Monday, March 28, 2016

A Lady in the Smoke- Karen Odden

A Lady in the Smoke-Karen Odden
Alibi- Random House
Release Date: March 29, 2016

Synopsis: Karen Odden’s enthralling debut historical mystery transports readers to Victorian England, where a terrifying railway disaster plunges a headstrong young noblewoman into a conspiracy that reaches to the highest corridors of power.  Following a humiliating fourth Season in London, Lady Elizabeth Fraser is on her way back to her ancestral country estate when her train careens off the rails and bursts into flames. Though she is injured, she manages to drag herself and her unconscious mother out of the wreckage, and amid the chaos that ensues, a brilliant young railway surgeon saves her mother’s life. Elizabeth feels an immediate connection with Paul Wilcox—though society would never deem a medical man eligible for the daughter of an earl.  After Paul reveals that the train wreck was no accident, and the inspector who tried to prevent it dies under mysterious circumstances, Elizabeth undertakes a dangerous investigation of her own that leads back to her family’s buried secrets. The more she learns, the more she must risk. Not only are her dowry and her reputation at stake; Paul’s very life hangs in the balance when he is arrested for manslaughter. As the trial draws near, and Parliament prepares for a vote that will change the course of the nation, Elizabeth uncovers a conspiracy that has been years in the making. But time is running out for her to see justice done.

A Lady in the Smoke is one of those rare debut books that hits every right note.  Odden's writing is smooth and descriptive, bringing the reader into a world of smoke and light, people and machines in a perfect blend of mystery, romance, and family. Wonderful descriptions of daily life make the reader feel as if they are on the street, or in the train, with the characters.  A Lady in the Smoke brilliantly weaves together what start off seeming like very separate story threads.  Railway accidents, strange land acquisitions, the tragedies of friends, and family secrets come together in ways you wouldn't have expected. 

All of Odden's characters are fully formed, three dimensional people with layered emotions, motives, and relationships.  Elizabeth Fraser is a strong and determined woman, just beginning to discover how to take control of her own life in spite of her family and society.  She becomes drawn into the railway conspiracy because of her compassionate nature and sense of justice- although ironically the only argument that gains her entry into the case is a purely financial one.  Even relatively minor characters like Anne and Phillip Reynolds are alive with emotions that wring your heart as you follow their struggles between doing what is right and what is comfortable.   

Fans of C. S. Harris and Amanda Quick will applaud this talented new author as she joins the ranks of truly excellent historical mystery writers.  A Lady in the Smoke is an absolute must read, and hopefully only the first of many excellent books in debut author Karen Odden's future.

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

Monday, March 21, 2016

Fighting Dirty- Lori Foster

Fighting Dirty- Lori Foster (Ultimate Fighters series #4)
HQN Books
Release Date: February 23, 2016

Synopsis: With the life he's led and the muscles he's gained, Armie Jacobson isn't afraid of anything. Except maybe Merissa Colter's effect on him. It's not just that she's his best friend's little sister. Fact is, she deserves better. Women pursue him for one night of pleasure, and that's all he wants to offer. Until rescuing Merissa from a robbery leads to the most erotic encounter of his life.  
Good girl meets bad boy. It's a story that rarely ends well. But Merissa is taking matters into her own hands. No matter how he views himself, the Armie she knows is brave, honorable and completely loyal. And as past demons and present-day danger collide, they're both about to learn what's truly worth fighting for…

At long last, the novel Lori Foster Fans have been waiting for: Armie's story.  Readers have watched Armie Jacobsen develop over the last three books and one novella into a character they've wanted badly to get his own book. Not just because it's about time he got his just desserts (in and out of the ring) but to answer the questions that surround him.  Why would such a great fighter not want to move into a professional MMA position? Is the "best friend rule" really the only reason he's stayed clear of Cannon's little sister?  All questions are answered here, and then some.

In my opinion its always more satisfying to start a series with book one and watch characters develop, but those starting the Ultimate Fighters series with Fighting Dirty won't have to worry about missing anything (except three other really good books). Other characters from the Ultimate Fighter, SBC Fighters, and Love Undercover series have cameos but the book is, like most of Foster's series, self-contained if you're crazy enough not to have read her other books yet. 

Armie is a complicated and far from perfect man who manages to be endearing and lovable even when he's a jerk.  He's fought stubbornly against becoming an SBC fighter through the whole series and readers finally find out why.  Learning about his tough childhood helps us understand why he chooses to keep himself at a distance from even his friends, and why he's so good helping protect his friends, family, and neighborhood.  Fortunately, Marissa "Rissy" Colter is almost as stubborn as her big brother Cannon and is finally ready to fight for what she wants- a relationship with Armie.  And she's not above fighting dirty to show him she's the one for him.  Even when he pulls the ultimate dumb protective male routine of trying to stay away in order to protect her from his past, Rissy is strong enough and confident enough that she doesn't let him get away with it.

Fighting Dirty is a fast paced story where Lori Foster continues to prove that blending friends, family, love, mystery, and mixed martial arts works much better than you might imagine.  While the threats and mystery are real and the men react the way you would expect protective alpha males to react, readers new to Foster shouldn't worry about an abundance of violence or glorifying violence.  The distinction between the sport of mixed martial arts and domestic violence is clear without being preachy. Armie and the other men may be fighters but they work hard with teens and younger kids to teach that fighting is for discipline and exercise, not for random violence. The fact that they become role models to the kids was never the intention, but is certainly good for the kids.

Fighting Dirty is a great addition to Foster's works, and a fun must-read for both regular fans and those just being introduced to her, or to contemporary romance in general. It's great to check in with old friends, meet a few newer ones, and discover the mystery that is Armie Jacobsen.  Best of all, at the end Foster promises that Leese (my new personal favorite) and some of the others will get their own series soon. The only down side? Now we have to wait for her to write them!   

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Highland Awakening- Jennifer Haymore

Highland Awakening- Jennifer Haymore (The Highland Knights series, Book 2)
Random House
Release Date: March 29, 2016

Synopsis: As the secret author of racy romances, Lady Esme Hawkins goes to great lengths to protect her family’s honor. Which is why she carefully disguises herself before entering a notorious bordello to do research. But when Esme comes face-to-face with a brooding Highland bodyguard, she can’t easily refuse a harmless kiss . . . a kiss that inflames desires ripped from the pages of her novels. Acting on them, however, would risk revealing Esme’s identity—and the fact that she’s engaged to another man.
As a Highland Knight sworn to protect the crown, Camden McLeod never expected to follow his client into a bordello—nor could he anticipate meeting a bright, innocent lass with lush lips and eyes the color of the sea. Instantly, Cam knows he must possess her. But to do so, he’ll need to give up his rakish ways, embrace his role as heir to his despised father, and snuff out a deadly threat to his brothers in arms. By comparison, winning Esme away from her insipid fiancΓ© will be pure pleasure.

Highlander Awakening is a book with lots of promise: Highland warriors in London, Waterloo veterans haunted by what they've seen and done in war.  A shy duke's daughter who also writes romance novels and does research at night in bordellos and gambling dens.  A mysterious  and nebulous threat and the surprising and very real murderer stalking the Highland Knights.  The main hero, Cam McLeod's, conflict with his father and everything he stands for.  All of these could lead to deep and layered plots and character development and a very good book.  Sadly they are all touched on, but not explored to the depths that would make a truly memorable book or characters.  

The heroine, Lady Esme, is the best written character, with interesting and conflicting layers to her. A shy woman who is painfully self-conscious around strangers and suffers from awkwardness and anxiety attacks, she is different from the average society woman.  Esme focuses on researching and writing romance novels that often take her to rather unusual places- like bordellos. How the shy and anxious woman even knows where to do her research, let alone has the courage to go to such places alone is never really explained, but the importance to her of having this secret life, where she is in control, is clear.  As is her desire to protect her family from the scandal that would come from anyone finding out.  The idea that she is willing to walk up to a man's door at night, give her real name, and ignore the scandal that would cause to hunt down Cam after he betrays her (the first time of many) goes rather against the grain.  Is this Esme becoming confident and standing up for herself or being stupid? The reader can decide.  Cam McLeod is a man who hates society, and has seen his father take advantage of his position to harm his family in every way possible.  He doesn't want to marry or fall in love for fear of turning out like his father.  And then pretty much from the minute he sees Esme he is right to worry about that.  He ignores what might be best for her and instead of being patient goes about betraying her secrets in order to get what he wants in the fastest way he can.  Unlike Connie Brockway's hero in Highlander Undone, Cam excuses all his actions, sure that he knows best and everything is forgivable.  There are things about him that are what you look for in a hero- his unswerving loyalty to his sister and fellow Knights, his being able to see Esme and admire her for who she is, instead of what society thinks she should be.  But there are often times the reader forgets these positive traits as Cam continually manipulates Esme and events to his advantage.  By the end it is not only Esme he has to convince of his love and ability to change, but the reader as well.  Is love strong enough to overlook faults and change people for the better?  

The mystery in the story is disappointingly thin.  It starts off as possible threats against a lord, bringing the Knights in to guard him 24/7.  Nothing actually happens in the book that would suggest the threats are credible and anything other than a waste of time.  The epilogue suggests that the next book might change that.  Wether anyone would care about the man being threatened is highly doubtful, but if, as hinted, the threat extends to his daughter, it might be worth figuring out.  The other threat, of someone hunting down and murdering (or trying to) the Knights is more of the catalyst for this book.  There are well written moments where we see the effects of loss on Cam and his fellow Knights.  But then almost no clues about the villain until the end when Esme figures out who it is.  And then no clue about the why until the villain himself explains it. In some ways it works very well, in others its a bit of a letdown.

That is probably my thought on the book as a whole: it works well some of the time, then lets us down.  More depth of character or more mystery would have probably made this a more interesting read and made it stand out more in my mind.  Overall, not terrible, but sadly not the best I've read in awhile.  

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

Monday, March 7, 2016

Runaway Vampire- Lynsay Sands

Runaway Vampire- Lynsay Sands (Argeneau series #23)
Release Date: February 23, 2016

Synopsis: Dante Notte has heard it said that love hurts. He just wasn’t expecting it to run him over in an RV. Still, a punctured lung and broken ribs are nothing compared to the full-body shock he feels whenever he’s near the vehicle’s driver, Mary Winslow. He needs to keep her safe from their pursuers while he rescues his brother. Most challenging of all, he needs to claim this smart, stubborn woman as his life mate.
The naked, injured, insanely gorgeous younger man who clambered into her RV insists they belong together. If Mary wasn’t feeling their incredible connection in every inch of her being, she wouldn’t believe it. But now that the men who took Dante’s twin are after her too, trusting her gut means risking her life for an immortal who’s the very definition of a perfect stranger.

The newest Argeneau novel is a fast paced and fun story, a little lighter than some of the recent Rogue Hunter books but with hints of a new and dark threat on the Immortal horizon.  In Runaway Vampire, Dante Notte gets his own book and meets his life mate when she accidentally runs him over in an RV.  Mary (and the reader) are thrown into a race against unknown enemies who apparently know enough about immortals to have caught Dante and his twin Tomasso unawares and kidnapped them.  Now they are trying to recapture the escaped Dante, as well as anyone helping him, and plan to ship them off to Venezuela for experiments.  Are they a group being controlled by a vicious rogue or one who accidentally learned about immortals and want to learn how vampires can be real?  It looks like we'll have to wait until at least September, when Tomasso's book, Immortal Nights, is released to find out.   

Mary is a great heroine, and takes the idea of vampires a lot better than she takes the idea of dating someone who looks about half her age.  Scenes between Dante, Mary, and friends of Mary's towards the beginning of the book reminder us of some of the downsides to being immortal, and Dante's explanation of why Mary can't turn her children or interact with them anymore are tough to hear, even though long-time series readers aren't learning anything they didn't already know.  

Those who've read other books in the series will be happy to have old friends drop for cameo appearances, and new readers will hopefully be intrigued enough to go out and read the rest of the series. There are some (as always) great scenes with Lucian Argeneau where you start off thinking he's just a complete jerk and by the end are reminded why you still like him so much.  Two new characters are introduced, the first gay life mate couple I can remember meeting.  Russell and Francis are a lot of fun, and I definitely hope we see more of them in future books!  Russell has an especially great line about cell phone ring tones and salmon colored shirts that sum up perfectly what love is all about.

You don't have to have read the rest of the series to enjoy Runaway Vampire, although as a long time Lynsay Sands fan and Argeneau devotee I have to ask: why haven't you read them yet? You are missing out on a great new approach to vampires and paranormal romance, and a fun and exciting world awaits you.  You have 22 more books in the series to read before September gets here and you'll enjoy every page!