New adult? Free? Yes, please. And that’s how I ended up reading Lengths by Steph Campbell and Liz Reinhardt.

When Deo meets Whit, she’s all sexy makeup and fierce, smart-ass fun. It doesn’t take him long to see past her tough shell. And when he gets a good look at what’s under all the superficial stuff that usually gets his attention, it leaves Deo wondering if there might be more to life than living fast and free.

Too bad Whit has a past she doesn’t plan on sharing—no matter how hot Deo is. She might want him, but she knows better than to let her guard down.

Deo falls for Whit, and falls hard. But everything about her, down to that mysterious tattoo and the way she thrashes in her sleep, tells him that the girl he loves is hiding something. And the more he pushes for answers, the more Whit pulls away.

I liked Deo quite a bit–he’s such a vivid, real character. I loved seeing his relationships with his family and best friend, Cohen. Whit was more problematic. I certainly sympathized with her backstory, but after a while I got tired of her hot/cold treatment of Deo. Whit is definitely a woman of extremes, and even when I understood it, I at times lost patience with it.

Can I just say how much I liked Deo’s mother, Marigold? She could have been a stereotypical hippie but she ends up being so much more. I loved the talk she and Deo had about how her choices affected his beliefs about relationships. And she made me laugh with her endless euphemisms for sex.

Despite my appreciation for the characters, I realized something that affected my ability to connect with this book–the fact that many things happen off page. A chapter will end just as a confrontation is about to begin, and then the next chapter starts with one of the characters thinking about what happened. This was a pattern, and I really wanted to see some of the moments rather than hear about them after the fact.

Lengths had a lot of nice elements but I didn’t completely engage with it: 3.5 out of 5.

TBR: What Do You Say to a Naked Elf?

What Do You Say to a Naked Elf?

When I read the category of this month’s TBR challenge, I knew right away which book I’d read. Cheryl Sterling’s What Do You Say to a Naked Elf? has been languishing on my TBR shelf since I bought it in 2005.

Apart from her being a TV-and-movie junkie and a saleswoman extraordinaire of adult lotions, potions and playthings, plain Jane Drysdale’s life was nothing unusual. That was, until a moment of reckless driving catapulted her into a fairytale world like a J.R.R. Tolkien book on crack. From Walker, Michigan, to a place of wacko wizards, sexually repressed elves and dangerous dwarves, Jane was suddenly fulfilling an epic destiny that held certain death—and even more certain love. Even the newly legible tattoo on her shoulder seemed to proclaim the rightness of her transport: “Forever joined, heart upon heart, world upon world.” Everything started with Jane on trial for her life and her Legolas-lookalike lawyer taking his shirt off, and the first thing she needed to know was . . . What Do You Say To A Naked Elf?

Sterling is a new-to-me author, and I liked her style well enough. The story moves quickly, and the world in which the book is set is an engaging one.

But as a romance, What Do You Say to a Naked Elf? didn’t work for me for a number of reasons. Jane and Charlie (an odd name for an elf) spend a bit of time together and fall in love almost immediately. Their internal conflict feels a bit flimsy, especially when it is resolved with one conversation.

Then there are the coincidences. Paranormal romance automatically requires some suspension of belief. The seemingly endless string of coincidences here, culminating in a deus ex machina, can more accurately be described as a complete shattering of belief. For me, this made it hard to sympathize with the characters because I kept waiting to see what the next coincidence would be.

The end result is this: while I kept reading the book to see what would happen next, I felt distanced from the characters and their situation. My rating for What Do You Say to a Naked Elf? 2.5 out of 5.

TBR Challenge: No More Lies

No More Lies 

I decided to read another of my TBR books, so I picked up No More Lies by Susan Squires. Though the idea is imaginative, the story didn’t quite work for me: 2.5 out of 5.

Dr. Holland Banks is head of the Century Psychiatric Hospital and president of the Schizophrenia Research Foundation . . . but is she going insane? The rest of the world seems to be. There’s a sniper on the loose, she’s being stalked, her father is conducting deadly experiments, and she’s begun to hear voices: other people’s thoughts. But a man was just admitted to her hospital—one who searched her out, whose touch can make her voices subside. Is he crazy, too, or a solution to her fears? A labyrinth of conspiracy is rising around her, and Holland’s life is about to change forever. Very soon there will be . . . no more lies.

I have to give Squires credit for creating a unique story. The hero and heroine are psychic, but the explanation for it is different than any other I’ve seen. The story took a novel approach to the concept, and it kept me guessing what would come next as I read.

Holland and Jeff’s psychic powers increase as they make love, and I liked how this is handled. Yes, this brings pleasure, but it makes both of them wary as well. It seemed very plausible that two people would worry about preserving a separate sense of self under the circumstances. The initial scenes about their reservations are very nicely done.

At the core of the story, though, is a conspiracy that never quite seemed credible. When it comes to paranormal romance, I can apparently accept vampires, shifters, and demons without a qualm. In this romantic suspense, however, I kept thinking how incredible the whole thing seemed. The story behind the villain just kept getting worse and worse—again to the point where it strained credulity.

I was also a bit bothered by a couple of Holland’s comments about “loons” and being “loony.” These mentioned seemed a bit out of place for a professional, especially one who is the president of the Schizophrenia Research Foundation.

I like Squires, and I’ve read one of her other books, The Companion. I recommend that one over this one.

Creation in Death

Creation in Death

Yes, I know J.D. Robb’s Creation in Death came out late last year and that I’m just now reviewing it. I loaned it to my sister and didn’t want to write the review without the book. Now that I have it back, I can write the review: 4 out of 5.

NYPSD Lieutenant Eve Dallas keeps the streets of a near-future New York City safe in this extraordinary series. But even she makes mistakes, and is haunted by those she couldn’t save—and the killers she couldn’t capture. When the body of a young brunette is found in East River Park, artfully positioned and marked by signs of prolonged and painful torture, Eve is catapulted back to a case nine years earlier. The city was on edge from a killing spree that took the lives of four women in fifteen days, courtesy of a man the media tagged “The Groom”—because he put silver rings on the fingers of his victims.

When it turns out that the young brunette was employed by Eve’s billionaire husband, Roarke, she brings him in on the case—a move that proves fitting when it becomes chillingly clear that the killer has made his attack personal. The victim was washed in products from a store Roarke owns, and laid out on a sheet his company manufactures.

With the Groom’s monstrous return, Eve is determined to finish him once and for all. Familiar with his methods, Eve knows that he has already grabbed his next victim. Time is running out on another woman’s life.

And chances are he’s working up to the biggest challenge of his illustrious career—abducting a woman who will test his skills and who promises to give him days and days of pleasure before she dies: Eve.

In most books in the In Death series, there is a balance of case vs. personal life. This book provided an interesting variation—total immersion in the case. We’ve seen numerous times how Eve works herself until she collapses. What I loved about this book was getting Roarke’s perspective. Yes, he plays a part in Eve’s cases, but in Creation in Death, we see the inner workings of the police investigation through his eyes. It’s a fascinating point of view.

The villain is quite creepy, and I enjoyed seeing Eve track him down. I mentioned in my year in review that I would never forget one particular scene, and it—and the scenes leading up to it—is unforgettable. (I’m being purposefully vague to avoid spoilers.)

I thought the ending was particularly good—it shows Eve’s unwavering dedication to justice, and I thought justice in this case was particularly fitting.

I’m listening to Strangers in Death now. (My autographed copy is on the way.) Listening to the story rather than reading it first is turning out to be an interesting experience. But that’s a blog entry for another day . . .

Smoke, Mirrors, and Murder

Smoke, Mirrors, and Murder

I’m a longtime reader of Ann Rule, but her latest books haven’t been among her best. I was expecting more of the same with Smoke, Mirrors, and Murder, and instead I found it to be a gripping read.

In some murder cases, the truth behind the most tragic crimes crystallizes with relative ease. Not so with these fascinating accounts drawn from the personal files of Ann Rule, America’s #1 bestselling true-crime writer. What happens when the case itself becomes an intractable puzzle, when the clues are shrouded in smoke and mirrors, and when criminals skillfully evade law enforcement in a maddening cat-and-mouse chase?

Even the most devoted true-crime reader won’t predict the outcome of these truly baffling cases until the conclusions revealed in Ann Rule’s marvelously nsightful narrative: An ideal family is targeted for death by the least likely enemy, who plotted their demise from behind bars. . . . A sexual predator hides behind multiple fake identities, eluding police for years while his past victims live in fear that he will hunt them down. . . . A modest preacher’s wife confesses to shooting her husband after an argument–but there’s more to her shattering story than meets the eye. These and other true cases are analyzed with stunning clarity in a page-turning collection you won’t be able to put down.

Page-turning is a good description for this book. The stories in this volume are fascinating. I was especially intrigued by “The Truck Driver’s Wife,” “The Chemist’s Wife,” and “The Painter’s Wife.” The first of these stories is baffling–there’s no resolution to it, not even to the manner of death, which some think may be spontaneous combustion. (!) The second describes a relationship-gone-wrong where wrong equals deadly. The third story tells of a man who breaks out of prison and kidnaps a woman from her home. Scary and chilling stuff.

There are seven stories in this anthology, and all of them are intriguing. If you’re interested in reading true-crime, I definitely recommend this anthology.

Visions of Heat

Visions of Heat 

After reading the first two books in Nalini Singh‘s paranormal series, it’s safe to say she’s become an autobuy.

Used to cold silence, Faith Nightstar is suddenly being tormented by dark visions of blood and murder. A bad sign for anyone, but worse for Faith, an F-Psy with the highly sought after ability to predict the future. Then the visions show her something even more dangerous–aching need . . . exquisite pleasure. But so powerful is her sight, so fragile the state of her mind, that the emotions she yearns to embrace could be the end of her.

Changeling Vaughn D’Angelo can take the form of either man or jaguar, but it is his animal side that is overwhelmingly drawn to Faith. The jaguar’s instinct is to claim this woman it finds so utterly fascinating, and the man has no argument. But while Vaughn craves sensation and hungers to pleasure Faith in every way, desire is a danger that could snap the last threads of her sanity. And there are Psy who need Faith’s sight for their own purposes. They must keep her silenced–and keep her from Vaughn.

I hesitated to read this when it first came out because I feared it wouldn’t live up to the previous book, or that it would be too similar. Once I got it at July’s RWA conference, I couldn’t resist reading it. As often happens, I needn’t have worried. This is no mere rehash of Slave to Sensation; Vaughn and Faith are strong characters in their own right. Now that I’ve read Visions of Heat, I’m not sure how I managed to wait before buying it.

The danger to Faith is a real one. The dark visions threaten to engulf her, so she goes to Sascha (the heroine of Slave to Sensation) for advice. In the process, she meets Vaughn. He responds to her on a visceral level, and I liked seeing the animal side of him. It’s mentioned that he’s closer to his changeling side than many of the others, and you definitely see that.

I also like that Faith’s discovery of and integration into the changeling world doesn’t come easily. As a Psy, she’s been trained not to feel emotion. Vaughn pushes her to feel, but it’s not a smooth transition. This is portrayed realistically and makes for a compelling story.

Singh does an amazing job of blending romance and suspense in this book. Romance may be a little stronger, but that’s the way I like it. :) With an intriguing hero and heroine, Visions of Heat rates 4.5 out of 5.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever

The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever 

Julia Quinn’s The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever is another of the books I got at RWA. I read it last weekend and quite enjoyed it: 4 out of 5.

2 March 1810 . . . Today, I fell in love.

At the age of ten, Miranda Cheever showed no signs of Great Beauty. And even at ten, Miranda learned to accept the expectations society held for her–until the afternoon when Nigel Bevelstoke, the handsome and dashing Viscount Turner, solemnly kissed her hand and promised her that one day she would grow into herself, that one day she would be as beautiful as she already was smart. And even at ten, Miranda knew she would love him forever.

But the years that followed were as cruel to Turner as they were kind to Miranda. She is as intriguing as the viscount boldly predicted on that memorable day–while he is a lonely, bitter man, crushed by a devastating loss. But Miranda has never forgotten the truth she set down on paper all those years earlier–and she will not allow the love that is her destiny to slip lightly through her fingers . . .

This book includes two of my favorite scenarios: unrequited love and diary entries. And Quinn puts both elements to good use. In the unrequited love books I’ve read in the past few years, the man has been the one to love from afar. In this case, it’s the heroine. This was a nice twist. Another element I appreciated was the fact that there’s complexity in her feelings. As Turner’s life changes and as he changes, she revises her opinion of him. Miranda may love him, but it’s not a blind love.

As for Turner, I found myself quite sympathetic to him. Quinn does an exceptional job of showing how his previous marriage affected his thinking. It helped me as a reader to know where he was coming from. I thought his reluctance to admit he loved Miranda was especially realistic. He thought he loved his first wife, so he associated that emotion with the heartbreak he felt. What he felt with Miranda wasn’t heartbreak.

Overall, I liked The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever. It wasn’t my favorite of Quinn’s novels, but still one I enjoyed and one I will reread.

Demon’s Delight

Demon’s Delight 

Demon’s Delight is an anthology I picked up at RWA. It’s a solid read, though I found myself wishing a couple of the stories were longer.

From MaryJanice Davidson . . . Can a witch and a witch-hunter find common ground . . . without killing each other first?

From Emma Holly . . . A beautiful scientist in the realm of the Demon World falls in love with a human male she has experimented on–and is changed forever . . .

From Vickie Taylor . . . Zane is hell-bent on danger–the more he eludes death, the bigger the rush. Then he awakens from a near-drowning not only alive, but in the caring arms of a beautiful angel. But the ethereal Rosemary is driven by her own desires–and full of surprises.

From Catherine Spangler . . . Meet Rachel, hooker and vampire, plying both trades after hours until she meets Gabriel on the night shift. He’s an angelic emissary on a mission to prove Rachel still has a sould, and to save it. But she offers him a mortal temptation he never expects . . .

I loved the concept of MaryJanice Davidson’s story, “Witch Way.” The hero and heroine are destined to battle each other until both die. Unfortunately, neither one wants to do it. The premise is intriguing, and I enjoyed the interaction between Chris and Rhea. However, the story could have used another 20 pages or so to make the romance more convincing. I was a bit disappointed in the love scene as well.

The next story is Catherine Spangler’s “Street Corners and Halos.” It was lovely to watch the wounded Rachel heal. Her backstory was intriguing, which made her a character I wanted to read about. The resolution did seem a bit too easy; however, I liked spending time with the characters, and I plan to see what else Spangler has written.

Emma Holly’s “The Demon’s Angel” comes next, and it’s set in the same world as the story I loved in Hot Spell. “The Demon’s Angel” is plenty hot, and I loved the hero. Once again, though, I would have liked to see what Holly would have done with another 20 pages. Harry and Khira have such a complex relationship simply because of the way they meet. I would have liked to see this dealt with a bit more.

My favorite story was Vickie Taylor’s “Angel and the Hellraiser.” Rosemary is an angel who is set to save Zane . . . if she can. At first, he appears to be a classic troublemaker; it’s soon clear that there’s more to him than that. Rosemary has a lot to offer him. In a nice reciprocity, she needs to learn something from Zane as well. This story brought tears to my eyes at one point. It was very nicely done.

Demon’s Delight was a quick read with a nice variety of stories. They averaged out the book to be 3.5 out of 5.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Half-Blood Prince

Although I’ve had J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince since the day it was released, I only read it this month. I didn’t read it immediately for a couple of reasons: (1) No air conditioning, so sitting to read a long book didn’t sound at all appealing. (2) I was a bit turned off by book 5, which vexed me because of who was killed at the end. I also thought it could have used some editing. Desperately.

This month I finally had the urge to read it, so I did. It was quite good (4.5 out of 5), even though the only development I didn’t know before reading was the identity of the Half-Blood Prince. I knew who died this time around–really, who else could it have been? I guessed even before a coworker accidentally let it slip.

Anyway, I’m not going to do a summary, because the Harry Potter books are so well known. I’ll just discuss a few things. I imagine I am among the last to read this book, so I’m not going to do the highlight the spoilers thing. So, if you want to avoid spoilers, stop reading.

I thought book 5 could have been condensed quite a bit to be more effective. I felt that way a little with book 6, though not nearly as much.

I liked the bits with Dumbledore. It’s nice that Harry (along with the reader) is finally starting to get some answers. The Horcrux idea is fascinating, and it should be interesting to see Harry find and destroy them in the next book. Might Harry also be a Horcrux? It can’t be ruled out at this point, and that would certainly add a dramatic touch to book 7. I suspect there will be plenty of dramatic elements in the book.

I was not surprised by Dumbledore’s death, or even by the manner of it. In book 5, the one person I didn’t want to die was the person who did. I expected this to be the case of book 6 . . . and it was. Dumbledore was clearly next in line.

Not sure what I think of Snape. He’s so smarmy and petty, plus killing Dumbledore is not the act of a good person. But it’s clear that what he’s doing at the end is telling Harry how to defeat Voldemort.

“Blocked again and again and again until you learn to keep your mouth shut and your mind closed, Potter!”

And Snape prevents the Death Eater from killing Harry as well, although he says it’s because “Potter belongs to the Dark Lord–we are to leave him!” (More evidence of Harry being a Horcrux?) I don’t like Snape, and I’m not sure he’s supposed to be likable. But I suspect he will be a crucial part of helping Harry defeat Voldemort.

Harry takes some important steps in this book: standing up for what he believes with regard to the Ministry of Magic; helping Dumbledore retrieve a Horcrux (sort of); making the decision at the end to do whatever it took to defeat Voldemort. I like watching him grow up.

I had originally planned not to read the next book in the series until someone else who read it could confirm that Harry doesn’t die in it. But I don’t think I’ll be able to wait that long before reading it.

Unholy Sacrifice

Unholy Sacrifice 

A while back, a coworker told me about the story told in Robert Scott’s Unholy Sacrifice . I was intrigued enough to run out and buy it.

San Francisco Bay area stockbroker Taylor Helzer was young, handsome, and–to all outward appearances–normal. But that was before a three-day self-awareness seminar left him convinced he was a new Messiah. In the interest of funding his own church and “saving” America from Satan, Helzer began making and selling Ecstasy and convinced girlfriend Keri Furman to pose for Playboy. She eventually left him, only to be replaced by naive, gullible Dawn Godman.

Helzer, his younger brother Justin, and Dawn formed an unholy alliance called the Children of Thunder. They wanted to score big. The brothers abducted Taylor’s former clients Ivan and Annette Stineman, inducing them to sign over checks totaling $100,000. The elderly couple was beaten and stabbed to death, then dismembered in a bathtub.

Selena Bishop, 22, daughter of blues great Elvin Bishop, was ensnared in the money scam–before Justin Helzer killed her with a hammer. Bishop’s mother was next, shot dead along with her boyfriend by Taylor. But despite the trio’s careful disposal of the evidence in the Mokelumne River, the truth came to light when a bag of body parts floated to the surface. The trials that followed would reveal every grisly detail of one of the most bizarre murder sprees in California history–bring a modern-day Manson to justice . . .

Romance is what I typically reach for, but I break up my reading now and then with a true-crime book. Unholy Sacrifice was quite interesting, if a bit gruesome at times. That’s the nature of the crime, however, as you can tell from the blurb. In any case, the book kept my interest: 4 out of 5.

This book includes information from dozens of sources, which helps put together the story. Taylor’s slide downward from law-abiding and religious to law-breaking and fanatic is well chronicled, even though neither Taylor nor Justin was interviewed. I still didn’t quite understand how the two men went so off-track. Perhaps nothing can explain that.

And Dawn. Her perspective offers insight into the sequence of events before and during the murders, but it’s still largely a mystery why she went along with the scheme.

This is the first of Robert Scott’s books I’ve read, but I’ll certainly look for others.

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