarify issues and allow her to express issues she can’t talk about openly. While they can be read and appreciated outside by listeners and readers ignorant of her inner life, they have fuller meaning when read in the context of her life as expressed in her diary.  In the same way Sara and Mary’s stories while distinct and whole, create a more expansive view of love when presented together.

I loved that Sara’s story is about learning that she can be loved and treasured for who she is.  She has to let go of long-held expectations of rejection and inadequacy. Through the relationships she builds she learns that is capable of more than she ever imagined.  Luc’s gentle persistent understanding helps her recognize love and accept it. Mary’s story is about finding her voice and creating a future for herself rather than waiting on others to want or remember her. She becomes the hero of her her story, claiming Hugh, when he unable a picture a future for them.  

Although this is only my second Kearsley novel (My first was The Winter Sea), Kearsley has shot up to the top of my favorite author list.  As a history lover, I appreciate the effort Kearsley takes in crafting her story. The historical and geographic research show in her ability to craft novels that grounded by their sense of time and place. Kearsley’s descriptions of locales, dress and customs lend her characters solidity without bogging down the narrative. Whether it is Luc and Sara wandering around street fair in Paris together or Mary tromping through a wilderness in the south of France before finding shelter with a farm family, Kearsley gives me enough for me to believe in and recognize those places in a way that lets me believe in the stories.  

My only caution to someone who hasn't read Kearsley before is that while her heroes are not under-developed in anyway, they are not the focus of the story. The stories are not told from the POV, so we are not privy to their private thoughts and struggles  the same way we are with the heroines.

I am eager to dive into Kearsley’s backlist and discover other heroines and romances worth my time and attention. 

I received a review copy of this novel from Sourcebooks Landmark via Edelweiss


Anticipation (Brothers Ink #2) by Sarah Mayberry

25165345Blue and Eddie have been friends for over 10 years. Ten years  of working side by side. Ten years of games, laughter and tears. Ten years of denial and want. When a close call shakes their world, they can no longer keep those feelings boxed up.

Ten years is a long time to know each other. Within hours of having met they both made a choice to ignore their sexual attraction and build a friendship instead.  Lovers have come and gone from both their lives but their friendship has endured even as it has been tested over the years. 

Blue grew up in a series of group and foster homes since the sudden accidental death of her parents when she was 6 years old.  Life on the move has made her a minimalist. She resists attachments to places, people and things. She keeps a spartan apartment &  keeps most people at distance, investing in only a few close friends, Eddie being the most important one.

Eddie is rarely alone. His easy smiles and seductive charms means he is always in demand.  No sooner does he break up with one woman, that another is looking to take her place. Sex and romance has always come easily to Eddie, but his relationships are short and fleeting never moving beyond casual. But outside of his brother the most important person in his life has always been Blue even if he has taken her for granted.  Seeing Blue's body fly across the payment after being hit by motorcycle made him realize how empty his life would be without Blue.  But breaking down 10 years of habits and walls is not easy especially when Blue is terrified of losing everything they have together if it goes wrong.

This novel hit all my emotional buttons. I've wanted Blue and Eddie's story since they first appeared in Satisfaction.  They interacted in such fun affectionate ways that like Maggie I wanted to know their story, the why behind their are they or aren't they vibe.

The story starts off with a bang, and I loved how Mayberry let the repercussions and emotions build over time. Their story stretches out over months and months, and I loved that. Both Eddie and Blue have serious feelings they need to work through and I would have not believed in the story unless they had the time to sort through and evaluate their feelings.  Even as Blue drags her feet and resists Eddie's determined assault on her heart even when surrendering to her physical need for him over the months it takes for them get together, the book never drags.

 I loved the journey Mayberry crafted because none of it was easy.  I loved that while their sexual chemistry is off the charts, they struggle to read each other emotionally.  One of the most painful and real scenes for me in the book happens early on. Eddie has bullied Blue into staying at his house during her recovery. Blue, emotionally raw doesn't want to be there because she feels like an emotional mess. Eddie goes all out to make her feel comfortable in his home, to show her how much she means to him, but he still screws up because he hasn't quite realized that he can't do that, and let other women walk into his life and steal his attention. He didn't do anything to intentionally hurt Blue, but it does and Blue can't watch it happen anymore, not till she has her feelings under control.  That moment is wake up call to both of them. For Eddie it makes him realize that his feeling for Blue go beyond her being his best-friend, and for Blue that she loves him to much to lose him over her feelings so she needs to bottle them back up.  That conflict is central to the rest of the novel. I love heroes in hot-pursuit and Eddie is fantastic in the role.  The depth of his commitment to pursuing Blue surprises everyone in their life. I loved that he had to overcome his own feelings of insecurity about his inexperience at relationships before being able to confront Blue about her own. He doesn't do everything right, Blue is infuriating at times in her resistance but every bit of it felt real.

In Anticipation, Mayberry crafts a passionate & genuine emotional journey through friendship, sexual tension and love for Blue and Eddie that was worth waiting for.

I received a review copy of Anticipation from Ms. Mayberry.


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.