Untamed by Elizabeth Lowell (Medieval #1)

Synopsis:

10252717Returning home triumphant from the Crusades, Dominic le Sabre is determined to claim the bride promised to him by the king, but the high-born Celtic beauty is equally determined to resist him.

Review:

Many parts of this book made me cringe, but it was more for tropes I hate than anything else. In fact, the solid writing and (slightly plodding) story kept me from abandoning the book all together.

The good:

  • learning medieval tidbits about castles and falconry
  • how thoughtfully (and sexily) the hero seduced the heroine
  • Meg’s inner strength and belief in her convictions. She doesn’t let a stupid alpha male keep her from what she has to do.

The not-so-good:

  • heroine being held captive (sorta) for a good chunk of the book
  • all this talk of “I must have sons!” without any regard to whether Meg would, you know, actually want sons. Or kids in general.
  • Dominic never ever trusts Meg, even after she proves herself several times
  • the spy was mad easy to spot
  • the battle scenes seemed short for how important they are. But maybe that’s my urban fantasy roots showing

While this book wasn’t for me I would recommend it to someone whose taste in tropes run opposite to mine.

Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Synopsis:

10112885Everybody has a Cordova story. Cult horror director Stanislas Cordova hasn’t been seen in public since 1977. To his fans he is an engima. To journalist Scott McGrath he is the enemy. To Ashley he was a father.

On a damp October night the body of young, beautiful Ashley Cordova is found in an abandoned warehouse in lower Manhattan. Her suicide appears to be the latest tragedy to hit a severely cursed dynasty.

For McGrath, another death connected to the legendary director seems more than a coincidence. Driven by revenge, curiosity and a need for the truth, he finds himself pulled into a hypnotic, disorientating world, where almost everyone seems afraid.

The last time McGrath got close to exposing Cordova, he lost his marriage and his career. This time he could lose his grip on reality.

ONCE WE FACE OUR DEEPEST FEARS, WHAT LIES ON THE OTHER SIDE?

Review:

The last thing I want to do is spoil anyone so please excuse any vagueness or odd hand waving. Hopefully those who have read the book will know what I’m getting at.

Like any good mystery we start off with a bunch of intriguing questions – was Ashley’s death really a suicide? Who is this reclusive Cordova guy, anyway? And what kind of guy would make such twisted films?

The (non-spoilery) good stuff:

  • The backstory. Pessl obviously put a ton of work into Cordova’s filmography and it shows. I was worried that with a dozen or so film titles being thrown around I would get confused but there was always ample context.
  • How the arc of the book as a whole mirrors… something else. While some might be annoyed with the end I thought it was fitting, especially how it related to… that something else. ~shakes a fist at the spoiler-free sky~
  • Cordova’s philosophy. I can’t say I agree with it, but it’s intriguing and made me think about how I’m living my own life. Not to mention that I need to read a certain poem now.
  • Most of the characters are on the “unlikeable” side of the scale but they didn’t make me want to throw the book across the room. All have their own motivations (however twisted) and it works.

The (zero spoiler) not-so-good stuff:

  • In the first half of the book question after question is raised but precious few are answered, and around the 50% mark I started to lose interest. Why should I keep reading if it just digs me deeper into a hole? Near the end things picked up and gave me some stuff to think about but it was a struggle to get there.
  • The extras available through the “decoder” app. A couple were neat (a filmography, primary documents) but some were maddening. An interview with a murderer was especially bad, because…
  • …the interview is poorly written. The questions sound like they’re being read in order, no matter what the subject says. The murderer in particular leaves all these juicy tidbits hanging in the air, begging for follow up, but the interviewer just goes to the next question on her list. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by Terry Gross but it was beyond annoying.
  • The voice acting in the app left much to be desired. It sounded like reading, not acting out a part.

Overall it was an interesting read that left me thinking but sadly it didn’t live up to the hype.

The Heist by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg (Fox and O’Hare #1)

Synopsis:

16169737FBI Special Agent Kate O’Hare is known for her fierce dedication and discipline on the job, chasing down the world’s most wanted criminals and putting them behind bars. And while Kate has made quite a name for herself for the past five years, the only name she’s cared about is Nicolas Fox—an international crook she wants in more ways than one.

Audacious, handsome, and dangerously charming, Nicolas Fox is a natural con man, notorious for running elaborate scams on very high-profile people. At first he did it for the money. Now he does it for the thrill. He knows that the FBI has been hot on his trail—particularly Kate O’Hare, who has been watching his every move. For Nick, there’s no greater rush than being pursued by a beautiful woman . . . even one who aims to lock him up. But just when it seems that Nicolas Fox has been captured for good, he pulls off his greatest con of all: he convinces the FBI to offer him a job, working side by side with Special Agent Kate O’Hare.

Review:

What we have here is a typical heist novel set out in the way you would expect. We meet the characters, see a previous con to see what the baddie can do, set up the Big One, put together a crew, then pull off the whole shebang in spite of complications. While the tried and true formula is a little worn in spots Evanovich and Goldberg handle it well enough.

Early on I got the feeling that they’re building a world for a long series. Kate and Nick can do all kinds of different heists, characters’ back stories can be explored, new crew members can be brought in… in other words, infinite combinations of the same thing. And isn’t that what a mystery series is about? All the setting up left some characters a little flat (a moment here for poor movie effect/blood splatter dude) but I’m sure they’ll get their due in upcoming books.

I love witty banter and Evanovich and Goldberg deliver. Some bits made me laugh out loud, like when Kate’s sister Megan asks what her dream is. Kate replies,

“Daniel Craig, a tropical island, a quart of Oreo cookie ice cream, and a pair of handcuffs.”
“Who’s wearing the cuffs?” Megan asked.

Gender is handled well throughout, which makes sense as the novel was written by a male/female team. Kate, an ex-Navy SEAL, is more likely to come up with ideas using brute force while Nick, the con man, is more likely to come up with a sneaky plan. Both use sex and charm to get their marks. Willie, who can drive anything with a motor, is female. Good signs all.

A couple things did bother me, though. Kate is described early on as someone whose stomach is “flat and toned despite her terrible eating habits”. A girl who has her cake and eats it too, grah!

The cast also contains two potential deus ex machina – Nick, with his smarts and incredible list of contacts, and Kate’s father, with a somewhat different set of smarts and an even more incredible list of contacts. I can forgive one know-it-all but two is a bit much. As a result I didn’t feel much stress as the big heist goes awry at the end of the book – someone was sure to fix everything somehow.

The Heist was a fun escapist read but if you like real thinking mysteries you’ll have to go elsewhere.

Devil in Spring by Lisa Kleypas (The Ravenels #3)

30179647Most debutantes dream of finding a husband. Lady Pandora Ravenel has different plans. The ambitious young beauty would much rather stay at home and plot out her new board game business than take part in the London Season. But one night at a glittering society ball, she’s ensnared in a scandal with a wickedly handsome stranger.

After years of evading marital traps with ease, Gabriel, Lord St. Vincent, has finally been caught-by a rebellious girl who couldn’t be less suitable. In fact, she wants nothing to do with him. But Gabriel finds the high-spirited Pandora irresistible. He’ll do whatever it takes to possess her, even if their marriage of convenience turns out to be the devil’s own bargain.

Review:

This book got a lot of buzz when it was announced because Gabriel is the son of Evie and Sebastian, the couple from Kleypas’ amazing Devil in Winter.  Is this one on the same level?  Not quite, but I still think it’s the best Ravenel book so far.

The good:

  • The first half of the story, our couple’s meet cute and courtship, is awesome.  I was getting ready to give the book four stars, I love it so much.
  • The whole ‘thou shalt have kids because we need an heir/it’s the thing to do/you’re a woman’ thing doesn’t even come up. Heck, Pandora doesn’t even want to get married, to start.

    She didn’t want to belong to anyone, and she especially didn’t want anyone to belong to her… she knew she would never be happy in a conventional life.

    Unconventional women for the win.

  • Prior characters are woven into the story in a way that doesn’t distract or detract from the main storyline.  Evie and Sebastian are as wonderful as I remembered, and having a department story magnate in the family proves as helpful as one would imagine.
  • Related – some minor characters reappeared, and it looks like one may get her happily ever after in the next book.  Oo.
  • Overall the book is a fast, fun read, busting me out of a reading slump.  Woot.

The neither-here-nor-there:

  • Pandora is an ‘artsy’ imaginative type, not well suited to strict rules or remembering where she left things.  She strikes me as a (loose) Anne of Green Gables type – prone to flights of fancy with strong underpinnings of smarts.  It doesn’t bother me but if you don’t like that sort of thing you’re warned.
  • Hmmm, now to think of it Gabriel is kind of a Gilbert type in a roundabout way… time to reread Anne of Green Gables!

The not-so-good:

  • Kleypas does this thing in a lot of her books where the couple gets married or is otherwise together before the 70% mark of the book, so she puts one or the other in mortal danger.  Railway accidents, attacks, it could be anything, but someone is going to have a brush with death before the end.  I have to admit, after half a dozen books I’m sick of it.  Sometimes it’s worked into the story well but here it’s more random and annoying.  Gah.
  • The cameos and throwbacks mean that characterization is a bit thin for minor characters, and I’m not sure how the book would read as a stand-alone.
  • Drago(n), who I think is a new character for this book?, is grossly underdeveloped.  His relationship with Pandora could be amazingly nuanced and deep, but instead we watch his opinion of her change after a conversation and a half.  I wanted more.

After being somewhat disappointed with the first two books in this series Devil in Spring is a nice pick me up, and I’m looking forward to the next installment.

Kitty Goes to Washington by Carrie Vaughn (Kitty Norville #3)

7084361Celebrity werewolf and late-night radio host Kitty Norville prefers to be heard and not seen. So when she’s invited to testify at a Senate hearing on behalf of supernaturals, and her face gets plastered on national TV, she inherits a new set of friends, and enemies, including the vampire mistress of the city; an über-hot Brazilian were-jaguar; and a Bible-thumping senator who wants to expose Kitty as a monster. Kitty quickly learns that in this city of dirty politicians and backstabbing pundits, everyone’s itching for a fight.

Review:

A nice continuation of the unconventional urban fantasy started in Kitty and the Midnight Hour. A non-dominant werewolf without a pack, Kitty gets called to testify in Congressional hearings regarding the recently outed supernatural community.

The good:

  • Kitty’s one-on-one conversations with anyone. Vaughn does an amazing job writing exchanges that are believable and thought provoking and oh-so-real. From weirdos that call into to her radio show to Congressional testimony, I loved every dialog.
  • Sex-positivity. Kitty has a lover in this book, someone who she’ll keep as a fond memory but won’t become a regular in the series. There’s no angst about having sex with an incredibly hot guy, no hard feelings about the fling, and most importantly zero guilt about the entire situation. This is normal for guys in urban fantasy but far few women get the same chance. You go, girl!
  • Everyone is well characterized and interesting. I look forward to meeting even the most minor characters in future books.
  • I’ve watched more Congressional hearings than I would care to recently, so it’s obvious to see that Vaughn has done her research. She even touched on a nitpicky point I thought would get trampled. Nice.

The not-so-good:

  • As good as Vaughn is at characterization and dialog, “big bad” fight scenes are thin and short.

A solid series that I’m looking forward to continuing… but my library doesn’t have book three! Noooooo……

Haven by Rebekah Weatherspoon (Beards and Bondage #1)

34745311City girl Claudia Cade’s carefree life is plunged into chaos when a camping trip with her brother in the national forests of Northern California turns into a deadly dash for her survival. Nature photographer Shepard Olsen has resigned himself to a quiet existence, with only his dog by his side, until a woman in need of his protection shows up on his doorstep and throws his universe into disarray.

Claudia is desperate to heal from her traumatic loss, but can’t stop thinking about her run-in with evil….or the grizzled mountain man whose quick thinking and good aim saved her life. When she shows up on Shep’s doorstep again, she finds she isn’t the only one who can’t move on.

The two begin an intense, passionate relationship of Dominance and submission, pleasure and pain, but with dark memories haunting them and decisions about the future rapidly approaching, Claudia can’t help but wonder…how long can they be each other’s haven?

Review:

There is so much to love here.

  • Representation and diversity done well, written by a woman of color. I am and will forever be here for this.
  • Also – interracial romance! Huzzah!
  • While having a dominant man employing blindfolds and floggers may be a fantasy the characters are wholly based in reality. Check out our hero:

My dick isn’t a magic wand. I wasn’t going to save her. I wasn’t going to heal her with my kisses… and I sure as fuck wasn’t going to fix myself.

And some girl talk:

“I know you probably had a carrot and some champagne today and I know there’s an image [to maintain], but we are both thick women and we are beautiful that way.”

“Amen,” I say. “Extra pepperoni, please.”

  • The hero and heroine have their head on their shoulders and know what they want, even if they’re not sure how to go about getting it. Misunderstandings are one of my biggest romance pet peeves and there’s not even a whiff of a Big Mis here.
  • People have problems – you could probably say they’re “damaged” – but there’s no wallowing. It’s refreshing.
  • The story itself moves along nicely and kept my interest.

This was my first book by Weatherspoon and I’m thoroughly impressed. A recommend for erotic romance fans, even if a side of bondage isn’t usually your thing.

The Night Mark by Tiffany Reisz

30698729Faye Barlow is drowning. After the death of her beloved husband, Will, she cannot escape her grief and most days can barely get out of bed. But when she’s offered a job photographing South Carolina’s storied coast, she accepts. Photography, after all, is the only passion she has left.

In the quaint beach town, Faye falls in love again when she sees the crumbling yet beautiful Bride Island lighthouse and becomes obsessed with the legend surrounding The Lady of the Light—the keeper’s daughter who died in a mysterious drowning in 1921. Like a moth to a flame, Faye is drawn to the lighthouse for reasons she can’t explain. While visiting it one night, she is struck by a rogue wave and a force impossible to resist drags Faye into the past—and into a love story that is not her own.

Review:

If you like time slip romances The Night Mark is a good entry point into Reisz’s work.  The historical elements are well researched and, barring a couple of short info dumps, well presented.  The writing is good and the characters are fully developed, from top to bottom.  Props for all kinds of presentation (POC, deaf, gay) with nods to what that means in different points in time.  Reisz doesn’t ignore inconvenient parts of history, and I wish more authors did the same.

That being said this standalone lacks the extra oomph I love in the rest of her books.  While the characters feel real the relationships between them are a bit lacking.  Some are distant, some are short, and some are with people who died long (or not so long) ago.  Many characters feel like islands – well connected to neighbors with bridges and tunnels and waterways, but islands all the same.

I’m glad Reisz is expanding the genres she writes in and hope this book will get her more mainstream attention, but it didn’t quite hit the spot with me.

Kitty and the Midnight Hour by Carrie Vaughn (Kitty Norville #1)

14461Kitty Norville is a midnight-shift DJ for a Denver radio station – and a werewolf in the closet. Her new late-night advice show for the supernaturally disadvantaged is a raging success, but it’s Kitty who can use some help. With one sexy werewolf-hunter and a few homicidal undead on her tail, Kitty may have bitten off more than she can chew?

Review:

When I read the first book of a long series I’m not looking for perfection – I’m looking to be drawn in. Kitty and the Midnight Hour does just that.

Kick-ass heroines are a time-honored trope in urban fantasy and Kitty is not one of them. She’s at the bottom of the supernatural pecking order and it’s refreshing. I’m used to seeing pack politics from the top down, but here we get a look from the bottom up. What is life like for the weakest members of a pack? What is it like to be the protected instead of doing the protector? Some reviewers see it as a weakness – how dare the heroine not be strong from day one! – but it allows her to develop as a person and hopefully avoid the power-up trap many series fall into.

Speaking of development, the characterization is on point and deep for everyone from Kitty down to the guests on her radio show. While some parts of the plot don’t strike me as believable – weres are outed and accepted in society too quickly for my taste – the characters always ring true. I can’t wait to meet them again in book two.

Give this a go if you’re in the mood for fun urban fantasy that colors outside the lines.

Prisoner of Love by Beverly Jenkins

18898429Kansas, 1884
Abandoned by her husband, Elizabeth Franklin is struggling to keep up with the chores on her 60-acre farm. Desperate to stay in the only home she ever loved, the resourceful Elizabeth agrees to marry a prisoner, Jordan Yancey – an arrangement that will set him free while affording her the farm help that she so urgently needs. But what Elizabeth never expects is that this former prisoner will arouse the kind of passion and desire she’s only heard about and capture her instead…

Jordan Yancey would do anything to get out of prison, and the arrangement with the pretty, but prim Elizabeth seems like a good bet – his freedom for a little farm work, and a wife on paper. He never imagines that his pretend bride will become the most magnificent woman he’s ever met…and that his sensuous little ‘jailer’ will be the one to free his heart…

Review:

I needed a quick hit of romance and stumbled upon this Jenkins novella at the library. A marriage of convenience historical set in the American West? Yes, please!

Jenkins usually writes novels in the 385-page range and it shows – there’s a lot of story considering the two digit page count. The conflicts are resolved quickly and easily with a single conversation. Elizabeth warms up to Jordan quickly, which is a bit hard to swallow because he was a convict when she married him.

In fact, the plot is so minimal that the story ventures into porn-without-plot territory. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind – the love scenes are great! – it’s just not what I expected.

Her writing and historical chops are on fine display, so fans of Jenkins’ other historicals will enjoy this quick hit of romance. If you’re looking for an un-rushed story, though, you may want to try one of her longer titles like Breathless or Night Hawk.

Everneath by Brodi Ashton (Everneath #1)

9413044Last spring, Nikki Beckett vanished, sucked into an underworld known as the Everneath. Now she’s returned—to her old life, her family, her boyfriend—before she’s banished back to the underworld . . . this time forever. She has six months before the Everneath comes to claim her, six months for good-byes she can’t find the words for, six months to find redemption, if it exists.

Nikki longs to spend these precious months forgetting the Everneath and trying to reconnect with her boyfriend, Jack, the person most devastated by her disappearance—and the one person she loves more than anything. But there’s just one problem: Cole, the smoldering immortal who enticed her to the Everneath in the first place, has followed Nikki home. Cole wants to take over the throne in the underworld and is convinced Nikki is the key to making it happen. And he’ll do whatever it takes to bring her back, this time as his queen.

Review:

Complicated feelings about this one.

The good:

  • A mythology-based story that I don’t want to throw against the wall! This is super rare.
  • The plot was pretty interesting, and the world has been thought out. Things stay pretty consistent… but are not sufficient. More on that below.
  • I like love triangles in general (don’t hate!) and this one is particularly well balanced. The good guy/bad guy roles are stereotypical (high school football star vs rock musician dressed in black) but the affection each has for Nikki shines through.

The not-so-good:

  • While the world is thought out I had a bunch of niggles and questions that aren’t addressed. If Feeding fuels an Everliving for 100 years, why does Cole feel so drained within a year of topping up? It seems like everyone Feeds at the same time so all kinds of Everlivings on the Surface, as well as the people they Feed on, disappear from Earth at once. Wouldn’t that sudden spate of missing persons cases get noticed? What is the point of letting Forfeits return for an arbitrary six months? And so on.
  • On a similar note, the characters’ motivations are muddled or unclear.
  • The book could have done with a better edit. It felt like people jumped around in their actions – like someone sitting is somehow lying in bed half a page later. I didn’t spend time dissecting but it was still there.
  • The writing didn’t get in the way but it didn’t add anything to the story, either. The prose is simple, even for YA.
  • Each section starts off mentioning not only a time reference (good as the plot bounces around) but also a wholly unnecessary place reference. From chapter nine:

NOW
My bedroom. Four months left.

“Time’s flying for you, Nik.” Cole was sitting in the darkest corner of my bedroom….

  • I don’t remember a single person of color or minority character of any sort. It’s set in Utah so my hopes weren’t high, but still.

I don’t see myself continuing the series as the jacket copy for the next two books tells me pretty much everything I want to know plot-wise. I would like to read Ashton in another context, and am excited to see she’s one of the authors of My Lady Jane. It’s currently on hold at my library, so hopefully it’ll arrive before too long….