Review: To Kill a Warlock by H.P. Mallory

Title: To Kill A Warlock
Series: Dulcie O'Neil, #1
Author: H.P. Mallory

Quick Take:
This book is pure fun. The characters were perhaps the most enjoyable aspect, with protagonist Dulcie being the main draw. Intriguing but tempered world building whet my appetite enough to want to see what's to follow in the series.

Book Description (partial, from author's website):
     Dulcie O’Neil is a fairy. And not the type to frolic in gardens. She’s a Regulator—a law-enforcement agent who monitors the creatures of the Netherworld to keep them from wreaking havoc in the mortal world.  
      When a warlock is murdered and Dulcie was the last person to see him alive, she must uncover the truth before she’s either deported back to the Netherworld, or she becomes the next victim. 
One of the first things that struck me whilst reading this book was the general "vibe." The tone of this piece was very…comfortable, and the first-person narration had a light, conversational style. For a book that focuses primarily on supes and unnatural elements, I found it rather familiar (and not just because the book takes place in California ^_^). This might be due to the world-building; the more large-scale aspects--the Netherworld, the supernatural community at large--seemed to be tempered in favor of specific character development.

…which is great, since the heart of my affection for this book rests with Dulcie herself. She's such a likable character: smart, funny, badass…but also vulnerable. She possesses an insecurity or two that would be identifiable to the average person. I very much enjoyed the small quirks about her; for instance, she's a tough cop by day but is an aspiring romance writer by night (her first piece is an historical entitled "Captain Slade's Bounty." Heheheh…). Those details went a long way toward endearing the character in my mind.

In fact, the whole cast was fun. They made the book, in my opinion. The individual personalities were quirky and amusing, and the interactions between them provided laughs aplenty. I see Dulcie and her crew (mainly consisting of her co-workers) as a humorously dysfunctional yet loving family.

It was the affection for the characters that kept my enjoyment levels high even as I at times wondered in what direction the story was heading, or what the plot was supposed to be focused on. There's was a "main" mystery involved and Dulcie did do some sleuthing, but it wasn't a straight-line type of thread, in my view. But anywho.

All told, this book is an easy, breezy read that should bring a smile to the face of most urban fantasy fans out there. It's amusing, not goofy. The protagonist is quirky, but not TSTL. The next book, A Tale of Two Goblins (did you pick up on the Dickens nod?), certainly has a solid basis to jump from. I say, bring it on.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thoughts On: Book Settings

You might have heard some variation on sayings about books being transportive. Often it refers to the stories themselves, the level of intense engagement they encourage. But what about the actual places involved in the tales?

It seems that quite a few books--well, the ones that I read, anyway--have settings in a select group of cities; San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Boston, New Orleans, Seattle, Los Angeles. Even in non-US locations: London's a biggie for historicals and contemporaries alike. It makes sense, seeing as how those are all major population areas and all. Not to mention their considerable cultural currency or familiarity; you don't need to have been to Los Angeles or New York to have a sense of the flavor, the atmosphere.

As for me, I find that I'm inexplicably drawn to stories located in Louisiana--more specifically, in LA bayou country. There's a whole set of visuals and sensations that I get from such a setting, something inherently magical and old-world. Inevitably, stories set there have some sort of mystical or at least sacred element…be it "hoodoo" or strong family values. And I love it when the location is as much a character as any of the living, breathing (or undead) individuals in a cast.

I'm currently in the midst of completing a reading challenge based around that very notion. It's called the 50 States Challenge and as the name suggests, one must read books with a primary setting in each of the United States. Thus far, I have indeed found that each of the books carry a flavor that's very much influenced by the physical setting. It also makes me realize just how few books I've read outside of the SF/NYC/Chi/Bos/NOLA cluster. So far, it's been a wonderful exercise.

What about you? Is a book's setting an important element to you? Have you ever chosen to read a book (or NOT read it) based on its physical setting? If so, in which location(s)?

Review: Aftertime by Sophie Littlefield

Title: Aftertime
Series: yes, first in a series
Author: Sophie Littlefield
Release date: Feb. 22, 2011 by Harlequin Luna

Quick Take:
This book had my pulse racing for much of the time I spent reading it. The lush visuals, the emotions, the mystery and (of course) the high chill-factor made this an absolutely wonderful read. I was so spooked and unnerved, but absolutely could not tear my eyes from the page.

Book Description (partial, from author website):
Awakening in a bleak landscape as scarred as her body, Cass Dollar vaguely recalls surviving something terrible. Wearing unfamiliar clothes and having no idea how many days—or weeks—have passed, she slowly realizes the horrifying truth: Ruthie has vanished.
And with her, nearly all of civilization. Where once-lush hills carried cars and commerce, the roads today see only cannibalistic Beaters—people turned hungry for human flesh by a government experiment gone wrong.
In a broken, barren California, Cass will undergo a harrowing quest to get her Ruthie back.
So, this book has an official blurb and all, but really I think the story as a whole somewhat defies brief description. The best that one can do is to describe the beginning, which is intentionally disorienting; the protagonist herself can barely gather her wits about her enough to make coherent thoughts, and even has a chunk of time missing from her memory. What's immediately clear is that the world--at least from the protagonist's perspective--is different; something hugely substantial has happened, and the desolate landscape is almost unrecognizable.

From the moment Cassie began describing her surroundings and checkered memories, I was hooked. She's a very emotionally (and physically!) damaged individual, and spends a lot of time thinking about her failings. Her main source of guilt is the fact that she does not know the whereabouts of her two-year-old daughter, Ruthie. This in fact becomes the main driver of the story; Cassie will stop at nothing to find her child. Politics related to a post-apocalyptic environment? The fate of the world? Not the focus here; it's barely even addressed, actually. This book is all about the emotions, motivations, and perseverance of the main character. Most other characters are unimportant, save for the contributions they make to Cassie's journey; in this way, this book is very much an odyssey in the vein of...well, The Odyssey. ^_^

What's also found in spades is horror. The imagery used in this book ranges from violent and gory to chilling and quietly moving. Yes, there are zombies here, called Beaters. Indeed, there is much flesh being rent from bones. ..and yes, it all freaked the living daylights out of me. I contemplated putting the book down in a fit of whimpiness, but found it was difficult to do so; Littlefield really manages to draw the reader in with her descriptions, even the intensely grotesque ones.

The pacing of this book feels effortless; as in any good odyssey, there are moments of high-tension punctuated with some emotion and personal development. Cassie is sympathetic, and her internal struggles resonated easily. There is a romantic element in this book, though it by no means overtakes the story. I found that it was developed in a believable and understandable fashion; I appreciated that it wasn't overly sweet and dramatic, which might not have fit in with the tone and focus of the book.

So. If you decide to read this book, what can you expect? You'll find a fair amount of gore, violence and human desperation. You'll also find a vast physical and emotional journey that is both touching and haunting. This book will be the first in a series, though I'm not clear on how many books there will be in total or whether it will continue its focus on Cassie. Regarding the latter, I sure hope she remains the protagonist; I'm hooked on her personal story and will gladly freak myself out on flesh-hungry zombies to find out how she fares.
Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Update (Feb. 24): I've been informed that Aftertime is first in a three book series. The second book is entitled Rebirth and is scheduled to be released on July 26; the third book, Horizon, will be released on January 31, 2012; and a short story called Survivors comes out this July (and for a time will be available for FREE). All of them will feature Cass and her gang (Smoke, Dor, etc.). Wonderful, exciting news, in my opinion!!! ^__^

In Anticipation: Forever Vampire

It's Hauf time! (Please excuse my punniness, but I just had to.) ^_^ I recently came across a blog post from author Michele Hauf, reminding me of the impending release of a book that I've been looking forward to reading. Tis called Forever Vampire, and has a connection to a world/story she'd previously created:
     Vail the Unwanted is a pure-blood vampire. But raised in Faery, he has neither home nor peace, and when his aid is sought in the recovery of a priceless diamond gown, his price is information. Specifically the whereabouts of his accursed father. His goal is revenge, and the supernaturally sexy Lyric, the icy blond vampiress with whom he must work, is a distraction he can't afford.
      Outwardly as cold as the diamond dress in which she was kidnapped, Lyric has her own secrets. Desperate to break free from her criminal family, she aligns herself with the brooding Vail. Together they seek justice while each secretly works for freedom and a fresh start. For Lyric that means holding herself apart, even from the smoldering blue-eyed Vail. For Vail, it means a battle to the death for revenge—and for a temptress he can't deny.
I'm very much looking forward to this book because of its connection to Hauf's Seducing the Vampire. It's not quite a direct sequel; in fact, the protagonist of Forever Vampire was introduced only in the last few pages of StV. But the lore is there, and some of the things that transpired in the first book will almost certainly have immense bearing on the events of this one. The simple fact is I really enjoyed StV (here's my review of the book), and look forward to being able to revisit that world. Sure, StV was mostly historical fiction, and this book is most likely all contemporary...but that makes things even more exciting and epic, in my opinion! ^_^

Michele Hauf had mentioned in one of her blog posts that "Vail is one of my favorite heroes so far." That's a strong endorsement if I ever heard one. I adored Rhys from StV, but I'm all for falling even harder for another one of Hauf's delicious heroes.

Forever Vampire  is currently scheduled for release on April 19, 2011 by HQN.

Early Review: American Vampire by Jennifer Armintrout

Title: American Vampire
Series: n/a
Author: Jennifer Armintrout
Release date: Feb. 22, 2011 by Mira

Quick Take:
Indeed, I enjoyed this book overall. The premise was fun and not the typical vampire tale. It had plenty of tense action-packed moments; it played somewhat like a movie, come to think of it. It's gruesome, chilling, witty,  exciting…and not without a bit of the sweet romance that I so love. ^_^

Book Description (via Goodreads): 
      Buried in the Heartland is a town that no one enters or leaves. Graf McDonald somehow becomes its first visitor in more than five years…and he was only looking for a good party. Unfortunately, Penance, Ohio, is not that place. And after having been isolated for so long, they do not like strangers at all.
      Jessa's the only one to even remotely trust him, and she's desperate for the kind of protection that only a vampire like Graf can provide. Supplies are low, the locals are ornery for a sacrifice and there's a monster more powerful than Graf lurking in the woods. New men are hard to come by in this lonesome town, and this handsome stranger might be Jessa's only hope for salvation.
      Even if she has to die first.
When it comes to scary stuff, there's nothing quite like the unknown, don't you think? I started reading this book without any knowledge of story particulars (plot, characters, genre themes), and am glad I did. While I wasn't scared into going to bed with the lights on, I was certainly deliciously creeped out with some of the more mysterious aspects of this stand-alone novel from Jennifer Armintrout.

This book seems to fall into a couple of genres. The book is undoubtedly spooky. Especially in the beginning of the story, there was a feeling of desolation and the sense of an insurmountable threat that was chilling. I also felt like the ultimate focus of the book was about how a community will regress--brutally, fanatically, incomprehensibly--when isolated and abandoned. Hence, Horror. But the book eventually fosters a romantic element that takes up much of the plot; additionally, the narration bounces between the hero and heroine. So, Paranormal Romance….or Urban Fantasy with romantic elements.

The hero of this story, Graf the vampire, is a bit of a cad. He can be smarmy, snobby and selfish. But I liked his character! And come to think of it, both the "hero" and "heroine" of this book have some questionable morals; they aren't quite the kind of people you'd look up to. There's certainly some great character growth, but the protagonists are no heroes. It's a testament to the author's writing that you root for and care about them despite (or because of) their shortcomings.

Some other great elements included the whole "appearances deceive" theme (in which the supposed "good guys" were often just as freaky as the obvious baddies); the subtle, dry humor of the narrative; and the tempered approach to the romance. Regarding the latter, I appreciated that it built slowly and without grand overtures; anything more might have felt incongruous with the ruthlessness of characters' overall situation.

If you love urban fantasy (with romantic elements) and want to try something with a little bit of a spookiness factor, this is a good story to crack into.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cover Talk: Aftermath by Ann Aguirre

Click on photo for full size
I have just been so excited ever since Ann Aguirre revealed the cover art for Aftermath, the upcoming release in her Sirantha Jax series.

Thus far I've read the first book, Grimspace (which I absolutely LOVED)....and am trying my darndest to space out the next few reads with the hope that I won't end up with too painful a wait for the sixth and final book. (Yeah, I don't think I'll manage it, either.)

But anyhow, back to the cover. The artist is the amazing Scott Fischer, whose work you'll have seen gracing the covers of the first four Jax books (as well as a crapload of other books in sci-fi/fantasy land). I love how Jax always manages to look simultaneously sexy, fierce and graceful. 'Tis magic!  Take a look below at the first four covers of the series.

I agree with Ms. Aguirre; they make for a lovely-looking set! I look forward to having all six books sitting together on my book shelf. And I absolutely cannot wait to see what is developed for Endgame, the series closer (due out in 2012).

Series order:
  1. Grimspace (2008)
  2. Wanderlust (2008)
  3. Doubleblind (2009)
  4. Killbox (2010)
  5. Aftermath (2011) - expected Aug. 31
  6. Endgame (2012)
Ann Aguirre's website: HERE
Scott Fischer's website: HERE

So....what do you think? Like it? Love it? Hate it? Adore it?

Early Review: The Guy Next Door anthology

Title: The Guy Next Door
Series: contains Men Who Walk the Edge of Honor #0.5 and Donovan Brothers Brewery #0.5
Author: Lori Foster, Susan Donovan, Victoria Dahl
To be published: Feb. 15, 2011 by Harlequin

Quick Take:
The three novellas--two of which are series prequels--are full of both the sweet and spicy side of romance. Each plays on the anthology title's theme in a different way, and ends up satisfying yet also stirring curiosity.

Book Description:
Ready, Set, Jett by Lori Foster
A vacation from her no-strings romance with her sexy next-door neighbor. That's what Natalie Alexander needs to get her head—and heart—together. But her solo trip south turns into a disaster when gorgeous Jett Sutter turns up with another challenge.
Gail's Gone Wild by Susan Donovan
Single mom Gail Chapman insists on chaperoning her teenage daughter's spring-break trip to Key West. But she never expects to face temptation—in the hunky form of Jesse Batista, the mysterious man in the cottage next door.
Just One Taste by Victoria Dahl
All-work-and-no-play businessman Eric Donovan won't be distracted by a "businesswoman" who's all wrong for him. Beth Cantrell owns a women's erotica shop! And she has a juicy little secret. Can she tempt him to put pleasure before business for once?
Hm. With a title and lineup such as the one noted on the cover, you can almost bet you'll get a good time. As one might expect, each of the three stories in this anthology serve as a take on the "guy next door." But less obvious is that the stories all dealt with the idea of assumptions and misguided perceptions; often, there's a layer of truth that's skewed for one reason or another. I feel like the three stories struck the right balance in serving the overall theme yet coming across as unique in cast, setting and plot.

Ready, Set, Jett (3 of 5 stars)
This is a fairly insulated story; that is to say, for the vast majority of time, only these two characters are "on stage." It's also a prequel of sorts: though the couple's story is wrapped up, there are threads introduced that are intended to serve as the basis for a series. I enjoyed this book, but found myself at times frustrated with the "easily fixable miscommunication" theme. I guess I just don't do well with the stories in which the two main characters spend inordinate amounts of time making assumptions that could 1) be cleared up in seconds and 2) cause strife between the two. But I know that was sort of the point…the characters waste time by remaining afraid to express their feelings. The story has some intensely sweet moments; here, it's all about the mental sparring. ^_^

Gail's Gone Wild (4 of 5 stars)

Inspired by the author's trip to Key West, this story really does feel carefree and fun. It was such an easy, enjoyable read…one which I happily read in one sitting. It's clear that Donovan was not only there at one point but enjoyed herself, because she so lovingly portrays the island and its flavor. I adored both the hero and heroine. Their tale was novella-length but felt complete, fleshed-out and satisfying. For what it's worth, I'd say I enjoyed this story the most out of the three.

Just One Taste (4 of 5 stars)
The title of this story is apt in so many ways. We get a brief glimpse into the world of the Donovan siblings, who reside in Boulder, Colorado and run a brewery together. The three are vastly different yet intriguing; the glimpse given makes it clear that they will inspire wonderful full-length tales. This novella sets up the trilogy to follow, but works well enough on its own when keeping the following in mind: the tale is about letting loose and doing something a little bit crazy every once in a while. As freaking ALWAYS, Dahl's characters are absolutely magnetic and genuine.

All told, I'd easily recommend this anthology to contemporary romance lovers of all stripes.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars 
(overall, not an average)

Thoughts On: Cliffhangers

Helpful for climbers AND readers.
Ah, the cliffhanger. There are a number of definitions and contexts, but Wikipedia's contributors put it this way:
A cliffhanger or cliffhanger ending is a plot device in fiction which features a main character in a precarious or difficult dilemma, or confronted with a shocking revelation at the end of an episode of serialized fiction. A cliffhanger is hoped to ensure the audience will return to see how the characters resolve the dilemma.
Almost a sure-fire was to incite strong emotions in a reader; it worked well for Scheherazade, no? Yet sometimes, the mere prospect of such an element will cause a person to avoid reading a book in the first place (or perhaps wait for the story's resolution to be revealed.
Anyone who enjoys serialized material will have inevitably come across a number of cliffhangers. One would also notice the many possible reasons for their incorporation into a story. Like for instance...
...because a main plot line has been wrapped up, but side plots (or maybe a second main thread) must be connected to the following title.

...strictly to ensure a reader will buy the follow-up book. A pessimistic possibility, but I'm sure there are books out there that have employed the device for this reason. I'm not such a big fan of this type, because the resolution is often resolved with the first few pages of the next installment, sometimes even undoing the cliffhanger in the first place. "change the game." If a drastic change is going to occur, one that will affect future books (or even the series as a whole), the end of one installment is not a bad place to put it. In my opinion, these can actually be quite fun!
And so it goes on and on. Personally, I don't mind a good cliffhanger (though I'm not overly crazy about the gimmicky, blatant marketing ploys...I'm looking at you Stephanie Plum book #5). Sure it's devastating at first, but with a bit of time (and the next few unrelated books) the anxiety of "needing to know" settles into a softer form of excitement and anticipation. That said, if the follow-up book is immediately avaiable...we'll let's just say I'd prefer to buy 'em as a pair. And if it's possible to have a general heads up on a cliffhanger ending, I'm a happy camper.

So, how about you? Do cliffhangers usually excite or frustrate you (and are there specific circumstances in which you like/don't like them)? Do you like to know ahead of time if the book you're thinking of reading has one?

Review: Becca's Best by Jessica Barksdale Inclan

Title: Becca's Best
Series: n/a
Author: Jessica Barksdale Inclán

Quick Take:
This was such a wonderfully genuine book. It was easy to identify with the protagonist, who had a witty, charming voice and felt realistic. Lovers of baked goods and feel-good stories will enjoy.

Book Description (from GoodReads):
Rebecca Muchmore finds herself in graduate school, staring at her professor, wondering what she is doing with her life.  A degree in business is not what she wants but what her mother and father want for her.  What she wants is to bake.  All her life, baking is what has satisfied her. But is baking enough? Once she quits graduate school and starts her own company, Becca finds herself meeting people who spur her to change, one being the very attractive man in the office, another the witch of the office who scares her.  With the help of her neighbor Sal, she goes into her new life and finds much more than she bargained for.
I love the San Francisco Bay Area (but of course, being a native of the region). I love to bake. I dig laid-back, genuine people. Since this book had all of these things in spades, I also loved this book. ^_^ Becca's Best was a supremely charming book, with the warm fuzzies of chick-lit, but none of its more silly aspects.

For one, the protagonist Becca Muchmore was not a disty TSTL heroine with some hilariously damnable weakness (like being a shopaholic, workaholic, gossip-monger, etc.). No offense to the Kinsella-esque stuff out there (which I also dig, to be fair), but it was refreshing to romp with Becca's voice, which is free of endless witticisms and perfectly snappy remarks. She's not a parody or caricature, either. On more than one occasion I thought, "she reminds me!" She felt...normal (whatever that means). Identifiable.

That said, near the beginning of the story I didn't quite understand why characters were written to have certain reactions and behaviors: one such instance involved Becca's taking great, GREAT offense to the fact that she was mistaken for one of her clients (who shared physical characteristics but happened to be a very mean woman). Much later in my reading, however, I felt like I "got" what the author might have been doing. Characters that initially seem like caricatures are as such because that's how Becca sees them. And so many occurrences and details are representative of much more than their face value...and it's often related to Becca's overall growth.

Due to the nature of the protagonist's passion and fledgling business, there's a emphasis placed on the art and delights of baking. I absolutely loved how a different treat was discussed at the beginning of each chapter, and tied into the events or emotions of that particular section. It was a cute device, and had my mouth watering constantly.

Call me daft, but I didn't get a sense of a "forgone conclusion" as I was reading the book. Sure, a book of this sort typically has a certain type of resolution (talking about the romantic HEA, here), but I felt like the story could likely have ended in any number of believable, understandable ways. This might have been due a greater focus on the process of growing and living over the "goal" of a romantic pairing. I felt like I was following Becca as she was taking a chance living her life, just as unsure of the future as she was.

Thank the stars for Ms. Inclan's inclusion of RECIPES(!!!) at the tail end of the book. A quick read-through (and a video) showed me that they aren't complicated. It seems as though some of the recipes are from the author's own family recipes...and you know that if something is good enough to be passed down through generations, it's good enough to attempt making. ^_^

Becca's non-existence (in the real world) notwithstanding, I really wanted the best for her and hoped she would find herself, regardless of whether that included a guy. Having that feeling for a character is great, ain't it?

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

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