Monday, September 24, 2012

Elizabeth Bear's New Amsterdam Series

New Amsterdam (New Amsterdam, Book #1 - 272 pages)

First published in 2007, New Amsterdam by Elizabeth Bear is a steampunkish mystery series set in a world with an alternate history as a backdrop. The book is divided into vignettes or short stories where crimes are both committed and solved by the central characters. Spanning a period of time from 1899 to 1903, the six stories are linked and an overall story arc simultaneously developed to slowly reveal characters and give her worldbuilding depth.

Known in Europe as the Great Detective, Sebastien de Ulloa is such an old creature that he no longer remembers his birth-name or even when or where he was born. After the woman who made him immortal chooses to burn rather than going on, Sebastien abandons his European "court" and emigrates to New Amsterdam with "courtier," friend and assistant, Jack Priest. Sebastien himself doesn't really have a reason to live, but between willful Jack, the pleasure found solving murders, and the people he meets in New Amsterdam, Sebastien slowly finds reasons not to take that last walk into the sunrise. Two of those reasons are DCI Abigail Irene Garrett and author Mrs. Phoebe Smith.

Detective Crown Investigator Abigail Irene Garrett is a forensic sorceress in service to the British Empire in New Amsterdam. In a world where men rule, Abby Irene is scandalous, notorious, loyal and a woman to be reckoned with when it comes to seeking justice. Abby Irene is an aging beauty who had affairs with royalty and when Sebastien meets her, is having an affair with the married and powerful Richard, Duke of New Amsterdam. Of course that doesn't stop the hard drinking single-minded Abby Irene from becoming entangled with Sebastien, becoming a friend and eventually part of his "court."

Bear is known for writing excellent fantasy and building her worlds around alternate history, so there is no surprise that in that respect she excels in this series. In this world, the British Empire takes New Amsterdam (New York/Manhattan) from the Dutch during the Napoleonic wars. The American colonies are restricted to a small area, as the Iroquois, with their magic, stopped the British from further expansion, and the Spanish and French conquered and kept other chunks of North America. And in the late 19th Century the Revolutionary War against the Crown is brewing. Magic and sorcery are very much accepted and part of the culture in both Europe and in the New World, while wampirs and their courts are accepted in sections of Europe and outlawed and persecuted in the New World.

This is a moody, atmospheric world with richly developed characters. As a wampir or vampire, Sebastien comes off as unusually unique, although he is constructed more or less after the traditional vampire. He's an immortal fighting time and history after surviving centuries by adjusting to changes and not growing too attached to mortals, or at least that's what he claims. He knits! And gentleness and warmth accompany coldness. Yes, Sebastien is different, and the logistics of how his relationships with his mortal court work are also different and unexpected. Abby Irene is a force! A relentlessly strong woman unwilling to show vulnerability to men or to compromise her beliefs. There are contrasts and similarities between Abby Irene and Phoebe who comes off as softer, but is just as strong and single-minded as Abby Irene. Oh and Jack! Lovely, loving Jack who at a young age has lived a lifetime.

Titles of stories in New Amsterdam: Lucifugous, Wax, Wane, Limerent, Chatoyant, Lumere. The mysteries/crimes are excellent although my favorite stories are the first three, Lucifugous which takes place in the dirigible while Sebastien and Jack are on their way to New Amsterdam, Wax and Wane taking place in New Amsterdam, and Lumere set in Paris oozes atmosphere. Highly recommended.

Seven for a Secret (New Amsterdam, Book #2 - 128 pages)

Released in March 2009, Seven for a Secret is the original sequel to New Amsterdam. However, if you read the series in chronological order, by events taking place, I believe that The White City should really be that sequel.

Seven for a Secret is one short story featuring a rather morose Sebastien who knows he will be losing his beloved friends to age and death soon; an old, frustrated, but still sharp Abby Irene, and of course Phoebe.  It is 1938 and Sebastien de Ulloa returns to London so that Abby Irene may die in her homeland, but they return to a Britain conquered by the Prussians where the Chancellor's army occupies and rules. Ironically, England's new King Phillip is exiled in New Amsterdam. Abby Irene won't have it, and Sebastien will do whatever it takes to make her happy. Central to this story are two young girls in love, Ruth and Adele. One lonely evening Sebastien follows two girls and although he saves them from a local policeman after witnessing their sweet kiss, something about them smells wrong. What he finds is the Chancellor's terrible plan to use Ruth, Adele, and a school of girls as his own personal secret weapon.

I liked this very short story, however, I don't recommend it be read on it's own as I don't believe the main characters would be understood or well-appreciated. Sebastien is quite philosophical about time and loss, Abby Irene can't perform her sorcery and Phoebe is in the background so this is a slower kind of story. The girls, Ruth in particular, are intriguing and I like how Bear incorporated the plight of the Jewish people through Ruth's character and how well she incorporated alternate history. However, Bear's focus on the effects of time, loss and aging affected me -- a nostalgic read. As a side note, I find the cover of this novella disturbing, even as I admit that it fits the story quite well. Recommended.

The White City (New Amsterdam, Book #3 - 189 pages)

Speaking of covers, I love the cover for The White City (December 31, 2010) and this was the first of the three stories I purchased because it called to me. I read the series in chronological order of events and read this book after I finished New Amsterdam. The series really flows better that way in my opinion.

The White City is set in Moscow and believe me the setting is gorgeous! After the events that chased Sebastien and his court from New Amsterdam and the terrible loss experienced in Paris, he decides to move on to Moscow to bring an old acquaintance some sad news. Instead what he finds when he arrives at Irina Stephanova's studio is a murder. Soon, Sebastien, Abby Irene and Phoebe are embroiled in a crime investigation. But quickly Sebastien realizes that this murder is somehow connected to another murder that took place the last time he and Jack were in Moscow, a murder that also involved Irina Stephanova.

I loved New Amsterdam, but this has to be my favorite of the three books. It features two parallel mystery murder investigations and/or stories, one led by Jack and Sebastien, and the other by Sebastien and Abby Irene, both beautifully worked and weaved into one by the end. The characters, setting and atmosphere in this story are rich and well.. gorgeous. I loved the mood, the revelations that came from and about all the characters, and particularly about the wampier culture. The White City made me want more stories about Don Sebastien de Ulloa and more of Elizabeth Bear's writing. Highly recommended.

That's the meat of this series, although I understand that Ad Eternum was written as an epilogue, a 90 page short story featuring Sebastien's return to New Amsterdam in 1962. I don't have it and don't intend to read it. I'm sure you have one question: how is this steampunk? Well, we can begin with the fact that in 1862 our characters travel from Europe to New Amsterdam in a hydrogen fueled dirigible and go from there. The steampunk details are subtle and don't overwhelm or take away from the rich characterization, the mystery murder investigations, or the alternate history details and fantastic atmosphere that make this series stand out.

NOTE: All three of these books are out of print but available in ebook format for eReaders for $2.99 each.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Review: The Secret of Othello: A Fisher Key Adventure by Sam Cameron

Last year I read Mystery of the Tempest: A Fisher Key Adventure and enjoyed it. That book was the first installment in Sam Cameron's young adult LGBT mystery series Fisher Key Adventures. I've also enjoyed related and unrelated short stories written by this author, so of course I purchased the second book, The Secret of Othello as soon as it released. The series stars the Anderson twins, Denny and Steven, and I think what I love about these eighteen year old young men is how Cameron balances out each character by highlighting their common ground, yet gives them unique, individual traits and personalities.

Denny is gay and more circumspect about his heroic actions with an almost shy personality, and Steven loves girls and is known as the outspoken twin with the cocky attitude. Yet they share many of the same interests including love and respect for family and the sea, a propensity to find trouble in the most unimaginable of places and a curiosity that leads them to solve mysteries. However, being teenagers, they also share some of the same concerns and struggle by making wrong decisions and looking for the right choices.

While Mystery of The Tempest was very much a mystery that introduced these wonderful characters, Sam Cameron uses The Secret of Othello more as a tool to further develops these characters by focusing on the boys' concerns about changes taking place and affecting their lives after high school graduation.

After the mess he made out of his love life during graduation, Steven has given up girls for the summer, but has to fight himself constantly not to break this personal promise when three local girls make a play for him, and a new girl visiting Fisher Key makes an impact.This is not an easy task for impulsive, easily distracted Steven with his high libido. Instead after witnessing a shooting star streaking across Fisher Key skies, he tries to distract himself by following his natural curiosity after NASA scientists claim a weather satellite fell in the ocean. Steven doesn't really believe it's a weather satellite and keeps his eye on the Othello II reclaiming vessel and its crew, particularly on the beautiful female scientist aboard. However, Steven's real conflicts in this second installment are internal, as his future with the SEALs is still uncertain.

In the meantime, Denny is not really interested in NASA or their satellite and leaves all the snooping and speculating to Steven. Instead Denny's whole summer is consumed by his new relationship with boyfriend Brian. Denny is still hoping not to be the only virgin arriving for training at the U.S. Coast Guard, but he's also struggling with adjustments and choices, especially since he is only partially out of the closet. Brian is not so understanding of Denny's needs, and Denny doesn't always make the right decisions when it comes to their relationship. Additionally, Denny deals with the Cuban side of the family and going by his Aunt Riza's homophobic and intractable attitude that might end up a disaster. It all becomes a balancing act for Denny between family acceptance, Brian's understanding, mistakes, and his own libido gone wild! The boys end up helping each other out as always, and Brian confronts his own tough situations. There is a lot of growing up for Denny and Steven, as well as Brian in this installment.

The Secret of Othello is a good follow up to Mystery of The Tempest. It delves more into the characters and although there is a mystery to be solved, and of course Steven, Denny, Brian, and their friend Sean are all involved, in the end that mystery is not central but more of a side story through much of the book. However, toward the last third of the book the mystery and action pick up and the ending is quite exciting.

Sam Cameron writes young adult stories for young adults, although as an adult for me they are also enjoyable. The Fisher Key Adventures in particular are wonderful because not only is ethnic diversity subtly and naturally weaved into the series, but there is also the inclusion of inner struggles faced by young adults of different gender and sexual orientation. Cameron achieves this while placing these young adults in situations that include family, friends, and community in an organic environment, all while making these books highly entertaining mystery reads. The Secret of Othello was a solid read for me, and now I look forward to reading the next book of the series, The Missing Juliet.

Note: Have you noticed that so far the titles refer to vessels and they're all Shakespearean in nature? :D

Category: LGBT Young Adult Mystery
Series: Fisher Key Adventures
Publisher/Release Date: Soliloquy-Bold Strokes Books/September, 2012-Kindle Ed.
Grade: B

Find Sam Cameron books here. Read an excerpt here.

Series - My reviews:
Mystery of the Tempest, #1
Bark If You Like Bad Boys #1.5 (Boys of Summer Anthology ed. by Steve Berman)
The Secret of Othello, Book #2

*Also, check out Ames' review of Mystery of the Tempest at The Book Scoop YA Blog.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

TBR Review: Storm Front (Dresden Files #1) by Jim Butcher

I've become familiar with Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden character, first through the long-defunct and short-lived television show featuring this character, and more recently by reading a few short stories in anthologies. Long ago, I decided to read this series and purchased the first book Storm Front. Unfortunately, the book has lingered in my TBR pile for years. Finally, this month I found that the theme for TBR Challenge -- other genre besides romance -- was the perfect way to plunge into this series.

Lost Items Found. Paranormal Investigations. Consulting. Advice. Reasonable Rates. No Love Potions, Endless Purses, or Other Entertainment.
Harry is a real wizard, and no he's no Harry Potter. He's the only wizard in Chicago who practices openly and uses his magic to make a living, going as far as opening a P.I. agency and working as a consultant for the Chicago P.D. whenever they encounter "out of the box" crimes -- not that he makes much money out of either of these endeavors.

When we first meet Harry he's at his office reading novels, broke and hoping the phone will ring and a new case will come his way so he can pay the past due rent. He gets his phone call from a woman who needs her missing husband found, but barely talks her into meeting him at the office. Then he immediately receives another phone call from Detective Karrin Murphy of the Chicago P.D. to consult on a horrifying double murder that just stinks of black magic.

Soon Harry is embroiled in an investigation where people that talk to Harry begin to die, infamous Crime boss Johnny Marcone gets involved, a demon almost demolishes him while he's on a date, and a giant scorpion almost does him in, but worse than that as Harry gets closer to an answer the powerful black wizard behind the murders focuses on him, and he knows Harry's name so that his life is surely in terrible danger. But poor Harry also has to watch his back as a White Council representative spying on him believes that Harry himself is culpable and capable of the murders. Harry has to solve this case to save his own life even if he has to lie to Detective Murphy and experiment just a little with black magic to do it.

I felt a bit sorry for lonely, clumsy, inadequate Harry Dresden in this first installment of the series. I like Harry with his wonderful narrative voice. His inadequacies when dealing with women and even as a wizard manage to be both amusing and endearing. Harry is supposed to be a great wizard, yet his potions come from assistant Bob (a oversexed spirit living in a skull), half of the time he forgets his magic staff, weapon, and other magical paraphernalia, so that when most needed he is not prepared, but Harry has guts and somehow gets out of tight situations. Most people avoid looking Harry in the eye because he can see into their souls. I found this "soul gazing" aspect of Harry's powers fascinating and hope to see it further developed in future books. He is ambivalent about his own nature when it comes to dark and white magic and resentful of wizards in the White Council for whom he sacrificed much and was punished.

This book introduces some very interesting secondary characters: Detective Karrin Murphy and Johnny Marcone are two great examples. Harry has a strong narrative voice full of dry humor but not too much sarcasm, and I really enjoy the fact that Harry doesn't hide his magic in a world where humans are not really aware of a hidden magic world. It's an interesting concept.

Storm Front did not blow me out of the water, but I think it is a solid introduction to the series and Harry Dresden quite interesting as central character and narrator  -- more detective than great wizard. I like that the series begins with an investigation but love that it also delves into Harry's internal struggles and insecurities as a character.

After reading Storm Front, I purchased the second book of the series, Full Moon. So, I will definitely continue reading this series. :)
Theme: Genre besides romance

Category: Urban Fantasy
Series: Dresden Files, #1
Publisher/Release Date: ROC/January 1, 2000
Grade: B

Visit Jim Butcher here.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Steampunk Minis: Meljean Brook, Clay & Susan Griffith

This last week I caught up with some steampunk romance novels and novellas. I went on a reading binge to catch up with Meljean Brook's Iron Seas steampunk series, and then hit the Clay Griffith and Susan Griffith steampunk trilogy Vampire Empire. Here are three minis for books by these authors.

Mina Wentworth and the Invisible City (Iron Seas, #1.5)

I liked this epilogue/novella about Rhys and Mina. I particularly enjoyed the fact that as they adjust to marriage and work through fears, they have taken the time to form their own little family with Anne the Tinker. Still, Scarsdale is the most memorable character in this short story with his unbearable situation. It is heartbreaking, and I'm hoping that Brook finds a great resolution for him. I also wonder if the storyline used as part of the mystery in this short about children working as laborers and automatons taking over factories will be fully realized in a future story. Grade: B-

Heart of Steel (Iron Seas #2) by Meljean Brook

Heart of Steel turned out to be a pirate adventure romance, steampunk style. I like that Yasmeen never loses the ruthlessness that makes her such a unique character, and that Archimedes Fox admires her for her hard-won heart of steel and cold as ice personality. His charm is deceptive in that it hides a relentless man with a tough and fearless core. A great pair whose romance is well developed, but is somewhat lacking in emotion. The adventure is less than I expected with a disappointing outcome, and although the couple and the romance kept me reading and the steampunk details are again excellent, this second installment does not quite live up to my high expectations of this series. Grade: B-

The Rift Walker (Vampire Empire #2) by Clay Griffith and Susan Griffith

I enjoyed the first book in this series, The Greyfriar, because of the adventure, romance, and wonderful portrayals of the nosferatu-like vampires as villains. The Rift Walker begins quite slowly as Princess Adele dreams of Greyfriar and prepares her wedding to senator Clark. Political games abound in Equatoria at this point just as Adele's teacher Mamoru and his cabal of geomancers make plans for her training. Meanwhile Cesare and the northern vampire clans make their own plans to strike at Equatoria. Action begins when Greyfriar abducts Adele during her wedding and they make a run for Africa just before Cesare's forces attack Alexandria.

I again enjoyed the vampires in this book and their ruthless performances. Adele begins the story as a romantic young girl dreaming of her days with Greyfriar and ends it closer to a woman ready to lead her people. She also seems to be either willingly blind or just totally unaware (clueless) when she should not be, so that her character becomes really frustrating after a while. Greyfriar plays the brooding hero willing to sacrifice for his lady, but he is less than I expected. As Adele grows and is willing to lead, Greyfriar's character seems diminished. We are told that he is strong and smart, but is he? Where is his strength and willingness to lead, to confront, to save his people? Why isn't he willing to do so? By the end of the book I found his situation to be heartbreaking, but also pathetic. I do like his sense of humor, those moments when he's reading the penny dreadful novels are wonderful, and his impossible love for Adele romantic.

Overall, the book has a slow beginning with action picking up in the middle that doesn't really lead anywhere but helps with Adele's personal growth and that goes on to the end, some two-dimensional characterization for secondary characters, i.e., senator Clark, and a good ending that prepares the reader for the conclusion of this trilogy. I already have the last installment and am hoping for a good ending.  Grade: C

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Review: Riveted (Iron Seas #3) by Meljean Brook

I absolutely loved The Iron Duke and Here There Be Monsters. When I first read those two books, the world building in Meljean Brook's science fiction romance, steampunk world hit me like a two by four, and I fell in love with the characters that inhabited that world. In Riveted, Brook adds to that world building by stepping away from England and the New World and moving her story to isolated Iceland, incorporating a bit of Norse mythology, characters that are just as different as the location, and stepping up her use of social science fiction in this steampunk installment.

David Kentewess is leading an expedition to survey and map volcanoes in Iceland, but his one real mission for the last twenty years has been to solve the mystery of where his mother came from so he can keep a promise made to her on her deathbed. While waiting to board the airship Phatéon, he saves Annika Fridasdottor from a tricky situation at the gates of Castile, and finds that her accent and manner of speech match his mother's. Later, the runes she wears on her neck are also a dead giveaway. This is the closest David has ever come to keeping his promise and he's not about to let Annika slip through his fingers.

Annika Fridasdottor is also on a mission. Her family, comprised entirely of women, have lived in a secret and secluded village in Iceland guarded by tales of trolls, witches and magic. Five years ago she almost revealed that secret while woolgathering and dreaming, but her sister Källa took the blame and was exiled in her stead. Annika took responsibility, joined the airship Phaeton's crew and has been searching throughout the New World for her sister ever since. She is grateful that David saved her, but Annika endangered her family once, and after what she has observed of New World judgments and beliefs, is not about to do it again.

The story begins at a slow pace with David and Annika getting to know each other. Annika gives away much about herself just by the way she speaks. In the proper New World, Annika is considered improper and bold while in other ways she's shy and secretive. Annika doesn't quite fit in with others and stands out. Her upbringing has much to do with her behavior, however as we find out throughout the story, Annika doesn't quite fit in with the women in her village either because there she is seen as Annika the Rabbit, or a weak and timid girl, not bold or brave. Soon Annika is very attracted to David and lets him know in her own way, but he doesn't really see it and there is a good reason for that. David's background is just as intriguing as Annika's.

David is a gentle man, tender and loving, not an alpha male or even what I think of as a beta, but gentle. He lost his mother as a child and was brought up by his Native American father in a community where Native Americans were attempting to regain their culture years after their ancestors had converted and changed their names. David's father was a good, forgiving man and David a happy child even after he suffered the devastating loss of his mother, three of his limbs and an eye after a volcanic eruption. However as an adult, he is a man with baggage and not all of it is on the inside. After he grew to be an adult, David visited the Blacksmith in England so he is not only infected with nanoagents, but the Blacksmith grafted prosthetics on his missing limbs as well as an eye that looks like, but is not, a monocle. Most people look at him either with pity or as if he were a monster, and David is very self-conscious of his looks.

The best thing about these two outsiders, gentle David and improper Annika, is that although they don't seem to fit anywhere, they fit perfectly with each other. They both see each other as worthy of admiration and as the adventure gains momentum, a deep, passionate, sweet love takes over where in the beginning there was only a deep attraction.

The action in the story is slow to come as they travel all the way from Castile to a glacier in Iceland. It builds with the help of some excellent secondary characters rounding up the story and a hateful madman as a villain. The steampunk details are as excellent as I expected after reading previous installments, but in my opinion did not overwhelm the overall storyline. I particularly like the way Brook incorporates the women in Hannasvik and their culture with a bit of Norse mythology, and that she also uses that same culture to add some of that social science fiction I previously mentioned.

The villain's fate and the consequences to his actions are anticlimactic. However, it is interesting that the scenes that follow with Annika and David seem to be the real high point of the story, so that in the end Riveted read and felt more like a true romance. A sweet romance at that! The Iron Duke and Here There Be Monsters are still my favorite reads of this series so far, but I really enjoyed the differences I found in Riveted and for me it comes in at a close third. Now, I'm really looking forward to reading the next book and can't wait to see where Brook takes this series.

Category: Science Fiction Romance/Fantasy/Steampunk
Series: The Iron Seas
Publisher/Release Date: Berkley/September 4, 2012
Grade: B+

Visit Meljean Brook here.

Here There Be Monsters, #0.5 (Burning Up Anthology)
The Iron Duke, #1
The Blushing Bounder, #0.4 (Wild & Steamy Anthology)
Mina Wentworth and The Invisible City, #1.5
Heart of Steel, #2
Tethered, #2.5
Riveted, #3

Monday, September 10, 2012

Review: The Last Renegade by Jo Goodman


As the owner of the Pennyroyal Saloon and Hotel, Lorraine Berry is privy to almost everything that goes on in Bitter Springs, Wyoming—including the bloodshed plaguing its citizens. With all of the good men dying at the hands of a local rancher and his three sons, Raine hires a shootist to be the town's protector. But her handsome new employee is more than a hired hand; he's a man that keeps his guns close and his secrets closer.


After a chance encounter on a train, Kellen Coltrane travels to the Pennyroyal to carry out a dying man's last wish. But once he meets the hotel's fiery-haired proprietor, Coltrane finds himself assuming the role of the shootist's accomplice and agrees to protect Bitter Springs. And as he learns more about Raine's own tragedy, Coltrane can't deny his growing desire for the courageous
widow, or the urge to protect her from the threat that draws near…
I tend to enjoy Jo Goodman's western historical romances, but with The Last Renegade she definitely penned a favorite.

It all begins with Kellen reading a dime novel while riding the train to Salt Lake City, but when a man dying of knife wounds calling himself Nat Church walks up to him that destination changes. Out of curiosity, impulse, or simply to carry out Mr. Church's last dying wish, Kellen finds himself at the Pennyroyal Saloon and Hotel in Bitter Springs, Wyoming with two guns that don't belong to him hidden in his valise and letters from a Mrs. Berry.

At the Pennyroyal Saloon and Hotel, Kellen meets the Widder Berry as she's known in town. Raine hired Nat Church, a shootist she believes will protect the good people in her town from the powerful rancher Uriah Burdick, his three sons Eli, Clay, and Isaac, and his hired hands. Good people have died or disappeared and there's a possibility that more will suffer the same fate. Raine can't stand by and watch it happen, not when she wants revenge against these men, and not when deep down she feels responsible for what is happening. Kellen Coltrane is not Nat Church, but Raine needs help and comes to believe the new handsome shootist can do just that. After meeting Lorraine Berry and finding out the extent of the town's troubles, Kellen allows her to assume that he was Mr. Church's assistant and takes on the role of protector.

The Last Renegade is tough to review only because I want to let you know how much there is to love about the story, but don't want to give too much away about the plot while doing so. I guess that right there is something to like about the book, there are surprises and revelations along the way about Raine, Kellen and the plot that keep the reader intrigued about both characters and interested in the story. Both characters are full of personal secrets, even as they are quite open about their mutual attraction and desire for each other.

The romance spans the whole book, and it's a wonderful romance. Raine and Kellen make a great couple. They are upfront about desires and feelings, and there's chemistry between them, but there's also a certain connection that the reader feels through the pages that makes this a great read. However, although there's honesty about desire and feelings in this relationship, there are personal facts they keep from each other. Some of those personal facts are revealed throughout the course of this romance while others are kept secret even from the reader until the very end. Goodman sets the stage for a few different mysteries in this western, there's a who-dun-it with a why-dun-it incorporated into it, as there are murders that take place beginning with Nat Church's on the train and continuing with others at Bitter Springs, and then we have those personal secrets kept by Raine and Kellen.

Kellen plays our sleuth in this piece and he works out the why-dun-it beautifully. The who-dun-it is also very well done. The reader may have an idea as to who is involved, but there are many gray areas in this story. The characters, the good people and even the villains of this piece, are not all portrayed as being black and white/good and bad. I think that's where Goodman really shines because you'll find that even the villains have depth of character. And the secondary characters? They really round up this story as only well developed secondary characters can do. And, I wonder if there's anyone out there who is not going to fall in love with Finn and Rabbit! (Talk about memorable characters) These two boys steal every scene where they appear. What a pair!

But this is a western, did it project that western atmosphere? Yes, it did. There are the good people of the town being bullied by the powerful local rancher and his men. Goodman captures the fear, constant anxiety, and sense of danger felt by men, women and children when those men ride into town. These sections, however, are not done in an overly gritty style, but fit the story. Yet, there are also moments when the reader understands why these people love living in the lovely little town that is Bitter Springs, Wyoming. The beauty of the landscape is there, as is the struggle to make a living from ranching, farming and other endeavors in a small, isolated western town.

All in all The Last Renegade is a very satisfying western historical romance. There is a well developed and sexy romance in the middle of what I think of as a mystery in this western historical, but there's also that undeniable western atmosphere throughout the story. Both central and secondary characters are well rounded so and there's a great sense of balance to the story with gray areas and minimal black and white moments. I absolutely recommend it as a favorite read.

Oh, and now I can't wait to read True to the Law, the next installment in this series (Finn and Rabbit appear there too!).

Category: Western Historical Romance
Series: Bitter Springs #1
Publisher/Release Date: Berkley/September 4, 2012
Grade: A-

Visit Jo Goodman here.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Minis: Lucky in Love & At Last (Lucky Harbor #4 & 5) by Jill Shalvis

Jill Shalvis is a favorite contemporary romance writer, and last year the first three books in the Lucky Harbor series turned out to be favorite contemporary romance reads for me. It is no surprise then that I was really looking forward to reading the continuation of this series in 2012.

Lucky in Love is book 4 of the series. It differs from the first three books in that it no longer involves the three original sisters, instead the female protagonists of the next three books are friends who meet and bond over their shared love of chocolate, conversation about love lives or lack thereof, and wind up forming the The Chocaholics club. The three women are the town's "good girl," Mallory Quinn, Amy Michaels, a waitress at the local diner, and the new girl in town Grace Brooks.

In Lucky in Love Mallory Quinn is encouraged to meet Mr. Wrong so she can break out of a "good girl" role that hasn't worked out for her in the past. Mysterious Cute Guy, or Ty Garrison, fits that role perfectly as far as everyone is concerned and of course he makes his entrance with drama and flair. Mallory proceeds to do the bad girl act and pretty quickly their affair progresses to the point where mutual feelings are deeper than planned, so that the superficial relationship that began with such heat and promise is no longer satisfying for them. Ty has baggage from his experience in the military that prevents him from making a commitment, and Mallory has her own past guilts and experiences that  helped her evolve into the woman she is, a pleaser and a good, all around caring woman.

I enjoyed this romance, just as I usually enjoy Jill Shalvis' contemporary romances. Lucky in Love has the usual sizzle between the main protagonists and the likable characters. Shalvis deals with PTSD to a certain extent in this installment, but it is not an in-depth look into the issue and it is resolved lightly. Lucky Harbor is a wonderful place with secondary characters that are well known by now and I look forward to meeting them again on the page. What really didn't work for me in this installment was the relationship between the three women. That friendship formed rather quickly so that the intimacy between the women felt forced and lacking. It lacked the push and pull that we experienced between sisters Maddie, Tara and Chloe, the emotional attachment, love and yes, real intimacy. So, although the romance was enjoyable, in many ways this ended up being an average read for me.  Grade: C+

The 5th book in the Lucky Harbor series, At Last, covers the romance between Amy Michaels and Officer Hot Buns himself Matt Bowers. In the previous book there was a hint that something was going on between Amy and Matt, and in this story we find out that well... there's actually nothing going on except that except that there's an attraction between them. That right there was a disappointment because all along there was a hint that something major had happened between them.

At Last is interesting in that it features parallel a storyline between the baggage that Amy carries from her youth as a runaway and a young girl who Amy takes under her wing. The romance between Matt and Amy is something else altogether. Matt is sweet and hot! But Amy is a tough cookie with lots of trust issues that she just can't seem to shed. More than once her judgment leaves a lot to be desired in this story, and I never quite warmed up to Amy even when she showed her vulnerable side. 

The residents of Lucky Harbor once again make this story worth reading, but this installment is missing some of those amusing moments that I so look forward to and there is really almost no build up for Grace's story. Grace Brooks is not a character that draws me so that there is no real excitement and no need for me to rush and read Forever and a Day. Maybe later? Grade: C

In conclusion, I don't have strong objections to Lucky in Love nor At Last and although neither book made a lasting impression on me, as always Jill Shalvis includes likable characters and some pretty steamy scenes in both stories. I enjoyed these reads as more or less average contemporary romances and recommend them as such.

Category: Contemporary Romance
Series: Lucky Harbor
Publisher/Release Date: Forever/May 2012 & June 2012

Simply Irresistible #1
The Sweetest Thing #2
Head Over Heels #3
Lucky in Love #4
At Last #5
Forever and a Day #6

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Minis: Sidecar by Amy Lane + Don't Say A Word by Beverly Barton

I hope everyone had a great Labor Day weekend. I'm late with my wishes since I haven't had a chance to really chat lately. Mine was quite nice! Nath, her sister Emilie and a couple of their friends came all the way from Canada and stayed over for a couple of days, and that's always fun for me. :) Then we had the opportunity to meet Christine and Mariana for dinner on Saturday evening and that rounded up the goodness of it all! We had a great time! Talked and ate, ate and talked! Of course I don't have any pictures! Nath and Christine took pictures because, unlike me, they are good at that. Maybe they can share those with you all later. :D

Anyway, I didn't really make the time for blogging, preparing my reviews for the week, or reading much during the weekend. However, here are a couple of mini-reviews about two books that I read recently.

Sidecar by Amy Lane (Click on title to read summary)

Sidecar by Amy Lane is a good story spanning a 25 year period of time. I really like the way Lane captured the time period (80's and on) by incorporating music, fashion and attitudes without overdoing it. The relationship between Casey and Joe was wonderful. I like that Lane features a bisexual character with some of the conflicts that present themselves along the way for a man like Joe who doesn't like to be labeled and who has needs that are different from Casey's. There are emotional moments galore in this story. Some of the conflicts are dramatic and a bit over the top at times, and the story is a tad over long. However, all in all an emotional and enjoyable read with great characters. (Dreamspinner Press, June 2012): Grade B-

Don't Say A Word by Beverly Barton (Click on title to read summary)

Don't Say a Word is Beverly Barton's last book, as sadly she passed away earlier this year. A romance suspense, it is part of a series, but as I found out it can easily be read as a stand-alone.

What impressed me the most about this story is how Barton had me guessing until the end as to whom the serial killer turned out to be in this piece. There are multiple murders to be investigated and the murders are gruesome! The story is told from three points of view, the heroine who just moved to town as a policewoman, the hero who is a member of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) and a few chapters as seen from the killer's perspective. There are clues along the way, but there are also red herrings and they are good ones. So watch out for those!

I found that the romance was incorporated unevenly. It had a good beginning, a tough middle with little to no forward momentum, and then it moved rapidly toward the last third of the book with good results, although not with great sizzling moments. Overall, I enjoyed this book and consider it a solid read that I enjoyed on both fronts, but leaning more toward the suspense.  (ARC Kensington - Zebra, July 31, 2012) Grade: B

That's it for this Thursday. Ohhh, wait! Since I'm catching up, I'll let you all know what I'm reading. I'm all excited because I'm reading the latest western by Jo Goodman, The Last Renegade. I'm really enjoying it so far, but then I love my westerns and Jo Goodman is one of those authors that does it for me. Review to come! :)

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Impressions: A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant

Newly widowed and desperate to protect her estate and beloved servants from her malevolent brother-in-law, Martha Russell conceives a daring plan. Or rather, a daring plan to conceive. After all, if she has an heir on the way, her future will be secured. Forsaking all she knows of propriety, Martha approaches her neighbor, a London exile with a wicked reputation, and offers a strictly business proposition: a month of illicit interludes . . . for a fee.

Theophilus Mirkwood ought to be insulted. Should be appalled. But how can he resist this siren in widow’s weeds, whose offer is simply too outrageously tempting to decline? Determined she’ll get her money’s worth, Theo endeavors to awaken this shamefully neglected beauty to the pleasures of the flesh—only to find her dead set against taking any enjoyment in the scandalous bargain. Surely she can’t resist him forever. But could a lady’s sweet surrender open their hearts to the most unexpected arrival of all . . . love?
A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant is such an interesting historical romance read. It has moments of brilliance and I love so much about it, yet there's just something about it that turned me off. Well, I know what turned me off. It was Martha's characterization and some of the plotting devices.

What did I love? I loved the setting and the fact that the gentry is highlighted in this romance instead of the ton. I think that Grant captured that small country village community beautifully. Grant also went for a character driven novel with unusual characters. Martha is severe and comes off as uber-cold and emotionally unavailable, yet in contrast, underneath her black widow's weeds she is caring enough to stand up and sacrifice for duty and responsibility. She's a complex character. Theo on the other hand is a carefree young man of his time who initially seems to have no regard for duty or responsibility. Eventually though, we see that there is more to Theo, and although Martha influences some of his actions, most of the growth comes from him. He is an inherently good man, a man who should be admired for more than his beauty, charm and prowess in the bedroom.

I did have problems with some of the plotting devices. Although I bought the "pregnancy to inherit plot" because lineage was such an important part of life during that time, and widows so hard up if not provided for by dead husbands, unfortunately there were also rather improbable moments . The 21st Century mentality that went into those moments were a turn off for me and pulled me out of a story with characters that otherwise had all my attention.

Martha's characterization? We never really know why Martha is so emotionally unavailable when compared to her siblings. Was it that she was brought up by a strict governess once her mother died? Was it her experience with the dead husband? Was it the combination of the two? What made Martha such an open champion of other women in an era when women did not necessarily stand up for other women? What made the town stand against a possible titled person (a man) to throw their support behind a woman and servants (female servants for that matter) and poor laborers during that period of time? It's all rather wonderful, but also rather improbable. I didn't buy it for a minute.

I really enjoyed Theo's character growth as he went from a superficial young man to a man who took his future responsibilities seriously. The lack of character shown when he agreed to Martha's proposition was immense! So yes, wonderful character growth there for Theo, particularly compared to the incremental and murkier character growth shown for Martha.

A Lady Awakened turned out to be a mixed bag. I loved sections of this book because it is so different (I like different), but not all of it worked for me. The good thing? I will read the next book in the series. :)

Category: Historical Romance
Series: Blackshear Family #1
Publisher/Release Date: Bantman/December 27, 2011
Source: Gift from Leslie (Thanks Les!)
Grade: C+

Visit Cecilia Grant here.

Monday, September 3, 2012

August 2012: Reads + Minis

Is the month of August really over? Where did it go? Between my vacation, family events, busy working weeks, and my migraines it seems to have flown. It was a month of slow reading and slow blogging for me. Although I read some great books, the month that was August turned out to be a mixture of ups and downs. Let's take a look.

Total August reads: 12
  Contemporary: 4 (Romance: 2, Erotic Romance: 1, Romance Suspense: 1)
  Historical: 2 (Western Romance: 1 , Historical Fiction: 1)
  Paranormal Romance: 1
  Urban Fantasy: 1
  Spec Fic/Horror: 2
  LGBT: 2 (Humor Essays: 1, Historical Mystery/Rom: 1)

1)   Lucky in Love (Lucky Harbor #4) by Jill Shalvis: C+
2)   Gunmetal Magic (Kate Daniels #5.5) by Ilona Andrews: B
3)   The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty: B-
4)   At Last (Lucky Harbor #5) by Jill Shalvis: C

5)   Arthur Wooten's Shorts: A Stroke Of Luck: a short story & The "Dear Henry" Letters
I really enjoyed A Stroke of Luck: A Short Story, a heartwarming story about a man who after a stroke of bad luck, finds love in the most unexpected of places and with an unlikely man. However, The "Dear Henry" Letters are the stars of this short piece! I couldn't stop laughing while reading most of Arthur Wooten's short essays in letter form. Hilarious!

In 2008, Mr. Wooten was asked by London magazine reFRESH to write a column addressing gay sex, love, dating, and fetishes, sort of an advice/informational type of column. From 2008 through 2010 Mr. Wooten quite creatively addressed all those issues by addressing the column to his fictional lover Henry in The "Dear Henry" Letters.  In the letters he attempts to break up their relationship for all sorts of reasons, mainly indiscretions committed by his fictional lover. Throughout the two years he always finds a reason to go back to Henry, but of course there's also always a reason to break up again.

The letters address all types of issues mentioned above, but because Mr. Wooten is a humorist the result is a hilarious, and at times embarrassing, collection from beginning to end! This short piece is worth buying, reading and re-reading. Thanks to Indigene for the recommendation. Grade: B+
6)   Dirty by Megan Hart: A- 
7)   Wild Texas Rose (Whispering Mountain #6) by Jodi Thomas: C-
8)   Torn by Lee Thomas: A-
9)   Don't Say a Word by Beverly Barton (Upcoming Review) 
10) Hearts of Darkness: A Deadglass Novel by Kira Brady: B

11) The Croning by Laird Barron
I've read and loved Barron's short stories. It is the reason I immediately purchased his full length novel The Croning. I thought The Croning began rather well, with a fairy tale that Barrons turned into a dark horror tale. Unfortunately, the central character is rather uninteresting with a narrative voice that lacks excitement, and that never changes throughout the story. Flashbacks break whatever momentum is gained and foreshadow most of what's to come, so that by the end there are little of those moments filled with real terror left to this horror (or Lovecraftian) tale, although the weird fiction is there, and the ending is ambiguous enough.

The same brilliant qualities that I found in Barron's short stories were only present in a few chapters. The novel is full of unnecessary background detail about the central characters and even characters that are not pertinent to the story. I'm sad to say that I forced myself to finish the book looking for more of those few bright moments along the way. For an excellent example of Barron's works, I recommend reading his collection of short stories in Occultation and Other Stories. I'm almost finished reading it (2 stories to go), and then I will review it. Grade: C-
12)  Only Make Believe (It Takes Two, #2) by Elliott Mackle: (Upcoming Review)

That's it for August! My top reads of the month were Torn by Lee Thomas, a wonderful speculative fiction horror novella, and my TBR Challenge read, Dirty by Megan Hart! September is already here and yes... I'm reading again. :) How did August turn out for you?