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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

'Lover Unleashed' Black Dagger Brotherhood #9 by J.R. Ward

From the BLURB:

Payne, twin sister of Vishous, is cut from the same dark, warrior cloth as her brother: A fighter by nature, and a maverick when it comes to the traditional role of Chosen females, there is no place for her on the Far Side… and no role for her on the front lines of the war, either.

When she suffers a paralyzing injury, human surgeon Dr. Manuel Manello is called in to treat her as only he can- and he soon gets sucked into her dangerous, secret world. Although he never before believed in things that go bump in the night- like vampires- he finds himself more than willing to be seduced by the powerful female who marks both his body and his soul.

As the two find so much more than an erotic connection, the human and vampire worlds collide … just as a centuries old score catches up with Payne and puts both her love and her life in deadly jeopardy.

** Spoilers ahead - BEWARE! **


For never was a story of more woe

Vishous, son of the Bloodletter and Scribe Virgin, has just discovered he is one half of a twin. At the same time this revelation comes to light his twin sister, the Chosen Payne, lies paralysed from the waist down . . . and the only man who can save her is a human called Manuel ‘Manny’ Manello.

Meanwhile, there are new vampires coming to the town of Caldwell. Xcor and his Band of Bastards are old-world vampire warriors, here to challenge Wrath to his kingdom.

In the human world, Josè de ka Cruz has got himself a new rookie partner called Thomas ‘Veck’ DelVecchio. This newbie has his first case cut out for him, as they hunt a serial killer who stalks and brutally kills the women of Caldwell. . .

I must be cruel only to be kind.

Normally I barricade the door when there’s a new Brotherhood book. I take the phone off the hook and power through the new instalment so I can jump online and discuss it with all my equally obsessed blogger friends. Not the case with ‘Unleashed’. While reading this ninth book I found my mind wandering; I'd read for a bit and then put the book down and walk away for a little while. I finished it in one day, but I also realized that there were whole passages and chapters that hadn’t really sunk in – as though I was skim-reading them.

My biggest problem was a total apathy for Payne and Manny and their romance. I have been sceptical about ‘Unleashed’ for a while now . . . and my concerns stemmed from the fact that I don’t know Manny and Payne, so why should I care about them? Part of the appeal of the Black Dagger Brotherhood series is getting to know each brother individually, and anticipating their happily ever after story. Not the case with Payne and Manny. As readers, we don’t really know these characters – they are peripheral, mentioned in passing and relegated to the sidelines in previous books.

I really enjoyed ‘Lover Avenged’ and the relationship between Rehvenge and Ehlena – two characters who were likewise small-time until their instalment put them in starring roles. But where Rehv and Ehlena had heat, chemistry and friction to spice up their romance, I found Payne and Manny to be utterly dull.

Warden does for Manny and Payne what I hate in all romance stories – love at first sight. And it’s made worse by the fact that Payne is paralysed and on an operating table when Manny lays eyes on her. Gag. This couple left me cold – to the point that I groaned whenever a chapter refocused on them.

I was also concerned about Payne’s instalment because in previous books she has been presented as a warrior female. But ‘Unleashed’ is coming on the coat-tails of Xhex’s book, ‘Love Mine’. . . I was worried about having two BDB instalments featuring strong, warrior-women. Alas, I had no need to panic about Xhex/Payne similarities. Payne may fight with Wrath and handle knives, but there was no trace of an ass-kicker in this book. She is thoroughly, depressingly, a Chosen female . . . and all the naïveté that entails. Verily. And on that note. . .

I hate thee as I hate hell. . .

I hate Layla. Verily.

Layla joins the growing list of Chosen females who I don’t like reading about. There’s just something about all of the women who migrate from the Other Side – Cormia, Marissa, and now Payne. I just don’t like these females, and I am becoming increasingly frustrated by them being paired with the Brothers. I miss the human females who became Shellans. My favourite Shellans in the series are (or started out as) humans; Beth and Mary. But not since Vishous’s book, ‘Lover Unbound’ has a Brother hooked up with a woman of the homo sapien persuasion. The last four Shellans have been vampires – Cormia, Ehlena, Xhex (part sympath) and Payne. Now, I didn’t mind Xhex and Ehlena as heroines, but on the whole I am no longer interested in reading about vampire/vampire pairings.

I think part of the reason I don’t connect with the vampire heroines is that, as a female reader, it’s not exactly fun to read about these perfectly beautiful women in all their hairless glory nabbing gorgeous Brothers for themselves. I loved reading about Mary and Rhage, because lovely, beautiful Mary couldn’t even fathom Hollywood being interested in her. There’s a level of believability to that; I can connect vicariously with Mary’s feelings of inadequacy. No doubt I would have the same reaction if a gorgeous Brother took a shine to me (hey, a girl can dream!). With all of the Chosen females, there’s too much perfection. They are too beautiful, too naive, too nice and too . . . verily! I'm over it, quite frankly. And I am seriously considering skipping whichever book contains Layla’s HEA storyline.

I am in blood / Stepp'd in so far

I love Vishous, but I (like many fans) was not satisfied with his book, ‘Lover Unbound’. I thought Jane’s ghostly transition was weirdly indecisive on the Wardens part. And it only became more awkward as the series went on and questions went unanswered. Are she and Vishous mated? Can she eat? Does she sleep? Is Jane unhappy with her ghostly-self? Is Vishous? It was all frayed ends, up in the air. . . until this book.

I would say that ‘Lover Unleashed’ is Payne *AND* Vishous’s book. In this instalment Vishous cuts loose – he goes off the rails and exposes himself, completely. Everything that was left unsaid in ‘Unbound’ is ripped open like an oozing wound in ‘Unleashed’. And it is wonderful. Vishous is in a very bad head-space when his twin appears, and Jane bears the brunt of his upheaval.

J.R. Ward really exposes Vishous’s every little nook and cranny in ‘Unleashed’. The big, pink elephant in the room has always been the fact that Vishous had a serious, hard-core crush on his best buddy Butch for a long time (until both men met their respective Shellans). Well, Ward delves into that ‘almost’ relationship, somewhat satisfyingly in this book. She even looks at that relationship from Jane’s POV:
. . . . it was always like that with V. With him, she never knew what to expect, and not just because he was the son of a deity. He was sex on the edge all the time, hard-cornered and crafty, twisted and demanding.
And she knew that she merely got the watered-down version of him.
There were deeper caves in his underground maze, ones that she had never visited and could never go to.
The one thing I would have liked in relation to the Butch/Vishous dynamic was Marissa’s response to it. We get one little scene with her where she seems A-Okay, but I wasn’t buying it. I wish the Warden had offered us a little Butch/Marissa heart-to-heart (consequently, I missed out on just such an exchange in ‘Lover Mine’ too, since Butch never fessed-up to Marissa or John Matthew that he and Xhex hooked up once. Marissa, the poor dear, seems to be left in the dark on all manner of things).

J.R. Ward has always been very open and honest about her difficulties writing Vishous. He’s a broken and complicated character – coming from an insanely abusive childhood and transitioning into an adulthood of painful BDSM play. One of the few good things to come out of ‘Lover Unleashed’ is a new outlook for Jane and Vishous. . . their tale finally seems to have been told, and it’s about time too!

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.

‘Unleashed’ introduces a possible new big-bad in the BDB universe. For nine books now it has been the same villains – Omega and his lessers. But in this instalment we meet an old-world vampire called Xcor, and his Band of Bastards. These are vampire warriors from England. They are like the Brotherhood, minus all the moral chivalry. These guys are mean – yes, they kill lessers – but they have no time or care for humans and their petty problems. And they are in Caldwell for one reason and one reason only – to dethrone Wrath. . . dun, Dun, DUNNN!

The Bastards were probably the best part of this book for me. I'm putting my hand up as an early fan. I think there’s a lot of potential here, for new characters and more well-rounded villains. I have never been a real fan of the lesser and Omega storyline. Truth be told, I often skim-read over all the chapters told from Mr. X and the Omega’s POV. With these Bastards, there’s potential for redemption and a full character-arc. These are morally bankrupt characters that could go either way – via the path of redemption, or ending up on the heel of a Brother’s shitkicker. I have particularly high-hopes for one Bastard called Throe, who seems to have an unusual interest in the human world. But I really liked Xcor – a big, mean warrior with a face only a mother could love (could he be the new Zsadist? Only time will tell!).

And all the men and women merely players

One of the biggest pitfalls of ‘Unleashed’ is the lack of scope. One of the best things in a BDB book is getting to revisit old characters (now fictional friends). It’s one of the reasons I love this series and the universe the Warden has created. Characters don’t just disappear - they get their novel-length time in the sun, and then they reappear sporadically in later books. Not so much the case in ‘Unleashed’. This ninth book is most assuredly (and sadly) the Vishous and Payne show. Admittedly, Vishous needed a spotlight focus to correct his lack-lustre ‘Unbound’ instalment. But the sharp focus means the Warden skips over revisiting old favourites; like Tohr, Lassiter, Xhex, John Matthew etc, etc. And the biggest omission of all is Qhuinn and Blay.

For quite a few books now, fans have been rabid for Qhuay – the only M/M pairing in the BDB world. The Warden has uhmmed and ahhed about whether or not to give fans a novel-length, homosexual HEA for two of the Brothers . . . so instead she has been writing their unfolding side-story in each new instalment – and it has been wonderful. Rocky, and sad, but wonderful. Each new book and side-story has bought Blay and Qhuinn that little bit closer to their happily ever after. Not the case in ‘Unleashed’. We get a little bit of insight into Qhuinn’s thinking and changing attitude, but there’s not nearly enough Qhuay-time to satisfy. I can only hope that the lack of them is an indication that the Warden is close to coming out with their novella. Fingers crossed!

‘Unleashed’ is quite a frustrating book for all that the Warden omits. In ‘Lover Mine’ we met a new vampire male (and ex-Brother) called Muhrder. His hefty side-story in ‘Lover Mine’ seemed to indicate that he was a new player in the series . . . yet, there is no mention of him in ‘Unleashed’. He has disappeared. So what was his purpose in the first place? J.R. Ward may have an end-game in mind, but her fans aren’t privy to the inner-workings and I'm sure it’s driving the majority of us nuts!

Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.

My overall response to ‘Lover Unleashed’ was a resounding; “meh.”

I think, to some extent, this novel was all about the Warden going back in order to move forward. On the one hand, she’s giving fans a much-longed for storyline concerning Vishous and Jane. She’s tying up loose ends . . . while at the same time she has introduced a whole new crop of characters (and potential villains?) for future books.

I have a lot of faith in J.R. Ward, so even though I was verily unimpressed with Payne and Manny, I hold out hope for the future of this series. I look forward to Tohr’s story (heartbreaking though I know it will be). I still want to know more about Trez and iAm. I need a Blay and Qhuinn novella, like now! And I am interested to see where the Band of Bastards take the future of this series . . . but ‘Unleashed’ marks the lowest point in an otherwise unblemished series (until Layla’s story, at least).

2.5/5

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

'Undeniably Yours' by Shannon STACEY

From the BLURB:

One-night stand + two percent condom failure rate = happily ever after?

Bar owner Kevin Kowalski is used to women throwing their phone numbers at him, but lately he’s more interested in finding a woman to settle down with. A woman like Beth Hansen. If only their first meeting hadn’t gone so badly...

Beth’s tending bar at a wedding when she comes face-to-face with a tuxedo-clad man she never thought she’d see again. She tries to keep her distance from Kevin but, by last call, she can’t say no to his too-blue eyes or the invitation back to his room. Then she slips out before breakfast without leaving a note and, despite their precautions, pregnant.

Kevin quickly warms to the idea of being a dad and to seeing where things go with Beth. After all, he’s not the player she thinks he is. But she’s not ready for a relationship and, given his reputation, it’s going to take a lot to convince her to go on a second date with the father of her child...

Kevin Kowalski was happy being a bachelor. After his disastrous marriage finally crashed and burned, in one gloriously horrific finale that took his police career with it, he lapped up his bachelor lifestyle. He bought a sports bar and enjoyed the attentions of artificially enhanced women in too-small, belly-bearing jersey tops and tight jeans. But then his oldest brother went and got engaged to his high school sweetheart, and suddenly Kevin is the last man standing in his family. He’s the third wheel at family functions and the only bitter soul in a sea of happy couples . . . and then Kevin meets Beth Hansen.

Their first meeting isn’t exactly encouraging. He breaks her boss’s nose in a barroom brawl and gets her fired.

Then they meet again at his brother’s wedding, where she is tending bar in her new job. Kevin can’t take his eyes off of her all night long. He doesn’t pay attention to any of the lipstick napkins handed his way . . . he just wants Beth. And after some coaxing and moonlight dancing, they share one explosive night together.

One night. That’s all it was supposed to be . . . until Beth finds a little blue plus sign on her home pregnancy test weeks later.

Beth is a nomad. Since was the only miracle child in her family; which saw her rebel against her smothered upbringing and has spend her 20’s roaming around America. She lives month-to-month, hand-to-mouth and never stays in one place long enough to make friends let alone fall in love. And then one beautiful night with Kevin Kowalski throws a spanner in her works and a bun in her oven.

Kevin is finally ready to settle down, but Beth doesn’t want to be tied down. Beth can’t deny her baby its father, so she’s staying - with ground rules. She and Kevin will be acquaintances, bordering on friends, who just so happen to be having a baby together. Unless Kevin can change her mind in nine months. . .

‘Undeniably Yours’ is the second book in Shannon Stacey’s contemporary romance series, the ‘Kowalski Family’.

I excitedly dived into this book after reading and loving the first instalment, ‘Exclusively Yours’.

I was really looking forward to this second book, especially because Shannon Stacey dropped such tantalizing tidbits about Kevin and his past in that first instalment. I don’t really want to give anything away for those who haven’t read ‘Exclusively Yours’ yet, but there is a certain ‘OMIGOD’ element to Kevin’s past and the reasons his marriage crumbled. Save to say, it’s a devastating tale that will have you sympathizing with Kevin, and understand the reasons behind his promiscuity. I loved Kevin’s background because it instantly turned him into a wounded puppy, with a tortured past . . . in other words, my kinda hero!

I did wish that Stacey had dug deeper into Kevin’s past. I really thought that the way his ex burned him would have some affect on his relationship with Beth. But aside from explaining to her how the marriage ended, there was no real discussion or impact from his past pain. I was even hoping that Kevin and Beth would run into his ex, but no such luck.

Regardless, I loved Kevin. He’s a total heartbreaker – to the point that he has a bin especially for disposing of the numerous napkin numbers he gets handed while working at the sports bar! But even though Kevin is a ladies’ man with a killer smile, he’s also a family man . . . and it takes his brother getting engaged to highlight to him just how ready he is to start a family and settle down (with the right woman, this time).

Enter Beth. In the beginning I really loved Beth. She’s this ballsy woman with itchy feet – constantly moving around and never settling down. She meets Kevin and isn’t impressed (he gets her fired, after all) but eventually, slowly, succumbs to his flattery and flirting. I really loved that all other women came so easily to Kevin, but that Beth put up a fight. I loved that combativeness initially, but by the end of the book it became a bit of a pain. . .

Once Beth discovers that she is pregnant, she is shaken. She loves travelling around and not being tied to one place. This pregnancy forces her to stick with Kevin, and she rebels. She wants to split everything 50/50, and not take any hand-outs (even though she’s living on a waitress’s wage). Beth kicks up a stink every time Kevin tries to offer a helping hand, from giving her a place to stay, to inviting her to the Kowalski Thanksgiving dinner . . . she always feels the need to assert her independence, and remind Kevin that they are two friends having a baby, nothing more. After a little while I couldn’t help but see Kevin as a bit of a kicked puppy, under Beth’s boot heel. It got to be a little ridiculous, where she couldn’t enjoy the pregnancy (and Kevin) because she had an insane need to be free. I totally understood it, but it was still somewhat annoying to read.

Regardless, I still loved reading Kevin and Beth’s dynamic. It’s interesting to read a renowned ladies man struggle to keep his woman (even after he got her pregnant!). Once again I love that Stacey has taken typical contemporary romance storylines and skewed them slightly. In this book, it’s the baby surprise – on the flipside of things it’s Beth who is horrified of being tied-down by a baby, and Kevin who is gunning for love and marriage. To some extent it’s a little far-fetched – the fact that Beth puts up such a fight over every little offer of help and home from Kevin. Meanwhile, Kevin seems happy to dispense with his womanizing ways and get on board the baby train.
It had been a couple of years since Kevin’s marriage had exploded in a cloud of toxic flames, torching his career along with the relationship, and since then his libido had survived on a steady diet of bar bunnies. Less satisfying, but also a lot less risk, like eating a microwave meal instead of preparing a five-course meal. A lot less painful to throw away if it sucked.
In 'Exclusively Yours' there was concurrent plots concerning the other members of the Kowalski clan and their various marital problems. In 'Undeniably' the side-story is about Kevin's barmaid and best friend, Paulie, and her mysteriously rocky past with a suave businessman called Sam Logan. I didn't particularly like, or care about this storyline. I was never invested (possibly because of its total lack of connection to the Kowalski clan?). It made me wish that Stacey hadn't referenced so many Kowalski back-story's in 'Exclusively', if only to save a little something for this second installment. I'm crossing my fingers that the third book in this trilogy (coming out June 6th this year) will exclusively focus on the Kowalski siblings.

This series is so darn feel-good, purely because Stacey has written a wonderful grounding in the Kowalski family. This close-knit pack is all about familial warmth and chaos. It was wonderfully hilarious to read about the Kowalski’s camping shenanigans in ‘Exclusively’, but it’s even nicer to read about the family’s home life. I felt glowing and happy just reading how the family banded around Kevin and Beth, how they opened their arms and put aside the one-night-stand awkwardness to totally envelope the couple and support them, no matter what. Even the littlest nephews get in on the act, offering up very sweet exchanges with Beth’s burgeoning belly;
And to keep things interesting, somebody told Bobby, Kevin’s youngest nephew, the baby could hear stuff and he was determined to make his new cousin his BFF in utero. It was a bit disorientating having a kid randomly tell bad jokes to her stomach. Like now.
“Why did the weasel cross the road?” he yelled at her belly button. “To prove it wasn’t a chicken!”
Then he laughed so hard he almost fell over.
I also loved when Kevin’s niece threw in her two cents for the baby naming, hilarious!;
“And Stephanie has requested Jacob Edward if it’s a boy and Bella Stephanie if it’s a girl. Something to do with some sparkly vampire werewolf books she’s into, according to her mother.”
I am loving this series. Shannon Stacey has based this contemporary romance around a tight-knit, turbulent family – all their ups and downs, relationship woes and triumphs. I wasn’t as in love with this second instalment, but I still enjoyed spending time with the Kowalskis, and I can’t wait to read more about them.

3/5

'Exclusively Yours' Kowalski Family #1 by Shannon STACEY

From the BLURB:

When Keri Daniels’ editor finds out she has previous carnal knowledge of reclusive bestselling author Joe Kowalski, she gives Keri a choice: get an interview or get a new job.

Joe’s never forgotten the first girl to break his heart, so he’s intrigued to hear Keri’s back in town—and looking for him. Despite his intense need for privacy, he’ll grant Keri an interview if it means a chance to finish what they started in high school.

He proposes an outrageous plan—for every day she survives with his family on their annual camping and four-wheeling trip, Keri can ask one question. Keri agrees; she’s worked too hard to walk away from her career.

But the chemistry between them is still as potent as the bug spray, Joe’s sister is out to avenge his broken heart and Keri hasn’t ridden an ATV since she was ten. Who knew a little blackmail, a whole lot of family and some sizzling romantic interludes could make Keri reconsider the old dream of Keri & Joe 2gether 4ever.

Celebrity reporter Keri Daniels knows better than anybody that the fame game is a tough, take-no-prisoners business. So she shouldn’t be all that surprised when her editor discovers Keri’s best-kept secret . . . that she has a tantalizing connection to Joseph Kowalski, America’s favourite reclusive author. He has been on the top-seller list for years now, the literary world’s new answer to Stephen King. But when Keri Daniels knew him he was just Joe, and he was her high school sweetheart. More than that, he was ‘the one’. They used to get hot n’ heavy in the back seat of a ’78 Ford Granada, before Keri ripped his heart out and ditched him after graduation for a life of sunshine and fame in California.

Now the past is back to haunt her, and put her career in jeopardy. Joe Kowalski is public celebrity number one as far as Spotlight Magazine is concerned. And Keri must do anything in her power to get the juiciest story possible.

Joe Kowalski’s life nearly came to a screeching halt after Keri left him. He went off the rails, and even while his books sold big, his life became bleak. It was only with the help of his close-knit family that he was able to drag himself out of the hole of heartache Keri left him in. So why is he incapable of turning her away when she comes sniffing for a story? It was only a matter of time before Keri’s inner journalistic blood-hound came begging for a tell-all tale. But there’s some part of Joe that still holds out hope for the Keri he fell in love with . . . so he makes a compromise. He invites her on the annual Kowalski family camping trip. If she can survive the ATV’s and his screaming nephews every day for two weeks, she’ll get her interview (one question a day. . .)

But the Kowalski camp ground is rife with gossip. His brother, Mike, is desperate for a vasectomy but his wife is keen for a fifth baby. Kevin quit the police force under a storm of controversy, and his sister Terry has been separated from her husband for three months now, and it looks as though they’re on the slippery-slope to divorce. . .

This camping trip will be a true test of Keri’s character. Will she sell Joe and his family out, all for the sake of a grabbing story? Or is there still some of the old Keri in there, the girl who Joe fell in love with?

‘Exclusively Yours’ is the first book in Shannon Stacey’s contemporary romance series, the ‘Kowalski Family’ . . . and it is fantastic!

I loved the premise for this book. The reunited high school sweetheart’s storyline is nothing new to contemporary romance – but what is unusual is Stacey’s decision to have the girl be the heartbreaker who trampled her fella’s dreams. Keri panicked after high school, afraid that the sum total of her life would be her role as a Kowalski wife and mother – so she left. She left Joe with a bruised and battered heart, and sought a career in California. I also think the trigger to bring Joe and Keri back together is kind of ingenious – one now a journalist, the other a hermit celebrity. It sounds outlandish and trite, but Stacey really only uses that plot to test Joe and Keri’s changed personalities.
“I wouldn’t do this if I had a choice, but my career means everything to me.”
“No, babe, your career is everything to you. And we’re going to remind you success doesn’t equal bylines and bottom lines.”
He wasn’t smiling, so she wondered if he actually believed the tripe he was spewing. “So you’re doing this for my own good? To save the shallow princess from the gleaming ivory tower?”
Now the dimples made an appearance. “As the good and pure-hearted prince the shallow princess stomped all over on her way up the ivory steps, I just want to see you get mud in your hair.”
I loved Joe and Keri’s interactions. There are no flashbacks to their high school romance, but their exchanges are filled with warmth and familiarity. You can really read between the lines to how much they meant to one another, once. Throw in camping trip shenanigans and pent-up frustrations, and you’ve got plenty of burning page-time;
“Some women would be flattered to be the muse of a popular author.”
“Some women didn’t get to read themselves getting a machete manicure.”
The dimple on the cheek facing her popped into view. “Okay, that was a little harsh.”
Shannon Stacey has written a plethora of modern-day problems for her characters. Mike and his wife Lisa have four young sons, and no time for themselves. But right when their youngest child is about to start pre-school and they’re about to gain an iota of freedom, Lisa decides she wants to start the baby-making process all over again . . . much to Mike’s chagrin. Meanwhile, Terry’s husband left her three months ago, claiming a lack of spontaneity as the reason for his walk-out. Terry is stubbornly refusing to partake of marriage counselling, afraid to admit that her husband just doesn’t love her anymore. And Kevin Kowalski, the laid-back ladies-man of the Kowalski clan, is harbouring a particularly vicious heartbreak following his divorce.

In the beginning I was slightly concerned that there would be too many storylines for Stacey to commit to, and for me to keep track of. Especially when Joe and Keri’s story is the real clincher – they have history, high-stakes and heat! I really didn’t want to lose Joe and Keri’s story amidst all the family drama and complex emotional upheavals . . . but Stacey manoeuvres this plot beautifully, and she had me hooked from the first chapter.

The various marital and relationship pitfalls of the Kowalski clan are a wonderful counter-point to Joe and Keri’s rekindled romance. Mike and Terry are navigating the pitfalls of marriage with their respective spouses – combating the usual problems of flagging libido and what happens when you talk more about the kids than you do about yourselves. These marital problems act as an interesting contrast to Joe and Keri’s lives. When they are brought back together they can’t help but imagine what could have been – what might have happened if they’d gone for the marriage and kids instead of a book and journalistic career, respectively? If it hadn’t been for his families problems, Keri might have believed her ‘what if’ life would have been perfectly rosy.

I love, love, loved this book! Shannon Stacey has a fantastic contemporary romance tone – equal parts funny, meaningful and sexy. For all the LOL moments, Stacey really excels when she’s writing deeply complex marital problems for her characters, or putting them in morally compromising positions. I loved the ‘Kowalski Family’ debut, and will be delving into the next book with fervour.

5/5

Monday, March 28, 2011

'The Good Fairies of New York' by Martin MILLAR

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Morag and Heather, two eighteen-inch fairies with swords, green kilts and badly dyed hair fly through the window of the worst violinist in New York, an overweight and antisocial type named Dinnie, and vomit on his carpet.

Who they are, how they came to New York and what this has to do with the lovely Kerry - who lives across the street, and has Crohn's Disease, and is making a flower alphabet - and what this has to do with the other fairies (of all nationalities) of New York, not to mention the poor repressed fairies of Britain, is the subject of this book.

It has a war in it, and a most unusual production of Shakespeare's A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM and Johnny Thunders' New York Dolls guitar solos. What more could anyone desire from a book?

‘The Good Fairies of New York’ tells the dreamy tale of a fairy troupe who converge on a terrible New York violinist named Dinnie. Heather and Morag, along with their winged-friends Brannoc, Maeve, Padraig, Petal and Tulip have a plan for Dinnie and his across-the-way neighbour, Kerry. These eighteen-inch fairies pack quite the punch and have a cunning strategy for war that would put Sun Tzu to shame . . .

‘The Good Fairies of New York’ was actually published in 1992, but has been re-released this year. Apparently Martin Millar was one impressive author who flew under the radar for a while, until his 2007 novel ‘Lonely Werewolf Girl’ put him on the map. He became a literary darling, and the novels of his backlist became rare and costly (people on Amazon forums talk about forking out upwards of $100 for battered copies!). So this new edition of ‘The Good Fairies of New York’, another Millar novel in the paranormal vain, is a fantastic re-release for new and old fans.

This edition comes with an introduction by Neil Gaiman, and his words very aptly applied to me. In this intro, Gaiman admits he had ‘Good Fairies’ sitting on his shelf for five years before he actually got around to reading and falling in love with it . . . I too have been remiss with the works of Martin Millar. I have had his ‘Lonely Werewolf Girl’ sitting on my shelf since 2007, and I've ever bought ‘Curse of the Werewolf’ girl . . . but I haven’t read either of them. And now I am truly ashamed, because Millar is an extraordinary voice in paranormal literature, and ‘The Good Fairies’ is an incredible feat of city fantasy.

New York City becomes an eclectic setting for these pint-sized fae. The city has always been touted as a cultural melting-pot, never more than when these faeries come to town. Reading about New York from an eighteen-inch high perspective is both grimy and brilliant, particularly when these faeries munch on magic mushrooms and swill whiskey with abandon.
“Right you two,” said Dinnie, stomping back into the room. “Get out of here immediately and don’t come back.”
“What is the matter with you?” demanded Heather, shaking her golden hair. “Humans are supposed to be pleased, delighted and honoured when they meet a fairy. They jump about going ‘A fairy, a fairy!’ and laugh with pleasure. They don’t demand they get out of their room immediately and don’t come back.”
“Well, welcome to New York,” snarled Dinnie. “Now beat it.”
The story has real heart, above all else. Dinnie is an atrocious violinist, and his neighbour, Kerry, suffers from Crohn’s disease and was recently dumped for having a colostomy bag. The story is all about how eighteen-inch fairy-cupids work to bring these two unlikely’s together, while also working to defeat the King of the Cornish Faeries.

Bibliophiles may scoff and scorn fantasy as being a ‘popular genre’ with no real substance. To those cynics, I would direct you to Martin Millar and his awesome blend of paranormal punk. He writes with unrepentant abandon and unsurpassed wit. His story is off-beat and quirky, but it’s also a tale with a beating pulse and moral warmth. Martin Millar is an incredible addition to the paranormal scene – he dirties the genre, roughs it up and screams a story that rings in your ears long after the last page.

5/5

Saturday, March 26, 2011

'Wilder's Mate' Bloodhounds #1 by Moira ROGERS

From the BLURB:

Wilder Harding is a bloodhound, created by the Guild to hunt down and kill vampires on America’s frontier. His enhanced abilities come with a high price: on the full moon, he becomes capable of savagery beyond telling, while the new moon brings a sexual hunger that borders on madness.

Rescuing a weapons inventor from undead kidnappers is just another assignment, though one with an added complication—keeping his hands off the man’s pretty young apprentice, who insists on tagging along.

At odds with polite society, Satira’s only constant has been the aging weapons inventor who treats her like a daughter. She isn’t going to trust Wilder with Nathaniel’s life, not when the Guild might decide the old man isn’t worth saving. Besides, if there’s one thing she’s learned, it’s that brains are more important than brawn.

As the search stretches far longer than Wilder planned, he finds himself fighting against time. If Satira is still at his side when the new moon comes, nothing will stop him from claiming her. Worse, she seems all too willing. If their passion unlocks the beast inside, no one will be safe. Not even the man they’re fighting to save.

Warning: This book contains a crude, gun-slinging, vampire-hunting hero who howls at the full moon and a smart, stubborn heroine who invents mad-scientist weapons. Also included: wild frontier adventures, brothels, danger, betrayal and a good dose of wicked loving in an alternate Wild West.

‘Wilder’s Mate’ is the first book in a new paranormal series by Moira Rogers.

The paranormal genre is so versatile; it constantly throws me for a loop. Urban fantasy put vampires and werewolves into modern, everyday settings. But many authors are putting an historic twist on the old paranormal tale – Gail Carriger writes about high-society vampires and werewolves in a twisted alternate Victorian-era. Likewise, Lydia Dare has written about werewolves in the 1800’s. Moira Rogers has taken the historic spin into a whole new frontier – the Wild West.

Roger’s new ‘Bloodhounds’ series is set in an alternate mid-western universe. Vampires and their ghouls live in middle-of-nowhere old west townships, in the Deadlands. Bloodhounds, or werewolves, act as sheriffs for these frontier towns, warding off the vampires and maintaining the peace.

In ‘Wilder’s Mate’, a young weapons apprentice called Satira is desperate to rescue her mentor who has been kidnapped by the vamps for nefarious purposes. Enter Wilder, the Bloodhound assigned to investigate the kidnapping. . .

‘Wilder’s Mate’ is ‘True Grit’ and ‘The Quick and the Dead’ meets steampunk paranormal romance. It’s a veritable smorgasbord of genres and a delicious new fantasy mixture. If werewolves are your thing, then wait until you read about these rough and tumble old-west werewolves who rule the frontier. Woah!

As much as I enjoyed the gun-slinging and rough-riding in this book, the romance stands out for being old-worldly romantic. Satira and Wilder have exchanges that are reminiscent of old movie sirens in classic Western movies. Think Elizabeth Taylor (R.I.P.) in 'Giant' or Jane Russell in 'The Outlaw'. Swoon-worthy scenes that could only work with a Wild West backdrop to heighten the romance and drama;
The heat of him burned through her, leaving need in its wake. She pressed one hand to his chest, fingers spread wide as if she had a hope of holding him back. "And I'd be one to let you, if you're so dense about women that you think I don't want you."
"You're a prickly sort. Hard to figure you out."
So strong. So close. She closed her eyes and rubbed her cheek against his, though his rough stubble scratcher her skin. "I'm lonely."
Just like that, his touch gentled. "Shh, you're all right. Safe."
"Be a fool," she whispered. "Kiss me."
‘Wilder’s Mate’ is a shorter Kindle read than I expected. Because Rogers has come up with such a magnificent old-world western setting, I thought the book would be long enough to delve into the universe and really take readers on a journey through the steampunk frontier. As it is, we only gain bits and pieces about this world from the limited exchanges between Satira and Wilder. We learn that the vampires are the villains of the west, and many people succumb to the lavish lifestyles they promise (the payment for which is your neck and blood). We learn that the women in these times either become wives or whores, and Satira is the daughter of the latter, but she has been determined through her weapons inventions to avoid the same career path. Bloodhounds are strict lawmen who discourage their hounds from taking mates and settling down.

I can understand why Moira Rogers perhaps felt she didn’t need to go into a lot of explanation about this world. Most readers will have some knowledge of spaghetti-westerns and will be able to picture the frontier universe Rogers is creating without pages and pages of detail. But still, because the old west setting is what makes this series so unique, I do wish there were more specifics.

I also wish there was more time taken to nut-out the specifics of the plot. Readers are dropped into the thick of the action, and the book begins when Wilder arrives on his rescue-mission for Satira’s mentor. We learn nothing of the actual kidnapping, we are merely there when Satira and Wilder set-out to save the inventor. Once again, this comes down to the book being quite short and sweet, and me wishing there was more page-time for such developments and details.

Moira Rogers has invented a wild new frontier setting for the popular werewolf myth. The paranormal genre has been infused with old-world brilliance as Rogers writes about Deadlands vampires and werewolf sheriffs with a healthy dose of steampunk thrown in. I hope the books are longer in the future, because half the appeal of this new series is the setting, and I don’t think Rogers gave herself enough page-time to really immerse readers in the old frontier.

3/5

Thursday, March 24, 2011

'Just One Taste' Recipe for Love #3 by Louisa EDWARDS

From the BLURB:

Bad-boy chef Wes Murphy is dreading his final-semester cooking class—Food Chemistry 101—until he meets the new substitute teacher. Dr. Rosemary Wilkins is a feast for the eyes, though her approach to food is strictly academic. So Wes decides to rattle her Bunsen burner by asking for her hands-on advice—on aphrodisiacs…

Rosemary is a little wary about working with Wes, whose casual flirtations make her hot under the collar. But once they begin testing the love-enhancing power of chocolate, oysters, and strawberries, it becomes scientifically evident that the brainy science nerd and the boyish chef have some major chemistry together—and it’s delicious…

Wes Murphy spent his formative childhood years grifting and conning with his Pops. They were a bunko team – swindling to get by and make a buck. But that all changed when one con too many landed Wes in a halfway home, where he discovered and nurtured his love of cooking.

Years later and Wes is making good on his talents, studying at the acclaimed Academy of Culinary Arts. He’s in his second-to-last rotation, with high hopes of gaining an internship at Adam Temple’s infamous Market restaurant in NYC. The only thing standing in Wes’s way is a little chemistry class, and a much sought after passing grade. If Wes doesn’t pass chemistry 101, he doesn’t get his dream placement. But when the geekishly adorable Dr. Rosemary Wilkins takes over the class halfway through the semester, Wes thinks he has found a way to gain extraordinary new insights into the art of chemistry . . .

Rosemary Wilkins was a child prodigy. The daughter of an infamous novelist and respected lecturer, Rosemary was bound for greatness. But being a Mensa member isn’t as fulfilling as some may believe. Rosemary has felt used and flaunted her entire life. It seems everybody wants her genius, not her. And she’s not entirely sure that her new student, Wes Murphy, is any different. All this talk about an aphrodisiac science experiment is all well and good, but does he want the grade or the woman handing them out?

‘Just One Taste’ is the third book in Louisa Edward’s ridiculously delicious ‘Recipe for Love’ contemporary romance series.

We first met Wes Murphy back in second book ‘On the Steamy Side’. Wes was introduced as the new Market intern (after the last one went bonkers!) and he came with a shady back-story about an illicit student-teacher romance and a broken heart pining for him back at culinary academy. In ‘Just one Taste’, Edwards backtracks and gives fans the full explanation to Wes’s back-story . . . and boy, is it good!

Wes falls for his chemistry teacher, Dr. Rosemary Wilkins. Rosemary is actually at the academy conducting research for a scientific journal she’s writing, and her presence is a real coup for ACA since she is so infamous in the science world. Rosemary was my favourite thing about this book. She is adorkable – and I feel the best way to describe her is to say she’s just like Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler from ‘Big Bang Theory’ (but blonder, and with a pert ass). Seriously, she wears Wookie and Browncoats t-shirts (I loved her the moment she revealed herself to be a ‘Firefly’ fan!). Rosemary doesn’t say “For God’s sake!” she says “For Buffy’s sake!”. I found my girl-crush cemented after Rosemary awakens from a particular sex dream about Wes and role-play. . .
With a sigh, Rosemary opened her eyes and blinked sleepily into the darkness, glad there was no one there to witness her skin glowing bright red with embarrassment. Her blush felt hot enough to set off radioactivity alerts.
“Hi,” she said to the featureless black of her room. “My name is Dr. Rosemary Wilkins, and I have Star Trek sex dreams.”
Wes, by contrast, is a saucy delight. He’s all tan and sinewy, with a smirk to die for. I definitely got the reformed bad-boy vibe from him . . . but even though Wes and Rosemary are polar opposites, it was never hard to believe that Wes would fall for her and vice-versa. Their research into aphrodisiacs aside, these two just fit. Rosemary needs to lighten up, and Wes needs someone to believe in him. These two were precious, and I loved them!

If I had any problems with this book it has to be the rather convoluted story about Wes being an ex con-man. Edwards sets this story up to be the big obstacle for Wes and Rosemary and for a little while you hold your breath expecting Wes to fall into his old, scheming ways. But this story never felt fully fleshed-out, and it just seemed a little too tangled and frayed to pose as a real, pivotal hurdle for the romance . . . which, incidentally, meant there wasn’t all that much tension in the relationship, no ‘will-they-or-won’t-they’ juiciness.

One of the things I L-O-V-E about the ‘Recipe for Love’ series is the ongoing story of Jess and Frankie. Frankie is Market’s sous-chef, and Jess is a part-time waiter at the restaurant. Frankie is Jess’s first boyfriend since coming out to his sister and being honest with himself. They got together in ‘Can’t Stand the Heat’, but hit a few major bumps in ‘On the Steamy Side’. I love Frankie and Jess together, so I had my heart in my throat regarding their broken relationship in ‘Taste’ (seriously, they are the Qhuay of the ‘Recipe for Love’ series!). I love (and appreciate) that Edwards offers Jess and Frankie’s romance as the one continuous side-story of the series. It means that fans can get really invested in their story, and caught up in the melodrama. I don’t want to give anything away about the status of their romance in this third book, but I will say I look forward to where they go from here . . .

Edwards’s writing is a sumptuous delight. I love just how committed she is to her series theme – everything begins and ends with the food, the restaurant atmosphere and the hectic cooking that goes on in the kitchen. Edwards remains true to her theme in every aspect of the novel. It’s very subtle, and never over-cooked, but if you look for it you can read just how much Edwards has imbued her series with flavour . . . whether she’s using a food simile to describe someone’s emotion, or infusing a romantic declaration with food parallels;
Drawn to her like butter melting toward the hottest spot in the pan, Wes knelt up and shuffled around the blankets until he was right there, next to her, above her, sharing the same air with their quickening breaths. “I checked to make sure not a single ingredient has ever been classified by myth, legend, old wives, or science, as an aphrodisiac.”
“And why did you care about that?” A slick pink tongue darted out to wet her plump bottom lip, leaving it shiny and tempting as hell.
Wes nearly groaned. “Because,” he panted, sliding one hand around her back and lowering her gently down to the blanket, “when I kiss you, I don’t want there to be any confusion about why you kiss me back.”
I have said it once and I’ll say it again; the setting of an infamous NYC restaurant is genius for a contemporary romance series! Edward’s has given herself boundless opportunities to write about juicy relationships and smouldering hook-ups. Forget hot-under-the-collar, it’s what’s heating up in the kitchen that counts!

4/5


August 2nd 2011

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

'Notorious Pleasures' Maiden Lane #2 by Elizabeth HOYT

From the BLURB:

Their lives were perfect . . .

Lady Hero Batten, the beautiful sister of the Duke of Wakefield, has everything a woman could want, including the perfect fiancé. True, the Marquis of Mandeville is a trifle dull and has no sense of humour, but that doesn't bother Hero. Until she meets his notorious brother...

Until they met each other.

Griffin Remmington, Lord Reading, is far from perfect - and he likes it that way. How he spends his days is a mystery, but all of London knows he engages in the worst sorts of drunken revelry at night. Hero takes an instant dislike to him, and Griffin thinks that Hero, with her charities and faultless manners, is much too impeccable for society, let alone his brother. Yet their near-constant battle of wits soon sparks desire - desire that causes their carefully constructed worlds to come tumbling down. As Hero's wedding nears, and Griffin's enemies lay plans to end their dreams forever, can two imperfect people find perfect true love?

Lady Hero Batten meets her future brother-in-law under the most excruciatingly awkward circumstances. At her engagement soiree Lady Hero walks in on Griffin Remmington coupling with a married woman who is most certainly not his wife...

It’s one thing to encounter your almost brother-in-law in the middle of a carnal act upon a settee, it’s entirely another for said brother-in-law to not care in the least. In fact, Remmington finds the whole event slightly hilarious, and takes great pleasure in Hero’s prudish embarrassment. What’s worse is that Hero finds herself mortifyingly enamoured of the younger Remmington, even though she is engaged to his brother Thomas.

Griffin Remington has enjoyed his notoriously rakish lifestyle. Women come and go and he takes great pleasure in their fleeting encounters. Until Lady Hero – or, as he nicknames her, Lady Perfect. She is gentle, kind and everything his brother Thomas deserves. Except that Griffin wants her for himself . . . which makes Hero the second woman Griffin has supposedly stolen from his older brother.

‘Notorious Pleasures’ is the second book in Elizabeth Hoyt’s ‘Maiden Lane’ historical romance series.

I love Elizabeth Hoyt. I haven’t read a book of hers that I didn’t adore. And honestly, my love for her is hard to articulate. Admittedly, her storylines aren’t reinventing the historical romance genre. There’s a pretty limited spectrum of story to be explored in this genre, and invariably there will be a rake, a wronged party and a fair maiden. But Elizabeth Hoyt seems to elevate the historical romance genre to something truly magnificent. I can’t quite put my finger on it . . . it’s a combination of her lyrical writing, easy repartee, cunning heroines and her reluctantly romantic rakes who remain determinedly roguish for as long as possible.

I loved Hero and Griffin’s first meeting in ‘Notorious Pleasures’. So often romance authors are unwilling to go the extra mile to make their ‘rakes’ truly rakish and hard to love. More often than not, the heroine will never encounter her rake’s sinister side, and all promiscuity will come to a screeching halt once the rake meets his maiden. But Hoyt takes the plunge and writes Hero meeting Griffin for the first time while he is rutting away with a married woman. Brilliant! Absolute, solidified proof that Griffin is as notorious as he’s made out to be. Admittedly, upon meeting Hero, Griffin quickly realizes he likes this lady more than any other he has ever encountered. But he holds-out for a long time, trying to put the attraction down to ‘lust’ and nothing more.
She’d heard a few whispered rumours about her fiancé’s mysterious brother, but they’d been maddeningly vague. “Are you so irredeemable?”
“I am a veritable blackguard.” He circled her, pacing slowly to the music, whispering so only she could hear. “A seducer, a rake, the worst sort of profligate. I am notorious for my pleasures – I drink too much, wench with abandon, and belch in mixed company. I have no discretion, no morals, and no desire for either. I am, in short, the devil himself, and you, my dearest Lady Perfect, would do well to avoid my company at all costs.”
I was quite surprised that I liked Hero so much. We met her in first book ‘Maiden Lane’ and she seemed a little too good to be true. She is the main benefactress of the St. Giles Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children, and she kindly pours money into the charity. She seemed a little too squeaky-clean and holier-than-thou. But Hoyt actually takes that assumption and runs with it . . . Hero initially takes great pride in being ‘perfect’, and Griffin is oddly enamoured of her benevolence. But as Hero falls for Griffin she loses herself amidst the lust he incites in her . . . she becomes disgusted with herself, and lost to Griffin’s love. I really enjoyed reading about Hero’s fall from grace, it was a different way to write about a blushing maiden.

One things I love about the ‘Maiden Lane’ series is that Hoyt has not limited herself to any exploration of societal ranking. Often in historical romances the characters will be a part of the ton or middle class and rarely interact with anyone above, or below, their station. The ‘Maiden Lane’ in question is located in the treacherous London area of St. Giles – a red-light-district and general dead-end town. It is in St. Giles that the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children is situated. In the first ‘Maiden Lane’ novel we met the family who charitably run the home – the Dews family. Running concurrently with Hero’s story is the tale of Silence Hollingbrook (once Dews) who helps run the home, and has adopted one of the foundling children as her own. I really love that while ‘Notorious Pleasures’ was all about the more upper-crust of society, Hoyt still integrates the dregs of St. Giles and explores the lower-rungs of the city. The next book in the Maiden Lane series is called ‘Scandalous Desires’, and will be all about how Silence Hollingbrook falls for the King of St. Giles, notorious criminal Mickey O’Connor. I can’t wait! I also hope a future book in ‘Maiden Lane’ focuses on the Ghost of St. Giles (I'm dying to know who he is!)

Elizabeth Hoyt is the queen of historic romances. Her novels really are decadent perfection - her characters live in the gray areas and come from all walks of life. ‘Notorious Pleasures’ is yet another succulent delight; a lady’s fall from grace and a rake succumbing to love. Perfection!

5/5

Monday, March 21, 2011

'Winter's Shadow' by M.J. Hearle

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Blake Duchamp...

He's all that Winter Adams can think of. Ever since their fateful meeting at Pilgrim's Lament. Ever since he looked at her with those emerald eyes. Ever since he saved her life.

But Blake isn't all that he seems. There is a strangeness about him, something dark and otherworldly. Something dangerous. In his attic is a secret he would kill to defend, but Winter seems to have a special ability to make him forget his duty. And he is her only protection against the gathering darkness.

The only problem is, to protect Winter, Blake must risk exposing her to an even greater danger. Himself.

It has been six months since Winter’s parents died. Six months and Winter is barely coping with the swamp of school work and a guilty conscience. Her sister, Lucy, has put her life and university studies on hold to become Winter’s guardian . . . and how does Winter repay her? By getting behind in her school work and being forced to join the school paper for extra credit in photography.

And so one morning Winter finds herself atop Owl Mountain, taking photos of an old church for the upcoming newspaper edition. It is here that Winter first spies the mysterious new boy in town, Blake Duchamp. Not only does Winter meet him, she is saved by him – from the church’s collapsing roof. Blake is Winter’s knight in shining armour – disconcertingly handsome, kind, and for some strange reason he’s interested in Winter . . .

Blake lives in the haunted Velasco House. Residents of Hagan’s Bluff have been whispering warnings about the Velasco place for as long as Winter can remember . . . but as his story unfolds, it becomes clear that the only ghosts living in Velasco are the ones Blake bought with him, literally. Someone lives in the rooms above – playing music and laughing at Blake’s folly as he tries to resist the temptation that Winter poses.

Because Blake is dangerous. He is doomed and damned, and the last thing Winter needs is to fall in love with him . . .

M.J. Hearle’s debut novel is an ode to Gothicism – a sinister feast of fancy that draws comparisons to every dark tale, from ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ to ‘Jane Eyre’ and Edgar Allan Poe.

I will warn readers that ‘Winter’s Shadow’ has a slow start. Hearle revels in writing ambiance . . . before any of the action really begins; he takes time to tease-out the intrigue. He casts his characters in doom and desperation and sets the stage for a Machiavellian tale. It’s sinisterly delightful, if a little slow going.

Juxtaposed with Winter and Blake’s narrative is a flashback story set in 1878 and travelling between Paris, Munich and many places in between. The reader follows the tragic journey of Madeleine Bonnaire . . . a woman who flees her tormenting husband, only to fall in love with the equally dangerous and mysterious Ariman. I must admit, the story of Madeleine often seemed jarring and disconnected from Winter and Blake’s tale, and it’s not until roughly page-236 that the pieces of Madeleine’s puzzle start to fall into place and connect with the present-day. Readers will enjoy trying to guess the correlation between Madeleine’s past and Winter’s present, but it’s a curveball you won’t see coming until it’s too late . . .

I really loved the character of Blake Duchamp. Hearle offers Blake’s perspective haphazardly throughout the book, but never gives anything away. In fact, having Blake narrate only adds to his intrigue. Blake spends most of the book thinking himself unworthy of Winter’s affections. Meanwhile, mysterious laughter drifts down from the top-storey rooms of Velasco house, a maniacal manifest of Blake’s inner cynic;
A horrible rasping sound echoed from the floor above, shattering the silence of the old house. The cats scampered away in terror, disappearing into the shadows. The sound grew in volume. Laughter.
It was laughing at him.
I was constantly guessing about Blake’s character. Did I trust him? Should Winter be with him? What is he hiding and is he really as bad as he thinks himself to be? I kept trying to guess at Blake’s ‘secret’, and while I came pretty close in my assumptions, Hearle really does excel in making the character (and his mythical background) all his own. The world-building is quite artful and original (not a vampire or werewolf in sight!);
Winter dreamt that she awoke in the middle of the night to see Blake standing at the foot of her bed, his eyes burning with green fire, illuminating the darkness.
He didn’t say anything, just stood there watching her sadly. It made her heart ache to see him looking so mournful, and she tried to tell him that it was all right, that everything would be fine, but when she spoke no sound came out of her mouth. There was just the roar of the ocean and the sound of bells chiming in the distance.
If I have any complaints about ‘Winter’s Shadow’, it’s the (lack of) scene-setting. I have been reading some fantastic Australian fantasy novels lately. Between Jessica Shirvington, Kirsty Eagar and Marianne de Pierres, the land of Oz has been churning out some stellar young adult paranormal/fantasy books. One of the reasons I love reading Australian YA is the scene-setting – I loved Eagar’s ‘Saltwater Vampires’ for the way she manipulated the iconic Australian beach into something dark and sinister, an unlikely backdrop for her vampire tale to play out. So I went into ‘Winter’s Shadow’ excited that another author would utilize the Aussie scenery.

The story is set in the fictional town of Hagan’s Bluff. The opening chapters were promising, as Winter ventures to Owl Mountain for a school photography assignment. It seemed certain that Hagan’s Bluff would be a little Australian country town. But as the story unfolds it becomes (un)clear that Hagan’s Bluff could be in England, America or Australia – it’s a hazy background, at best. And I found myself wishing that Hearle had utilized landscape more – especially because he makes so many references to the importance of setting in Gothicism. Hearle mentions the moors in Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights’, and Winter draws a comparison between Blake’s Velasco house and the house of Usher in Poe’s famous short story. I just think he missed a few opportunities to enrich the story and cast a more sinister backdrop for Winter’s tale to unfold. If he’d only written about the screaming magpies of the morning or the twisted limbs of the Owl Mountain gumtrees . . . anything to orientate the reader by casting a more precise scene and grounding the characters.

‘Winter’s Shadow’ is an incredible YA debut from Aussie author M.J. Hearle. I'm not sure if this debut is a stand alone, or the first in a series? I really hope there’s more to come, if only because Hearle has tapped into a fancifully frightening fantasy topic that’s unique to for the YA genre. ‘Winter’s Shadow’ is a gloriously Gothic young adult tale of love, redemption, and the monster in all of us . . .

4/5

'Winter's Shadow' will be released:
May 24th 2011

Saturday, March 19, 2011

'The Gathering' Darkness Rising #1 by Kelley ARMSTRONG

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Maya Delaney has always felt a close bond with nature. The woods around her home are a much-loved sanctuary - and the pawprint birthmark on her hip feels like a sign that she belongs.

But then strange and terrible things begin to happen in the tiny medical-research town of Salmon Creek (population: 200). The captain of the swim team drowns mysteriously in the middle of a calm lake. Mountain lions appear around Maya s home, and won t go away. Her best friend, Daniel, starts experiencing bad vibes about certain people and things. One of those people is Rafe - the new bad boy in town. What is he hiding - and why is he suddenly so interested in Maya . . . ?


* ‘The Gathering’ is a spin-off book from Kelley Armstrong’s ‘Darkest Powers’ trilogy. ‘Gathering’ can be enjoyed without having read the previous trilogy. But for the purposes of this review, I will be writing in the context and framework of the ‘Darkest Powers’ universe. So . . . SPOILER warning if you haven’t read that series yet!


Maya Delaney has had an idyllic childhood. It might have started out Dickensian, what with her birth mother abandoning her as a baby. But Maya lucked-out in the adoptive parent department, and when she was a child her father was offered a job as Salmon Creek park ranger. Maya and her family have lived in the idyllic Vancouver Island research town ever since. A picturesque woodland town, population 200, which is home to the families of the various scientists and office personnel that work for the St. Cloud drug company. Competitive business and corporate spies mean that the St. Cloud institute needed a remote, tight-knit community town to house their scientists and their families, and conduct their research in privacy.

Maya’s life was pretty amazing. She grew up with the same sixty-eight kids and has been in the same classes with all her close friends since primary school. Living in the middle of the woods means Maya has had her entire life to cultivate a love of the outdoors and animals, and she looks after injured wildlife as a hobby.

Maya’s life was amazing – until her best friend died. Serena drowned, and everything seemed to change.
They dragged the lake that afternoon and found Serena’s body. Her death was ruled an accidental drowning. A healthy teenage girl, captain of the swim team, had drowned. No one knew how it happened. An undertow. A cramp. A freak panic attack. There were plenty of guesses but no answers.
Soon all that was left of Serena was a monument in the school yard. The town moved on. I didn’t. Something had happened in that lake, something I couldn’t explain. But I would. One day, I would.
Six months later and Maya and her best friend, Daniel, are still living in the aftermath of Serena’s mysterious death. Maya is only just beginning to cope with her loss when a mysterious bad boy shows up in Salmon Creek. Rafe is persistently interested in Maya, but why her? A crazy old woman has accused Maya of being a witch, and at night she has nightmares about running – running and jumping on four legs and feeling at home for the first time in her life.

‘The Gathering’ is the first book in Kelley Armstrong’s new ‘Darkness Rising’ young adult paranormal series. This new series is actually a spin-off of the ‘Darkest Powers’ trilogy and both are set in the same universe as her adult paranormal ‘Women of the Otherworld’ series.

‘Darkest Powers’ followed the story of Chloe, Simon, Tori and Derek – four teenagers who met at the Lyle House, a retreat for ‘troubled teens’, but discovered they were a part of a disturbing science experiment for the Edison Group. These teens discovered they had various powers and abilities – from seeing the dead, to witchcraft and being able to turn into a werewolf. It turned out that the Edison Group had equipped many children with these and many more special abilities – natural occurrences that were amplified to a dangerous degree by the Edison Group . . . until those same scientists decided their experiments were too dangerous, and had to be terminated. Every last one of them.

Kelley Armstrong concluded the ‘Darkest Powers’ trilogy with ‘The Reckoning’, the third and final book about Chloe and the gang. But while there were many fulfilling personal and relationship conclusions in that book, Armstrong left plenty of loose ends about the Edison Group - ensuring she could write a plethora of stories associated with the shady supernatural science experiments . . .

. . . And that’s why ‘The Gathering’ is permeated with goose-bumped foreboding. Fans of ‘Darkest Powers’ will be going into this new book with more knowledge about the Edison Group and their experimentations than the new characters we are meeting. Maya and her friends have no idea what’s in store for them. They don’t even know that they are living right in the middle of their own science experiment – but we do. Readers are always one step ahead of Maya, constantly waiting for the fallout and the moment she uncovers the truth about who, and what, she is.

Kelley Armstrong has done an incredible job with ‘The Gathering’. On the one hand, she is continuing the story of the Edison Group and adding to the history we learnt from Chloe’s story. But similarly she has managed to imbue the book with ominous tones and frightening twists as readers go on a whole new journey. It’s made all the more frightening for Maya’s ignorance – she genuinely loves the town of Salmon Creek, she enjoys being close to nature and living in a close-knit community. Meanwhile, a statue dedicated to researcher Samuel Lyle has pride of place in the centre of the township.

There are little hints that Maya’s world is imperfect. Like her witnessing the drowning of her best friend, Serena. Her best friend’s father being an abusively truthful drunk. Or Rafe, the bad boy new kid in town who has taken to an annoying flirtation with her. But for the most part ‘The Gathering’ is all about the slow creep – as Armstrong lays the foundations for big reveals. This first book sees Armstrong building up Maya’s Salmon Creek paradise – setting it up so that in future books her paradise will be lost (to the mysterious Genesis Project?).

There are still a few Armstrong trademarks in this new series – like an interestingly complicated romance. There’s less love triangle than Chloe experienced (between Simon and Derek). But Maya’s romance is complex for very different reasons . . . all of which would be huge spoilers.

I loved ‘Darkest Powers’, and I am set to become equally obsessed with ‘Darkness Rising’. ‘The Gathering’ is chilling for its innocence – these new characters have none of the knowledge that the ‘Darkest Powers’ characters attained over three exhilarating books. Now it’s a waiting game – as readers anticipate the destruction to come when Maya and her town uncover the truth about the St. Cloud institute and the Genesis Project. I'm definitely going to be along for the ride.

5/5

'The Gathering' comes out April 12th


'Darkest Powers' trilogy

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

'Alien in the Family' Katherine 'Kitty' Katt #3 by Gini KOCH

Received from the Author

From the BLURB:

Super-Being Exterminator Kitty Katt and the Alpha Centaurian she loves, Jeff Martini, should be finalizing their wedding plans. But that was before she discovers Jeff is in line to become Emperor back on his home world. Kitty knows she is everything a royal family wouldn't approve of, and is bracing herself for the worst. As it turns out, the royal family is just the beginning. Especially when extraterrestrial Amazonian terrorists are determined to start and end Kitty and Jeff's nuptial festivities with a bang.

** Contains spoilers of ‘Alien Tango’ **


Kitty’s back, and so is her Armani alien army.

Following the events of ‘Alien Tango’, Katherine ‘Kitty’ Katt and her fiancée, Jeff Martini, are planning the wedding of the galaxy, literally. For Kitty and co it’s going to be a case of something old, something blue, something borrowed and some inter-galactic wedding crashers...

‘Alien in the Family’ is the third book in Gini Koch’s space-spectacular ‘Katherine “Kitty” Katt’ series.

I won’t lie to you, I squealed a little when my letterbox revealed this advanced reader copy for my perusal. And since I'm being honest, I’ll admit that there may have been some happy-dancing involved too. And it turns out that all that squealing happy-dancing was well deserved, because Ms Koch has done it again...

So much happened in the last book. ‘Alien Tango’ introduced us to the wider Alpha Centauri alien race, including Martini’s (dysfunctional) family. A big focus of that book was the social norms and prejudices of the A-C’s, including the perceived prejudice of alien/human couplings. ‘Alien in the Family’ brings the book back to Kitty and Martini, while also expanding the universe. Gini Koch is introducing a whole new crop of characters in this third instalment – from Amazonian assassins to space corgis. She’s also putting Kitty and Martini’s relationship to the test, before they tie the knot.
“I want it in writing, and I’ll be going over it for loopholes.”
He laughed. “Not a problem.” He looked back at Martini. “Okay?”
“No, but we’ll deal with it. Officially, Centuarion unwillingly concedes the C.I.A’s limited authority during a time of interworld crisis.”
“And unofficially?” Chuckie sounded supportive, not challenging.
Martini closed his eyes. “Unofficially,” he opened his eyes, “help us. Please.”
In ‘Alien Tango’, Koch introduced us to the character of Chuckie. Chuckie is Kitty’s best friend from high school, who was mentioned in ‘Touched by an Alien’, but made his first appearance in ‘Tango’. For a long time Kitty thought of Chuckie as her rich, globetrotting bestie – the man she had one (spectacular) one-night-stand with, and was perhaps even maybe subconsciously pining for. Until Jeffrey Martini came along – in all his suited Neanderthal glory. But much was revealed in ‘Tango’, about Chuckie’s occupation, and his feelings for Kitty – which resulted in a marriage proposal, and one very unhappy Martini.

I love Chuckie’s character, both for his very Kitty-like sense of humour, and the role he plays in causing some delicious tension between Kitty and Martini. One of the best things about ‘Touched by an Alien’ was the immediate intimacy between Kitty and Martini. Martini was literally proposing to Kitty from the get-go, and they’ve both been mutually infatuated ever since. It’s a rather unusual coupling for a series – that the protagonist has found her true love and is sticking with him, no matter what. There’s no will-they-or-won’t-they to Kitty and Martini. There’s just love. That’s not to say there isn’t any tension . . . Koch has written Martini as a deliciously territorial Neanderthal, and Kitty is an alien-magnet who has attracted her fair share of crushes (including Martini’s cousin, Christopher). But Chuckie poses an entirely new set of jealous problems for Martini. Chuckie has known Kitty for longer, they have a romantic history, and in light of recent inter-galactic wedding complications, the human Chuckie could potentially be an easier relationship for Kitty.

I really love that Koch has found new ways to explore and strengthen Kitty and Martini’s relationship. Not only is Chuckie a hilarious addition to the cast (seriously, Martini’s responses to him are priceless!), but his presence has triggered a whole new dynamic between Kitty and Martini.

I thought Koch outdid herself in ‘Alien Tango’ when she introduced a whole cachet of fascinating secondary characters – from alien consciousness ‘ACE’ to hottie agent Kevin. But Koch absolutely goes above and beyond in ‘Family’. Expect to see some very drunk, but very helpful college footballers and a new human addition to the A-C team. But best of all are the fun and furry new characters, named ‘Poofs’. Yes, the name sounds awful out of context, but these alien fur-balls are total scene-stealers, and you’ll finish the book wishing these was a plush Poof doll tie-in.

The stand-out of any Kitty Katt novel is the relationship of Kitty and Martini. These two are the hottest couple in the universe – the Brangelina of outer space, if you will. I am happy to report that Kitty and Martini meet their smut quota in ‘Family’, but readers should also be prepared for some sweet romantic moments that require tissues. Plus, there’s a bonus musical appearance that will send you head over heels.

At this point in the series it should be apparent that Gini Koch can do no wrong. ‘Alien in the Family’ is yet another book-blockbuster of fantastic proportions. Kitty and Martini have one of the most envious fictional relationships and Kitty is the most rockin ass-kicker to grace the space-opera genre. This third instalment is phenomenal, but fans should be warned that an ‘OMIGOD!’ ending will make the months drag by until the December release of ‘Alien Proliferation’.

5/5