Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Cross Breed

Cross Breed (A Novel of the Breeds) by [Leigh, Lora]

Cross Breed (a Novel of the Breeds)- Lora Leigh
Berkley/Penguin Group
Release Date: September 25, 2018


Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

Synopsis: The Breeds are humans altered before conception with the DNA of the predators of the earth. But although they all carry the genetic material of beasts within them, Cassandra Sinclair stands apart. A unique mix of wolf, coyote and human, she is revered by many--but preyed upon by others. She is fiercely protected by her community...but no one manages to stop her when she slips away one day to offer her body in exchange for her sister's safety.

The man she succumbs to surprises her by unleashing her inner animal in ways she never dreamed possible--and provokes her deep, furious rage. To Cassie's shock, he is the mate she has long awaited. She may never be able to forgive his deception. Still, as dangerous enemies track her, and as the threat of all-out war between Breeds and the humans who despise them hovers in the air, they must join forces and hold fast to each other.

But the passionate union between them holds a potential that could change the world--and some will do anything to stop it..


Longtime readers of Lora Leigh's Breeds series first met Cassandra Sinclair in Elizabeth's Wolf as a young girl with seemingly psychic talents for knowing things.  Over the series she has grown into a woman who can argue Breed Law better than anyone alive.  In Cross Breed, Cassie finally gets her own book- and a surprising mate.

Teasers for this book have been careful not to tell readers who Cassie's mate is, making this the first (rather unavoidable) spoiler: it's the Coyote Breed known only as Dog.  Believed by most to be loyal to the Council, Dog is considered 'rogue', an enemy, and a cold blooded killer.  Not who loving parents Dash and Elizabeth Sinclair were hoping for their beloved daughter!  But as with all Breed novels, there are circles within circles and deceptions hiding truths.  Dog is a double agent, working with Jonas Wyatt to shut down more Council atrocities against Breeds.  Cassie doesn't know this at first, but she senses there is more to Dog than others believe, and is willing to give him a chance.  

As a romance story, Cross Breed is pretty good.  There's an enormous clash and adjusting period as Cassie and Dog work to figure out their relationship, how to overcome his supposed loyalty to the Council, and how to work together as a unit in the face of constant threats and challenges.  Both are passionate people experiencing these emotions for the first time and discovering themselves along the way.  Cassie in particular has a lot to learn and accept about herself.  We discover early on that she has a difficult time accepting she's a Breed at all, let alone a hybrid- and she doesn't accept her Coyote genes at all, calling them evil.

As a mystery, suspense, or plot driven continuation of a long running series, it has its defects.  Although not as repetitious as many of Leigh's books, Cross Breed repeats certain things more than enough to be annoying (there are only so many times we need to hear that allowing negative emotional scents to be picked up by others is an insult before you feel insulted to keep being told). A major conflict builds up between Dog, Cassie, and another Coyote named Rhyzan who suddenly wants to push the idea that he might be Cassie's mate.  Rhyzan complicates things left and right, petitions a formal hearing for the chance to have Cassie reconsider who her mate is, then as soon as everyone is in court he drops it to try questioning Dog about something else.  When that gets blocked we find out Rhyzan is playing a deeper game and willing to use Dog, Cassie, and anyone else to get the information he needs- but then Rhyzan pretty much disappears from the book.  There were other, smaller things that had me questioning whether I had missed reading something, had forgotten a throwaway line from an earlier book in the series that was suddenly important, or wondering why a plot line seemed to be just dropped.

Although not Leigh's best book, Cross Breed will appeal to longtime readers of the Breeds novels who have been looking forward to Cassie's book for a long time. Readers new to the series will enjoy the Cassie/Dog story and the chemistry between them, but will probably be lost for the plot lines outside the romance.  A quick read, Cross Breed is entertaining on a surface level, but could have been one of Leigh's best books with a little more work.

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Rebel Hard

Rebel Hard (Hard Play Book 2)- Nalini Singh
Inscribe Digital/TKA Distribution
Release Date: September 18, 2018


Synopsis: Nayna Sharma agreed to an arranged marriage in the hope it would heal the fractures in her beloved family… only to realize too late that a traditional marriage is her personal nightmare. Panicked, she throws caution to the winds, puts on the tiniest dress she can find, and ends up in the arms of a tall, rough-edged hunk of a man who has abs of steel—and who she manages to mortally insult between one kiss and the next.

Abandoned as a child, then adopted into a loving family, Raj Sen believes in tradition, in continuity. Some might call him stiff and old-fashioned, but he knows what he wants—and it’s a life defined by rules… yet he can’t stop thinking about the infuriating and sexy woman who kissed him in the moonlight then disappeared. When his parents spring an introduction on him, the last woman he expects is her. Beautiful. Maddening. A rule breaker in the making.

He’s all wrong for her. She’s all wrong for him. And love is about to make rebels of them both.


 Nayna Sharma has spent most of her life being the 'good sister' to make up for her elder sister's mistakes.  In the process she's had a small, quiet life hemmed in by rules and tradition.  Now that she's agreed to an arranged marriage she suddenly realizes that she's living the life everyone wants for her- except her.  One wild night at a party she meets the perfect man- then mistakenly insults him in the middle of a steamy embrace.  Raj Sen was abandoned and abused as a child before being adopted into a loving family, and wants a stable, quiet life based on traditions and setting down roots.  But an encounter with Nayna makes him start to question what he thinks he wants in life.  They may be exactly what the other doesn't want, but exactly what they do need.

We first met Nayna as Isa Rain's best friend in Cherish Hard.  Here we get Nayna's story and it is nothing less than amazing. Nayna is trying to grab a brief moment in life that is hers and hers alone before settling into the married life her parents want.  But even after meeting Raj and knowing there is amazing chemistry between them, she sees marriage as a trap that she discovers she doesn't really want to enter on anyone's terms but her own.  But every time she tries to take a step towards independence, something happens to make her feel guilty about being anything less than the 'perfect' daughter her traditional Indian parents want.  She's seen her sister cast off because of her decisions and is convinced she can only be loved if she is perfect.  Nayna is a delightful and realistic mix of strength and insecurities trying to balance her parent's traditional views with her own more modern ones, and trying to discover who she is in the process.

Raj may be all quiet confidence and strength on the outside, but he's never quite gotten over the pain of being abandoned, knowing he was unwanted and unloved by his birth mother is a scar the loving family he now has can't entirely erase. He wants to protect himself by never giving a woman power over his heart and is sure a traditional marriage with a quiet woman is what he needs.  Nayna makes him question everything he thought he wanted in life.  He knows he wants a chance with her, and is willing to play dirty to get her- including learning to smile, to play, and to text Nayna screamingly sexy pictures that are totally G-rated.  But he's as worried about falling in love as she is worried that he'll never fully give himself to her.    

Nayna and Raj may be my favorite Nalini Singh couple after Gabriel and Charlotte (Rock Hard)- although it's a close tie. You know Raj is something special when he goes out of his way to read Nayna's favorite book, Pride and Prejudice.  And the reader is then treated to the male view of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham- and the men on Raj's construction crew discovering what women really find sexy by Googling "hot men reading".  

Rebel Hard is a wonderful, passionate, humorous, and emotional story of two people learning about themselves and trying to make a relationship work when they are afraid to fall in love.  It celebrates the beautiful, colorful culture of India and Fiji, blended with New Zealand's natural wonders.  This is a book that joyously grabs all of your senses and flings it into the color, taste, sound, texture, and glitter of a Bollywood extravaganza: complete with over the top weddings, meddling parents, villainous sister-in-law, and gorgeous locations. A must read for any romance fan!

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Field of Blood

The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War by [Freeman, Joanne B.]

The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War- Joanne B. Freeman
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux
Release Date: September 11, 2018


Synopsis: In The Field of Blood, Joanne B. Freeman recovers the long-lost story of physical violence on the floor of the U.S. Congress. Drawing on an extraordinary range of sources, she shows that the Capitol was rife with conflict in the decades before the Civil War. Legislative sessions were often punctuated by mortal threats, canings, flipped desks, and all-out slugfests. When debate broke down, congressmen drew pistols and waved Bowie knives. One representative even killed another in a duel. Many were beaten and bullied in an attempt to intimidate them into compliance, particularly on the issue of slavery.

These fights didn’t happen in a vacuum. Freeman’s dramatic accounts of brawls and thrashings tell a larger story of how fisticuffs and journalism, and the powerful emotions they elicited, raised tensions between North and South and led toward war. In the process, she brings the antebellum Congress to life, revealing its rough realities—the feel, sense, and sound of it—as well as its nation-shaping import. Funny, tragic, and rivetingly told, The Field of Blood offers a front-row view of congressional mayhem and sheds new light on the careers of John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and other luminaries, as well as introducing a host of lesser-known but no less fascinating men. The result is a fresh understanding of the workings of American democracy and the bonds of Union on the eve of their greatest peril.

Joanne B. Freeman's The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War is an entertaining, well researched, and well-written examination of physical violence in U.S. Congress in the decades leading to the Civil War.  Most of it stems from diarist B.B. French, who managed to be on hand or on the fringes for every major political and historical event of his lifetime.  A New Hampshire native, French was highly active in D.C. politics, knew politicians and presidents, and often had a ring-side seat to the debates and violence on the floors of Congress. 

Not merely a cataloging of duels, brawls, canings, and insults, Field of Blood examines the reasons behind the violence- both personal and cultural.  Violence and duels were seen as honorable, manly codes of conduct in the South and barbaric and uncivilized in the North.  Southern politicians would often use bullying and threats of violence to hold power in Congress.  Politicians were seen as closely representing the constituents, their state, and their region and "fighting for the people's rights" was often taken very literally.  Insult an individual and you insulted the region.  Insult the region and you insulted the individual.  Honor was often called into question and (usually) representatives settled things outside the halls of Congress.  It was an interesting dynamic that the patriotic French watched: people believed Congress to be solemn, serious, full of great men giving great speeches- if they saw what French saw, the general public might think very differently.  

Freeman presents readers with a little looked at slice of American history leading up to the Civil War, bringing 19th century political figures to life with a humorous and down-to-earth style of writing that keeps the reader engaged from beginning to end.  Americans who believe today's political standoffs and partisanship are unprecedented may appreciate reading the literal stand-offs of the past, when people sent guns to their Congressmen so they could fight for their constituents' rights and pistols, rifles, and bowie knives were regularly carried by politicians "just in case." 

 For anyone who imagines 19th century Congressmen as staid and boring old men, Freedman will introduce you to a whole new side of American politics. A great read!

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Black Gryphon

The Black Gryphon (Mage Wars Book 1) by [Dixon, Larry, Lackey, Mercedes]

The Black Gryphon (Mage Wars Book 1)- Mercedes Lackey
DAW/Penguin Group
Release Date: January 1, 1995


Synopsis: Skandranon Rashkae is perhaps the finest specimen of his race, with gleaming ebony feathers, majestic wingspan, keen magesight and sharp intelligence. Courageous, bold, and crafty, Skan is everything a gryphon should be. He is the fulfillment of everything that the Mage of Silence, the human sorcerer called Urtho, intended to achieve when he created these magical beings to be his champions, the defenders of his realm--a verdant plain long coveted by the evil mage Maar. 

Now Maar is once again advancing on Urtho's Keep, this time with a huge force spearheaded by magical constructs of his own--cruel birds of prey ready to perform any evil their creator may demand of them. And when one of Urtho's Seers wakes from a horrifying vision in which she sees a devastating magical weapon being placed in the hands of Maar's common soldiers, Skandrannon is sent to spy across enemy lines, cloaked in the protective of Urtho's powerful Spell of Silence.

Before Valdemar, there were the mages.  Urtho, the Mage of Silence, created wonderful new creatures like gryphons and seeks knowledge to help others. The Mage Maar seeks power above all things.  Slowly Maar has taken over lands and people, until only those who stand with Urtho are left.  The Black Gryphon takes place at the end of this war, as people and gryphons try to claim small moments of joy and peace among the relentless grind of war and death. Skandranon, the Black Gryphon, and his close friend Amberdrake serve in Urtho's armies in their own ways.  Skan on the front lines, fighting the enemies and getting into and out of impossibly dangerous situations; Amberdrake among the Healers, working to keep mind, body, and soul together for the fighters. But among those loyal to Urtho are traitors, and even the Black Gryphon and the Mage of Silence may not be enough to stop Maar's terrible forces.
 Focusing on those trying to create lives in the midst of death, Black Gryphon shows both the best and the worst humans have in them.  Amberdrake in particular is a deeply sympathetic character, trying to bear his own emotional burdens as well as those others have confided in him, working to remain strong when grief or exhaustion overwhelm him. Seeing behind the facade Amberdrake and Skan show the world, you see how true leaders and good people are forged in the heart of adversity. 
 The Black Gryphon is a fast-paced, deeply emotional, and tightly written adventure. A fantasy novel both high fantasy lovers and those new to the genre will appreciate, and a book that stands up to many re-readings and the test of time.  Among Lackey's best! 

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Witch of Willow Hall

The Witch of Willow Hall by [Fox, Hester]

The Witch of Willow Hall- Hester Fox
Release Date: October 2, 2018


Warning: Possible Spoilers Ahead

Synopsis: New Oldbury, 1821 

In the wake of a scandal, the Montrose family and their three daughters—Catherine, Lydia and Emeline—flee Boston for their new country home, Willow Hall.

The estate seems sleepy and idyllic. But a subtle menace creeps into the atmosphere, remnants of a dark history that call to Lydia, and to the youngest, Emeline.

All three daughters will be irrevocably changed by what follows, but none more than Lydia, who must draw on a power she never knew she possessed if she wants to protect those she loves. For Willow Hall’s secrets will rise, in the end…


Lydia Montrose has spent her life trying to repress herself and blend into the background, a quiet bookworm shadowed by her older and outgoing sister Catherine.  When Catherine's behavior causes too much scandal for the family to remain in Boston, they move to the small town of New Oldbury.  Here Lydia begins to discover more about herself, her family, and the world than she imagined. She falls for her father's business partner, the enigmatic and brooding John Barrett, but believes he has eyes only for Catherine.  As Lydia discovers more of Catherine's shameful secrets, she tries to keep the family together and protect them from the world.  But when tragedy continues to follow the Montrose family, who will keep Lydia safe?

The Witch of Willow Hall starts off slow, hinting at secrets without revealing the truth for long stretches of time, but picks up as you go.  The dark, quiet menace and gothic brooding of Willow Hall are a tangible presence throughout the entire book- even more of a character than many of the flesh and blood ones.  As much as you sometimes want to shake Lydia into sharing her problems you feel sorry for her for not having anyone strong or caring enough in her family to share them with.  Lydia takes on far more responsibility for the family than she should have to, especially while she is trying to figure out her own life at the same time.  Mysterious visions and sounds that only she can hear- are they dreams or something more sinister? It takes the plain speaking of one of Lydia's ancestors to make her stop completely avoiding the truth, and though she spends most of the book in denial that somehow makes her eventual acceptance of herself and her abilities even stronger.  Most of the other characters are fairly two dimensional- her parents almost nonentities for most of the book, Catherine a vain and outrageously selfish girl.  Anytime you see a hint of a real person behind her shallow facade it's gone so fast you're not sure if it was really there or if Lydia imagined it.  John Barrett is a fairly mysterious and brooding character for most of the book, although when he and Lydia finally actually talk out their misunderstandings and secrets he turns out to be a strong man with a good heart, and one Lydia truly deserves after all she's been through.  Despite the gothic menace of ghosts it is an all too human menace that threatens Lydia and John and Lydia comes to learn that good and evil can be in all people- witches or not.

Captivating and well written, The Witch of Willow Hall follows in the tradition of the gothic romances that Lydia loves so much- a book full of secrets, ghosts, betrayals, and love, with a much needed and deserved happy ending. 

received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Halls of Law

Halls of Law (Faraman Prophecy) by [Escalada, V. M.]

Halls of Law- V.M. Escalada
Release Date: August 1, 2017


Synopsis: Seventeen-year-old Kerida Nast has always wanted a career in the military, just like the rest of her family. So when her Talent is discovered, and she knows she'll have to spend the rest of her life as a psychic for the Halls of Law, Ker isn't happy about it. Anyone entering the Halls must give up all personal connection with the outside world, losing their family and friends permanently. 

But just as Kerida is beginning to reconcile herself to her new role, the Faraman Polity is invaded by strangers from Halia, who begin a systematic campaign of destruction against the Halls, killing every last Talent they can find.

Kerida manages to escape, falling in with Tel Cursar, a young soldier fleeing the battle, which saw the deaths of the royal family. Having no obvious heir to the throne, no new ruler to rally behind, the military leaders will be divided, unable to act quickly enough to save the empire. And with the Halls being burned to the ground, and the Talents slaughtered, the Rule of Law will be shattered.

Halls of Law begins a thrilling new series by V.M. Escalada.  Invasion is tearing apart the Faraman Polity, the royal family is dead, the military scattered and trying to decide who they should take orders from.  The Talents, who have always served Faraman as agents of the law, are being killed- their Halls burned, their powers outlawed, and any suspected of helping them killed alongside them.  Kerida Nast escapes the destruction of her Hall and joins young soldier Tel Cursar in journeying to a remaining military outpost.  But on the way they become a part of a far larger plan, one that might save not only their own lives, but their entire world.

Book One in the Faraman Prophecy skillfully creates and shatters an established world, leaving the survivors to find their way in the wreckage.  Escalada has a talent for world building while at the same time not explaining the world as if to an outsider.  The reader is immersed in a new world, one whose sights, scents, and sounds are as organic as the people who populate it.  All of the characters, especially Kerida, are multidimensional and complex. They have their strengths and weaknesses, their talents and blindspots.  Escalada is excellent at making sure none of her characters is fully "just" one thing or another.  Just when you are sure you can classify all the invaders as "evil"- and my skin crawled with some of the scenes when the invader mages "purify" and "pacify" locals- you find some level of sympathy, or at least humanity, in the main enemy as embodied in Shekayrin Svann.  There are Faraman men on willing to join the invader Halians without considering what that means for their world, particularly the women, and then right at the end Escalada gives a surprise twist among the Halians that promises more complications, uneasy alliances, and gray areas to come in Book Two.  

Halls is a fast-paces, intense, and absorbing story and I was sorry when I reached the end and had to leave it and the characters I'd come to know and love behind. I loved how we learned things through the characters, not ahead of them, and that those characters were not the leaders but more of the 'everyday' or lower level people dealing with the upheaval after it happens.    

V.M. Escalada creates a world of swords and magic, griffons and soldiers, heroes and everyday people trying to get along, harsh difficulties and the warmth of friends becoming family.  Readers who enjoyed Class Moss' From Unseen Fire, David Weber's Honor Harrington series, and Mercedes Lackey's world of Valdemar, will love the new world of Halls of Law and be waiting eagerly for the next book in the series (Gift of Griffins, release date August 7, 2018). 


Monday, July 23, 2018

Mary B

Mary B: A Novel: An Untold Story of Pride and Prejudice by [Chen, Katherine J.]

Mary B- Katherine J. Chen
Random House
Release Date: July 24, 2018


Synopsis: What is to be done with Mary Bennet? She possesses neither the beauty of her eldest sister, Jane, nor the high-spirited charm of second-born Lizzy. Even compared to her frivolous younger siblings, Kitty and Lydia, Mary knows she is lacking in the ways that matter for single, not-so-well-to-do women in nineteenth-century England who must secure their futures through the finding of a husband. As her sisters wed, one by one, Mary pictures herself growing old, a spinster with no estate to run or children to mind, dependent on the charity of others. At least she has the silent rebellion and secret pleasures of reading and writing to keep her company.

But even her fictional creations are no match for the scandal, tragedy, and romance that eventually visit Mary’s own life. In Mary B, readers are transported beyond the center of the ballroom to discover that wallflowers are sometimes the most intriguing guests at the party. Beneath Mary’s plain appearance and bookish demeanor simmers an inner life brimming with passion, humor, and imagination—and a voice that demands to be heard.


Retellings or 'untold stories' of classic and beloved books are always risky.  They can go into avenues that the original author could not follow, they can be spicy or modern.  They can explore from the point of view of servants or secondary characters.  They can allow readers to revisit and enjoy the same world they loved in the original.  Or they can fall completely flat.  Sadly, this was the case for me with Katherine J. Chen's Mary B.  The story of the Bennets from the point of view of Mary, the middle daughter, could have been a wonderful exploration of the world of Longbourne from the point of view of a plain and generally overlooked, quiet, middle daughter.  It could have been a story of how a woman in Regency England chooses an independent life as a scholar or writer over marriage and fortune.  Or it could have followed the idea that Jane Austen herself described in a letter, where Mary marries quietly and enjoys a life of respectable society.

Instead, Chen seems determined to depress the reader and destroy everything they loved about the characters in Austen's Pride and Prejudice.  Chen doesn't retell the entire Austen original from Mary's point of view (which is probably a good thing) but glosses over that to focus on what happens in her mind after P&P ends.  Mary discovers her imagination can take her to new and improbable worlds through writing, and if this had been Chen's focus- maybe Mary becomes the next Mrs. Radcliffe- the book could have been enjoyable.  But the focus seems to be on making everyone miserable.  No characters are given the happiness we hoped for, including Mary.  Characters become their complete opposites.  Mary's life seems focused on misery and poor choices.  When Mary falls in love with first one and then another man unlikely or unable to marry her, it seems to be based mostly on being grateful for a modicum of attention (not always positive attention) than genuine depth of emotion.  Chen's writing alternates between mimicking or copying Austen's and then having her characters say things in completely modern language. Her characters are mostly shallow and completely unlikeable. 

As a book clearly intended to appeal to people who loved the original Pride and Prejudice, Chen's Mary B. has little to no chance of charming that audience.  For readers who have not read Austen's novel, Mary B.'depressing mood has little likelihood of endearing it to a new audience.  I was frequently tempted to put the book down, but kept at it on the hope that things would turn around, characters would become likable, if not become more like their original inspiration, and readers would get the happy ending they wanted.  None of that happens and a novel that could have become a triumphant exploration of female independence remained one that I wouldn't recommend to anyone, and wish I could unread.  The first book in a long time I've read and had no choice but to give a "0" books ("so bad I can't even") rating, with no redeeming features whatsoever. This is one "untold story" that, in my opinion, should have remained untold.

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review